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The Strange Things Happening in 47 Million Households That Few Can Explain

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

strange cat behavior

Story at-a-glance -

  • Despite the often-inexplicable behavior of cats, they’re wildly popular pets, residing in nearly 50 million American households
  • Among the questions cat parents have: “Why does my kitty prefer water that is anywhere except in her bowl,” and “Why does she gleefully knock my things off my dresser?”
  • Find answers to these and other burning “Why does my cat …” questions

Based on the latest information (2017 to 2018), there are over 94 million pet cats in the U.S., living in 47 million households.1 This means there are at least 47 million people who, at this very moment, could be shaking their heads in disbelief at something their feline family member is up to.

If you're one of the lucky 47 million, my guess is you've also scratched your head a time or two at your cat's bewildering behavior. If so, you might find the following answers to five common cat owner questions illuminating.

Question No. 1: Why Does My Cat Refuse to Drink From His Water Bowl?

More than a few felines virtually ignore the cool, clean water in their monogrammed, pristine water bowls in favor of balancing on the toilet seat to drink from that bowl instead. This odd behavior is especially popular with cats who've developed a fascination with how the water swirls when the toilet is flushed.

Other kitties enjoy standing at a kitchen or bathroom sink, drinking their fill from a dripping faucet. Some will even sit on the counter or vanity and wail loudly until a human appears to make the faucet drip for them. As strict carnivores, cats are designed to get most of their water from their diet (which in the wild consists of small prey animals). Your kitty descended from desert-dwelling felines, after all, and there aren't many water sources in the desert.

Not only does your cat have a lower thirst drive than many animals, but according to the experts, kitties also don't see still water in a bowl all that well, and it also has no odor (especially if it's filtered). Running or dripping water can be heard and is easier to see than still water. It's also possible cats avoid still water because outdoors, standing water can be contaminated with toxins, whereas running water is usually fresh and clean.

Another problem is that in the wild, cats are prey for other animals, and so they feel vulnerable in many situations. In your home, one of those situations could be a water bowl placed in a corner or against a wall. While drinking from it, kitty's back is to the room and he can't see household "predators" sneaking up on him.

Cats are also very sensitive to subtle changes in smells, tastes and flavors. We know all plastic water bowls leach BPA and other toxins into the water that may cause kitties to steer clear of them. Poor-quality metal bowls may have the same problem. It could also be that small particles of food have dropped into the water, changing its smell or taste.

Switching to glass water bowls, changing the water daily and using pure, filtered water are some suggestions for assuring your cat isn't repulsed by his water source. If he prefers moving to still water, consider investing in a pet drinking fountain to keep him occupied and encourage him to drink more.

Question No. 2: Why Does My Cat Push Things Off Tables and Dressers?

If you've ever watched your kitty do this, you've probably noticed he also carefully observes the item as it falls, hits the floor and maybe breaks. If it breaks, he may jump down and bat the little shards around, seeming to really rub it in as you stare, dumbfounded. Here's the thing. He doesn't hate you and isn't consciously destroying your belongings. According to a growing number of animal behavior experts, a very important factor influencing cat behavior is the unnatural and unstimulating existence of so many indoor kitties.

To put it more bluntly, most housecats today are bored silly because they have no opportunity to participate in many of their natural behaviors like hunting. The tedium of life in captivity would certainly explain why many kitties develop the annoying habit of launching preferably breakable items off counters, tables and shelves.

"What many people do not realize," writes veterinary behaviorist Dr. Wailani Sung, "is that cats are curious and like to explore. They use their paws to help them explore by touching and manipulating objects that interest them.

Sometimes they may push too hard, and items are moved. When objects fall and bounce around, your cat may be fascinated by the movement of the object. For cats that are confined indoors, there is a lot of monotony and routine in their lives. Pushing objects around and making them fall down may give them more mental stimulation."2

Here are some tips for keeping indoor cats mentally and physically stimulated.

Question No. 3: Why Is My Cat Obsessed With Cardboard Boxes?

A study published in 2014 that looked at stress in shelter cats reported that access to hiding boxes actually reduces feline stress, especially in new arrivals.3 The study involved 19 newly arrived cats at a Dutch animal shelter, only 10 of which were given access to hiding boxes.

By day three of the cats' shelter stay, the researchers observed a noticeable difference between the two groups. The cats with hiding boxes were acclimating faster to the shelter environment, were significantly less stressed than the kitties without boxes and showed more interest in interacting with humans.

When you think about it, this makes perfect sense, since the universal feline response to a stressful situation is to withdraw and hide. When cats in the wild feel threatened, they head for trees, dens or caves to seek safety. Indoor kitties don't have that option, so hiding in boxes may be an adaptation.

In addition, boxes and other tight spaces preserve body heat, and cats like it hot. Indoor kitties feel most comfortable when their environment is 86 to 97 degrees F. In this temperature range, your cat doesn't need to expend metabolic energy trying to either warm up or cool down.

Many cats also seem to enjoy surprising onlookers by suddenly springing from a box, while others like to dive in and out of them as a form of exercise.

Question No. 4: Why Does My Cat Ask To Be Petted Only to Turn on Me?

Felines are legendary for sending this very confusing, often insulting message. Kitty jumps into your lap or rubs insistently against your legs. She purrs and looks at you with "I love you" eyes. How can you resist? So, you begin stroking her soft fur, and out of the blue, she takes a swing at you with her paw or sinks her sharp teeth into you.

This is known in feline behavior circles as petting-induced aggression and it usually occurs when your cat has decided she's had enough handling. Some kitties apparently have a very limited tolerance threshold for being touched by human hands. If your cat gets over-stimulated from petting or her "I've had enough" body language signals aren't apparent to you, she may lash out to make you stop.

If while holding or petting your cat you notice her skin twitching or her tail lashing … if she stops purring or starts meowing … or if she flattens her ears to her head or points them backward, she's telling you, "Enough!" Do yourself a favor and quickly remove your hands from her fluffy little body before she gives you a reason to!

Question No. 5: Why Does My Cat Approach Me, Then Turn His Back to Me?

If your kitty leaps into your lap, then turns away from you before he settles in, or if it seems no matter where he sits, it's always with his back to you, it's not a sign of anger or disrespect. In fact, he's actually showing you how much he trusts you. As both predator and prey, your cat instinctively positions his body for safety. Non-threats (like you, his favorite human) will be to his rear as he positions himself to watch what's going on in front and to either side of him.

Some kitties also do this when they're looking for a nice scratch at the junction where the tail meets the back. This is an area of the body cats can't easily reach. Other signs he's looking to be scratched there include purring, twitching his tail and arching his back.