Cat Sense: How Our Actions Affect Feline Behavior

'Cat Sense' by John Bradshaw
Basic Books

The domestic cat started as an animal that was solitary, territorial, and loved to roam and hunt. Now we want them to stay at home and live in close quarters with whomever we choose to be part of their family.

In his book Cat Sense, John Bradshaw says cats have adapted surprisingly well, but we could help them out a lot by understanding them better. We talked to him about what's behind some elements of cat behavior that we've all noticed, as well as some ways to help them fit into our lives more seamlessly.

Cats and Play

Q: If we keep cats indoors where they can't roam and hunt, they need to have something else to do. You've done research about how cats play. What's important to a cat about a toy?

A: By examining the things that cats like to play with, we came to the conclusion that what's going on in their heads is about hunting. The things they like to play with resemble mice or small birds. [Toys] don't have to be mouse-shaped — some of the toys were shaped like a hairy spider, and although some owners may find them a little bit repellent, they seemed to work very well as far as the cats were concerned. But they do need to be that kind of size.

Cats play in a way that uses all the same things they do when they're hunting — they bite, they claw, they clutch the toy to their belly, they try to bite its neck if they can find something on the toy that reminds them of a neck.

They also play more intensively when they're hungry, just before mealtime, than afterwards. Once they've eaten, they tend to go to sleep and aren't interested in toys. If they were playing, in the sense that a human child would play, it would be the other way around. Children don't play very intensively when they're hungry, and they will play contentedly after they've eaten.

Q: Your research also showed that they lose interest in a toy fairly quickly, which is something that can discourage cat owners.

A: We think that is also connected with hunting. If you're hunting something and it's not changing in any way, either it's not alive or it's quite good at resisting your attack, so the best thing to do at that point is to give up.

Q: So it's no use to just toss a bunch of toys around the house and leave them there.

A: What we've tried with some success with indoor cats is to keep a boxful of toys away from the cats and only allow them access to two or three of them on any particular day.

And the other thing that we've done a lot of work on that is obvious to people who love cats is that they love movement. Their eyes are wired to the brain in a different way, so they are much, much more sensitive to movement in the periphery of their vision.

We think it's an adaptation for hunting. They might be looking in slightly the wrong direction when a mouse is hiding, and they're able to pick up the slightest movement that would give that mouse away. That is why a hard plastic ball that makes noise popping across the floor will really interest cats. The sound and unpredictable movements are things that really turn cats on and get them interested. It's why in the fall many cats will play with dead leaves.

It's not the leaves that are exciting in themselves — it's the way they move in the wind that gets the cats going.

You, the owner, can simulate the movement of prey — moving the toy around and getting the cat interested in it, and it's just a fun thing to do with your cat.

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