Cats are endearing creatures that have a knack for capturing human attention. Proof of this can be found in their popularity as internet stars. Though we may be enamored of them, and we may have millions of photographs and videos of them, they still baffle us with some of their quirky behaviors. We may have more questions than answers, but we do know a few things.
What, for instance, is the deal with the “stinky face?” You might see your cat smell something, like your gym shoes, then lean back with a strange look, his nose wrinkled and his mouth open for a moment. Though it may look like he is trying to convey that you need to invest in odor eaters, he is actually exhibiting something called the flehman response. You see, on the roof of a cat’s (and many other species’) mouth, there is something called a vomeronasal organ. It is a pair of small sensory organs that can trap odor molecules and transmit the messages from them to the cat’s brain. This is especially useful for picking up pheromones, which are chemical messages that animals use to communicate with one another. That weird face they make helps them to usher scent molecules to this organ.
Pheromones, by the way, are the reason for another cat behavior- rubbing their faces on objects, people, and other animals. When your cat rubs against your leg, he is transferring pheromones from glands in his cheeks to your pants. This effectively marks you as part of his kitty club. Facial pheromones are also good for keeping cats calm; there are several versions of synthetic pheromones that you can use to quell feline anxiety.
You may have noticed that your cat likes to repeatedly catch and release his prey, effectively prolonging a hunt. While there doesn’t seem to be a reason that behaviorists are 100% sure is correct, one of the theories is that your cat may be leery of being bitten or pecked by his catch and is trying to tire it out before getting serious. Another theory is that he is just enjoying the experience of being one with his inner tiger. Most cats will hunt, even if they are well fed pets. Whether or not they actually eat the prey may depend more on their hunger level.
After finally completing his hunt, your cat may bring you his catch as a gift. Many behaviorists feel that this is his way of trying to teach you to hunt. Mother cats teach their kittens about hunting and what (or who) to eat by first eating prey in front of them, then bringing them a deceased prey animal of their own. Female cats are especially likely to bring you these awkward gifts. Your cat may have noticed that you lack certain mouse capturing skills and is trying to teach you how to survive.
Cats are carnivores. In fact, they cannot synthesize certain proteins and must eat meat to survive. So, why does Kitty feel the need to munch on grass or houseplants? This is another behavior that has several possible theories. One of which, and perhaps the most widely used, is that cats eat grass to relieve upset an upset stomach by causing vomiting. This may or may not be true. Not every cat who eats grass vomits and as to their intentions, we can only speculate. Another theory is that they may enjoy the activity or be enticed into playing and chewing by the subtle movements of the plant. The attention from household humans when munching on a plant may actually reinforce the behavior and become the cause. And, it just may be possible that cats enjoy a little salad from time to time. If your cat likes greens, try investing in a tray of cat grass. You can find them in most pet stores.
Finally, what about that defining cat characteristic, the purr? Cats purr in a variety of situations, like when they are content, nurturing the bond between queen and kitten, nervous, or in pain. Exactly how they make this sound is a bit complex, but studies suggest that the purring noise is created by the muscles that open and close the space between the vocal chords. These muscles contract and relax rapidly, almost like a twitch. When the air from their breathing hits these muscles, the purring noise is made. Some of your cat’s cousins purr, like the puma and the bobcat, while others, like the lion and the cheetah, can’t.
While we still have many unanswered questions about our feline friends, we do know that they make terrific and entertaining companions.