Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Cat Behavior 101

Our feline friends exhibit a complex blend of behaviors that can sometimes make them difficult to understand. Here’s why

By Beth Adelman, MS

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Cats can be fierce like little lions with their toys, but then cautious like bunny rabbits when they hear a loud noise. In fact, cats show behaviors that we typically associate with predators and behaviors that we typically associate with prey animals. Both types of behaviors come from a complex mix of life experiences, species-specific behaviors and ancestral behaviors (our cats are descended from the African wildcat, which weighs about 6 to 18 pounds and is in the middle of his food chain).

We are familiar with the predator behaviors cats exhibit, including hunting even when they’re not hungry, stalking and ambushing, and play that mimics hunting. We know their prey behaviors, too, although we may not always recognize them for what they are. Cats like to perch in high places where they can see everyone approaching and hold the high ground if they feel the need to defend themselves. They’re cautious around people and objects they’re not familiar with. They don’t like changes in routine because there may be danger in the unexpected. They’re easily startled, and loud noises scare them. Also, like prey animals, their most common fear response is to run and hide.

Among the behavior tendencies of animals who are both predators and prey, two others might be a bit less obvious: Cats have ambivalent body language, reflecting their conflicts between curiosity and caution, approach and avoidance. They are also are latent learners, meaning they gain information through observation but might not demonstrate their knowledge until they need it.

Because we tend to think of cats as predators, we might misinterpret caution, ambivalence and latent learning as aloofness, deception and stubbornness. In fact, a lot of behaviors we interpret as standoffish are actually cautious. And many behaviors we interpret as deceptive actually reflect a conflict between curiosity and caution.

When a cat is unsure of a situation, we might see mixed signals. Her ears might be up and relaxed, but her tail might be flicking back and forth (a sign of agitation). Or a cat might sit in front of you and blink (a signal of friendly intentions), but then swat when you try to pet her.

That conflict between approach and avoidance can make reading feline body language a little tricky. The secret is to read it as a whole, consider all the signals and then go with the preponderance of evidence. If there’s any doubt, offer an extended finger and let your cat come to you. Being able to control the situation will make your cat feel safe and secure.

Latent learning is a kind of learning that’s not expressed immediately in a behavior we can see. Because the cat doesn’t react and we can’t reinforce the behavior, we think she’s not really learning. But she is, and when the cat is motivated enough to show it, she will.

Here’s an example. Every morning you open the bottom drawer in the kitchen cabinet, pull out the cat treat bag and give your cat a few treats. Your cat just watches. Then one morning, you sleep late. When you finally get up and go to the kitchen, the drawer is open, the treat bag has a hole chewed in it and your cat is busy cleaning her whiskers.

Here’s another way latent learning works in cats. Your cat hides under the sofa every time your friend visits. Your friend sits across the room and tosses a few treats, but your cat remains hidden and watches. After 10 visits, your cat comes out, eats the treat and approaches your friend. The cat has been watching and assessing whether your friend is safe and trustworthy. It took a while, but now she’s sure.

(Guest contributor Beth Adelman, MS, is a cat behavior consultant in New York City. Beth is currently on the executive committee of the feline division of the Pet Professional Guild and is a frequent speaker on cat behavior.)

Q&A

Making kids and

dogs safe together

Q: What should I teach my young child about interacting with dogs? I don’t want her to be afraid of them, but I also want her to be safe.

A: Great question! Children younger than 9 years are the ones most likely to be bitten, and often that’s because they don’t recognize when dogs are fearful and haven’t learned not to approach dogs who are afraid. Teaching them from an early age what to look for is a good way to help prevent bites.

Most children know not to approach a dog who appears to be aggressive, but if they believe a dog is afraid, they may think that they can help to calm the dog by petting him. It’s important for you to understand what a fearful dog looks like so you can educate your child to recognize those signs and stay away from dogs who exhibit fearful behaviors. Signals to look for include tail tucked tightly to the body or under the belly, ears flattened to the head, whites of the eyes showing, brow furrowed, rapidly blinking eyes and a tight mouth, to name just a few.

It’s a good idea to read books about dogs with your child and talk about what might make dogs afraid, what fearful dogs look or act like, and what to do -- and not do -- if a dog seems fearful. Explain that dogs who are afraid want to be left alone. Let kids know that just because a hug makes them feel better when they’ve been frightened doesn’t mean that a dog will respond the same way.

Teach young children never to approach dogs they don’t know without first asking an adult. You can learn more about the best ways for kids and dogs to interact through articles and videos at fearfreehappyhomes.com. -- Mikkel Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Shelter dogs

find suite homes

-- In partnership with the Humane Society of South Mississippi in Gulfport, extended-stay hotel Home 2 Suites in Biloxi began fostering adoptable shelter dogs in October 2018, with 33 pups finding new homes so far. Each foster dog resides in a large kennel in the lobby, allowing them to work their charms on guests as they check in and out. Hotel sales manager Teresa Johnson and shelter relations manager Bianca Janik teamed up to make the “Fostering Hope” program a reality. Guests interested in a particular dog complete an application; if approved, they pay the $50 adoption fee and their new friend can move right into their room with them.

-- Quilty the cat, famous for breaking out of his room at Houston’s Friends for Life Animal Rescue and Adoption Organization -- and freeing other cats in the process -- has abandoned his lawless ways for a new life as a “purrolee,” in which he enjoys napping with his adoptive person. Nonetheless, the freedom fighter with an advanced degree in “catculus” remains a popular Instagram star, with more than 52,000 followers. He helps raise money for other cats and is considering a presidential run in 2020. Go, Quilty!

-- What should your guinea pig eat? For starters, the furry little herbivores need a pelleted diet made especially for them. That’s not all, though. Fresh hay daily to chew on is important to help them wear down their continuously growing teeth as well as aid in digestion. They also need a daily vitamin C supplement in the form of a tablet or liquid to ensure healthy teeth, bones and cartilage. Finally, a small amount of fresh vegetables, such as leafy greens, broccoli, bell peppers and celery, adds variety and nutrients to their diet. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.