9 Surprising Facts About Your Cat

Do you know what your cat is thinking?
Why nine? Because cats have nine lives, of course! Although if you're reading this in Germany or Greece, you probably believe that cats have seven lives, or even as few as six if you're from Turkey. Whatever the number, cats do seem remarkably good at avoiding trouble, even if they can't actually bring themselves back from the dead. The nine intriguing facts that follow mostly come from my new book Cat Sense.

1. Cats have to learn how to "talk" to us. We instantly identify the "meow" as the most distinctive of the cat's vocalizations, but grown-up cats rarely meow at each other. Kittens instinctively meow to communicate with their mothers, and as they grow up they find that meowing is also a good way of attracting human's attention when we have our noses buried in a book or a computer screen. Some cats even develop a range of distinctly different meows, one for use at feeding time, another to get a door opened, and so on.

2. Cow's milk is not good for cats. The traditional image of a contented cat lapping from a bowl of milk is misleading. Cats are very fond of cream, because it is high in fat, so they are especially attracted to milk that has come straight from the cow. However, the milk we now buy at the supermarket contains little fat, and while some cats may like it for its taste, many find it hard to digest. Like all infant mammals, kittens can readily break down the main sugar in milk, lactose, but soon after they are weaned, the enzyme that enables them to digest it, lactase, begins to disappear from the gut. When an adult cat drinks milk, the indigestible lactose in its gut may start to ferment, causing a stomach upset.

3. Cats have as good a sense of smell as dogs do. Dogs' noses are more sensitive than cats' are, but both animals possess a second "nose,"of which most owners are completely unaware. This consists of two tubes which connect the nostrils with the roof of the mouth (just behind the small grooming teeth at the front of the upper jaw). We know that cats use it to analyze and decode the scent-marks left by other cats, although we still have little idea what information they contain. When a cat wants to use its second nose, it pulls its top lip upwards, making its face look rather fierce (though not as scary as when a lion does the same thing!). Cats have 30 different receptors in their second noses, against the dog's nine, so they can presumably discriminate between different smells just as a sommelier can tell one vintage from another.

4. Contrary to the popular saying, curiosity rarely kills cats. In fact, most cats would rather run from danger than confront it head-on, contributing to the "nine-lives" myth. However, the original form of this proverb, from the sixteenth century, was "Care killed the cat" -care meaning worry. The Tudors may have been more sensitive to cats' troubles than many owners are today! Hence....

5. Cats are rarely as laid-back as they seem on the surface. Conflict between neighborhood cats can be a serious and chronic source of stress for many cats, resulting not only in anxiety and an inability to relax, but also triggering medical conditions such as cystitis and skin complaints.

6. The original Cheshire Cat was made from cheese. The cat which could become invisible save for its smile, invented by Lewis Carroll for "Alice in Wonderland," was based on a tradition in Cheshire, England, to form a cheese into the shape of a cat and then eat it tail forwards, leaving the grin until last.

7. You think you're playing, your cat thinks it's hunting. Cats love playing with a toy mouse, or a bunch of feathers on a string, because in their heads, they think they're hunting. They pounce on, claw and bite their toys, just as they would if they were subduing real prey. Cats prefer toys that look and move like small animals--mice, birds, even hairy spiders. They clutch mouse-sized toys tightly to their bellies, but rat-sized toys are held at paws' length: these are exactly the tactics that cats use when attacking real rats, to reduce the risk of getting bitten themselves. And cats play more energetically when they're hungry, as if pouncing on a toy mouse was somehow going to produce a meal.

8. A purring cat isn't necessarily a happy cat. Cats don't only purr when they're happy. Some, perhaps all, have two other purrs, one to obtain food from their owners, and another that is only uttered when the cat is in pain. The purr itself conveys a simple message, "please don't move away".

9. The cat wasn't originally domesticated in Ancient Egypt. Although tradition has it that cats were first domesticated by the Ancient Egyptians, their DNA reveals a much longer association with mankind. This probably goes back to the very dawn of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, when wild cats began to prey on mice infesting the earliest grain-stores. However, the first reliable records that we have that cats were kept as companions as well as for their ability as mousers do come from Egypt, during the Middle Kingdom some 4,000 years ago.

Bonus fact #10: Cats and dogs are not natural enemies. Despite the saying "fight like cat and dog", the two species can easily learn how to get along with one another if they are raised together: much more in my other book, Dog Sense!

John Bradshaw is Foundation Director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol and author of the New York Times bestseller Dog Sense. His newest book is Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet (Basic Books, 2013).