Cats, Partially Explained

Cats: Mysterious. Antisocial. Low-maintenance...Or none of the above? The Dog Trainer shares a few things you might not have known about that "other" animal living in your house.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #217

Fact #3: Food-Dispensing Toys Aren't Just for Dogs

Cats have a reputation as relatively low-maintenance pets – you clean the litterbox and put food on the floor, and all’s copacetic, right? No, no, no. Even more than dogs, housecats probably lead lives of quiet desperation and boredom. Play with your cats – no, it is not enough to give them a little plastic ball with a bell inside! Interact! Clicker train them. And deliver their kibble in ways that mimic hunting. Getting your food out of a bowl without having to work for it might seem like a good deal, akin to having a trust fund, but it’s probably more like never having a chance to do work you were built to do and that you love. (Think of how much cat play resembles hunting.)

Housecats probably lead lives of quiet desperation and boredom. Play with your cats – no, it is not enough to give them a little plastic ball with a bell inside!

The American Association of Feline Practitioners, a vets’ group, has some suggestions. Throw your cat’s dry food piece by piece for her to chase and “capture.” Put it in food-dispensing toys that she has to bat around or that presents a puzzle for her to solve. The vets’ group also suggests hiding dry food around the house, which might be a great idea for some of you, but where I live could lead to a super-fat dog and some very skinny, very annoyed cats.

Fact #4: The Longer Your Cat Digs in the Litter Box, the Better

Back to those Feline Practitioners – you should check out the guide I link to above, by the way; it’s wonderful. They cite research suggesting that cats who scratch in their litter for less than 4 seconds before urinating or defecating are more likely to eliminate outside the box. The reason is that they scratch longer in litter that they prefer! So if your cat’s just doing a perfunctory dig-dig instead of a prolonged dig-dig-dig-dig-dig-dig-litter boxdig, you might want to experiment with a different product. Even if the prolonged digging makes you want to tell your cat to get on with it, already, it’s probably less annoying than pee on the sofa cushions, right?

Fact #5: Just Staring at the Toy = Still Playing!

I always used to think that when my cats stopped chasing the dangly toy, they were bored with the game. Not so! 

Beth Adelman, a cat behavior consultant, was the first person to explain to me that as long as the cat is watching the toy with ears pricked he’s still interested and playing. Cats’ hunting behavior consists of a little bit of running and pouncing, and a lot of lying in wait. The cat who’s staring at the toy is still stalking it, and it will eventually meet its dreadful fate.

Remember that the object of hunting is to not to come away empty-pawed; it’s to kill and eat. You can make games more engaging and rewarding for Kittychai by tossing her a morsel of kibble or a treat every few grabs of the toy, so her “predation” succeeds.

Fact #6: The Social Roll

Awww, we’ve all seen this behavior: Kittychai runs to greet us, then rolls over on her back like a dog rolling in…something. This behavior, called a social roll, is a sexual signal in unspayed female cats, but for our spayed and neutered house pets it’s a friendly greeting. We often take it as an invitation to a belly rub and then are surprised and disappointed when our cat claws or bites us. But the experts at Cats Protection UK point out that the socially rolling cat is in a vulnerable position, and their video on cat body language says going for the belly is almost a “betrayal.” Instead, rub or scratch your cat’s head and ears.

As always, you can write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I get so many questions that I can’t respond individually, but check out past episodes – I might already have answered yours. And visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy your cat as much as you enjoy your dog.

Cat and dogcat with yarn, and cat rolling images courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).