The Fundamentals of Feline Behavior, Part 1

A fundamental principle of observation maintains that we can’t recognize abnormal unless we know normal, and nowhere does this hold more true than in the area of feline behavior. Although we can sometimes get away with projecting human thoughts and emotions on dogs because of their social nature and lengthy period of domestication, we do so with cats at our peril. On the other hand, the behaviors that set cats apart can teach us a great deal about the evolution of behavior and the human-animal bond and that, in turn, can enhance the treatment process.

Quite the opposite of dogs, cats rank as our most recently domesticated species. In fact, some scientists maintain that cats don’t rank as domesticated at all. As proof of this, they point to the large population of feral cats which, according to some estimates, exceeds the number of owned animals in this country. Although many feral cats live in dumps or around dumpsters and trash cans where garbage and rodents provide a convenient food supply, millions of others live deep in the woods where they shun all human contact. So successfully do cats revert that they’ve triggered sometimes bitter debates regarding the role feral cats might play in decreased songbird and other wild animal populations.

For practitioners these still very strong ancestral ties mean that, when threatened, even the most seemingly domesticated cats can and do revert to wild behaviors specifically evolved to help them cope with stress. Consequently, a lot of “problem” feline behaviors actually reflect perfectly normal responses under those particular circumstances. Once we realize this, we can appreciate why removing the cause of the stress often proves a more efficient way of eliminating the problem than trying to change the cat’s behavior. Similarly, it explains why any protocol that doesn’t address these stress-inducing elements at best subjects the animal to a life of constant or recurrent treatment.

As if the idea that lovable Fluffy maintains at least as strong if not a stronger tie to her wild roots than to us weren’t disconcerting enough, cats also knock us off our pedestal as Exalted Domesticator of Animals. Much to the chagrin of those who like to claim that role, no historical evidence exists to indicate that cats did anything other than domesticate themselves. That is, they chose to move closer to humans, probably in response to the rodents attracted by human garbage and grain stores. Those humans who tolerated the cat’s presence would gain the benefits of this rodent control and the cats would gain a more energy-efficient food supply: a perfect example of interspecies cooperation. Once members of both species made that choice, a more intimate relationship developed and selective breeding occurred.

Unlike the development of early canine purebreds which reflected human desires for animals to perform certain functions, breeders of purebred felines have always focused on looks. Conceivably this occurred because the cat’s two strongest functions—predation and reproduction—-clashed with the human notion of what a “pet” of that size and shape should do. While Victorian parenting manuals urged parents to get their daughters cats to teach the little girls cleanliness and how to be good mothers, Lewis Carroll perfectly summed up the conflict between human fantasy and feline reality when he transformed Alice’s delicate and docile feline companion into the somewhat diabolical Cheshire Cat in Wonderland. And while many canine breeds proved their worth in field trials during the late 1800s, so vicious were the cats shown at those first cat shows in London that many attended just for the thrill of watching judges get attacked or fleeing themselves when the semi-wild creatures got loose in the hall. So despite the fact that the cat provides us with a wonderful opportunity to observe the physiological and behavioral effects of domestication first-hand, its questionable domestic status coupled with its self-domestication no doubt contributes its share to the ambivalent feelings that characterize the human-feline relationship

At this point, it bears mention that gaining a comprehensive view of feline behavior poses great challenges for several reasons. First, virtually all small wildcat populations are currently at risk for two quite opposite reasons. On the one hand, the behavioral needs of the wildest of the wild necessary to reproduce increasingly go unfulfilled thanks to habitat destruction and human encroachment. On the other, the less wild will mate with domestic animals and entire species become lost due to the process of hybridization. With fewer and fewer wild animals to study, scientists must increasingly turn to feral populations to learn about feline behavior. Second, the cat’s self-domesticated status means it possesses the potential to adapt wild behaviors to fulfill different needs. Although careful analysis of wild and feral behavior often reveals the true roots of these seemingly unique displays, without this knowledge one can easily get the impression that more and more feline pets are indulging in aberrant behaviors.

With that in mind, the best way to appreciate how cats fit (and don’t fit) into human households involves gaining an appreciation for their behaviors in the wild or feral state. Although we know nothing about the behavior of the domestic cat’s presumed ancestor, Felis libyca, we do know that the majority of small wildcats are nocturnal carnivores who serve as prey for other species. Once we recognize that, then we can see how its other behaviors evolved.

Common sense tells us that a small predator hunting in limited light at the same time it’s being hunted by others more likely will survive if it intimately knows its territory. In fact, some scientists speculate that the cat’s notorious curiosity represents truth rather than fiction; small wildcats who don’t pay attention to changes in their territories, such as tree limbs that fell in a recent storm or the scat of a potential predator, would pay with their lives for their lack of interest in their surroundings.

In addition to taking note of any changes on a regular basis, cats also need some method that enables them to negotiate their space in total darkness even while being pursued by a predator. Whereas we visually-oriented humans often depend on visual cues to accomplish this, like many mammals cats use scent. Secretion from scent glands on their feet marks a safe trail, whereas secretions from facial glands mark vertical obstacles along the path. Scent trails may serve as such inviolate beacons that an animal who swerves for some reason when laying down the original trail will swerve at that point in the trail every time from then on. Urine, stool, and claw marks served as both scent and visual warnings to other members of their own kind to stay out except during the breeding season.

Although scent marks function wonderfully in limited light, they also fade over time and thus need periodic replenishment. As noted previously, regular monitoring also must occur to detect and mark any changes. Because doing this takes time and energy, we can understand why evolution would favor those cats which maintained a territory just large enough to support themselves and, for queens, any young. Anything larger than that would require additional energy to establish, mark, and protect without yielding any corresponding benefits.

From this we can see how the cat’s solitary nature and its territoriality go hand-in-hand. Tolerating the presence of other cats except during mating and when raising young threatens the small wildcat’s survival on two fronts. First, any intruder would compete for a limited food supply. Second, the intruder’s scent would confuse or destroy the scent marks of the resident cat, leaving it extremely vulnerable to predators. Because neither cat would benefit from this, such encounters typically result in one cat driving out or killing the other. This is quite different from what occurs in social species in which individuals may, at most, claim only very small personal spaces with the bulk of the territory being shared. Thus their confrontations more commonly focus on establishing/protecting the mental space, i.e, rank, and the most energy-efficient way to accomplish this involves the use of ritualistic displays. While cats do engage in ritualistic displays to avoid all-out fights, the feline purpose is to get the other cat to flee the territory without fighting, not to establish rank.

Please note that the fact that all small cats are defined as solitary species does not mean that they are anti-social. As will be discussed later, cats can and do participate in extremely complex social interactions. However, these occur under specific conditions which involve the use of specific coping mechanisms. Barring the presence of those conditions or deprived of those mechanisms, the cat will opt for a solitary state.

Once a cat establishes its territory, it then turns its attention to finding food and water. Although cats will eat a wide variety of foods, their nocturnal carnivorous roots make small rodents the food of choice for many small wildcat species. Understanding how cats hunt can teach us a great deal about what stimulates their appetites whereas a lack of this information leads some to label cats “finicky eaters.” In reality, such lackluster responses may result because the offered food fails to meet the cat’s behavioral as well as nutritional needs.

Briefly, we can say that when hunting in limited light, the sound of the prey most commonly first alerts the cat to its presence, followed by its motion, then its scent, texture, and, finally, its taste. In daylight hunts, motion may take precedence over sound as the initiator of the hunt. If at any stage of this process the cat doesn’t receive sufficient stimulus, it will abort the hunt. So if a night-feeding mouse continues making enough noise, the cat will locate it (by processing sound data from each ear) and move closer. If the mouse moves, that will cause the cat to move closer still. If the mouse then freezes and distance or lack of air current makes it impossible for the cat to pick up the mouse’s scent, it will abort the hunt. On the other hand, if the cat detects the scent, it will move closer and pounce. The resistance of the prey, i.e, its texture, then stimulates the cat to kill the mouse and begin eating it. Once it begins eating, the taste of the prey stimulates it to keep doing so.

The amount of stimuli the cat receives at any stage of the predatory sequences is as important as the kind. It takes the least amount of stimulation to induce a cat to stalk and the most to get it to eat. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Because hunts typically end in failure approximately two thirds of the time, an animal which waits until hungry to hunt would lose on two counts. First, it might not catch anything immediately. Second, the cat’s energy-depleted state would decrease its hunting efficiency and make it even easier for prey to escape.

At the other end of the predatory sequence, the large amount of sensory input needed to induce the cat to actually eat its prey most likely serves as a form of quality control. Unlike social animals who live and often hunt with older, more experienced pack members which communicate any standards of food safety, solitary hunting cats are on their own and flunking the taste test could cost them their lives. Consider this anthropomorphic, albeit reasonable, analogy of the stimulus output vs. quality connection: a large trout lazily meanders up to a baited hook, takes it, then goes belly up beside the fisherman. Surely most people would think twice before eating a fish that put up so little fight. Enough animals share this aversion that a common anti-predator strategy used by prey animals involves playing dead.

For as much distance as many people like to put between pet cats and their predatory natures, much human-feline play mimics the predatory dance. Recall all those owners pulling or waving toys and consciously or subconsciously providing the necessary stimulus to get the cat to stalk, pounce upon, and bite/kill the toy. So predictably does this occur that it should come as no surprise why some cats swallow pieces of string or yarn if these are used as toys. Sometimes this may occur in the owner’s presence, but not always. In one case, the owner suddenly terminated a high stimulus game that had taken took the cat up to the “kill” phase when the phone rang. The sound and other stimulus associated with the call (including the owner dropping the string and quickly moving away from the cat toward the phone) evidently sufficed to stimulate the cat to eat the string. Needless to say, recommending that cat owners either avoid such forms of play or always tie one end of any string around their own wrists when playing with the cat serves as solid advice.

Because adding one’s genes to the species gene pool serves as the biological raison d’être, once cats establish their territories and master the skills necessary to feed themselves, their thoughts naturally turn to reproduction and raising their young. Next, we’ll discuss how cats accomplish this and then analyze how these various wild feline behaviors play out in human households and affect the treatment process.


Grier, James W. and Burk, Theodore. Biology of Animal Behavior. (Mosby, 1992)

Milani, Myrna. CatSmart. (Contemporary, 1998)

Pederson, Neils. Feline Husbandry. (American Veterinary Publications, 1991)

Turner, Dennis and Bateson, Patrick. The Domestic Cat: the biology of its behavior. (Cambridge University Press, 1988).