My inquiry question is “Why do cats behave the way they do?” In my previous post, I did some research on the anatomy of the domestic cat to get a better understanding of how the different parts of their body function, so I can explain why they behave in certain ways. Right now, I will be explaining their hunting instincts and predatory behaviour.
-As I mentioned in my previous round of research, the domestic cat, felis catus, is a descendant of one of the 5 subspecies of the wildcat felis sylvestris, being the felis sylvestris lybica which lived in the mid east in Israel(7, 8).
-Cats are therefore programmed from birth to hunt and chase, even if they don’t need to. To nearly all of us, one of the most appealing and cute things that kittens do is playfight, and it isn’t just for fun play, but rather because of their wild ancestry that they instinctively start practising their hunting techniques. Through this “play”, they enhance their coordination, and it also releases pent-up energy and strengthens muscles. In the wild, this would eventually be used for true hunting(2, 6, 8).
-The domestic cat is an extremely good hunter (1, 8). Approximately every third pounce they make results in a catch, which only a few other animals can beat, being mostly large cats(1).
-The mother cat is the one to teach her kittens how to hunt so they can eat. In the first lesson, she brings home dead prey and eats it in front of the kittens, and they soon learn to join in, eventually the mother cat leaving it all for her kittens to eat. Sometimes, cats will not only do this for their own litter, but they may do this for other kittens as well. Many cats, especially spayed females, will provide this lesson to their humans too, which is why many people receive “presents” from their cats(2, 5).
-The second lesson consists of the mother cat bringing home partially dead prey and finishing the kill in front of her kittens. They are then allowed to practice their skills by killing the wounded, slow-moving prey(2).
-Finally, after mastering this, they accompany their mother and learn to hunt and kill completely on their own (2).
What I’ve noticed a lot with my cat is that when she sees something moving, whether it’s a hand, a toy, a shadow or a laser, her eyes widen and her pupils dilate, and she tends to get low down and wiggle side to side before pouncing. I’d like to know why these behaviours are helpful for these little hunters, so those are the type of techniques I’ll be looking at.
-If you have ever seen a cat catch prey (or a toy), you will notice that there are several things they do before hand. The first step for catching prey is simply spotting it. Once their eye catches sight of a particular prey, they will get into their stalking posture and intensely fix their gaze on it with their neck extended forward, and because they’re alert, their eyes will widen(3, 4, 6).
-After finding the prey, they begin stalking it. Surprisingly, the way that cats walk isn’t very efficient to that of a dog’s. Their gait evolved not to save energy, but to move stealthily so they can catch their prey more easily (8). The way they stalk their prey is by lowering their head and body mere inches from the ground through the bending of the legs. Most commonly, the tail is held horizontally and away from the body, and in line or below their back. Often, their tail will twitch back and forth. Meanwhile, their head is stretched forward in the direction of prey, as are the ears, and their whiskers are spread wide and held rigidly away from their face and forward (as discussed in my previous post, a cat’s senses come very much in handy). (1, 3, 4)
-This movement is usually very slow and controlled, and the cat may stop every now and then with one forepaw held above the ground (4).
-Another thing that cats may sometimes do when they see prey is emit clacking, chattering sound. They open and close their mouth rapidly, which creates a series of short sounds interspersed by short periods of silence. Cats behave this way usually when the prey is unobtainable, such as a bird flying by the window. Some people speculate that it is because of their frustration of not being able to catch it, while others think that the rapid-fire movement of their jaw is preparing their muscles to kill the prey (4, 5).
-The cat’s expert stalking ability makes up for not being very good at long distance runs. Often, they will sneak up to their prey within a distance of only a single pounce, without the prey even noticing anything suspicious(1).
-Once they get close enough, they make the pounce. From their crouched position, the cat’s hind legs move slightly backwards and may tread. They lift up their hind legs alternately, one at a time with increased intensity. This movement, accompanied by the swishing of the tail, gives the cat the appearance of swaying side to side. At this point, the cat may bob its head up and down, judging the distance to its catch. Finally, it will rapidly pounce upwards and forwards, its outstretched front paws and mouth directed towards the prey. When the prey is on the ground, the hind legs usually stay on the ground, though they will occasionally lift if in tall grass or catching a bird taking flight. A successful pounce will result in a clean capture in one or both of the front paws, and occasionally, a direct catch using their teeth (4).
-A cat can kill its prey with one single bite at the nape of the neck. Their canine teeth are aimed so that at least one of them punctures the skin and goes between two vertebrae, severing the spinal cord or destroying it with pressure (1, 4).
Kept at home, these frisky little hunters cannot easily exhibit their natural predatory behaviour, which explains why they often try to attack things and people, and why they may get bored easily at home. But there are reasons why people (including myself) keep their cats indoors. One reason is that wildlife populations are decreasing, such as birds, and it is largely due to cats. What’s important to know however, is that they are not doing it just for the fun of it, but it is completely instinctual. In fact, during domestication, we actually encouraged their hunting behaviour, but now we are ashamed of it. The other reason for keeping cats indoors, which is my main reason, is that there are significant health risks outside, such as predators, cars, or other cats. I usually let my cat outside on the balcony, but one time my family and I forgot she was out there and it was only when I was about to do her routinely teeth cleaning before bed (which she’s always really excited for) and I couldn’t find her that I started to panic. After lots of looking around, we finally found (and heard) her outside. She had fallen off the balcony (2nd floor) and was cowering on a bench, where a cat was hissing at her and attacking her! If we hadn’t gone and gotten her quickly enough, she could have gotten seriously hurt. For this exact reason, I keep my cat indoors. However, there are people who choose to let their cats roam outdoors, and I am perfectly okay with that, as I know that it keeps the cat stimulated and happy, even if it is more risky. However, for people like me who keep their cats indoors, it’s important we give them enough stimulation. Give them toys to play with, cat posts to climb and scratch, food puzzles, and make sure to give them plenty of attention (when they want it of course). One thing that I do in addition to that is taking my cat outdoors on a leash every now and then. She seems to really enjoy it, and this way, she can get the extra stimulation from the outdoor environment that she would have lived in if she were a wild cat, and because she is on a leash, she won’t be able to kill any birds (she actually tried that once before she quickly realized she was on a leash).
Anyways... that’s all for this week! Next week, I will be researching how they communicate. Any ideas or websites are welcome. Thanks for reading!