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Ask a Behaviorist: 3 Common Myths About Cats

Let's debunk some common misconceptions about cats and their behavior.

 |  Jun 6th 2014  |   27 Contributions


We listen and we learn. Some of what we hear is just not true. There are many beliefs, half-truths and misconceptions that are taken for granted as facts. When we were children we might have heard them, shared by parents and friends, or maybe we read them on the web. Some may have their roots many generations ago. The Internet and other media sources overflow with what seems like sage advice. Popular culture shapes views and creates truths. Because it is easy for anyone to write a blog and post it, more myths and bad information are published as truths and become infused in our culture.

Cats are not exempt. People have believed myths and misconceptions about them ever since they started sharing their world with cats. Some of this faulty belief and bad advice has serious consequences for cats. They are often stressed, abused and surrendered to shelters because of it. Others end up relegated to living outdoors.

Here are three common stereotypes that are wrong and potentially harmful -- and the truths that dispel them:

1. Cats are cruel; they torment their prey before killing it

Misconception: Cats are cruel! They torment their prey. Most people, including those who adore their cats, believe that cats torment their prey before killing it. This is not a new belief -- it probably began thousands of years ago when people first saw the benefits of establishing working relationships with cats. It is easy to understand how they jumped to the cats-are-cruel conclusion after watching cats, swatting and tossing their unfortunate victims around.

After thousands of years, it is time to tell it like it is.

How cats are: Cats have justifiable reasons for how they hunt. They are not cruel, nor do they purposely torment their victims.

Hunting is serious business, and it can be dangerous. The tables can quickly turn -- one bite from a rodent fighting for its life can maim and incapacitate the little hunter. Painful bites slow down cats, making them easy prey for larger predators. Additionally, bites can become infected, compromising the kitty. Another challenge is that cats' vision is limited when closing in on the victims (they are long-sighted). Although cat whiskers can help make up where eyesight fails, they do not up the odds enough to guarantee an injury-free hunt. Whiskers, with their own nerves and blood supply, are like little fingers, guiding cats where to place the kill bite.

One theory about why cats toss and swat their prey involves safety. They do not want to risk life and limb for a meal. An effective way of dispatching victims evolved that increases cats' odds of surviving the hunting game. To observers it looks like cats are cruelly playing with their prey.

They are not. Animals that are tired and worn out have slower reflexes than those who are full of energy. Tossing and batting the prey around wears them out and slows them down, lessening the possibility that the little hunter will be bitten. Although felines do not purposely torment their victims, they are increasing the odds they will have a successful, injury-free hunt.

Another theory focuses on biology. When cats catch their prey, they are pumped full of adrenaline that takes time to dissipate. Adrenaline can impair judgment, increasing the risk of misplacing the kill bite. Batting and tossing the newly caught prey helps the little hunter come down from the adrenaline rush.

Of course, none of this matters to the unfortunate victim.

Cat catching a mouse by Shutterstock.

2. It's good to show the cat who's boss by scruffing and hissing at her

Bad advice: Stop a cat from doing bad behaviors by showing her you are in charge. Discipline her by either scruffing her and holding her down on the floor or by hissing at her. This advice is frequently given by “experienced” cat owners, rescue groups and some professionals who should know better. They insist that these methods will stop aggressive behavior, chasing, vocalizing, counter surfing as well as myriad other unwanted behaviors. The main argument they use to support these methods is: Mamma cats discipline their kittens by scruffing and hissing.

How cats are: People are not mamma kitties. Mom cats accompany their hissing and scruffing with appropriate body language and vocalizations that we mere humans cannot replicate.

Humans scruffing cats and hissing at them often creates more problems than it solves, escalating behaviors and causing others. These attempts at stopping behavior stresses cats and can cause them to feel insecure around their people. Insecure cats often distance themselves from the people who adore them. Feeling stressed and insecure, they will often develop other unwanted behaviors or escalate the original behavior. Another unpleasant side effect of these methods is redirected aggression. Cats, like all frustrated animals, will sometimes direct their frustrations on to the nearest resident animal or person.

Solution: Instead of scruffing or hissing, determine the reasons for the initial behavior and address them. You might have to separate cats or provide more resources for them. An accredited or certified cat behaviorist can help you determine the triggers and develop a plan to resolve the challenges.

3. Cats are low maintenance compared with dogs

Bad advice: If you are looking for a low-maintenance companion animal, choose a cat instead of a dog. Dogs require a lot of work -- they need daily walks and constant attention. Cats can be left alone all day or on the weekend without a problem. Throw a little food in their bowls, leave for the weekend, cats will be fine. They do not require very much companionship -- they keep to themselves and are self-entertaining.

How cats are: Although cats are usually less demonstrative than dogs, they still require daily care and quality time with their people. It is true that kitties don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves, nor are they quite as visible as dogs and they don’t require daily walks. They are adept at using their litter boxes and, for the most part, enjoy napping during the day. Most likely, the differences between how the two species relate to the world perpetuates the belief that cats are low maintenance and can be left alone for long periods of time.

They do not do well as latchkey kitties. Cats are not solitary animals. They enjoy fraternizing with people and other animal buddies. Often, kitties become depressed and develop behavior problems when left by themselves for an extended time. These include: separation anxieties, boredom and litter box challenges.

Just like dogs, cats need daily maintenance. Food bowls need to be replenished at least twice a day and water bowls filled daily with fresh water. Litter boxes need frequent cleanings -- failing to scoop the litter box every day often leads to cats choosing other, cleaner areas outside their litter boxes to do their business.

Solution: Adopt cats only if you can properly care for them every day and give them lots of attention. A bonded pair of cats will keep each other company and entertained while you are at work. Hire a pet sitter or ask a neighbor to care for your cats if you are away for a night, a weekend or longer. Provide the cats toys, high places to hang out on and scratchers.

There are many misconceptions and myths about cats. These are just three. What are some others that you have heard? Put them in the comments section and I will aim to address them in my next article.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses force free methods that include environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She  is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other force-free methods.  Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.

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