Understanding the “Catness” of Cats

Both Predator and Prey

One reason that cats have such a complicated relationship with humans is that their telos is so different from ours. While most people know that cats are carnivores, in other words — animal eaters — what is less commonly understood is that cats are both predators and prey in their natural environment. While hunting (alone, as domestic cats don’t hunt in groups) for smaller mammals, birds and insects, cats also need todefend their hunting areas from other cats andtake care that they are not being hunted by larger carnivores (including primates). Even if they catch their prey, they are as vulnerable when eating as they are when eliminating, resting or sleeping. If cats sense a threat, they often try to climb to safety from predators. Because their prey is quite small (an adult cat needs about 10 mice a day to survive in the wild), they need to find, kill and eat something at least 10 times a day. Because of this nutritional strategy, cats do not appear to have developed the daily rhythms of wake and sleep cycles that many other species have simply because they may need to go from “sleep to slaughter” at an instant’s notice.

Our telos is different. In contrast to cats, we and most other common mammals developed in larger social groups to be able to bring down bigger game and to take advantage of the safety in numbers. As part of a group, many species developed the ability to “watch each other’s backs” at vulnerable times, which promoted the safety and survival of the group. These strengths resulted in different social communication strategies, with those of the group living animals like us generally being more complex and less scent-related than those of cats.


Over the next few columns, I will further expand on this idea of telos and try to explain how we can use our knowledge of it to help create a healthy, happy and comfortable environment for our cats.


Tony Buffington, DVM, MS, PhD Diplomate ACVN, is a Professor of Clinical Sciences and Adjunct Professor of Urology at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the vetstreet.com board. One of his primary areas of interest is the role of stress and disease in companion animals and humans. A frequent lecturer and author of numerous scientific publications, Dr. Buffington is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.

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