We all like to think we know our feline friends really well, but they’re far more complex than we think.
It’s a common mistake to view your cat’s behavior from the eyes of a human. Over enthusiastic cuddles, eye contact and mistaken meows are some of the most common human slip-ups.
Studying a cat’s behavior is hard as they usually know when they’re being watched, but we’ve put together some simple tips to help you understand your cat better.
Your cat is smarter than you think
Despite its size, the structure of a cat’s brain is very similar to a human brain. The surface folding and structure of a cat’s brain is about 90% similar to a human brain. Our cerebral cortices have similar lobes and, just like a human brain, a cat’s brain is also separated into different areas that perform specific tasks. Cats also have the ability to store both long and short term memories. This means that they have a keen ability to learn.
This doesn’t mean we think and function in the same way, however. The lobes of our brain share the same basic functions but the processing won’t be the same. From a structural perspective, it’s like sharing the same car, but running a different engine.
Don’t make eye contact
Humans love eye contact. To us, eye contact means respect, interest, and engagement. It’s usually the first thing we look for when we meet someone and without it, we feel uncomfortable and distrustful of the other person.
Cats, on the other hand, find it threatening – it’s what rival cats do to intimidate one another, staring each other out. Next time you see a cat, remember – it’s rude to stare!
Those aren’t sleepy eyes
Cats spend most of their lives sleeping – in fact, on average it’s around 15 hours a day. But they’re not always actually sleeping. Half-closed, drowsy eyes mean that your cat is relaxed, but it’s also a sign they trust you – after all, they feel comfortable enough to be completely vulnerable around you by closing their eyes.
Try slow-blinking at your cat the next time they are like this – some people call this a ‘cat kiss’ – hopefully you’ll get one in return.
They’ve got tiny radars on their head
Cats can hear better than people, and even better than most dogs, but they’re also equipped with their own spy equipment. You might not have noticed but they can move their ears independently of one another. You’ll often find one ear facing the other way, so they can keep an eye on what’s going on somewhere else.
There’s more than one purr
To humans a purring cat is a relaxing sound, but there are different levels of purr. Some people think a happy purr is like a human smile, but they also purr when they’re scared and in pain. For instance, purring can be a form of physical therapy to a cat as the frequency of the vibration helps to keep their bones strong. They can also resort to purring to soothe an attacking cat if they have no other means of escape.
Cats don’t meow at other cats
As kittens, cats meow when they need their mothers, just like when a human baby cries for our attention. As they grow older however cats don’t meow at other cats. They make other sounds to communicate with each other, such as growling, hissing or yowling, but you’ll very rarely find an adult cat meowing at another cat.
Instead meowing is an evolved behavior to communicate with humans. They use meowing to tell us they need something – such as food, comfort or company – and they learn the behavior because they know we’ll react to them. And the more you react to them, the more likely they will become a chatty cat.
How’s your cat’s posture?
As if there weren’t enough ways to read your cat’s feelings, their pose is another indicator. Cuddly signs, such as rubbing, licking and a joyful tail mean they are happy, whereas angry cats often make themselves larger, with a puffed tail and an arched back. But not all signs are easy to read. There are also less obvious signs which you also need to know how to distinguish between.
A relaxed cat will lie down, as if they’re melting into the surface. They may look relaxed, but look closer – is their body crouched and their tail tucked? If so it could mean they are ill – so keep an eye on them.
You might also find that your cat likes to chat to you and regularly tries to get your attention. They might be happy to see you, but measure how long it goes on for. An overly friendly cat might be trying to tell you that they’re bored.
Do you know your cat can be either left or right-handed?
It’s true! According to research reported by the New Scientist cats have a preferred paw and, even more interestingly, females tend to be right-handed, whereas male cats tend to be left-handed. But you won’t see this behavior all of the time.
Psychologists at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland found that only when faced with a challenging task, cats lean to one particular paw. This might sound strange, but it’s not dissimilar to humans – we can perform most tasks with both hands, but when asked to do something a little more complex we lean towards our dominant hand. Fortunately for male cats it doesn’t present the same problems human-lefties have to suffer through – they don’t need to worry about using scissors, or smudging their work, but consider their preferred paw the next time they’re catching a mouse.
Tails are a tricky business. For instance, a flickering tail can mean your cat is both excited and irritated – so it’s important to take other factors into consideration too. Usually though, it goes like this:
- A tail held high is a confident cat
- Curling their tail around someone signals a friendly cat
- A low or tucked tail is an anxious cat
- An upright, bushy tail means your cat feels threatened.
Why does my cat bring home dead animals, and not eat them?
Despite the fact that we supply tasty treats and dinners, cats are natural hunters. We may have curbed their appetite but we can’t curb their instincts. Which is one of the reasons why they don’t always eat the gruesome gifts they’ve brought home. This type of behavior is particularly strong in spayed female cats, but for another reason.
Mum cats will bring home their prey in order to teach their young how to eat. Unfortunately for you, that may also mean that they will bring alive animals too to teach their young how to kill. Again, the maternal instincts of spayed female cats will be very strong, despite the fact that they can’t actually have kittens.
Rather than freak out at the unwanted critter on your kitchen floor, take it as a compliment – they clearly consider you to be part of their family and they’re giving you a helping-paw with your hunting skills.
Why do cats like people who don’t like cats?
It’s happened to all of us. You invite someone round and they say “oh, do you have a cat? I don’t like cats.” Whilst you eagerly try to get past this moment, without reconsidering your entire friendship (they could be allergic after all), you can’t help but smile to yourself as your cat then makes every effort to befriend the hater. “Why do cats like people who don’t like cats?” your visit exclaims! Well perhaps it’s because you’re wrong and Whiskers is trying to help you see that – but there may be some science behind it too.
From a behavioral perspective, cat-haters will do their very best to ignore your cat. Unlike a cat lover, haters won’t bowl over to meet them, invade their personal space, make intense eye contact or force long-term friendship. Instead, they’ll edge around your cat, sit as far away as possible and, at all costs, avoid looking into their eyes. Unfortunately for your visitor, this presents an attractive scenario to your cat. Their body language is calm, unthreatening and perfect for your cat to introduce themselves in their own time. Sorry haters, it’s a cruel world – that favors the cat.
Tips aside, all cats are different and over the years you’ll come to know your cat well, just as they’ll learn how to live with you – even if it takes some purr-suasion.