Understanding The Science Behind Cat Behavior

Dr. Anne Symonds thinks cats are misunderstood. She was invited by the Asheville Museum of Science to tell those in attendance how and why. Symonds prefaced her presentation with a few comments about cat owners.

“Fifty percent of human companions that have cats did not really seek out a cat. ‘It just sort of showed up, or a friend moved away and I adopted their cat,’ they say.” Many stray cats have actually owned cats that just left, wandered ten miles from their house, and never returned. 

“Most of the time before people get a dog there is a lot of research involved. They seek information and are invested in their pet. Sixty-nine percent did not even pay any money for their cat. There are not a lot of resources available for providing a healthy emotional life for cats, and much feline behavior is taken out of context. Many behavioral problems in cats are a sign of an underlying medical issue. The YouTube videos you see may be funny, but sometimes I cringe because I know that cat is not in an emotionally good state of mind.”

Symonds said although she sees new scientific information about dogs, she sees little about cats, and a lot of people with cats are unreceptive to what new information does reveal. “Even though it’s the most popular pet in the United States, I think many people have a negative perception of cats. Over the past five to seven years, for the first time in history, there are more cats than dogs in the U.S.”

But Symonds said the seven most common adjectives used to describe cats by most people include: “sneaky, aloof, quiet, mysterious, hunter, crazy and psycho,” and the most curiously encountered names for cats include: “Dammit, Psycho Cat, Hellbender, Hate You, Neurosis, Devil, Evil, Satin, Horror, and Terror.” Symonds maintains that the media often colors the public’s perception of cats in an unfair way. Popular television shows include “Dog Whisperer,” and “Cat From Hell.” “That’s not helpful,” she said.

Seventy-nine percent of cat owners are women. “Is it really many to own a cat? Some say the cats like women’s voices better because they’re higher pitched, so maybe the men who own cats have been with women who own cats first.” In marketing, canine themes in apparel and toys for boys are as ubiquitous as cats and the color pink are for girls.

Cats have contradicting personalities, they can easily become reactive and over stimulated. “With their wide range of behaviors, are they two sides of the same coin like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Cats are one of the only species that are both predatory and prey. They have to flip on a dime because on one hand they have to look out so as not to be eaten, and on the other to keep looking for something to eat,” Symonds said.

Our domestic cat comes to us from North Africa where its completely recognizable progenitor continues to reside in the wild. It first appeared about 10,000 years ago and has been domesticated over the past 2,000 to 4,000 years. “Cats have a minimal diversity from their phenotype. They have not been bred like dogs for form and function.” Dogs, which come to us from lupine stock (wolves), have been domesticated for 30,000 years. 

Unlike cats, dogs hunt in packs and in prehistoric times hunted along with humans. “Maybe that’s why there is a generally stronger bond between people and dogs,” Symonds posited.

Cats were worshipped in ancient Egypt where they were admired because they were thought to be nocturnal. Mummified people were entombed with their beloved mummified cats. Fast-forward to the Middle Ages, and cats were vilified for their association with rats and the fleas that spread the dreaded bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death.

While cats and humans enjoy a mutualistic relationship, dogs have a symbiotic relationship with people. “That means dogs helped men for survival. Cats benefited from being around us by feasting on rats and mice from our stored grain reserves. Really the only behavior the cats needed to procreate was to understand that it’s okay to be close to humans—not by them, not on them—only close to them.”

In a behavior called allogrooming, cats interact with each other by licking and rubbing up against the other’s head, ears, chin, and neck. “For the most part this is where you should pet cats because they can take care of their hind quarters themselves. Giving cats choice and control is really important. To properly greet cats, you wait for them to come to you.” Generally, cats do not transfer feelings and loyalties meant for their own kind. “That doesn’t mean that your cat can’t love you or like you. It just means they don’t look to you for safety and security, as do dogs and human children.”     

If resources are plentiful cats will congregate, but except for lions they’re always solitary hunters. As such, “should you eat in the same kitchen with your other housemates?” Symonds rhetorically queries. “No, they’re not social eaters. You can tell by their body language that there’s a lot of tension around feeding time.”      

Cats are asocial, not antisocial. They can happily coexist without belonging to a social group, but they do sometimes form social groups. “If you have multiple cats it’s interesting to figure out how many, if any, are in the same social group. That means if they groom each other, or tail wrap, or sit next to each other touching in a good way, then they’re in a social group. At one time I had four cats without a single social group among them,” Symonds said.

Cats have a maternalistic society, and studies show that cats living in a barn or outdoor environment will help a mother cat deliver kittens. “So if you ever want to get cats that have the best chance of forming a lifelong social group, get a mom and two baby girls.” Just because they’re not together all the time doesn’t mean they’re not in the same social group. “When you’re in the same social group it’s like you’re compatible family members, and when you’re not in the same social group it’s like you’re incompatible roommates trying to stay out of each other’s way.” It has however been found that some cats will form special bonds with preferred associates, feline or in some cases otherwise.

If your cats are in the same social group then they can share resources such as feeding bowls, water bowls, litter boxes, resting places off the floor and hiding places. Cats not included in the same social group spend 51 percent of their time out of sight from one another, forty percent within ten feet of each other, and only nine percent of their time within six to ten feet of each other.    

Cats have active space patterns. Regular and rigid activity scheduling maintains space between individuals, kind of like a “timeshare” living arrangement. “If your cats are not in the same social group, you know that one cat is on the couch at 4:00 every afternoon. At precisely 5:30 he will go outside and the next cat spends its appointed timeslot on the couch,” Symonds has observed. “Cats are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk. It is thought to be because this is when birds and insects are also most active.”

Symonds said that if the audience only remembered one thing from her presentation, she hoped it would be this. “Humans and dogs best enjoy social interactions with low frequency, but with high intensity. We may not see each other often, but when we do, our interactions are very long. Cats prefer interactions with high frequency, but low intensity. They want to come see you multiple times a day, but when they do, they don’t want to hang out with you for more than five minutes.” That’s mainly why people think cats are aloof.

“Most cats come up to you sitting next to you on the couch, but not on you. You’re not picking it up. That is a very meaningful interaction between your cat and you, but a lot of people don’t get it because that’s not what we think is a meaningful social interaction. We want the cat to sit on us for 20 minutes to an hour while we pet it. When you do stuff with cats, break it up. Five minutes, ten minutes tops, then move on to the other cat. Doing things for more than that may not be good for anybody,” Symonds said. 

It would be an understatement to say that this particular presentation was a popular choice of topics. More than 50 people who were left standing after all the seats were occupied stayed. With the unprecedented overflow crowd, the museum had to stop admitting people 20 minutes before the lecture actually began. Symonds’ presentation was hosted by the Asheville Museum of Science and given in collaboration with The Collider and the Asheville Humane Society.

To learn more about Symonds and her veterinarian advocate services, visit her website at www.Advetcat.com.

By Mark-Ellis Bennett