The surprising science behind happy cats

Animal behaviourist Zazie Todd on how happy cats communicate with humans, their petting 'time limit' and why they tend to gravitate to the one person in the room who's not interested.

Robin Roberts 7 minute read May 4, 2022
smiling cat

We tend to think of cats as aloof, but if they’re well-socialized, cats do have important relationships with their people. GETTY

Food, shelter, security, space. That’s all a cat needs, right? To merely exist, sure, but to be happy? That’s going to take a lot more.

Happy cats are generally healthier and longer lived. They also make for loyal, calm companions with fewer behaviour issues. And, as it turns out, there’s hard science behind how to keep your kitty in a carefree state of bliss.

Zazie Todd, Ph.D, social psychologist, animal behaviourist, dog trainer, writer of popular blog Companion Animal Psychology and author of the award-winning Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, has written a new book, Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. As with her first book, Todd parses that science into applicable sections covering how to choose, train, play with, care for and keep your four-legged friend peacefully purring.

Todd spoke with Healthing from her suburban Vancouver home about the science behind happy and unhappy cats, including some surprising revelations about how they communicate, their time limit on petting, their thoughts on cat companions and why they usually gravitate to the one person in the room who couldn’t care less.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What surprised you most about the science behind happy cats?

There are so many stereotypes about cats being aloof [but] the science around how they interact with people really goes against that. If they’re well-socialized, cats do have important relationships with their people and it may just be that they’re choosing to show their affection in a different way than we expect.

I also found really fascinating [research about] the meow. Adult cats don’t really meow at each other, but they meow at us. It’s a way they communicate with us and we get tuned into our own cat and what their meow means.

Why is it that cats will often approach the one person in the room who isn’t their biggest fan?

Cats don’t like being stared at too much [and] will often go to the person who’s not looking at it. The people who do like cats are looking at it because they’re hoping it will come to them, but it makes the cat uncomfortable.

What can a cat’s body language tell us about their state of happiness or unhappiness?

When you are tuned into your cat’s body language you can recognize quite a lot, such as nervousness or pain, so it’s worth paying attention. The Feline Grimace Scale, for example [which assesses the position of the cat’s ears, head, whiskers, muzzle tension and whether its eyes are open or closed,] can tell us if the cat is in pain.

Crouching, grumpiness and excessive grooming are also signs, as is how they get down from a height. If they’re used to jumping off things [but now] they’re putting a paw on a table first and then jumping down, they’re trying to reduce the distance that they’re jumping, which may be a sign of arthritis.

What are some other signs your cat is not happy?

If you’re petting your cat and their tail starts a little twitch, that’s OK. But if it becomes a bigger twitch, or their skin is rippling or they’re staring at your hand, those can be signs they’re finding it too much and they might be about to bite or scratch you to make you stop. They prefer short, frequent interactions and to be petted around the head and face, which is where the scent glands are, rather than near the tail or on the tummy.

Are there cats that like belly rubs?

As a general rule, most cats don’t like it — especially if they don’t know you very well. One mistake many people make is when a cat rolls over and shows its tummy, called a social roll, and think the cat wants to be petted on the tummy. [But then] the cat attacks them. The cat is really saying, ‘I feel safe with you and trust you not to do that.’ If they are more comfortable with you, they are more likely to accept petting on the tummy.

Why do cats rub their faces on surfaces?

They’re scent-marking (depositing pheromones,) which helps them to feel safe. So we shouldn’t wash their bedding all at once but leave something that still smells of them, so they feel more safe and secure.

Cats like to groom themselves, but do they need to be brushed?

Long-haired cats need to be brushed because they can get matted, so it’s good to get them used to it as a kitten. When they’re older there may be parts of their body they can’t reach very well, like the trousers on the back legs. It also helps if you brush in short strokes and gradually work up.

What’s the best way to train a cat?

In small amounts, a few minutes at a time, either once a day or several times a day and build up. Give them lots of really good treats to teach them to enjoy it. Cats aren’t typically used to taking treats from a hand so they may get ‘bitey.’ It might be easier to put the treat on the floor, on a spoon or use those squeeze tubes of wet treats or bits of tuna or chicken they can lick from.

Should reinforcement methods only be positive?

We don’t have as much research on training methods for cats as for dogs. For dogs, extensive research shows using aversive methods risks [the dog developing] fear, anxiety, aggression and a worse relationship with their owner. There’s no reason to think it would be different for cats.

Squirting with water, for example, can make cats quite stressed and they may associate it with the person doing the squirting. It may damage their relationship because they might become fearful or anxious, even if that person is lovely to them most of the time. There are some studies that show that cats whose owners punish them are more likely to have behaviour issues, like toileting issues in the house. It’s best to avoid using squirt bottles, shake cans, yelling or clapping at your cat — anything that might startle or frighten them, because you don’t want to make your cat anxious or stressed.

Many pet-owners believe a cat is happier with a buddy. 

It really depends on the cat, as cats are very much individuals. Some cats can be very sociable and make friends with other cats, especially if they were together as kittens, but also with other adult cats they haven’t known before. Whereas other cats absolutely hate seeing other cats and would prefer to be the only cat in the home. It’s important to know the cat’s history to assess whether or not it will accept another feline companion.

If you’re getting a kitten and you might want to have two or three cats in future, then get two kittens. It’s also good for the kittens to have a buddy to grow up with.

People who have a multi-cat home sometimes don’t notice signs of tension, which could be as simple as one cat lying down and blocking the way to the litter box room or lying on the stairs and blocking the way up.

Make sure their food is separate, they have their own litter box, cat trees, toys and cat beds. It will help them to get on better if they’re not fighting over resources.

Robin Roberts is a Vancouver-based writer with Healthing.


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