According to fossil records, the first cats roamed the earth more than ten million years ago and assumed their present size around six million years ago—long before man first made his appearance. Molded by evolution into a solitary nocturnal species with unparalleled hunting skills, the domestic house cat’s nearest relative, the African wildcat (Felis lybica), still inhabits the plains of north Africa just as he did when Egyptian civilization emerged from the darkness of prehistory more than eight thousand years ago.
The Egyptians founded their economy on the cultivation of grain. Stored in enormous silos, this grain attracted rodents that (according to the Old Testament) soon reached plague-like concentrations. Lured by such easy pickings, Felis lybica entered Egyptian households as mousers par excellence and remained there as pets for the next eight thousand years.
Because the Egyptians had no concept of modern genetics, the process of domestication through selective breeding doesn’t seem to have occurred during the thousands of years that Egyptians and cats lived together. Indeed, comparing skeletons and early pictures of Felis lybica to the modern house cat (Felis catus), they look virtually identical. The first known painting of a domesticated cat appears in the Egyptian tomb of Ti (c. 2600 b.c.e.), where a modern-looking orange tabby with a flashy grin is shown wearing an ornamental collar. In another tomb (c. 1900 b.c.e.), seventeen cats were laid out next to their deceased owner—carefully mummified and wrapped in linens, each with a mummified mouse and a bowl of preserved milk.
As holy symbols representing the sun god Osiris and the mother god Isis, cats served as the gods’ earthly representatives whenever a family made a vow to the gods. According to the Greek historian Herodotus (484–425 b.c.e.), who visited Egypt during the fifth century b.c.e., “The inhabitants of the various cities, when they have made a vow to any god, pay it to his animals . . . they shave the head of the child, cutting off all the hair . . . which they weigh in a balance against a sum of silver. Whatever sum the hair weighs is presented to the guardian of the animals, who thereupon cuts up some fish, and gives it to them.” In Egypt, cats were protected to such an extent that anyone encountering a dead feline in the streets would flee rather than risk an accusation of murder. “When a man has killed one of the sacred animals,” Herodotus wrote, “if he did it with malice, he is punished with death; if unwittingly, he has to pay such a fine as the priests choose to impose.” The death of a cat by natural causes sent entire families into mourning, with members shaving their eyebrows as a sign of grief. The Egyptians even forbade all cats from leaving Egypt, designating a branch of the government to tracking down escapees.
So total was their veneration for cats that when the Persian king Cambiase launched his invasion of Egypt in 595 b.c.e., he assured himself of victory by arming his soldiers with pictures of the holy animal on every sword and shield—and in some cases, ordering his soldiers to carry live cats into battle. Eventually the Persians conquered the whole of Egypt, allowing cats to escape Egypt on trading ships bound for the Middle East and Europe.
The speed with which they spread is indicated by the fact that the word for cat is virtually the same in every European language: Spanish (gato), Greek (gata), German (katze), Dutch and Danish (kat), Swedish and Norwegian (katt), Polish (kot), English (cat), French (chat), modern Latin (catus), and Maltese (qattus), as well as Syrian (quato) and Arabic (quett)—all of them derived from the ancient Latin cautus (meaning “astute”) and the Indo-European root ghad (meaning “to catch or grasp”). The most common nickname—“kitty”—stems from the Turkish word for cat (kedi).
A Remarkable Specimen
Even after centuries of living under human care, domestic cats today remain extremely close to their ancestral form. Despite superficial changes of coat color, size, and marking, even the most pampered house cat is but one step from the predatory rat killer that guarded the food stores of ancient Egypt.
Everything about the cat inspires a sense of awe. With a magnificent hunter’s head, a powerful yet sensitive mouth, and the teeth of a true carnivore, the cat has ears that can pick up any sound, eyes capable of seeing in the dimmest light, and a nose that detects anything it cannot see or hear. Long, limber, and amazingly flexible, the cat’s body is perfectly designed for the silent stalk and the graceful leap, combining strength and agility with remarkable speed. Strong back and leg muscles allow him to jump many times his own height, with reflexes that guarantee he lands on his feet. And his remarkable sense of balance, developed thousands of years ago when cats spent most of their time in trees, means he can scale any height and walk atop the narrowest fence, using his tail the way a tightrope walker uses his pole.
In addition to his ordinary senses, many owners feel their cats have supernatural powers. Stories of cats becoming alarmed moments before an earthquake suggest that they are capable of detecting things that we cannot. But according to cat expert, zoologist, and author of Catwatching Desmond Morris, this “sixth sense” is merely the cat’s reaction to minute vibrations and the subtle changes in air pressure that precede such major events.
Because of these and other qualities, cats have been the subject of intense scrutiny. Trying to unlock the secrets to his behavior, scientists have studied Felis catus in every conceivable habitat—from wild subarctic islands with densities of less than one cat per square mile to modern industrial cities with more than one thousand cats per square mile—marveling at the animal’s stunning flexibility and highly developed hunting and survival skills.
Are Cats Domesticated or Wild?
Of all the species that have left the wild and chosen to live with us, only cats have retained the skills necessary to return to the wild. In fact, many “domestic” cat breeds grow larger and heavier in the wild, occasionally reaching the same size as truly wild species. In the jungles of Southeast Asia, for example, wild Siamese cats have been known to grow to nearly twice the size of their housebound siblings, while in the western United States, domestic shorthairs the size of bobcats can be found living near suburbs.
But what about house cats that venture out periodically? In a study conducted in the village of Felmersham, England, biologist and animal researcher Dr. John H. Lawton found that house cats occupied the top of the local food chain, being twice as effective at killing small mammals and birds as local foxes and one and a half times as effective as local barn owls—even though, as well-fed “domestic” animals, they did not need to hunt at all.
This makes the modern cat something of a paradox—a species that is both dependent and independent—preferring to accept our care and affection without giving up ancient predatory ways. For this reason, scientists aren’t sure whether cats are truly domesticated.
While touring villages in southern Egypt in the late nineteenth century, the German explorer Georg Schweinfurth observed children catching Felis lybica kittens and raising them as pets. Schweinfurth himself “procured several of these cats, which, after they had been kept tied up for several days, seemed to lose a considerable measure of their ferocity and adapt themselves to an indoor existence so as to approach in many ways to the habits of the common cat.”
Could it be that the cat, like man, simply changes his behavior to fit a new set of circumstances? Has the cat, in other words, domesticated itself?
Whatever the case, all house cats share certain innate characteristics with their wild cousins that reveal themselves from the very beginning of every kitten’s life. Being aware of these qualities and the way they develop as kittens grow will make you more aware of what makes your cat tick.
Douglas Weiss knew he had a problem when his cat Willow began to leave little presents in the bathroom shower.
“When I realized that she was using the shower drain as her litter box, I began to adjust her routine step by step,” he recalls. “First, I placed her litter box in the shower, directly over the drain. Then, as soon as Willow began using the litter, I closed off the shower and placed her box next to the toilet.” Raising the box was no problem, says Douglas, “but after I removed the litter box and installed the plastic wrap under the toilet seat, it took several weeks for her to use it.”
Eventually Douglas intervened directly. “First I cut a hole in the center of the wrap and left litter scattered around the hole. Then I picked her up and placed her on the toilet seat. Every time she tried to step onto the litter, I put her feet back onto the seat,” he says. “The first time she did it, I praised her so much I made her feel like she had just spoken her first word.”
According to Douglas, “the praise produced a Pavlovian response” in Willow, a reference to the 1920s experiment in conditioned learning performed by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov placed a dog in a pen and introduced a visual stimulus in the form of a red light, which was turned on before every feeding. Soon Pavlov’s dog associated the red light with food and began to salivate when the light was turned on, even though there was no food present. Pavlov then introduced an aural stimulus by ringing a bell and observed the same conditioned response. By combining the aural and visual stimuli, Pavlov achieved the strongest response, which physiologists refer to as higher order conditioning. When toilet training a cat, a similar response can be achieved when the owner reassures and praises the cat within eyesight of the litter box. “Praise became such an important part of Willow’s toilet training,” Douglas concludes, “that she waits until I return from work, then runs to the bathroom, expecting me to follow.”
A Kitten Is Born
Because of the harsh conditions under which their ancestors lived, all mother cats raise their kittens as though they were actually living in the wild. From tiny defenseless kitten to self-sufficient adult, the cat’s physical and mental development is extraordinarily fast—many times faster than our own—and always fascinating to watch.
Totally blind and deaf at birth, a furry blob weighing only three or four ounces, the newborn kitten enters a world in which he must instantly use his highly sensitive nose to find his mother. Once he picks up the scent, he wiggles and squirms, exerting every ounce of his strength to move himself into position, where he makes an instinctive treading motion with his paws to stimulate the mother to produce milk.
The kitten’s first fourteen days are roughly equal to a human baby’s first nine months. By the fifth day, already twice his original size, though not yet able to see, the kitten’s sense of smell is almost fully developed—capable of identifying not only his mother and littermates, but the specific nipple he must return to for feeding. Placed as far as four feet from the nest, a tiny four-day-old kitten will immediately sniff the air to determine the proper direction and will struggle, exhausting himself if necessary, in order to return to the comforting smell of the nest.
Such instincts are crucial for the kitten’s viability in the first few weeks. But instinct alone is not enough. A mother must teach her kittens a number of survival lessons, first among them being the proper disposal of their bodily wastes. In the wild, this is accomplished by carefully cleaning the kittens—who do not have the physical ability to eliminate on their own—during the first weeks of life. She licks a kitten’s chest to aid his digestion and his lower belly to stimulate him to eliminate, ingesting the kitten’s microscopic wastes as she licks. Because a kitten can only eliminate when his mother stimulates his urogenital reflex, he is prevented from soiling the nest and attracting predators. This continues for as long as the nest remains the center of activity, until the kittens reach about four weeks of age—by which time they are up and running around.
Then, toward the end of the fourth week, the mother cat in the wild will suddenly move her kittens, bringing them one at a time by the scruff of the neck to a new nest closer to their source of food. This way, the kittens can watch her drag her prey to them, arousing their carnivorous responses at the same time that they begin to eat their first solid food.
In the home, however, a cat may or may not move her kittens. If she does, she will move them to a fresh spot somewhere closer to the kitchen—to bring them closer to her source of food. Even though she has never lived in the wild, and her “prey” is deposited in a bowl at the same time each day, instinct dictates that she drag it to her young as though it were freshly killed. It will do no good to try to return the kittens to the original nest. Like the act of hunting itself, the ritual of a mother cat dragging food to her kittens is so ancient that no amount of domestic comfort will cause her to suppress it.
Once the kittens are situated in their new nest, they learn the details of feline behavior by observing and imitating their mother’s every move—the way she holds herself, the way she sits and grooms herself, and above all, the way she stalks and prowls. As a result, the moment she stops grooming her kittens, they begin to groom themselves and play with each other in a more determined fashion, training their hunters’ instincts as their tiny bodies continue to grow. The technique of visual recognition, stealth, and the art of the prowl are all learned during this critical time by kittens watching their mother and practicing on each other.
How Do Kittens Learn to Use a Litter Box?
Eventually, by following their mother and picking up scent clues, the kittens arrive at an area of soft dirt where they learn an extremely valuable lesson. As the kittens observe, the mother cat digs a small hole with her forepaws, positions herself over the hole, relieves herself, and covers it with her forepaws. When she walks away, the kittens then approach the spot, move the particles of dirt with their paws, and record the smell with their sensitive little noses.
Though a mother cat in the wild often leaves her wastes exposed when she is away from the nest, she will always bury them in her kittens’ presence to hide the smell (thus keeping the nest area safe from predators) and to teach the technique to her kittens. Ordinarily, the kittens will urinate in the same area right away as a way of imitating their mother.
This apparently sudden response is often described as “inherent,” “innate,” or “instinctive” behavior—the argument being that cats are such fastidious creatures that they naturally hide and cover their wastes without having to be instructed.
Yet the instinctive element is not the ability to perform the behavior, but the ability to learn it. By the time his eyes open wide enough to see, every kitten begins to study and imitate the actions of his mother, his littermates, and any other cat or species that happens to be in the house.
In other words, kittens learn whatever they are taught. To demonstrate this phenomenon, biologist Zing-Yang Kuo studied two groups of kittens: one group of twenty kittens raised by their mothers in a mouse-killing household; and another group of twenty raised alongside mice. Among the first group, where each kitten had seen his mother kill a mouse, eighteen out of twenty managed to kill a mouse on the first attempt (nine of them ate it as well). Among the second group, only three kittens out of twenty managed to subdue a mouse and none could actually kill one.
In one of the most extreme examples of this response ever recorded, an orphaned male kitten raised with a litter of puppies learned to urinate by lifting his leg on a tree after observing his male dog companions doing so.
This ability to learn through observation alone assures that a cat will learn to bury his wastes (in a specific area when in the wild, or in a litter box in the home). Yet it must first be demonstrated by his mother, another cat, or a member of another species, such as yourself (see chapter 2).
By the eighth week, kittens in the wild consume less and less of their mother’s milk (eating more and more solid food). Then, at the end of the eighth week or the beginning of the ninth, the mother will suddenly deny them access to her nipples and will even chase them away, eventually leaving them to fend for themselves.
From Kitten to Adult
For domestic-breed kittens in the wild, the end of the weaning process is an intensely disorienting experience. Left to his own devices, a kitten wanders aimlessly, enduring a profound sense of distress in the first weeks after leaving his mother. Consequently he soon loses his juvenile charm, finds his own territory, and defends it by using his urine and feces as territorial markers, eventually developing into a solitary hunter with many of the same behaviors as true wild cats.
Yet most kittens never experience the wild. Leaving their mother one day, they often take up residence with a new human family the next. As a result, “many of the kitten’s juvenile habits are preserved long beyond the normal time,” says animal researcher Paul Leyhausen.
Tamed by the sequence of their upbringing, switching immediately from littermates to humans, most kittens become attached to both species and consider themselves members of both. The moment a human assumes responsibility for feeding and caring for a cat, says Leyhausen, “the cat will continue in a state of juvenile dependency, viewing the human as a stand-in for its mother.”
This “kittenish” behavior is familiar to anyone who has felt the characteristic “kneading” motion that a cat makes while sitting in one’s lap. This motion is identical to the grip a newborn kitten uses to attach himself to his mother while nursing. The fact that cats often follow their owners is another sign of kittenish dependence. Even the fact that a cat will purr when stroked by a human—the same way he did with his mother—suggests that adult cats view their owners as stand-ins for their mothers.
Tame on the Outside, Wild at Heart
That furry bundle purring away in your lap can quickly become an effective hunter, however, given the proper stimulus. Spotting a squirrel or chipmunk, he quietly switches from kitten to killer. Suddenly, he becomes very still, crouches, flexes his muscles, and twitches his rear, prepared to launch an attack. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spots you and, after a brief moment of indecision, turns around and offers a “Who, me?” expression, as though hunting is the farthest thing from his mind.
This “split personality,” the ability of a domestic cat to lead a double life, as a kitten on the outside and an occasional hunter within, is the key difference between domestic cats and their wild cousins. The more a domestic kitten is handled by humans early in life, the more “kittenlike” he will become as an adult. Yet that in no way changes the cat’s inner nature—that spark of wildness that still links him with his African ancestors even after thousands of years of domestic life.
All we can do as owners is try to understand our cat’s “wild” side and make allowances for what cannot be changed.
The Need for Territory
Chief among the cat’s “wild” instincts is the need to establish and guard his own turf. Territorial behavior is central to the cat’s identity, second only to self-preservation as the strongest of all feline behaviors.
Generally speaking, territory is that collection of sights, sounds, and, above all, smells that a cat considers an extension of himself. Cats define their territory in terms of the nest, where the cat eats and sleeps, and a larger, more loosely defined area around the nest called the home range.
For a cat in the wild, the home range might be a small forest, the sunny side of a mountain, or an entire valley with space for hunting areas, rest spots, escape routes, and private watering holes. For a free-ranging domestic cat living on a farm, the home range might include twenty acres around the farmhouse. In the suburbs, a cat might claim the house as his nest and the backyard (plus two or three adjoining backyards) as his home range. Yet in the city, where space is tight, the nest might be only one or two rooms, with the home range limited to the tiny enclosed space behind a town house, or even just a balcony or a spare room. Yet no matter how much (or how little) space a cat can claim, all cats exercise the same territorial instinct and will do everything in their power to claim a certain area as their own, using the most highly developed of all their faculties—their sense of smell.
The Importance of Scent
It’s difficult to overestimate the sensitivity of a cat’s nose. Much more discriminating than our own, cats’ noses can identify smells that few other species can even detect. The secret is an intricate nasal membrane folded so that its surface area is many times greater than that in most animals of a comparable size. The average cat’s nose has nineteen million nerve endings, as opposed to the average human’s five million.
What’s more, cats also have a second olfactory system known as Jacobson’s organ, an unbelievably sensitive vomeronasal instrument located at the back of the throat.
When he wants to do some serious sniffing, the cat will first inhale through his nose, then stretch his neck and appear to grimace, panting slightly as he draws air through his mouth across Jacobson’s organ. Using his nose and throat in combination, a cat can smell nine times more than the average human, including the scent another cat left days, or even weeks, before.
For this reason, most cats are extremely conscious of smells, both pleasant and unpleasant, and can remember them for a very long time. This highly developed “scent memory” stems from the animal’s very first experience: when the tiny, sightless kitten must locate his mother’s nipple and identify each of his littermates by scent alone.
Because the cat’s nose is so discriminating, the list of substances he responds to is immense. Pleasant scents include items as diverse as yeast, fennel, wet plaster, motorcycle grease, stagnant water, freshly cooked corn, and even old clothes.
But the list of smells that cats can’t stand is equally long. One of the most common is nitrogen—the tiniest trace of which comes from canned food the moment it turns bad. This is why so many cats refuse to eat their food the day after it is opened. Another is common household vinegar. With certain exceptions, no cat will go near chemical smells, especially those of cleansers containing pine oil, ammonia, or virtually any disinfectant. One exception is the chlorine scent of fresh laundry—which explains why many cats prefer sleeping in the clothes hamper (or even inside the dryer!). Another is gasoline, which many cats, like people, sniff delightedly.
Suffice it to say that no odor escapes your cat’s attention. Yet of all the millions upon millions of substances in the natural world, nothing sets a cat off quite like the smells that cats make themselves: At one end of the spectrum is the faint, musky, almost undetectable odor produced by scent glands on a cat’s head and face, and at the other is the sharp room-clearing stench of his urine and feces—the same smells that all cats use to mark and maintain their territory.
The Cat Who Trained Himself
On the outskirts of Chicago, Mary Miliser’s son found a kitten shivering inside an old box. He named the trembling ball of fur Fred.
Eventually, when Mary moved to Sequim, Washington, Fred became an outdoor cat. “The house has a cat door that allows him to go in and out,” says Mary, “so rather than use his litter box, Fred preferred to go outside.”
Sometimes, however, rain kept Fred indoors. “Though he would stay in for days at a time, he never seemed to use his litter box,” Mary remembers.
Only later, and quite by accident, did she discover why. “I was standing in the bathroom, when, all of a sudden, I heard the sound of water running.” Mary turned around and there was Fred, perched on the edge of the toilet.
When asked how Fred got the idea to use the toilet instead of his litter box, Mary shrugs. “Maybe he thinks he’s human. After all, we use the toilet. Why shouldn’t he?”
Once Mary realized that Fred’s using the toilet was no fluke, she made certain to keep the bathroom door open and the toilet seat down, particularly on cold or rainy days. “Eventually I emptied out his litter box and put it away,” she says. “But I didn’t dare tell anyone.”
Some of the most interesting research on domestic cats has focused on their intense territorial behavior and the importance of scent to a cat’s well-being. Depending on their distance from the nest, all cats mark their territory in four distinct ways.
Allomarking. Allomarking is the most common marking technique, something you’ve seen your cat do a thousand times. First the cat rubs his mouth on the desired spot, then follows with his forehead, cheek, and the entire length of his body, marking the spot by transferring a scent from tiny sebaceous glands located on his head and the base of his tail to the object in question.
Though completely odorless to humans, the scent left by head rubbing is like Limburger cheese to a cat. Yet such a tiny amount is deposited when a cat rubs, it is difficult to see. Should your cat happen to rub his head against a clean window, look quickly and you will notice a slight smudge that quickly disappears. That’s the mark of the scent glands at work.
Given the opportunity, a cat will rub his head and body on the leg of every chair, table, and person, the corner of every wall and door—and every other surface within his reach, over and over again. So when he rubs passionately on your new running shoes, he’s not praising your choice of footwear, he’s telling every other cat in the world that these particular shoes are part of his territory.
As Aesop once observed, “the cat always leaves a mark on his friend,” and most cat owners wouldn’t have it any other way.
Clawing and scratching. Cats also claw deep visible scratches into any vertical object they can reach, such as a tree (if the territory is a forest) or the arm of your favorite chair (if the territory is your living room). As you know, cats scratch to condition their claws, removing the dead outer layer so that a new claw can grow in its place. Yet clawing is also a means of marking territory by spreading the scent produced by tiny glands in the cat’s paws onto the object he is scratching. No one knows whether the scent from scratching is stronger or different from the scent from face rubbing.
Urine spraying. Surely the most offensive way a male cat can advertise his presence is by forcibly spraying his urine, laden with noxious pheromones, onto any available surface (a tree, a rock, your five-hundred-dollar speakers) as a way of expressing outrage, stress, or sexual desire. It is quite a different urge than the cat’s need to void. While urinating, a cat squats in a characteristic fashion, expelling his urine onto a horizontal surface, like the floor or the litter box. While spraying, however, the cat stands erect and backs himself up until he touches a vertical surface, like the arm of a chair. He then squirts urine out, holding his tail up while wiggling his backside—and leaving behind an odor that is so pungent it lasts for weeks in open country and is positively mind-boggling in an enclosed space. (Fortunately for owners, domestic cats do not exhibit this behavior if they have been neutered before the cat reaches six months of age.)
Urination and defecation. Though spraying is the strongest social statement a cat can make, cats do not use it to establish or maintain their territory. Instead, they use their urine and feces. Both domestic cats that return to the wild and free-ranging domestics living on farms and in country suburbs follow similar patterns when nature calls. Rather than doing their business in a single spot near the nest, as cats do when they are litter trained, free-ranging cats often relieve themselves as far from the nest as possible to avoid detection by predators and to mark the edges of their territory, taking care never to use the same place twice. Indeed, most cats put a considerable distance between one event and the next, often going in a different direction from the nest each time nature calls.
The Scent Barrier
Since he rarely travels beyond the distance of his farthest excretion, the pattern that a cat makes with his urine and feces eventually becomes a boundary within which his territory is defined—an area that can vary from as much as one hundred and seventy acres for an extremely dominant male to as little as five acres for a female tending a litter of kittens.
No matter what size their territory, free-ranging cats exert amazing persistence and energy to scent-mark the perimeter of that territory, with males scent-marking as much as thirty times per hour and females five or six times per hour. Doing this systematically, day after day, at a more or less fixed distance from the nest, the cat eventually forms a “scent barrier” around the nest designed not only to confuse predators (by placing the cat’s scent consistently away from the nest) and to warn rival cats that another cat is present, but also to protect the cat himself from straying beyond his own territory.
As a rule, a cat in the wild feels secure only within his own scent barrier. Once he reaches the edge of his territory and detects the smell of his own urine and feces, instinct tells him to turn around and retreat toward the center of his territory—an automatic response that is critical to the cat’s long-term survival in the wild.
To Drink or Not to Drink
When Lisa Gabbay first saw Darth, the tiny black kitten was wandering the streets of Danbury, Connecticut. “He couldn’t have been more than six months old,” she recalls. “Since I had three cats at the time, I decided to try to toilet train him using the spare bathroom.” Thus, keeping the litter box in its normal place, she set up a commercial plastic liner over the toilet in the spare bathroom and filled it with cat litter. Within two weeks, Darth was using the toilet regularly. In time, Darth also began to use the toilet in the other bathroom—as a water bowl.
This situation was perfect until Lisa moved into a small Manhattan apartment with Darth, who took to the toilet right away. “But with only one bathroom in the apartment,” she recalls, “he had no place to drink. He refused to relieve himself and drink from the same toilet. Nor would he drink from his blue water bowl, even when I placed it in the bathroom. When I could, I let him drink straight from the faucet. But I couldn’t run the water twenty-four hours a day.” Eventually, Darth became dehydrated. “That’s when a friend suggested that I exchange his blue water bowl for a white bowl—the same shape and color as the toilet bowl.” It worked like a charm.
Domesticated cats living in a home with a large and fragrant litter box often become edgy and nervous, since the same smell in the wild usually means danger. Indeed, the stronger the smell, the more vulnerable a cat feels—as though he were forced to live his entire life at the edge of his territory, where unseen threats lurk behind every bush.
Even though a cat may never encounter a predator in his entire life, the smell of a litter box (like the smell of a “scent barrier” in the wild) makes many cats extremely nervous. Prowling from room to room as if caged, constantly sniffing the air for danger, a cat can easily become so tense that the slightest stimulus will trigger exaggerated reactions, ones that nearly every cat owner has seen without realizing that the source of the problem is the cat’s own litter box.
Jumping or hiding. When under stress, most cats will first try to expand their territory by exploring every possible space. They will jump onto high bookshelves and crawl beneath the kitchen sink, into the washer or dryer, or even into a grocery bag that slips to the floor—any place where the smell of the litter box is reduced. Though many owners consider this to be “cute,” it is, in fact, the result of territorial stress.
Excessive face rubbing. Inundated by the constant smell of a litter box, many cats can no longer smell the scent marks they make by face rubbing. In fact, no matter how much face rubbing they do, they never manage to build up any kind of recognizable scent. As a result, they constantly rub on every available surface, grooming themselves more to compensate for the excess dirt they pick up, and meowing more than usual to express their frustration.
Prolonged withdrawal. A cat constantly on edge will often appear aloof and sulky, even going so far as to turn his back when you call him. Though often explained as an example of a cat’s “solitary” nature, this kind of withdrawal is another result of territorial stress. Fearful of the danger that the smell of his litter box represents, a cat will feel intimidated by the slightest hostile action—even a pair of staring eyes. Thus, a cat under stress will show his fear by turning his back, avoiding the hostile image.
Occasional “mad dashes.” One of the most common ways a cat displays territorial distress is to suddenly run through the house as if he were being chased by the devil, then stop abruptly, look around, and freeze in place. Usually described as a form of “feline exercise” or “overflow behavior,” or as a way of expressing his need to hunt and chase prey, the “mad dash” is a perfectly normal reaction when a cat finds himself in the middle of his “scent barrier.” Since cats in the wild usually urinate or defecate near the edges of their territory, where they are in most danger, they will often finish their duties by suddenly arching their backs, emitting a loud throaty sound, and running madly toward the nest in a stiff sideways gait—exactly the way many housebound cats behave after using the litter box.
Sudden fits of anger. Any change in atmosphere or routine, no matter how small, becomes a catastrophe for a pet living under territorial stress, causing the cat to lash out by scratching or giving up his litter box.
Neurotic behavior. Occasionally a cat will be so overcome by the smell of his litter box that he will become a slave to it. When this happens, the cat will spend as much (or more) time at the box than he does at his food dish—sniffing, digging, moving the litter from one side to another, sometimes transferring the litter from the box to the floor, then using the box as a place to sleep, all but oblivious to the smell of it.
The similarity between these kinds of behaviors in a housebound cat and the nervousness that a free-ranging cat experiences near the edge of his territory is no coincidence. Yet the housebound cat cannot escape the smell of his litter. So rather than dirty the box even more, the cat does the only sensible thing possible: He stops using the box altogether. Then where does the cat go?
Room with a Mew
As long as it’s clean and relatively quiet, most house cats stressed out by their litter boxes wind up in a logical place: the bathroom. After that, there’s no getting rid of them. Even though cats drink very little water themselves, they seem to enjoy the sound of running or dripping water, and will often drink from an open tap. Cats have been known to curl up in the bathroom sink (perfect for taking an afternoon nap), drink from the toilet (which, to a cat, is a veritable waterfall that runs at intervals throughout the day), and relieve themselves in the bathtub directly over the drain.
Compared to the litter box, a bathtub drain diffuses the odor of urine so that most owners have no idea their cat is doing it in the tub until one day they discover a piece of solid evidence. Given their natural affinity for porcelain fixtures, most cats can use a toilet quite as easily—if properly trained. Their superb balance and natural spread-legged stance make them well suited to the task. All they need is a little guidance and encouragement.
The only requirements for toilet training are that the cat be large enough to jump up onto the toilet (at least six months of age) and thoroughly litter trained. Should you want to toilet train a new kitten, or an older cat that needs retraining, chapter 2 discusses the fundamentals of litter training so your cat can have the correct foundation for toilet training.
Never Too Old to Learn a New Trick
Lee Frank toilet trained his cat Bill as “a way of avoiding the smell” every time he came home. “It was particularly bad after an out-of-town engagement. I could smell it as soon as I left the elevator on my way to the apartment.”
Bill was nearly seven years old when training began, but according to Lee, he adjusted rapidly. Using the Alternate Method, Lee raised the litter box next to the toilet, placed a spare toilet seat on top of the box, and used a commercial plastic liner instead of plastic wrap during the final phase. “I cut a hole in the liner and made it wider and wider until Bill learned to use the seat instead of the litter,” he recalls. “It couldn’t have been easier.”
Even in his older years, Bill has no problem jumping up and balancing on the seat. “When he becomes a little creaky,” says Lee, “I plan to build some steps or maybe a ramp next to the toilet so that he can jump up and down more easily.”
The only thing Lee hasn’t figured out is how to teach Bill to flush when he’s finished. “He doesn’t like to go when the toilet is dirty,” Lee reports. “So when I’m away, I have a neighbor come in every few hours to flush the toilet.”