Read an Excerpt1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know about Angels, Demons, and the Afterlife
By J. Stephen Lang Nelson Books
Copyright © 2000 J. Stephen Lang
All right reserved.
How They Behave, and Why
The Habits We Like
1 The purr-fect sound of contentment
To a cat lover, it is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world: the contented vibration that we know as purring. Why do they do it? Scientists think it is a kind of "homing device" used by a mother cat to help her newborn kittens (whose sight, hearing and sense of smell are all underdeveloped) locate her when it's time to nurse. Purring is a kind of "dinner bell" to young kittens. A mother cat purrs, the kittens fasten on, and the purring stops. We can't be sure, but it appears that from kittenhood on they associate purring with pleasure.
2 Share the purr
Your contented cat may purr in your lap or lying near you, but you won't hear (or feel) him purr as he lies contented in the sun. Purring is never a solitary act; cats only purr in the close proximity of a human-or another cat. Cat experts think purring indicates not only contentment but also submission. That is, purring is the kitten's signal to his mother and the adult cat's signal to his owner that "I'm yours." No wonder owners take such pleasurein it.
3 They knead you
Kneading refers to a cat's habit of using its front paws to massage a person's chest or stomach. It goes back to kittenhood, when a nursing kitten uses its tiny paws to massage its mother's udder while sucking. Kneading is inevitably accompanied by purring, and both adults and kittens are clearly in cat heaven while kneading. Some cat owners love this evidence that cats can pet their owners as well as be petted. On the other hand, kneading can be downright painful to people, because a cat's claws are definitely out while kneading. Owners of declawed cats (including the author) find kneading to be a perfectly painless and delightful aspect of cat ownership.
4 There's a name for it: "bunting"
There's a fabric called "bunting," and you can "bunt" a baseball. Likewise, your cat will "bunt" you and your furniture as part of a familiar habit: rubbing the side of his head against a person or an object. This isn't just affection; the cat is actually leaving behind some glandular secretions from his face as a kind of "I was here" signal to himself and other cats. We can be thankful that this form of scent marking is practiced on us instead of the much more obnoxious spraying of urine.
5 Mad dashes
It amuses us as much as it mystifies us: for no apparent reason a cat suddenly makes a mad dash through the house. Many cat owners claim cats do so after using the litter box, perhaps to express a sense of relief and release. Conversely, some do it right after eating. But often the cat's mad dash is connected to no other event. Experts in animal behavior suggest that running fits might relieve tension, but tension doesn't seem to be much of a problem for many cats. Perhaps the best and most satisfying explanation is that it just feels really good to run and frolic, even if it's just for a few seconds.
6 The "I see you" call
Cats vary greatly in their "talkativeness," but most of them will give an "acknowledgment" call to people with whom they are familiar. This is a very short, soft "meow" uttered when, for example, you walk through a room where the cat is sitting. The acknowledgment call isn't urgent or pleading, and you won't hear it if you've just walked into the house after being gone for two weeks. Cat owners find it to be a pleasant part of owning a cat, for it seems to be the cat's way of communicating, "Yes, I see you," rather than ignoring the person.
7 Allogrooming and autogrooming
Yes, we all know that cats are fanatical groomers (that is, lickers) of themselves, but every cat owner also knows that a cat will also groom his owner, and other cats as well. Naturally there are technical terms to employ here: autogrooming refers (of course) to the cat's grooming of himself, while allogrooming refers to licking other cats or humans. The cat spends less time and attention on you than on himself for the obvious reason: he assumes (correctly or not) that you are responsible for keeping yourself clean.
8 So much primp time
If a human spent one-third of his waking hours on grooming, you would call that person vain and self-obsessed (unless the person was you, of course). But it is estimated that cats do indeed spend about one-third of their waking hours in grooming, and no cat owner would argue with that.
9 Covering their traces
The fact that cats use their litter boxes (usually) is one of their finer traits. Owners assume that covering up their wastes is another sign of cats' fabled cleanliness. It is, in part, but it's also part of their wild genes: by covering up their traces they are acting in the role of wild animals who do not want to leave anything behind that will lead to their being trailed.
10 High as a cat
If you've ever given your cat the herb known as catnip, you know how much pleasure it gives. The cat rubs his face in it, licks it, then stretches, rolls around on the floor and in general gives the impression of being in extreme ecstasy. If you've ever seen a female cat in heat, you know that a "catnip high" appears very similar to a "heat high." However, these two highs aren't quite the same; plus, male cats respond to catnip exactly as females do. Catnip is available in stores everywhere, and lots of people grow their own. As with drugs and alcohol for humans, catnip can lose its zip if given too often to your cat.
11 The urine-catnip common bond
To the human nose, catnip has only a faint smell, but obviously cats respond to it in a flamboyant way. Curiously, cats can also get a high by sniffing a concentrated extract of tomcat urine, which humans respond to in quite a different way. It appears that the chemical compound nepetalactone, which is the pleasure-inducing ingredient in catnip, is similar to something found in tomcat urine. (Here's a hint: If you want to please your cat-and yourself-stick with catnip and avoid the urine extract.)
12 Privacy, please
Dogs are notoriously "public" animals, perfectly willing to urinate and defecate in a busy area with lots of people observing. Cats are more reserved, and while they don't object to being watched, they do object to having their litter box placed in a high-traffic area. One way they show their displeasure with this situation is that they cease to use the box and find their own spot somewhere else in the home. A litter box, to satisfy both the cat and the owner, ought to be in a quiet, low-traffic zone in the home.
13 Love your smell
Whether cats can truly love in the human sense has been endlessly debated. Those of us who truly love cats look at it this way: they probably love as much as they are capable, which is all we can expect of any being. At any rate, they do seem fond of the smell of those they know well, which explains why a cat can be found sleeping on something that has your smell on it-not only the bed, but a sock, shirt, sweater, etc. Some, in fact, like sleeping on a pile of the owner's dirty laundry. You might not be aware of your distinctive scent on the object, but your pet certainly is.
14 The "leave no traces" phenomenon
Dogs are lovable but klutzy, and a dog doesn't give a thought to what he might be knocking over with a wagging tail. Not so the cat. Your cat may occasionally knock over a vase or other household item, but such events are rare because cats are fastidious about not disturbing their environments. (This doesn't apply to prey or potential prey, obviously.) A cat walking across a desk, for example, plants his feet carefully, so as to leave things much the way he found them. This is unnecessary behavior for house pets, of course, but it's the instinct of their wild ancestors, always trying to keep themselves hidden from both potential prey and potential aggressors.
15 Mice aren't stupid
It has been estimated that a young healthy cat could easily kill a thousand mice in a year. Most homeowners will be happy to know that their own houses are unlikely to have a thousand mice in a year, or in ten years. So in short, if you do own a cat, you probably won't have mice around, or not for long. Rodents are not stupid, and they will tend to avoid a house where a cat lives. Unlike the cartoons, where the wily mice always get the better of the cat, in real life rodents either get eaten or move on to a catless home.
16 All-natural extermination
Here in the sanitized twenty-first century we like to think that the household woes of bygone days-including rodents-no longer bother us. But it isn't so, as proved by the thriving business of pest control companies, plus the huge sales of traps and poisons. Rodents were around before humans were, and though we live in a high-tech world, low-tech rodents are still a serious problem. Homes and businesses too might be wise to "go natural" and fall back on the original pest-control system, cats. In fact, factories and other businesses find that traps and poisons aren't always the best solutions, since rodents can learn to avoid them.
17 The sound of the sack
Almost all cats are fascinated by the sound of a paper bag, and every cat owner has probably witnessed the familiar scene of bringing home something from the store and watching the cat turn the bag into a toy. The featherweight plastic sacks that have now largely replaced paper bags don't seem to be quite as much fun for cats, but, whether paper or plastic, bags that make some kind of rustling or crackling noise do hold some fascination. (Aside from the sound, bags are fun places to hide in.) For owners who want to keep their pet supplied with a noisy sack at all times, there is the Krinkle Sack, a machine-washable item that provides the right sound and lasts much longer than the usual throwaway store sack.
18 Snow as prey
Kittens do it, and so do some adult cats: swat or bite at falling snowflakes. To a cat, each falling snowflake is a potential toy-or to be more accurate, a potential prey to play with before "killing." Most cats seem to like snow (or at least a few minutes of it), and as long as it isn't too terribly cold an outdoor cat will go about its normal business with snow on the ground. Some find their usual outdoor "latrines" covered with snow, forcing them to go elsewhere temporarily, but some cats will forge right on through snow, insisting on using the same old spot even if it does have an inch of snow over it.
The Habits We Don't Like
19 Ah, the taste of urine
Like many animals, cats use their urine to mark their territory, and this is especially so of unneutered tomcats. The flip side of this habit is that cats habitually sniff about to determine if another cat has urinated in the vicinity. When another cat's urine has been detected by smell, the cat will then lick up the urine, then move the tip of the tongue against the upper palate. Yes, it does sound disgusting, but the reason he does this is that above the hard palate is the vomeronasal organ, a sense organ that (probably) can tell the cat the sex of the cat who produced the urine. Some scientists consider this organ to be the source of a cat's sixth sense.
20 Yes, cats do it too
Dogs are notorious for sniffing each other's rear ends (and, embarrassingly, the rear ends or crotches of human beings also). We'd like to be able to report that cats aren't so crude, but in fact they are, though less showy about it than dogs are. Two cats new to each other will, assuming they don't fight, at some point get around to sniffing each other around the anal region, probably cautiously circling a few times before the actual sniffing takes place. (We can be thankful that some of these behaviors are not practiced by their human owners.)
21 Drinking from the toilet
We associate this habit with dogs, but cats love to do it, too. Why, especially if the cat has a perfectly good water dish available? No one knows for sure, except that we can assume these very independent creatures like to seek out their own watering places, just as they would in the wild. A cat will drink not only from your toilet but from a birdbath, a fish bowl, a gutter or anything else with water in it, and cats aren't fussy about whether the water is fresh or stagnant. The toilet-drinking habit seems disgusting, but remind yourself that your cat would not drink from the toilet if it contained anything besides water.
22 Do they know their names?
Dogs certainly do, but do cats? The answer is yes-but whether they choose to come to you when called is another matter. Even the most loving cat still retains his streak of independence. A tip for teaching the cat his name: call out the name just before you feed him, so that he comes to associate the sound with coming to a full dish. In time he will connect his name not only with the food but also with the act of coming to you.
23 Shedding, molting, whatever
Technically, it's called molting, but owners usually just speak of shedding, and it's one of the less pleasant aspects of cat ownership. Cats living in the wild molt hair in the spring, leaving them with a shorter (and cooler) coat for the summer. But most house cats live in an environment that is artificially lit, heated, and cooled, so your cat is most likely to shed to some extent year round. (An analogy: a cat in the wild is like a deciduous tree, dropping old leaves at one time in the fall, but your house pet is like an evergreen, dropping leaves or needles a few at a time no matter the season.)
24 Love that wool
This isn't as common as other cat problems, but you'll see it occasionally among Burmese and Siamese cats: the cat will chew on cloth, sometimes creating large holes. They seem to prefer wool, which is why vets refer to "wool chewing" and "wool sucking," but some cats will chew on other fabrics as well. No one knows exactly why they do it, though it might be related to a craving for fiber in the diet. It isn't easily solved, though some people work around it by giving the cat an old wool sock or glove to chew on.
25 Wetting the tires
You may have seen dogs urinating on car tires, but did you know that tomcats do it too? As with dogs, unneutered tomcats who do this are marking their territory (and, like dogs, don't understand that the "marked car" isn't going to stay in one place).
26 The three marking methods
In marking their territories, cats use three methods, one related to sight, the others related to smell. To provide visual evidence of "This is mine!" cats scratch. (And you thought they were just sharpening their claws.)
Excerpted from 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know about Angels, Demons, and the Afterlife by J. Stephen Lang Copyright © 2000 by J. Stephen Lang. Excerpted by permission.
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