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The Science of Cats! Fun Facts About Cat Behavior

Updated: Jun 14

Would it surprise you to know that people don't actually know that much about cats? Scientifically speaking, that is. Historically, humans haven't been all that interested in the animals who live in our homes. Studying domesticated animals was not considered to be academically rigorous. Maybe humans assumed that because dog and cats live with us, we know all we need to know about them. In fact, it's more likely that dog and cats became domestic through their very thorough study of human behavior.

A cat with two different colored eye lying in a cubby and looking up with soft, relaxed eyes.

This can still be a mistake. We think because we love them and live with them we know everything we need to know about the animals in our homes. In fact, there is a lot to learn both about the species around us and our friends as individuals including their body language and preferences for food, activities, and touch.

As I like to say, loving animals and wanting to do our best for them, means being curious and learning as much as we can about who they are, as species and individuals.

Fortunately, there are some very wonderful cat scientists and cat behaviorists out there now taking the time to research what cats really like -- and they are doing this to benefit cats. Hurrah! Hats off to these cat heroes! May you be supported in your work and find satisfaction and joy in it.

Here are some of my favorite things I have learned about cats which are pretty common knowledge among cat behaviorists. Can I say cat nerds? Let me know if there is anything new here for you and your favorite cat behavior facts.

Did you learn anything new here? Did I miss anything? Please share in the comments.

Did you know? Cats are:

Ambush predators: A lot of us know that cats are hunters. But it's the kind of hunting they do that explains a lot about cat behavior. They like to lie in wait for an opportunity and then pounce! The lying in wait, watching, and stalking is a big part of their behavior. Why it's important: If your cat s doing a disturbing behavior like pouncing on you moving cat trees and furniture around so there are less easy places for them to lie in wait can make a big difference. And when playing with your cat, letting the cat spendi time watching, waiting, and stalking is a big part of the game for your cat!

It's also interesting to see what the world looks like in your cat's vision: See the world from a cat's eyes. They see fewer colors, are near-sighted, and have wider peripheral vision.

Crepuscular: When I was growing up I learned that cats were nocturnal, but in fact domestic cats are crepuscular which means they are most active at dusk and dawn. Or, meaningfully, they are most active around the times where we might be getting ready to go to sleep (in summer) or wanting to get another hour or a few more minutes of sleep. Explains a lot doesn't it? Why it's important: Giving your cat a play session or small meal right before bed.

Descended from the African wildcat: No matter what your cat looks like, genetically there's not much difference (just 13 genes) between this wildcat (felis silvestris lybica) and the cat (felis catus) in your home.Why it's important: It tells us a lot about what cats including their preferences for warm places, tolerances for heat, low water intake, and territoriality. These wildcats are both predator and prey animals, which also explains a lot of cat behavior: confident and cautious in turns. It's OK if you still want to call them your tiny tiger or house panther, though.

Did you know? Cats prefer:


Frequent feeding: Left to their own devices cats would eat several small meals throughout the day. Why it's important: This is why I recommend feeding more small meals if possible and using slow feeders, puzzle feeders, and treat dispensing toys for cats. Feeding two meals out of a bowl can lead to an unsatisifed and bored cat who will make their needs known!

A cat with wide eyes and dilated pupils lying next to a pillow with a picture of a pink cat touching it.

Litter 1.5-2 inches deep: Yay, scientists did studies and actually asked cat their preferences! Of course, knowing your individual cats' preferences is key, but this is a great starting point. Why it's important: Well, it could save you a little money, you don't need to use so much! Also, if you are having any litterbox issues with cats peeing outside the box litterbox hygiene is key. Other studies have shown that cats generally prefer larger litter boxes and clumping litter, but covered or uncovered boxes are individual preferences. And, yes, cats absolutely prefer a clean, scooped box.

Their food and water separately: Many cats don't like it when bits of food get in their water. They like their water clean. And they may not like the scent of food while drinking. So separate their food and water. Don't use those bowls that put them side by side. Why it's important: To reduce disease it can help your cat to drink more water. Provide clean water, a wide shallow bowl filled to the brim, a separate drinking area, and possibly a fountain as many cats like flowing water. Read International Cat Care's How to Encourage You Cat to Drink.

Did you know? Cats need:

Vertical spaces: Cats not only like climbing and being up high, this preference is strong enough that they need these places to be happy and feel safe. They would also love it if you would put their food and water up high as well instead of on the floor. Please and thank you, human!

Us! If you think of cats mostly as independent or anti-social, check out this study which showed that given a choice many cats chose human interaction over food, scent, or toys. Why it's important: If we think of cats as low-maintenance and "easy pets" that could mean that the cats in our homes are not getting enough of what they need --us!. Does your cat sleep all the time? Cats need fun in their lives, too, and they need and love us! Maybe the characterization of cats as introverts is closer. They may recharge their batteries on their own, but that doesn't mean they don't love social time, too! See my posts: Fun Activities with Your Cat: Splurge Edition

Did you know, you can communicate with cats?

Yes! When I was growing up I always wanted the Dr. Doolittle superpower of talking to animals, but working in animal welfare I've learned that I have that skill when I pay attention to animals' behavior and learn to read their body language.

A cat lying belly up on top of a lap top with her back paws facing the camera.

Why it's important: Well, it's fun to know that that head-butting behavior is called "bunting" and cats are doing it because they are rubbing their scent glands on you marking you "familiar" with pheromones. It's also helpful to understand that when most cats roll over and expose their belly it's a signal of trust (not an invitation!). Reaching in to pet the cute belly may be a betrayal of trust for many cats! Although, some individuals may actually like belly rubs. Check out this free course on Feline Communication: How to Speak Cat by Maddie's Fund or this cute book Kitty Language: An Illustrated Guide to Understanding Your Cat by Lili Chin.

Why, it's really, really important though: Cat scientists have spent time observing cats and have noted that certain postures and facial expressions indicate pain. If your cat is aging or having a medical issue, along with observing changes in behavior such as stiffness, less jumping up, lack of appetite, increased sleepiness, and litter box issues this can be very helpful to know. Check out the feline grimace scale. There's a website and app. Dr. Zazie Todd, author of Purr, wrote a great blog post about the Feline Grimace Scale here. See also, International Cat Care's Special Considerations for Elderly Cats and Cat Friendly Homes' 10 Ways to Care for Your Senior Cat.

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