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Why does a cat act like that?

By Margaret Cate

Feline behavior is confusing for many people. It can seem erratic and unpredictable at times. To demystify it, I spoke with Matt Levien, director of the Buddy Center, who shed a bit of light on all things cat.

Cats vs. dogs:
Matt says that we have genetically changed dogs through breeding, but not cats. “They are not selectively bred for social interactions,” he said. “The feral cat outside is the same as the domestic cat in the house.” But one has learned the skills to hunt, and one hasn’t.

The urge to hunt:
Cats are both predator and prey animals, whereas dogs are not natural predators. A cat’s desire to hunt never goes away, even if a human meets all of its food requirements. Anxiety and boredom can arise if the hunting drive is unfulfilled. Matt explained that cats derive pleasure from watching birds outside a window or fish swimming in a tank. It’s a form of “non-interactive stimulation,” similar to a human watching television.

Attachment to environment:
In his book, Cat Sense, John Bradshaw said, “Dogs have largely worked with man, herding, hunting, and guarding, and have therefore evolved a unique ability to pay close attention to human gestures and facial expressions. Cats have worked independently of man, going about their pest-controlling tasks alone and acting on their own initiative; their primary focus had to be on their surroundings, not on their owners.”

It can take between one and eight months for a cat to become comfortable in a new territory, which explains why residential moves are so difficult for them. Matt said, “Cats are a species that has a different focus from humans. Humans think of the world from a social perspective, while cats think of the world from an environment/territory perspective. They are as attached to physical location as we are to our social relationships. This is based on the natural history and genetics of cats, not choice.”

If a cat feels threatened by something or someone in its territory, it will urinate. Matt said, “Cats’ stress organ is their bladder, whereas ours and dogs [is] the digestive tract.”

Matt encourages owners to clicker train their cats in order to reduce stress. Building small, daily habits can reduce the impact of major stressors and changes in environment when they inevitably arise in the life of a pet.

Getting along with other cats:
It’s not unusual for female cats to have relationship issues with one another. Matt said, “This is due to the social structure of the species. Typically, the female cats have a territory that supplies their needs. Their territory will be near another female cat’s territory.” A female will mark her environment by scratching or using excrement. A male will wander through several female cats’ territories for hunting purposes. His territory encompasses a larger geographic location, but its primary purpose is for mating, not to supply his need for food and shelter.

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