A guide to everyday psychology


Cats – a tale of two personalities

You saw nothing. You heard nothing. Got that?

Some readers here might remember the zoologist, surrealist artist, film director and polymath (insanely good at everything), Desmond Morris. Born in 1928, he is now long retired. But his books about human behaviour, The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo were very influential in their day

Alongside these classics, Desmond Morris also wrote several lesser-known works. Among them were Dogwatching and Catwatching. They can still be found on the second-hand market. Both are brilliant – and very funny. And this post (and the related post about dog behaviour) owes much to those books.

This brief post won’t tell you everything about cats.  One of endlessly delightful things about cats is how often they do something astonishing and unexpected. So, instead, I hope this post will provide a useful outline of the parameters that govern their lives.

Social versus solitary lives; dogs and cats

People often contrast cats with dogs… Many of the features that shape a dog’s behaviour arise because dogs naturally live in social and hierarchical groups. They hunt, sleep and squabble within a group. In contrast, cat species, with very few exceptions (notably lions), live solitary lives – except when seeking a mate.

But this solitary lifestyle raises questions and contradictions… If cats are so solitary, why do they tolerate living in a house with other cats around – and even humans?

“Well, we feed them and provide a warm shelter,” seems like the obvious answer. And, undoubtedly, these are important factors… When cats approach complete strangers in the street, it is often because they hope to be fed – or simply because they associate humans with a general sense of ‘good things happen’.

In passing here… Cats are not the only solitary species willing to tolerate humans… Members of many other wild species, fed by people, have also learned not to fear humans. Foxes, raccoons, bears, deer, monkeys, seagulls, pigeons are among the many species that learn to approach humans, and accept food. People often mistake this for tameness and even ‘friendliness’ – with sometimes violent outcomes. In the minds of these animals, they are not accepting a ‘gift’ of food from a kindly friend. In their minds, they have taken food from an idiot.

But I digress…  Although greed provides a simple explanation for why cats are willing to interact with humans, it is only part of the explanation. To understand the pro-social attitude of cats, we need to understand some subtleties.

So, why does this solitary species tolerate companionship with humans – if not just for food?

A fuller answer to this question lies in the unusual relationship that cats have with humans, and with other cats and animals (their potential rivals), in the home. In an important sense, we never allow our pet cat, to truly grow up. They live in a state of never-ending adolescence.

Because we feed them from their very earliest days, our care does more than just provide nourishment… Adult cats remain in a kind of mental kittenhood. And the significance of this is that kittens, unlike adult cats, associate with – and bond with – their litter mates. Our domestic cat has the lifelong outlook of a juvenile, and it is willing to bond with other occupants of its home.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

But, of course, the life of Felix isn’t quite as simple as that. There are unavoidable biological realities with becoming an adult cat, and these pull in the opposite direction to kittenhood – producing quirks and some odd paradoxes. These biological realities often reassert themselves when Felix goes out the cat flap, or sees another cat on his territory from a window ledge. Dr Jekyll becomes Mr Hyde.

Outside, and without you around, Felix often becomes an adult persona. The nice kitten-cat that was purring on your lap five minutes ago reverts to the hissing, yowling monster that God – or evolution – intended him to be. They often start fights.

This scrappiness is increased because domestic cats live far more densely than their wild brethren. Consequently, territorial squabbles are frequent events in the lives of domestic cats – much more so than they are in the lives of their wild counterparts. Territorial life demands territorial defence – and the fights often result in injuries. Luckily, Felix has access to vets!

So, when Felix heads out the flap and encounters Horace from down the road, he and Horace become adult warriors, often hostile to one another. When cats go roaming, the domesticated kitten-like lives that they experienced only hours before are not in their minds. They are hunters, defenders of their territories and would-be lovers. But in the house… they are kittens. In this odd kind of way, many domestic cats have a dual personality.

And yet…

Not every cat picks fights with all the neighbour cats. The social attitudes they acquire by living ‘as kittens’ sometimes generalises to their relations with strange cats too. It’s never a completely easy relationship… but for some cats, especially those that live with other cats in their homes, the territorial tendency is reduced. The two cats featured in the picture above have quite ‘cordial’ relations with other cats in the street.

This basic principle of endless adolescence is also true of pet dogs… While they are in the house and with their ‘owners’, they remain puppy-ish because we treat them as puppies. We provide them with all the things they need. But outside, they sometimes become wolves…

Why do cats swish their tails?

Although it is widely believed that a cat swishes its tail because it’s angry, this is not true.

Both dogs and cats wag/swish their tails when they are experiencing conflict – typically when they face an approach-avoidance conflict. ‘Approach-avoidance conflict’ describes situations where your cat wants to do two things at once. The result is often emotional and stressful, and the mental conflict often triggers tension-release behaviours (or ‘displacement’ activities).

These can be seen in many animals. Humans twitch or drum their fingers or reach for the snacks when anxious or conflicted. Birds stop and often – bizarrely – preen when they are trapped in an approach-avoidance conflict. Dogs wag their tails. And cats… swish.

Teeth chattering is another common displacement activity, often seen when a cat is watching birds it cannot reach. Here the displacement behaviour takes the form of a ‘partial’ response… A stereotyped biting action. Similarly, humans clench their fists.

So, what kind of conflict situations cause displacement behaviours?

Cats experience many approach-avoidance conflicts. Felix is chilling in a comfortable place… but he wants to go to the toilet. Tibbles can see birds on a nearby roof, or another cat down the road. She wants to ‘engage’… but it involves effort, she’s feeling lazy and she is wary of starting a fight that could end in an injury.

There are countless examples. Sometimes, we observe our cat sitting on its own, swishing its tail without any obvious (to us at least) conflict… The reason often becomes clear, as the cat finally makes a decision. But until then, the tension created by the conflict is released unconsciously – in tail swishing.

Sometimes this automatic behaviour is very unhelpful… Domestic cats stalking birds often get caught in a ‘wait or go’ conflict – and up goes the tail, swishing like a flag! The reason why this very counter-productive response has not been stamped out by evolution is simple… In the wild, birds are not a cat’s typical prey. They prefer rodents, at a ratio of about 20/1.

So, it’s best to think of it like this: a tail-swishing cat is sometimes angry. But the tail-swishing is not caused by anger!

Tension and conflict trigger energy release – and it has to go somewhere.

Why do cats purr?

It is widely thought that cats purr because they are happy. But this isn’t quite true – and it doesn’t tie in with all the circumstances where cats can be found purring. Cats often purr when they are in pain or dying. And, crucially, why would a solitary-living animal evolve to make a sound whose only function was to indicate ‘Hey, I’m happy’? Evolution does not waste time on things that have no functional value.

On the balance of evidence, it appears that cats use purring to signify ‘agreement’ to social proximity.

Purring probably evolved in this way because it provides a means for cats to signal willingness for a potential mate, or to kittens, to be nearby. Cats are solitary, and purring allows cats to avoid dangerous misunderstandings.

In kittens, purring often signals a willingness to feed together. Food is a precious resource and hungry kittens could easily end up fighting each other instead of eating. So, when they agree to feed together, they purr to signal this intention.

Adult domestic cats can also be a bit tense while eating, especially if you or another cat comes close. Purring signals their agreement not to take your face off if you go anywhere near their food bowl.

What’s in a cat’s yowl during a confrontation?

It is a reasonably reliable fact that, in the evolution of most animal life, low-pitched sounds tend to be threats. High-pitched sounds signify submission or distress (attracting mother).

A dog bark is a particularly good example of both sounds. It starts low and ends high (Urr-whoo!).

Similarly, a cat facing off against an enemy often starts with a growl that often gets more high-pitched. (Urrrrmmmm-wowwww!) The yowling is often accompanied by tail-swishing.

A Miaow

A cat’s meow seems to serve as an attention-gaining device. “Here I am. Notice me and attend to my needs”. It is a sound that has evolved exclusively in domestic cats – because it triggers attention, and it wins rewards among their human companions. In psychological terminology, the process is operant conditioning… Felix ‘operates on’ you with a meow – and you reward the meow with what he wants. So, he learns to meow more.

Can we look a cat (or a dog) straight in the eye?

Although it is often said that looking a dog or a cat in the eye is threatening, this is not always true. It depends on the situation.

When two cats are squaring up to one another, but hoping that their opponent will submit or withdraw without a fight, they avoid direct eye contact. But in normal ‘friendly’ circumstances, where a cat feels comfortable, eye contact is quite usual. It wants to be able to ‘read’ you, after all. It can’t do that if it’s not looking at you!

Similarly, when you scold a dog, it will often avoid eye contact. But in friendly circumstances, it will look you in the eye.

If a strange cat/dog is growling at you and doesn’t avert its gaze as you approach it – beware!

Why can’t we have giant cats, like we have giant dogs?

People often wonder why we can have giant dogs and miniature dogs – while cat sizes vary only moderately. The Maine Coon cat, at about double the weight of other domestic cats, is about as large as a cat gets. There are no domestic cats the size of a leopard – and probably just as well too!

The answer lies in the genetics. Genetics is not my field but, in the crudest terms, the genes that determine size are not readily modifiable through selective breeding in a cat. It is possible to modify colours, fur characteristics, nose shapes and other factors – but not overall size.

Do cats have a sense of humour?

Sadly, the answer to this is almost certainly no. The upside of this is that they are perfect as the ‘straight man’ in the comedy sketch!

Do cats intervene to protect children?

There are many videos that show cats intervening aggressively to protect members of ‘their family’. It seems almost certain that cats can detect the difference between a child and an adult. And in that paradoxical world that cats occupy, especially when out of the home, it’s quite possible that they might protect another ‘kitten’ in the family.

Why are cats so agile?

The brain structure that controls most voluntary movement in vertebrate species is the cerebellum (not to be confused with the cerebrum!). Cats have an enormous cerebellum, in relation to their overall brain size.

Why do cats like enclosed spaces – like boxes?

In the wild, cats are ambush predators. And they also like sheltered places in which they might rest – especially with their kittens. It’s likely that the inbuilt disposition to be secretive causes cats to be attracted to boxes.


Our cats live paradoxical lives – half adult and half kitten. Much that they do arises from this reality.

And yet, nothing is absolutely predictable with domestic cats. Some are fighters, some aren’t. Some like to sit on your lap, and their brother doesn’t! Some even behave like they are in a gang.

Their capacity to learn is very high, making them delightful – but choosy – companions.

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