Does your cat do a weird thing?
BuzzFeed Science asked readers and colleagues what feline behaviour they’d like explained, and set about answering their questions. We spoke to John Bradshaw, noted cat scientist and author of Cat Sense (Allen Lane, 2014) – this is what he told us.
1. “Why do cats love sitting in boxes so much?”
It’s all about security and getting a good vantage point. “When a cat rests it basically wants to feel protected, but it also needs to have some way of looking out,” says Bradshaw.
He’s actually conducted experiments at animal shelters to find out what kind of box cats that had recently come into the shelter liked best. Turns out upside-down boxes with holes cut in them are the fave. “The cat will go in and peer out for a period of time,” says Bradshaw. “When the cat gets more confident it may actually rest on top of the box, especially if the box is in a corner.”
The other thing about boxes is that they’re often new and temporary additions to your cat’s territory. “It’s their natural instinct to explore anything new, so they’ll jump straight in and settle down in it.”
That instinct might also be why cats appear to go and sit in circles when you draw one on the floor. “To get yourself inside a cat’s head you have to remember that cats use their ears and noses much more than we do, so what to us is just a circle may not be a circle as far as the cats concerned,” says Bradshaw. “The cat may be interpreting it as ‘Here’s a place on the floor that doesn’t smell like it did five minutes ago; I’ll go and sit down and see what happens.’”
(But the circle thing could also be confirmation bias, Bradshaw cautions. If you draw a circle and your cat doesn’t go and sit inside it, you’re probably not going to tell the internet about it, are you?)
2. “Why is my cat crazy for the smell of my feet?”
“This could be a habit that’s been accidentally trained into the cat,” says Bradshaw. Young cats, especially, can find hands and feet interesting because of their size and the fact they wriggle.
“Feet and hands are about the size of other cats,” says Bradshaw. “So you find that a lot of kittens will get fascinated by them, especially bare feet, and will pounce on them and attempt to play with them almost as if they were another cat.” Some cats grow out of this, and others get discouraged by their owners who don’t want to be constantly scratched up – but some keep the habit into adulthood.
It could be to do with the smell – cats have a more developed sense of smell than we do, and a tendency to investigate anything that smells different to what they’re used to – but it’s more likely to be the wriggliness.
3. “Does my cat actually love me or is he just trying to get more food?”
You can breathe a sigh of relief: “Cats do love their owners,” says Bradshaw.
They show this in two ways: by rubbing their head on your leg (or sometimes a nearby chair leg), and by licking you. Both of those behaviours are things that cats do to other cats to show affection and reinforce a friendship – not because they want something.
It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that cats are fundamentally territorial animals and will bond more strongly to the place they live than the people they live with. “It’s a legacy from when they were wild animals,” says Bradshaw. “The most important thing to have is a safe place to rest and a hunting territory that you know, otherwise you get eaten or you starve. They haven’t lost that.”
4. “Why does my cat run around at 3am?”
The short answer is: because they want to.
The ancestor of the modern house cat, the African wild cat (Felis silvestris libyca), is mostly nocturnal. Domesticated cats have become pretty flexible in their sleeping patterns, but in general they’re more 24/7 than us, says Bradshaw, and take naps instead of sleeping for long periods.
“Naturally, they’re awake for a period of time during the most interesting time of day or night,” he says. “Then they’ll nap for a couple of hours, then they’ll wake up again and do something, and so on.”
So if you go to bed while your cat is asleep on a chair, and find it in the same position when you wake up, chances are it got up to some nighttime adventures you have no idea about.
5. “Where does a cat’s purr come from and what is it telling me?”
There are three kinds of purr: one is very common, and the other two are rarer. They’re all created by muscles on a cat’s vocal cords that make them rattle together.
You’ll hear the most common purr when your cat is happily sitting on the sofa beside you, but the cat isn’t strictly telling you that it’s happy. “The emotion is secondary,” says Bradshaw. “They’re not telling you that they’re content, what they’re telling you is ‘Stop making sudden movements and pay attention to me.’”
In fact, that’s what the other two purrs – that have subtly different sounds – are asking of you too, just in different situations. One you’ll hear in the kitchen when your cat wants food (“a kind of urgent purr, it’s got a sort of whining noise in it, which some people find quite irritating”). The other is heard when a cat is in distress, and will be familiar to vets who tend to cats after road traffic accidents, for example. “Clearly that cat is in pain and its not happy at all,” says Bradshaw, “but again it’s the same basic message: It’s saying ‘Look after me.’”
6. “Why are cats affected by catnip?”
Catnip is a plant in the mint family with a smell that is apparently irresistible to cats. Scientists don’t know exactly how catnip works on cats, or why evolution has hung on to the version of the gene that makes them go crazy for it. Only around two thirds of domestic cats are affected, showing a combination of feeding behaviour and female sexual behaviour, and limited research shows that it affects big cats too.
It doesn’t appear to have any lasting benefits for any of them. “It probably was useful for some dim and distant ancestor of the cat,” says Bradshaw. “But now it’s just a quirk and nothing more than that really.”
It is, however, useful for cat owners (or zoo keepers) who want to distract their feline companions for a little while.
7. “Why does my cat tread up and down before settling on my lap?”
Cats who have been hand-reared sometimes do a kind of kneading on their owners. “This is the treading motion that kittens use to stimulate their mother’s milk,” says Bradshaw, and some cats never lose the idea that their owner is their mother, so they’ll tread on their owner even though they’re never going to extract any milk.
A second possible explanation is that your cat could be trying to mark you. “There are little scent glands between cats toes, and they do tread on things and scratch things to leave scent behind,” says Bradshaw.
But if they always do it just before sitting down, they’re probably just making a bed. “This is something that they would instinctively do when they were settling down in some vegetation somewhere,” says Bradshaw. “Obviously a sofa is not going to be covered in weeds or anything, but they still go through the motions.”
8. “Why does my cat immediately dislike some people, but love others?”
Cats’ preferences can vary quite a lot when it comes to new people: Some will be very interested in meeting all visitors that come to their house, others will be much shyer and hide away. But if we’re talking about a cat that seems happy to meet some people but clearly hates others, it’s harder to explain – but could be to do with that cat’s past.
“Some cats are very fussy about who they go up to, and every cat has its own reasons,” says Bradshaw. “It’s probably something that happened to it when it was a kitten.” For example, if the cat was ill when a person who smelled a certain way was around when they were young, new people with a similar smell could get the cold shoulder, even years later.
The main thing is that chances are it’s not the person’s fault, and your cat doesn’tknow something you don’t about your friend it has mysteriously taken a dislike to.
9. “Why does the cat next door to me keep staring at me through the window at night, but run away when I stare back. Is it a spy?”
Cats interpret stares as a threat, and when two cats stare at each other, one of them will always back down. So the cat next door is probably interpreting the stare as you saying “I’m not a friendly animal”, and running away because of that.
As for why the cat is staring in the first place, it’s probably just that cats who spend a lot of time cooped up indoors will often end up sitting on the windowsill because that’s the most interesting place to be in the house. “Cats just stare out of the window all the time,” says Bradshaw. “I don’t think the cat is deliberately trying to stare anyone out.”