The Fundamentals of Feline Behavior, Part 2

Despite the fact that their solitary nature originally contributed to the small wildcats’ survival in an amazing array of environments, it does pose one major problem: How does one go about mating or raising young with such a mind set? As with so many of its behaviors, the cat goes about resolving these challenges in a unique and elegant manner.

Studies of feral cats indicate that it’s not uncommon for females to mate with up to eighteen to twenty males per day during the breeding season. Some of those males may just mount and hold the female, others may enter her but not ejaculate, and still others may complete the entire sex act. As far as why such x-rated sexual behavior should occur, some ethologists cite cats as the only orgasmic nonhuman domestic animal and, although others may disagree with this limited view, the fact that both female and male cats find sex pleasurable might explain why members of a normally solitary species would gather and form such complex social interactions on a seasonal basis. Others suggest that spontaneous ovulation in females may require more stimulation—both physical and hormonal/pheromonal—than one male can normally produce. Admittedly small wildcats might respond differently from feral ones, but such group sex does occur in certain species of solitary hares so the possibility isn’t without precedent.

For small wildcats and possibly domestic ones, this sexual heritage yields a good news/bad news phenomenon. On the one hand, the method serves to bring a large number of normally intolerant animals together and provides a mechanism that ensures the most fit genes for the offspring. On the other hand, the complexity of the mating process further undermines the survival of virtually all small wildcat species in the wild.

If something pleasurable about mating serves to keep the normally solitary cats sufficiently social to copulate, what keeps a normally solitary queen from killing her young? Here again, we see evidence of the exquisite elegance of feline behavior. Recall that the most efficient small wildcat establishes a territory just big enough to support itself. Therefore, as long as the cat remains in control of that food supply, i.e., no other cats threaten that food supply, peace will reign. In terms of queens with kittens, as long as the kittens nurse or the queen brings them food as she teaches them to hunt, no need exists for the kittens to hunt on their own. Because of this, they serve as no threat to her food supply. In addition to nursing, the queen also must teach her kittens everything they need to know to survive on their own; once weaned, there will be no supporting pack to guide them as occurs in social species. Consequently, we may say that nursing serves as critical a behavioral as a nutritional function because it maintains the queen in a teaching and the kittens in the learning mind set long enough to ensure the kittens’ survival on their own.

And, indeed, we can see evidence of the potent role nursing plays as a social mechanism in other studies of feral cats. When many cats congregate around a dependable, but fixed food supply (such as at a dump or in a barn with a reliable rodent population), queens may not wean their kittens until twelve to eighteen months of age, a delay that provides several distinct advantages. First, as mentioned above, nursing keeps queen and kitten and a more social frame of mind and this enables more cats to live peaceably in a limited amount of space. Second, lactating females don’t come into heat which both helps preserve the peace and limit the population. Third, the nursing kittens don’t become sexually mature which also provides peace-keeping as well as population control benefits. Fourth, the more complex the environment, the more a young cat needs to know to survive in it. Although young kittens in such environments may not require the sophisticated hunting skills of a forest predator to procure a meal, they do need far more in the way of social skills in order to survive. The longer the young cat nurses, the longer it remains in the learning mind set, the more it can learn.

As a queen begins teaching her kittens first to accept kill as a source of nourishment and then to hunt it on their own, both she and they also make the transition from social to solitary behavior. As the process continues, the queen resists requests to nurse more aggressively and the play among kittens becomes more aggressive, too. By the time weaning occurs, all are ready to resume or assume a solitary way of life. In the social dump or barn feral setting, queens may move from nursing to breeding capacity and weaned kittens may become sexually mature in a sufficiently short span that the overall social orientation of the group remains fairly intact.

Normal Feline Behaviors and the Treatment Process

Once we understand the fundamentals of feline behavior, some previously incomprehensible behaviors in domestic cats begin to make sense. The cat’s territorial and solitary nature practically guarantees that a cat will experience stress when subjected to the presence of other cats. Because the nocturnal cat depends on urine as its primary, most energy-efficient method to mark its space, and because strict house-cats may remain every bit as territorial as their wild and feral counterparts, it comes as no surprise that the urinary tract-related behavior/medical complex undermines the well-being of more cats than any other.

As more and more people opted to own more than one cat, the numbers of stress-related behavioral and medical problems increased proportionately. Further complicating matters, at least some of those problem pets were abandoned and now contribute to a feral cat population that, according to some surveys, exceeds the pet population in this country (the US). Consequently, in addition to needing to make their peace with any other cats in the household, more and more house pets must also make their peace with an increasing free-roaming feline population which marks the exterior of the resident cat’s home and otherwise aims sound, scent, and visual threats at the housebound cat on a daily basis.

The cat’s territorial, solitary, nocturnal nature also explains why some cats do better when kenneled near dogs or members of another species rather than with other cats. Whether threatened by the presence of other cats or the myriad of territorial violations that comprise routine veterinary care, hospitalization in and of itself may stress some cats enormously. Because of this, providing cats with small carriers, bags, or boxes in which they may hide in their cages may make them feel more comfortable. In fact, the author has seen so many benefits of associated with providing cats with a private space that she routinely recommends free-access crate-training for kittens. (See Vol. 28. No. 3, Feline Practice or “Free Access Crate-Training for Cats“) Regardless of the specific methods used, the goal remains to provide cats with a secure space they can claim as their own both within and away from the owner’s home.

Because establishing and protecting the territory takes precedence over eating and drinking, it makes sense to take the cat’s unique behavioral needs into account when hospitalizing these animals; otherwise one can’t be sure whether any anorexia is behavioral or medical in origin. Theoretically, one might say that various medical tests would determine whether physical or behavioral factors cause any loss of appetite, but that’s not necessarily true. Stress can produce so many changes in so many parameters (cortisol, thyroid, glucose, urinary pH) that test results may only muddy rather than clarify the waters. Fortunately, cats who don’t eat for behavioral reasons often provide helpful clues to their state of mind. They may try to cover their food with their bedding or shred paper in their cages and cover the food with that. Apparently, this is a variation of the caching or food-hiding behavior displayed by wild animals. Those who display it do so when they capture more food than they can eat at one time, or when circumstances make it impossible for them to eat safely. If severely threatened by their surroundings and bereft of the means to hide the food, some hospitalized animals may urinate or defecate on it.

Offering fresh food last thing at night may induce some cats who spurned food during the day to eat. This occurs because the environment in the average veterinary hospital tends to be much more peaceful during those times. By the same token, keeping lights out during the day unless absolutely necessary may comfort all animals, but especially may make naturally nocturnal ones feel more in control. Providing carriers or upside down boxes with holes cut in the side as private “dining rooms” for more timid cats may also induce them to eat. Sound machines that block out the many, often disconcerting sounds associated with a veterinary practice can promote relaxation and increase appetite and water consumption, too.

In addition to not eating because they feel insecure in their space, cats may not eat because the food doesn’t stimulate their appetites. Considering that appetite stimulation in the wild or feral animal occurs as a result of the sound, motion, odor, texture, and–finally!-taste input it receives from its prey, it comes as little surprise that the comparatively dull fare we feed them doesn’t stimulate some cats’ appetites under the best of circumstances, let alone when they’re sick plus trapped in a alien hospital environment. Mimicking the stalk and pounce sequence with its sound and motion and then offering the cat a textured food with a pungent odor may help stir the sluggish appetite in these cases. Many times owners develop feeding rituals that also serve to stimulate their pets’ appetite and their participation in the cat’s mealtime may mean the difference between the animal eating or not.

Another group of cats may display such strong territorial and solitary instincts that they won’t eat when hospitalized under any circumstances. In those cases, sending the cat home resolves the problem. If the cat requires medical attention, this may mean treating these animals on an out-patient or daycare basis.

The cat’s sexual behaviors undoubtedly lead to breeding problems. However, if artificial insemination and other technologies result in viable offspring. chances are any behavioral and bond considerations will be ignored because these considerations aren’t integrated into veterinary education. One problem that can affect mating cats-species identity confusion-may also occur in neutered animals. Like all domestic animals, cats position us in their lives relative to their own behavioral codes. Because solitary animals normally only associate with others when nursing or mating, it comes as no surprise that cats commonly relate to people as kittens to queen, queen to kittens, or mates. If an adult animal perceives its owner as its mate, this greatly reduces the probability that the animal will accept another cat in that capacity.

At the same time, such sexual orientations toward the owner may result in what the owner considers aggressive displays. In a typical situation, the owner is rhythmically stroking the cat from the head to tail while the cat purrs, arches its back, and otherwise shows signs of great enjoyment. Suddenly, the cat (almost always a male) will grip the owner’s hand with teeth and front claws. Essentially, the stroking has awakened shadows of sexual behavior and the cat responded as inadvertently behaviorally bidden by its owner.

This particular feline display serves as an excellent example of the role stimulus input plays in animal behavior. If the person so grabbed remains quiet and motionless, as does an experienced female so gripped by a male, the cat will merely hold on until it gets bored by the lack of response. Then it will disengage itself and go away. However, if the owner yells at or hits the cat, this increased sound and motion will drive the cat from the normal mating holds into the bite and rip predatory mode. Ironically, people who do this will claim the cat attacked them when in reality they’re the ones who precipitated the attack.

Aside from the cats who adopt a kitten-to-queen orientation toward their owners possibly setting themselves up for physically and behaviorally stressful co-dependent relationships, this orientation could very well lie at the root of wool-sucking. Although traditionally viewed as a medical problem or behavioral vice, it makes perfectly good sense given an understanding of normal feline behavior. Domestic cats receive three very potent cues to continue nursing. First, their evolutionary heritage tells them that, if they’re part of a social group, they should be nursing or mating. For the young kitten in a human household, logic says that assuming the kitten role would be the facilitated response. Second, nursing promotes the learning mind set and human environments may be quite complex compared to the one into which was a kitten was born. Third, unlike queens at weaning time, people remain a reliable source of food.

Originally, the behavior was identified primarily in Siamese and their derivatives and involved sucking on wool, hence the name. However, it now occurs in a wide variety of cats and these animals may suck cotton, other fabrics, other pets (teats or ears), as well as wool. Most cats outgrow the behavior between twelve and eighteen months of age providing the owner ignores it. (Owners who do this often also give the cat an owner- and cat-acceptable object of its own to suck to avoid damage to furnishings or clothing.) Some owners develop the ability to predict what events will trigger a sucking episode in their pets. One particularly insightful person noticed that her thumb-sucking son and blanket- sucking cat displayed the behaviors on many of the same occasions!

As far as wool-sucking resulting in the cat ingesting large amounts of fabric, this most commonly occurs when owners discipline the behavior. Because nursing constitutes a natural behavior for cats who view themselves as kittens relative their owner and the cats receive no natural cues from the environment or owner not to such, owner discipline can greatly stress these animals. Whereas an accepted sucking cat will knead, suck, and purr itself into a relaxed state and often sleep (which strongly suggests this activity releases calming neurochemicals), cats who have been squirted, yelled, or hit may become closet-suckers. These animals wait until alone then suck with a vengeance, evidently in an attempt to summon any relaxing biochemical changes before the owners return. Once again, a human response that results from a lack of knowledge turns a normal feline behavior into a vice that may ultimately cause the cat its life.

Throughout our veterinary education, we may hear the refrain “Cats aren’t little dogs” many times. This proves so true in the behavioral and bond arenas, that these differences should play a critical role in the diagnosis and treatment of any feline medical problem.


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).