In a radio broadcast in 1939, Winston Churchill described the actions of Russia as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” As anyone knows who has lived with a cat, this is also a great description of cat behavior. Why is cat behavior so mysterious? Why do hey need us with their paws and why do they rub their heads and tails against our legs?
To answer those questions, we need to understand one important thing: cats are not like dogs. Dogs seem to get us, to understand our behavior patterns. They mold their own behavior to get what they want from us. They get us to do what they want by treating us as humans, by sensing our emotions of happiness, sadness, guilt etc. Cats are different. They have not evolved by modifying their behavior to please humans. Cats treat us like other cats—really, really big other cats.
John Bradshaw, an English veterinarian formerly at the University of Bristol, spent twenty years studying olfactory behavior in invertebrates and particularly cats. In an interview with National Geographic, Bradshaw said “There’s been a lot of research with dogs and how dogs interact with people. [It’s] become very clear that dogs perceive us as being different than themselves: As soon as they see a human, they change their behavior. The way a dog plays with a human is completely different from [the way it plays] with a dog.
We’ve yet to discover anything about cat behavior that suggests they have a separate box they put us in when they’re socializing with us. They obviously know we’re bigger than them, but they don’t seem to have adapted their social behavior much. Putting their tails up in the air, rubbing around our legs, and sitting beside us and grooming us are exactly what cats do to each other.”
That brings us back to the leg rubbing. The cat is actually marking you with scent glands and claiming you as part of its environment. This comes from the mother-kitten relationship. The kitten learns to raise its tail, rub on its mother and purr. They are using a bit of learned behavior to communicate with us. Bradshaw claims this is actually a compliment because cats don’t do the rubbing with cats they consider inferior to them. So you can take some comfort there. If your cat is marking you it shows that he or she doesn’t think you are a totally stupid really big, clumsy cat unworthy of its friendship.
Dr.Bradshaws book, Cat Sense, is a must read for any cat owner. Cat Sense will help you unpack the riddle of cat behavior, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.