Normal Feline Behaviour – Our Response

Feline predatory activity

Feline predatory activity. Photo: Naomi

Summary: Cat owners should know what normal feline behavior is and accommodate it as best they can because it is beneficial to both cat and caretaker.

Over centuries, the role of the domestic cat has changed from an independent hunter and rodent controller to that of a companion animal. The primary reason why people keep a domestic cat is for companionship. In the past, the role was more functional. This change can lead owners to be less tolerant of their cat’s natural behaviours. Some people perceive their cat’s natural behaviour as problematic and undesirable. This is a rather strange state of affairs but it is the source of much that can go wrong in the domestic cat/human relationship.

If the human caretaker fails to allow the expression of normal feline behaviour it can lead to behavioural changes in the domestic cat which are both problematic to the cat and the cat’s caretaker.

Natural feline behaviour can be inconvenient to the owner. If a cat’s normal behaviour is problematic a full investigation as to why should be conducted but often the reason is quite straightforward, if we are honest. The obvious way to deal with problematic domestic cat behaviour is to ensure that natural feline behaviour is accommodated. That alone will probably resolve many problems but if it doesn’t the next stage is to ensure that the cat’s owner is aware of what constitutes normal feline behaviour and learns to accept it (having ruled out medical issues).

Inappropriate reactions by the cat’s owner such as punishment may raise welfare concerns for the cat. We keep on saying it on this website but negative reinforcement is not a way to modify feline behaviour. It may well create more cat behavioural problems.

The main aim of intervention by, for example, a cat behaviourist is to educate owners so that they can accept certain feline behavioural traits such as predation and scratching together with high-intensity activity of a short duration. It is obviously important for cat owners to accept these sorts of behavioural traits because they cannot be removed from the domestic cat.

Bess scratching. I have deliberately chosen a photo of a wild cat species to remind us of the wild cat within the domestic cat. Photo by Tambako The Jaguar

Bess scratching. I have deliberately chosen a photo of a wild cat species to remind us of the wild cat within the domestic cat. Photo by Tambako The Jaguar

SCRATCHING BEHAVIOR

The classic, normal feline behaviour that is problematic to humans is scratching behaviour. Scratching posts within the home are often successful because they redirect the cat’s behaviour to a location, the scratching post, which the owner accepts.

Scratching is a complicated behaviour pattern which combines a functional purpose with communication. Cats scratch in order to remove the blunted outer claw sheaths from the front claws and in addition to exercise the apparatus in the claw which is used to extend the claw during hunting. Often, a cat will combine scratching to stretch their bodies.

If a cat is allowed outside (because it is safe to do so), tree trunks, fence panels and garden sheds are often used as scratching posts. A large solid scratching post is the indoor substitute. Scratching post should provide enough height for the cat to scratch at full stretch which allows the cat to achieve a sufficient amount of purchase on the scratching surface to make scratching effective. We know that cats like to scratch the ends of furniture because these are of sufficient height and above all else they are sufficiently solid and immovable. They give a clue as to what is demanded in a substitute. Often commercially produced scratching posts are far too small and lightweight.

You might know, too, that scratching is also used as a form of communication. This is carried out by depositing scent from specialised glands in the paws onto the scratched surface. In addition, the creation of vertical scratch marks (wild cats often scratch on the ground creating horizontal straight lines) provides a visual signal to other cats.

Wild cat species mark areas in this way at key points on their trails. The domestic cat will do the same thing and these key points will possibly be near points of entry and exit within the home.

If a cat feels the need to mark territory within the home, on a frequent basis, it may raise a concern about whether the cat is feeling insecure. If scratching and marking with urine in the home occurs frequently within a multi-cat household it may be wise to investigate the social interactions between the cats including aggression between the cats in order to ascertain where there might be problems in their relationships.

PREDATORY BEHAVIOR

The domestic cat is the most specialised living carnivore. They are finely tuned to respond to sensory stimuli which signal the presence of prey to the cat. Cats use auditory and visual signals to locate prey. A cat’s sharp responses to a high-pitched sound and rapid movement (signals indicating pray) might be considered a problem to his owner. Some owners expect their cat to prefer commercially manufactured cat food to the normal prey items of the domestic cat such as rodents. Some owners might be distressed if and when their cat brings back prey after she has put down some good cat food. This can give the impression to a cat owner that the cat is hunting for pure pleasure rather than survival.

Owners need to understand that the motivation to hunt prey and the sensation of hunger are distinct aspects of the cat’s make up. If owners understand, forming a bad opinion about the domestic cat is avoided. A well fed cat will be motivated to hunt if the correct sensory stimuli are present. It’s all about survival.

If a cat were to hunt only when hungry “it would mean that cats would already be slightly debilitated at the onset of the hunting sequence”1. A study in 1979 concluded that the hunting success rate of domestic and feral cats when hunting rabbits was 17%, a low figure.

At such a low rate of success, if the cat were to hunt only when hungry, it would jeopardise the cat’s survival because the cat would fail many times having started the hunting sequence when hungry. The cat would become less and less effective due to physical weakness.

As mentioned, the domestic cat hunts when triggered by specific sensory cues. The cat will respond to these triggers irrespective of their degree of hunger. As a consequence, a cat will attack and kill prey that they had no intention of consuming. It appears to be wanton killing by people who are unaware of what is going on.

There have been endless arguments, and there continues to be arguments, about domestic cat predation on native species including, particularly, bird species. I’m not going to go into that in this post. However, one way to minimise domestic cat predation, while allowing a cat to go out, is to exercise a dawn and dusk curfew because cats are crepuscular and they are programmed to hunt at dawn and dusk. Their hunting habits are not black-and-white in terms of the time when they hunt but they prefer hunting at dusk and dawn. Although some cat lovers will find this suggestion unattractive as ti curtails natural behavior.

It is important for the domestic cat to express their predatory behaviour through play, both for kittens and adults. It is an essential aspect of cat ownership. Studies inform us that objects “which are mobile, have complex surface textures and mimic prey characteristics are the most successful at promoting play.”1

There may be feline welfare implications where a domestic cat does not have the opportunity to express predatory behaviour through play because of the increased risk that the cat may become aggressive towards people and cats in the household. This may lead to relinquishment of the cat to a shelter. In addition obesity due to a lack of exercise is a potential problem and it is well publicised that there is an obesity epidemic amongst the domestic feline population in the UK and USA.

BURSTS OF ACTIVITY

The domestic cat tends to be active at dawn and dusk, as mentioned. Sometimes you read comments by people who say that their cat has periods of madness or mad activity at certain times. This may be high-level activity at dawn and dusk replicating wild cat hunting behaviour. This behaviour in the home may be badly timed from the point of view of the cat’s owner. However, the owner should be aware of why this might happen and do their best to accommodate it.

Note 1: The Welfare Of Cats – SE Heath – Behaviour Problems and Welfare.

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Normal Feline Behaviour – Our Response — 12 Comments

  1. My 5 year old tomcat Matata if in the Western World would have long been handed over to a “ANIMAL SHELTER” as a incurable case. He sleeps the entire day as do all cats including his dam “Matahari” but at night tends to “Yowl” intermittently at odd hours.Recently i found a cure to his yowling by shutting my bedroom door and preventing him from entering the room. Strangely, after doing this i found a change in his behavior and he “Yowls” less and much quieter that before.I am writing this embarrassing habit for the benefit of other cat owners who might experience the same behavior in their cat or cats if living in a small flat.”Matata” loves human company and seems that at night he wants to be with his human compatriots!

    • Rudolph, I agree that he is yowling because you are not around and he’s calling for company and you are the company he is calling for. This is probably because you are around a lot and he’s strongly connected to you. Geriatric cats with dementia can the other night because of confusion and calling out for company for reassurance.

      • Michael, i am firmly convinced that tomcat Matata suffers from some “Mental disorder” although he is otherwise normal.First and foremost he just doesn’t know the natural act of mating, something bizarre.I observed this clearly a month ago when “Matahari” was on “Heat” and totally submissive to tomcat Matata with the joker not realizing what to do ?Next, his “Night yowls” and deep affinity to his human care-takers is something unique.As you mentioned he thinks that me and my house-keeper are his “Cat Company” and he just wants to be with us humans.At 5 years of age Matata is in the prime of his life and definitely not a Geriatric cat.He has one of the strongest jaws for a small cat and he bites into chicken bones as if it were “Cat food pellets”.A real strange and bizarre cat which could be a cat researchers prime subject.

    • May I assume that Matahari sleep with you in your bedroom?
      My cat is one of “The Three Amigos,” and wants to be outside all night with my two flatmate’s cats. I tend to lose much needed sleep at night, while trying to coax the three amigos indoors. I can only carry one at a time. They, too, sleep all day mostly. And now I find myself trying to catch catnaps to make up for the two to three hours I get per night. ;_

      • Yet, I must qualify that, because the most fun we all have together is at night, the wee hours of the morning, outside. 😉

  2. I love the old adage ‘You can take a cat out of the wild, but you can’t take the wild out of a cat’ and it’s very true. No matter how much we domesticate cats they still retain their instincts and ‘genetic blueprint’ and people need to understand and accept that cats are programmed to behave like cats, not like humans.

    • Exactly Ruth – too many people interpret a cats’ actions into human terms based on human understanding. It’s all wrong from the start. To understand a cat one has to forget being a human for a minute in order to get a clearer or more true picture.

      • For me this topic is the most important of all domestic cat topics in relation to caretaking. Jackson Galaxy promotes these issues too and what he does is built around the issues referred to on this page.

        It goes to the heart of good cat ownership. I tried to make this semi-scientific so that it carried some weight.

      • Exactly it all comes down to being on the same wave length as the cat. I remember a time, when cass turned wild. At the time it was abit scarey ,as hadn’t seen her do that before. I thought she was almost lost to us remember writing a poem of the sadness that she had gone, created a huge loss for me. Thankfully, she decided to come back & be a domestic cat. I guess what im saying is that all cats have in them the ability to go & be a wild cat. Sometimes when they are not getting what they want they can revert.

    • It is the most important part of cat caretaking. To understand these things. Once people have mastered that and respect the cat they will be excellent cat caretakers/guardians.

  3. 1. Insp. McWee clawed two-thirds of the way through the vertical post upholding one end of the sun porch. But none of my cats, throughout the years, clawed my furniture. It never happened. Actually, I bought an overstuffed ‘club’ chair for Little Ethel, which she disemboweled over an interval of two years: but she knew the chair was hers to have fun with. Three months after I paid a veterinarian to kill her, it sits in her bedroom, untouched – half of its stuffing on the floor – and there it will stay. I can’t bear to haul it to the dump.

    2. It is a mystery how cats can catch and eat wildlife and retain their health. McWee and Ethel – during the years they were outdoors – caught multitudes of robins and fledgling blue jays, none of which they ate. The same with the field-mice and a few smallish rats.

    But Bunny (‘Bun’ a mispronunciation of ‘Vern’) was semi-feral; i.e., his ‘caretakers’ seldom bothered to feed him, so he was accustomed to eating what he caught. He savored mice, and devoured every morsel – including the bones – except for the colon, which he spat out. Did these rodents make him ill?

    After I’d had him for three years, he was diagnosed with FeLV, and slowly went downhill. But the vet said that he had contracted another illness amenable to treatment, but that he’d have to remain indoors for the remainder, as his FeLV made him infectious. Because he enjoyed being outside – exploring the woods and riverbank for hours every day during the summer – to sit in a house for the rest of his life would have finished him. Neither could I give him away, as he’d still have been shut away indoors. So – again – I paid a vet to kill another endearing cat. Which is why, at this juncture, I have a hard time associating cats with anything but sadness that beggars the language.

    But it is a mystery how cats can always – or is it only sometimes – remain immune to the multiple pathogens carried by rodents. One website said rats and mice are vectors of numerous diseases. Even so, many cats – those without a parent who feeds them – seem to survive, at least for a while, on this microbial fare. Their digestive acids must be more germicidal than ours.

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