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feline

Feline Behavior Unmasked: Acting on Instinct

Q

Amy Martin of the PPG Cat Committee talks hardwired behaviors in cats, focusing

on the example of food caching

: My older cat does something frustrating while eating his food. He eats some of it, then tries to cover the rest of it with miscellaneous items nearby. Sometimes he even paws at the ground around his food plate or drags his placemat across his food plate, covering it a bit. My other (younger) cat does not do this. Is it related to age? Does this behavior mean he does not like his food? A: Two of our feline family members do this too! Understanding the why behind behaviors is key, as hardwired and instinctual needs are quite often at the heart of these kinds of feline behaviors.

Reflex Responses

Many of the behaviors we observe our feline family members displaying are closely controlled by genes and are known as innate behaviors. They are inborn and occur naturally in all members of a species. Within each species, innate behaviors are predictable. They can be performed in response to a cue (changing of the seasons, daylight, etc.) and without prior experience or exposure to a particular cue. Think of them as reflex responses or actions. Unlike behaviors such as learning to ride a bike, tie your shoe, or brush your teeth, innate behaviors do not have to be learned or practiced. Innate behaviors are: • Instinctive. • Controlled by genes and always occur in the same way. • Do not have to be learned or practiced. • Generally, involve basic life functions, meaning that it is important they be performed correctly. Innate behaviors are also called instinctive behaviors. An instinct is the ability of an animal to perform a behavior the first time he is exposed to something that causes a response. Here are a few common examples: • Courtship. • Mating. • Mothering. • Escaping. • Defensive maneuvers. • Caching.

Critters Who Cache

Caching behavior is the storage of food in locations hidden from the sight of both conspecifics and members of other species. For some species, the function of caching is to store food in times of surplus for

Many of the behaviors we observe our feline family members displaying are closely controlled by genes and are known as innate behaviors. They are inborn and occur naturally in all members of a species. 44

BARKS from the Guild/May 2019

Pet cats may be seen pawing at the ground after eating or trying to cover any leftover food with miscellaneous objects in what is a hardwired caching behavior © Can Stock Photo/Dimakp

times when it is less plentiful. However, there is evidence that caching behavior in some species done to ripen the food (de Kort, Dickinson & Clayton, 2005), although this is not believed to be the motivation behind house cats' caching behavior. We do know that the house cat's closest living relative, the European wildcat, does cache its food. The motivation and drive behind the behavior of caching will vary among species, based on specific instinctual survival needs. Many species of animals practice the behavior of caching, including squirrels, chipmunks, foxes, hamsters, honey bees, rooks, weasels, wolves, woodpeckers, scrub jays, and mountain lions. Cats who live in the wild (feral cats, cougars, panthers, etc.) often attempt to bury uneaten food or cover a recently killed carcass with substrate (grass, leaves, or other ground material) to protect it from spoiling or from being eaten by other animals (Vander Wall & Smith, 1987). The cougar (aka mountain lion) will usually remain in the area near his/her cache for several days, occasionally returning to feed on the carcass (Mitchell, 2013). Cougars are not the only wildcats who cache. Bobcats will also cover the remains of a large kill with debris such as snow, leaves, twigs or grass and will revisit the carcass and eat again. Panthers will rake leaves and twigs over a carcass to hide the carcass from scavengers. This behavior is very common and is part of a natural and healthy wildcat (Vander Wall & Smith, 1987). In the video, f109timelapsecaching, an adult female cougar in northwest Wyoming is caching (captured via time lapse video) a mule deer she has killed. The behavior in the video is exactly what our family’s cats look like after finishing their meal. In fact, two of our four cats do exactly what is described in the question above. After our eldest cat has finished eating (if there is leftover food), he will attempt to “bury” his meal. Our youngest female also performs this behavior after her meals. The behavior in house cats may include the cat pawing at the floor, or dragging a front paw on the floor around their food mat, puzzle

Profile for The Pet Professional Guild

BARKS from the Guild May 2019  

BARKS from the Guild is the bi-monthly trade publication from the Pet Professional Guild covering all things animal behavior and training, p...

BARKS from the Guild May 2019  

BARKS from the Guild is the bi-monthly trade publication from the Pet Professional Guild covering all things animal behavior and training, p...