Please Explain: Cats

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John Bradshaw, director of the University of Bristol’s Anthrozoology Institute, and author of Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, tells us all about cats—from how they were first domesticated to how they hunt to how they show affection. He offers new insights about the domestic cat that challenge many of our most basic assumptions about our feline companions.

A Few Cat Facts

“We can’t reason with cats," said John Bradshaw. "We have to accept them as they are.”

Signs of affection: Rubbing against you, coming toward you with an upright tail, grooming you. Purring is associated with contentment, but science suggests it’s just a signal that it needs attention. Some cats purr when they want to be fed,  some cats have been known to purr when they’re in pain.

Playing with your cat, especially if it’s an indoor cat, is important. It mimics hunting, a cat’s natural instinct, and keeps it engaged and active. John Bradshaw recommends a puzzle feeder to keep a cat busy. You can make on yourself: Poke a few holes (slightly larger than a piece of dry food) in a plastic bottle. Put a small amount of dry cat food in it the bottle. Put on the lid. Give it to your cat to play with.

Cats have the basics in their minds of how to kill prey. If a kitten doesn’t encounter live prey until its grown up, it might not be the most effective hunter. When cats seem to play with a mouse or other prey instead of killing it, it’s a sign they’re not especially skilled hunters. It’s not purposely torturing the animal.

Whether or not a kitten is handled by people when it’s very young—as early as three weeks old—determines whether it’ll be social and comfortable around people. If feral kittens don’t come in contact with humans until they’re eight or ten weeks old, it can be too late for them to be comfortable and social with humans.

A cat’s instinct is to run away from people and things it doesn’t like. If you ply the cat with food to get it to come out of its hiding place, it’ll come to realize that people aren’t a threat and it will eventually be more social.

Cats don’t need a great deal of physical space, so they’re fine inside. They’re very adaptable, which is why they make good pets.