Zazie Todd: The surprising science behind happy cats

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The surprising science behind happy cats

Animal behaviourist Zazie Todd on how happy cats communicate with humans, their petting ‘time limit’ and why they tend to gravitate to the one person in the room who’s not interested.

by Robin Roberts

May 4 2022

Read Time 6 minute read

Food, shelter, security, space. That’s all a cat needs, right? To merely exist, sure, but to be happy? That’s going to take a lot more.

Happy cats are generally healthier and longer lived. They also make for loyal, calm companions with fewer behaviour issues. And, as it turns out, there’s hard science behind how to keep your kitty in a carefree state of bliss.

Zazie Todd, Ph.D, social psychologist, animal behaviourist, dog trainer, writer of popular blog Companion Animal Psychology and author of the award-winning Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy , has written a new book, Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy . As with her first book, Todd parses that science into applicable sections covering how to choose, train, play with, care for and keep your four-legged friend peacefully purring.

Todd spoke with Healthing from her suburban Vancouver home about the science behind happy and unhappy cats, including some surprising revelations about how they communicate, their time limit on petting, their thoughts on cat companions and why they usually gravitate to the one person in the room who couldn’t care less.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What surprised you most about the science behind happy cats?

There are so many stereotypes about cats being aloof [but] the science around how they interact with people really goes against that. If they’re well-socialized, cats do have important relationships with their people and it may just be that they’re choosing to show their affection in a different way than we expect.

I also found really fascinating [research about] the meow . Adult cats don’t really meow at each other, but they meow at us. It’s a way they communicate with us and we get tuned into our own cat and what their meow means.
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What can a cat’s body language tell us about their state of happiness or unhappiness?

When you are tuned into your cat’s body language you can recognize quite a lot, such as nervousness or pain, so it’s worth paying attention. The Feline Grimace Scale , for example [which assesses the position of the cat’s ears, head, whiskers, muzzle tension and whether its eyes are open or closed,] can tell us if the cat is in pain.

Crouching, grumpiness and excessive grooming are also signs, as is how they get down from a height. If they’re used to jumping off things [but now] they’re putting a paw on a table first and then jumping down, they’re trying to reduce the distance that they’re jumping, which may be a sign of arthritis.

What are some other signs your cat is not happy?

If you’re petting your cat and their tail starts a little twitch, that’s OK. But if it becomes a bigger twitch, or their skin is rippling or they’re staring at your hand, those can be signs they’re finding it too much and they might be about to bite or scratch you to make you stop. They prefer short, frequent interactions and to be petted around the head and face, which is where the scent glands are, rather than near the tail or on the tummy.

Are there cats that like belly rubs?

As a general rule, most cats don’t like it — especially if they don’t know you very well. One mistake many people make is when a cat rolls over and shows its tummy, called a social roll, and think the cat wants to be petted on the tummy. [But then] the cat attacks them. The cat is really saying, ‘I feel safe with you and trust you not to do that.’ If they are more comfortable with you, they are more likely to accept petting on the tummy.

Why do cats rub their faces on surfaces?

They’re scent-marking (depositing pheromones,) which helps them to feel safe. So we shouldn’t wash their bedding all at once but leave something that still smells of them, so they feel more safe and secure.
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Robin Roberts is a Vancouver-based writer with Healthing.

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