Cats came into my life the summer I first moved into a house that had been abandoned for several years. When I first moved in, I would hear scratching that came from the direction of the back patio and wondered if perhaps I had moved into a haunted house. But I soon found out that a scrawny black and white cat had given birth to her kittens underneath the deck. She was in very bad shape at the time with a skinny frame and fur loss. So, I began feeding her on the back patio until I could figure out what I wanted to do. I met her four kittens a week or so later and worked out a rescue plan.
Those early days when I brought them into the house were a huge learning experience for me. I needed to restore their health, but I also needed to learn how to live with these little animals when I had not grown up in a household with pets. That's right. These five kittens were the first animals to ever live with me. I was worried. And I was scared. I wanted them to be happy.
I ended up watching cat behavior shows and reading cat care books until I learned how to get them to truly trust me and to feel safe in their new home. It took a year before the boy kittens felt comfortable enough to come sit near me, while the mother cat and her girl kitten had taken to me much sooner. It's been two years, and I am still learning more and more about my fur babies. Like most cats, they love playing in boxes and will meow when they consider their food bowl to be too empty. I can't go to the bathroom alone. Some of my cats love sitting on my lap, but a few will only come up to me for an occasional pet on their heads. I've really learned how to pay attention to understand what my cats like or don't like and what they want from me.
Cats might be the most misunderstood pets in the world. We're never too sure what to make of these creatures and misconceptions about cats abound. While owners and their cats will often develop their own communication with each other, we're often still baffled by some of their behavior. What would our cats want us to know? We talked to two animal behavior experts to get the inside scoop on our feline overlords.
"I'm not really that much of a loner."
Most people assume that cats want nothing more than to be by themselves and left alone. But that's not always the case. According to Dr. Elizabeth S.M. Feltes, DVM, ACVB resident-in-training, of The Behavior Clinic in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, cats actually like having another cat around. "Cats would be very happy to grow up with other cats or live with their litter mates," she says. "It's a great idea to adopt more than one kitten from the shelter. They're more receptive to living with other cats when they're young." Kittens also learn how to be cats from other cats, so having more than one feline around will help them to develop cat social skills.
While it might be harder, older cats can still learn how to get along with another cat if you decide to bring home a companion for your companion animal. Dr. Feltes advises that you introduce the two cats slowly. Separate the two cats with a closed door and allow them to get used to how the other smells. This can take time, so be patient. "Follow their cues and take as much time as they need before full contact," Dr. Feltes says. "They need to get to know each other."
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"I have preferences for how you touch me, if I let you touch me at all."
Not every cat will want to be petted from head to tail. Some cats love to be picked up by their owners, while others only want an occasional quick pat on the head. "Every cat is different," says Dr. Carolyn Lincoln, veterinarian and behavior medicine specialist, of Play To Behave! in Northeastern Ohio. "Cats want you to touch them, but you have to play by their rules." She says that cats often love to rub their cheeks against your outstretched hand. Other cats will go for a full snuggle against your body, while another cat might enjoy a gentle scratch under their chins.
According to a study in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, our kitties generally love those cheek and chin strokes. But make sure you avoid their tails. Another spot that your kitty might not want you to touch is his belly. Cats will roll and show their bellies when they trust their humans or another cat. It's not an open invitation for a belly rub. Some cats might be an exception to this bit of wisdom but definitely know what your cat prefers if you'd like to stay in your kitty's good graces.
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"I love playing games that let me hone my natural hunting instincts."
Indoor cats can become bored easily without playful stimulation. Our feline friends still possess many of their natural instincts and being indoors hasn't fully tamed the wild cat within them. One game that Dr. Lincoln suggests is to hide kibble in various places to give your cat the chance to "hunt" her food. "You can also put treats inside of toys that require them to use their paws to open," she adds. "Pounce and play type of toys can provide great enrichment for your cats." She also advises to rotate your cat's toys so that she won't become bored with them.
People should also make sure to teach their cats what is and isn't appropriate to play with. You don't want your cat to think your hand or foot is a toy. "Instead of using your hands as a toy [that they'll attack], you should use a fishing pole-style toy that you hold away from your body," says Dr. Feltes. "It's still very interactive and will give your cat the thrill of the hunt." Toys that mimic natural behaviors, such as hunting, will keep your cat happy and healthy. Even crinkly balls of paper can be a great pounce and play toy!
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"I'm very particular about my litter boxes (yes, I need more than one)."
When it comes to where cats go to the bathroom, they have very specific requirements. Dr. Feltes says that it's a misconception to place litter boxes as sights unseen. "If the litter box is hidden in the basement, it can be difficult for your cat to get to it in an emergency," she says. "Litter boxes should be located around the house. They need more than one litter box to get to, and it should be accessible." Older cats would have trouble running to the basement and tackling stairs. Hiding the litter boxes increases the potential for bathroom accidents. The general rule is to have enough litter boxes for each cat in your house, plus an extra one, in accessible areas throughout the house.
Another important thing to keep in mind is cleanliness. Our cats don't want to do their business in a filthy bathroom. Scooping and doing full clean changes of the litter can make the difference between a happy cat or a grumpy cat. "You'll also want to stick to whichever kind of litter your cat prefers," says Dr. Lincoln. "Cats don't like change very much. So, if your cat likes a particular clay litter, stick to clay." That means you shouldn't switch to pine or newspaper litter the very next day. And people might like the scented litters, but your cat won't always agree. They're sensitive to smell; fragrance-heavy litters can smell unpleasant to them.
Cats might always possess an air of mystery, but we're willing to learn more about their needs and how we can make living with us more enjoyable. It requires understanding what a cat needs, whether it's a clean bathroom or a chin rub, and communicating with our cats on their terms. You'll also be happy to know that your cat really does love you, according to recent research. And we all know that a cat sleeping on our laps means we don't have to go anywhere until the cat has finished her nap.
Watch Martha and her friend Anduin Havens share their tips and tricks to living with cats: