You know how your cat keeps ripping up your expensive furniture despite you trying your hardest to convince her to stop? You tell her sternly not to. You get your trusty water spray bottle out. You then resort to yelling and screaming. Obviously the cat understands everything you are trying to convey to her. Well, it turns out not exactly….
According to an article from Wired, cats kind of haven’t evolved to understand human behavior the way dogs have. Think about it: you’ve seen a dog look upset or ashamed when it did something wrong and its owner is clearly showing anger. When is the last time your cat looked ashamed? Exactly, never! Our guess is that instead of looking ashamed the last time your cat did something you didn’t like, she probably ran away from the scene because you jumped around with your arms flailing like a wild ape and your cat had no idea why.
You see, cats have always lived in the wild as solitary predatory hunting animals, so they didn’t have much need to read social cues. Dogs on the other hand evolved from wolves, which travel in packs and are very social. In this context, it makes sense that dogs are more attuned to social signals from other animals around them. Cats are really just designed to be stalking and killing machines that somehow sleep with their eyes open. Just look at this insanity:
How to Understand Your Cat Better
So how can you better understand and communicate with your cat? Wired spoke with Dr. Tony Buffington a veterinarian, researcher, and professor at Ohio Statue University who has written a book and an iTunes U companion course called Cat Mastery. He’s an expert in all things cat and especially how diet and environment affect cats’ health.
Dr. Buffington says that most cat owners really just don’t listen to and understand their cat’s behavior. Cats have no way of connecting an owner’s erratic and confusing behavior to the actions that the owner doesn’t like. To your cat, he’s just living with a gigantic and terrifying, emotionally volatile oaf (which may or may not be the case). And while this is a bit of a paraphrase from what Dr. Buffington actually said, it isn’t far off. These are his exact words:
“How the hell is your cat supposed to know that you’re yelling at him because you want him to stop scratching the couch? To the cat, you’re this crazy primate who is attacking him for no reason.”
In fact, not only are you confusing your cat with these kinds of behaviors, but you are also potentially making them sick. You may be inducing stress by continually and habitually interrupting your cats natural behaviors – things that she’ll probably be doing when you’re not in the house anyway.
Instead of trying to influence your cat’s behavior through punishment, change your cats environment. This works because cats evolved as solitary creatures, as discussed above. Dr. Buffington suggests that the best way of changing cat behavior is to make use of things like double sided tape and tin foil, two textures that cats really dislike. Just look at how this cat reacts when one owner put tin foil on his kitchen counter to deter his cat from jumping on it.
Reinforce the deterrent by adding something your cat might like, such as a cat tree (we wrote an article on finding the best cat trees). When your cat chooses the behavior you prefer, feed her a treat as a reward and she’ll learn the correct behavior over time.
Other Important Tips for Understanding Your Cat
Dr. Buffington also has some other tips the might help you improve your relationship with your cat and some of them might be counter-intuitive, especially for new owners. Here are some of his most important points:
Put your cat’s litter box, feeding bowls, and favorite toys in one area. Your cat needs a safe space to be when it doesn’t want to be social and putting these items all over the house makes it difficult for her to feel completely comfortable in one place
One of our favorite lines from Dr. Buffington is: “Cats don’t understand glass, but they do understand height.” Dr. Buffington recommends putting perches on or near the window so that your cat can look down on animals that might otherwise be threatening like large dogs
Every cat owner eventually discovers this the hard way: don’t pet your cat’s tummy just because she’s exposing it. While exposing her belly is a sign she trusts you, it isn’t an invitation to pet that area (unless you want to get a couple of awesome new claw marks all over your arm)
When introducing new cats to each other, don’t just drop them in a room together. Rub each cat with the same dry towel so that they get used to each other’s scent. Don’t force cat friendship either – cats are competition to each other in the wild and that doesn’t change when you put them in your living room
Finally, remember that when your cat acts out, it isn’t to annoy you or disobey you. She just doesn’t understand the rules you are playing by and you have to adapt to something she better understands. If you do that, you and your cat can be best friends forever: