At Home : Care / Health : Understanding Cats : Home & Garden Television

Understanding Cats

Lessons on cat history, training and behavior

Perfect Form for Function
Why Cats Do the Things They Do
Cat Talk
Basic Training
Bad Kitty
Fun Time

HGTV's Company of Animals host Marissa Morris and guests help answer some of the biggest mysteries about cats, the most popular of all companion pets. This special goes back in time to learn the history of the solitary hunter and how this still determines the behaviors of today's domestic cat.

Included is a lesson on their body language, the reasons they do the things that they do and some training techniques for everything from tricks to discouraging bad behaviors. Finally featured is an indulgence in a little fun time and a lesson on the basics of what makes a good cat toy.

It's been said that to know where you are and where you're going, you need to know where you've been. Morris and guests explain the history and development of the cat.

Cats were among the last animals to be domesticated, which occurred nearly 50,000 years after dogs. Unlike dogs, which were pack hunters, cats were solitary hunters. They developed in a woodland landscape and were very territorial (and still are). This does not mean, however, that they are not social.

The key to socializing a cat comes during the first several weeks of its life. Kittens should be handled regularly and introduced to the sights and sounds of life in the home.

A glimpse of a cat's wild side is still evident in an activity that pet-behavior expert Brian Kilcommons has termed FRAP--frenetic random activity periods (see video below).

Perfect Form for Function

Knowing how a cat is physically designed is key to understanding cats.

Figure A--The rub of a cat is both a social activity and a method of marking territory. There are small glands located near a cat's whiskers that emit a scent that is only detected by other animals, not humans. When cats rub an inanimate object (as well as when they rub up on an owner), they are marking their territory.

Figure B--A cat's whiskers, located on top of its head, on either side of its nose and on the backs of its paws, serve as "feelers."

Fast Feline Facts

  • Cats have 32 muscles in each ear that allow it to rotate as well as a self-correcting reflex that comes from a tiny chamber in the ears. This chamber helps keep a cat's head level in relation to the ground when they fall or jump. That's part of the reason they always land on their feet.

  • Cats have whiskers all over their bodies, which are used as "feelers." Most have 12 on each side of their nose, above the eyes, around the side of the face and on the underside of the leg. A few hairs that stick out above the coat also serve as whiskers.

  • A cat's claws are great for climbing and are used for territory markings.

  • Every cat's nose pad or nose leather is different--like a human fingerprint. Cats use their noses not only for smelling, but also for detecting temperature changes.

  • The tongue of a cat is multipurpose, allowing it to quickly lap up water and "comb" its fur.

  • A cat's eyes, which are large in proportion to its head (because of its hunting background ), are the topic of many myths. In medieval times, the glow of a cat's eyes at night was considered god-like. Its nocturnal vision is possible because of crystal-like mirrors that are located in the back of the eyes.

Why Cats Do the Things They Do

The equilibrium in the inner ear of a cat helps it to land on its feet more often than not. When a cat falls, its head turns first and its body follows. The mistake is corrected as it is happening, rather than afterward.

Cats like to be high above other animals and objects so that they can observe from what they deem to be a safe distance. They do not play with their prey, as is commonly believed. They are actually checking the animal to be sure it will not harm them.

A stretched-out feline is a warm one. If a cat is curled up, it is cold.


Figure C

Figure D

Figure E

Figure C--Whiskers on the back of a cat's paw help the animal judge how it lands and how low it can get to the ground when stalking or crawling.

Figure D--Sunning is an important source of both happiness and vitamin D for a feline. As a cat soaks in the rays, it is exposed to vitamin D, which absorbs into the fur and is licked off by the cat during grooming.

Figure E--When a cat is aggressive, its ears lie flat on the back of its head and it raises its body high on its legs, whereas a frightened cat will make itself smaller by crouching down to avoid confrontation.

Cat Talk

A lot can be learned about cats just by watching them. They virtually invented body language and are constantly sending their owners messages that are not difficult to interpret if the owner knows how to read them. This "universal" language includes what they do with their ears, their eyes and even "tail talk."

Here's some hints to help you become familiar with typical kitty body language:

Basic Training

Not only can one teach a cat good behavior, but one can also teach a cat to do tricks. The key is to start with a hungry cat. Offer some great rewards, use a training table and keep sessions short.

Figure F--The best way to put an unwilling cat into a crate is to turn the crate on its side (with the door facing up) and "pour" the cat, headfirst, into it.

Figure G--Make a homemade sock toy by stuffing a large athletic sock with fiberfill and catnip. Tie off the end with a thick piece of ribbon or string. The sock toy will be large enough for the cat to kick with its back claws.

More Fast Feline Facts

  • Training can build communication between a cat and its owner.

  • If the cat doesn't seem to be in the mood to work with you, try later. Forcing the cat will not work, as it will create a negative atmosphere.

  • Cats do not take orders. They interact with others on their own terms.

  • Randomly reward the cat. Keep it guessing by only giving it small treats every now and again.

  • Cats take themselves very seriously and do not like to be ridiculed. Never laugh at a cat, but laugh with it.

Bad Kitty

Check with a veterinarian to make sure there is nothing physically wrong with a cat before beginning any disciplinary action.

The key tools for discouraging bad cat behaviors such as dashing out an open door and jumping onto counters are aversives. Examples are empty soda cans filled with pennies that make loud noises and squirt bottles filled with water. Cats hate surprises!

Cats eat houseplants because they need some greens in their diet. This is not only an annoying habit, but it is also dangerous for the cat. Special greens can be grown for a cat to eat. Ask a veterinarian for more information.

Never get physical with a cat. In fact, try not to let the cat know that the discipline is coming from you. If a corrective measure is going to work, it will usually work before the third attempt. Move to another strategy if it does not.

Fun Time

Cats love to have fun, and they love it when their owners join in. The best toys are the ones that let cats hunt and stalk their "prey." The best cat toys are often ones that the cat has found around the house, such as a wad of paper or an aluminum foil ball. Colorful, lightweight toys that make noise are favorites of cats. Keeping an assortment of toys around is ideal.

Whether cats are indulged with homemade sock toys, wands or elaborate climbing structures, they really just enjoy the time spent with their owners.

Did you know?

information on cats, other animals
Surf on over to for cat travel information, supplies and toys, food calculator and veterinarian advice.

cat-care encyclopedia
A cat-care encyclopedia and information on nutrition, grooming and kittens can be found at

cat-care information
A mentor panel of cat-care experts and an extensive cat-care library help provide visitors with the resources to keep a cat both physically and emotionally happy at

Good Owners, Great Cats
by Brian Kilcommons, Sarah Wilson
Warner Books, 1995
Order this title from

Cat Fancier's Association
Cat Fancier's Association
PO Box 1005
Manasquan, NJ 08736-0805
Phone: 732-528-9797
Fax: 732-528-7391

International Cat Association
International Cat Association
Executive Office
PO Box 2684
Harlingen, TX 78551
Phone: 956-428-8046
Fax: 956-428-8047

Understanding Cats: Their History, Nature, and Behavior
by Roger K. Tabor
Reader's Digest Association Inc., 1997
Order this title from