Why do cats...?


Although every cat is an individual there are occasionally times when cats behave in similar ways for a particular reason. There are also behaviours exhibited by cats that are hard to interpret and often confuse.

Here are a few of the most popular questions posed by cat lovers and a quick insight into normal cat behaviour.

Why do cats purr?

Purring is an extraordinary sound and it isn’t exactly clear how cats do it. Not only domestic cats purr – many of the larger members of the cat family can also generate this vibration.

The behaviour stems from kittenhood, as the mother returns to the den and quietly signals (to avoid attracting attention from predators) that all is OK by purring to her kittens, they in turn suckle and purr at the same time.

Cats will also purr when they are sick or injured; there are various theories for this – the frequency of the purr in sick animals differs from the healthy purr and it may have healing properties or it may be self-soothing when the cat feels at its most vulnerable.

Why do cats rub round their owners’ legs?

A cat lives in a world where smell is vitally important. All creatures within its social group, as well as objects, will be anointed with its unique smell using scent glands in its face, body and tail. When your cat rubs round your legs to greet you it is doing the same as it would in greeting another cat by mutual rubbing of the face and body.

As your face is a little too far away your cat will, for convenience, use your leg. Some cats really try to make the effort and stand on their hind legs to attempt a head butt on a body part as near to their owner’s face as they can manage. Once you have been suitably rubbed your cat will then take himself off to groom his body and check out your scent.

Why are non-cat people so attractive to cats?

It’s all about body language. When a cat enters a room all the cat lovers start staring at it, they often move towards it, extend their hands and make noises.

The non-cat person on the other hand may try to make herself (or himself) as invisible as possible so the cat does not jump on them. This person is likely to sit extremely still, look down and away from the cat, keeping her hands on the lap and maintaining absolute silence. The cat finds this latter display of body language far less threatening so may well move towards the ‘non-cat’ person to explore further!

Why do cats bring home dead prey?

A cat is, and always will be, a predator. We may selectively breed for the cute attributes they display indoors but let any cat out and he will eventually do what comes naturally.

Cats who fill up at home with food will still potentially hunt; appetite only really affects the level of enthusiasm in their endeavours. Bringing the prey back home to you indicates that your cat feels secure there and it’s a safe place to leave food to eat now or keep for later. As you cat gets older he or she will probably hunt less.

Why do cats play with their prey?

It’s been suggested that cats play more with ‘dangerous’ prey such as rats in order to practise manipulation and handling while avoiding being bitten.

Or it may be that the cat hasn’t learned how to kill it properly and so can’t quite reach that final stage quickly and cleanly. Movement is then necessary in order to maintain the cat’s interest in killing the prey, and throwing it around causes movement.

Of course, it could be that cats simply enjoy the hunting game.

Why do cats chatter their teeth?

Teeth-chattering is usually heard when there’s a bird outside the window which a cat is watching but can’t get to. It may then run up to the window or sit and make this strange tooth-chattering noise, which may be frustration or excitement or both.

Why do cats roll over and show their tummies yet scratch when it is tickled?

This may seem like a case of mixed messages but it’s us that get it wrong!

When a cat greets its human companion it makes a display of trust by exposing its belly. A similar friendly ‘roll’ is often seen when one cat solicits play from another. When a cat does it to us it may be illustrating one of two things; either it is a sign of trust and any physical contact at this time could look threatening or it is a request for a rough and tumble – either way injury will ensue so the temptation to touch should probably be avoided!

Why do some cats miaow and others don’t?

Researchers have noted some 19 different vocal patterns in cats, although individual cats may add their own personal sounds that they only use with their owners. Most of the sounds cats make fall into three groups; the purr or little chirrup they make when they greet us, the sounds they make when they are fearful or emotionally charged (e.g. hissing, growling, spitting) and the miaow. Cats can manipulate the miaow sound to make it very different depending on the circumstances.

Individual cats vary in how much they ‘talk’. Some breeds are notably noisier than others, for example the Siamese is known for being talkative. Part of this variation though is linked to how much we talk to them. If, when they miaow to us, we reply or ask them what they want, and their communication is answered with something rewarding, such as attention or food, then they’re very likely to do the same thing again. The learn quickly how to manipulate us with a miaow.

The most appealing communication of all is the ‘silent miaow’, where the cat goes through the mouth-opening motions of miaowing but no sound comes out –it has been suggested that they do indeed make a sound but the frequency is too high for us to hear.

Why do cats have mad moments?

Cats would naturally spend a great deal of time during the day, stalking and chasing prey or avoiding danger in their adrenaline-fuelled lifestyle of hunting and exploring.

A day in the life of the average house cat doesn’t really include anything very dangerous and energy may not get used up. Suddenly, often without warning, this energy will burst out and your cat will act out a little fantasy role playing, alternating between the hunter and the hunted, dashing round the house with a flicking tail and widely dilated pupils. This often occurs at times of the day and night when cats are naturally more active, for example at dusk, and it can be triggered by a loud noise, a visit to the litter tray or something quite inconsequential.

Your cat may stare into the top corner of the room before launching itself across the carpet but don’t worry; it’s just using up that excess energy.

Why do cats try to cover their food?

Some cats will scrape around their food and water bowls using the same action that is normally associated with toilet habits in the litter tray.

There are a number of theories on this behaviour. One suggests that the cat, not wishing to consume the whole contents of his bowl, is attempting to cover it to return to it at a later time. Another theory suggests that the cat is not finding the smell of the food particularly appealing and the covering is an attempt to cleanse the area and remove the offensive contents.

If this scraping around becomes an issue for you it may be worth giving your cat smaller more frequent meals or offering dry food, and then ‘leftovers’ will not represent a problem.

Why do cats knead their owners with their claws?

When kittens are first born they are totally dependent on their mother for their nutrition. When they suck at their mothers’ teats they tread with alternate front paws at her body to stimulate the flow of milk (as pictured left).

If your cat is kneading on your lap or chest when you have a cuddle this shows that it associates the intense and secure nature of your relationship with that of its mother when it was a tiny kitten. Some cats will take the process one step further and dribble uncontrollably as they anticipate the milk feed that kneading usually predicted.

Cats grow out of this behaviour when it ceases to be necessary but a few will retain it into adulthood, particularly when in the presence of someone with whom they feel safe or when they get on a particularly fluffy cushion or blanket.

Why do cats dislike car travel?

Cats don’t like to leave their familiar territory. Unlike dogs, they are not really reassured by the presence of their owner. In a new environment, such as the car in this case, they cannot predict what might happen.

Cats may also be more sensitive to the movement of the car – their sense of balance is very acute, so the motion may not be pleasant to them, and they may not feel in control of the situation. The car will also sound and smell very strange.

Cats that experience car travel as young kittens, during the period between 2 and 7 weeks of age when they are most receptive to learning new things, tend to tolerate it much better.

What does it mean when a cat’s tail goes bushy?

A cat has the capacity to fluff up his tail and the fur along his back to stand erect at a right angle to the skin, referred to as pilo-erection. This gives the cat a much larger silhouette and is used, together with an arched back and a sideways stance, to signal defensive aggression to other cats. Some cats that experience a sudden fright will instinctively puff up their tail before investigating the perceived danger a little further.

Why do cats drink from the tap?

A cat’s motivation to drink is not connected to hunger so many find it confusing when water bowls are provided directly adjacent to their usual feeding area. Some cats adapt to this strange set-up relatively easily but others reject this water as unsuitable and seek other more acceptable sources.

Taps, glasses of water, vases and goldfish bowls are all potential thirst quenchers but the best option is to provide dedicated drinking vessels in alternative locations well away from your cat’s food.

Some cats also prefer running water so pet drinking fountains can be purchased as a more practical source than a constantly dripping tap.

Why do cats hate aerosol sprays?

There may be a couple of reasons for this: firstly, when cats are feeling threatened or pushed into a corner, or if they are startled, they will hiss. It’s an explosive sound. The action reveals a gaping mouth and teeth which are hard to ignore, and the animal or person that has provoked that response can feel the air passing as the cat hisses. So it is understandable that cats don’t really appreciate the equivalent of a hiss from an aerosol at close quarters.

Secondly, they have sensitive hairs on their body that help them feel their surroundings and a spray will set off these touch receptors very suddenly and violently and the cat may not enjoy or understand the sensation. Chemicals in sprays may also smell very strong to the scent-sensitive cat.

Why do cats like to nibble grass?

Even though cats are obligate carnivores and don’t usually volunteer to eat fruit or vegetables, they do like to eat grass.

Eating grass is a normal behaviour in cats yet not fully understood – the general understanding is that it helps to move food or hairballs through the digestive tract (either up or down as grass eating often results in vomiting). It may also provide them with essential trace elements in their diet, so it is recommended that cats without access to grass outside are provided with a source indoors. This can be a commercial pack of ‘cat grass’ or a pot in which grass seeds or grass from the garden can be grown.

Indoor cats without access to grass may chew other potted plants they would usually ignore or avoid and which may be poisonous (click here for information on cats and poisonous plants

Why do cats like catnip?

A plant that we call catnip (its proper name is Nepeta cataria) has an extraordinary effect on around 80 per cent of cats.

An encounter with either the plant itself or with a catnip-stuffed toy can make cats excited, and they may sniff and roll around on the ground or over the catnip.

The active chemical in the plant is called nepetalactone and has been likened to LSD. However, its effect is short-lived and harmless.

Why do cats draw back their lips when they sniff something strange?

The flehmen response occurs not just in cats, but in horses and deer and other animals where is it a bit easier to see.

On the outside it looks like the cat’s grinning or even grimacing as it opens its mouth and draws the air into sample it. This usually happens when it’s sniffing the urine of a cat that’s in season or where a tom has sprayed.

It gives cats a great deal of information about that scent as it enables it to draw in the air over a special organ called Jacobson’s organ found in the roof of the mouth behind the front teeth.  Here the cat can concentrate the scent and smell/taste it, giving it a lot of information.

Why do cats have rough tongues?

A cat tongue is a remarkable thing. It has several important jobs. As an inbuilt comb, the tongue is covered with hook-shaped barbs that face backwards. When pulled through the fur these part it and remove dead hair and debris to keep the coat in perfect condition and lying flat. The coat is a wonderful sensory organ because the guard hairs signal when the coat is ruffled or disturbed and give the cat information about its environment.

These barbs also allow the cat to literally lick meat off bone if it needs to (bear this in mind when considering the development of breeds with no hair where the tongue is very harsh on the skin). Of course, the tongue is also the cat’s organ of taste, as well as being spoon-shaped to lap up water – a genuine multi-purpose organ. When a cat licks you the roughness of its tongue is very evident.

Advice section: