Cat Lovers unite! Today is National Cat Day, a day founded to encourage cat adoption and to celebrate cats for their love and companionship. Domestication of cats dates back 4,000 years to a time when Ancient Egyptians kept cats to control pests that invaded food supplies.
Cats were not only revered as hunters by Ancient Egyptians — they were also believed to be “magical” and capable of bringing good luck. So much so, that wealthy families adorned cats with jewels and fed them treats fit for royalty. Cats were also mummified when they died. Ancient Egyptians in mourning would then shave off their eye brows and mourn the loss of the cat until their brows grew back.
In Greek mythology, Egyptian goddess Bastet fulfilled many roles, including goddess of the home, domesticity, women’s secrets, fertility, childbirth … and, yes, cats. First represented as a woman with the head of a lioness, Bastet’s images softened over time, with later depictions showing her with a cat’s head and a litter of kittens at her feet. Bastet was also believed to be able to morph into a cat at times.
While cats may have been the preferred companion of Ancient Egyptians, they are also commonly associated with witches and villains (think the proverbial black cat at Halloween). I prefer to think of my feline family members and patients as masters of disguise with wicked intelligence instead of representatives of evil.
To comprehend the allure of cats, one must first understand their behaviors — some have been developed out of necessity, others are just plain intriguing. Part of the delight of being a veterinarian is having the privilege of witnessing varied feline behaviors … the good, the bad and the ugly!
If you have watched your cat play, you have likely seen it in a low crouch with its tail swishing, followed by a pounce on an object of its desire. In nature, this behavior will precede an attack on prey, or be carried out in response to a perceived threat. Therefore, it is not uncommon to observe this same tail-switching behavior in the veterinary setting when a feline patient’s discontent is escalating. If this “tick-tock tail” is not heeded, cats will often follow through by lashing out at the nearest target.
Veterinary professionals heed another forewarning given by cat patients: ears that are laid back on the head. This is a posture that precedes a conflict between cats and definitely sends the message “Back off!” Speaking from experience, you should.
On the contrary, head bunting, often mistakenly labeled head-butting, and facial rubbing, are social behaviors practiced by cat colonies to make all colony members smell alike. Cats recognize each other by scent first, so when your cat rubs its head, chin or face on you, you become your cat’s possession and a member of its club. Head bunting also indicates social rank, as dominant cats usually do the bunting. Your cat may roll over on the floor a few times before bunting you as a way of showing affection!
Have you ever witnessed your cat with its ears pricked and its mouth slightly open? This depicts a cat using its vomeronasal organ, an accessory scent organ, that sits forward on the roof of the mouth. When a scent is collected in the mouth, cats use their tongues to flick the scent up to the vomeronasal organ. This information processing is called a flehmen response and is practiced by domestic and wild animals including horses, ungulates and large felines. You may notice your cat “flehming” when it detects a new or different aroma in its environment.
Does your cat seem to occasionally get a case of the “zoomies” and suddenly race about? This behavior is likely a throwback to kittenhood when your cat was learning to hunt. Zooming kittens will bounce sideways with their backs arched as they fine tune their balance, speed, timing and agility. Older cats may zoom because it’s just plain fun, especially if they have pent-up energy. My advice is to sit back, laugh, and enjoy … unless the zooming is nocturnal. The solution to unwanted zooming at night is to engage your cat in play during the day, and feed its biggest meal at bedtime, as most cats will sleep after a meal (or big hunt).
These are just a few of the numerous intriguing behaviors cats demonstrate. If, like me, you enjoy the company of cats, singular or (preferably) plural, why not “walk like an Egyptian” to your nearest shelter or cat rescue and adopt a cat in need. You may just find the purr-fect pet.
Happy National Cat Day!
Dr. Bonnie Jones practices at Delphos Animal Hospital. She celebrates National Cat Day every day with her cats, Diane, Stevie Wonder and Opie, and several beloved barn cats.