Most of what a cat gets up to occurs in the privacy of its own home, but many owners are neurotic with worry about those hours when it is out of sight outdoors. Some owners may even go so far as to fit GPS tracking devices to their cat’s collar, either to download information about its perambulations, or locate it if it is late home for tea. But unless a cat wears a camera, its secret life largely remains a secret. However, one can safely assume that it involves a combination of the following principal feline interests: sleeping, defecating, grooming, patrolling its territory, hunting, and eating.
To understand the pet cat, it is wise to look first at the feral (a cat living wild) for insight into the natural behaviour of cats without interference or assistance from man. Feral cats hunt prey to survive. They are rodent specialists, preferring to hunt at dawn and dusk (crepuscular hunters) when their chosen targets are at their most active. They can, however, seamlessly adapt to hunting at other times depending on the prey type available or should an opportunity arise.
Depending on the availability of prey, ferals will hunt for up to 12 hours and can travel over a mile, there and back, during a single hunting excursion (which, considering how much time they remain partially concealed and motionless, is a comparatively large distance covered). Life is hard for the feral, taking as long as 70 minutes to catch one mouse at times when prey is scarce. Young rabbits are seasonally popular (as are adult rabbits in harsh winters) since they weigh on average ten times more than a typical rodent but only take five times longer to catch. The feral will always choose the option that produces the maximum return for the minimum effort. Note that for extra credibility, it is always wise to use the word ‘feral’ without the unnecessary adjunct of ‘cat’.
‘Cats are a mysterious kind of folk. There is more passing in their minds than we are aware of.’
Sir Walter Scott
You will often hear the argument that cats are responsible for depleting the bird population, but it is a fact that small mammals remain their primary food source. You may find yourself involved in a debate over the impact of cats on wildlife which has been particularly heated since a study published in 1997 by the Mammal Society estimated that 275 million animals were killed in Britain every year by pet cats. This study was actually based on flawed data from 696 unusually active cats and then extrapolated to the nation’s feline population of 9 million. Flawed or not, there are still many conservationists and cat haters who demonise cats in general. In reality, there is huge disagreement regarding the impact of cats on wildlife, with many sources suggesting that cats kill mainly the malnourished or sick that would have died anyway. The subject is maybe best left alone; it tends to raise a cat’s hackles – which is not the bluffer’s purpose.
If a cat isn’t hunting, and the majority are probably not, it is managing its territory. A ‘territory’ consists of the area that contains everything a cat needs to survive. The cat’s core area, or ‘den’, is sheltered and safe from danger and is the place where it can sleep undisturbed, eat, and rest between hunting forays. This would normally be somewhere within the home and, more often than not, it is the whole of it.
In addition to the core area that forms the hub of the territory, there is an area that the cat will also actively defend against invasion by others, called the home range. Beyond the boundaries of the defended home range is the entire area over which the cat will roam and hunt for food, referred to as the hunting range. All of these areas have variable sizes which are dependent on the number of cats around and their relative aggressiveness (or otherwise).
Within the whole territory, the cat will have established paths and thoroughfares that are well-trodden, often at specific times – particularly if the local cat population is high. Throughout the domain, the cat will leave its own scent marks, either by scratching with its front paws, rubbing its face on objects, or squirting urine on vertical surfaces.
There are no real mysteries as to what a cat gets up to when its owner is not around or when it’s outside. It simply performs a combination of basic biological functions – marking territory, fighting (although most take great steps to avoid it) and nicking other cats’ food. Some focus on mice; others think twigs or worms are appropriate prey. When a cat is permanently satisfied with food at home, it still wants to hunt but is really not bothered about the nutritional value of what it ‘catches’. It is actually far easier for most to visit another cat’s house and steal their food instead.
A typical day for a typical cat usually starts several hours before that of the owner. The idea that a restful night’s sleep is a feasible luxury for a cat owner is largely unrealistic if the cat has other plans. His natural sleep/wake cycle makes him most active at dawn and dusk (don’t forget to mention the glorious word ‘crepuscular’ when discussing a cat’s habits), so any owner leaving the bedroom door ajar at night is looking for trouble.
The cat rises at 4am, scampers upstairs at breakneck speed, and announces his presence to the owner, who eventually and reluctantly rises at about 4.07am and places a bowl of food down in the vain hope that sleep can be resumed. The cat, who has not eaten for at least four hours, sniffs the food, eats a little (why not, cats are opportunistic feeders) and then watches with a serene and impassive expression as the owner returns to bed. About 15 minutes later, the cat will arrive in the bedroom again, this time diving under the bed, spinning onto his back and pulling himself along the bottom of the bedframe with his claws. His owner rises again (it’s still not 4.30am), gets a feather toy on a stick out of the wardrobe and lures the animal downstairs.
Within half an hour, the cat is bored but drowsy, and his owner is fast asleep on the sofa. At 6am, the owner wakes and returns to bed. Five minutes later, the cat jumps on the bed, purrs insistently, drools, and treads on the duvet rhythmically. Bluffers should know that this curious behaviour mimics what a kitten does to its mother’s teat to stimulate milk; the drooling is in anticipation of the meal. The cat then inserts a single claw into the nostril of his owner who howls pitifully and pulls the duvet overhead to avoid further bloodshed. This is a foolish move because it reveals a toe which the cat pounces on in the belief that it’s a small mammal. The owner gets up again, feeds him once more and opens the back door to let him outside. The cat sits at the door, with his owner waiting, contemplating whether or not it is safe to leave the house. A further 10 minutes go by while he makes up his mind. Five minutes later he goes outside.
It is now 6.30am and he is patrolling his territory: he sniffs all the regular bushes, fences and dustbins for the tell-tale urine trickles of the marks of his enemies. He finds several, mostly deposited by Precious from No. 9, but fortunately they were left a while ago so the coast is clear. Just to make the point, he sprays urine on the acanthus, the lavender, the barbecue and the garden waste bin, then empties his bladder completely in No. 5’s vegetable patch. As the time approaches 7.40am, he empties his bowels on the side alleyway of No. 3, goes in through the cat flap and eats the remains of Sooty’s food, does the same again with Stripey’s in No. 5, then he returns home.
It is now 8.00am and he’s howling outside the back door and repeatedly scratching on it until it is magically opened. He just manages to eat the remains of his own breakfast (not easy as he’s already had two others) and then washes his face, paws and bottom, in that order. He is now ready for bed so he curls up in the back bedroom, on the guest bed, in the morning sunlight, just as his owners leave for work. He then sleeps soundly and uninterrupted for 9 hours and 47 minutes. At 6.05pm he wakes, stretches and washes both sides and his bottom, shortly after which he ambles downstairs to wait by the front door, anticipating the arrival of his owner who he is very pleased to see a short time later, rubbing round her legs and running determinedly back and forth to the cupboard in the kitchen. His owner feeds him once again. Four minutes pass and the cat is now standing by the back door, staring at his owner and mewing plaintively as finally the door is opened and he goes outside. There follows 39 minutes of patrolling, spraying urine, peeing, pooing and sitting on the shed. At 7pm he returns to his place of sanctuary and sits with his owners, who are now both at home. There is a degree of attention-seeking until, two hours later, he’s out again (see above). At 11pm his owner calls him repeatedly for 15 minutes until he returns for the night, sleeping soundly until 4am when his Groundhog Day commences all over again.
No mystery. That’s a typical day in the life of a domestic cat.
DID YOU KNOW…?
1. The cat has an average stomach capacity of 300ml (10 fl oz). That’s more than half a pint of milk. Although most cats would prefer a sardine.
2. Neutered cats require significantly fewer calories (up to 40% less) to maintain their body weight than their fully intact counterparts.