They knead you

Kneading refers to a cat’s habit of using its front paws to massage a person’s chest or stomach. It goes back to kittenhood, when a nursing kitten uses its tiny paws to massage its mother’s udder while sucking. Kneading is inevitably accompanied by purring, and both adults and kittens are clearly in cat heaven while kneading.

Some cat owners love this evidence that cats can pet their owners as well as be petted. On the other hand, kneading can be downright painful to people, because a cat’s claws are definitely out while kneading. Owners of declawed cats (including the author) find kneading to be a perfectly painless and delightful aspect of cat ownership.

There’s a name for it: “bunting”

There’s a fabric called “bunting,” and you can “bunt” a baseball. Likewise, your cat will “bunt” you and your furniture as part of a familiar habit: rubbing the side of his head against a person or an object.

This isn’t just affection; the cat is actually leaving behind some glandular secretions from his face as a kind of “I was here” signal to himself and other cats. We can be thankful that this form of scent marking is practiced on us instead of the much more obnoxious spraying of urine.

Mad dashes

It amuses us as much as it mystifies us: for no apparent reason a cat suddenly makes a mad dash through the house. Many cat owners claim cats do so after using the litter box, perhaps to express a sense of relief and release. Conversely, some do it right after eating.

But often the cat’s mad dash is connected to no other event. Experts in animal behavior suggest that running fits might relieve tension, but tension doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for many cats. Perhaps the best and most satisfying explanation is that it just feels really good to run and frolic, even if it’s just for a few seconds.

The “I see you” call

Cats vary greatly in their “talkativeness,” but most of them will give an “acknowledgment” call to people with whom they are familiar. This is a very short, soft “meow” uttered when, for example, you walk through a room where the cat is sitting.

The acknowledgment call isn’t urgent or pleading, and you won’t hear it if you’ve just walked into the house after being gone for two weeks. Cat owners find it to be a pleasant part of owning a cat, for it seems to be the cat’s way of communicating, “Yes, I see you,” rather than ignoring the person.

Allogrooming and autogrooming

Yes, we all know that cats are fanatical groomers (that is, lickers) of themselves, but every cat owner also knows that a cat will also groom his owner, and other cats as well.

Naturally there are technical terms to employ here: autogrooming refers (of course) to the cat’s grooming of himself, while allogrooming refers to licking other cats or humans. The cat spends less time and attention on you than on himself for the obvious reason: he assumes (correctly or not) that you are responsible for keeping yourself clean.

So much primp time

If a human spent one-third of his waking hours on grooming, you would call that person vain and self-obsessed (unless the person was you, of course). But it is estimated that cats do indeed spend about one-third of their waking hours in grooming, and no cat owner would argue with that.

Covering their traces

The fact that cats use their litter boxes (usually) is one of their finer traits. Owners assume that covering up their wastes is another sign of cats’ fabled cleanliness. It is, in part, but it’s also part of their wild genes: by covering up their traces they are acting in the role of wild animals who do not want to leave anything behind that will lead to their being trailed.

High as a cat

If you’ve ever given your cat the herb known as catnip, you know how much pleasure it gives. The cat rubs his face in it, licks it, then stretches, rolls around on the floor and in general gives the impression of being in extreme ecstasy. If you’ve ever seen a female cat in heat, you know that a “catnip high” appears very similar to a “heat high.”

However, these two highs aren’t quite the same; plus, male cats respond to catnip exactly as females do. Catnip is available in stores everywhere, and lots of people grow their own. As with drugs and alcohol for humans, catnip can lose its zip if given too often to your cat.

The urine-catnip common bond

To the human nose, catnip has only a faint smell, but obviously cats respond to it in a flamboyant way. Curiously, cats can also get a high by sniffing a concentrated extract of tomcat urine, which humans respond to in quite a different way.

It appears that the chemical compound nepetalactone, which is the pleasure-inducing ingredient in catnip, is similar to something found in tomcat urine. (Here’s a hint: If you want to please your cat—and yourself—stick with catnip and avoid the urine extract.)

Privacy, please

Dogs are notoriously “public” animals, perfectly willing to urinate and defecate in a busy area with lots of people observing. Cats are more reserved, and while they don’t object to being watched, they do object to having their litter box placed in a high-traffic area.

One way they show their displeasure with this situation is that they cease to use the box and find their own spot somewhere else in the home. A litter box, to satisfy both the cat and the owner, ought to be in a quiet, low-traffic zone in the home.

Love your smell

Whether cats can truly love in the human sense has been endlessly debated. Those of us who truly love cats look at it this way: they probably love as much as they are capable, which is all we can expect of any being.

At any rate, they do seem fond of the smell of those they know well, which explains why a cat can be found sleeping on something that has your smell on it—not only the bed, but a sock, shirt, sweater, etc. Some, in fact, like sleeping on a pile of the owner’s dirty laundry. You might not be aware of your distinctive scent on the object, but your pet certainly is.

The “leave no traces” phenomenon

Dogs are lovable but klutzy, and a dog doesn’t give a thought to what he might be knocking over with a wagging tail. Not so the cat. Your cat may occasionally knock over a vase or other household item, but such events are rare because cats are fastidious about not disturbing their environments. (This doesn’t apply to prey or potential prey, obviously.)

A cat walking across a desk, for example, plants his feet carefully, so as to leave things much the way he found them. This is unnecessary behavior for house pets, of course, but it’s the instinct of their wild ancestors, always trying to keep themselves hidden from both potential prey and potential aggressors.

Mice aren’t stupid

It has been estimated that a young healthy cat could easily kill a thousand mice in a year. Most homeowners will be happy to know that their own houses are unlikely to have a thousand mice in a year, or in ten years.

So in short, if you do own a cat, you probably won’t have mice around, or not for long. Rodents are not stupid, and they will tend to avoid a house where a cat lives. Unlike the cartoons, where the wily mice always get the better of the cat, in real life rodents either get eaten or move on to a catless home.

All-natural extermination

Here in the sanitized twenty-first century we like to think that the household woes of bygone days—including rodents—no longer bother us. But it isn’t so, as proved by the thriving business of pest control companies, plus the huge sales of traps and poisons.

Rodents were around before humans were, and though we live in a high-tech world, low-tech rodents are still a serious problem. Homes and businesses too might be wise to “go natural” and fall back on the original pest-control system, cats. In fact, factories and other businesses find that traps and poisons aren’t always the best solutions, since rodents can learn to avoid them.

The sound of the sack

Almost all cats are fascinated by the sound of a paper bag, and every cat owner has probably witnessed the familiar scene of bringing home something from the store and watching the cat turn the bag into a toy.

The featherweight plastic sacks that have now largely replaced paper bags don’t seem to be quite as much fun for cats, but, whether paper or plastic, bags that make some kind of rustling or crackling noise do hold some fascination. (Aside from the sound, bags are fun places to hide in.) For owners who want to keep their pet supplied with a noisy sack at all times, there is the Krinkle Sack, a machine-washable item that provides the right sound and lasts much longer than the usual throwaway store sack.

Snow as prey

Kittens do it, and so do some adult cats: swat or bite at falling snowflakes. To a cat, each falling snowflake is a potential toy—or to be more accurate, a potential prey to play with before “killing.”

Most cats seem to like snow (or at least a few minutes of it), and as long as it isn’t too terribly cold an outdoor cat will go about its normal business with snow on the ground. Some find their usual outdoor “latrines” covered with snow, forcing them to go elsewhere temporarily, but some cats will forge right on through snow, insisting on using the same old spot even if it does have an inch of snow over it.

Ah, the taste of urine

Like many animals, cats use their urine to mark their territory, and this is especially so of unneutered tomcats. The flip side of this habit is that cats habitually sniff about to determine if another cat has urinated in the vicinity.

When another cat’s urine has been detected by smell, the cat will then lick up the urine, then move the tip of the tongue against the upper palate. Yes, it does sound disgusting, but the reason he does this is that above the hard palate is the vomeronasal organ, a sense organ that (probably) can tell the cat the sex of the cat who produced the urine. Some scientists consider this organ to be the source of a cat’s sixth sense.

Yes, cats do it too

Dogs are notorious for sniffing each other’s rear ends (and, embarrassingly, the rear ends or crotches of human beings also). We’d like to be able to report that cats aren’t so crude, but in fact they are, though less showy about it than dogs are.

Two cats new to each other will, assuming they don’t fight, at some point get around to sniffing each other around the anal region, probably cautiously circling a few times before the actual sniffing takes place. (We can be thankful that some of these behaviors are not practiced by their human owners.)

Drinking from the toilet

We associate this habit with dogs, but cats love to do it, too. Why, especially if the cat has a perfectly good water dish available? No one knows for sure, except that we can assume these very independent creatures like to seek out their own watering places, just as they would in the wild.

A cat will drink not only from your toilet but from a birdbath, a fish bowl, a gutter or anything else with water in it, and cats aren’t fussy about whether the water is fresh or stagnant. The toilet-drinking habit seems disgusting, but remind yourself that your cat would not drink from the toilet if it contained anything besides water.

Do they know their names?

Dogs certainly do, but do cats? The answer is yes, but whether they choose to come to you when called is another matter. Even the most loving cat still retains his streak of independence. A tip for teaching the cat his name: call out the name just before you feed him, so that he comes to associate the sound with coming to a full dish. In time he will connect his name not only with the food but also with the act of coming to you.

Shedding, molting, whatever

Technically, it’s called molting, but owners usually just speak of shedding, and it’s one of the less pleasant aspects of cat ownership. Cats living in the wild molt hair in the spring, leaving them with a shorter (and cooler) coat for the summer.

But most house cats live in an environment that is artificially lit, heated, and cooled, so your cat is most likely to shed to some extent year round. (An analogy: a cat in the wild is like a deciduous tree, dropping old leaves at one time in the fall, but your house pet is like an evergreen, dropping leaves or needles a few at a time no matter the season.)

Love that wool

This isn’t as common as other cat problems, but you’ll see it occasionally among Burmese and Siamese cats: the cat will chew on cloth, sometimes creating large holes. They seem to prefer wool, which is why vets refer to “wool chewing” and “wool sucking,” but some cats will chew on other fabrics as well.

No one knows exactly why they do it, though it might be related to a craving for fiber in the diet. It isn’t easily solved, though some people work around it by giving the cat an old wool sock or glove to chew on.

Wetting the tires

You may have seen dogs urinating on car tires, but did you know that tomcats do it too? As with dogs, unneutered tomcats who do this are marking their territory (and, like dogs, don’t understand that the “marked car” isn’t going to stay in one place).

The three marking methods

In marking their territories, cats use three methods, one related to sight, the others related to smell. To provide visual evidence of “This is mine!” cats scratch. (And you thought they were just sharpening their claws.)

To provide olfactory evidence, they rub objects with their muzzles, leaving glandular secretions that humans can’t smell but that are picked up by other cats. And even more noticeable olfactory evidence results from spraying urine—unneutered toms are the worst (and most malodorous) perpetrators.

Sampling the vegetation

Cats are carnivores, with no interest in vegetable food, and yet they will occasionally chew on plants. People watched his cat roam in the yard, which contains several poisonous plants, including dieffenbachia and allamanda. Happily, his cat has sniffed at these but never bitten into them.

In fact, outdoor cats very rarely chew on poisonous plants, but sometimes bored indoor cats do bite into houseplants, and some of the common ones—dieffenbachia and philodendron, for example—are poisonous. While few cats are ever poisoned this way, it might give you peace of mind to ask your vet for a list of poisonous shrubs and houseplants, plus information on emergency treatment.

“Shut up!” just doesn’t work

If a cat’s meowing is getting on your nerves, here’s one thing that won’t work: telling him to stop. Cats respond to sound with more sound. By telling a meowing cat, “Stop!” or “Shut up!” you are making sure that the “conversation” continues.

The only way to silence him is give him what he wants—food, water, attention or an open door. (On the other hand, if it’s a female cat caterwauling because she is in heat, you won’t be able to give her what she wants.)

Blow equals hiss

Cats really don’t like having air blown at them, particularly in their faces. In fact, if your cat is getting too rough while playing with you, blowing in his face is a good way to get him to back off. Why, since a puff of air is harmless? Apparently cats associate blowing with hissing—their own sign to the world that a serious threat is near.

If you are close to a hissing cat, you will experience not only the distinctive sound, but also a jet of air being expelled from the cat. So, when you blow air at your cat, you are (so the cat believes) hissing at him, and he will respond accordingly.

The squirt gun technique

Many cat owners swear by the use of water pistols in training cats. Here’s how it works: Keep a water pistol filled with water in a convenient place in your home, and when you catch the cat doing something he shouldn’t be doing, give him a squirt of water.

It seems more effective than physically hitting the cat with your hand, since the cat doesn’t seem to associate the squirt of water with you. He only knows that when he does a certain thing—urinate on the rug, bite your heels, claw the drapes—he gets spritzed with water, which he doesn’t like. It doesn’t work with all cats in every situation, but it is worth a try.

The ketone “No”

The Hartz Mountain Corporation is a major marketer of pet products, and one of their products has the catchy brand name No. It is essentially an aerosol spray containing chemical compounds known as ketones.

The human nose can barely smell ketones, and we find the smell to be slightly sweet. But to the extremely sensitive snoots of both cats and dogs, ketones are highly offensive. No can be sprayed on furniture, rugs or anything else that an owner wants the pet to avoid.

Incidentally, ketones are present in the breath of people who are in the advanced stages of diabetes, which explains why it was observed long ago that cats seem to avoid people who are seriously sick from diabetes.

The itch to scratch

Why do they scratch furniture and drapes? The main reason seems to be to loosen the dead layers of cells on the claws, but scratching is also a way of marking territory. Cats also learn that it gets their owner’s attention (definitely!), and scratching may just be a way of releasing built-up energy.

Whatever the reason for it, scratching is one of the least attractive cat habits, and the best solution (other than declawing) is to make a scratching post available to the cat. Some cats use them, others never do, but the best way to ensure that the post gets used is to introduce it while a cat is still a kitten.

Also, a kitten that has seen his mother use a scratching post is likely to use one, too. It’s worth noting that a scratching post needs to be in the center of things, not tucked away in a corner, since cats definitely prefer that their “graffiti” be easily seen.

To declaw, or not to declaw?

Many cat owners have strong opinions about the subject of declawing. For people who love their cats but who want to preserve their upholstery, drapes, and the like, declawing seems like the ideal solution to the age-old problem of clawing.

You take your cat to the vet, and when you bring him home in a couple of days, no more shredded furniture. The cat never understands that he is missing his claws, and owners get a kick out of seeing the pet go through the motions of clawing a chair or drape when in fact no damage is being done.

... and the other side of de-

Opponents of declawing state an obvious fact: if a declawed cat gets loose and is confronted with a dog (or a cat who has claws), he is practically defenseless. Vets who declaw cats strongly recommend to owners that the cats never be allowed to roam outside, since the outside world is an especially dangerous place for a declawed animal.

Owning a declawed cat does require some extra care and caution, but most people who choose declawing claim it is more than compensated for by the absence of shredded furniture.

Incidentally, many vets refuse to perform declawing on the back paws. Cats use their back claws to scratch themselves, and those back claws can help the cat climb a tree if he is being pursued by another animal.

Surefooted as a goat—or cat

“Surefooted as a goat” is an old cliché, but “surefooted as a cat” would be just as accurate, for cats have an extraordinary sense of balance, enabling them to walk on narrow ledges, tree branches, and so on. (They have an obvious advantage over goats: claws to help steady themselves.)

As it is in humans, balance is connected to the inner ear. The cat’s inner ear has an organ called the vestibular apparatus, which, working in conjunction with the eyes, gives the cat a perfect sense of his location in space. With the smallest movement, he will act reflexively to balance himself once again.

The belly problem

Almost every cat owner has experienced this: your cat is lying in your lap or beside you, you try to rub his belly, and he begins clawing you vigorously with his back feet. (And yes, sometimes it hurts—and bleeds.) Don’t blame the cat.

Nature (meaning instinct) has taken hold, and the cat is protecting his most vulnerable spot, his belly. A cat has to learn to relax enough to let his belly be rubbed, and even in the most trusting of lap cats, the old instinct still tends to kick in (literally). Consider yourself lucky if your pet is so secure with you that you can stroke his belly with impunity.

Bite, scratch—then lick

Here’s another familiar situation of instinct kicking in: you are stroking your cat with your hand, he seems to be enjoying it thoroughly, then suddenly he bites or scratches that hand—then stops and licks the same hand he just bit. Is your cat confused? In a way, yes. A cat has to learn to let a human being stroke him, for the natural instinct would be to regard stroking as threatening.

Nature programs the cat to bite or scratch the hand, then run. So instinct goes head to head with the learned behavior of relaxing under a human touch. When a cat bites or scratches and then licks your hand, he is very suddenly doing a switch from instinct-led wildcat to taught-to-be-relaxed-while-touched house cat.

Call the fire department!

It’s an old cliché, but like most clichés, it’s based on truth: cats easily climb up a tree but often can’t climb down. Hence we have all the old jokes about calling the fire department to get the pitifully meowing cat down from the tree. Why can’t they climb down by themselves? After all, squirrels do it with ease.

The problem with climbing down is that cats, like squirrels, want to do it headfirst, in order to see what’s ahead of it. But while a squirrel’s claws are perfect for moving headfirst down a tree trunk, a cat’s aren’t. The cat wants to go down headfirst, senses he can’t, so stays where he is, and makes a lot of noise until rescued.

Lone wolf cats

“Lone wolf” is actually a misnomer, because wolves are social animals that live in packs. Ditto for dogs, which are descended from wolves. But cats, of course, are basically solitary animals, and this is true not only of house cats but of all wild cats as well.

The one notable exception: lions, which live in groups known as prides. For all other cats, single is the name of the game, and male and female come together strictly for mating.

Harness, not collars

Cats and collars go together, but not cats, collars, and leashes. Unlike dogs, cats simply can’t accept the notion of being led on a leash, and tugging on a leash attached to a collar is (in the cat’s view) like hanging him in a noose.

If you have any hope of ever getting a cat to walk on a leash (and many cats never will), the only hope is the use of a harness, not a collar. A good flexible harness fits around the cat’s front legs and torso and, when snapped to a leash, is much less threatening than a leash fastened to a collar.

Too dumb, or just indifferent?

“Cats never learn their own name.” Ah, but they do, especially if it is short (only one or two syllables) and you repeat it often. What frustrates many people is that a cat will not come to you just because you call his name.

He might, or he might remain totally indifferent to you, coming out only when he chooses. Unpredictability and stupidity are not the same thing. The fact is, if you want an animal that will come to you every time you call, you would do better with a dog than a cat.

The W. C. Fields syndrome

“Cats hate kids.” That’s about as true as the statement “W. C. Fields hated kids.” He didn’t—but he despised obnoxious ones. Cats don’t like noise or unpredictability, and both seem to accompany children.

But cats will happily allow themselves to be stroked and handled by quieter kids, and will gladly play with a person dangling a string, whatever the person’s age. If you have children in the home and there is a lot of noise and confusion, owning a cat isn’t impossible, but the poor cat may wish he were somewhere else.

Enough play already

A dog, especially a young one, will romp and play with an owner as long as the owner’s energy holds out. Not so the cat. The cat’s energy seems to come in short bursts, and after a few minutes of tearing around the house, chasing a toy or whatever, something inside the cat whispers, “Playtime’s over, let’s nap!”

The cat who has reached his “play limit” may start moving his tail in agitation, signaling to his owner, “Give me some space, OK?” A cat simply is not a “party animal,” for his inner batteries have a short life and need to be recharged often with withdrawal and sleep.

ESP looks suspicious

Cats are mysterious, which fascinates cat lovers but puzzles (and sometimes angers) everyone else. Cats may stare intently at nothing, make mad dashes through the house for no apparent reason or otherwise appear to be responding to some unseen phenomenon.

The fact is, a cat is not responding to “nothing,” but to something he can see, hear or smell, something that our human senses are not attuned to. No extrasensory perception (ESP) is involved, merely more-sensitive-than-human perception, which also figures into cats’ mysterious sensing of earthquakes coming.

In a prescientific age, a lot of people tended to assume that an animal with such mysterious behavior and powers was in cahoots with Satan and the powers of evil.


You may have seen one of the movie versions of The Incredible Journey, about the cat and two dogs who somehow manage to track down their owners hundreds of miles away.

Truth is as amazing as fiction, and there are numerous stories of cats locating their owners far away—or, conversely, finding their way back home after being displaced. The stories are legion: a man who moved from New York to California gave his cat to friends in New York before moving—and, five months later, the cat showed up at his home in California.

Scientists refer to the ability as psi-trailing, and they are as amazed as we laymen are at cats’ ability to find their way around, since apparently they do not rely on sights and sounds as humans would. (Let’s also admit that many humans seem to possess an uncanny sense of direction.)

Cat seismologists

Seismologists are scientists who use many sophisticated instruments to study and try to predict earthquakes. It appears that their instruments are not quite as sophisticated as cats, for there are numerous stories of cats acting frantically and agitatedly shortly before an earthquake occurred.

As the story goes, in China in 1975 seismologists ordered the evacuation of the city of Haicheng based on their observations of cats. The city was evacuated, and the quake hit within a day.

The damage was enormous, of course, but because of the evacuation, many lives were saved. How did the cats “know” a quake was coming? We can only assume they are more sensitive to earth vibrations than are humans—or human technology.

Napoleon the weathercat

Let’s face it: in spite of all the technological advances in weather forecasting, your local weather person isn’t always right. That was even more true a generation ago, pre-Doppler. In the 1930s, a woman in Baltimore found that her cat, Napoleon, was a better predictor than the local forecasters.

The woman noted that the cat would lie on the floor with his head tucked between his extended front legs as a sign that rain was coming. He did so in 1930 at a time when the local forecasters were sure of an extended drought. Napoleon proved to be correct, and he so dazzled the locals that his “forecasts” were made public until his death in 1936.

Tornado predictors?

Those of us who have lived through tornadoes know that they are the most unpredictable weather phenomenon, and professional meteorologists would agree. Unlike hurricanes, tornadoes are “sneak attacks,” appearing suddenly, lifting and touching down with no rhyme or reason.

So how is it possible that cats sometimes seem to know a tornado is coming? There are several stories about mother cats moving their kittens out of a house or barn hours or even days before a tornado destroyed the site. Sheer coincidence, or do cats have a “storm sensor” that we humans do not possess?

Air raid predictors

England, and London in particular, had to endure a lot of German bombs during World War II, so Londoners grew accustomed to the sirens that warned of an imminent bombing. Some Londoners still recall that their cats would become frantic and seek out a hiding place—before the sirens even sounded. How did they know? Vibrations in the air that humans—and human radar—could not sense?

City vs. country

Scientifically, all house cats are grouped into a single species, Felis catus, but aside from the many differences among the breeds, there are also behavioral differences based on location. Curiously, some of these location-based differences correspond to differences among humans.

For example, it’s an old stereotype (and a true one) that country folk are more likely to “live by the sun,” being active during the day and sleeping at night, while urban dwellers are more likely to stay up late and, at times, “party till dawn.” This seems also to be true of cats. Farm cats do most of their sleeping at night and most of their hunting, feeding and grooming during the day, whereas city cats are most active from dusk until dawn.

Say “crepuscular”

Most people assume that cats are night creatures, and certainly their amazing eyes make them suited for night activity. But the fact is, although your cat might be active at night, he is not active all night, and in the middle of the night he is as likely to be asleep as you are.

No matter how domesticated your cat is, he retains hunter genes, which tell the cat that the best hunting time is around dusk and dawn. Cats are crepuscular—most active at twilight—and least active in the middle of either day or night.

To sleep, perchance to dream

Dog owners know that dogs dream, as evidenced by their occasional twitching and whimpering while asleep. Do cats dream? Most definitely. During deep sleep, a cat’s eyes move rapidly at times, even though the eyelids are shut.

The scientists refer to this as “rapid eye movement,” or REM, and deep sleep is often called REM sleep. While in REM sleep, cats may move their paws and claws, twitch their whiskers, change their posture and make sounds—in short, show that they are responding to something going on inside their heads, not outside.
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