Cats, the most popular pet in America, are intelligent, mysterious creatures. But to the uninformed, cats can seem aloof, sometimes spiteful and even antisocial. But cat owners know differently. As pets, cats actually can be very social and affectionate with their humans, and they require care and attention just as dogs or other pets do.
Still, we can all benefit from a little insight into our pet cat’s psychology. If our cats could speak our language, here are five things they would want us to know.
I am a cat, not a small dog. And that is that.
It’s really that simple. Other than having four legs, a tail and fur like their canine counterparts, cats are very different animals from dogs, says Karen Becker, DVM. While cats and dogs may show similar behaviors, a cat may be communicating something very different than a dog:
- A wagging tail on a dog typically indicates friendliness, but a wagging (or whipping) tail on a cat suggests a potentially unpleasant or predatory interaction is about to occur.
- Lying with belly exposed is an invitation to rub a dog’s belly or a submissive greeting, but is a self-defense posture for a cat. This position allows a cat to have all four paws ready to react to a possible threat.
- A relaxed, friendly and confident cat holds their tail high. But when a dog holds their tail high, it tends to signal agitation and possibly aggression.
- Dogs are social, want to be with their pack and thrive on attention from the pack leader. Cats, on the other hand, are solitary creatures who are more attached to their territory than to another four-legged or two-legged animal.
There are also significant variations in their digestive systems and metabolisms that should affect how we feed and treat them:
- Cats have smaller, simpler stomachs and markedly shorter intestines compared with dogs. As a result, cats tend to consume smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day than dogs.
- Cats need more protein in their food than dogs, because they convert it to energy as well as use it to build and maintain body tissues. This protein-to-energy conversion process runs at a steady pace with little change up or down.
- Cats have limited ways to break down medications, so it’s important to use only those products prescribed or recommended by your veterinarian. Please talk with your veterinarian before giving any medication to your cat.
Must. Have. Meat!
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning their health depends on having meat in their daily diet. Not only do they require more protein than dogs and other pets, but they require taurine, an essential amino acid; arachidonic acid, an essential fatty acid; and preformed vitamin A — all of which must be obtained from meat.
Sure, my purring tells you I’m happy. But it also tells you other things.
Purring is one of the first sounds made by newborn kittens, who can purr by the time they’re 2 days old. Since kittens are blind at birth, the queen (mother cat) purrs to let her kittens know where to find her for nursing.
While purring can signal that our cat is content, comfortable and happy, it can also mean they are in pain, sick, stressed or nervous. According to International Cat Care, the purr of sick cats has a different frequency from the purr of healthy cats. Purring is thought to be soothing to cats (just as we find it comforting!) and may help calm an anxious or sick kitty.
So how do we tell if our cat is purring because they’re content and happy versus ill or stressed? We need to evaluate our cat’s body language and other behaviors, such as trying to hide, sitting in a hunched posture, eating normally or using the litter box. If a purring cat has a decreased appetite, isn’t using the litter box, is sitting in a hunched posture, or is hiding, they should be evaluated by a veterinarian.
Hey! My meowing means I’m talking to you!
Here’s a little-known fact about cats: Adult cats rarely meow to communicate with other cats. Only kittens meow in order to get their mother’s attention or to communicate with other cats. So if our cat is meowing, we need to pay attention — we’re being told something!
Interestingly, scientists have identified more than a dozen different meows, each with its own meaning. As cat owners know, cats can adapt their meows to manipulate our behavior. And when you live with a cat long enough, you’ll learn to distinguish between some of those meows.
Excessive meowing, however, can signal issues beyond our cat’s chattiness. More-than-normal meowing has been linked to health issues, including dementia in older cats, elevated thyroid activity (called hyperthyroidism) and high blood pressure (also known as hypertension). If you think your cat is meowing more than usual, you should have your veterinarian examine them to rule out the presence of an underlying medical concern.
Yes, I love to scratch. But I also need to scratch.
Cats don’t maliciously claw through the fabric of sofas and chairs or leave carpet threadbare. They’re just behaving like cats. According to International Cat Care, cats scratch items in their environment for several reasons:
- Loosen and remove the dead outer layer of their claws (called a claw husk)
- Mark their territory with visual cues and scent
- Stretch their bodies, especially their front legs and spines, so they’re in prime condition for hunting
Because scratching is a natural, instinctive behavior, it’s important that we provide appropriate scratching posts or other areas for our feline friends. When we fail to give cats an approved outlet for this necessary activity, our cats will find somewhere else to scratch — like our favorite couch.
Hopefully these five insights into our feline friends helps explain why our cats do the things they do and why veterinarians make some of the recommendations that they make. And with better understanding, we can improve the health and quality of life for our pet cats.