Understanding Domestic Cat Behaviour

Understanding Domestic Cat Behaviour

Has it ever occurred to you that the cat is the only domestic animal which, despite close association with man, has, through its intelligence, been able to ensure its own well-being and safety without falling victim to man’s will? For three thousand years, the cat has patronized human households, used them, like a hotel, and today his existence is as detached and self-contained as it ever was. The cat lives its own life in the way that it chooses.

Maybe the reason why the cat is able to accept our hospitality and, unlike the dog, live its own life at the same time, is that its brain is similar to our own, except that it does not have the same facility for memory or speech and the brain of man has larger frontal lobes. The cat does, however, have eight senses: balance, direction, hearing, sight, smell, taste, time and touch; and it is possible that it experiences the same sensations as we do, since the cat’s brain centre for feelings of anger, pleasure, sex and so on is almost identical to our own.

Physical characteristics

Cats have graceful and flexible bodies which make them very agile in their movements. The skeleton of the cat is made up of about 200 bones with more than 500 skeletal muscles.

As the shoulder joints are free a cat is able to turn its head easily and move its forelegs freely. The structure allows the back to be arched when the cat is frightened, and enables it to spring and jump without effort.

The skulls of all members of the feline family are much the same in shape, but vary tremendously in size. More than in humans, the teeth differ in different parts of the mouth. The most important are the fang-like canine teeth which enables a wild cat to seize and kill its prey and sometimes give a nasty bite when fighting.

The long tongue is covered with papillae. These are tiny little hooks which give the tongue a rasp-like feel and allow the cat to lick the meat off bones. The tongue is also used much like a face flannel for washing purposes. By first licking the paws the cat can clean itself all over. Of course, the tongue is also used for lapping up liquids.

The large beautiful eyes of most cats have pupils that expand or contract according to the amount of light, being mere slits in bright sunlight and wide open when there is scarcely any light.

Cats have a third eyelid, known as the nictitating membrane – sometimes referred to as ‘the haws’. This may be seen sometimes in the corners of the eyes when a cat is sickening for an illness or is run-down.

Some cats have large, pointed ears; others have small rounded ones. But all have acute hearing and many know when their owners are coming by recognizing their footsteps. Whistling attracts their attention though it is difficult to know whether they enjoy it or not.

The ears too, are a very good indication of a cat’s moods. They are held high when the cat is pleased; but when flattened and close to the head, it usually means the cat is annoyed. A twitch of the ear may mean that a cat knows it has been called and prefers to take no notice. The head will be turned so that the ears face the direction of a sound which can thereby be heard better. Cats can hear very faint sounds, such as a mouse creeping through grass, or a mole digging underground.

The length of the nose is short in most cats and although the sense of smell is said to be less acute than that of dogs, it is still very good. A cat will normally refuse any food that has gone off. They usually prefer their food slightly warmed.

A cat’s whiskers are much thicker and coarser than the hairs in the fur, and some cats have really magnificent specimens. They enable a cat to move around in the dark without bumping into things, and protect the eyes when hunting.

It has been said that the whiskers are used as a kind of measure, so that a cat knows whether or not it can squeeze through a small opening. This is doubtful, as most cats judge by sight.

Most cats have thick, soft fur almost completely covering their bodies. The fur forms a protection against the weather by trapping a layer of air close to the skin. Some cats have two layers of fur; a soft undercoat and guard hairs. When a cat is frightened or angry it is the guard hairs that stand up, making the body look much bigger.

Cats usually lose their fur twice a year, in the spring and late autumn. This is a gradual process and is one of the reasons why grooming long-haired cats every day is so important. It helps to remove most of the loose hairs that may be licked down inside when the cat is washing. These may form a hair or furball and could cause trouble.

Tails vary in length and thickness; though the Manx cat does not have a tail. The long-hair cats have short, but very full tails; while those of the Siamese are long and thin, tapering to a point and covered with very short fur.

The tail, like the ears, is a good indication of a cat’s moods. It can be held high over the body when the cat is pleased; swished from side to side when it is cross, and twitched at the tip when very angry. (When a cat runs round and round chasing its own tail it is said to be a sign of a change in the weather.)

A cat can make a number of different sounds. The most curious is the purring when pleased. No-one is quite sure how this sound is made, but it is believed to happen when two vocal chords vibrate together. A mother cat will make a chirping, almost bird-like sound to her kittens, but will give a low growl to warn them if she thinks they are in danger. Cats can also swear, growl and spit when displeased or frightened.

Cats sleep a lot, but somehow rarely very deeply. They are always on the tiptoe of expectation and seem to know what is going on. They are intelligent and they are also independent.