I’ve never understood why, but when it comes to having a reputation for being interesting, fun, expressive pets, cats often get a bad rap. Many people who are not cat parents tend to think of felines as aloof, disengaged, mysterious creatures who somehow feel they are smarter than we are (although many times I wholeheartedly believe that they are, but that’s a story for another day).
Cat parents know that cats are not only playful, smart, and expressive, they have unique personalities and, when the occasion calls for it, a great sense of humor. They also display their own idiosyncrasies, just like their dog brethren (as detailed in my post “Why Does My Dog Do That?”, which you can also read here.)
So in the spirit of giving equal time on the topic of intriguing behavior, here are 8 common cat behaviors decoded.
Why Does My Cat…
1. Lick my hair or try to groom me?
Cats groom each other to bond and show affection. When your cat was a kitten and his mother groomed him, it served a functional purpose, but it also became a social ritual that assured him he was part of a family.
When your cat licks or grooms you, he’s displaying affection and showing acceptance of you as his family. Licking is also a soothing, enjoyable sensation for cats that calms them and eases stress, similar to the lowered blood pressure that we experience from petting them.
Of course when a cat grooms your hair, he may simply just enjoy the smell or taste of your hair product. To make sure he doesn’t ingest anything he shouldn’t, you may not want to let him go too crazy on the hair licking.
2. Hide her toys in odd places?
Have you ever noticed that your cat’s favorite toy has seemingly vanished, only to turn up later in some mysterious location, like buried beneath a pile of laundry or under a sofa cushion?
In the wild, cats often bring prey back to their den to consume it and to hide whatever is left over from other predators. Our indoor kitties don’t really have true dens, but they do have special hiding places in their environment that they consider safe.
Some cats even “hide” favorite toys in plain sight in their water bowls or food dishes, since these places are often considered their own personal space and therefore one of the safest areas within their territory.
Some cats also enjoy borrowing small personal items belonging to their guardians and hiding them in obscure places. This behavior satisfies their natural instinct to hunt and retrieve, which is great fun for them… but as Mom to cat burglar Jasper, I know firsthand that it can make you question your own sanity!
However, there is an upside…if your cat enjoys absconding with personal objects, you always have someone else to implicate the next time you can’t find the car keys!
3. Rub up against me or headbutt me?
When your cat rubs up against you, he is marking you with pheromones from scent glands on his head – not claiming you as “his” (as was previously thought), but as “safe”, according to Dr. Meghan E. Herron, clinical assistant professor of behavioral medicine in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at The Ohio State University.
Headbutting your forehead or face (or any part of your body) is called “bunting”, and to your cat, there is no greater compliment he can give you. Bunting conveys that your cat trusts you implicitly and is marking you as safe; it’s a friendly, bonding gesture that he may also display to other pets in the household.
Sometimes your cat may also “nose-kiss” you. Cats only do this to other cats that they know well, since doing it puts them in a vulnerable position. Touching noses allows cats to recognize and greet each other, both visually and by scent, and your cat may enjoy greeting you this way. My little gray tabby, Squirt, is fond of doing this – and I adore it.
4. Always have to jump into the nearest empty box?
It’s a known fact that you can purchase the newest, coolest, most awesomely accessorized kitty condo on the planet, and at some point your cat will probably walk right past it only to jump into the cardboard box from your newly purchased toaster oven.
Cats LOVE boxes. To them, boxes are a potential den and hiding place from where they can safely observe the world, watch for prey, and let’s face it…spy on you. The confines of a box both stimulate a cat’s curiosity and make him feel safer, even if he has to cram his entire body into one the size of a box of Lucky Charms.
As long as it makes him happy! No one said it had to make sense. 🙂
5. Stick her paw in the water dish, or “paw” at the water before she drinks it?
It’s a common misconception that cats hate water; in fact, most cats are fascinated by water and enjoy playing with it. Whenever Jasper hears the toilet flush, he makes a beeline for it, stands on his hind legs with his paws on the seat, and peers over the bowl to watch the water swirling down. Many cats will also sit for long periods of time just watching water running out of a faucet or bubbling in a fountain.
So it’s not unusual for cats to play with the water in their bowls. However, a more accepted theory as to why cats stick their paws in their water before drinking it has to do with the fact that cats dislike stale water that has been sitting around – it tastes stagnant to them. Therefore, they stick their paw into the water to move it around in an attempt to “freshen it up.”
6. Always seem to gravitate to the one family member who doesn’t like cats?
Ever wonder why cats always seem to find the one cat-hater in the room and head straight towards them with laser-sharp focus (much to that person’s chagrin)? Ironically, this is because cats do not like being stared at, so they usually seek out the one person in the group who is desperately trying to avoid eye contact with them!
If you’re feeling sorry for your non-cat guest, you can always clue them in to this secret so they can make some quick direct eye contact with your kitty right from the get-go. Or better yet, you could also just advise everyone not to stare directly at him when they arrive.. that way he can approach them as he feels comfortable, and everyone is happy.
7. Tolerate petting, then suddenly hiss or try to bite me?
Sometimes, during what may seem like a normal, laid-back session of being petted, a cat may hiss or even nip at the person doing the stroking. This is known as “Petting-Induced Aggression.” Although the cause has not been proven, it’s thought that it may result from a neurologic stimulus that occurs in some cats when they become overstimulated.
If this ever happens with your cat, it doesn’t mean that she is angry or not enjoying the attention. It simply means that for her, the interaction has gone on longer than she can tolerate neurologically, and she’s had enough.
Although your first reaction may be to take this behavior personally, it’s important to realize that her reaction has nothing to do with how she feels about you! It’s just the only way she knows how to signal that she’s ready to end the session.
If your cat displays this behavior, it’s important to pay close attention to her body language so you’ll recognize when she’s getting overstimulated. Then you’ll know just how much petting she can tolerate before she becomes uncomfortable and reacts.
8. Press against me slowly and methodically with his paws?
This enjoyable bonding behavior (for both cats and their guardians) is called kneading, and it’s a holdover from kittenhood. When kittens are nursing, they methodically knead their mother’s abdomen to stimulate milk flow.
Once they grow up, cats still associate this behavior with being contented and often continue it with their humans. It’s also theorized that when your cat kneads you, he is marking you as “safe” with scent glands in his paws.
Sometimes kneading may be accompanied by your cat zoning out with a blissful look on his face, and many cats will also drool. Rest assured, if your cat performs this ritual with you, he is one happy, relaxed, contented kitty!
So in conclusion…
Perhaps it’s safe to say that cats aren’t really the mysterious, indecipherable creatures that they may appear to be at first glance. Cats have many different ways of communicating with us, and often what we perceive as “quirks” are truly some of their most endearing qualities.
What other behaviors does your cat display that you’re curious about? Share them with us in the comments below!