Fall 2018

How Cats Think

A veterinary behaviorist and alum explains why cats are so different than dogs—and if that means they love us any less.

By Genevieve Rajewski

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Photo: Shutterstock; Illustrations: Amber Day

Although cats outnumber dogs in American households, they tend to confound us more than man’s best friend. For that, we have evolution to thank. “As a species, dogs have been living and hunting with humans for 15,000 to 30,000 years; as a result, dogs have evolved with people selecting for strong human-dog communication over a very long period of time,” explained veterinary behaviorist Stephanie Borns-Weil, V07. “Cats didn’t evolve to have the same close personal relationship with humans. They went through a self-selecting evolutionary process in which the most successful cats were the ones that could tolerate living in close proximity with people and other cats.”

In other words, dogs have adapted to communicate with humans—cats, well, not so much. And that makes how they think more of a mystery.

At Tufts’ Animal Behavior Clinic, Borns-Weil treats cats for issues such as eliminating outside the litterbox and aggression toward feline housemates or their owners. She also recently helped the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals become a certified Cat Friendly Practice by reducing the veterinary clinic-related stress on cats that causes more than half of U.S. owners to avoid important regular exams.

As someone who has lived off and on with cats since 1984, Borns-Weil said having a feline housemate offers us no end of moments straight out of science fiction. “You are living and learning to communicate with an alien species in your home, all without taking a spaceship,” she said. “And cats are pretty darn alien.” Ahead, Borns-Weil offers a cheat sheet for the feline mind.

What do people get wrong about cats?
People don’t always appreciate that cats and humans tend to have different interaction styles. A good example of this is petting aggression, or when you’re petting a cat and it suddenly swipes or bites you. This is because people are low-frequency, high-intensity interactors: We are gone all day, and when we get home, we want to sit down and pet our cat for a half-hour. Cats are low-intensity, high-frequency interactors: They prefer to walk by a person, maybe do a little bit of rubbing, and then move on.

How do they communicate with us?
Cats only meow as a solicitation behavior toward people. Much of cats’ behavior involves marking their territory with scent glands found in the head or neck. So sometimes a rubbing cat wants affection and sometimes it just wants to deposit its scent and gather information on you. To understand what a cat is likely thinking, you need to evaluate a behavior in context of the whole cat. Is its tail wagging? Dog people often see this and mistake it for a happy cat, but cats swish their tails when they’re angry or upset.

Do cats have different needs than dogs?
Dogs get to experience plenty of interesting stimuli just on their daily walks. Cats live most of their lives in a box—the house. But in the wild, cats spend much of their day hunting and examining their territory. Although we protect cats from getting struck by cars or eaten by coyotes by keeping them indoors, we also take away their job and their meaning. As a result, there’s probably a lot of undiagnosed depression in house cats, and many cats are overweight because all they do all day is sit around and wait to eat. To fix that, we need to enrich the environment for indoor cats, like you would with a captive wild animal.

How can we do that?
Cats need to engage in behaviors that come naturally to them. You can make cats work for their food by putting it in cat puzzles and foraging toys. Cats also need perches where they can sit and look at the wildlife outside or to watch simulated wildlife, such as videos or fish in a lidded tank. You also can find ways for your cat to be safely outdoors. Create a “catio,” a screened-in outdoor space. And if you start them young, cats can learn to tolerate a leashed harness to explore the backyard with you.

Can we say that our cats love us?
There’s plenty of evidence that cats develop very significant bonds with people. How do we translate that into human terms? Do they love us? The behaviorist B.F. Skinner wouldn’t appreciate it if I used that terminology. But if “love” means an animal is bonded to you, looks forward to seeing you come home, chooses to be with you, and considers you a preferred associate—sure, cats love us.


Decoding Your Cat

Tips for understanding, and fixing, common feline problems.

Peeing outside the litter box
Call your veterinarian first, because this could be due to a urinary tract infection, diabetes, arthritis, or another medical condition, Borns-Weil said. Cats may also mark with urine due to hormones or anxiety. Other reasons your feline may be avoiding the box include letting you know it needs a cleaning, protesting the type of litter, or signaling discomfort in accessing the box. Some environment modifications might just do the trick.

Biting the hand that pets it
People and cats have different interaction styles, plus cats rarely touch each others’ bodies—they mostly focus on the head and neck. In short, cats just aren’t that comfortable with you rubbing their belly or back. “Brief petting—concentrated on the head and neck—is most likely to please your cat,” Borns-Weil said.

Yowling to wake you up
If a cat starts yowling, call your veterinarian because a medical issue may be to blame. However, this is usually a learned behavior. People often engage with and feed their cats first thing in the morning, so yowling pets are often looking for attention or food, Borns-Weil said. “Cats are pretty good trainers of people.” Try ignoring the early yowling, and rewarding your pet with attention or food at a more appropriate hour. Making sure your cat has adequate exercise and mental stimulation can also help.

Protesting vet visits
“Because most cats spend their whole life indoors, their stress level just from going outside the house is much higher than the average dog’s,” Borns-Weil said. Make things easier for both of you by acclimating your cat to its carrier. Occasionally feed it in the carrier and leave it out for your cat to explore at its own pace. And opt for a carrier with a removable top: The veterinarian can often conduct the exam as your cat stays inside the carrier in comfort.

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