Category Archives: Psychology & Cognition

Fireworks Safety for Pets!

It’s that time of year again! There are a lot of dangers for pets around holidays, and July 4th in the U.S. is one of the worst.

More pets go missing during the 4th of July than any other day of the year.

Make sure your pets are microchipped and wearing tags with up-to-date information. If your cat is indoor-only, it’s a good idea to get them a bright orange collar like this one so that people know it’s an escapee. Cats may try to bolt out the door or even knock out a screen from an open window to get away from the noise.

If you let your cats outside, it’s important to keep them inside from the 3rd to the 5th. Even cats who would never usually run away can become scared and disoriented by the fireworks, and they can get lost very easily under these circumstances. They also may try to bolt out the door if given a chance.

If you know your cat is upset by fireworks, make a cozy place (inside a room where you will be or, if kitty likes to hide, a padded box, a closet, or other space where they will feel safe, and can ride out the worst of it in peace.

Not only are the sounds scary, they can be dangerous. As we explained in our previous article, Of Cats and Crinkle Noises, high-pitched noises can cause seizures in cats. We learned this sad truth 3 years ago, when our precious hero, Kagetora, had a seizure after a rapid-fire succession of fireworks went off. I snapped this photo a few seconds after the seizure.

Kagetora Post-Seizure

Thankfully, he suffered no lasting effects, but we will be playing whale song or one of the nature documentaries they like to watch with us to drown out the noise of fireworks. We recommend that you play something that will be soothing to your cats so that you minimize seizure risks and just make them more comfortable so they can listen to something other than the loud pops, whistles, and booms.

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Q&A: Why Does My Cat Insist on Tripping Me?

Q: My cat is always tripping me up, especially if I’m carrying something big. Why does he do this?

A: Ah, yes. Tripping over cats. It’s quite a conundrum if you aren’t thinking like a cat. So why do they do this?

The answers are fairly simple. If you watch cats interact, then you will notice that when they pass close to each other, they stop and sniff each other a bit. It’s a kind of “Hi! Whatcha been doing? You okay?” check. Sometimes it’s brief, sometimes they take a moment to rub up against each other, do a little bonding grooming, etc. But they almost always stop to greet each other. They don’t just walk past each other like humans. That would be rude in cat etiquette.

So your kitty is just stopping to rub up against you, sniff you a bit, and saying hi.

Now, when you’re carrying something large, you will walk differently, and the thing you’re carrying doesn’t smell like you. So even a cat that is not just happening to greet you may come inspect you to see if you’re okay. They want to know why you’re walking funny, and why you don’t smell like they expect. Just like they might inspect another cat who is suddenly wobbly on its feet.

So, before you curse your cat out for being in the way, remember that kitty is just being politely inquisitive. If you can set what you’re carrying down for a brief inspection, and give kitty some pets, he should be reassured and let you pass by.

Cat TV!

There has been a drama unfolding over the past few days on Cat TV at our house, and I thought it would be funny to film a bit of it.

In the video below, watch a tiny chipmunk (Chip) outsmart a grey squirrel who thinks he’s a tough guy, while Dean the Malfunctioning Red Squirrel makes outraged noises in the background! Stiles (center, grey and white), Kikiyo (right, Burmese-Abyssinian), and Kagetora (left, orange tabby) were fascinated! At the very end, if you’re observant, you’ll see Chip come back for another round. We’re not sure what to name the grey squirrel. Let us know if you have suggestions!

Update 20 October 2017: There’s another squirrel who has been showing up lately. She’s partially grey and partially brown. She looks like she’s been adventuring, so we named her Sandy (after the squirrel in Spongebob).

We still don’t have a name for this grey squirrel, but he gets outsmarted by Chip almost daily!

Q&A: Why Do Cats Leave a Hole in the Middle of the Bowl?

Q: Why do cats leave a hole in the middle of the food in the bowl and act like it’s empty?

A: Ah, the age old question. And look at Marmalade’s sweet kitty face as he wonders why the humans just don’t understand. (See more of that sweet kitty face in the video Cat Logic, which I feel like we can all relate to.)

Speculation has, for decades, been spiraling around a few things: Maybe it’s because cats prefer to eat several small meals rather than 1 or 2 larger ones. Cats can’t see that well really close-up, so maybe that has something to do with it. They could be saving it for later. Maybe it’s because the dry food at the edge is stale or somehow unpalatable due to contact with the bowl. Perhaps it is an ancient ritual, passed down through generations. Maybe they do it to mess with us. (That is the internet’s favorite, and therefore we can safely assume it is the most wrong.) In truth, none of these is the answer.

The real reason is so much simpler: whiskers (AKA vibrissae).

The reason that they often don’t eat the food around the edge of the bowl is because their whiskers are VERY sensitive. They have so many nerves at the root of each whisker that this is a real problem with deep bowls. While it’s not that bad to eat from the middle of the bowl, getting at the food on the side puts too much pressure on their whiskers, which is uncomfortable for them.

You might hear this referred to as “whisker fatigue” or “whisker stress.” That leads to them asking you to please fix the situation, or (Stiles’s solution) to start trying to knock over the bowl to get at those bits on the side.

Their whiskers are so sensitive that they can feel the slightest of breezes. They are important tools for cats that help them hunt, steer clear of predators, and navigate in the dark. Whiskers help the cat figure out if they can fit somewhere. If the whiskers fit, they will fit, but pressure on those whiskers means they are in danger of getting stuck. Only a foolish cat would ignore that kind of warning.

So, for once, this problem has an easy solution! You should switch out their deep bowls for shallow ones. We recommend using a wide, shallow bowl or a small plate with edges just high enough to keep the food from sliding off. If your cat tends to chase the bits around, cut out a bit of rubber shelf liner and place it on the bottom of the bowl or plate to keep the kibble from getting away. (Make sure to wash it and the plate regularly!)

Q&A: Kneading

Q: Do cats understand that kneading people hurts them? Why do they do it?

A: Kneading, also colloquially referred to as making biscuits, is first done when they are tiny kittens, kneading their mother’s tummy to stimulate milk flow. Like the meow, this is a neotenic behavior, which is a behavior that begins in kittenhood, and spills over to adulthood.  We often see these neotenic behaviors in domesticated animals like cats and dogs. There are some other reasons for this behavior, which I’ll get into at the end.

It sounds like you need to clip your cat’s claws regularly. That’s always been enough for me, and I’ve always had at least 2 cats. I have 4 right now.

If that isn’t enough, use Soft Claws on kitty’s claws so that it doesn’t hurt. If you need help, a vet tech at your local vet’s office should be able to show you how to do both, as can a cat groomer, if there’s one in your area. Having a blanket handy is also a good strategy. Cats learn quickly that a blanket in the lap is an invitation to cuddle.

Cats have very thick skin and fur, so this doesn’t hurt when they do it to each other. Mom never complained about it, so it makes sense that they think this is a great way to bond and show affection.

Like many humans, cats can sometimes have difficulty understanding something that is out of their realm of experience, especially when they’re young, or if you aren’t closely bonded with them.

You might say, “My cat does this to blankets as well, so does it love that blanket too?” Well, no. Wild cats (both big and small) also tamp down a nice bed of leaves and/or grasses to make a comfy bed and double check that there are no pokey objects or critters that will disturb them. This is likely what kitty is doing when she kneads her blanket or her bed.

This also declares ownership. Cats (domesticated, wild, big, and small) have scent glands in their paws, so they are also claiming ownership of that comfy spot they made.

 

Q&A: Can Cats Become Affectionate?

Q: I adopted a stray cat a couple months ago. The only thing is that he doesn’t seem to like me at all: he doesn’t like it when I pet him (he attacks me most of the time), he completely ignores me (except when he’s hungry, then he will rub against my legs), and he won’t sit on my lap. Will he ever change?

A: First of all, thank you for adopting him! And whatever you do, do not take his rebuffs of your attempts at affection personally.

Cats generally get more affectionate as they build a bond with you over time. The best way to bond with a cat, especially a young cat, is through play. If you find games he likes to play, that’s gold. Make sure to let him get the toy often, and praise him when he does.

Cats can also have a number of reasons they don’t want to be touched: if they’re in the mood for play or are agitated, in pain, have been hurt by humans before, or they just don’t know you that well. Strays are often mistreated, and it can take awhile for them to realize that not all humans are bad.

If he’s learning house rules, never yell at him. Offer alternatives. If he’s climbing somewhere he isn’t supposed to be, gently move him to a cat tree or something he can climb, and then praise him like it was all his idea. Give him praise and a treat (even if it’s just some kibble) when he uses those alternatives.

Always reward success. Never yell. Never punish. Cats don’t understand punishment. It only erodes trust, and makes them think you’re emotionally unstable, and that’s a massive setback. It makes everything worse. See my previous post for more information about why you should never yell at or punish a cat.

Also just spend time near him. Just in the same room, doing a quiet activity. Read a book, play a game on your tablet or phone, even watching TV (lower the volume, turn on captions if you need to), and just let him get comfortable with your presence, and observe you at a safe distance.

He’ll warm up with patience, play, and time. Once he figures out that he can trust you, that you care about him, he’ll start to warm up. Some cats take years to get to the cuddle phase, some only take weeks. It depends on personality, as well as their history. If he has been abused in the past, he may take awhile. But if you put in the time, it will pay off.

Thank you for adopting him. Good luck to you both!

Why You Should Never Punish a Cat

I’ve seen so many people talk about punishing their cats, and I am shocked every time. Even yelling at a cat is detrimental—they will think you are insane, and they will lose some trust in you—they don’t understand it, it means nothing to them, so you’re making your cat feel less safe without doing anything to change the behavior.

Every time you yell at or punish a cat, you are putting your relationship with the cat in jeopardy. They do not perceive their own activities as “bad” or destructive. That’s a human concept. When you punish your cat, your cat will associate the punishment with YOU—not with his/her own behavior. Often this leads to him/her avoiding you or being more confrontational. The people the kitties originally loved and trusted are now perceived as scary and hurtful. They are not friends anymore, they are now antagonists.

Punishing a cat does not tell the cat what to do. It does not aid in correcting the problem. And most often, the side effects will be extremely negative, both for you and the cat. Punishing and yelling at a cat often leads to an increase in “bad” behaviors because they feel threatened (you were a trusted ally, and now you have turned on the cat, and it may start to see you as an adversary).

Cats will also often avoid places where they were punished. This can be catastrophic, especially if the issue is related to the litter box. They won’t want to go anywhere near the litter box after being punished there.

And studies show that people who yell at others (people and pets) start getting a sense of satisfaction, and thus reward for this behavior. It can quickly become a very bad habit, and one that the person escalates as time goes on. No one wants to hang out with a person who gets high off their own rage. It can only lead to trouble.

Cats don’t do things for no reason. There is always a reason. Sometimes it’s a natural behavior for the cat, and thus you must offer alternatives. If the cat is climbing on the counter, and that’s a no-no, simply pick up the cat (gently) and move it to a cat tree, or another place it can climb. Then praise the kitty like it was his/her idea all along. Always praise and treat when they use those alternatives.

Cats like to have a good vantage point to watch what’s going on. This is especially true in the kitchen. If the counters are off limits, put a cat tree in the kitchen (counter height is fine) so that they can observe at a safe distance.

Make sure you’re playing with your cat enough: 2 sessions of at least 15 minutes of play for adults over 3, 3-4 15-minute sessions a day for 18 months to 3 years, at least 5 sessions of 10-15 minutes of play for 6 months to 18 months. For kittens who are just starting to play up to 6 months, they really need to be playing or being mentally stimulated any time they aren’t sleeping or eating. They have this very short window where they must learn to hunt through play. They are evolution’s finest predator, and this means that play is absolutely essential to kittens and young cats in particular. Cats should never lose their drive to play. If they do, it could be a sign of illness, depression, or they might just need a new toy to get them excited again.

Redirect, guide, offer alternatives, and use positive reinforcement to show your cat that s/he is doing a great job. Praise, praise, treats, affection, play, praise. You will both be happier in the long run, as well as healthier because you avoided all that stress caused by yelling and punishment.

Q&A: Are Cats Underrated or Misunderstood?

Q: Are cats the most underrated pet?

A: I don’t think they are underrated per se, but they are the most misunderstood pets. When you regularly hear veterinarians and other animal experts repeating myths about cats, it is a sign that those of us who have dedicated our lives studying the little floofy predators have our work cut out for us.

I’ve had to correct my cats’ veterinarians on several points. Most don’t take kindly to being corrected, and that’s how you know it’s time to find a new vet. (Pro tip: that’s also how you know you need to find a new anything. Those who are not curious and eager to learn more about their area of expertise, and are comfortable in their ignorance, should never be trusted with matters of any importance.) Thankfully, the vets we have now are always interested in new findings, and we share information we come across and discuss it.

Common misunderstandings

  • Many people think cats are solitary by nature. This isn’t true. They are solitary hunters (they hunt small prey, usually only enough of a meal for one, although some males do bring larger or excess kills to the colony for the kittens and lactating females), but they form matriarchal colonies, and have very complex social hierarchies and territorial rules. Cats have best friends, and it can be another cat, a human, a dog, or another animal.
  • Some people think cats are aloof, when in fact they are merely wary of people they don’t know. Kittens and young cats are much more focused on play, and are not generally into cuddling. As the cat ages, and its bond with you grows stronger, it will begin to seek out more physical contact and become more cuddly.
  • People are always wanting to compare cats with dogs. I’ve explained before why this is fallacious reasoning at best, I still see people beating this horse that isn’t even dead, it’s mythical. It makes no more sense than comparing a shark to an octopus.

I could write a book on the subject. But if you read this blog, hopefully we can dispel most of the myths about cats.

Is there a myth about cats that you’d like us to cover? Leave a comment below, or email us at stories(at)littlecatdiaries(dotcom)!

Q&A How to Pet a Cat

Q: Okay, I know this is a stupid question, but can you tell me the best way to pet a cat?

A: This is not a stupid question at all. It might seem like an absurdly easy question to answer, but I have seen people pet their cats the wrong way for decades. Every cat is different on physical interaction, and each should be treated as an individual.

To learn how to bond with a kitten who isn’t interested in petting and cuddling, see this article: Q&A: How do I get my kitten to like petting?

There are some major factors and minor factors that generally determine how a particular cat likes to be petted. Some of the major ones are:

  • Personality Is it an affectionate kitty, or a little more standoffish? Is it skittish or bold? There are several personality traits that will determine how the cat will prefer to carry out physical contact.
  • Mood Hyper, angry, or otherwise perturbed cats generally don’t like to be touched.
  • Age Kittens don’t generally enjoy it unless they are veeery sleepy, and even then, there’s a limit. As the cat grows older, and your bond grows stronger, cats usually get more and more cuddly and affectionate as they get older.
  • Health Injury Old age, pain, discomfort, or other health issues can determine whether or not a cat wants to be touched.

General rules:

  • When attempting to get to know any cat, you should start with simple offering the back of your hand for it to rub against. Bolder, more mature, more affectionate cats will usually take you up on the offer. Let the cat pet your hand, not the other way around.
  • Most cats do not enjoy full-body strokes, so never pet a cat you don’t know well using large strokes along the back.
  • Even if the cat rolls over, do not go for the belly unless you know the cat well. Unlike dogs, when cats roll on their backs, it does not mean, “Rub my belly!” It generally means, “I like you! I feel good!” People who are more used to dogs are therefore left flabbergasted when a cat becomes peeved when they try to go in for a belly rub. If you think the cat might enjoy a belly rub, start with some gentle chest scratches. Most cats like that.
  • Keep the petting to small strokes and rubbing of the head, chin, and neck. You could also try for a gentle cheek rub. The best way to initiate the first attempt at a cheek rub, try presenting a knuckle in front of the cheek (not to the side, you want the cat to be able to see its proximity to its cheek), and let the cat rub against it at their leisure, so they are the ones in control.

WARNING Signs If you see any of the following behaviors, stop petting immediately and look somewhere other than at your cat:

  • Cat watching your hand
  • Ears flattened to the side or back
  • Love Nips (small bites not meant to hurt, just to say, “Stop doing that!”)
  • Growling or hissing
  • The cat’s skin gets twitchy where you’re petting it
  • Tail twitching or swishing quickly

The good signs are fairly obvious: the cat keeps coming back for more, kitty starts purring, or curls up in your lap, rolls over, or otherwise seems completely blissed out.

Q&A: Do cats have language?

Q: Why does my cat understand so many of the words that I say and I understand almost none of his vocalizations?

A: There are a lot of factors at play here, so if you want a TLDR answer, you’re out of luck.

First, some basics:

Some cats are smarter than other cats. And there is a lot we don’t know about animals and cognition. And because cats in particular can’t be bribed reliably with food or a toy, it’s often difficult to do some classical kinds of tests to study how they think, so the research we do have on cats is severely slanted toward cats who are empathetic (they understand that you want something from them, and they want to please you) and very smart (they understand that you want something from them, and that makes them curious about it). So there is a lot we just don’t know about how they think.

But there are several things we do know. I’m up with new research on cats and cognition, and it’s some amazing stuff.

So here are some basic factors that will change how much of your language your cat understands and how much of his language there is to understand.

Some cats are more vocal than others. Cats that were strays or feral for their formative years (before age 2), will likely never meow. Meowing is a holdover from kittenhood, when it was important for them to vocalize when they were hungry, in danger, etc. because they don’t have control over the classic ways cats communicate (body language and scent). Once older kittens realize that these vocalizations work on humans too, they have made the connection, and will likely meow at least a little when they want something.

There are generally three types of cats: talkers, non-talkers, and learned talkers.

Non-talkers are cats who either don’t vocalize at all or vocalize very little. A cat that doesn’t really vocalize much isn’t likely to be putting much thought into it other than the fact that you sometimes do a particular thing if he makes a noise.

Talkers, like Burmese, can vocalize a lot. I have an Abyssinian-Burmese, Kikiyo, who will carry on entire conversations with me, and she has actual words for several things. She has a large vocabulary. Kiki has words that are very like our words. For instance, I call my daughter “Bonna”, and Kiki calls her “Waah’Wah”, my daughter calls me “Mom” and Kiki therefore calls me “Waaw”, outside is “Aw-Why” and so on. So, since she is a very talkative cat, and listens to us, and understands hundreds of human words, she does often have words that are similar-sounding to ours. But some of her words sound nothing like our words. She has at least 10 words for different kinds of water. She has a word for water in a cup (Awak – the k is almost silent, it’s like a glottal stop), water in a glass bowl (Araah), water in a plastic bowl (Araaaaaya – she doesn’t like it in a plastic bowl, so this comes with a fussy tone), and the water in the fountains (Nawa – her favorite).

I’ve only been documenting her language for the past two years. Before I became disabled, I worked a lot, so I didn’t spend as much time at home. I knew she had some words and names, but it’s only recently that I’ve really appreciated how much of an effort she makes to communicate.

There are talkers who only say a few things, but they are meaningful to the cat. Sometimes it’s not so much about words, but about the tone.

We talk to our cats a lot. That, I think, is a big factor in how much a cat predisposed to vocalize a lot builds an actual vocabulary. Our 8-year-old male was a stray for his formative years, and he just recently started meowing a bit.

Learned talkers, who are generally very smart, and were raised from kittenhood with a talker cat, learn the importance of verbal communication with humans. So it’s a learned behavior. They don’t talk as much, but they can learn what works on humans. So it’s mimicry. Our 2-year-old (his birthday was January 27th) mimic is a smarty pants. He’s the smartest cat I’ve ever known. And he does want to communicate, so he borrows words from the 11-year-old. So it’s part nature, part nurture.

So, to sum up and answer your question, if you talk to your cat a lot, and your cat makes all kinds of conversational sounds at you, it may be that he does have at least a rudimentary language. Try to keep notes if you aren’t sure.

Most cats usually understand several words we say, especially ones that are most important to them, like treat, food, walk (if you walk your cat). play, bed time, etc.

Some cats understand a whole lot more of our language than you might think. They are also able to process both the word you are saying and the way in which you are saying it, so simply saying in a light, chirpy voice that it’s bath time will still send your cat running to hide under the bed.