Feline behaviorists offered explanations for a viral tweet that captured a cat’s tendency to bring stuffed toys to its food bowl.
In the United States, there are more than 74 million pet cats. We love these spastic weirdos. So when Maureen Johnson, an author of best-selling young adult novels, tweeted about her parent’s cat’s strange behavior during a visit home early this week — it went viral.
“Once again, my parents’ cat has dragged every kitten toy from every corner of the house and put their faces in the bowl to feed them,” Johnson wrote.
It seemed like he was feeding them. But he also regularly eats their faces.
Was he really trying to feed his toy babies? Was he stowing away treasure? Did Sherlock think he was the leader of some kind of secret cat society? It’s easy to project our human thoughts and feelings onto a cat and its behavior, but something else might be going on.
“Cats have their own agendas. We’re just not privy to it all the time,” said Johnson in an interview. “We kind of marveled at it. What has Sherlock been doing all night?”
Sherlock is a 7-year-old purebred siamese cat who lives with no other pets. He has done this collecting thing since he was a kitten, when he first received and became obsessed with these stuffed, orange toy cats.
Hundreds of cat owners and fans shared their own pet stories. Some tried to explain this behavior, suggesting Sherlock was merely taking his treasures to a safe place.
Cat behaviorists agree Sherlock’s shenanigans are common cat behaviors, but they disagree about the motivation.
Mieshelle Nagelschneider, “The Cat Whisperer” and founder of The Cat Behavior Clinic in Portland, thinks that because Sherlock is chewing on the faces, near the neck where cats attack prey, and doing it in the evening when cats hunt the most, this is simply the product of a really strong prey drive.
The cat hunts the toy prey around the house and brings it back to the nest or feeding area, like an instinct. In the wild, this would prevent competition from finding the prey first. That the toys are first scattered throughout the house may also trigger the cat’s seeking circuits in the brain and related “feel good chemicals,” she said.
Many cats do this — with socks or toy mice, whatever they prefer — and some will even dunk the toys in water, as if to drown or immobilize them.
“It’s all about survival,” she said. “The last thing a cat would do is bring in another cat to eat their food.”
But she hedges a little. Because domestic cats are in a strange environment, natural instincts can manifest in odd ways. And she added that to test the behavior, Johnson’s family could try putting the toys outside or in one basket, mixing up the types of toys or satisfying the cat’s prey drive before bedtime with food or a wand toy.
But Dennis Turner, who studies domestic cat-human interactions at the University of Zurich and is co-editor of a book called “The Domestic Cat,” thinks Sherlock’s antics are a learned behavior pattern.
Cats like attention — praise or scolding. After the first time Sherlock gathered toys and ate their faces, he likely received attention, which he found rewarding. This led him to repeat the behavior in order to get that reward. And just like humans get addicted to slot machines that randomly dish out money, if the cat was rewarded with attention only some of the time, the behavior probably only strengthened.
If it ever became problematic, Johnson’s parents could try ignoring Sherlock. But they’d have to be consistent.
Nagelschneider doesn’t entirely agree: This cat was predator, she said, since it was a kitten and did not need owners or other cats to train it to hunt, because the drive evolved over millions of years. In a calm environment with the right prey, “it’s almost like this switch flips, and there’s something in their eyes,” she said. “They can’t help it.”
Then again, prey drive can’t explain all strange behaviors, and Siamese are “the aliens of the cat world,” she said, quite demonstrative and unusual in contrast to other felines. “I wouldn’t put it past them, there could be some odd thing going through their head.”