- Despite their popularity as pets, misunderstandings about cat behavior abound.
- Cats are not "low-maintenance" pets; each has unique physical, mental, and social requirements.
- A better understanding of cat behavior should enrich the human-cat bond and save cats' lives.
As of 2021, 45.3 million U.S. households reported keeping one or more pet cats. Despite their popularity as companions, misunderstandings about cat behavior are common. People’s expectations of cats and their ability to interpret their behavior are influenced by pervasive myths that often paint cats as ‘low maintenance, self-sufficient’ animals—in stark contrast to other popular pets.
“Cats are always compared to dogs, and oftentimes unfavorably,” says Candace Croney, a professor at Purdue University and director of the Purdue Center for Animal Welfare Science. “People often judge cats against the dog template and assess that cats are deficient, which is not fair to cats. Cats are not oddly behaving little dogs. They are different, and special in their own ways.”
Moreover, incorrect assumptions and beliefs about cat needs and behaviors can have serious welfare consequences, which in turn can undermine the human-animal bond.
Below, Croney helps debunk five of the most persistent myths about cat behavior.
Myth 1: Cats are not social with each other.
Domestic cats are not universally anti-social. Rather, they are facultatively social, meaning that their social behavior is flexible and heavily influenced by their genetics, early development, and lifetime experiences.
“It’s important to understand that cats are individually variable in their desire for and tolerance of social interactions with other cats,” says Croney.
It’s not true that every singly kept cat is lonely and in need of a feline friend. Some cats form pair bonds and benefit from the presence of another cat, while for others, the company of an additional cat may be stressful. Owners need to consider the preferences of their individual cat when deciding whether to add another cat to their household. Those preferences may be influenced by the relatedness of the cats, their previous experiences, and whether the home provides adequate access to resources including food and space.
When an individual cat’s needs and desires for social interaction are overlooked, the resulting stress can manifest in several ways, including eliminating outside of the litter box, persistent hiding, and biting or scratching.
“All of these undermine the positive interactions we should be having with our cats,” says Croney. “It also puts the cats at great risk of being either abandoned, relinquished, or euthanized for behavioral reasons.”
Myth 2: Cats require minimal social interaction with people.
Cats are still often thought of as less social and less capable of feeling emotion than dogs. However, an increasing number of studies demonstrate that cats have the capacity to form strong social bonds with humans.
One indication of this bond is a synchronized behavior known as slow blink-matching. If their humans slowly open and close their eyes in a series of blinks, cats will slow-blink back, matching the frequency at which their owners are blinking.
“It’s an interesting example of cats paying attention and adjusting their behavior to their person,” says Croney. “But it’s a subtle behavior. It’s not jumping up on you or licking your face.”
Myth 3: Cats don't need opportunities for socialization.
Most dog owners realize the importance of socialization—a process of positive exposure to stimuli including other animals, sounds, and experiences. There are puppy classes, dog parks, and daycares to help canine companions be prepared for life in a home with humans. Similar socialization opportunities for cats are rare.
“I think this is a function of how people think of the social needs of cats, but also the investment that people are willing to put into their cats because of the misconception that they are low-maintenance pets and you don’t need to do much with them or for them,” says Croney.
Many cat caretakers assume that their pets do not need these opportunities to interact with novel stimuli or experience diverse social interactions. But growing scientific evidence suggests that early exposure to other cats, humans, and a variety of environmental stimuli can benefit a cat’s social behavior and overall cognitive development.
Myth 4: Cats are low-maintenance companion animals.
The narrative that cats have minimal needs may contribute to their popularity as pets. However, the scientific evidence paints a different picture. Cat owners need to think about how they are providing their felines with the quality of environments and experiences they need to thrive in human homes.
Croney says that every cat should minimally be provided with the following:
- Access to safe places (such as perches and hiding areas)
- Access to key resources in their environment (for feeding, drinking, elimination, scratching, and sleeping)
- Opportunities for play that mimic natural predatory behaviors
- Positive and consistent human-cat social interactions
- An environment that reflects the importance of the cat’s sense of smell and use of olfactory communication
“Cat caretakers should ask themselves, How are you providing key resources that enrich your cat’s life and meet their basic biological needs?” Croney says. “Then assess how you have set those up in the environment so each cat can access them safely and without being disrupted by other cats or members of the family.”
Myth 5: Cats cannot be trained.
It is a misconception that training is not possible or relevant for cat welfare. Cats are trainable; the current world record for the number of tricks performed by a cat in one minute is 26.
Croney says it’s not just possible; it’s highly beneficial to the cat, for a number of reasons.
“Cats will absolutely learn to perform behaviors that they are rewarded for,” she says. “Training can be used to facilitate normal positive social interactions with your cat throughout the day, providing increased opportunities for enrichment and bonding.”
Shorter training sessions seem to work well, as does finding what motivates your individual cat. As for what behaviors to train, Croney recommends teaching your cat to go inside of its carrier. This trick can decrease the stress associated with visiting the vet and could prove lifesaving in an emergency situation.
Why Understanding Cat Behavior Matters
These myths about cats’ physical, psychological, and social needs have life-or-death consequences. Cat behavioral problems, which are often rooted in anxiety, fear, and social stress, are regularly given as reasons for their abandonment, relinquishment, and euthanasia.
Croney says a better understanding of cat behavior, and an appreciation for each cat’s individuality, will benefit cats as well as caretakers. “The bond between people and their cats will be improved if people appreciate and invest in their cats,” she says. “By replacing these misconceptions with an understanding of cat needs and behaviors, you set cats up to be successful and you set cat caretakers up to enjoy their cats more.”
Facebook/LinkedIn image: U__Photo/Shutterstock
Croney C, Udell M, Delgado M, Ekenstedt K, Shoveller AK. CATastrophic Myths Part 1: Common misconceptions about the social behavior of domestic cats and implications for their health, welfare, and management. Vet J. 2023 Sep 6:106028. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2023.106028.
Udell M, Delgado M, Ekenstedt K, Shoveller AK, Croney C. CATastrophic Myths Part 2: Common misconceptions about the environmental, nutritional, and genetic management of domestic cats and their welfare implications. Vet J. 2023 Sep 6:106029. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2023.106029.