A line drawing of a cat

The ABCs of C-A-Ts

A double-Red alum offers expert insight on all things feline

By Beth Saulnier

Dr. Bruce Kornreich with a cat
CVM’s Dr. Bruce Kornreich with a feline friend. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Bruce Kornreich, DVM ’92, PhD ’05, was eight when he “treated” his first cat patient. His childhood pet, Tiger, was taken to the family vet after swallowing a needle and thread, and a young Kornreich tended to him during recovery.

Kornreich is now director of Cornell’s Feline Health Center, an organization within the College of Veterinary Medicine that supports research, education, and outreach. He’s also a board-certified veterinary cardiologist and a senior research associate in the Department of Clinical Sciences.

Cornellians asked Kornreich to weigh in on the marvels and mysteries of domestic kitties—a request he graciously granted, with the caveat that “we can’t get into their minds.” Kornreich himself is currently without a feline companion, though he aims to adopt another before too long; his most recent cat, Einstein, passed away in 2020 at the venerable age of 22.

Are we living in a golden age for cats? It seems like the last time they were so cosseted and adored was in ancient Egypt.

It is true, and it’s funny—a big reason people go to the Internet is to watch cat videos. There are more pet cats in the U.S. than dogs now. People spend a lot of money every year on cat food, toys, and veterinary care. I do think that cats are at a unique stage in terms of their societal appreciation.

Are housecats fundamentally different from their wild relatives, like tigers?

There are certainly similarities, in terms of things like how they communicate; their territoriality; the fact that they stalk and capture prey; that they like to be high up, to perch. But one big difference is that cats’ wild ancestors are, for the most part, solitary. So we’ve taken this animal that evolved as a solitary creature, and, over the last 9,500 years of domestication, imposed an environment where in some cases they’re forced to be social with other cats—and people.

Cats often seem standoffish; does that mean they don’t like a person?

While dogs appear to enjoy prolonged close physical contact with people, cats don’t always seem to express affection in the same way—but that doesn’t necessarily mean they appreciate somebody any less. If a cat walks up to you and rubs their head on you—we call that “bunting”— we believe they’re depositing pheromones to mark you as “theirs” and indicating that they want you to be part of their social structure. Kneading can also be a sign of affection.

You’ve probably seen the viral story about the cats that spent weeks trading off spots atop an unopened Vitamix blender box. What was up with that?

It may involve territoriality—the cats alternating, “Who’s on top, and is this mine?”—combined with the notion that cats seem to enjoy being elevated off the ground. In fact, some owners have been creative with putting up shelves or walkways for them.

Bruce Kornreich preforming a ECG on a cat
Kornreich preforms an electrocardiogram on a feline patient. (Photo by Cornell University)

Why do cats like being up high?

In nature, they tend to look for prey that way, and perhaps they feel safer. Cats occupy an interesting niche ecologically, because they’re predators but also prey. So some things are remnants of natural predatory behaviors, while others come from their avoidance of animals that could prey on them.

Is cats’ famous love of sitting in boxes related to this?

Perhaps—they don’t like to feel vulnerable, and maybe by getting into small spaces, they feel safe. Another potentially prey-related behavior is using the litter box: one hypothesis is that cats bury their waste so they’re not detected by predators in the wild.

How are cats able to be such quiet, dainty walkers?

It is amazing. They have retractable claws, and their pads provide cushioning. Evolutionarily, it likely it has to do with the fact that to be successful hunters, they need to get close to their prey and ambush it.

Another viral trend from a few years ago was videos of cats being startled by cucumbers. Any thoughts on why? Some speculated it had to do with a resemblance to snakes.

It’s true that many animals, including cat species, have an innate aversion to snakes. Or maybe cucumbers just look foreign to them. It behooves wild creatures—or relatively close ancestors of wild creatures—to be cautious; in nature, it makes sense to avoid something you’re not quite sure of.

Cats occupy an interesting niche ecologically, because they’re predators but also prey.

If a cat is scratching the furniture, is it misbehaving?

Scratching is a normal behavior; it’s a way that wild cats mark territory. We have to provide cats with acceptable alternatives, like scratching posts, and it may take experimentation. Some cats like to scratch on horizontal surfaces, some prefer vertical; some like carpet, others prefer sisal, that rope-like material. You can do things like rub catnip on the scratching post and give positive reinforcement when the cat uses it.

Overall, how can owners of indoor cats be sure they’re having good lives?

It’s incumbent upon the owner to provide the things they’d get outdoors, like an opportunity to express that prey drive—giving them dedicated playtime, making them chase their food [using a feeder toy, for example] rather than just putting it in a bowl, giving them places where they can climb and perch. Some owners even build a “catio,” which is an enclosed outdoor space.

And how do we know if a cat is really content?

Since we can’t get in their mind, we surmise it based on other things. Are they interacting? Do they seek out people’s company? If a cat is physically healthy, is engaging with its environment, is curious, and partakes of the behaviors that make a cat a cat—like kneading, scratching, rubbing up against you, climbing things, chasing prey—then we suppose they’re happy.

Lastly: why did you want to specialize in cats? What do you find compelling about them?

Cats are such unique, amazing creatures—beautiful, elegant, intelligent, curious, entertaining, and amazingly athletic. Some people feel—and I guess I might agree—that it can be harder to earn their love than a dog’s. But that can make you feel better about yourself: like, “A cat likes me; I must be okay.”

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University

Published March 11, 2022


Comments

  1. Carole Kenyon, Class of 1959

    Lovely, informative article. O.K. to share with an applicant who hopes to apply to the Vet School in time? She lives in Bangldesh, which does not have a Vet School.

  2. Bonnie Griffith

    My male cat is 5 years old, and just started kneading. I’ve had other cats knead as kittens. Is it unusual for them to start kneading now?

    • No,my adult cat kneads all the time and it, is completely normal. If you are worried about it you should go to the vet.

  3. Andrew Biemiller, Class of 1969

    WhenI was a graduate student at Cornell (1962-1968) I had several cats, thanks to Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine ($2.00/visit). My best cat was a Siamese. He would walk on heel (spontaneously) from Mitchell St. to Cornell main library. At that time, well-behaved pets were welcome in the library. My Siamese would rest on my table, and eye the local dogs without responding to them. Similarly, the dogs never harassed my cat. We’d walk home, but he’d get tired and want to ride part way on my shoulder. Great cat!
    Andrew Biemiller, PhD Cornell, 1969.

  4. Anne Cook

    Loved this article. All cat lovers should check out The Cat Hospital – a program on ACORN TV. It is about a hospital in Ireland devoted to cats (and their owners).

  5. Karen Viglione Lauterwasser

    About cats and boxes: my two cats not only enjoy being on top of boxes – they also jump inside boxes at any opportunity (as well as plastic bins, musical instrument cases, grocery bags, etc.). Perhaps it reminds them of the safety of a cave? And they also like to curl up on boxes that don’t offer much in the way of a vantage point, but that just seem comfortable. A favorite is the box from our Advent wreath. It’s about 4 inches tall, and the closing flaps sag just enough to make it nest-like.

    It would certainly be interesting to be able to read their minds!

  6. Richard, Class of 1966

    What do you think about putting a leash on your cat and taking it out for a walk?

  7. Frank Connolly, Class of 1982

    I was a cat person from when I was 7 and my Dad brought home a kitten. At 55, 20 years after my last cat (kids’ allergies), my daughter brought a rescue dog to live with us and she has been great – but acts like a cat! No barking, lots of cuddling, cleans herself like a cat. But I do think a cat may be again in my future. Great article!

  8. Victoria K Thorson, Class of 1964

    I learned a lot from your article, thank you! I got off on the wrong foot with my son-in-laws cat. I’m an art historian and sculptor and look at form, bone structure, and into the eyes (reading the feelings of humans) which I was told later made the cat think I was a predator. One day when I was baby sitting for my daughter’s 2 year old, the cat bit and scratched me badly, and yesterday he scratched a young baby sitter, though the cat either hides or is ok with other friends and strangers. We’ve tried offering cat treats and food, blinking our eyes, speaking softly, etc. I would be grateful for any recommendations: reading, videos, or Cornelians to talk to?

Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other posts You may like