Understanding the “Catness” of Cats

By Dr. Tony Buffington DVM, MS, PhD, DACVN

Helmi Flick, Animal PhotographyOne of my interests as a veterinarian is environmental enrichment and low-stress handling of cats, so I was surprised and intrigued to see a series of talks by Dr. Tom Noffsinger, a large animal practitioner from Nebraska, on low-stress handling in cattle.

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While I've spent most of my veterinary career studying cats, I grew up on a Black Angus cattle ranch in Central California. This was during the 1950s, when "cat" and "veterinarian" would not have been used in the same sentence. A lot has changed since then, but not my love for cows. Dr. Noffsinger talked for four hours to a room packed with large-animal veterinarians. I thoroughly enjoyed his talks, even though they made me feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle, waking up after about 40 years away from the ranch.

All Greek - but Still Simple

It seems that in the ensuing years, much of animal husbandry - caring for animals as they are - somehow got replaced by animal science--using animals as "production units" without considering how they work. How animals "are" based on their wild heritage is called telos, from the Greek word for "purpose" or "goal," and is a concept that has been around since the days of Aristotle. When referring to animals, it relates to the essential nature of that particular species; in other words, the idea that "fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and cats gotta climb and scratch." What Dr. Noffsinger was recommending (reteaching really) to the room full of veterinarians at that conference was how to work with the animal's telos rather than against it. His strategy for effective low-stress handling (using feedlot calves as his example) had four specific recommendations:

  1. Reduce their anxiety
  2. Gain their trust
  3. Establish communication
  4. Get them to work for you.

As these ideas sank in, I realized that this strategy can work for all animals, cows or cats, clients or colleagues, and was a short summary of much of what we have learned about our feline patients.

A Safe Cat Is a Happy Cat

There is another aspect of telos we need to consider, which is that the essential nature of a particular species can only be expressed when that animal feels safe. By safe, I mean having a strong enough perception of control and predictability to be able to cope with one's surroundings. This is a particularly important issue for many cats who are confined indoors. Because of this, they live in many ways like zoo animals, utterly dependent on their keepers (owners) for every aspect of their lives. This includes what and when they eat, when and where they eliminate, and whether or not they can engage in activities that express their "telos" without being punished for their behavior.

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Both Predator and Prey

One reason that cats have such a complicated relationship with humans is that their telos is so different from ours. While most people know that cats are carnivores, in other words - animal eaters - what is less commonly understood is that cats are both predators and prey in their natural environment. While hunting (alone, as domestic cats don't hunt in groups) for smaller mammals, birds and insects, cats also need to defend their hunting areas from other cats and take care that they are not being hunted by larger carnivores (including primates). Even if they catch their prey, they are as vulnerable when eating as they are when eliminating, resting or sleeping. If cats sense a threat, they often try to climb to safety from predators. Because their prey is quite small (an adult cat needs about 10 mice a day to survive in the wild), they need to find, kill and eat something at least 10 times a day. Because of this nutritional strategy, cats do not appear to have developed the daily rhythms of wake and sleep cycles that many other species have simply because they may need to go from "sleep to slaughter" at an instant's notice.

Our telos is different. In contrast to cats, we and most other common mammals developed in larger social groups to be able to bring down bigger game and to take advantage of the safety in numbers. As part of a group, many species developed the ability to "watch each other's backs" at vulnerable times, which promoted the safety and survival of the group. These strengths resulted in different social communication strategies, with those of the group living animals like us generally being more complex and less scent-related than those of cats.

Over the next few columns, I will further expand on this idea of telos and try to explain how we can use our knowledge of it to help create a healthy, happy and comfortable environment for our cats.

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