Thinking of getting a cat?

Starting with communication and emotions, in our four part series we address a different aspect of cat ownership, with the aim of imparting a better understanding of cat behaviour, thus improving the quality of life of domestic cats and strengthening the cat-owner bond.

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Thinking of getting a cat? In the East Midlands, we have the highest number of pet owners per head in the UK. Being largely independent, cats are perceived to be fairly ‘low maintenance’ in comparison with dogs. They are therefore an appealing option for owners seeking a companion to fit in with their busy lives.

Adoption of any pet ‘on a whim’ is fraught with potential problems. It is essential to consider both the short and long-term implications. There are, of course, many benefits of cat ownership, but entering into what might be a 16-20 year commitment, shouldn’t be under estimated.

We all love to watch the cute, and often hilarious, play behaviours displayed by cats, and to snuggle up with them on our laps. However, we often forget that they also retain an absolute requirement to display behaviours more akin to cats living in the wild. If we deprive them of those opportunities (e.g. to hunt and to defend territory), and if we fail to understand their emotional wellbeing, then we are doing them a dis-service.

Communication and emotions

Cats are highly emotional creatures and common misconceptions about their psychological needs frequently leads to a suboptimal home environment. This results in unnecessary stress that may go unnoticed, and that may ultimately lead to longer term problems. Indeed, there are well-defined links between stress, environment, diet and disease. We can negate some of the potential pit-falls by understanding why cats react to things the way they do, and how things can go wrong when we mis-interpret those signals.

The vast majority of us seem to intuitively understand dog behaviour. The emotions of dogs are usually pretty easy to read, and their needs seem pretty logical based on what we understand about our own feelings. That is not necessarily the case for cats, who have more subtle and, for us, possibly ambiguous ways to display their emotions. Feline behavioural traits are often misinterpreted meaning that our interactions with cats are frequently suboptimal.

Communication is key to making acquaintances, keeping other cats away, looking for a mate and group dynamics. This involves all the senses but, while sight and hearing tend to predominate in human communication, smell and body language are most important when it comes to cats.

Sense of smell

Cats can eventually learn to cope pretty well with being blind or deaf, but loss of their sense of smell has massive implications. This is because of their heavy reliance on smell for social communication and for feeding. Cats have scent glands located on their lips, chin, tail, perianal area, and also between their toes. These glands release ‘pheromones’ which are integral to cat communication. By rubbing and clawing objects or other individuals, cats use these glands to leave a unique scent which conveys a variety of messages. Pheromones are used for territorial marking to keep other cats at bay. They are also used to enable recognition and tolerance of other animals and humans and are essential when looking for a mate. In a multi-cat household situation, cats within a stable social group will scent mark each other to produce a specific ‘group scent’ which acts to reduce aggression within the group. Conversely, this also acts to increase aggression towards outsiders who are not established group members. Scent marking of household objects, and indeed of owners, leaves cats with a sense of belonging and acts to maintain the feeling of a ‘safe’ home environment. Conversely, removal of the pheromone scent (or smothering with potent household smells) increases the risk of stress. In households where stress is problematic, the use of synthetic pheromones (e.g. Feliway spay or diffusers) can be helpful.

It is important to acknowledge that, as well as scratching and rubbing, urine marking is also a normal scent marking behaviour for cats. This is usually done outside where it is rarely a problem. If it occurs in the house then it is usually a sign that something is wrong. He or she is crying out to us that things are not good, help is needed. Although tempting, the worst thing to do in this situation is to punish the behaviour, that is only going to aggravate the situation. Instead, we should concentrate on identifying and eliminating the underlying trigger.

Environmental smells have a big impact, with unfamiliar smells leading to heightened anxiety. For a cat, any environmental change can be disconcerting, but avoiding unusual smells is not something that we often consider. As far as is possible we should try to maintain the status quo. For example, sticking to using the same cleaning products and deodorisers, and avoiding frequent house redecoration or changing of furnishings. Very strong overwhelming odours such as disinfectants should be avoided. In addition, the smell of unfamiliar people and animals is disconcerting for cats. So whilst having friends around may be a treat for us, they are often unwanted visitors as far as cats are concerned.

Lastly, the sense of smell is essential when is comes to feeding. Smell is integrally linked to our sense of taste, and cats will rarely eat at all if unable to smell their food (or indeed if the food smells unpalatable). When dealing with cats who are inappetent, feeding of potent, strong smelling foods, and warming the food to increase odour, is often helpful, particularly in cats with upper respiratory tract disease such as ‘cat flu’.


The vital time for socialisation of kittens is before they reach 8 weeks old. Ideally, at least four people (male and female, old and young) should be interacting with kittens for short frequent periods from 2 weeks of age onwards. Bonds are formed by participating in play activities (batting, chasing, pouncing). This mimics the way a Queen would bond with her kittens by teaching them to hunt and kill in the wild. Facing a wide variety of experiences (e.g. noise, children, dogs, vacuum cleaners, different locations, travel in car etc.) at an early age, reduces fearfulness in later life. Poorly socialised cats are less far less able to cope with environmental changes and are more likely to suffer from stress or display fearful behaviours such as avoiding social interaction or aggression. Provision of safe spaces/hiding places is even more important in these cats, and more careful handling is needed. Indeed, feral cats usually require a careful and organised approach as they will not be easily handleable.

Sexual maturity occurs at around 9 months of age but full social maturity may take up to 4 years, and gradual changes in personality continue during this time. As they mature, cats become more territorial, more solitary, more self-reliant and more cautious. This is also the time when cats start straying further afield and entering into conflicts with other cats. Neutering at this time may reduce roaming but will not necessarily impact on aggression.

Reading and reacting to emotions

Cats are highly sensitive creatures and experience a wide range of emotional states. Unfortunately, even strong emotions are often displayed in a very subtle manor, and may not be obvious to us as owners. It is important that we learn to appreciate the subtle emotional traits  of cats so that we can better respond to their needs. Learning to understand their body language is key, and Figure 1 illustrates how small changes in posture, ear position, eye position and whisker position convey very different emotions. However, while explanatory diagrams like this can be helpful, it is experience and spending time with cats that is most important with regards to learning what a cat is trying to tell you.

Cats in the wild maintain their independence by living on their wits and relying on no one, and this largely explains their anxiety and defensive behaviour during times of stress. A wide range of emotional states is essential for survival in the wild, and emotions and behaviour can change very quickly. Rapid reaction to food opportunities and danger is essential. Indeed cats will react very quickly when disturbed, and things such as sudden noises or movements can be very alarming. Cats should be approached slowly and eye contact should be avoided. Slow blinking when approaching a cat can also help to show that you are not a source of threat. Cats need to be in charge and dictate the timing of social interaction as and when it suits them. Even the friendliest of cats, rarely enjoy being approached, preferring to seek out attention only when they choose to. Children in particular find it very difficult to determine when a cat is happy to receive attention, and when they simply want to be left alone.

Hiding signs of pain or vulnerability can be beneficial in the wild, so cats tend to remain still and quiet during times of illness so as not to attract attention. Owners may therefore not be aware that a cat is suffering, or may notice a behaviour change but be unaware of its relevance. Any alteration in routine or behaviour (e.g. increased sleeping, reduced interaction, increased aggression, altered toileting behaviours, reluctance to go outside) suggests either a change in emotional state or health problems. Signs of stress are often misconstrued as bad behaviour (for example inappropriate urination or house soiling) but, as mentioned above, attempts at punishment (such as scruffing or intrusive handling) are counterproductive. This will only cause panic, and may be enough to induce repetitive fearful behavioural traits. The solution is instead to identify and eliminate the cause of stress and ensure maintenance of daily routine and predictability.

Thinking of getting a cat? If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact your local practice.

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