What is a cat?

The domestic cat is a complex creature and unfortunately problems can arise for cats because sometimes we do not understand their natural drives and reactions. Understanding what kind of environment they prefer to occupy, their social structure, feeding patterns and even toilet habits can influence decisions made about their care that have a significant benefit to their quality of life. Here are nine characteristics common to all companion cats, together with some examples of the impact they may have on your relationship with your cat.

Hunter

The cat has evolved physically and behaviourally to be a specialist hunter and top of the food chain predator; motivated and driven by the sight and sound of prey. In order to be a successful hunter the cat’s natural rhythms will fit the time when its main prey of small creatures are active and vulnerable – usually at dawn and dusk. 

What does this mean for you, the owner?
  • Cats come ‘fully armed’ with sharp teeth and claws!
  • They are likely to be physically active and attracted to movement. Their play mimics predatory behaviour.
  • They can be especially active at dawn and dusk and during the spring/summer.
  • They are likely to bring prey indoors. Hunting behaviour probably peaks when cats are between one and three years old, after that it may decline.
  • Cats need the space and opportunity to give the strong motivations for this behaviour an outlet.
  • Some cats will wander beyond their gardens in search of hunting grounds; others may disappear for long periods during peak hunting seasons.

Obligate carnivore

The cat has been such a successful hunter that it never needed to revert to vegetable matter to bolster its diet, thereby evolving as an obligate carnivore, unable to survive or thrive without nutritional components found in meat.

What does this mean for you, the owner?
  • Cats cannot be vegetarians.
  • Cats lack some metabolic pathways which process certain drugs. This means that many compounds suitable for people or dogs may be toxic to cats. Plants not toxic to other animals may be toxic to cats – such as members of the lily family. Indoor cats and young kittens may sample indoor flowers or plants out of curiosity or boredom or because they have not been given access to suitable plant material, such as grass, to chew.

Territorial

Territory is the space that a cat would normally defend and which envelops the resources the cat needs to survive, thrive and carry out its normal behavioural repertoire.

What does this mean for you, the owner?
  • Territory is extremely important to cats and they will want to defend it.
  • Cats are often more attached to their territory than to their owners.
  • Cats do not necessarily tolerate other cats in the same house or neighbouring houses.
  • Cats may feel threatened, fight, or try to hide because of threats to territory.
  • If a cat’s territory is limited, for example when it is confined indoors, the owner needs to ensure that the environment is interesting and stimulating.
  • Cats rarely voluntarily leave their territory, so when it is necessary owners need to be sensitive to their needs – for example choosing a good cattery or a vet sympathetic to the cat’s needs and anxieties.
  • Cats will use a range of methods to mark their territory, for example, rubbing, scratching or spraying urine.

Agile

The cat’s unique combination of balance, coordination, flexibility and strength enables it to explore and exploit its three dimensional environment, to hunt silently and to escape danger. It also allows the cat to maintain its coat in perfect condition with flexibility to groom itself frequently and efficiently. Cats are physiologically adapted for short frequent bursts of activity rather than prolonged periods.

What does this mean for you, the owner?
  • Cats will use all dimensions in the house, so provision of the opportunity to climb is equally important to cats as their floor space.
  • Cats often get into unusual and inaccessible places!
  • Owners need to provide opportunities to maintain the cat’s fitness and suppleness with exercise – this should incorporate vertical as well as horizontal space.
  • Cats often have a ‘mad half hour’ of intense activity.

Scent sensitive

The cat is highly sensitive to odours, sounds and vibrations undetected by humans. Cats use scent and their acute sense of smell as a means of communication with each other and to define their territory – usually to keep other cats at a distance (except when looking for mates or scent marking members of their feline group). Cats use scent derived from glands over the face and body, and also urine and even faeces in different circumstances.

What does this mean for you, the owner?
  • Changes to the familiar and reassuring scent profile of the cat’s home can be challenging, for example, household cleaners and deodorisers, new furniture, visiting people or dogs, other cats coming in through the cat flap, decorating etc.
  • Cats will leave scent messages for self-assurance. When they are relaxed they mark with face glands and if they feel insecure in their homes may resort to using stronger signals such as urine spraying.

Self-reliant

The cat does not have to have others of its own kind around – the cat can hunt for itself, find its own den and defend its own territory. It can keep itself clean, its claws sharp and protect itself by being highly aware of its surroundings and using its agility, speed and strength to get itself out of trouble. If it feels escape is not an option, it will use its hunting weapons to defend itself. When it does have to meet other cats for reproductive purposes it is fertile and has good mothering instincts. Cats have no biological requirement for companionship like dogs (and humans) – they are happy on their own. Cats do not form structured packs like dogs and there is no dominance hierarchy among a group of cats.

What does this mean for you, the owner?
  • Cats may choose not to be dependent and interactive with people.
  • Cats may not want a ‘friend’ – they are often content to live alone. Sharing territory with another cat can actually be stressful.
  • The need to keep themselves clean and ready to hunt is very strong, so being deprived of the ability to do either is potentially stressful.
  • If a territory is not providing what is necessary, a cat may move on to another.
  • Cats will run away and hide if they feel they are in danger.
  • Cats are driven to keep their coats in tip top condition; this may mean that they groom off poisonous substances which they would normally avoid.
  • Cats are excellent at hiding signs of illness or pain – they tend to stay still and quiet so as not to attract attention. This is one of the reasons why pain and illness is difficult to establish and monitor in cats.

Highly aware

Being a lone hunter, the cat needs a highly specialised system which allows it to react very quickly and successfully to food opportunities and to avoid danger. Being a small creature without a pack or group to help protect it or simply alert it to dangers, the cat also has to be highly reactive. It also needs to be aware of signs (usually scent) left by its own kind. While it may sleep for two thirds of the day, when it is awake it is highly aware of its environment.

What does this mean for you, the owner?
  • Cats can be stressed by sights, sounds and smells in our everyday life, especially if new or sudden, and often things we are unaware of.
  • Cats may react quickly if disturbed or frightened. 

Emotional

The cat may not be thought of as an emotional creature because it does not have the facial dexterity which species such as humans, apes or dogs have to convey how they are feeling. However, in order to survive, the cat must feel fear, pleasure and frustration, in order to learn about the quality of its environment and how to behave and integrate what it learns into tactics for survival. A cat’s natural response to threat is to run away and hide.

What does this mean for you, the owner?
  • Like all mammals, cats are fast learners.
  • Emotions and behaviour can change very quickly.
  • Routine and predictability in a cat’s life reduces stress and improves the cat’s quality of life.
  • Changes to the cat’s normal behaviour (such as sleeping more or avoiding contact) can occur because of emotional change or may indicate health problems.

Adaptable

The cat can survive and thrive in a wide range of environmental and social circumstances. It can live in groups (usually related or where it chooses its own companions) where food and shelter is abundant. It has adapted to cope with the high densities of cats we have in our homes and gardens. It has adapted to a lifestyle not necessarily active at dawn and dusk but to the activity patterns and availability of food when owners are home, and to a wide range of ‘companions’ from people to dogs and other animals.

What does this mean for you, the owner?

Cats fit into a wide range of lifestyles with us – indeed they often appear to cope very well. Sometimes, however, they can be pushed too far, fail to cope any longer and problems may occur. When cats are stressed long term they may exhibit a range of behaviours, such as urine spraying or soiling indoors, fearfulness or occasionally even aggression, which are all part of their natural repertoire, but do not fit in with our expectations of them as pets in our homes. 

Advice section: