Cat Questions Explained By Science

August 28, 2015

John Bradshaw, noted cat scientist and author of Cat Sense (Allen Lane, 2014) answers some questions relating to cat behaviors.

1. Why do cats like sitting in boxes?

"Why do cats love sitting in boxes so much?"

It’s all about security and getting a good vantage point. “When a cat rests it basically wants to feel protected, but it also needs to have some way of looking out,” says Bradshaw.

He’s actually conducted experiments at animal shelters to find out what kind of box cats that had recently come into the shelter liked best. Turns out upside-down boxes with holes cut in them are the most preferred. “The cat will go in and peer out for a period of time,” says Bradshaw. “When the cat gets more confident it may actually rest on top of the box, especially if the box is in a corner.”

Boxes are often new and temporary additions to your cat’s territory. “It’s their natural instinct to explore anything new, so they’ll jump straight in and settle down in it.”

2. Why is my cat obsessed with my feet?

9 Of Your Questions About Cats, Answered With Science

“Feet and hands are about the size of other cats,” says Bradshaw. “So you find that a lot of kittens will get fascinated by them, especially bare feet, and will pounce on them and attempt to play with them almost as if they were another cat.” Some cats grow out of this, and others get discouraged by their owners who don’t want to be constantly scratched up – but some keep the habit into adulthood.

Although it is a possibility that because of a cat’s developed sense of smell, they are attracted to the smell of feet, it is most likely the wriggliness.

3. Is my cat just looking for food or does she actually love me?

“Cats do love their owners,” says Bradshaw.

They show this in two ways: by rubbing their head on your leg (or sometimes a nearby chair leg), and by licking you. Both of those behaviors are things that cats do to other cats to show affection and reinforce a friendship – not because they want something.

4. Why does my cat run around at 4a.m.?

9 Of Your Questions About Cats, Answered With Science

The short answer is: because they want to.

“Naturally, they’re awake for a period of time during the most interesting time of day or night,” Bradshaw says. “Then they’ll nap for a couple of hours, then they’ll wake up again and do something, and so on.”

5. How and why does my cat purr?

"Where does a cat's purr come from and what is it telling me?"

There are three kinds of purr: one is very common, and the other two are rarer. They’re all created by muscles on a cat’s vocal cords that make them rattle together.

You’ll hear the most common purr when your cat is happily sitting on the sofa beside you, but the cat isn’t strictly telling you that it’s happy. “The emotion is secondary,” says Bradshaw. “They’re not telling you that they’re content, what they’re telling you is ‘Stop making sudden movements and pay attention to me.’”

In fact, that’s what the other two purrs – that have subtly different sounds – are asking of you too, just in different situations. One you’ll hear in the kitchen when your cat wants food (“a kind of urgent purr, it’s got a sort of whining noise in it, which some people find quite irritating”). The other is heard when a cat is in distress, and will be familiar to vets who tend to cats after road traffic accidents, for example. “Clearly that cat is in pain and its not happy at all,” says Bradshaw, “but again it’s the same basic message: It’s saying ‘Look after me.’”

6. What’s with the obsession over catnip?

9 Of Your Questions About Cats, Answered With Science

Catnip is a plant in the mint family with a smell that is apparently irresistible to cats. Scientists don’t know exactly how catnip works on cats, or why evolution has hung on to the version of the gene that makes them go crazy for it. Only around two thirds of domestic cats are affected, showing a combination of feeding behaviour and female sexual behaviour, and limited research shows that it affects big cats too.

It doesn’t appear to have any lasting benefits for any of them. “It probably was useful for some dim and distant ancestor of the cat,” says Bradshaw. “But now it’s just a quirk and nothing more than that really.”

7. Why does my cat tread up and down before settling down?

"Why does my cat tread up and down before settling on my lap?"

“This is the treading motion that kittens use to stimulate their mother’s milk,” says Bradshaw, and some cats never lose the idea that their owner is their mother, so they’ll tread on their owner even though they’re never going to extract any milk.

A second possible explanation is that your cat could be trying to mark you. “There are little scent glands between cats toes, and they do tread on things and scratch things to leave scent behind,” says Bradshaw.

But if they always do it just before sitting down, they’re probably just making a bed.

8. Why does my cat HATE some people but love others?

“Some cats are very fussy about who they go up to, and every cat has its own reasons,” says Bradshaw. “It’s probably something that happened to it when it was a kitten.” For example, if the cat was ill when a person who smelled a certain way was around when they were young, new people with a similar smell could get the cold shoulder, even years later.

The main thing is that chances are it’s not the person’s fault, and your cat doesn’tknow something you don’t about your friend it has mysteriously taken a dislike to.

9. Why does the neighbor’s cat stare at me but run away when I stare back?

"Why does the cat next door to me keep staring at me through the window at night, but run away when I stare back. Is it a spy?"

“Cats just stare out of the window all the time,” says Bradshaw. “I don’t think the cat is deliberately trying to stare anyone out.”

Cats interpret stares as a threat, and when two cats stare at each other, one of them will always back down. So the cat next door is probably interpreting the stare as you saying “I’m not a friendly animal”, and running away because of that.


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