Read an Excerpt
By Shirlee Kalstone
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-6936-8
Chapter OneUnderstanding Feline Behavior
Cats, to the casual observer, are often thought to be independent, aloof creatures who spend most of their time in solitary pursuits. But the truth is that cats are relatively social animals who enjoy our company and use a host of communication skills to express their desires and intentions to one another and to us.
However, cats do seem to have been less affected by domestication than dogs. They can be loving and devoted creatures who delight in the comforts of affection, regular meals and an agreeable home, yet they still retain the inborn hunting instincts of their early ancestors. Remember, cats were originally domesticated to hunt and control vermin-and to do it on their own, with no direction from humans. Dogs, on the other hand, have been selectively bred for millennia to work closely with humans at a variety of jobs: hunting, herding, guarding, as dogs of war and as companions. Although cats have also been associated with humans for thousands of years, they rarely have been intentionally bred for specific purposes other than vermin control. Even though they come in a variety of colors and coat patterns, their conformation and natural hunting tendencies have remained basically unchanged since ancient times.
Dogs and cats are different in another important way, too. Dogs are social animals who evolved to live in packs and are therefore geneticallyhardwired to conform to pack behavioral patterns. Pack relationships are based on a hierarchy where there is a pack leader who always dominates, disciplines the rest and maintains group order. The same instinct for pack behavior governs the dog's relationships with humans. People become pack members, just as if they were dogs. Dogs are highly motivated by and dependent on their leaders or masters, and this makes them very trainable. When they are disciplined or punished by their masters, they exhibit submissive behavior-just as they would to the leader of the canine pack.
The Feline Hierarchy
Cats, on the other hand, do not form pack hierarchies, where one animal is always clearly dominant. Aside from the interplay between a mother and her kittens, or brief encounters during mating season, much time is spent avoiding one another. The rituals of scent marking, described later in this chapter, also help to reduce close contact between cats. In fact, all members of the wild cat family, with the exception of lions (who live in social groups known as prides), can be considered loners. While there has been some research to show that feral cats willingly form colonies, they are not close-knit groups the way dog packs are. Domestic cats, therefore, do not respond to people as if they were pack leaders or members. It is futile to try to dominate or even train a cat as one would a dog. Rather than assuming a submissive posture in response to discipline, the cat will always try to escape or fight.
This does not mean, however, that cats are totally asocial. Although there are no fixed hierarchies of dominant cat, second cat and so on down the line, cats often form what animal behaviorists call relative dominance hierarchies that are related to time and place. For example, during play or play-fighting, veterinarian Bruce Fogle writes in The Cat's Mind, kittens may take turns being the dominant one. Or one cat may be domineering at mealtime, while another rules over the litter box.
Cats can develop enduring social relationships with other animals as well as people. Cats who live from kittenhood with other cats or dogs can become very affectionate and protective toward these companions, and the longer the animals live together, the stronger the relationship becomes. Cats can also mourn the loss of a feline, a canine or a human companion, and these deep feelings can affect their litter box habits.
Territory and Aggression
Domestic cats, like feral and wild cats, are territorial creatures. In the wild, cats establish their territories based on the number of cats and the amount of food and shelter in a given area. They will defend their territories, when necessary, to keep other cats from killing their prey, to protect their young, during the mating season and simply to keep out intruders.
Domestic cats do not always choose their territories; generally, the territory is chosen by a cat's owner instead. Each cat, however, will have his home base. This is usually a room or a favorite corner of a room in the house where the cat lives. Around the home base (the rest of the house, or the house and yard, if the cat is permitted outdoors) are areas the cat likes to use for napping, playing, sunbathing and surveillance. The extent of the home base depends on the age and temperament of the cat, and especially the sex of the cat and whether the cat is neutered. Females and neutered cats of both sexes seem to feel more content within a limited area of their home or yard, which they will spiritedly protect. The home range of unneutered males may be many times larger, especially during the mating season.
If a cat is permitted to roam, beyond his limited outdoor home base is a range connected by an elaborate network of pathways leading to more or less regularly visited areas for hunting, courting, contests and fighting and other activities.
In most cases, the boundaries of both outdoor and indoor territories are firmly established. Within them, a stranger must be prepared to challenge the resident cat; outside the boundaries, the intruder will be overlooked. Many cats are satisfied to spend their entire lives indoors, but these territorial imperatives still apply. An indoor cat will still assert ownership and defend a favorite location, for example, a part of the house, a piece of furniture or a window seat. And his bailiwick may also include the yard, if it is observable from the window.
Indoors, a cat's aggressiveness in defending his territory may not be so obvious in a single-cat home. But when there are two or more cats, the territorial imperative becomes more clear as each cat determines his home base and learns to share other areas with the other cats.
A confrontation indoors can be serious when one cat invades the territory of another. When his territory is threatened, a dominant cat will usually try to intimidate the intruder using aggressive behavior: hissing, growling and screaming vocal threats, baring his teeth and assuming offensive body positions (discussed at length later in this chapter). If these postures and physical intimidation do not scare off the intruder, the dominant cat may resort to other destructive practices, including urine marking and/or urinating and defecating outside the litter box, to reconfirm precisely who is the top cat. Conversely, if the litter box happens to be in an area that one cat in the household claims as his own, the other cats may be too intimidated to use it. Solutions for these behaviors are offered in chapter 5.
How Cats Communicate
Cats have an extensive vocabulary. They communicate with body language and voice, with visual and olfactory marks. They use their face, eyes, ears, whiskers, body, paws, tail, fur, posture, voice, urine and feces to express their feelings and to deal with other cats, other pets and humans. The complex combinations of the body postures they adopt, the sounds they make and the places where they rub, scratch and eliminate all play a role in expressing how they feel and what they want. They can show in very specific ways when they are happy and contented or angry or stressed. Understanding what your cat is trying to tell you is important in strengthening the bond between the two of you. It also is important in solving litter box problems-because you can't fix the problem until you know what it is.
Cats have a variety of facial expressions in which the eyes, ears and whiskers play an important role. When a cat is happy and content, she will sit with her face relaxed, ears upright and eyes partly closed or with the pupils narrowed to a slit. A cat who is being stroked and spoken to will keep her eyes this way while purring and turning up the corners of her mouth in a sort of smile. The pupils of an angry cat, or one facing an opponent, will dilate, the ears flatten to the sides of the head and the mouth opens to express a warning. Any intense emotional stimulus, such as anger, fear, pleasure, agitation or excitement, can cause the pupils to contract suddenly.
The position of a cat's ears is another mood indicator. Erect ears that face forward express relaxation. A curious cat will prick up her ears and push them slightly forward to focus on sound. Ears held back with the body held low to the ground signal caution or reluctance. When a cat feels threatened, the ears turn to the side. Be wary, however, when the ears go down; if a cat is really angry or terrified, the ears are completely flattened against the head to shield them from an opponent's teeth and claws should a fight ensue.
The cat's whiskers are long, stiff hairs (otherwise known as vibrissae) embedded in extremely sensitive follicles in the skin above the eyes, on the cheeks and upper lips and on the backs of the forelegs. They function primarily as sensory devices-antennae, more or less-helping a cat detect the presence, size and shape of objects and obstacles close up, in restricted spaces and in the dark. The whiskers also play a role in communication with people and other cats. Fanned out whiskers indicate the cat is confident, relaxed and probably approachable. Whiskers that are fanned forward indicate curiosity. When a cat is agitated, frightened or ready for a fight, the whiskers are pulled backward and flattened against the face.
The tail is also another way cats communicate their moods. As a rule, the higher the tail, the better the cat's mood. A tail held very straight and high can be a form of greeting or a sign of pleasure. A cat who holds her tail erect can also be saying "I'm hungry" as she looks forward to a meal. A tail arched over the back or into an inverted U means the cat is merry and playful, but a tail arched downward means aggression. Some cats swish their tails from side to side when you talk to them or when they are pleased, but lashing or beating the tail back and forth from its base indicates tension or anger. The more rapid the swish, in fact, the more upset the cat. A tail carried low or tucked between a cat's legs is a sign of fear or submission.
Cats use various body postures to tell other cats or individuals whether they welcome a closer approach. Rolling over and exposing the abdomen or tilting the head is felinese for "I want to play." During the breeding season it can also mean (in an unneutered female) "I want to mate." Contentment or relaxation is expressed by several positions, including lying stretched out on one side and sitting with the paws deftly folded underneath and the tail curled around the body. The classic "Halloween cat" silhouette with the cat turned sideways, back arched, tail stiff and puffed up and claws unsheathed is an extreme threat posture. The posture is further enhanced by the facial expression: dilated pupils, whiskers held close to the face, ears flattened back, lips drawn back and teeth bared. The idea here is for the cat to look big and fierce, as if to say, "I don't want to fight, but I will if you come too close."
An offensive threat posture indicates that a cat is fearless and likely to attack. She faces her assailant head-on, in a straightforward stance, making direct eye contact and attempting to stare down her adversary. The whiskers fan straight out and the ears are flattened back. The tail lashes from side to side. When two cats are in this kind of standoff (and they can maintain this posture for 15 minutes or longer), they hiss and scream at each other until ritualized fighting begins, or until one becomes intimidated and capitulates. Cats capitulate by flattening their bodies on the ground, legs and feet tucked beneath them, with ears flattened and tail pulled in tight to show submission. If an intimidated cat can spot a way to escape, she will make a quick exit. If the cat is backed into a corner, however, and can no longer run away, she most likely will assume the defensive "Halloween cat" posture or a crouching posture. Don't mistake a cat rolling onto her side and extending her rear legs as a sign of submission; this is a posture that says the cat is ready to fight-the rear legs are extremely effective weapons.
A sick or desolate cat has a woeful facial expression. She carries her tail low and hunches up her body. She may not eat or clean herself, may vocalize more and will certainly be less playful.
Cats also use many sounds to express themselves vocally. Scientists have identified about 100 distinctive cat vocalizations. These vocal sounds are grouped into three patterns-murmurs, vowels and strained or high-intensity sounds-based on how they are produced.
The murmur patterns are sounds a cat makes while her mouth is closed; they include purring and the dulcet, trilling vocalizations that express greetings or acknowledgment. There are many theories as to why cats purr, and the mechanics of how they actually make the sound is still a mystery. Cats are able to purr in monotone in response to their mother licking them when they are two days old (this probably communicates to their mother that they are content and well fed). As kittens mature, the purring begins to vary in speed, pitch, rhythm and volume, producing many types of sounds. Generally, purring is a sign of pleasure and contentment, although some cats who are ill, severely injured, in pain, frightened or giving birth often purr resonantly, perhaps as a way of asking for help.
The vowel patterns cats make include different sounds, such as "meow" and its many variations, used by a cat to coax, demand, complain, inform and express surprise. Most of the chatty sounds made by Siamese are classified as vowel patterns. The sounds are started while the cat's mouth is open and finished when it is closed, and are used to communicate with other cats and with humans. Most cats develop a vocabulary of specific sounds that mean "please," "no," "food," "dirty litter box," "out," "play" and many others that you can learn to understand if you listen closely. Generally, the more aggravated a cat becomes, the lower the pitch of the meow.
Strained or high-intensity sounds are made with the mouth open and express anger or emotion. Used mostly for communicating with other cats, these include growling, snarling, hissing, spitting, yowling, screaming and the ritualistic mating cry. Cats make these sounds when they are frightened, angry, mating, fighting or in pain.
Each cat has her own particular vocabulary, the size of which will vary greatly depending on breed, sex and temperament. Siamese, Abyssinians and Oriental Shorthairs, for example, are known to be very talkative, while Persians tend to say very little. Cats carry on conversations with their owners, their kittens and other cats. But undoubtedly, vocal communication reaches its pinnacle during the mating season. Many unneutered females become very noisy when they go into heat and call loudly and constantly to inform the opposite sex that they are ready to mate, while the males howl and caterwaul at night.
Then there is the enchanting silent meow, where the cat opens her mouth and appears to meow, but no sound comes out. (The term was made popular in 1964 by Paul Gallico in The Silent Meow, a handbook written exclusively for cats, advising them on how to overpower a human family and discipline the family members.) Adult cats also do this. Although there are several theories as to the purpose of the silent meow, its meaning is known only to the cat who makes it.
An Illustrated Guide to Feline Body Language
To sum up this section, cats express their feelings, frame of mind, preferences and desires through their facial expressions, body postures and language. To better understand what your cat is saying, however, you should consider these as a whole. In other words, it is not useful to observe the position of the ears or the whiskers but ignore the arch of the back, the stance of the body, the angle of the tail, whether the pupils are dilated and if the fur is standing on end. The following illustrations show the most common postures and what they mean.
Alert, Happy, Content
Ears erect, facing slightly forward
Normal pupils, eyes wide open or partly closed
Whiskers fanned out or slightly forward
Tail held straight and high, fur flat and not bristling
Standing erect, lying stretched out to the side or sitting with paws folded underneath and tail curled around body
Mellow meow, purr or murmur
Excerpted from Good Cat! by Shirlee Kalstone Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.