Cats are not the solitary creatures as once thought, but are capable of forming intense social bonds with one another and with humans. Early social experiences, particularly between the ages of 3-9 weeks are critical to the development of normal behaviors in the adult cat.
Kittens begin to learn normal social behavior from their mother (or queen) and their littermates starting at 2-3 weeks of age. They learn by observing, imitating and experimenting. When kittens begin to play and interact with one another and their mother at this early age, they learn how to inhibit their bite and retract their claws, thus learning the limits of using teeth and claws during normal play.
Normal play is a major part of developing proper social skills in the kitten. Different types of play behavior include attack and defense, the “side-step,” chasing, pouncing, rearing up, boxing, and hunting behaviors such as staring and stalking. Toys that roll, move and get stuck in corners encourage and challenge your kitten to experience and learn new things. Social play peaks at 3 months of age, but continues through life.
Hunting is a normal behavior in cats. Hunting behavior is unrelated to hunger and even well fed cats can hunt. Mother cats teach their offspring this skill, though the basic instincts are present in all cats. Play and hunting are closely linked activities and most play involves a toy that your cat thinks of as “prey.” Providing fun toys for your cat keeps him from getting bored and helps prevent unacceptable behaviors. Don’t allow your cat or kitten to bite or claw your hands or fingers directly; always use a toy. Throw balls or wadded paper, or drag feathers behind a wand. This encourages your cat to play “predator” hunting games (stare-stalk-chase-pounce-bite) without injuring you or destroying objects in the home.
Cats silently stalk their prey, then quickly pounce on it or slap it down with their paws. Playing with the prey may occur before killing it. The special neck bite is very fast and efficient at killing the prey. The cat uses his canine teeth (fangs) to sever the victim’s spinal cord.
Teeth chattering is a behavior seen in cats that are sitting still and staring at some type of prey that they are unable to reach. The mouth is slightly open and the jaw opens and closes rapidly. The sounds produced are a combination of “lip smacking,” “teeth chattering,” and a quiet “bleating.” It is not a form of communication. Some experts think it is the result of excitement and frustration at seeing prey and being unable to hunt and obtain it. Frustration builds, the body becomes tense, the tail twitches as the teeth chatter, and the quiet bleating begins. Others have suggested it may be an exaggerated version of the killing bite; the cat already thinks he has the prey in his jaws. Some cats even exhibit this behavior when seeing “prey” on the television.
Your cat’s instincts may be telling him to play at night (nocturnal play). You can wear him out by playing hunt-chase-capture games in the evening before bedtime. If he is keeping you up, remove his toys before bedtime. Do not give him attention if he wakes you—just ignore him. This may help decrease his urge for late night playtime. You might also consider getting a companion cat for a cat in a single cat household if the night activity becomes a regular occurrence.
Catnip (an herb in the mint family) can produce unique behavior in some cats. Inhaling the aroma or ingesting the plant may produce nervous system signs such as sleepiness, excitement, rolling, euphoria, and in some cats, aggression. The effects are short-acting and the cat is usually normal within 1-2 hours. Most kittens under 2 months of age will not exhibit any behavior changes when exposed to catnip. Some cats seem to be immune to the effects of catnip. Too much catnip is toxic.
Vocalizations are varied in cats. From hissing and spitting in anger, to soft purring of the contented cat, cats always seem to have something to say!
Trill chirping is a vocalization that often seems to indicate a friendly comment. Yowling and crying can indicate anger, a female in heat, a call to fight, or pain. Research has shown that cat vocalizations are made up of specific tones and sequences. Some cats are very quiet, and only periodically manage a hoarse semi-meow, while others meow regularly in a loud, sometimes demanding voice. The Oriental type cats are often the most vocal.
Grooming is another behavior which is normal for cats. Cats may spend up to 30% of their waking hours keeping their hairdo coiffed. Grooming another cat in the house is also normal behavior—we call this allogrooming. If your cat likes you, he may try to give you a little washing up with his barbed tongue too!