Tag Archives: social behavior

Q&A: Low Maintenance Cats?

Q: I’m finally able to get my own cat! What should I look out for when I want a low maintenance cat? 

A: Congrats!

These are the most important ones: adopt, avoid long-haired breeds if you don’t want to brush them, avoid cats like Persians with shorter muzzles, get either a mixed cat or a natural breed (they have fewer health problems), and get one that is over 4 years.

Whenever the time comes for me to adopt another cat, I will go for a senior cat (over age 7). They are so chill and cuddly, and what you see is what you get. They know what they like, they aren’t aloof like younger cats who are generally more interested in play and adventure. And, if well-cared-for, cats are living into their 20s these days. I have a Norwegian Forest Cat (a natural breed, whom we adopted), whose name is Kagome, who just turned 20, and she’s very healthy. In fact, if we didn’t have vet records to prove it, our vet would not have believed us about her age because she’s in such good health.

When you go to the shelter: If you can, spend as much time with different cats when you’re there. If there is a free-roam room for the cats (where cats interact with each other and just hang out), and they allow people in there, just go hang out. You should ask if you can come back several times (they should be perfectly fine with this), and—even if you think you found the perfect cat in the first 5 minutes—make at least 3 visits where you spend at least 15 minutes (I would spend an hour) hanging out with the kitties each time.

Pay special attention to those who seem shy. A lot of cats don’t do well at shelters because they are so used to being in a home with people all their lives. Make sure to ask if they have cats there who seem to not be doing as well in the shelter environment. And go see if the kitty wants some pets or treats. If you think you get along, but want to see how they are at home, ask if you could foster the cat for a little while to see how things go. This way, you’re helping the cat no matter if you keep it or not. And you can provide a report about how the kitty does indeed do so much better in a home, and that could help kitty get adopted faster.

I’m so happy for you! May you and your new furry buddy have many happy years together! And send us a pic with a follow-up when you find your cat.

Q&A: The Silent Meow

Q: Why does my cat look like he’s meowing, but no sound comes out?

A: When I first started researching cats, I was surprised that no one had checked to see if those silent meows were actually silent, or just too high for us to hear. It’s only recently that we’ve been able to show that most cats do, in fact, make a noise while “silent” meowing, we’re just unable to hear it.

Those “silent” meows, often used when the cat is hungry, have been recorded at as high as 22 kilohertz, and since very few researchers have recorded these silent meows, it’s quite possible that they go much higher.

The higher end of their hearing range helps them hunt. They can hear all those squeaky little animal noises that we humans, and even dogs, cannot hear. For more on cats’ hearing, and how even deaf cats can hear in the ultrasonic range, see this article: Of Cats and Crinkle Noises)

It’s pretty well established at this point that cats can in fact hear up into the 65 kilohertz range.

We can’t know the entire vocal range of cats, mostly because different cats have different voices, and some are more prone to make high pitched sounds, and some have a lower pitch. We have only officially differentiated 16 different types of vocalizations (caterwauling, yowling, purring, chattering, growling, hissing, chirping, trilling, meowing, etc.), despite a lot of data that says there are many more. Cats can make over 100 distinct sounds.

There isn’t really a great deal of research on the topic of feline vocalization ranges either. But, yes, when he looks up at you with those big eyes and it seems like he’s silent meowing, he is making a noise. He doesn’t know you can’t hear it.

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.

Wacky Wednesday! If My Cat Were Bigger, Would He Kill Me?

Q: If my cat, who is a gentle house cat, suddenly became as big as a lion, would he kill me?

A: That depends on a lot of factors like age, activity level, if he’s neutered, how he plays with you, his personality, and your bond.

If he’s young, and very exuberant about play, and is serious about his aggression toward toys, then it’s a possibility. If he was taught (or not corrected—gently and positively—when he has attacked your leg or something) when young that human hands or other body parts are toys, then the answer is almost certainly yes.

I actually use this example as a thought experiment a lot when I’m talking about why big cats do not make good pets. Think about a young cat, maybe a year old. At that age, you can see how intent the kitty is about attacking and “killing” a toy, which is a thing it just perceives as being something fun to maul, not even real prey. Then imagine that he was the size of a medium-sized dog, and ask yourself what kinds of things he might think look like fun things to attack. A little kid would be fun sized then. Then imagine the kitty is the size of a tiger, and you should get it right away. It would be a disaster for everyone.

Make no mistake, there are fundamental differences (at the genetic level) between domestic cats and wild cats (big and smallish). Domestic cats have changes on genes dealing with aggression and learning. They are less aggressive and are able to learn more and learn faster than their wild cousins.

However, older cats, especially neutered cats over the age of 7 or 8, wouldn’t necessarily pose a deadly risk if you magically scaled them up. By that time, they don’t see you as a plaything (again, unless you have encouraged them to play with your hand or not corrected them—gently and positively—when they have attacked you), and are usually more interested in naps, food, watching Cat TV (AKA the window), and other things.

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.

WW Q&A: Are Cats Plotting Against Us?

It’s another Wacky Wednesday, so here’s our wacky question of the week:

Q: Do cats plot to overthrow their human masters?

A: This is a fun question, and I do appreciate the fun/silly factor. However, I’m going to answer this one factually, since that’s what I do.

Cats generally see as as equals, not superior (like dogs see us) or inferior (like 80% of cat memes would have you believe).

Cats are highly intelligent, empathetic beings. Cats have best friends. The best friend can be another cat, a human, a dog, or another animal the cat is close with. If the cat is your only pet, and you are its only/favorite human, then chances are that you are the cat’s best friend. If not, you are probably in what it considers its family group, which is its best friend as well as others who live in its territory that it likes to hang out with.

Cats can be very protective of their friends/family. There are thousands of examples of cats risking life and limb to try to save a friend/family member (human, cat, or other animal).

They realize that there are things that they can do that we cannot. They also realize that we can do things that they cannot (such as opening cans, getting treats, etc.), and they are able to appreciate the mutual benefit that occurs between themselves and humans.

So, to sum up, cats don’t think we’re their masters, so there is no one to overthrow.

Q&A Midnight Terror

Q: How do I get my cat to fall asleep at night?

A: What time are you wanting the cat to sleep? Is it waking you up in the early hours, not sleeping when you go to bed, or something else? How old is the cat? How long has this been going on? The details really matter here. Without them, I can only cover generalities.

Cats sleep (usually a light doze) most of the day and night, and are active at dusk and dawn, which makes them crepuscular, not nocturnal.

If your cat is spending most of the day or night awake, then it is likely suffering from feline insomnia, and you need to get the cat to the vet. There are many issues that cause insomnia, especially in young cats (<3 years), but it can happen at any age. The older the cat, the more urgent it is to seek vet care for feline insomnia. It carries several health risks, both short and long-term.

Adult cats sleep 14–16 hours on average. Seniors and kittens sleep a little more than that. The average adult cat is only lightly dozing for 75% of that time, with the remaining 25% in deeper stages of sleep. Seniors and kittens spend much more time, 40–60% of sleeping time, in deeper sleep.

In nature, predators sleep more than prey. They don’t have to spend all day eating plants in order to get the energy they need, so they reserve their energy for hunting.

Since cats are crepuscular, they are most active during dusk and dawn, but many house cats will change their sleep schedule to work around their human’s sleep schedule. You should not encourage this behavior, though. It can lead to obesity, cardiac issues, stroke, and over a period of years, can increase your cat’s chance of dementia later in life.

If this issue is just a matter of the cat making noise as you’re trying to get to sleep, then here’s what you should do:

Play with the cat until it is exhausted. We’re talking panting heavily, completely worn out kitty. Like this (it should be noted that this was the second time in half an hour that Stiles did this. We only filmed the second one):

Then feed the cat. After all that play and food, kitty will be primed for a loooong nap.

Establish a routine, and stick with it every night. Have a schedule to do everything at the same time. Your bedtime routine will help the cat prepare itself for sleep as well, even if most of your routine (brushing teeth, locking the doors, putting on your pajamas, etc.) doesn’t include the cat. They are very observant, and they will pick up on it very quickly.

Similarly, have a routine in the morning. If you have time to play with the cat before you go about your day, you should do so. At least 15 minutes 2x a day is the minimum exercise requirement for an adult cat. Younger kitties will need much more. When they aren’t sleeping or eating, they should be playing. That’s how their brains are wired.

RCRS: Stiles, Part 2

Continuing from Part 1, where I explained how we came to keep Stiles, and his relationships with our other cats…

Kiki loves elephants and whales, and especially loves watching them if David Attenborough is narrating. She taught Stiles this love of whales, elephants, and David Attenborough from an early age.

He’s particularly fond of baby elephants. He hops up on my desk to watch the You Tube videos (I made a playlist for him), and he has one favorite that is a minute long, and he makes this urgent fussy noise when it ends, and makes me start it over, and over, and over…

He plays fetch and catch, and has since he was big enough to fit a toy in his mouth. And he’s also learning to fly.

He loves all sorts of games, and his intelligence never fails to impress. But even more astounding is his capacity for empathy. Just like his mother seemed to know how to get along with each one of our cats, as well as how to win over humans, Stiles has shown those abilities and more.

If anyone in the house is upset, Stiles must investigate. Whether it’s a human-cat interaction, a cat-cat interaction, or someone is just upset, he wants to make it better.

Kagetora is terrified of men. If my brother is coming over, I try to remember to put Kagetora in my room so that he doesn’t get upset. It doesn’t matter that my brother is a cat lover, and wouldn’t even raise his voice to a cat. Kagetora’s fear was learned during those years he spent as a stray.

Once, I didn’t put Kagetora in my room before my bro stopped by. I went into the kitchen to get something and heard a hiss. I looked over, and Stiles was already there. Stiles saw that Kagetora was upset, but also understands that my brother is a good human, so he simply put himself between Kagetora and my brother so that Kagetora wouldn’t feel so threatened. It worked.

But he doesn’t just understand cat behavior and emotions, he has shown an amazing understanding of human emotion as well.

If I cry, he comes running, jumps in my lap, licks my face, and then, depending on if they are happy tears, sad tears, in pain tears, angry tears, frustrated tears, or fake tears, he will respond in different ways.

He’s the most amazing cat I’ve ever known. Here’s how he reacts depending on my mood:

  • Pain: He’ll start purring really loudly and lay on my abdomen (I have chronic pain due to abdominal adhesions, and the warmth and vibration of his purring is better at relieving my pain than any drug).
  • Sad: He’ll make these little consoling noises, and then he’ll cuddle up on my chest, purring. He’ll watch me very closely. As soon as I calm down, he’ll tuck his head under my chin and stay there for as long as I need him.
  • Frustrated: After licking my face, he’ll lean back and look at me, then he’ll hop down and go get one of his toys, then drag it into the room and place it at my feet so I will play with him. It really does make me forget about my frustrations.
  • Angry: He does the lean back, then he starts chattering at me, hops down, and starts acting like a total goofball, doing flips, jumping, and just being hilarious. It always works.
  • Fake: I have tried doing fake crying to see what he’ll do. Once he licks my face, he sighs, hops down, and goes back to whatever he was doing before.

All that had been going on since he was about 6 months old. When he was about 15 months old, I was binge watching one of my shows, and I got all emotional during a particularly poignant scene.  Next thing I know, Stiles had jumped in my lap, did the tear sniff, the face lick, but then he did something new.

Sitting in my lap, he tilted his head, raised a paw, pressed it against me just above my clavicle (collar bone) and slowly let it rub against me as it lowered about 3 inches, then he lifted his paw and pressed it against me just above the clavicle again, let it slide down, then he did it again. And again. He watched me very carefully as he did this. At first, I just smiled.

It took me a minute to figure out that he was petting me.

It was so amazing! I started laughing and telling him what a good boy he is. He has since worked the petting into his routine for when I’m sad or in pain. Every time he does it, I feel like I’ve just seen a dancing unicorn or had a conversation with a dragon.

He is so insanely smart and empathetic. He isn’t just highly empathetic with me. He’s like this with my daughter and our other cats as well. We’ll get into more specifics about feline empathy later. For now, just enjoy the AWW!

Here he is petting me:

That’s all for this week!

Wacky Wednesday #1: Kitty Kisses

As I mentioned last week, I decided that I would start using Wednesdays as the day I answer questions that are a little more off the wall, or stories that seem a little nutty, and to discuss studies that come out that are weird.

For our first installment of wackiness, I thought this would be fun::

QHow can it be safe to kiss a cat if they use their mouths to carry mice and other animals?

A: Who is kissing stray cats on the mouth? That’s weird. Even kissing a house cat on the mouth seems odd to me, and I kiss my kitties.

We usually kiss them on the tops of their little heads. They’re clean, and we don’t have an issue with rodents and other pests. And if we did, we certainly wouldn’t allow the cats to catch and eat them. There are too many diseases and parasites to worry about.

We keep up with our cats’ dental hygiene, but even so, they lick places I wouldn’t want to kiss, so I don’t kiss them anywhere near the mouth.

Now, if a cat licks me, that’s fine. Skin is easily cleaned, so I’m not going to cringe away and squeal like an idiot. I know it’s just one of their ways of bonding, not unlike primates grooming each other.