What Cats Want: ABILITY TO CARRY OUT NATURAL BEHAVIOURS
The last of the five freedoms incorporates care and conditions that avoid mental suffering and this must include allowing the cat to carry out its natural behaviors. What behaviors would be listed as ‘natural’ for a cat? These must surely include grooming, normal toileting behaviors, claw sharpening, hunting, sleeping and being sociable if they wish.
Cats and grooming go together. Many beautiful pictures of cats depict them carrying out their methodical grooming routines. They may spend up to a third of their waking time grooming and are fastidiously clean animals – they hate it if their fur is coated with anything and will groom it off immediately. Indeed, being fastidious about their coats can actually be dangerous for cats, for it may cause them to ingest substances they would not normally eat. They are usually very careful about what they consume and most cats will not touch something that will be harmful to them. If a cat brushes past a fence that has just had creosote applied and then grooms it off, it could be affected by the chemicals, which are poisonous to cats. Likewise, licking tar or other chemicals off feet can have the same effect.
Why cats should be so fastidious while their canine cousins do not groom is probably to do with the sensitivity of the feline machine. Certain hairs on the cat’s coat, including its whiskers, are very sensitive to movement and touch – these enable the cat to be highly aware of its environment as it moves through undergrowth or in the dark. If some of the hairs are stuck together or pulling as the cat walks it may be getting false information or missing information from its environment. Grooming will also remove odours so that the cat will not be so easy to smell as it creeps up on its prey. A carefully groomed coat will enable the cat to move easily, will keep it dry, waterproofed and free moving.
A cat that cannot keep itself clean will not be a happy cat – it will probably feel very uncomfortable. We need to consider this when we have the unhappy situation of an old or very ill cat that cannot get to its litter tray and may be lying in urine or faeces. If the cat is not likely to improve, we need to consider its quality of life very carefully. The cat may want to clean itself up but be unable to and this will probably cause it considerable stress.
Grooming also seems to have a secondary use of calming the cat. Cats often groom after they have been startled or have been confused momentarily. We see it sometimes in cats that tend to get overexcited when we stroke them – they grab our hands, bite or scratch them and then jump down on to the floor, at which time they often start to groom rather industriously. This seems to calm them down, relieving tension and allowing them to collect themselves again. However, grooming can be taken too far sometimes – some cats will start to over-groom and actually break off the hair and even lick the skin until it is sore. This behaviour can be brought on by some sort of stress in the cat’s environment that it cannot change or get away from. It begins to groom in an attempt to feel better and may indeed get something from the activity but, if this grooming goes beyond normal grooming, it can actually injure the cat. It seems to be a way of trying to deal with problems when there is no other way out (see chapters twelve and thirteen for more on this).
Normal toileting habits
Cats are also fastidious about their toileting habits. Mother cats have to lick the ano-genital area of their new kittens to make them defecate and this is then eaten so that it does not soil the nest and cause conditions that are likely to provide the right environment for infections, etc. to take hold. As kittens grow, they will leave the nest in order to urinate and defecate and will watch their mother and copy what she does. Thus, from day one they are being taught not to soil the den. They will learn to dig a hole, deposit urine or faeces and cover it up again. The reason for this is probably to keep the smells covered under the ground so as not to attract predators or give information to other cats in the area. When we transfer this digging and covering behaviour to our homes by providing litter trays, we must remember that cats will not want to use a dirty litter tray. Some cats may only use a tray once before they want a clean one. Others will use it a couple of times but will look elsewhere if it is very dirty. If we try to disguise the smell with deodorants or scents, this may put the cat off even more.
As mentioned earlier, stropping or sharpening claws has two functions. The first is to pull the blunt layer of the old nail off to reveal a new pointed claw – a vital weapon for the hunting cat. The action of scratching also leaves a scent mark – whether the two can actually be separated or whether the cat means to do both at once, we do not know. But it is a behaviour cats need to express and they need somewhere to do it. Their choice of scratch post will depend not only on the texture of the post but also on its position. Wood is a favourite because the cat can get its claws into the surface to the right depth and pull downwards, but carpets are also appreciated! We think that cats may scratch in front of other cats as a way of asserting themselves and they may choose places that are strategically useful as marking spots. This is usually outside but can also take place within the house. Favourites are arms of chairs or settees, stairs and carpets in general. It is probably a very satisfying feeling to get it just right! They will also use scratch posts provided by us – sometimes they need a little encouragement to use them, for example by adding some of the marker scents, which will then degrade and tempt the cat back to top them up. This is easily done by gently taking the cat’s paws and pulling them down in a mock scratch down the post. Doing this over a period of a couple of days should scent-mark the post and give the cat the idea of what it is for. Whether or not you provide a specific scratch post, cats will often scratch in the house. It can be very annoying but as it is one of the cat’s natural behaviours we have to accept it and direct it if we can.
Cats are designed and made to hunt. (Chapter five outlines how they go about it.) Mother cats start to teach their kittens what hunting is all about very early on, bringing home injured prey when the kittens are about four weeks old so they can practise this skill. Good hunters usually have mothers that are hunting experts. Cats will hunt whether they are hungry or not – the areas of the brain that control hunger and hunting are different and are stimulated by different things. Whether cats stay in or go out, they will need to exhibit their hunting behaviours – some cats more than others. Owners must be aware of this and if the cat is not doing it for itself outside then they must play and provide mock hunts for the cat. Cats are only usually successful in about 10 per cent of hunts – they need to eat about ten rodents a day, which means a lot of hunting. Owners of indoor cats take note – physical and mental stimulation will be part of the job of looking after an indoor cat.
Cats are one of nature’s best sleepers – they rest for about half of the day in a mixture of catnaps and deeper sleeps. If there is one thing cats have an instinct to find, it’s a warm spot; indeed, it is pretty difficult to keep a cat off a hot spot. Cats love snuggling under duvets, curling up on the washing, lazing in those hammocks that hang off radiators or just following the sun around the house as it warms different windowsills.
We humans follow a 24-hour rhythm in which we sleep and wake at fairly regular times. Cats follow a more fragmented pattern. Instead of one large period of sleep and wakefulness during the rest of the time, they drift in and out of sleeping and waking cycles throughout the day and night. The periods of wakefulness may depend on different things – hunting patterns, patterns of its owner or other elements in its environment. A confident cat doesn’t usually worry too much about where it sleeps – somewhere in the sun or near a source of heat is preferable. The more nervous cat may need to seek out somewhere it feels safe before it will make the transition from a nap to a deeper sleep. Newborn kittens spend 60 to 70 per cent of their time asleep. This starts to decrease when they are about three weeks old to levels of about 40 to 50 per cent of the day as adults. Of course, if the cat is surviving completely on its own in the wild, then it may have to spend a great deal of its time hunting down enough prey to survive on. Older cats may sleep at least 50 to 75 per cent of the time; like old people, they need to sleep more.
Being sociable – or not
When writing about cats in general and when trying to pinpoint what they want, the wide range of individual characters of cats always ensures that it is difficult to make sweeping statements! This is very much the case when it comes to what cats want in terms of feline companionship. Just consider the cats you have owned and the differences between their preferences – some very obviously do not want another cat of any sort around and want to be the only cat in the household; others seem to need another feline for company. The important thing is to try to read our cats’ preferences. The difficulty is that this only usually becomes apparent when we bring in another cat!