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Cats and their mysterious behaviour

Val Cairney August 7, 2020 192

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Welcome to this episode of Val Talk’s Pets!  This episode is dedicated to those wonderful, funny, mysterious and sometimes frustrating cats.  As you know, I love cats.  And so do a lot of other people!  In Canada 57% of households own a pet.  37% of these households own one or more cats.  Overall, Canada is home to approximately 5.9 million dogs and 7.9 million cats.  In the United States, cats ranked second with around 42.7 million out of 63 million households with pets.  In the United Kingdom, 24% of adults have a cat, with an estimated cat population of 10.9 million.  In Australia 62% of households own a pet and out of that, 29% own cats.  And in Iceland, the ownership of dogs was once banned, so cats became the pet of choice.  It is estimated that for every 10 residents there is one cat.  So cats are definitely a very popular pet. 

The ancient Egyptians believed cats were magical that brought good luck and wealthy families honoured these pets by dressing them in jewels and fed special treats and even mummified when they died.  Black cats became associated with bad luck when those who owned one were accused of being a witch.  People thought black cats were like little witch’s assistants and that a witch could transform into a black cat to lurk around and cast spells on people.  If only! Just kidding. Cats started hanging around humans about 8000 years ago, so their relationship with humans has been a long one.  Cats are cuddly companions, mousers and unfortunately one of those pets that have an overpopulation and are not always treated the best.  But, for those of us who love our cats, we know that they can do the darndest things that make us laugh, yell at them, come up with the most innovative creations to keep them off things, keep them entertained and just plain make them a part of our household and family. 

So, let’s explore some of the behaviours good and bad that cats demonstrate and see if I can demystify some of these special proclivities.


So, why do cats meow?  Have you ever noticed that they don’t meow at each other?  They seem to growl or hiss at each other when there is an altercation, but they never seem to meow at each other like they do to us, when they are greeting us or wanting fed. They also meow to get us to play with them or to give them attention.  I honestly think that one of my cats answers my questions too.  So, the thing is that we as humans should feel quite complimented when a cat meows at us, as the meowing by an adult cat is almost exclusively used to communicate to humans.  And as they use this method of communication to tell us they want fed or treats, or play or attention, sometimes they are simply saying hello and giving us a greeting.  I love that!  I love coming home to my dog wagging his tail and coming to see me, the cat coming to say hello with a meow and my husband giving me a kiss.  Now sometimes we meow back at our cats and the question is, do they understand us?  Well…not really.  They don’t really see a difference between when you are speaking or when you are meowing at them.  But, it has been said that they appreciate the effort to being acknowledged.  Now if you have a cat that incessantly meows, it is suggested that you practice a bit of tough love and ignore the meowing and not respond, to get your cat to stop or cut down on the vocalizing.  Remember they only do this to communicate with us. 


Okay, so another trait of cats that most people love is the fact that cats purr.  Some cats have the loudest purr and some you can hardly hear, but you can feel that rumble under their neck to know they are purring.  It’s actually quite the physical feat that cats can purr.  Basically the larynx moves rapidly combined with movement of the diaphragm.  The muscles move around 20 – 30 times per second.  As the cat breathes, air touches the vibrating muscles which produces the purr.  And what is really interesting is that how the central nervous system generates and controls those contractions isn’t yet understood! There is a lot of really interesting research being done on why cats purr and the significance and benefit of purring not only for the cat but the human as well.  Generally speaking, cats will purr when they are happy or content or are self-soothing.  They can also purr to heal themselves which really opens up things for some interesting insight.  It’s like a built in physical therapy mechanism.  As well, humans associate purring with peacefulness and calmness so this gives a positive reinforcement to the human for petting, that cats have learned so they know they can get more pets if they purr and this creates the relaxation effect humans feel when petting a purring cat. 

Head Bumping

Another thing cats do that has always been a question humans ask is, why do they bump us or rub their heads on us?  Haven’t you just been about to take a drink from a cup and your cat comes along and bumps your arm?  I swear they just wait for the right moment. Head bunting and allorubbing is a specific behaviour.  Cats have scent glands all over their bodies and they use these to mark objects including you.  So when a cat bunts you or rubs on you he or she is placing his scent on you as a social or affectionate gesture.  


So, what does it mean then when your cat licks you?  Now here is one reason that was suggested that may make you wonder.  It’s possible your cat is licking you in an attempt to teach you how to groom yourself.  They have a memory of when their mother taught them to groom and as a show of real affection they want to do the same with you.  The bottom line of being licked by your cat or groomed by your cat is all about affection.  The licking marks you as a family member showing affection and a sense of belonging and a social bond.  It also spreads their scent. And if they lick you then bite you it is still a love bite and probably something they learned in the grooming process.


So, why then do some cats bite when played with or being petted?  There is such a thing as petting induced aggression.  It can mean that the cat is over stimulated and wants you to stop petting them.  Not all cats like being petted.  They may like to sit on your lap but they don’t want you to pet them.  It can also mean that they are being petted in an area they don’t like.  It is recommended to watch and really take note of the cat’s body language if you have a cat that love bites. If you can recognize what triggers the bite then you can avoid doing or stop doing what it is they do not like.  Never, discipline the cat for this, because he or she was just trying to tell you they don’t like something and more than likely they gave you a heads up but you missed it.  I personally find that cats that do this just haven’t discovered that this isn’t appropriate behaviour to tell you about a preference, so it is best to try to discover what triggers it.  Remember, cats have figured out positive reinforcement so I’m sure negative reinforcement is not out of the plausible. If your cat bites you when playing, again it is a sign of affection as this is what he would have done playing with his litter mates.  Sometimes however, they get a little rambunctious and the bite is too aggressive.  Stopping play if this happens tells your cat that he has done something you do not like and he will get the message. 

Tail Movement

Now say for example that you are playing with your cat or petting him and he starts flicking his tail.  What does that mean?  Cats flick or swish their tails when they are excited. It’s actually rather simple to assess the mood with a swishing cat tail.  The faster the tail swishes the more annoyed the cat is.  So a languid swishing of the tail means the cat is content and happy.  If the tail swishing becomes vigorous, you may want to watch out, because a swipe or bite might just be following.  The tail movement can also help you to understand if your cat is feeling unwell.  If your cat is acting out of sorts and he is lying on the floor wagging his tail, it may mean he is in pain or feeling unwell.  The tail held high can mean the cat is feeling confident and content.  A slapping back and forth tail can indicate fear and aggression.  A puffed up tail reflects severe agitation and fright so the cat is trying to look bigger.  And remember a low tail can mean an attack or aggression.  The best thing to do is learn your cat’s body language and what their tail movements mean. 


Now here is another little behaviour that is interesting and that is kneading.  Does your cat get on you and use his little paws to knead on you?  Or does your cat come on the bed and knead the covers?  Some cats even suck on the blanket or their bed when they are kneading.  Why do they do this?  Well simply your cat loves you!  Cats will knead claws in or out, when they are happy because this motion is the same as when they were nursing and with their mothers so they feel very content when they do this.  I know though, if they do it with their claws like one of my cats does, it really hurts!  And I keep his nails really trimmed!  Kneading is a way for them to return affection and it could also go back to the marking of their territory as they have scent glands in their paws.  It has also been speculated that feral cats will knead to create a comfy spot for themselves in leaves etc. So maybe they are making you more comfortable to lie on.  One of my cats will get on my chest, knead away for a while, then settle down for a sleep or visit. Suckling on a cloth is a bit more interesting.  It seems that this behaviour is often linked to cats that were taken away from their mothers too early.  And in terms of whether this is an issue or not, it isn’t really unless they are sucking fabric and ingesting fibres that could be harmful.  And believe it or not, sucking fabric is called wool sucking.

Open Jaw

Okay, so someone asked me the other day, why cats will smell something and then have their mouths open for a bit.  This is such a great question, because if you are a cat owner I’m sure you have seen your cat do this.  The answer is actually quite interesting.  Your cat has smelled something and has gone to investigate.  The smell is interesting so they feel they need more information, so they open their mouth so the scent will reach their Jacobsen Organ which is in the roof of their mouth.  The organ provides more information about certain scents that simply smelling through their nose just doesn’t give.  This mouth opening is called the flehmen response and opening their mouth allows this scent to reach this region of sensory cells within the olfactory system.  Is that not interesting?  So your cat has come across an interesting smell or a smell that is quite enjoyable so they go this little bit further in the smelling venture.  Cats like to investigate by smelling, so if you come home and your cat is smelling you, she has found something interesting on you.  If your cat smells your face or your nose, it’s simply a greeting. I had one cat that would stick his nose up my nostril.  So weird. 


Here is another one that I really like.  Have you ever noticed your cat watching you and when you look at them, they slowly blink?  What is that about?  Well in the cat world, closing one’s eyes is the ultimate sign of trust. This is her best way of telling you that she loves you.  You can blink back as well which communicates that you know they are there and you are no threat and that you love her too.  I’m sure your cat knows that already, but it’s always fun to use their communication techniques.  This communication is called a cat kiss.

Chitter Chatter

Here is another thing that cats do that I think really entertains humans.  When your cat sees birds outside the window does it start chattering or chirping?  Chirping is part of their hunting instinct and it means that they are interested in some kind of prey.  It’s actually more of an excited sound and not used if they were actually hunting.  For this reason some behaviourists have said that they believe that the chirping and chattering is actually based out of frustration that they cannot get to the prey.  One researcher also put forth that chattering could also be more of an anticipation reaction and they chatter in response to a surge in adrenalin.  Interesting.  Now as you know, my cats go outside.  When they are inside they can go on their window perch and watch the birds outside at the feeders or the chipmunks scurrying around.  What is interesting is that they never chatter or chirp at the birds.  Is this because to them it’s like so what?   I can see these guys up close and personal if I want?  And what is even stranger is that the younger cat, and I say this even so he just turned 10, he couldn’t care less about the birds and the chipmunks even tease him!   It’s true!  I’ve watched them!


Another little tidbit about cats is that they do not like being watched in the kitty litter.  They respect each other’s privacy and do not like being seen doing their business in the box.  Funny though how they have no problem coming into the bathroom with you.  And why do they do this?  It has been speculated that they like the routine of you going to the bathroom and they like being a part of that.  It has also been speculated that they like the coolness of the tile floor to lower their body temperatures when they are too warm.  Opposite to that it has been said that they follow the heat so some people have found their cat curled up in their undies while on the toilet.  That’s hysterical.  But, it could just be that as with just about everything I’ve talked about here, cats are smart and they figure things out quite quickly.  They know you are a captive audience when you are on the toilet so this is a great opportunity for them to get in some more attention.

Not So Fun Stuff

Okay, so let’s talk a bit about some of the not so great behaviours. 

Cats get in trouble the most for scratching furniture and peeing outside their litter boxes or peeing on clean laundry or carpets etc.  This is one of the worst behavioural things cats can do because this can really break a relationship between pet and pet parent.  I have to say that we do deal a fair bit with pet parents looking for products to remove odour and stains.  In my podcast on Cats and Kittens I covered this issue so you can always go back to that episode for more detail. 

Peeing Outside The Box

In terms of peeing outside the litter box, the number one reason sighted is that the cat does not like the litter box.  Now, remember you have to make sure that you have first ruled out any urinary infections before you start becoming a pee detective.  If kitty is fine and there is no U.T.I., then look at the litter box and the type of litter.  Maybe the box is too small.  Maybe it is too big.  Maybe it is hard to get into.  Not all cats like a hood on their litter.  Do you have more than one cat?  If so, it is recommended you have a litter for each cat.  Is the litter smelly?  Now that can mean is it smelly because it needs changing, or the box is too old now and is retaining smell, or the litter is too scented.  You may like the masking scent but kitty doesn’t.  If kitty has pee’d somewhere they shouldn’t, did you clean the area with a commercial cleaner?  If so, you need to clean it with a specific pet cleaner that does not have hidden ammonias that smells just like pee to your cat.  Sometimes it’s a territorial thing as well, so is there a stray cat wondering around outside?  You can try putting the box near to the area where the cat is peeing to try to retrain your cat to the box.  But, there is no easy answer on this one and kitty isn’t peeing to spite you.  There is a reason, you just have to find out what it is.  And for peeing on laundry no one really knows exactly why they do this.  It’s likely they do not like the smell of the laundry so maybe try a different detergent.  And always look for stressors and possible anxiety issues that could be triggering the behaviour. 

Territory Marking

As for scratching, we know that cats are trying to shed the outer sheath of their nails to have a nice new nail or claw coming through.  Unfortunately they do this on our carpets and furniture.  Another very specific reason cats scratch is because they are marking their territory in places where you sit.  Remember they like to mark you and the area so that the social bond is present.  They also like the feeling of stretching their bodies and flexing their feet.  So, again have a listen to my podcast on Cats and Kittens to get some remedies and tips to help with kitty scratching your furniture. 

I think other funny cat behaviours are things that they do that most humans find at times a bit annoying, but on the whole we accept as just cat behaviour.  Who knows exactly what it is like to try and read the paper or work on your laptop and find the cat completely content on your papers and in your way?  That’s a pretty common cat behaviour and we know they do it to be with us but sometimes when you have a deadline and kitty is planted on your notes it’s a bit frustrating.  Also, many cats like to bat things on to the floor.  Our store cat will swipe every pen she can get her paws on, onto the floor.  And not just pens.  She will swipe whatever is loose.  She loves doing this.

Pet Peeves

Well I guess that brings me to my pet peeves section.  The only pet peeve I have about cat behaviour is the humans.  Cats are smart and really funny and interactive.  They have odd little habits and quirks and if this is something that bugs you or you find offensive, don’t get a cat.  Cat owners know that cats come with some funny habits and they accept this.  If you want a pristine house, pet ownership of any kind is really not for you.  And if you just want to throw your cat outside to fend for himself on a daily basis, then you are not a pet parent and it might be best to take kitty to a shelter where they will find a nice home to be a part of.  And most important, spay or neuter your cats!

Well I think our little journey through cat behaviour has been fun.  It’s so fun to have cats and also to try and figure out why they do the things they do.  There are some really interesting reasons for certain behaviours that I have outlined and I hope you found these as interesting as I did.  So, if your cat does something out of the ordinary, see if you can find the answers behind it to really understand your little companion, because as I say, knowing is caring!

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Val Cairney

Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.

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