Being the detective when dealing with cat litter box issues

Jackson Galaxy likes detective work. I guess a lot of his time is spent being a detective in assessing what’s gone wrong in a home where the cat is deemed to be behaving badly and one aspect of bad behaviour is inappropriate elimination as it is euphemistically called. This is peeing and/or defecating outside of the litter box.

Barry the cat, Jackson's close companion
You can see the gentle and strong bond between Jackson and Barry one of this cats in this photo. Image: Jackson Galaxy.

I’ll presume that in almost all homes, the cat companion has, at one time, used the litter box regularly without problems. That’s the status quo. Then something changes. He or she starts peeing outside of the litter box causing consternation. This is when the detective in cat owners comes to the fore.

You can go back in time to the moment when the peeing outside the box first began and ask the question: “When did this problem start and what changed in my home at that precise time?”

You can normally nail it down to one or two things. There might be a change with the litter box itself or its position. Has there been any change to any aspect of the litter box from the type of litter (substrate) to its location. If you see a change you can revert back to the way it was. Below is an infographic on different substrates which may be of interest.

Cat litter substrate compared
Cat litter substrate compared

Then you can play detective on a wider scale by asking whether there had been any changes in the routine of the caregiver or in the household routines which might have upset a cat emotionally.

It’s possible that the owner has a new job with different routines and perhaps with less time at home. Have the children gone back to school? Have you broken up with your partner? It is these kinds of changes which can lead to an owner spending either more or less time at home and can lead to a noticeable change in the daily rhythms and routines which are picked up by a cat. Cats like the reassurance of routines which can work to advantage and disadvantage by the way. Break them and you can make a cat anxious leading to inappropriate elimination sometimes.

It might be a two-stage process with anxiety leading to stress leading to cystitis leading to peeing on the carpet. Click for a page on 4 steps an owner cat take to prevent cystitis.

Anything new to break up the routine such as new occupants of a home, a new animal either a cat or dog and a new child in the home can bring a big shift in the home dynamic.

It might not be possible to revert back to the status quo in which case you won’t be able to cure the problem relatively easily. When I mean is there may be a new partner, which might have a dramatic impact on a resident domestic cat’s emotional wellbeing both negative but potentially positive. There will be no easy solution to that. It’ll take time for the cat to adjust to the changed circumstances.

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When to know your cat is asking for food you don’t have

This is a little thought that might help one of two people. Nothing startling but it has just happened to me and I am sure that it happens to many other cat caregivers.

Cat meowing for food you don't have.

Scenario – habits

You give your cat a treat at the same every day when the treat is available. In my case it is king prawns! When I return home after buying the newspaper in the early morning, I give him an early morning treat. It is early morning for me and late evening for him as his circadian rhythm is the opposite to mine (almost). So, the treat will be a late meal for him after his has been active most of the night. He might be a little peckish after all the activity in the summer especially.

That sets up the habit and the rhythm if you do it for long enough.

And so, he gets used to getting his treat at that time and learns to ask for it. He asks for food. But actually, it is more specific than that. He is asking for his treat.

If I then give him some standard, high quality cat food (50-gram sachet) he might take a bite and leave the rest. That’s waste as he will almost certainly not return to it.

I put it outside in the backyard for the foxes who I know are coming home around that time as I feed the foxes who live 2 houses down from me. They’ll bump into it. The waste is no longer cat food but money. I am not sure how much each sachet costs; perhaps around 40p.

Fix is prevention

Try and recognise when treat demand habits have been informally set up and in the scenario above I should (and normally do) politely refuse my cat’s meowing demands for this prawn treat. If I refuse it, he stops asking. He is not genuinely hungry sometimes. He wants to eat for pleasure as humans do. And this is another feeding issue: cats eating for pleasure because they are bored. It is an aspect of full-time indoor living which can lead to obesity. It is part of the so called ‘obesity epidemic‘ affecting domestic cats in the US and UK (and perhaps some other developed countries).

P.S.

An interesting side-effect of this is that sometimes my cat will go outside and partly eat the cat food that he refused moments before inside the home. He feels that he has hunted down prey or successfully scavenged some food.

This is because his mentality outside is different to his mentality inside the home. Outside he is more the wild cat, reverting to his wildcat ancestor traits. Inside the home with me he is more the pliant domestic cat following his caregiver around as if a kitten following his mother.

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Happy cat campaign tip 2 – observe your cat’s behaviour and take notes

Observe your cat to learnt how to make them happy.
Observe your cat to learnt how to make them happy. Image: MikeB

In 2011 a veterinary charity in the UK assessed the physical and social environment of domestic cats and decided that on average in cat owners needed to improve as the score they came up with was 64%.

Unsurprisingly, the score was lower in homes where there was more than one cat because issues surrounding territory and resource guarding increase stress.

The charity also decided that owners needed to do more to better understand cat behaviour and gave British cat owners a score of 66%.

Dr John Bradshaw’s writes in Cat Sense: “Without doubt, if cat owners understood more about what makes their cats ‘tick’, many cats could live much happier lives”. The cat owner’s duty is (a) to provide a secure home and (b) make their cat as happy as possible.

The problem is that unlike dogs, cats are not very good at telling us what makes them happy! They are undemonstrative. Cat caregivers have to read the minds of their cats through their vocalisations, behaviour and body language.

Jackson Galaxy advises cat caregivers to be a detective and observe and even take notes! It may take quite a long time to learn what your cat likes. Cat watching (as Dr Desmond Morris has called it) should be a permanent part of cat ownership.

Cats are adaptable. They have retained their wild cat character to varying degrees but have learned to live in the human environment.

It is up to caregivers to make the environment as pleasant as possible for their cat while also making it comfortable for humans.

Tip: be observant about your cat’s behaviour. They’ll do the same things at the same time daily. That’s part of their daily rhythms.

So, for instance, if they are allowed outside, they’ll probably spend time outside the home at night – the night shift. Cats are often night shift workers and if so, they’ll sleep in the daytime. Their circadian rhythm will probably be the opposite to that of their owner.

This means that the cat has to sleep when there is potentially a far bit of activity in the home with associated noise.

The clue here is to provide at least one quiet corner of the home to where the cat can retire for some peaceful sleep away from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day human life.

Within that quiet place provide a cosy cardboard box that has been easily modified to make it a hidey hole. This is tip one!

Cats prefer some foods over others. Don’t just plonk down some cheap dry cat food 24/7. Provide wet and best quality dry and find out their favourite wet cat foods. They’ll have one or two. Provide it. Make them happy.

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Do cats recognise the human-given names of their cat friends?

SCIENTIFIC STUDY AND COMMMENT: The answer to the question in the title is YES according to a Japanese study concerning multi-cat homes. The Japanese researchers wanted to know whether domestic cats have the ability to link a name given to another cat in a multi-cat home with a specific cat. To put it another way, in the interests of clarity, do domestic cats recognise the names given to their cat friends and co-specifics in a home where there is more than one cat?

Note: communication between cats and humans is a 2-way street. Cats make sounds – their own version of the meow – and their owner understands the meaning aided by the context in which the sounds is made.

Domestic cats understand the human-given names of other cats in a multi-cat home
Domestic cats understand the human-given names of other cats in a multi-cat home. Screenshot of study image in their report.

In earlier research it was confirmed that cats recognise their own name as given by their human caregiver. I don’t think that earlier research was particularly enlightening because every reasonably experienced cat caregiver knows that their cat responds to their name. This recognition will vary from house to house and from owner to owner depending upon the bond between human and the quality of caregiving. However, the ability of a cat to recognise their own name is accepted as it is for dogs.

My understanding is that this study went further to try and find out whether cats were also able to recognise names given to other cats in the household. And as mentioned in the first sentence the answer is yes. They tested for recognition of the names of two other cats and so it seems that this study was limited to recognition of two other names provided to two other cats in the same home.

Secondly, the researchers wanted to know whether cats could link names given to people with the appearance of that person. The answer this question is slightly less conclusive.

However, the underlying message from this study is that domestic cats are probably more able to understand human language through the sounds of the language than most people think. And I would argue that this is about the sound that people make when they say the name. It is not about understanding human language per se.

In the words of the scientists: “In conclusion, house cats linked at least two conspecific housemates’ human given “names”. The word “conspecific” means an animal of the same species, i.e. other cats in a multi-cat home.

The multi-cat home. These ones look okay
The multi-cat home. These ones look okay. Montage: PoC. Pictures: public domain.

The researchers asked how cats learned names but they didn’t answer the question! It seems more research needs to be done on that. I have already answered the question above, however 😎. They do state that when dogs learn names and attached names to people and other dogs, they “dissociated lexical and emotional prosodic information in human spoken words, similar to humans, which might facilitate language learning. Prosodic factors might affect cats in the same way.”

The word “prosodic” means in this context “the patterns of stress and intonation in a language”. Not sure what they’re saying there to be honest because in my experience cats respond to sounds; the way, in terms of intonation and stress, that we say their name. They also respond to other calls that a person might make when, for example, asking whether they would like a treat. But the sounds are in context as well, in my opinion. The understanding comes from the sound of the words spoken in the context in which it is made. This is about the rhythms of the cat-human interactions.

I have to say, that, for me, it is common sense that a cat will learn to understand these forms of communication. They understand what their owner is going to do at certain times of the day (their actions, not sounds) if their owner does the same thing every day. That is to be expected and it happens. I think it is a similar learning process to understanding the sounds that people make.

In the words of the scientists, they asked: “Do non-human animals learn to associate human speech with specific objects in everyday life?”

In this instance by ‘human speech’ they mean the names given to people and cats and for ‘specific objects’ they mean other cats and people. Their answer in the summary is: “This study provides evidence that cats link a companion’s name and corresponding face without explicit training”. Without explicit training means that it just happens through self-learning. Cats are pretty good at picking up patterns of behavior both in the form of sounds and actions.

Study title: Cats learn the names of their friend cats in their daily lives. Scientists: Saho Takagi, Atsuko Saito, Minori Arahori, Hitomi Chijiiwa, Hikari Koyasu, Miho Nagasawa, Takefumi Kikusui, Kazuo Fujita & Hika Kuroshima. Date of publication in journal Scientific Reports: 13 April 2022.

There are some more studies below.

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3 reasons why cats know when you’re coming home

We know that humans have internal clocks. That is an undisputed fact. It is not a very precise clock and so we refine it with timekeepers. It is plausible to suggest, and science supports this, that domestic cats also have an internal clock. It is the feline’s internal clock combined with their circadian rhythm and further combined with the rhythms and habits of their life which intermixes with those of their human caregiver which allow them to know with a considerable degree of accuracy when their owner is about to come home.

Cat knows when owner is coming home
Cat knows when owner is coming home. They use a range of time keeping methods to do this. Photo in public domain.

Internal clock

In October 2018, I wrote an article about the domestic cat’s internal clock. It was based on a study carried out in America at Northwestern University on mice 😊. The lead scientist and author of the report on the experiment said that a mouse’s brain has an “internal sense of time”. They use timing cells in a part of the brain called the medial entorhinal cortex (MEC) which is located in the temporal lobe and which is associated with memory and navigation. This is not the only research study which suggests that mammals including cats have internal clocks.

Further work is required on the feline internal clock. It is early days in this research based upon my research on the topic. But it is plausible to suggest that domestic cats have an internal clock much like that which benefits humans.

This is supported by another study titled “Circadian rhythm of intraocular pressure in cats”. The pressure inside the eye of cats and people various throughout the day. The variation is rhythmical and is synchronised with daytime and nighttime. It was found that the intraocular pressure in cats maintained this rhythm even under persistent darkness which suggested “some level of endogenous circadian control”. The word “endogenous” means having an internal cause or origin. I therefore interpret that phrase as meaning that cats have an internal clock which helps to control their circadian rhythms.

Circadian rhythm

Cats have a circadian rhythm (source: National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information). Domestic cats can be active in the day and night but favour crepuscular activity (dawn and dusk) and prefer night to day. Their motivation to be active at these times comes from their internal circadian rhythm.

Light and darkness is the best-known environmental way that cats develop a circadian rhythm. Cats’ activity falls into synchronisation with daytime and nighttime. A further study found that cats generate internally timekeeping which dictates when they should be active. In my view, this further supports the cat’s internal clock.

Rhythms and habits in the human home

The life of a domestic cat automatically intermixes with the life of their human caregiver and in doing that the cat’s daily rhythms and habits fall into synchronisation with that of their human caregiver. This inevitably leads to moments in the 24-hour cycle when cats perform certain functions. In the instance of a person coming home from work a cat will not only use their internal clock to gauge the moment when they arrive but also rely on previous rhythms and habits to wait by the front door for their owner’s arrival.

In my view, it is a combination of the above factors working together which allows a cat to wait at the front door or window with a reasonable amount of precision for the arrival of their caregiver.

There are some more articles on crepuscular activity below.

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Human behaviour beneficial to cats

I think it useful to remind ourselves of the sort of human behaviour that is beneficial to our cat. Perhaps it is common sense but even commonsense thoughts need to be reinforced.

Generally aversive human behaviors

With respect to livestock, research has identified that the most aversive human behaviours towards domestic animals includes: hits, shouting, slaps and moving quickly. Certainly, noise, especially loud noises and sudden unexpected noises, are the enemy of the domestic cat who likes the opposite. And moving quickly within the home can be a noisy exercise anyway. Further, domestic cats tend to become concerned about people moving around the home quickly. It creates a background disturbance and an unknown threat to a domestic cat.

Shouting

Anxious cat because of shouting
Anxious cat — photo by aturkus

Also, raising one’s voice to one’s cat is detrimental to both parties! It is detrimental to the relationship between cat and person. Shouting at your cat is to be frowned upon because it only serves to weaken the relationship. It’s a form of punishment but it doesn’t work as punishment. It simply works as something which frightens a cat.

Beneficial human behaviors

By contrast, human behaviours which are beneficial to animals and cats include: strokes, pats, resting your hand on your cat, talking to your cat and slow deliberate movements. I would add touching your cat perhaps on her paw when she is resting and snoozing. Cats like to touch their human caregiver. The research for this information comes from two studies: Coleman et al 1998 and Pajor et al 2000. You’ll see cats reaching out to touch other domestic cats with whom they are friendly such as a dog. My cat frequently likes to touch my arm. Humans should instigate this act of companionship as a beneficial human behavior.

Cats like to touch their owners and other cats
Cats like to touch their owners and other cats. Image: MikeB

In addition, using a soft voice and avoiding sounds that might resemble hissing, avoiding predatory gazing through direct eye contact, displaying slow blinks and movements, and letting your cat control the extent of the interaction and perhaps even letting your cat initiate the interaction, can all be beneficial to your cat.

Human routines and rhythms

Routines are a highly effective silent form of continuous communication between cat and person operating in the background
Routines are a highly effective silent form of continuous communication between cat and person operating in the background. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Other human behaviours which are beneficial to domestic cats are specific routines and rhythms which the human follows on a daily basis. Domestic cats like predictable behaviour patterns. They understand their world better under these circumstances. As their world becomes more predictable it feels more secure. In essence, domestic cats live in a strange human-centric world. Humans need to make it as amenable as possible. The need to make the human world as natural and as acceptable to domestic cats as possible.

Please your cat

Matt Cutts cat meditating
Happy cat — Matt Cutts, a senior Google executive meditates with his cat. He calls cats “Zen Masters”.

Perhaps it is an obvious point: do things for your cat which pleases him. You will learn what pleases him. My cat likes to come under the bed covers in the early hours of the morning in winter because it’s cold. I invite him to do it. He stays there were 20 minutes. And then go back to sleep. This improves the bond which is the reward to the human. It’s just one example. Each cat will have their own things that they like; their little foibles which the human should learn and deliver on. It’s another aspect of human behaviour which benefits their cat.

Train your cat

One form of human behaviour that it is said benefits their cat is to train them. That might surprise people. A well-respected veterinarian and author on many books about cats writes: “all cats need training”. He makes the point that your cat doesn’t just depend upon you for health care, shelter and food. They need you for education. They need to be instructed on how to live enjoyably with their human caregiver. You achieved out through basic training. People should be open to this. A lot of training happens informally in any case. Humans train their cats and cats train their humans. But Dr. Bruce Fogle suggests formal training at a basic level using clickers.

Harness train

High energy cat Spikie on a leash
High energy cat Spikie on a leash, Photo: Chloee Lachapelle

Another form of human behaviour that is beneficial to domestic cats in the modern era is to walk their cat on a harness. This is a specific form of training: leash training. It is an ideal but it is going to be more and more important over the decades ahead because there will be a gradual curbing that domestic cats enjoy today to protect wildlife and the cats themselves. The protection of wildlife is more important today and will be into the future. And as human population growth continues there will be more urbanisation and a greater need to protect cats from road traffic accidents. And communities are gradually coming around to the idea of cat ownership and caretaking to mean cat confinement and taking a cat for a walk on a lead.

Work from home

Another modern era form of human behaviour which is beneficial to cats in post-Covid times is to negotiate with your employer if you are a worker to seek agreement that you can work from home for a part of the week. This would be flexible working. It will allow you to spend more time with your cat, a vital component in good cat caregiving. Employers are far more open to suggestions of flexible working after Covid for well-known reasons.

Trust

Good cat management means that the cat’s caretaker is a trusted and reliable person from the cat’s point of view. So, for example, if the human caretaker/guardian moves home it is much easier for a cat to adapt to her new environment when they see the same friendly person on a daily basis.

As cats can differentiate between the appearance of people, by which I mean they can recognise and discriminate amongst humans, they can predict what might happen with the person that they know and trust. If the person brings an improvement to the general well-being of the cat, she will perceive that person as a predictor of something good thereby improving the cat’s life by her/his presence.

Postscript: I have deliberately left out of this discussion all the usual things that a good cat caregiver would do namely feed their cat well, flea comb their cat regularly, make sure the home has some high vantage points and some hiding places, selecting new cat for a resident cat with great care to do your best to make sure that they get along, take your cat to the veterinarian as and when needed and don’t procrastinate or delay.

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Stop your cat waking you at night as per Jackson Galaxy

Are you one of those people who strongly disapproves of your cat waking you up at night? You might even lock your cat out of the bedroom. You believe that domestic cats are entirely nocturnal and therefore their body clock drives them to be active at night and passive and sleepy during the day when you are active. Human and cat are completely out of sync. Domestic cats are not really nocturnal although it will vary between individual cats. They can be active during the day or night but they tend to focus their activities normally at dawn and dusk as you probably know by now. My cat is particularly active at night and therefore I am out of sync with him but I totally accept it. That’s my solution but it won’t be acceptable to most.

If you don’t accept this out of sync state of affairs, Jackson Galaxy says you should get your cat onto the same rhythm that you are on. Personally, I’m not sure about this because a domestic cat’s natural rhythms are hardwired into their DNA and are inherited from their wildcat ancestors. I am not sure that you can train those out with a simple procedure but here goes:

Tire her out before your bedtime

Jackson Galaxy says that the first step is to stop free-feeding. You probably know what free-feeding means but for the sake of clarity it means leaving food in the bowl all day and night so your cat chooses when to eat rather than putting down a set amount of food at set times. Jackson says that you should feed in conjunction with play and the intent is to get your cat tired when you are tired. So, if you go to bed at about 11 PM you should feed your cat’s last meal at around 9:30 PM. Importantly, just before this last meal you should engage in “hunt, catch, kill” (HCK). What he means, as I understand it, is that you play with your cat in which he hunts, catches prey and kills it. In other words, he is being very active.

You should do this until you “bring your cat to the boil”. Once again, in other words, you get him to the point where he is maxed out in terms of playing and activity. In this way he becomes tired. If he has a second wind you should play some more. The objective is to get him completely worn out. He will then eat, groom and sleep at which point you can go to sleep as well. The overview is to keep your cat active when the family is active.

Ignore your cat's advances at 3 AM to help alter her rhythms
Ignore your cat’s advances at 3 AM to help alter her rhythms. Montage: MikeB.

Ignore her advances at night

In conjunction with this basic model, you should completely ignore your cat if and when he or she jumps onto your bed at 3 AM in the morning to wake you up. He says that this is the tough part but in capital letters he emphasises that you must ignore her completely. He stresses that this means that you don’t get up and you don’t feed her or interact with her in any way. You don’t even say her name but you play dead. He understands that this goes against a cat lover’s natural instincts because we treat cats as members of the family and as children. You instinctively respond to a child’s requests.

But if you do respond he says that this is a payoff for the cat. The cat learns that if they jump on your bed at 3 AM in the morning to wake you up and you wake up and respond to her request it works and therefore your cat has trained you. But if there’s no response from you for 10 days to 2 weeks she will learn and she will stop.

Human fits in!

Like I said, I don’t mind being woken up by my cat and to be honest I have adjusted my rhythm to somewhat overlap with his natural rhythms. I wake up at about 4 AM in the morning and therefore I am in sync with my cat at that time. During the middle of the day from about 10 AM to about 3 PM my cat is normally snoozing and sleeping because this is the middle of the night for him. I am active then but it doesn’t matter because he’s asleep.

Who consistently plays with their cat?

I think the weakness of the Jackson method is that few cat owners actually play with their cat. I think that if you did a survey a tiny percentage would agree that they consistently play with their cat. And you’ll have to play a hell of a lot to get her tired enough to sleep when you sleep. Ignoring nighttime advances will certainly help, but that’s hard as he says. If you try this, please tell me how you got along in a comment!

PAGES ON CRESPUSCULAR ACTIVITY:

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Someone asked: why does my cat sulk when I scold him?

I’d like to discuss the question, “Why does my cat sulk when I scold him?” I think that the question is full of misconceptions and is wrong in many ways. Firstly, in my experience cats don’t sulk. To sulk is to be silent, morose and bad-tempered out of annoyance or disappointment. It’s the kind of thing kids do when their mum tells them off. Which is why the question is being asked because often people relate to their cats as kids. They do behave a bit like kids, mischievously and they can be a bit naughty.

Sulking

And that is the problem is with the statement in the title. Cats aren’t kids, they are felines and they don’t sulk. You have to be a human to sulk or perhaps one of the primates. You have to know you’ve done wrong if you’ve been criticised. Or you might disagree with the reasons why you been scolded because you don’t think that you’ve done something wrong. These kinds of thoughts depend upon measuring what you do against society’s norms. It means that you’ve been taught to do certain things and you understand the reason why you should do certain things in certain ways.

Anxious cat because of shouting
Anxious cat — photo by aturkus

Domestic cats simply don’t think like that. You can train a cat to do certain things but the training is built upon a reward system and the reward is something which cats naturally and instinctively like. Their whole world is built around natural behaviour and instincts. You won’t get a cat to do something which is unnatural to them. Therefore, I don’t think cat sulk. They might well be confused if they are shouted at and become anxious as a result. Their owner has suddenly turned from being friendly to hostile for no apparent reason. Result: anxiety.

Scolding

If a cat owner scolds their cat it probably means that they have shouted at them. Cats might back off and run away out of fear when that happens. The anxiety created might not last long and they will come back and cat and person will make up. However, scolding is a form of punishment. It is verbal punishment and we all know by now hopefully that punishment is not suited to domestic cats. They don’t understand the concept of punishment because it’s based upon understanding what is right and what is wrong and that they’ve done something wrong.

So, the question in the title is wrong at both ends. Scolding is wrong and sulking is wrong. Some experts say that when you scold a cat you stare at them and cats don’t like being stared at. This is because the stare is meant to be a hostile form of behaviour. I think that this is an over-egg concept in relation to the human-to-cat relationship. This is because cat owners should have a close relationship with their cat. They should be great friends and companions.

Staring

You can look your cat in the eye if you are friends and companions because they know you’re not hostile. They know that you are a provider and highly friendly (or you should be!). And the so-called stare does not override this. They don’t equate the stare with hostility as a result. This argument about staring and being hostile doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure that it even works with a strange cat. It’s a cat behaviourist statement which you see a lot but it’s overdone.

Dominance

Some experts might say that if you scold a cat and stare at them you are acting as a dominant cat and they become submissive. When they “sulk” they are accepting their submissiveness and it is a form of apology. I disagree with the idea that cats can apologise. That’s incorrect. Although, cats understand that humans are the dominant partner for the simple reason that they are providers; humans behave as if they are their feline parents.

Different species

I think above all that we have to remind ourselves that we live with a top predator of an entirely different species who has learnt to enjoy the company of humans and vice versa. It’s a special relationship but we are two very different characters with different motivations and desires which we need to understand. Domestic cats do understand our behaviour but not necessarily the reasons behind it. They fit in with our behavioural rhythms and routines because they’re good adapters to the human environment but they don’t get into our heads and understand human thinking. We have the ability to understand feline thinking and we should make sure that we do.

Some more on punishment

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