By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 31 October 2012)
Cat Behaviours and Abilities
Cats are actually crepuscular rather than nocturnal, meaning that they are most active during twilight (dawn and dusk) rather than throughout the darkest part of the night. Because their prey tends to be most active at twilight, cats evolved to take advantage of this. Crepuscular animals may also become more active during a full moon.
When cats look as though they are grimacing with their mouths open, they are actually reacting to an interesting smell by drawing scent molecules into an organ they have in the roofs of their mouths called the vomeronasal organ or Jacobson’s organ.
The righting reflex is the ability of a falling cat to change its body orientation in midair in order to land on its feet. However, contrary to popular belief, cats don’t always land on their feet.
Colostrum is the mother cat’s milk, which offers a potent mix of nutrients and boosts the immune systems of newborn kittens. For this reason, cow’s milk isn’t a good substitute for mother’s milk. Orphaned kittens should be provided with kitten milk replacer instead.
Heat is a female cat’s period of sexual receptivity, characterized by certain behaviours such as yowling, rolling around on the floor, trying to escape outdoors, and being more affectionate than usual. An unspayed female goes into heat every 2-3 weeks and stays in heat for anywhere from 3-16 days.
Superfecundation is the ability of a female cat to have a single litter by multiple fathers. It’s often the reason why kittens from the same litter look dramatically different from one another.
A cat that is already pregnant may go into heat and become pregnant with a second litter. The result is that she carries two litters at different stages of development, a phenomenon called superfetation. Either the second litter will be born alongside the more mature litter, in which case the premature kittens may die, or the second litter may hang on until its due date, which can present difficulties for the nursing mother after they are born.
Weaning is the process of transitioning kittens from mother’s milk to solid food. This process can begin at around 4-5 weeks of age and is usually completed by 8-12 weeks.
The hock is the portion of a cat’s rear leg that on a human would be called the ankle.
Known also as the third eyelid or haw, this transparent whitish inner membrane closes to moisten and protect the eye. In a cat that is sick or suffering from an eye infection, it may stay across the eye even when the outer eyelids are open.
Comprising tiny little hooks, the papillae line a cat’s gut and tongue. For this reason, cats shouldn’t be given wool to play with unsupervised, as it can get caught on these barbs, forcing the cat to swallow over and over again.
The quick is the visible vein that runs into the base of a cat’s claw. When trimming the claws, it’s important not to cut into this portion, as nicking the vein will cause pain and bleeding.
The stifle is the part of a cat’s rear leg that on a human would be called the knee.
The tapetum lucidum is a reflective area inside the cat’s eyeball that bounces light back to enhance night vision. This feature causes cats’ eyes to glow in the dark and in flash photographs.
The vibrissae are the coarser hairs commonly known as whiskers. Contrary to popular belief, cats don’t use their whiskers for balance, but whiskers do aid in navigation and hunting.
Human Reactions to Cats
An ailurophile is a cat lover. Famous ailurophiles have included Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Florence Nightingale.
An ailurophobe is a cat hater or a person who is afraid of cats. Famous cat haters have included Pope Gregory IX (who began the mass persecution of cats) and American president Dwight D. Eisenhower (who ordered his staff to shoot any cats near his home). Anecdotal reports suggest that Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon may have been phobic of cats, and many accounts also name Adolf Hitler as a cat hater, but it’s unclear whether he hated cats, feared them, or disliked them due to allergies.
Miscellaneous Cat Words
The Elizabethan collar is the cone that pets wear after surgery to prevent them from aggravating an injury or surgical site by licking, chewing, or scratching.
Also known as free choice, free feeding involves leaving some food (usually kibble) out all day and night so that a cat can eat whenever it wishes.
Onchyectomy is the technical term for declawing, a serious procedure that involves removal not only of the claws, but also a portion of bone in each toe. Declawing can trigger lifelong behavioural problems.
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means that they have evolved to consume an all-meat diet and have no need to seek out carbohydrate-rich plant-based foods. By contrast, dogs are omnivores, capable of easily digesting and extracting energy from both animal and plant-based food sources.
A zoonotic disease is one that can be transmitted from animals to humans (see Diseases That People Can Catch from Cats for more information).
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Choron, S.; Choron, H.; & Moore, A. (2007). Planet Cat: A CAT-alog. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Dodman, N., Dr. (2010). “Thwarting the Alarm Clock Cat.” PetPlace.com.