Cat Behaviour: Why do cats sulk, knead, hiss, chatter, eat grass, and more

unhappy cat
An outdoor cat avoids eye contact

Do cats sulk?

Many owners think that their cats are giving them the cold shoulder when they turn their backs and avoid eye contact or interaction after being scolded. However, contrary to popular belief, this behaviour doesn’t result from wounded pride or a desire to get revenge by giving an owner the silent treatment. This misconception stems from a misunderstanding of feline communication.

When a cat stares at another cat, she’s behaving in a dominant manner and challenging her rival. When two cats are locked in a battle for dominance, both may stare, as neither wishes to show weakness. Eventually, the subordinate cat will look away, conceding victory to the dominant cat. If neither cat looks away, a fight may break out.

A semi-feral kitten looks sulky or angry, but is actually frightened and defensive; fearful cat expressions are often mistaken for signs of surliness or aggression

Given the size of the owner in comparison to the cat (and the fact that the owner provides the cat with food), the cat is likely to view the owner as more powerful, and therefore dominant. When her human companion is behaving in what the cat perceives to be a hostile or aggressive manner (i.e., raising his voice) while staring directly at the cat, the cat feels threatened. She will turn away and avert her eyes  to signal submission and avoid provoking further hostility.

This is why scolding or punishing cats tends to be ineffective. The cat perceives this behaviour as threatening and retreats, and the resulting anxiety provokes another round of undesirable behaviour rather than preventing it. Cats respond far better to positive reinforcement for good behaviour than punishment for bad behaviour.

Why do cats knead or paddle with their paws?

Many cats regularly make kneading motions (also referred to as paddling) with their paws, especially when they’re sitting on a person’s lap. This involves pressing one paw down and then the other in an alternating motion, spreading the toes with each push. Some people jokingly refer to this activity as “making bread” because it resembles kneading a batch of dough.

Kittens knead when they’re nursing to stimulate milk flow. Because people are much larger and they provide food and care for their cats, domestic cats are like permanent kittens with humans as their surrogate parents. When cats snuggle up with a warm person they love, they can relive the enjoyment and contentment of being a kitten by kneading, often purring at the same time.

Wild cats also use a kneading motion when softening material to make a nest, and some cats will knead soft fabrics in anticipation of lying down to sleep. Kneading or paddling is perfectly natural, and it is not a sign of anxiety or psychological problems.

Some people understandably dislike kneading if the cat doesn’t keep her claws fully sheathed. Trimming the tips of the claws or using a nail cap product such as Soft Paws can prevent accidental scratches.

Why do cats hiss?

hissing cat
Hissing Cat, Monosodium, Morguefile

Cats hiss and spit at those they want to drive away – other animals or people. Young kittens are capable of hissing even before their eyes have opened. Thus, the behaviour is innate rather than learned.

Hissing is a threatening gesture designed to trick the watcher into subconsciously associating the cat with a dangerous snake. A hissing cat flattens her ears, creating a face shape much like that of a poisonous snake. Often, the cat’s fur will stand on end and she will arch her back to make herself appear bigger and more capable of inflicting damage.

Cats aren’t the only creatures that use mimicry this way. There are many non-poisonous insects that have markings similar to those of poisonous species to trick potential predators into thinking that it would be far too risky to take a bite.

Insects may also mimic less tasty species or faster moving species that are difficult to catch. Some butterflies and fish also have markings that resemble eyes on areas other than their heads to trick predators into biting the wrong spot so that the prey can escape.

Why do cats gravitate to people who fear or dislike them?catSome people assume that cats enjoy tormenting those who don’t like them because they always seem to approach the one cat hater in the room, but this mistaken belief arises from a misunderstanding of feline communication. People who like cats tend to stare at them, but cats perceive a direct stare as a challenge, particularly from people they don’t know well, and whose reactions they can’t anticipate as easily. Therefore, the cat makes a beeline for the one person in the room who isn’t staring at him, which is often the person who fears or dislikes cats.

Why do cats eat grass or houseplants?

cat lying on grassWild hunting cats and dogs consume some greenery when they eat the stomach contents of their prey, and non-hunting pets may need to get this vegetable matter by other means. Even big cats such as cougars eat grass.

Grass eating is a natural behaviour for cats and dogs, and biologists and veterinarians have offered several theories to explain why pets need a little greenery.

It’s not known for sure why cats and dogs eat grass and other plants, but the most plausible theories are that grass is needed as:

    • Roughage (for its laxative effects)
    • An emetic (to help with vomiting up indigestible matter)
    • A vitamin supplement

It’s possible that all three of these requirements contribute to grass eating.

When cats and dogs consume prey whole in the wild, they often consume bones, fur, feathers, and other indigestible parts. Cats also swallow their own fur during grooming, and if hairballs form, they must be either vomited up or moved down through the digestive tract efficiently so that they don’t cause a digestive obstruction. Grass may help with inducing vomiting and providing laxative fiber that moves hairballs and other indigestible matter through the digestive system, preventing obstruction and constipation.

Some biologists have suggested that cats and dogs eat grass to obtain small amounts of critical nutrients, particularly folic acid. Folic acid is a vitamin that aids in hemoglobin production and other functions. If they don’t get sufficient folic acid from their diets, animals can become anemic, so they may eat grass to obtain trace amounts of this vitamin, and perhaps other nutrients as well.

Most cats and dogs will snack on grass if given the opportunity, and grass-eating is only a problem if the grass is coated in toxic pesticides Dogs can usually get their fill of grass while out on walks, but an indoor cat doesn’t have this opportunity, so a pot of cat grass should be provided.

Because cats are motivated to eat a bit of greenery from time to time, make sure any plants you bring into your home are non-toxic.

Why do cats make chattering sounds when they see birds through a window?kitten with open mouth

Ethologist Desmond Morris describes the chattering sounds a cat makes when she sees a bird through a window as a “vacuum activity.” Vacuum activities occur when the cat is unable to fulfill her natural hunting drive.

When a cat sees a bird or other prey animal she can’t get to, she tenses her body and chatters her teeth as a substitute for delivering the killing neck bite. This action likely represents a combination of excitement at seeing an enticing prey animal and frustration at having the hunting drive thwarted.

Playing with cats using toys that simulate prey (such as a fishing pole toy with a cloth mouse or feathers at the end of a string) enables them to practice their hunting skills without killing anything.

Why do cats roll on their backs to greet people?

cat rolling

When a cat shows you his belly, it’s usually a sign of trust because he’s putting himself in a vulnerable position. A cat that rolls on his back and presents his tummy is saying that you’re a friend, and that your relationship is cooperative rather than competitive. However, some cats will also roll on their backs when they want to play, as it gets them into a good position to tackle a proffered hand, so it’s risky to assume that this gesture is always an invitation to a belly scratch, particularly with an unknown cat.

A cat may have mixed feelings, wanting to trust but feeling wary, particularly if he was handled roughly in the past. He might invite a tummy rub, but then become fearful and launch a warning attack on your hand. Such attacks are not usually done at full strength. They’re a way of letting you know that the cat wants to trust but has been mistreated in the past and is prepared to defend himself if you take advantage of his vulnerability.

Kittens that were taken away from their mothers too early and not properly socialized are more likely to behave ambivalently, switching from friendly tummy display to attack mode. Poorly socialized cats also don’t understand the appropriate level of force to use when playing, so their attacks may be more forceful than the typical warning swat or grab and release.

Some cats enjoy a brief tummy rub but soon warn the person off because petting becomes irritating due to static electricity. Cats may also attack when their bellies are petted because they have injuries or other medical problems that cause pain.

Why do cats suddenly make mad dashes around the house?

running cat
Running Cat, Holcan, Morguefile

A cat that appears perfectly calm will suddenly go on a tear, running around the house as though being chased by a predator or chasing prey. Those who have never seen this behaviour may worry that the cat is hallucinating or suffering a fit, but this activity usually indicates boredom rather than illness.

Housebound cats, while far safer than their outdoor counterparts, are more likely to dash because they lack opportunities to hunt. The dash may occur out of the blue (chasing “ghost prey”) or be an overreaction to mild stimuli, such as a movement or sound.

Some bored cats will even launch a mock attack on a human companion or another pet, or generally make nuisances of themselves to provoke irritation so they can overreact and run away as though being chased by an angry adversary.

To keep indoor cats from becoming frustrated and hyperactive or listless:

To keep indoor cats from becoming listless and frustrated, owners can:

    • Buy or make cat toys and play with their cats more often
    • Purchase or build a cat enclosure or fence so that their cats can safely spend time outside
    • Leash train their cats and take them for walks outdoors
    • Purchase or build a cat tree to provide the cat with more indoor recreation opportunities

Why do some cats play with water?

cat playing with water
Cat Playing with Water, Cohdra, Morguefile

Many cats (particularly wild-cat hybrids such as the Bengal) play with standing water in bowls, toilets, and bathtubs, or water running from faucets. This water play probably arises from an instinct for self-preservation.

When a cat dips her paw in her drinking water or splashes around in it, she may be testing for hidden dangers. Is the water too hot? Is there something scary in it? Although cats have very good distance vision, at close range their eyesight isn’t as strong, so they tend to rely on their sensitive noses and paw pads to answer questions about their immediate environments.

Many cats prefer to drink from (and play with) water running from faucets or fountain-type water bowls just as wild animals prefer to drink from streams rather than ponds. Cats are probably attracted to running water because it tends to harbour fewer contaminants than standing water.

Cats may also play with water for the sheer enjoyment of seeing the ripples form and spread, and in some cases the attraction goes beyond simply dipping a paw or splashing around a little. There are cat breeds that are naturally drawn to water, such as the Turkish Van (known as the swimming cat). Many Turkish Vans will actually dive into pools or lakes or join their owners in the shower.

Why do some cats and dogs eat soap?

According to veterinarian Michael Fox (The New Animal Doctor’s Answer Book), cats and dogs that eat soap may be missing something in their diets.

Soaps contain solid fats and oils that are appealing to animals, and like people, animals may try to eat more fat than is good for them. On the other hand, an animal that regularly seeks out soap may not be getting enough fat in his or her diet. If your pet regularly tries to eat soap, keep soap products out of reach, as many soaps contain toxic substances, and consult a veterinarian about diet and supplementation options.

References:

    • Bush, B. (1984). The Cat Care Question and Answer Book. Boston, NY: Bookthrift Co.
    • Busch, R. (2004). The Cougar Almanac. The Lyons Press.
    • Moore, A. (2007). The Cat Behavior Answer Book. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
    • Morris, D. (1997). Cat World: A Feline Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Viking Adult.
    • Morris, D. (1987). Catlore. London, UK: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
    • PetMD.com. (2010). “Why Do Cats Eat Grass?”
    • Nelsen, K., Dr. (4/2/2010). “Sago Palms are Poisonous to Animals.” Dr. Nelson’s Veterinary Blog.
    • Schneck, M., & Caravan, J. (1990). Cat Facts. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Inc.
    • Shojai, A. (n.d.). “Ask Amy: Cat Play in Water.” About.com.
    • Tabor, R. (2005). 100 Ways to Understand Your Cat. Cincinnati, OH: David & Charles.
    • Tobiassen Crosby, J., DVM. (n.d.). ” Frequently Asked Question: Why Does My Dog (or Cat) Eat Grass?” About.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.