Feline Forever

Cat behaviour and psychology

It is sometimes suggested that the cat is not a naturally sociable animal, which may come as a surprise to many cat owners! Cats hunt on their own and prefer to defend themselves individually and so they are sometimes falsely accused of being loners. However, in a wild setting, cats tend to form organised hierarchies and there is clear evidence of social behaviours in their relationships with humans and other cats in a domestic setting.

It is important to remember, however, that cats are naturally expert hunters. If your cat feels threatened and cornered he may lash out with his claws or deliver a more intentional bite. In particular, nursing cats should be treated with great respect and given plenty of space as their desire to protect their kittens can make a previously mellow cat react with much greater aggression.

two feline friends copyright lazy lightning

Cats Communication

Rubbing

A cat will often rub their face and body against an object or person in order to mark it with their scent. However, this can also be a greeting or a sign of affection. A friendly greeting between cats is the touching of noses, and this is often followed by the cat rubbing their cheek against your face. If you are standing up, your cat may rear up on his hind legs in order to have his face stroked. It is thought that this is because your face is too far away for them to rub against it in greeting and so they are helpfully lessening the distance.

Rubbing their bodies against your legs is also a good way of reminding you how lovely and affectionate they are when they want to be fed! This behaviour can, at times, be a little trying and they are also rather good at tripping you up by trying to run between your legs, but try not to be too angry as it is meant with affection.

Ear positioning

Cats have highly developed hearing and can move their ears to zero in on any sound which interests them. You cat may appear to be sleeping, but his ears will suddenly twist to locate an unexpected sound or in response to your speech!

You can also tell a great deal about the mood of your cat by looking at their ears. If his ears are upright and pointing forward he is alert but relaxed. If his ears point sideways he is slightly less comfortable and is listening out for any sign of danger and if his ears are upright but pointing back he may be preparing for trouble. A cat in a defensive pose will flatten down his ears in order to protect them, while an aggressive cat will twist his ears forwards. His ears may still be flattened, but the tips will face in the direction of his prey. He does this in order to obtain as much auditory information as possible so that he may launch a successful attack.

angry cat angry cat with ears flattened to the side copyright Hannibal Poenaru

Nipping and biting

There is a clear difference between the playful nip which can indicate hunger and happiness as well as a desire to play and a warning shot which may be followed by a more aggressive bite.

A friendly nip can be recognised because there is clearly no intention to hurt and it is often combined with other signs of positive body language by the cat such as purring, holding their tail vertically, rubbing their face and chin against the person or nearby objects, arching of the back when stroked and positioning their whiskers to face forwards. This type behaviours is clearly friendly but smaller kittens may accidentally cause more damage than they intend.

However, a light nip when combined with more aggressive body language by the cat such as a swishing or thumping tail, ears and whiskers flattened back, lashing out with a paw generally indicated that the cat is not in the mood to be bothered and (depending on the cat) if you keep harassing them they may well give you a more insistent nip. Even under these conditions, it is very rare for a cat to actually bite a human. They seem to prefer to place their teeth against skin in a warning and then make good their escape. However, it is unwise to corner a cat who is displaying aggressive behaviour as they can certainly give you a nasty scratch

Scratching

Cats (in particular kittens) will frequently scratch their human companions without intending any harm particularly when playing or if given a fright. If panicked, a cat will often claw their way to freedom even if this causes (largely unintentional) damage to the person who is holding them or on whom they are sitting. No matter how safe a cat's environment is, they retain a strong sense of self preservation and can easily be startled. When playing with toys, cats and kittens will often fail to distinguish between the toy and the hand holding it and so care should be taken if you do not want to get scratched. It is also worth remembering that even the tiniest kitten is fairly hardy and human skin is very fragile by comparison. It can take a while for a kitten to learn that her human friend is so easily damaged and you should help her understand this by reacting (but not overreacting) to any scratch by saying no firmly and withholding your attention for a short period. Most cats will learn to be more careful and to keep their claws under wraps when playing but the occasional accident is still fairly common.

If you are bitten or scratched by your cat or kitten it is possible that you will develop Cat Scratch Fever (also known as cat scratch disease).

a cat with her scratching post

Cats need to sharpen their claws and remove the husk of old claws and so will often scratch furniture and carpets if you have not provided them with a suitable alternative. In order to avoid this damage you should buy a good quality scratching post or provide your cat with a homemade alternative (such as a piece of old carpet fixed securely around a table leg).

You will need to teach your cat to use this scratching post by holding their paws gently against the post and replicating a scratching motion. You can also make sure the cat sees you (or another cat) scratching the scratching post - although this often results in the cat giving you the kind of look that implies he thinks you are very strange! Cat nip can also help encourage your cat to use a scratching post (the spray on type is the best for this). Once your cat has the idea, remember to discourage her scratching anything else and lift her over to the scratching post every time you see her trying to scratch your furniture. If all else fails, you can try using citrus oil to protect your furniture as cats are not fond of their smell. However, you have to be careful not to damage any furnishings with the oil.

Licking

Cats can also display their affection by licking. If two cats know each other very well they will occasionally groom each other, particularly by licking the other's head ears and neck (which are harder to get to for a cat doing their own grooming). Although this behaviour is generally very friendly, it can sometimes degenerate into a play fight even if the cat who was being groomed is not really in the mood for any high jinks. Cats will occasionally lick humans to groom them, but will also lick fingers and hands if they smell interesting or have been handling food. If your cats does like to lick your hands, do remember to wash your hands afterwards as the saliva of a cat contains chemicals which act as an effective deodorant (to mask their smell for hunting) but are not so good when mixed with human food!

If your cat or kitten licks an open wound or too close to your eye, you may develop Cat Scratch Fever.

Kneading

Kittens instinctively kneed their mothers tummies to stimulate the production of milk, and it is thought that this may be the origin of the kneading motion (also known as padding) which they often use on humans before settling down to have a nap. It is also likely that their kneading helps to make humans and/or cushions more comfortable although many cats seem content to stretch out over items which do not took at all comfortable (no doubt because they are protected by their lovely soft fur) so they do seem to be able to be comfy almost anywhere! A cat may also paw at an object or a person to mark it as their as they have small glands on the underside of their paws which release a small does of their scent.

Yawning and sleeping

As well as yawning because they are tired (and cats do seem to have a very well developed sense of the importance of sleeping and napping), your cat or kitten may also yawn in order to show his affection. It is likely that this is his way of telling you that he feels safe and relaxed in your company and so does not need to be on the alert. Sleeping on your lap or on your bed is also a sign of their trust and affection.

yawning cat yawning cat copyright Steffen Gothling

Submissive poses

a face off between two cats - the one on the left is striking a submissive pose copyright deep silence

A cat may strike a submissive pose because she is scared or nervous. This will generally include holding her tail low or between her legs and holding her head pointed downwards and possibly even prostrating herself entirely before you.

Between two cats who do not know each other, or who do not get on very well it is common for one to be submissive towards the other to prevent the beginning of hostilities. However, this can also be a ruse and the apparently submissive cat may still launch an attack!

However, a cat may also strike a submissive pose to show you how safe they feel. Rolling on to her back and exposing her tummy to be rubbed is showing you not only that she loves you rubbing her belly, but also that she trusts you sufficiently to be vulnerable in front of you. Similarly, exposing her neck to be stroked is a sign of trust and affection. However, be warned, some cats will expose their bellies, only to grab any unsuspecting hand which dares to come in for a stroke with all four paws!

Burying poo

In the wild, a subordinate cat will often bury its poo in order to hide its presence from the dominant cats in the area. so as not to demonstrate its presence to more dominant cats. An alpha cat will leave their poo uncovered because they are confident of their dominance and wish to assert ownership of their territory. Domestic cats also take on this behaviour and in a household with only one cat the cat may well bury his poo as he feels that his human companion is dominant. If there is more than one cat in the household, there may be an obviously dominant cat and an obviously subordinate cat, or all cats may consider themselves to be dominant or subordinate!

Flehmening

When your cat screws up his face and curls his lips back show his upper and lower teeth this is known as Flehmening. He does this in order to get more information about a smell he has discovered by allowing the smell to register with "Jackobsens Organ". This organ is located in the roof of his mouth and is also associated with appetitive and sexual behaviour. In the wild, Flehmening is quite pronounced (and is not by any means limited to cats) but domestic cats rarely use this technique and when they do it tends to be less dramatic.


Search the Web
Search Feline Forever