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Ask Your Weird Animal Questions: The Truth About Your Cats

It’s official: Cats are mysterious. I got a cascade of questions from curious cat people this week, proving that even their owners can’t fathom them.

Photo of 2 cats resting atop and under a sofa.
Pet cats resting atop and under a sofa in Fairview, North Carolina. Photograph by Amy White & Al Petteway, National Geographic Creative

I hope these answers to your Ask Your Weird Animal Questions will make your feline a little more relatable. (See “What Do Cats Think About Us? You May Be Surprised.”)

Why do all my cats like the smell of my stinky shoes? They can’t seem to get enough! Anne Deason Spencer via Facebook

In nature, scents are messages, so in general “animals tend to be attracted to smelly surfaces,” said Carlo Siracusa, a veterinarian at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital in Philadelphia. Smelly shoes are likely to come with odors, including pheromones, from other cats or animals. (Watch a video about the secret lives of cats.)

“When a cat rubs on smelly shoes, he probably wants to ‘rewrite’ the message on the shoes, adding his signature; he may also want to exchange signals with the owner who is a member of the same social group.”

Can an FIV+ cat (one with feline immunodeficiency virus) live happily and healthily with a non-FIV+ cat? —Lisa Reddy via Facebook

Julie Callahan Clark, also of Penn Vet, said it depends on the relationship of the cats.

The virus, which lives only a short time outside the body, can’t be transmitted by sharing water bowls or by mutual grooming and is primarily transmitted by biting. (See National Geographic readers’ pictures of cats.)

“Therefore, if the cats know each other and have no aggressive tendencies towards one another, they could coexist happily,” Clark said, though a cat fight could transmit the disease.

Clark noted that “transmission of FIV in multi-cat households is considered to be an infrequent event.”

Will clipping a cat’s claws make them not scratch things as much? My husband says when you clip them, they scratch more to re-sharpen them. —Ellen Sherman Jewel via Facebook

“Scratching is a complex behavior which serves many functions,” such as keeping the nails sharp and functional and communicating with other cats, said Siracusa.

Barbara Sherman, of North Carolina State’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, added that even declawed cats will scratch, and that this characteristic behavior may have to do with stretching and “conditioning their limbs.”

“It’s usually done after a nap, so often we try to put a scratching post for a cat near their resting site,” she said. (Learn about National Geographic’s Little Kitties for Big Cats initiative.)

She encourages owners of indoor cats to trim their pets’ nails, which they can learn to do with the help of a vet—and a few treats. This can minimize damage to the home and injuries to the cat, as well as avoid the surgical procedure of declawing, which provides no medical benefit to the animal, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

How can I stop one cat from clawing my door sills and the other from urinating in the bathtub and sink and on floor mats? —Melissa Dempster-Daly via Facebook

Sherman laughed and said this doorsill scratcher “has made a personal choice.” Cats have a need to scratch and stretch, and there’s just something about this surface the cat likes, she said.

In order to save your sills, provide the cat with an alternative, like a scratching post, that she will like and use (it might take a few tries). Once that need is met, then cover the doorsills with double-sided sticky tape or a similar product.

“We’ve got to barter with the cat, to say, ‘We don’t want you to use the sills anymore, but we want to give you what you need,'” Sherman said. (See “How Cats and People Grew to Love Each Other.”)

The cat that urinates outside the litter box may have an underlying medical problem, she said. Cats prefer a loose, absorbent surface as a latrine; if urination is painful, the cat might associate the litter box with that pain and “may go to a place that’s very different and try it and see if it’s less painful.”

Last, owners shouldn’t yell at or punish a cat for either behavior, Sherman said, especially for urination. Cats may just be trying to communicate something to you, so you have to learn how to listen.

Got a question about the wild and wonderful animal world? Tweet me or leave me a note on Facebook.

Comments

  1. Mike Stempo
    Bethlehem, PA
    November 15, 10:00 am

    Our now deceased male Siamese (an apple head) of 20 years was the unquestionable alpha cat amongst two younger male Tonkinese (half his age). The one Tonk is still incredible vocal at certain times of the day and night. Our Siamese would respond to the annoyance by tackling the Tonk, grabbing him with his mouth by the neck scruff or throat and then dig his rear paws into the Tonk until he shut the heck up. I do not think it was ever done with a real bite or with claws extended. It got to the point that when the Tonk would see the older male Siamese he would actually flop over and more or less yield and allow the Siamese to do this behavior as if he was thinking, ok, you busted me.

    Now with the death of the older Siamese (he was the bestest cat ever…:-( for many reasons, incredibly noble, gentle, a head butter and a bit of a doofus at times which made him even more appealing. He never could drink water without making a huge splashy mess. Never had much of a voice which when he did talk was very quiet and almost seemed strained. ) The two younger Tonks seemed to mostly be on equal par with each other after the old guy passed.

    Now we have two new male Siamese kittens, one appears to be well on his way to asserting alpha male status, even amongst the two bigger and older Tonks. He likes to provoke them often. It is amazing to watch. His young brother is very laid back and extremely cuddly and passive but can also at times join in the provocation of the older Tonks as well. Everyone gets along, in fact the older Tonks have learned how to play again.

    Back to my question, what was with the neck grasp by the old Siamese and particularly the paw digging in to the hind quarters of the vocal Tonk? He was surely annoyed. Does the behavior seem highly specific?

  2. Mike Stempo
    Bethlehem, PA
    November 15, 9:59 am

    Our now deceased male Siamese (an apple head) of 20 years was the unquestionable alpha cat amongst two younger male Tonkinese (half his age). The one Tonk is still incredible vocal at certain times of the day and night. Our Siamese would respond to the annoyance by tackling the Tonk, grabbing him with his mouth by the neck scruff or throat and then dig his rear paws into the Tonk until he shut the heck up. I do not think it was ever done with a real bite or with claws extended. It got to the point that when the Tonk would see the older male Siamese he would actually flop over and more or less yield and allow the Siamese to do this behavior as if he was thinking, ok, you busted me.

    Now with the death of the older Siamese (he was the bestest cat ever…:-( for many reasons, incredibly noble, gentle, a head butter and a bit of a doofus at times which made him even nmore appealing. He never could drink water without making a huge splashy mess. Never had much of a voice which when he did talk was very quiet and almost seemed strained. ) The two younger Tonks seemed to mostly be on equal par with each other after the old guy passed.

    Now we have two new male Siamese kittens, one appears to be well on his way to asserting alpha male status, even amongst the two bigger and older Tonks. He likes to provoke them often. It is amazing to watch. His young brother is very laid back and extremely cuddly and passive but can also at times join in the provocation of the older Tonks as well. Everyone gets along, in fact the older Tonks have learned how to play again.

    Back to my question, what was with the neck grasp by the old Siamese and particularly the paw digging in to the hind quarters of the vocal Tonk? He was surely annoyed. Does the behavior seem highly specific?

  3. kim
    September 20, 4:52 am

    Why do my kittens keep gathering around the litter box when im cleaning it out?

  4. Sydney
    Saskachewan, Canada
    August 28, 7:57 pm

    My cat hates visitors, I mean HATE! She hisses and growls and sometimes even spits! If they try and pet her she swats or even bites. She has been fixed and is only 9 months old. Some of my friends are somewhat scared of her, but when they leave she is perfectly fine! She purrs and sleeps and LOVES my family but hates strangers. We have tried EVERYTHING, is she just overly territorial? Is she just really moody? I need help!

  5. Laura Shore
    Santa Rosa, CA
    June 30, 12:46 am

    Where inside a cat is the purring coming from? What inside them makes the purring sound?

  6. Kristin
    Corvallis, or
    June 26, 6:54 pm

    I’m so lucky I don’t have any pooping or peeing problems with my two cats. My 14 year old female loves my husband especially his dirty gym clothes and shoes. She will bury herself in them if they are on the floor and roll in them, bite them, kick them, sleep in them until she is saturated with his smell. After that she is all his since I can’t stand how she smells.

  7. Pam McGhee
    Santa Rosa, CA
    June 21, 10:42 am

    With my cats I have found that they may not like the litter I put in their litter box. Recently I changed the type of litter in my cat’s box and she stopped using the box, especially for pooping. I have gone back to the old brand and she is reverting to her old, regular use of the box again. Cats are incredibly sensitive to every aspect of their lives. Everything has to be looked at to see what is different, missing, changed, etc. that would cause them to change their behavior and/or habits.

  8. Laureen
    Syosset NY
    June 21, 2:04 am

    I also had a neutered male cat who was fixated on mounting our other neutered male cat. They came into our home about the same time, both as young cats, and were very attached to each other, always sleeping together and grooming each other and the older one would always mount the younger one, as if mating, until the younger one got tired of it as he got older. They still stayed best friends, always together, never fighting!

  9. Miek Miller
    TN
    June 18, 11:12 pm

    While I agree if a cat is peeing on anything left on the floor to take her to the vet. My female cat is doing the same, took her to the vet and had every test ran known to man, $750 worth of tests and nothing wrong. I now have to make sure nothing is left on the floor like towels or clothes and am working on retraining her to use the box. She does just not consistently.

  10. Jane Ehrlich
    AZ
    June 18, 12:32 am

    As a feline behaviorist, I’ve found that suggesting to my clients that they rub lemon oil or lemon-scented wax upon door sills, filling the bathtub with an inch of water (or use lemon cleaner), or tossing in a carpet-runner with the spokey-side up, does the trick. Change the smell, change the texture. Close the bathroom door.

  11. Liz Langley
    June 17, 6:04 pm

    @Carrie
    @Anita

    @Mary Westermeyer is right – it would be a good idea to take your cat to your the vet. As Dr. Sherman says in the story, when cats don’t use their litter box it could mean a medical problem – she told me cats who do this might be trying to tell you something; it’s worth a vet visit to be sure. Good luck!

  12. Carrie
    Bay Area, CA
    June 17, 3:23 pm

    Mine too, only it’s not just the girls… Anything, especially plastic bags left on the floor seems to be fair game for our cats to pee on! We’ve plenty of litter boxes as well as the great out doors available for them, but no… rather come in the house to pee and then go back outside and play. grrr

  13. Strawberry Thief
    Vienna
    June 17, 10:51 am

    The cats I grew up with didn’t just enjoy the smell of dirty clothes or stinky shoes but they also loved the scent of fresh laundry. Whenver I put on new bedsheets they’d wait for me to finish and then crawled under the blanket, where they’d stay for hours on end. Same goes for freshly washed and ironed clothes, which I could never leave for more than a few minutes if I dind’t want cat hair all over them.

  14. Fr3d
    June 17, 1:06 am

    Our big old Maine Coon would loll with his head completely inside my husband’s recently worn and still warm shoes for half an hour or more. The cat was clearly enjoying the scent. He didn’t like my shoes nearly so much.

  15. Lauren Becker
    Oak Harbor, WA
    June 17, 12:10 am

    I have a neutered male cat that has a stuffed cat that he uses regularly, if not nightly, to haul around the room in his teeth, mounting it and going through all the motions of mating. He even seems to orgasm, several times, before he’s ready to settle in at night. It definitely is a stress reliever to him, and although it might seem nasty to some ppl, I just think it’s amusing a neutered male cat would need his own sex toy!

  16. Mary Westermeyer
    Iowa
    June 16, 7:24 pm

    Please take your cat to a vet! I’ve had cats all my life, and this behavior is almost always related to an infection of the urinary tract or kidneys. Don’t wait too long like I did, the kitty usually just needs some antibiotics. Your cat and house will thank you for taking quick action!

  17. Anita
    Los Lunas, NM
    June 16, 3:03 pm

    Why does my daughters cat a 5 yr old fixed female indoor cat pee on ANYTHING that is left on the floor? And yes she has a scratch box. She will also miss the box and pee right next to the scratch box. What is up with this??