Cat Behavior: A Quick Primer for Dog People

My cat Pisco in her natural habitat: stealing my blankets.

I love cats. I also love dogs, but I’m a cat-lady at heart. But, seems like whenever I meet a dog lover, I hear a similar refrain: “Cats? You know they don’t really love you.”

  1. Words hurt.
  2. I think there’s a lot that we can unpack there.

Most of what I see as the division between how dog-lovers and cat-lovers view the opposite species is misunderstanding. Cat-lovers can see dogs as needy, overly-friendly, and high maintenance, it’s true. Dog-lovers seem to agree that cats are cold, calculating, and not to be trusted. I think this is because we in general have equated a dog’s traits, man’s best friend, as being the most ideal traits an animal can have. And it’s not just enough for the animal to have the traits of a dog, the loyalty or the loving nature, but also to communicate those feelings like a dog.

This bias for dog traits extends toward other animals as well. The Verge put out an interesting video recently, wherein they examined a 60 year long experiment to “specially (breed) for their dog-like friendliness toward people” in foxes. In the video, the term most often used is “domesticated” in relation to the foxes’ progress. In watching the video, my first and most immediate reaction was not that it was a shame to see that they seemed to have failed or otherwise had a few more steps to clear to make these foxes more domesticated— it was that these people, in breeding for “dog-like friendliness toward people” had instead ended up with an animal that behaved quite like a cat. And, yes, by the confines of the labeled experiment — “specially (breed) for their dog-like friendliness toward people” — there is still some work to be done, yes, but it is interesting that the measure for success in domesticating an animal is how much it ends up behaving exactly like a dog.

What I saw in the foxes as companionable friendliness was seen by the breeders as indifference. The reaction to these foxes was very, very similar to the reaction I see to many cats. Back to the Verge video, at the point where they test the foxes for their progress toward becoming dogs, they sat the reporter in a chalk circle, placed a fox in the cage with him, and measured success based on how the fox interacted with the human in their midst. Then, they repeated with a dog. As a cat person, I am all but convinced that the cats, like the foxes did, would have “trotted up, sniffed me, then went to relax somewhere else” because not all animals are going to communicate with human beings in the same way.* That doesn’t mean that they are incapable of loving us.

So here, briefly, as a few quick cat behaviors interpreted for dog people so we can maybe get on a little bit more on the same page.

Watch the Ears

For the true beginners out there, watch the ears. The ears are one of the most visible indications of a cat’s general mood. Cat’s have a finer control over their ear muscles than some dog species and thus they are able to use them to communicate with humans. In general, if they are perked up, you’re good.

If they flick backward, stop what you are doing. This can mean stop touching me, you’re too close to my space, or I’m not interested in company right now. In general, the best remedy is to give the cat some space. Usually the ears are the first warning and if you back off, either stop petting them or scooting over just a little bit more on the couch, the cat will stay hanging out with you and usually move on to whatever their next preferred activity is — ranging from going immediately to sleep, starting to take a bath, or just relaxing with you in companionable silence. That brings me neatly to my next point.

Cats Do Actually Want to Spend Time With You

Yes! Surprise (for some of you), but your cats do actually enjoy your company. Building relationships with your cats is based on two things: trust and empathy. That may sound a bit familiar because that’s really how you ought to build relationships with everyone, but with cats it can take a little bit more patience.

How do dogs spend time with you? Well, they’re excited to see you! They run up, sometimes barking, almost always with their tail wagging. They greet you when you come home and nip at your heels as you walk around. They sleep at your feet or up next to you on the couch. They’re excited by everything you have to say, doubly so if you have food.

How do cats spend time with you? Probably not by greeting you at the door. With my cats, when I come home, there is always a vanishing act and sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of a tail or a head as it ducks behind a wall or the sofa. But, when I go into my room and lay down for a few minutes, relaxing on my phone, something magical happens: the cats come back. On their own terms, both of my cats come up to me after a few minutes of quiet. Leela is more aggressive, headbutting (a cat hug, rubbing up against you to mark scent — like a nicer way of how dogs pee on everything) my arm, my phone, my face. Pisco is quieter, skittish, sitting down near my feet. Sometimes I’ll pet her. Sometimes I won’t. Sometimes she wants me to, sometimes she doesn’t. With cats, sometimes it’s enough that you’re in the same room. One thing most cats have in common is they detest that frenetic, fast paced, loud greeting that most dogs seem to love. They will come up to you on their own time, on their own schedule, if you let them. Once they’re there, they are none too shy about asking for pets.

Sometimes they won’t snuggle up with you, that’s true. Sometimes it’s enough to just hang out. Cats are that friend you don’t need to talk to, the one who comes over after class or after work and just sits at one end of the couch, you at the other, watching the same show or doing your homework or reading, hanging out without having to actually do anything. It’s enough to be sharing the same space.

Oh, and cats are doubly excited to see you if you have food too. This is when my cats act most like dogs, but again, on their own terms. My cats won’t come out for wet food or tuna juice if there are a bunch of loud strangers in the house and they won’t usually stay if I go get them, pick them up, and place them in front of the food. Cats want to spend time with you, but kind of like how a teenager wants to spend time with their parents: on their own schedule, doing what they want, and it’s better to let them believe it was their idea all along.

Staring Contests

If cats just like to chill with you and a headbutt is a cat hug, then what about when cats stare at you unblinkingly as if they’re plotting your murder? First of all, cats have several eyelids and really don’t need to blink all that much. Secondly, speaking of blinking, I encourage you to stare back, meet their eyes, and then slowly and purposefully blink yourself.

The cat may blink back.

This is a sign of trust. I’ve also see it called a cat kiss. Similar to how dogs lick people, but not as gross. The cat isn’t plotting your murder, the cat is just hanging out. The cat thinks you’re a pretty cool dude, and blinking at your cat is a good way to show them that the feeling is mutual.

These were just three quick things that I see my dog friends most misconstruing, defined as well as I could against dog behaviors. Cats are fairly independent creatures, so much so that it’s often said that we didn’t domesticate cats, but cats instead domesticated us. But, I certainly don’t think that means that they’re any less loving than dogs. If you settle down and are willing to quietly share space with cats, they will share space with you. They will cuddle with you, play with you, and trust you. But you do have to meet them on their level and understand what it is they are trying to tell you. Cats love nothing more than showing affection on their terms.

Oh, and dog people? I love you, but please don’t whistle at cats. It confuses them. Get used to kissy noises, preferably three of them, very quickly.

*As an aside, if anyone has a link to a video of a similar “domestication” test done with cats, I would absolutely LOVE to see it, please and thank you.