Think Like A Cat!
Dr Dhananjay Pandit
Will you and your cat be a match made in heaven or an odd couple? All depends on how well you understand your cat. Understanding cats is easy, we just need to know how they live in their natural environment and then make sure we meet their needs.
Outdoors, cats hunt for food, hide from predators (often by climbing) and defend their home territories.Indoors, these behaviour, may look hostile (biting and scratching) or spiteful (climbing and marking), and we may not like them. The keys to enjoying cats in our lives are to provide acceptable outlets for them to do what they need to do and protect them from threats.
Cats have a social structure quite different from other domestic social predators like dogs. Humans are commonly group hunters of large prey, whereas the prey species, cattle and horses, for example, develop social groups for self-protection. In contrast, cats are solitary hunters of small prey.
This strategy cats acting differently than many other species can be frustrating for pet parents who don’t understand why they do what they do. We can use our understanding of cat behaviour to improve the environment of the indoor cats who share with our lives—Sleeping Habits, Hiding Instinct, Social Habits, Eating Habits, Territory, Grooming & Temperature and Cat Predators.
Cats do not have the same daily sleep-wake cycle like we humans and many other animals do. Rather, they sleep and wake frequently throughout the day and night. This is because cats in the wild need to hunt as many as 20 small preys each day; they must be able to rest between each hunt so they are ready to pounce quickly when prey approaches. This explains why our cats seem to sleep so much during the day when we are awake and spend so much time awake at night when we need to sleep.
We may conclude that cats are ‘creatures of the night”, but it only seems that way because their sleep-wake cycle is so different from ours. Adding playful activities to your cat’s daily routine can diminish the occurrence of such nocturnal activity.
Cats try to hide when they are anxious or feel threatened. They especially like to hide in high places, which permit a clear view of their surroundings. This is why it is especially important to provide indoor cats with hiding areas; these spots must permit the cat to feel safe from people, loud noises and other animals. If it is not safe for your cat to hide on top of the refrigerator or other household items, then you need to provide some other high locations for your cat to hide in, such as a climbing tower or closet shelf.
Cats are not as social as many other species and they do not communicate in the same ways we do. Contrary to what people believe, cats primarily rely on smell, not sight, to communicate with other cats, locate food and detect predators. Cats communicate by ‘marking’ objects and other animals, these marks are scents (called pheromones) released from special glands located in their forehead, cheeks, tail base, and paws when they scratch and rub their body on objects. Cats also do not rely too much on sounds from other cats, so they do not pay particular attention to the verbal sounds we humans make.
Cats are carnivores; they primarily eat small rodents, birds and bugs. Because hunting is such a big part of a cat’s life, even indoor cats want to engage in hunting types of activity. Keep this in mind when shopping for toys for your cat; most prefer those that resemble mice, birds, and bugs (identify your cat’s ‘prey preference’). If you really want to make it realistic, make the toy move like it really is alive.
Cats establish their home hunting ranges by scent marking them. Males will physically defend their ranges from other males, but females usually share or overlap their home range with other females.
The size of a home range or territory can be up to six km. Because cats in the wild hunt small prey, they tend to lead solitary lives so each cat gets enough to eat. If a food resource is very plentiful, cats may live in small groups, 2-25, consisting mainly of females.
Sometimes cats play a little too hard and may scratch or bite you. You can teach your cat to inhibit this inappropriate play behaviour by leaving the area when your cat is not playing nicely! Male cats generally live alone regardless of food source, because they also compete with other males for mates. Cats can be aggressive when defending territories, fearful when threatened, engage in play behaviour with one another (especially as kittens) and groom each other throughout adulthood.
Mothers and other females in their group raise the kittens. Kittens begin to sample the mother’s kill while still nursing and begin to hunt alone at 8 to 16 weeks of age. They generally rest and groom together with their mothers until they are 6 to 12 months old. Adult males patrolling the mother’s home range usually evict the juvenile males; juvenile females may leave if food resources are low. Adults establish their own home territory (range) and may be dominant or subordinate within the parts of their range that overlap that of other cats.
Grooming & temperature
Most cats are so good at grooming themselves that they do not need baths to stay clean. Long-haired (if the hair mats), obese, or sick cats may need extra combing and brushing. While cats in the wild do not have this luxury, you can help your cat stay healthy and clean if he struggles to do it for himself.
Outdoor cats experience a wide range of temperatures. Since cats cannot sweat very well, they learn to seek shade in warm temperatures and warmth in cold temperatures. Indoor cats use shade, fans, bedding, and blankets to regulate their temperatures throughout the year.
Dogs are cats’ most common natural predator in the wild. This is not to say, however, that cats and dogs cannot live amicably together in your home! Cats also may be afraid of other cats, of humans (if not properly socialised), and loud noises such as thunder, vehicles and lawn mowers. Fearful cats generally have dilated pupils, flattened ears, flattened or crouched body and fast breathing rate. If threatened further, they may hiss or growl, arch their back and puff up their fur and may even attack.
Despite ruling the internet, cats remain mysterious creatures. A paradoxical blend of needy and aloof, cuddly and conspiratorial, one of the world’s most popular furry friends continues to delight and befuddle those of us who live with them. If you want to raise a happy cat then, Think Like A Cat!
(Dr Dhananjay Pandit is National Vet Affair Manager at Scientific Remedies Pvt Ltd. He is a vet with more than 20 years experience in food, hygiene, animal nutrition and pet care)