Principles of Cat Behavior
Nowadays we see the domestic cat as a wonderful companion. However, cats have often been victims of misconstrued ideas about their behavior, having been called evil, mean, revengeful or being treated as if they were smaller dogs.
In order to make sure that cats and humans can live in harmony, it’s necessary for people to understand cats and why they behave the way they do. As such, to comprehend their behavior, we need to know the origins of the domestic cat.
Cats evolved, most certainly, from the African Wild Cat. Their domestication process was very different from the one dogs went through. Dogs were trained and socialized with humans from early on. However, cats got closer to civilization when looking for small prey to catch. When people started saving food, small animals started to come around, such as rats and mice. Cats followed their prey, and those who were more tolerant of people started to stay closer to humans and breeding, which accounted for genetic lines of cats that were friendlier not only towards humans but also towards one another.
Most people tend to compare cats’ and dogs’ behavior, which is very wrong. Dogs are social animals, and so they naturally tend to try and please people. Cats, on the other hand, are more independent. This doesn’t mean that they don’t like people or other animals, it just means that their priority isn’t always social.
Because they weren’t trained/groomed to be human companions with various roles, such as dogs did, cats maintain a lot of their natural behavior. In the wild, cats were both predators (for small animals) and prey (for bigger predators). This is the base of their behavior.
Another important characteristic is that cats are very territorial. They are always aware of their surroundings and always making sure everything is in place in their territory. They feel the need to control their environment, so they can feel safe from potential predators. You could say cats can be very paranoid that things might end up badly for them, thus their protective layer. That’s why we often see them jumping scared or even walking carefully with their eyes wide open, searching for possible threats.
It’s important to fully understand that cats still have these natural characteristics well marked in their behavior, so when we bring a cat into our house, it’s normal that they have certain aspects of their behavior that might feel misplaced.
However, cats are highly adaptable—they can adjust very easily to different environments, making it their own territory that they feel safe in. That’s pretty much what happened when we decided to share our lives with cats. They adjusted to our environment—but it doesn’t mean they were domesticated, so we need to always remind ourselves that they are territorial, acting both as predators and prey. This resumes the three basic dimensions of their behavior. If we think about their actions with this in mind, we will see cats playing as predators and hiding as prey. Cats’ love for boxes is well known, as well as their love for heights—both aspects deriving from their prey behaviors. They use the vertical space to control their environment and make sure they are safe!
All of this helps us to understand why it’s fundamental that cat owners provide environmental enrichment and try to adapt their home to their cats, helping them express their natural behavior so that they all can live happily and balanced lives.