Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Feline instincts

Months ago, I wrote two posts (Are your cats bored? and So your cats are bored. Now what?about boredom in house cats. In those posts, I talked about undeniable instincts that drive a feline's behavior in relation to boredom. In a way, exploring these instincts in depth is a continuation of that discussion and the next step of the puzzle.


What are instincts?

On some level, we know the conceptual definition of an instinct. It's ... INSTINCTUAL. But what are instincts really? Merriam-Webster defines an instinct as, "a natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity," or, "a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason; behavior that is mediated by reactions below the conscious level." So instincts aren't reasoned - but specific responses to what's going on around a living organism. These reactions are inherent - a matter of nature over nurture - and are passed from generation to generation with little variation. So these responses are largely out of conscious control and do not require thought. They are BIOLOGICAL, POWERFUL responses to our environment that enhance the chance that we'll survive. It should be pointed out however, that instincts are not always acted upon - there could be any number of reasons why a living organism does not follow his instincts - usually because of another instinct that overrules it. For example, when Bear was homeless, his instincts should've been food, food, and food. But when I set food out, he just wanted to crawl in my lap and let me pet his belly. Other feral cats came by and ate the food - so it wasn't a guarantee that he'd get any - but his desire for love, attention, and affection over-rode his instinct to eat. Cats are more than the sum of their instincts - as we see every day.




Why should we care about feline instincts?

Many cats are surrendered to shelters each year because of behavior associated with their instincts. Scratching, spraying, litter box issues ... of cats surrendered to shelters each year, these behavioral issues are second only to economic issues in their number (some sources say behavioral issues are the number one reason cats are surrendered to shelters). And over half of animals that go into a shelter never come out again - and for cats, that number is estimated to be closer to 70% never making it out of a shelter. Estimates are that six to eight million cats and dogs end up in shelters each year. To comprehend the extent of the problem, let's say three million of these are cats. 70% of three million is 2.1 million. TWO POINT ONE MILLION cats are euthanized due to lack of space, resources, and adopters. If you want to be optimistic, and think only 50% of cats never leave the shelter, that's still one point five million cats a year that die in shelters. And these numbers are for cats that make it to a shelter (which represents about 10% of the total strays). It's estimated that another seventy million (or so) cats and dogs are strays. If even ten percent of the shelter surrenders and stray cats are due to behavioral/instinctual issues (and you assume half of the strays are cats), that's 10% * (3 million + 35 million), that's three point eight million cats that are left outside or surrendered for behavioral issues. MILLION. MILLIONS OF LIVES! If only 10% make it to a shelter, the problem is MUCH larger than it appears. These are just examples - don't get too hung up on the numbers as it's hard to know which statistics to trust.

Many people don't understand that scratching, spraying and other non-desirable behaviors are INSTINCTS with a BIOLOGICAL basis that ensure the best chance of SURVIVAL. The cats aren't being bad. They aren't ignoring their humans or their wishes. THEY ARE JUST BEING CATS. Can you imagine being shamed and abandoned for being the very thing you are? My hope is that by educating people on what's normal for a cat, they can make better decisions if a cat is right for them in the first place - and prevent later surrenders for behavioral issues that are actually completely normal. For me, learning about the wonders of felininity causes me to love them and appreciate them even more. Cats are really exquisite, complex, beautiful creatures.





In trying to put together this post, I found very little information on the exact instincts cats have. I found conflicting numbers as to the problem. I couldn't find any articles detailing how many cats are surrendered due to behavioral issues. I'm not used to writing without facts and numbers behind me and I don't feel comfortable sharing this because of those unknowns. But their lack tells me something very important about the value (or lack thereof) people put animals in this society. Feline instincts and the consequences of humans misunderstanding their cats are just not on most people's radar. Does that mean we shouldn't talk about it? How do people who share their lives with cats learn what to expect? So please forgive me as I stumble along and try to define the problem (as I did above) and speculate what feline instincts are. I'm not an expert - only someone who wants to talk about something that is too often ignored.



What are the feline instincts?

I'm a cat lover of all stripes (and spots). As a kid, I was especially fascinated (and pretty much OBSESSED) with snow leopards and white bengal tigers. Big cats are such majestic creatures, just like our house cats. Despite the size difference, there are a lot of similarities between big cats and house cats - in fact, they share 95.6% of their DNA. In trying to elucidate the instincts of a house cat, I propose that many of the common characteristic behaviors of big cats and house cats represent a biological connection - instinct. The behaviors both cats share - despite their different conditions and environments - hint at a biological link. Instinct is nature over nurture so it makes sense that the common characteristics - from creatures in vastly different environments - would represent such instincts. Usually, I would defer to better educated sources, but the lack of information I found makes most of this post conjecture. I couldn't find a list of feline instincts - nor much specific information about them.

Before I move on, I'm not going to get involved in the debate over whether house cats are truly domesticated. I've seen many arguments and each side has its merits. If domestication is conceptualized as human influence on breeding and care of the target species, you can see why some people argue that cats aren't domesticated. Unlike dogs, we usually have little influence in cats' breeding - most breeding occurs outside of human control.

I've included more than instincts - I've included abilities I believe are related to instincts. You'll notice that many of these instincts are inter-related. Where the exact lines are isn't as important as understanding that these are normal - and instinctual behaviors. Also, I don't claim this list to be complete - but more a starting point for discussion. Let me know in the comments if you think I missed one.



*** Hunting *** 

Large cats and house cats alike are natural born hunters. They stalk their prey, hide, and lie in wait for the perfect opportunity. Our house cats have this hunting instinct - and we see the manifestation of that when they stalk us or bite us out of the blue or stalk their toys. Because they have no natural outlet for the hunting instinct, housecats make an adventure in their heads. The behavior associated with this adventure might not be to our liking. Hiding behavior also plays a role here.

Cats REQUIRE meat - they are obligate carnivores in terms of nutritional requirements. Big and house-sized alike, cats can't process greens or obtain nutrients from them. Both sized cats are generally most active at dusk, dawn, and at night. Interestingly, cats are believed to groom themselves before hunting to groom off most of their scent so the prey doesn't smell them coming. Both kinds of cats do the distinctive pre-pounce butt wiggle that endears felines to so many.


A cat's life is a cycle of feed, rest, hunt. Rest is a prelude to the next hunt. They aren't marathon runners - but sprint for as long as it takes to catch their prey. Both kinds of cats can go from sound asleep to completely awake in a split second.





*** Food preservation ***

I found it interesting that big and housecats share another trait: food routines to save food for other meals. Has your cat ever pawed his kibble out of the bowl or seemed to play with or hide his food? Those behaviors are likely related to their big cousins who hide food to save it for later.





*** Owning their environment (including scratching) ***

Both types of cats mark their territory by rubbing their scent glands (to release pheromones) on that which they are claiming and scratching their surroundings. Cats also mark their territory by spraying. Both cats have retractable claws. This is one of the areas I believe humans should understand better. When a cat scratches the furniture, it's not to get even with you for some slight, it's INSTINCTUAL to own and claim their territory. This includes housecats and their staff. Head-butting, bunting, rubbing along our legs - we are claimed and they make sure any roving cats know it. Despite a cat's need to scratch, we can live peacefully with them with proper scratching outlets (scratching posts) and training. Declawing creates even more behavioral problems that are much worse than scratching. And declawed cats retain the instinct to scratch.

Why do cats scratch? Cats scratch to stretch their muscles, shed old cuticle or claw sheaths, sharpen their claws, and leave scent marks. They are NOT scratching to be vindictive or harmful to our possessions.







*** Climbing ***

Our housecats usually like to climb and the big cats can as well. Is it to survey or master their territory? Or to keep them safe from predators? Maybe to look down on us humans to put us in our places? Often, climbing is involved in play. This brings up another point - we don't know all the whys about feline behavior - just that it seems instinctual.










*** Finely honed sense of smell ***

House and Big cats have fantastic senses of smell and can open their mouths to smell better. They do this to engage the second scent detection organ: Jacobson's organ at the base of the naval cavity. When cats open their mouths, wrinkle their noses and pause breathing is called the Flehmen response. Some mammals other than cats are also able to do this. The response allows pheromones to enter into Jacobson's organ. While sense of smell itself isn't really an instinct, I believe that communicating by scent and cats' reliance of scent is instinctual.


*** Sleep ***

Both types of cats sleep between 16 and 20 hours per day. They conserve energy for their high intensity hunting. A cat's life is a cycle of feed, rest, hunt. They aren't marathon runners - but sprint for as long as it takes to catch their prey. Both kinds of cats can go from sound asleep to completely awake in a split second.







*** Grooming ***

It's estimated cats spend roughly 30-50% of their waking hours grooming. By doing so, they get rid of their smell in preparation to hunt, remove parasites or keep cool.




*** Kneading *** 

Kittens knead their mother's teats to stimulate the flow of milk. Older cats continue to do this instinctively when they are happy, content, feel safe, etc.


*** Curiosity/play ***

This is related to the hunting and climbing instincts. Big cats, like their smaller relatives, like to hide and think they can't be seen even though they can. String, paper, toilet paper, boxes .. hiding ... climbing ... cats love to play and are curious about changes to their environment. 










This is heightened by a cat's reaction to catnip. The reaction to nepetalactone is genetic - biological and often causes a cat to lick, sniff, roll, jump, and generally act like a crazy-pants. Not all cats react to catnip - but many large and housecats do. Housecats often chase each other, whap each other, and wrestle - as do the bigger cats - especially when they are younger and still dependent on mom.








*** Reproduction/survival of the species *** 
For those of us who spay/neuter our cats, we don't even think about reproduction for the rest of the cat's life. But in the wild, both big and house cats instinctively mate. Spaying and neutering prevents territory marking, fighting, roaming, and caterwauling related to the instinct to reproduce. Around ten percent of animals entering shelters have been spayed or neutered - which means many of the behaviors related to the instinct to reproduce could've been avoided if the people had just spayed or neutered their cats.


*** Vocalizations *** 
Cats of all sizes "talk" to each other and humans. Most of this is via smell - but they've been heard to talk to each other as well. Our cat Ellie will meow to herself happily. And she's acquired the nickname "Yellie" for how talkative she is to her humans. And my two cats will call to each other. Big cats roar and housecats purr. Other well-known vocalizations include meowing and chirping though the different types of vocalizations are almost endless.




*** Intellect *** 

Cats are very smart. When their environment is not stimulating, they have the capacity to make believe otherwise. Watching my cat Bear has been instructive in this sense. I can literally SEE things taking shape in his head as his eyes dart around. He's making his environment stimulating to meet his needs. To some extent, this intellect and ability to imagine work so our cats are less bored. Cats need stimulation and attention and if they don't get that, their mind will create it - and in ways that we might not appreciate. Again, intellect isn't really an instinct - but felines use this intellect in an instinctual way.


*** Survival *** 

This describes many of these categories - hunting, sleeping, climbing - an over-arching instinct to these is just to survive. Our domestic cats are usually fairly removed from needing to survive - but they've proven that they can. I was conflicted about adding "survival" because all instincts are about survival to some extent. That is their purpose. But I wanted to give recognition to the cats who fight for every little thing for no other reason than to remain alive.

This encompasses a sense of safety and security - again, related to climbing and hiding to protect one's self from predators (and annoying sisters).


*** Differences *** 

As similar as house and big cats are, there are also many differences. While these differences don't really inform us on instincts, I'm including them as well. Most of the differences between large and housecats are genetic and represent the 4.4% of DNA they don't share. A study published in the 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that the majority of differences between house cats and wild cats are genetic - in the genes that determine personality traits. Big cats are genetically more aggressive - while housecats genetically are more inclined to develop memories, learn and respond to environmental rewards, and be receptive to interactions with humans. There are physical differences in brain size, pupil shape, noses and whether the cat roars or purrs due to a different bone in the big cat's and housecat's throat.

Big cats are also more solitary - with the exception of lions. Our house cats are more social as indicated by their genes. Are house cats more biologically likely to interact with humans because they've had to as they became domesticated? In any case, house cats have found interaction with humans to become instinctive. House cats NEED human interaction - and most prefer shorter and more frequent interactions on their terms. A lot of people think cats are fine on their own - and while this might be true of their bigger relatives, our housecats need interaction and affection. My cat Bear is a great example - when he's ignored for too long, things start breaking. The biological changes in domesticated cats shows us that cats are adaptive to many different situations - as determined by their instinct to survive.



Conclusion

As I've said before, this post isn't meant to be authoritative or a last word on this subject. It's meant to start the conversation about feline instincts and spark the education of people who don't understand felines' behavior. Our cats deserve that much. They deserve love and devotion and not abandonment or shame because their instincts are inconvenient for us - and this is especially true when so many cats die in shelters after being surrendered.


Sources:

Many of the numbers cited come from 12 Alarming Facts About Pet Homelessness.
Sources for the similarities and differences between big cats and house cats:

37 comments:

  1. What a very interesting and nicely put together post. When two species cohabit, humans and cats, and those species are intellectually adept and skilled in different things, humans must expect to see actions, and cause and effect in their lives. Lets face it, when humans struggle so very much with compatibility (may I should say more accurately incompatibility!) issues, it is a miracle cats can get along with us. But then they work the system well, and if we work with them, then things generally go fine. Of course each species has its own sliding scale of what is acceptable, and when those do not meet or fall into tolerance (no matter how rational or irrational the human one is) things fall apart.
    I'm just off to get Mrs H to move over on the sofa a bit, and to scratch my ear so we both can feel happier...
    Toodle pips and purrs
    ERin

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    1. Thank you! Let us know if you manage to convince Mrs. H. We're always wondering how best to make friends and influence people ;)

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  2. Yep, we put our feline stamp of approval on all of this ! PS: did we see Ellie laying on top of someone's suit??? silly hoomin! That's like putting up a neon sign " shed here!"

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  3. Dang, you nailed it and we've got those covered, except for the reproductive thing!

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    1. Us too! Though Momma does sometimes wonder what kind of kittens we'd have ;)

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  4. That is such a great post and if only we could get that message out to first time pet owners so they would know some of those facts. It might discouage some people from getting cats, but that might be best. Well done.

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  5. This post has so much important information that I truly wish more people knew and understood. Far too many cats are surrendered for behaviors that are simply feline instincts. It is perfectly possible for cats to have forever homes and still be cats! Thank you for sharing this with us!

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    1. Thank you! We're always so unsure about sharing posts that aren't funny - so we truly enjoy your feedback!

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  6. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful post. A lot of great messages here for learning about feline instincts. Plus the photos are always just so wonderful to see. We hope everybody gets a chance to read this post so they get a better understanding. Have a great rest of your day.
    World of Animals

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  7. I will totally share this post! Humans should be ashamed that so-o many kitties have been euthanized due to their ignorance and understanding about the behaviors of the feline and its needs. I hang my head in sadness for all the innocent lives that have been lost. Thanks for getting the discussion going and providing insight. Hugs.

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  8. guyz....we troo lee N joyed thiz post two day; itz de best oh all werldz.....
    R'z,... de big catz.... N sum soooper kewl fotoz oh ewe both ~~~~ 984 pawz UP !! ☺☺♥♥

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    1. We're so glad you enjoyed the post! Momma always worries people won't read if it's not funny! ~Bear Cat

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  9. Great post, that's impawtant information about us cats ! Purrs

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  10. We always accept our cats for who they are....no matter if it's inconvenient to us humans. Great post!!

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  11. I really enjoyed reading this, and really like the photos! The picture of Bear jumping down from the shelf and standing up with the bird toy are two of my faves. Of course, Ellie is always so lovely, and I like the ones of the two of them together. Like others, I also wish people understood cats better.

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  12. Well awnty Kat, mommy says Bear choosin' luvvin' 'stead of noms is what makes cats intelligent sentient beings. Choice is equated with intelligence. We actually listed the feline instincts that drive cats, we just called it instincts and basic drives. OMC That foto of Bear holdin' the toy while standin' on his hind legs is just purrecious. And OMC so is the one of Bear and Ellie with the sparkle ball. Really, we luv all the fotos, those were just 2 of our really big faves. Big hugs

    Luv ya'

    Dezi and Raena

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    1. We didn't see that! And we searched the internet like crazy!

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    2. Well piddle. We need to work on our rankin' stuffs. Like SEO we think it's called. MOL Big hugs

      Luv ya'

      Dezi and Raena

      https://dezizworld.com/2017/05/01/service-cats-there-is-no-bully-cat-breed-the-instincts-of-cats/

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  13. Gosh, those numbers are staggering ...I don't even know what to say.

    Rosie tends to eat everything super fast and doesn't paw her food or save it at all. But our new guy Teddy does do this! I didn't know about smelling with their mouth open.

    Thanks for this informative and very important post! I'm going to share it on pinterest and tweet it out as well! Great job!

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  14. Great piece, MommaKat! I wish more people knew about feline instincts. We've met so many cats who ended up at the shelter because of "behavioral issues." If only humans took the time to educate themselves before adopting...

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    1. It's a double edged sword in that we need MORE people adopting cats and not less - but it seems to happen a ot that people adopt without trying to understand "cat."

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  15. I suspect behavioral issues are the number 1 reason for both dogs and cats when it comes to relinquishment. So sad. If people would just take the time to figure it out; there are such easy solutions generally that don't require taking Fido or Kitty to a shelter (or worse, just releasing them). Nice work sharing the feline side of the equation. 🌟 Gold star for you!

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    1. I was surprised that I couldn't find any numerical support for that - but I agree with you.

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  16. What a great post! Very well written, researched and presented! Olive (and occasionally Woodrow) do try and hide their food when they're done eating. Woodrow tries to hide the other cats' food, too. I think it's so cute. All five of our cats are pretty vocal, but Sophie would probably be on par with Yellie, er, I mean Ellie.

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    1. Woodrow sounds like such a character ... lap-hopping, food hiding ... I had no idea Sophie is so vocal - well until the video you shared on your blog today ...

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  17. Wonderfully written post and needs to be shared widely and often! I remember us having a discussion about this around the lunch table at the CWA conference, us cat lovers who always strive to understand and think like our cats is a concept that is not a given for many pet owners, hence the large numbers of abandoned cats due to ‘behavioral issues’. When in fact it’s a human issue of not understanding. That is why it’s so important for us to continue the education and awareness about the unique qualities of our furry kits, as you have so eloquently portrayed here. :)

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    1. Our conversations really got me thinking ... those are the best kind of friend!

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