What a Cat Wants, What a Cat Needs

Hello again Bored Surfer!

Thank you for joining me for another enjoyable, informative and occasionally relevant edition of BLOG blog. 

Ah, May is here. That means May Day (or International Workers’ Day if you prefer), Star Wars Day, Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. There are also some lesser-known American observances, such as Nurses Day on the 6th, National Receptionist’s Day on May 10th and National Pizza Party day on the 17th. I also need to mention that May is National Lyme Disease Awareness Month, and the week of May 1-8 is National Pet Week, although I’m not entirely sure how best to celebrate all these occasions at once. Perhaps a Lime margarita and pizza party for all the workers (especially the nurses and receptionists), their mothers and their pets?

In the US, a household is statistically more likely to have a dog than a cat. However, cats outnumber dogs overall, because multiple cat households are more common than multiple dog ones. Depending on your point of view, this means either cats are more popular, or simply more numerous. When it comes to amusing internet videos however, cats have a definite advantage. 

Every dog will have his day, but this particular mass of random musings shall be devoted to the (mostly) silent majority of pets. Cats are often misinterpreted and occasionally maligned. They have been wrongly accused of spreading the Black Death, witchcraft, and stealing the breath from babies, among other things.

In deference to the feline overlords, I will now attempt to offer some insight on the physical and emotional needs of the commonly kept, but less commonly understood house cat. Even if you do not consider yourself a fan of cats, keep reading! It may not give you the overwhelming urge to adopt one, but you may gain a certain admiration for these fine creatures.

Bear in mind that cats are NOT small dogs! While they are both classified in the order Carnivora and they do share a common ancestor, the evolutionary paths of dogs and cats diverged about 43 million years ago (theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/26/cats-vs-dogs). The cat branch (suborder feliformia) contains cats, hyenas and mongooses (mongeese?), while the dog branch (suborder caniformia) contains dogs, bears, stink badgers, weasels, raccoons and seals. One could interpret this as cats being more closely related to the aardwolf and dogs closer to the walrus (goo goo g’joob) than to each other. Although both Canis lupus familiaris and Felis catus (aka Felis sylvestris catus, which denotes not only their close relation to the African wildcat, but is also a nod to Friz Freleng) both decided, at some point, to ingratiate themselves to the human race, these two species have distinctly different physiologic and social needs. 

The website icatcare.org has a wonderful description of the origins of the domestic cat, which I have used extensively as a source of information. The domestication (such as it is) of the cat seems to have started in excess of 10,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East. Among the physical evidence that supports this is the discovery of feline remains buried with human remains dating back 9500 years. This find occurred on the island of Cyprus, which did not have a native population of cats. Presumably, there were other people there who also had imported feline friends, but happened to have outlived them. Oddly enough, though I found multiple references the human/cat joint burial, none of them mention the gender of the person, so it’s hard to know how far back the “crazy cat lady” stereotype goes. 

 About 10,000 years ago, humans started farming and developed grain stores. This provided rodents the opportunity for a life of luxury.  The abundance of those nice, juicy grain-fed mice lured cats onto the scene. Protecting the crops by keeping the rodent population in check was a great service to mankind, which led to a mutually beneficial relationship. Some cats were predisposed to living in close proximity to humans (and other cats) and their descendants became pets. Cats were never subjected to intense selective breeding (like dogs have been) and retain some of their wild ways.

Cats are obligate carnivores. They are designed to get their essential nutrients from animal sources, not plants. They cannot properly digest plant material, and do not make good vegetarians. Although they eat their whole prey – skin, bones organs and all – they don’t usually regurgitate parts like owls do.

With the notable exception of lions, cats are solitary hunters, meant to silently stalk, pounce upon and kill small animals. Their victims are usually rodents, but birds, reptiles and insects are also susceptible. Generally, cats seek prey that are smaller than they are, so capybaras, cassowaries and Komodo dragons are safe. Thankfully, insects bigger than cats died out about 300 million years ago, according to nationalgeographic.com. 

Though they excel at killing small creatures, cats are not apex predators. They are, in fact, considered fair game for larger animals, such as coyotes, raccoons and birds of prey. Many cat behaviors are defense mechanisms to avoid being eaten.  Cats tend to hide or perch in high places so they can monitor their surroundings. They are usually on guard, so they are easily startled by sudden sounds or movements, as demonstrated in a multitude of videos.

To avoid looking like an easy target, cats have become very skilled at hiding illness. This particular propensity is of much greater value to a wild cat than it is to a house pet.  Because cats avoid showing any outward signs of weakness whenever possible, it may be difficult for the owner to realize that their beloved feline friend is in an early stage of disease.

While wild cats generally live alone in their specific territories, they can adapt to group living if the concentration of resources necessitates it. Such groups usually consist of related females and their offspring. There don’t seem to be strict hierarchies within the group, but cats definitely have preferred associates with whom they spend more time.

Cats are quite sensitive to scents, and marking things with their scent is an important form of communication. Things can be marked with urine or feces, or via scent glands on the face, paw pads and tail. It is important to define your territory, so someone else doesn’t come along and siphon off your resources.

Feline vocalizations are usually directed at humans, not other cats. Instead of talking like Eva Gabor or singing “Memory”, cats communicate with one another primarily through scents and visual cues. This makes sense in the wild, where noise can alert your prey to your presence. Sounds could also tip off some potential predators. There is also at least one Predator that has heat vision, so you may have to cover yourself with mud to avoid detection.

Cats are crepuscular by nature, meaning they tend to be most active at dusk and dawn.  This works well for cats that hunt for their supper because these are times when prey is plentiful. This is significantly less optimal for pets, because the operator of the can opener is trying to sleep. 

While cats do not actually have nine lives, they are very agile and adept at escaping dangerous situations. They do usually land on their feet and have been known to survive falls with relatively few injuries. This is due to their ability to turn over in mid-air, “parachute”, and absorb impact. They have amazing healing powers and, it is said, can even come back from the dead if buried in the Micmac burial grounds near Ludlow (although it may be better if they don’t).

The following info is geared primarily toward keepers of indoor cats. Outdoor cats, as you can imagine, don’t really have keepers. They also tend to have significantly shorter life expectancies than their indoor counterparts. There are many hazards in the outside world including, but not limited to: disease, other animals, motor vehicles, extreme weather conditions, toxins, and that neighbor kid.  Free ranging cats are also a menace to birds, rabbits, feral lasagna and other backyard wildlife.

Now that you have a preliminary understanding of felids, it is time to apply this knowledge to your kitty, whom I shall refer to as “Pharaoh”. The title pharaoh does not apply solely to males. It seems (per acientegypt.co.uk) to be a Greek word, based on an Egyptian word that meant “great house”, and later came to mean the ruler. According to historyextra.com, there were at least seven women who ruled Egypt as pharaoh, from Hatshepsut to Nefertiti to, of course, Cleopatra. Your cat undoubtedly has the attitude of the ruler of your house.

Cats are not necessarily “low maintenance” pets. You may not have to take them outside multiple times a day, but they still need food, water, exercise, and someone to clean up after them. They are generally self-cleaning, but some may require regular grooming. Here are a few items to include in Pharaoh’s preferred environment.

Food– The ideal feline diet is high protein, high fat, low carb, and served (preferably warm) in multiple mouse sized portions, with periods of stalking and pouncing in between. While it is more expensive, labor intensive and aromatic than kibble, canned food is a closer approximation to the natural diet of cats. The manufacturing of shelf-stable dry food requires significantly more starch than is found in live prey.  Dry cat food does not, contrary to popular belief, have a significant positive impact on feline dental health. Cats are not designed to fletcherize (google Horace Fletcher if you are not familiar with the term). Their teeth are designed for grabbing prey and tearing flesh, not for grinding. Swallowing whole pieces of kitty chow may increase Pharaoh’s chances of getting diabetes, but it won’t clean her teeth.

Water – While they are not fans of baths, cats tend to enjoy running water. Some cats are satisfied by a kitty fountain; others really want you to turn on the faucet for them. It is possible to teach your cat how to flush the toilet, but do so at your own risk. This can provide hours of entertainment for your cat, but your bill from the water company may be astronomical. Please make sure your cat has a source of fresh, clean drinking water available at all times.

Litterbox– Cats have an instinctive urge to bury their poop to avoid attracting the interest of predators. People noticed this, and provided them with a tray of sand or sawdust or ashes as an option for indoor elimination. Then, in 1947 (according to Wikipedia), Ed Lowe’s neighbor ran out of cat box filler and asked him for help. He gave her some clay minerals that proved more absorbent than sand. It worked so well he ended up starting the kitty litter industry.  Despite Mr. Lowe’s contribution, cleaning the litterbox is still a chore that needs to be performed frequently. The only thing worse than having to clean the litterbox multiple times a day is having to clean up after a cat who isn’t using the box.  

Cats prefer a large, clean litterbox with a couple of inches of unscented litter in a convenient, yet quiet and private, location. They like to have more than one escape route in case they need to make a quick getaway. People prefer covered litterboxes filled with scented litter and located in the furthest corner of the basement. Covered boxes and scented litter are meant to keep people from smelling the litterbox contents. Cats are not fooled by this. They also know that if people can’t smell it, they might not be as diligent about cleaning the box as they should be. The less clean the litterbox is, the less attractive it is for an animal with an acute sense of smell. We are fortunate (in the US anyway, I can only hope any international Bored Surfers are similarly blessed) to have access to one of mankind’s greatest achievements, indoor plumbing. A dirty litterbox is akin to an outhouse, and should be avoided if at all possible. The litterbox needs to be freshened (scoop the clumps; if there are Klumps in there, you have waited far too long before scooping) at least once a day, and the whole box should be emptied, washed with mild soap and water and refilled with fresh litter once a week. Pharaoh may be so delighted at the sight (and smell) of a fresh box that he may feel the need to use it immediately. Consider this a sign of approval for a job well done.

Scratching surface – Scratching is normal cat behavior. A cat owner needs to be prepared for this and supply suitable surfaces for Pharaoh to mark with scratch marks (and scent). If you do not supply such surfaces, she will designate them for you. This will probably include your couch. Keep in mind that the proposed scratching surface needs to be a size, texture and location that is pleasing to Pharaoh’s feng shui, not necessarily yours. Several attempts and possibly the use of Feli-scratch may be necessary to find the purr-fect scratching post. 

Climbing and hiding spots – Because cats are considered prey by some animals, they need places to climb and/or hide to feel safe. If you provide Pharaoh with a nice tall cat tree with several levels and hiding spots, he will be less likely to use your drapes and knick-knack shelves. Multiple levels can also relieve a little inter-cat tension, because several cats can simultaneously enjoy the benefits of vertical space, without having to share a perch. Most cats don’t want to share a common perch (or a yellow perch, for that matter). Many cats like to have a window seat so they can observe (and presumably pass judgment on) the lesser beings of the outside world.

Toys/entertainment/mental stimulation – The life of a house pet is a far cry from that of a free-ranging feline. Processed food harvested from the kibble bush requires minimal hunting abilities. You can spice things up a bit (figuratively, of course) by providing food puzzles that Pharaoh has to manipulate in order to get fed. Note: foodpuzzlesforcats.com has a wealth of information on the subject, much more than I can share here now. Perhaps a future BLOG blog will go into more detail…

As a creature of habit, Pharaoh will also benefit from regularly scheduled play time. Some cats will play fetch; some like to chase and pounce upon the fuzzy little thing on the end of the fishing pole toy.   An added incentive to have a playtime routine for Pharaoh is this: a vigorous exercise session (or two) during the day may encourage her to sleep through the night.

Human interaction -Because Pharaoh is a descendant of the felids that sought out humans, it stands to reason that most domestic cats like some attention from people. It may be only certain humans; it may only be under certain conditions, but the desire does exist. Generally, cats respond better when they are allowed to approach people at their leisure. Being forced to interact with larger creatures can be quite stressful.

Sufferin’ succotash! I seem to have rambled on longer than anticipated. There are many, many more fascinating feline facts, but alas, they will have to wait for a future installment of the BLOG blog. In the meantime, if you have questions about your Pharaoh’s behavior, feel free to contact Renae. She is one of the fabulous veterinary technicians here at Best Care, as well as a Certified Feline Behavior Consultant. 

May your May be amazing.

Dr. Debbie Appleby