Ask Nellie: What About Cats?

The beguiling, entertaining, fascinating and often confusing behavior of cats.

If animals could speak the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow, but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much. - Mark Twain

Although dogs have received most of the attention in this column thus far, it’s time to share the love with the captivating cat.  There’s something therapeutic about observing a cat—be it a household pet, or a feral feline roaming the neighborhood—witnessing a cat’s  daily routine is like following a performance artist practicing his craft. From the languid nap within the confines of a sunbeam to the focused, primal stalk and pounce of a ball of yarn or a field mouse, cats are mesmerizing in their behavior.

Whereas dogs wear their hearts on their furry sleeves, and their emotions and behaviors are fairly explicable (tail wagging generally means “happy to see you”, growling translates into “back off buddy”), cats are generally puzzling in their conduct.

So, to explicate (without trying to demystify, because that’s part of their allure), some of the peculiar and entertaining behavior of cats, I’ve done a bit of research and observing of my own two cats, Bravo and Finnegan.  Some of it relates to cat body language, which never lies, and some has to do with their innate wildness and ancient feline instincts.

Here are a few tips for deciphering the quirky traits of your felis catus:


That low, vibrating continuous sound signals complete and utter contentment; purring is a cat’s version of a tail wag or a smile. The calming sound is exuded in varying instances: joy, assurance to newborn kittens, calming any aggression from a potential enemy. Cats purr at the rate of 26 cycles per minute, and are the only animals in the world to make such a sound.

Tail swishing

The nimbleness of the cat depends upon excellent balance. To get his balance before leaping, a cat will swish his tail. He will also move his tail to initiate the slightest movement of his prey before he pounces.

Playing at night:

Cats are naturally nocturnal, and many sleep during the day while their owners are at work. Plan an aerobic activity for your cat before your bedtime, such as rolling golf balls around on a non-carpeted floor or tying a feather to a string and drag it around the house.

Catnip high:

It may look like marijuana, and in fact, it gives cats a “high” but this kitty herb is actually quite safe, with no addictive qualities. Two theories exist as to its effect on cats; one is that it contains an odor similar to cat urine; the other is that a chemical found in catnip acts as a drug. Cats will sniff it, chew it and roll in it with no lasting side effects.

Bringing you mice and other small critters:

These special deliveries are your cat’s way of showing off his innate hunting skills; he feels responsible for teaching YOU how to hunt. Say “thank you” and then put the critter back out in the yard.

Gazing at you from up on high:

Cats prefer higher elevations because they feel safe and they enjoy the view. Plus, it gives him a better perspective on his territory and the comings and goings of people, animals, predators, and when you’ve filled his food bowl.

Flying around the house:

Like all animals, cats need to expend energy, and dashing around the house (especially indoor cats) is normal. And since most domesticated cats are fed by their humans, they don’t need to spend their days chasing and killing prey, yet that instinct is still very strong.

Self grooming:

One-third of a cat’s day is dedicated to careful grooming. The meticulous licking serves several purposes: it cleans and deodorizes their coat, removes loose hair and skin, increases blood flow and tones muscles.

Back Arching:

Cats have 60 vertebrae—twice the number of humans, and they demonstrate their flexibility when trying to intimidate each other or strike an impressive profile. Arching is a defensive move that helps the cat look larger and more threatening.  

Ear positions:

There are five basic ear signals, revealing if the cat is feeling relaxed (forward and slightly outward), alert (erect and forward), agitated (twitch nervously back and forth), defensive (flattened tightly against the head), aggressive but not frightened (between erect and flattened).

Sources: Peninsula Humane Society/SPCA’  “Why Cats do That”  by Karen Anderson, Willow Creek Press; Pawprints and Purrs, Inc.

The Peninsula Humane Society/SPCA has many cats and kittens available for adoption. In addition, PHS/SPCA has a service where you can request personalized help for behavior problems; go to phs-spca.org, or call the Behavior Helpline, 650/340-7022, ext. 783.

"Dogs come when they're called; cats take a message and get back to you later." - Mary Bly

pat bell March 26, 2011 at 03:25 PM
Our cat just battled a large rubber band, a big blue one from a head of broccoli. into submission. She loves them! She will purposely chase one under a door then go around to the other side to pounce on it again. She then lay down flat on her back, legs outstretched, for a little rest. Here's another quote: Dogs have owners, cats have staff. It's very true at our house.
Laura Dudnick (Editor) March 26, 2011 at 05:33 PM
Pat, that sounds so cute! Our cat loves two things: stretching out in front of the heater, and walking across my computer when I'm working!!
pat bell March 26, 2011 at 05:45 PM
Ours is now curled up in front of the heater, having had her morning "hunt." Her favorite route to anywhere in the living room is up on the arm of the couch, across the back, and down the other arm; see above about liking to be high up. A friend calls it "claiming the top layer." pb
Cathy Campion April 14, 2011 at 04:18 PM
Nice job Joan - thoroughly enjoyable reading! cc


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