How Cats Work

The most popular pets in the country, cats come in all shapes and sizes, including this beautiful long-haired variety. See more pictures of cats.

Despite the long-lasting debate between dog loyalists and cat lovers over which species is best, there's no disputing the statistics that prove the cat is America's most popular pet. According to the Humane Society of the United States, more than 38 million homes harbor a cat or two, but exactly where did the feisty feline come from, and what makes it such a favored companion [source: HSUS]?

The origin of cats is perhaps just as much of a mystery as the species itself. Most experts will agree that the cat is a descendant of the African wild cat, but how did it go from wild hunter to domestic pet? We used to think that domestic cats emerged in ancient Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, but recently, experts conducted a study and traced the domestic cat all the way back to the Fertile Crescent, an ancient Asian hot spot of civilization, some 10,000 years ago [source: Scientific American].


Cats may have begun their domestication due to changes in human lifestyle. As nomads turned from hunting to raising their own crops and animals, cats began to prove their usefulness in ridding rodents from grains and became an accepted part of the family. Cats were even used in transoceanic travels to keep grains on board safe from stowaway rats, including Columbus' fateful voyage, which is how the domestic cat arrived in North America. Although cats did assimilate easily into family living, they never became completely domesticated, which is why, even today, cats are pretty self-reliant and still make excellent hunters when allowed to roam free.

Have you ever wondered why cats are so agile? Do they really have night vision? Would you believe a cat's whiskers make a great GPS? And how did the feline become a pop culture phenomenon? If you've ever believed cats are capable of ruling the world, read on to learn everything you'll ever need to know about them.


Cat Anatomy

Cats use their long whiskers to hunt, maneuver in the dark and process information.
Thomas Northcu/tPhotodisc/Thinkstock

The cat is nature's very own Inspector Gadget, with a svelte body equipped with a variety of cool capabilities that make the feline truly fascinating. This agile creature has a skeletal system made up of 244 bones, with about 27 bones located in its tail, which helps with balance and movement. The cat can get in and out of tight and high spaces thanks to its masterful tail and its detached clavicle, which allows its shoulders to move back and forth in rhythm with its legs.

A cat's paws serve as a one-stop shop for a multitude of uses. Unlike dogs, their paws can turn, which helps with climbing and grasping. They also use their paws for self-grooming, temperature regulation and heat detection. In addition, cats can feel vibrations on the ground with their paws, alerting them to potential prey. Once a cat is aware of prey nearby, the claws are activated, thanks to a special ability to retract and extend their sharp talons as needed. When a cat is self-cleaning or walking, however, the claws are retracted behind a sheath of skin.


Cats come in a multitude of colors and patterns, but they all carry the tabby gene passed down from the African wild cat. Most coats seen in purebred cats are a result of carefully selected breeding. Cat hair is divided into two types, longhair and shorthair. Longhaired cats, like the Himalayan, have guard hairs around 5 inches (nearly 13 centimeters) in length, with a dense undercoat. Shorthaired cats, like the American shorthair, have guard hairs measuring an average of 2 inches (5 centimeters) long with a less thick undercoat. A cat's coat is also multifunctional as a temperature regulator and a pain and motion sensor. If you've ever seen a cat with its hair standing up, this could mean the cat is either cold or afraid, hence the term "scaredy cat."

The cat's whiskers count as hair, but they're thicker and have their own special functions. The whiskers operate much like a compass or GPS, allowing a cat to sense space and move around in the dark without bumping into objects. The very flexible whiskers will also move backward during mealtime or forward if the cat is hunting. To cut a cat's whiskers is to remove its ability to process information.

Cats also have sensors in their noses, upper lips and ears, allowing them to sense movement and making them stealth communicators. And if all this isn't enough to prove Inspector Gadget has nothing on the feline, the cat's eyes are equipped with special night vision and the ability to narrow the pupils in daylight. Do all of these amazing anatomical abilities affect a cat's behavior? Read on to find out.


Cat Behavior and Socialization

A scratching post provides a great outlet for playful cats to climb and sharpen their claws.

Socialization starts during the first few weeks of a kitten's life, when it bonds with its mother and other familiar cats. As a kitten begins to mature and is introduced to humans, it will also form attachments with care providers. Felines are certainly known to be finicky, and it's almost impossible to know how an individual cat will react to humans. Some cats may be friendly from day one, while others may always be standoffish, even if they're from the same litter.

Most of a cat's actions during play are similar to actions it would take when hunting. Some cats like to chase lasers around a room, which mimics the motions of pouncing on a mouse, while others enjoy lunging at feather toys, which is an example of trying to catch a bird. All cats are natural climbers, which is why cat trees are so popular among the kitty crowd. A good scratching post mimics a tree that a cat would use in the wild to sharpen its claws.


Cats have a variety of sounds they use to communicate with other animals and people. The most common sound is a "meow." When a cat meows, it's typically for attention. Perhaps the cat is really saying, "Feed me." Another sound cats commonly make is a purr. Most of the time, when a cat purrs, it's happy; however, there could be times when it's purring as a calming mechanism. Cats also hiss when they are mad or feeling particularly aggressive. Much like the lion's roar, this is a call to get out of the way.

Female kittens reach sexual maturity around five to nine months of age. Although male kittens might reach sexual maturity by five months, mating usually doesn't occur until nine to 12 months of age. Many humane organizations advocate spaying or neutering cats to prevent overpopulation. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) suggests kittens can be sterilized as young as eight weeks old, and all cats should be spayed or neutered by six months to prevent urine spraying or pregnancy [source: ASPCA].


Choosing a Cat

Before you bring a cat into your home, there are a few factors any responsible pet owner should consider. Most important, can you afford to provide and care for a cat? On average, expect to spend $450 a year in routine veterinary care, food and toys. Keep in mind you could encounter other expenses such as boarding and grooming, which might tack on an extra $277 per year. In total, expect to spend $450 to $725 per year to care for a cat properly [source: APPMA].

If your finances allow for a feline friend, the next step is to check out any state or city laws to ensure you're compliant. Many cities now require every pet to be licensed, and some states or cities have restrictions on how many pets a household can have, while landlords and homeowner's associations might have additional rules pertaining to pets. Some cities may also have laws on the books regarding free-roaming cats, and cats are generally healthier if they are indoor pets, so make sure you will be able to house your cat properly [source: HSUS].


Now that the rudimentary factors are out of the way, what kind of cat should you get? Unless you're an experienced cat fancier who wants to show cats, adoption is usually the best way to go. If you really have your heart set on a pure breed, check out or call local rescues in your area before visiting a breeder. You might be able to find a pure breed in need of a good home.

While kittens are more receptive to socialization and adapting to new environments, they do require more attention and a bigger time commitment. If you have small children in your household, kittens don't generally make for a winning combination. An adult cat might be a more appropriate companion, as it can withstand more handling than a kitten. Adult cats could have more problems depending on their history, but they may also have less separation anxiety and be better accustomed to changes in their environment.

If you're concerned about the disposition of an adopted cat, keep in mind that when you adopt from a reputable shelter, your new cat will have been screened, tested and socialized to ensure you are adopting a cat that will fit into your life well. Most shelters have a return policy, too, in case it just doesn't work out or your situation changes.


Basic Cat Care

Although cats are generally easy to care for, there are some basic care principles that every cat owner should know about. Regular visits to the veterinarian for annual checkups and vaccinations are important, but there are also signs to look out for between visits. A healthy cat will have clear eyes and a clean nose and ears. If a cat has runny eyes or a runny nose, this isn't a sign of allergies but most likely an infection. You can also tell a lot about a cat's health by looking at its coat. Cats should have a healthy, shiny coat. If the coat is dull or has patches, this could be a sign of an underlying problem.

Cats require a high-protein diet and typically prefer wet food to dry food. You can feed your cat on a flexible schedule, but food should not be left out all day, as this can lead to overeating. However, your cat should have access to fresh water at all times. Contrary to popular belief, cats don't tolerate milk, and this creamy treat should not be given to them. Like dogs, cats shouldn't be fed table scraps.


You don't have to be a cat lover to know that most cats don't like to get wet, although it is possible to give your cat a bath or have it professionally groomed. In fact, with some hairless cats, like the Sphynx, it is necessary to wash them off periodically to keep their skin healthy. Most cats will self-clean and learn about grooming from their mothers as kittens. The cat's paws are engineered to act almost like sponges, making self-grooming a cinch for the cat.

Due to their independent nature, cats don't require much, if any, training. They will instinctively find their litter box and begin to use it. However, many cat owners try toilet training with great success. The younger the cat, the easier it will be to achieve this goal. There are specially made litter boxes available that fit over a standard toilet seat to begin training a cat to poo in the loo. You can also train your cat to walk on a leash, and again, the sooner you start leash-walking, the faster your cat will catch on.


Cat Issues

Although the cat is a beloved household pet to millions, this species isn't without its share of issues. Among them, overpopulation, health risks and ecological issues are the most prevalent. According to the ASPCA, there are more than 70 million homeless cats in the United States and many more unaccounted for [source: ASPCA]. These homeless felines are a result of irresponsible pet ownership, feral cats and unsterilized cats that continue to produce litters. Think about it: One unsterilized cat and its offspring can produce hundreds of kittens as the cycle continues to multiply.

Cats are also known to carry health risks to people if special care isn't taken. The biggest of these is zoonotic pathogens found in cat feces, which can negatively impact the environment and cause health problems for other animals and humans. It's important for cat owners to collect feces in appropriate receptacles and dispose of them properly.


For decades, the most widely used litter has been clay-based. However, mining clay for this litter is hard on the environment, and most clay-based litters contain silica, which can be harmful and is considered a carcinogen. Litters made with wheat or other plant-based materials are best to use and safest for cats, humans and the environment.

As we've learned, cats are natural hunters. Free-roaming cats and feral cats feast on birds, mice and other small animals. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that, "nationwide, cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion small mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks, each year" [source: American Bird Conservancy]. The best way to ensure a cat doesn't hunt birds or other small animals is to keep it indoors or build an outdoor cat enclosure so your feline can enjoy being outside without being a danger to other animals in the neighborhood.


Feline Fanatics

The Egyptians were perhaps the first to immortalize the cat in paintings and statues, and many elevated the cat to godlike status. So how did the cat lose its status as a revered idol? During the Middle Ages, many believed cats to be witches in disguise or Satan's tool, and unfortunately, that myth continues to haunt cats to this day. In more recent times, portrayals like that of the sinister Siamese cats in Disney's "Lady and the Tramp" continue to perpetuate the idea that cats are mean or planning world domination.

Fortunately for cats, there are true feline enthusiasts who are crazy about this species. For proof, look no farther than a cat show. The first cat show took place in 1871 in London, and the United States soon followed, with the first official cat show taking place in New York City's Madison Square Garden in 1895 [source: The Cat Handbook]. Soon after, organizations like the Cat Fanciers Association were founded, and now more than 400 cat shows are held annually throughout the United States.


In recent years, trends in cat couture and kitschy kitty toys have grown tenfold. Would you buy a wig for your cat? Many cat lovers are willing to shell out big bucks for wigs, clothing and high-end kitty condos. In addition, cats have become Internet sensations thanks to Web sites like, and viral videos like the Keyboard Cat. The "crazy cat lady" is no longer the poster child for introverts, and cat lovers from all walks of life, including men, are proud to call their felines loyal friends. In fact, the cat's quirky attitude and funny behaviors make it the perfect muse for an entire new generation of artists and enthusiasts, which is why it's so easy to understand how the cat came to be America's most popular pet.

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More Great Links

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