Ever catch your cat sleeping scrunched up in a tight little ball or pawing at her litter (before or after using it) and wondered what it means?
To learn the true meaning behind some common but seemingly strange cat behaviors, we spoke to Kat Miller, Ph.D., director of anti-cruelty and behavior research at the ASPCA and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.
Sleeping in a Tight Ball
Many mammals actually sleep this way, as both a way of retaining heat and to keep themselves protected. "They either push into small spaces to have some security with solid walls around part of their body so they can't be snuck up on, or they roll into a tight ball," explains Dr. Miller. "It's also similar to the way a bird tucks its wings in, or tucks one foot up into his feathers. It's an easy way to retain heat."
This behavior traces back to a feline’s earliest days: "Kittens kneed their mom's belly to encourage milk production," says Dr. Miller. "When cats grow up, it's often performed when they're relaxed or cozy." It could also be that whatever material your cat is kneading — a soft blanket or maybe even your skin — reminds him of his mother's belly. "They could also knead when they're upset or scared, as a way to self-calm."
Pawing at Their Litter
The little kitty now on your bed has evolved from cats that lived in the desert. "Whether or not your cat decides to dig a hole to hide their urine and feces before or after they go will depend on the cat, but this behavior is generally a mark of their territory," notes Dr. Miller. For example, if your cat's litter box is located where he doesn't spend most of his time, he would probably consider that his peripheral territory, and that will affect whether or not he decides to cover his feces.
Smell is a very important factor for cats to define their own space. If your cat considers his litter box to be outside of his normal "territory," he might not cover the remains, as advertisement he still considers that area his. If it's inside his territory, he might be more inclined to cover up the smell, since generally cats are pretty clean creatures.
Exposing Their Belly
This one can be tricky -- and harmful if not played right! On the one hand, your cat could be in a happy, playful mood, content to let you reach out and give her a tummy rub. "Cats can learn to enjoy belly rubs. Of course a lot of cats don't, but if you start out doing this when they're young kittens, they can learn to enjoy it," adds Dr. Miller.
On the other hand the belly is a vulnerable area to your cat, and she's probably protective of it. A cat that is upset or feels feisty, for example, might roll onto her back so she can unleash her most powerful weapon -- her back claws. So if it's playful fighting your cat is after when she exposes her stomach to you, the second you approach her with your hand you can expect the claws to come out.
Sleeping in Boxes, Bags...and Most Anything Else
Cats are natural born ambushers, and they love wedging themselves into tiny spaces to observe what's happening from a distance. Being in a small, enclosed space probably also gives them a sense of security, and it's also good for retaining heat.
Getting the Midnight Crazies
As many cat owners know, there is such a thing as the cat witching hour. It usually happens at night – maybe as you're getting ready to go to sleep or perhaps while asleep – when your cat is raring to play. "There are two things here," says Dr. Miller. "The first is that cats naturally have a different wake pattern. They sleep multiple times throughout the day and night, not only during the night. They can cycle through sleep and wake throughout the 24-hour period, and so they are naturally awake at different times."
Also, many cats recognize daytime hours as idle “quiet” time, when human family members aren’t home. In the evenings, however, the entire brood may be home, energizing your well-rested cat. It doesn't help that cats are fast learners, too. That means that every time you get up in the middle of night and give your cat some attention for his craziness, he'll consider this a reward for his behavior and continue it.
Sitting On Your Computer
When your computer is on, it can feel like a nice, warm heating pad for your furry companion. "Plus, it's hard to ignore a cat when she's sitting on the keyboard, and she'll quickly learn that by sitting there, Mom is more likely to give her attention," says Dr. Miller.
Raising Their Haunches
That upfront reaction to backside rubbing may be a reflex action – much like a dog’s leg pumping when his belly is scratched or rubbed, says Dr. Miller. "Perhaps it tickles or feels good because it's a place that's hard for them to reach themselves.”
Rubbing Their Faces on Things
Remember, scent is important to cats -- and with special scent glands on their face (among other locations), they “mark” people and items as their “property” as an identifier to other felines. "It's also a sign of calm for your cat to feel that she's at home with the group," says Dr. Miller. "Sharing her scent by rubbing her face on things is like wearing a Jersey. It's like decorating the house with her scent."
Laying in the Sink or Bathtub
On hot days, this might result from your cat seeking a cool place. But it could also be something in the water. "I don't have evidence to back it up,” says Dr. Miller, “but my suspicion is that there is an earthy smell that comes from the drain pipes that can attract cats. Of course, cats can also learn that water comes from the faucet, and they like to drink from the dripping faucet."
Switching His Tail Back and Forth
Usually this is a warning behavior, says Dr. Miller. "For cats, this primarily happens when they are agitated, and they're warning someone to stop doing something. It could also happen when your cat is extremely interested in something, but that often manifests itself more as a twitching of the tail than a wagging."