Dogs are man’s best friend. Cats? They’re more aloof. Even the millions of doting cat owners will often acknowledge that their pets can be enigmatic, hard to please and frustratingly antisocial. They run away. They hide. They scratch. They refuse to get in the carrier when it’s time to go to the vet. They kill rodents and birds and offer up the bloody carcasses up as if they were gifts.
Unlike dogs, cats have become purely domestic pets only very recently, within the past 50 years. In many ways, they are still wild animals, and the demands of modern life cause them tremendous stress. That pressure often drives cats to act out in ways we find difficult: scratching the drapes, dragging mangled animal corpses through the cat door, pooping behind the couch.
To understand your feline friend, you must understand its evolutionary history. Cats are very different from dogs, which humans treasured as pets as far back as 15,000 years ago. But cats began coexisting with mankind only 10,000 years ago—and have remained largely wild for almost that entire time.
For most of their history, cats weren’t pets. Cats lived in and around human villages for millennia, but there is no evidence that they lived in our homes. While they thrived on the mice that we inadvertently provided for them, cats kept their distance from us, perhaps coming no closer than today’s urban raccoons. The first evidence of humans bonding with cats comes from about 4,000 years ago, in Egypt, where archaeologists have found evidence of cats being ceremonially buried alongside their former owners. But until very recently, cats were valued primarily as pest-controllers, not pets.
Increasingly, cat owners keep their pets indoors for their whole lives to keep cats from hunting. But being cooped up this way can be stressful. There is little evidence that cats (or dogs, for that matter) have much in the way of an imagination, so cats that have never been allowed outside probably don’t miss the fresh air they’ve never breathed. But they can still become frustrated watching the birds on the feeder in the backyard next door or grow chronically stressed from having no way to occupy the time that traditionally would have been filled by hunting.
Modern domesticity creates other problems for cats. For instance, cats like to be alone—but we rarely let them. Their wild ancestors were solitary, territorial animals (unlike their more famous cousin, the lion). Cats’ contact with one another was usually limited to a few days each year during the mating season and the few weeks in which mother cats raised their kittens.
So even today, their capacity for getting on with other cats is limited. Given their limited social repertoire, two cats kept in the same apartment may well not enjoy each other’s company. In general, when two cats are forced to live in the same limited space, they will divide it up between them. But sometimes, one cat will try to bully the other enough to make it leave, or both will become chronically stressed. Veterinarians have long known that cats are prone to bladder problems; ongoing research is showing that many of these are triggered by stress and anxiety, often caused by the unsettling attentions of another cat.
But all these problems are solvable—if cat owners will help their pets adjust to domestic life.
Here are some ways to get started.
Owners can reduce a cat’s stress levels by satisfying its need to hunt. Remember, wild cats typically kill and feed a dozen times each day. But you needn’t sacrifice your neighbor’s budgies; playing hunting games will do. Our research has shown that while owners think that their cat is playing, the cat seems to think that she is catching prey: Not only are all of her actions those that she would use when hunting, but she even plays more frantically as she gets hungrier.
So try to mimic the hunt by tugging a furry or feathery toy along the floor and occasionally allow the cat to catch and “kill” it. You can simulate the prey’s consumption by offering the cat a kibble-filled puzzle-feeder, which will not only allow her to use her paws to get the food but will also make her work between each mouthful. (An empty soda bottle with a few holes punched in it is as effective as any off-the-shelf feeder).
Play with the Cat—But Know When to Stop
Once you’ve introduced yourself to a cat, slowly and calmly, she may be up for some playtime. Remember to be observant, and to confer with the cat’s owner (if it’s not your cat) before attempting to engage. Has the cat approached you and allowed you to touch her? Is she displaying signs of comfort? Then she may be interested in playing.
A short play session can be a good way to bond. Grab a wand toy, move it like a snake or bird or mouse, and give the cat an opportunity to let her guard down. I also recommend ball-and-track toys, which are mentally stimulating for cats.
When playing for the first time with a cat, remember to give her space, and don’t force the interaction. “Keep playtime short,” Koski recommends. “She’ll come to you if she wants more!”
– “Aw, don’t kiss me!”
– “Again, don’t kiss me!”