Tag Archives: Play

Did you know that domestic cats… ?

This time I will give some information about the behavior of domestic cats that I think is interesting and less widely known. I’ll describe the results of various scientific studies, which mostly describe general trends. Of course, your individual cat could act differently or have different preferences, due to e.g., personality, experience or breed. If that’s the case, feel free to let me know.

… are the only* cat species that uses the “tail up” signal?

A vertically raised tail is a housecat’s sign of friendly intentions. When two cats meet, often the one who is lower in the hierarchy (or feels in a weaker position) raises its tail first.

Cats also use this signal of affiliation towards people.

The wild cats from which the domestic cat is derived do not use the “tail up” signal. One theory is that it evolved in ancient Egypt, where cats were bred in large groups (an unnatural situation for wild cats), and a clear signal of friendly intentions let them avoid unnecessary conflicts.

… prefer different toys depending on whether they are hungry?

When cats are hungry, they are more likely to attack larger prey. A similar effect can be seen in the context of play – cats usually prefer mouse-sized toys, but when hungry they choose rat-like toys. In wild animals, hunger tends to lower the desire to play altogether.

This suggests that playing and hunting are very similar for domestic cats.

… are less aggressive when given the opportunity to play?

Too little play and a non-stimulating environment can contribute to aggression in cats (and dogs).

Even adult cats need to play, although they usually only want to do so for 2-3 minutes at a time. If you would like to play with your cat longer, wait for him/her to initiate the interaction. Research suggests that when the cat, rather than a human, initiates play, the interaction usually lasts longer. Other research shows that cats prefer a man-operated “fishing rod” to unanimated toys, and of course new toys are more interesting than old ones**.

Additionally, playing with a “fishing” toy reduces cats’ tendency to hunt wild animals.

… can use catnip as mosquito repellant?

Many cats (including wild cats, such as lynx, leopard and lion) react vigorously to catnip. They rub their head against the plant and roll in it. The smell of catnip activates the reward system in cats and the secretion of endorphins, similarly to opium’s effect in humans. However, catnip is not addictive to cats and is often added to toys by manufacturers.

It seems that the reaction to catnip is not only about euphoria. Catnip contains substances that repel mosquitoes and other insects. When rubbing against the plants these substances are transferred to the cat’s fur and it becomes less attractive to mosquitoes and other insects.

Cats hunt from ambush, by slowly sneaking up to their prey and waiting for the right moment to attack. While doing that they are an easy target for mosquitoes, which is why catnip-based repellant is a great solution (by the way, substances in catnip also repel mosquitoes when applied to human skin).


 * One exception is that lions – the only wild cats that live in groups – also raise their tails in some affiliative interactions with others. Nevertheless, I never saw lion’s tail raised as highly as domestic cat’s tail. This behavior has certainly evolved independently in domestic cats.

** Small suggestion from me: to prevent kids from getting bored with all their toys, it’s a good idea to hide some of them away. After some days/weeks/months you hide different toys and return the old ones, that now become attractive. I would expect that it works for cats as well.


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Photo: EVG Culture from Pexels.com

Did you know that wild animals like wheel running?

A mouse and a frog using the wheel

I love simple, unusual experiments that lead to surprising results, especially if I get to watch films with wild animals in new situations.

The research I will describe below was more of an experiment in the colloquial meaning of the word – finding out what will happen if… we place a running wheel in the wild.

Running wheels are usually placed in the cages of small pets or lab animals like mice or hamsters (rats don’t like them very much) to provide them with some entertainment and an opportunity to exercise. Sometimes the wheels are also part of the experiment, for example when studying how exercise affects animal health. However, some people believe that running in wheels is an unnatural behaviour, a sign of stress and boredom or even mental illness resulting from life in a cage.

However, if that was true, wild animals wouldn’t use a running wheel. Right?

A couple of yours ago researchers from the Netherlands decided to check that. They placed one running wheel in a green urban area and one in an area in the dunes not accessible to the public. Next to each wheel they installed a movement sensor and a camera. All this was placed in a cage-like construction that prevented animals larger than rats from entering.

Can you guess what animals were caught on camera “running” on the wheel? They were mainly mice, but also rats and shrews and even frogs and slugs! And that is when only counting animals that made the wheel move consistently in one direction (snails usually caused haphazard movement of the wheel and they were not counted as “runners”).

If a slug was on a wheel, I guess that it was moving on it mainly because it didn’t know how to get off. But for mice the situation looks different.

Like in the laboratory, usually young mice ran in the wheel. And while in most recorded cases mice ran on the wheel for less than a minute, quite often (20% of the cases) it was longer. One mouse even ran for 18 minutes! Mice never walked on the wheel, but always ran, and the maximum speed was higher (5.7 km/h) than that of any mouse recorded in the laboratory (5.1 km/h). In addition, sometimes mice (but also rats, shrews and frogs) would leave the wheel only to re-enter it within minutes to continue running (or jumping).

Therefore, it seems that wheel running can actually be a voluntary behaviour that is likely internally rewarding.

This research reminds me of how much fun I had as a kid on a giant hamster wheel in an amusement park. Definitely more fun than on a treadmill in a gym, even though that was also a voluntary activity…


The recordings of the wild animals on the wheel can be found here.


Photos and information: Meijer and Robberts (2014)


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