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.
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.
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.