What Makes Our Cats Tick?
Even the most devoted cat person has to admit that cats can sometimes seem unfathomable, contrary creatures. They are independent and like to be alone, yet sometimes they yowl for company and cling to laps. They are free-spirited adventurers who also love home comforts. Their moods can be unpredictable and they have a tendency to switch from ‘love me’ to ‘leave me’ in a nanosecond. They sometimes bite (or scratch) the hand that feeds them and seem to be drawn to people who don’t even like cats. Understanding what motivates our cats can go a long way to demystifying their behavior and make our friendship stronger.
Home sweet home.
Wildcats really don’t like people. In fact, one of the reasons they can be very hard to study is that they tend to scarper at the first whiff of a conservationist. They are, on the other hand, extremely attached to their patch, which they jealously patrol, marking it with scent spray to warn others away. Cats, then, are naturally both territorial and solitary – they love their homes and they love their own company. So where do we fit in? Are we just there to pay the bills for our cat’s des res, or do they really care about us?
Researchers have put cats through the Strange Situation Test in a bid to find out. The test was originally developed to measure the attachment small children have to their caregivers and has subsequently also been tried out on dogs. The experiment involves putting the child (or dog) in an unfamiliar room and observing how they react when the caregiver is present and absent, and when a stranger is in the room. Dogs, like children, tend to look to their caregiver for reassurance and appear to be upset when the caregiver leaves. This reaction suggests a secure attachment between child and parent, or dog and owner. When the experiment was carried out on cats, however, the cats weren’t that bothered whether their owner was there or not. They neither turned to the owner for guidance nor showed signs of concern when the owner left.
This is not, of course, surprising. Put into an unfamiliar space, the first thing a cat will want to do is make sure the area is safe. In the wild, they wouldn’t have anyone else to count on, and they’re certainly not going to trust a human to do such an important job. This does not, by any means, prove that cats don’t have any attachment at all to their owners. On the contrary, when in the safety of their home territory, cats often actively seek out their owners. They may not need us, but they do choose to be in our company when it’s on their terms. This self-reliance also means cats are much less likely to suffer from separation anxiety than dogs and are generally more than content for you to go off to work for the day while they mind the house.
How a cat behaves in any given situation is determined by a combination of their genetic make-up, life experiences, and an instinctive response to their immediate circumstances. It’s tempting to make assumptions about a cat’s behavior, but to really understand your cat you need to put your human perspective to one side and #ThinkLikeACat. Cats operate purely from a survival instinct. When a cat behaves in a way that we think is “funny”, “crazy” or “cute”, there will invariably be a genuine wildcat motivation behind it.
Understanding which category your cat’s behavior falls into will help you work out what they’re thinking and what you should do:
- NATURAL BEHAVIORS make a cat a cat, including territorial urges, hunting/playing, grooming, scratching, marking, exploring, jumping, climbing, stretching, hiding and socializing (on their terms).
- LEARNED BEHAVIORS are associations between a trigger and an involuntary emotional or physical response (such as fear, nausea, or taste aversions). They’re also the conscious repetition of behaviors that have paid off and the avoidance of ones that haven’t. A “pay-off” or reward could be a treat or unintentional attention – or the behavior might even reward itself.
- ATTENTION-SEEKING BEHAVIORS aren’t dramatic displays of ego for self-validation, they flag that a cat’s needs aren’t being met. Meowing, jumping up to our level, scratching, urinating, begging and pawing suggest our attention is needed – something in your cat’s world needs addressing.
- AFFILIATIVE BEHAVIORS are feline greetings and gestures used to start or maintain a friendly relationship – mutual licking, nose touching, body rubbing, and co-sleeping, with another cat or us.
- PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR is intimidation without outright physical contact. Common in multi-cat households, it often takes the form of a direct stare, or resting in a strategic location to block an exit/entrance or access to resources such as food, water, litter box or cat flap.
- REDIRECTED BEHAVIOR is misdirected at something that is not the intended target, such as when a cat sees a rival cat outside and attacks the next person or pet that comes near them.
- PREDATORY BEHAVIORS are the drive behind playing, stalking toes under the duvet, or pouncing on your ankles or another cat.
- DISPLACEMENT BEHAVIORS are ordinary but oddly timed, and usually signal social discomfort or stress, such as when a cat self-grooms during a stand-off with a rival.