November 25, 2008

Animal behaviour and welfare: Cats Part 2


Cat’s senses: Communication: Social behaviour

By Dr Clive Dalton

  • Kittens are born nearly blind and their eyes open at 7-10 days old (range from 2-16 days).
  • So touch and physical contact are very important to cats. This has big implications for humans and is widely exploited to the benefit of both cat and owner.
  • Cats can see colour but with limited perception. They have better colour vision than dogs.
  • Cats are creatures of the night and see well in poor light due to the structure of the eye. They can dilate their large pupils.
  • Each eye has 150-205 degrees peripheral vision, with 90-130 degrees overlap for binocular vision. So they have a total visual field of 250-280 degrees.
  • Cats cannot focus closer than 75mm - but at that close distance when hunting they use other senses. Their best vision is around 2-6m
  • Kittens are born with poor hearing and start to become normal by 3 weeks.
  • Cat hears sounds up to 50-85kHz - human upper limit is 18-20 kHz. So they hear about four times better than humans and in the ultrasonic range that we cannot hear.
  • Cats can also hear higher sounds than dogs.
  • Their hearing range is very wide - over 10.5 octaves.
  • Cats have mobile ears allowing rapid response to locate the source of the sound.
  • They can interpret different wave patterns hitting each ear.
  • The ear structure is a important in aiding balance when falling
  • Cats have a very well developed olfactory system - 1000 times better than humans.
  • Smell is very important in communication.
  • Cats recognise the general smell of their home environment and are sensitive to any small changes.
  • It's important to get the cat used to anything new in the environment as soon as possible - e.g. a new cat or baby.
  • Cats have a Vomeronasal organ (VNO) on the hard palate which they can use to sense chemicals in aromas. They then show a Flehmen response, baring their teeth and giving a quiet hissing sound - called the "gape response" like the Flehmen in large animals. You see it when they sniff catnip.
  • Smell governs what a cat will eat so they should avoid blocked noses.
  • A cat's sense of smell is much more developed than in humans.
  • They can detect small changes in food and you see this if you change a brand of cat meat. They will almost starve before they'll eat the new brand.
  • Newborn kittens have an acute sense of smell to help them locate teats
  • Cats show little response to sweet things but can detect salt, sour and bitter.
  • They are very sensitive to the taste of water which explain their bizarre behaviour of sometimes drinking from muddy pools and fish tanks.
  • Taste is less important than smell - smell is everything to a cat.
  • Cats don't taste when hunting prey, only when sink their teeth in after capture.
Touch (Kinaesthetics)
  • The cat's whole body is very sensitive to touch.
  • The long outer guard hairs of the coat are especially sensitive.
  • Hair movement provides information for the cat in its environment, e.g. wind direction to approach prey.
  • Receptors also are concentrated in the feet pads.
  • Cats are not very sensitive to heat - can stand up to 52C, e.g. lying beside fire.
  • They can detect changes of 0.5°C via their noses which they use in hunting.
  • Cats have very mobile whiskers used for sensing. Whiskers are forward when walking or hunting and back when greeting or sniffing.
Memory and learning
  • Cats can show some ability to reason and work things out - but it is limited, so make sure you have not been anthropomorphic in drawing conclusions.
  • The can understand cause and effect - if the interval between each is short.
  • The have a fair degree of memory retention if reinforced by repeated attempts.
  • Examples are cats that learn to jump up and turn door knobs or work cat doors.
  • Cats can learn from copying other cats. Kittens learn a wide range of behaviours from their mother, or mothers reinforce inherent behaviours.
  • More people are now training cats to do tricks, apart from the basic needs of house training, and stopping them scratching furniture.
Communication - sound
  • Cats being very social animals have a well developed communication skills.
  • They have learned to vocalise a special range of sounds for humans - cats don't mew to other cats.
  • Sixteen different sounds have been recognised that are audible to humans. There are also many which are not audible to us.
Pure calls
  • Murmur
  • Growl
  • Squeak
  • Hiss
  • Spit
  • Teeth chatter

Complex calls
  • Mew
  • Moan
  • Meow
  • There is also a wide range of tones and meanings - most common are growl/hiss/yowl.
  • Purring is most commonly known to humans as the sign of a happy cat and is a very typical greeting call. It was a long time before researchers found how the cat did it.
  • It's caused by rapid contraction of muscles in the larynx when the cat is contented or happy. A cat can sometimes purr when stressed. Purring is used when a mother nurses kittens as a contentment reassuring sound.
  • The meow has a wide range of tones and it's often easy for owners to interpret some of these sounds.
  • Oestrus howling has an important courting function, not appreciated by humans or their neighbours during the night!
Communication - body language
Cats use a large amount of non-verbal communication such as:
  • Body postures
  • Facial expressions
  • Eyes, ears, mouth, tail and coat.
  • They have developed a range of body signals for humans and other cats.
  • "Friendly and relaxed" - the tail is held out behind or erect and curled slightly forward. The cat will rub itself against things and rub its muzzle on you to transfer scent.
  • "Passive" - it sits crouched, tail and head down and avoids direct gaze.
  • "In conflict" - the entire tail twitches or just the end. It is done in association with other signs.
  • "Offensive threat" - the cat gives you a direct stare and its body is poised for attack. The cat approaches an enemy with sideways motion and prancing steps. This makes the cat look bigger to the enemy.
  • "Defensive threat" - the back is arched, body fur fluffed up and tail up straight. The chin is drawn in to protect the throat. One paw is raised ready to lash out.
  • With the eyes, narrow eyes show friendship with the stare being a definite threat.
  • When the cat turns away from you it can be a sign of disdain or that the relationship in from the cat's viewpoint is OK. If a cat jumps up on you this is also a sign that the cat does not see you as a threat.
Communication - pheromones
  • These are very important in cat communication.
  • They are spread around in urine marks, faeces, scratch marks from feet and cheek glands.
  • They make these marks where they are easy for other cats to find.
  • The higher they scratch the more powerful impression they leave.

Balance and activity
  • In the first couple of weeks after birth kittens crawl with sideways movements of the head like pups seeking warmth and teats.
  • It is 7 weeks before they can thermoregulate (control their heat) themselves as they need Mum's heat up to then.
  • By week 2 they can raise their front end.
  • By day 17 they can stand and do an awkward walk.
  • By 6 weeks they can right themselves if they fall over.
  • Cats show this amazing "righting reflex" when falling as they land on their feet. This is a function of the inner ear, a large cerebellum and the spinal cord.
  • Kittens are notoriously active and need to be encouraged to play in their socialisation and development.
  • Mature cats reduce activity and spend more than 65% sleeping.
  • Tom cats during the mating season are very active traveling long distances checking out their territory.

  • Play is an essential part of normal behaviour in the cat.
  • It starts early as soon as kittens are mobile when they spend long periods interacting.
  • Play teaches the kitten all the movements needed to survive and reproduce as an adult.
  • Kittens reared in a litter are usually better-adjusted adults than single-reared kittens who only have their parents to play with.
  • As an individual in a litter, there's a much great chance to learn to prepare and defend yourself against surprise attack, than as a singleton.
  • A wide range of play moves have been identified:
  • Scoop, Toss, Grasp,Poke-Bat, Bite-Mouth, Belly up, Stand up, Vertical stand, Pounce, Chase, Side step, Horizontal leap, Face off
  • This is a big feature of cats and occupies 30-50% of a cat's waking time.
  • It also creates problems - fur ball.
Purpose of grooming:
  • Maintains health of the skin and coat.
  • Cools the body by evaporation of saliva.
  • Controls parasites.
  • "Displacement grooming" is a response to conflict, environmental stress or frustration. It's thought to be a response to reduce anxiety.
  • "Mutual grooming" is used for social interaction and to show a relaxed state with other cats. Developed from maternal grooming.
  • "Over grooming" - a problem sometimes started by itchy skin. It can develop into a serious obsession where cats become "closet lickers" and are hard to catch at it and stop.
  • Kittens must be socialised early at between 2-6 weeks. This is a much shorter time span than in dogs.
  • If they can be handled before their eyes are open, that's all the better.
  • If kittens are not socialised before weaning (6weeks) then you'll have problems and it will take time to tame them.
  • Kitten Kindy. This is a new approach by veterinarians to teach people how to socialise their kittens.
  • At 2-9 weeks provide human contact and handling.
  • As often as possible before 12 weeks handle kittens and routinely restrain them.
  • 7-12 weeks - provide social play.
  • After 14 weeks teach them fearful play, and learn to play fight.
  • Be careful with this "play fight" activity as it can teach them to be over aggressive.
  • Check the "Scruff test" where you hold the kitten by the scruff of its neck. If they allow this and don't fight of struggle, then they are probably OK.
Nutrition and feeding
  • Cats are mainly carnivores, but modern cat foods contain some cereals to provide carbohydrates.
  • Cats eat both day and night whereas dogs only feed during the day.
  • They are very fussy about what they eat due to their acute sense of smell, and once settled on a brand of cat food they often don't appreciate changes.
  • In the wild they would probably eat every second day after a hunt.
  • The principles of nutrition are simple - the cat's nutrient intake should meet its needs. So growing, pregnant and lactating cats will need a much higher plane of nutrition than the family cat that sleeps most of the time.
  • Overfeeding leads to obesity and health problems.
  • The modern domestic cat is regularly overfed. Owners who go out to work leave an ad lib feeder full of biscuits, or tinned meat in a dish far in excess of what the cat needs. Unless owners see feed left, they think the cat will be hungry and hence starve!
  • Owners need to discuss feeding their cat with a veterinarian so that it receives a correctly balanced diet which meets its needs - not its wants.
  • Cats are seasonal breeders and the start of oestrus is stimulated by increasing daylight. They need 12-14 hours of light to get going.
  • So the breeding season gets into full swing in spring.
  • Toms also are seasonally active but stud Toms will mate any time. Their maximum fertility is in spring.
  • Puberty is around 9 months but some breeds will start at 4 months.
  • Cats can be desexed at 6 months old.
  • Non pregnant females cycle every18-24 days.
  • Heat periods last 4 hours if mated and 5-10 days if not.
  • Ovulation is induced by copulation and it happens 27 hours after copulation.
  • If they don't conceive after mating they will often have a pseudo pregnancy and won't start cycling again for 36 days.
  • Cats have litters usually averaging around 4-5 kittens.
  • Kittens are born blind and with very poor hearing like pups.
  • Eyes open around 2-3 weeks.
  • The cat mating ritual is very defined with mock fighting, body contact, and rapid and repeated coitus. It's a very noisy affair that can go on all day.
Desexing (neutering)
  • Castration of males and spaying females prevents reproduction and all the associated behaviours.
  • Spraying and fighting may still continue, but this may be brought about by special environmental factors. It may be done away from home range.
  • The timing of desexing is important - get it done early before 6 months?
  • It is claimed that no other cat behaviours are affected.

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