Think Your Cat is Ignoring You? Think Again...

Pet Cat

Story at-a-glance -

  • A fascinating new study suggests that not only do cats mimic their humans’ lifestyles, they also take on human habits.
  • While we know well that genetics have a huge impact on the personality and behavior of cats, it’s clear now that living with people is also a significant factor.
  • Indoor cats living in close proximity to their humans adopt similar eating, sleep and behavior patterns as their owners. But the behaviors of kitties who spend considerable time outdoors, especially at night, align more closely with those of semi-feral cats.
  • If you are your kitty’s primary social group, you are her role model. It’s up to you to help her stay active, play and “prey” properly. In return, your favorite feline can help you find peace and serenity at the end of a hectic day.

By Dr. Becker

If you share your life with a cat, I’m sure there are times when you can relate to this quote by Paul Gray:

"Cats are kindly masters, just so long as you remember your place.”

Or this one, by Ellen Perry Berkeley:

“As every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat.”

But a study published in January in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior1 features some surprising insights into captive feline behavior. For instance, did you know pet cats take on human habits, or that they adapt their lifestyles to those of their owners?

According to Discovery News, the Italian study “shows how profoundly captivity can affect certain animals.” Certainly genetics play a role in feline personality and behavior, but it’s now clear that environment is also a significant factor.

"Our findings underline the high influence of human presence and care on the amount of activity and daily rhythm in cats," says Giuseppe Piccione of the University of Messina's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and one of the researchers.

Your Cat's Lifestyle Influences His Behavior

The goal of the study was to explore the effect of different housing environments on daily rhythm of total locomotor activity (TLA) in cats.

The cats in the study lived with owners who worked during the day and were home in the evenings. They were all well cared for. The kitties were separated into two groups, with the first group living in smaller homes and in close proximity to their humans. The other group lived in more space, had an indoor/outdoor lifestyle, and spent their nights outside.

Over time, the cats in the first group adopted similar lifestyles to their owners in terms of eating, sleeping and activity patterns. The second group became more nocturnal. Their behaviors were akin to those of semi-feral cats, for example, farm cats.

Dr. Jane Brunt of the CATalyst Council, in an interview with Discovery News, made this observation:

"Cats are intelligent animals with a long memory. They watch and learn from us, (noting) the patterns of our actions, as evidenced by knowing where their food is kept and what time to expect to be fed, how to open the cupboard door that's been improperly closed and where their feeding and toileting areas are."

Indoor cats who spend a lot of time with their humans tend to mimic their eating habits, including those that lead to obesity. And if you happen to keep your litter box in your bathroom like many cat owners do, you might have noticed Fluffy often seems to use her “toilet” while you’re using yours.

Feline personalities are often described in terms like “aggressive,” “arrogant,” “curious” or “timid.” These traits apply to people as well, and researchers at the University of Edinburgh theorize that cats’ environments may have a greater impact on their personality than previously thought.

Reciprocal Role Models

Just because your cat isn’t a pack animal doesn’t mean she isn’t social, and if her human family is her primary social group, then you are also her role model. It’s up to you to help your kitty stay active and engaged with her environment.

But that’s not to say your cat can’t teach you a thing or two as well. "I also think we can learn a lot from cats," says Dr. Brunt. "When they sit on our lap softly purring with rhythmic breathing and half-closed eyes, the sense of serenity and calm that comes over us is like a private lesson in inner peace and meditation."