Caterwauling and other feline feats
Fitful dreams. Probably running a low-grade fever with this dumb early May chest cold. Thump the pillow, shift position, stare at the weird shadows cast by the night-light.
Hmm … what’s that one look like? A yam? Malaysia? Trump’s comb-over?
And those caterwauling tomcats outside aren’t helping matters. Interesting term though, caterwaul. Traced back to 14th century Middle English, cater-wawen is a portmanteau of “cater,” meaning tomcat, and “wawen,” to blow, as the wind. Good word.
For a moment, it’s 1963 and my brother Rick and I are watching Saturday morning cartoons in our flannel PJ’s. Some old guy on the screen hollers, “Shaddup!” and heaves a shoe out a window at an alley cat serenading his sweetheart. I’m thinking, yeah, I could be that old guy.
Intact (non-neutered) males and females caterwaul — a yowling, drawn-out whine — the female when seeking a mate during estrous (heat), and males responding in their gentlemanly eagerness to oblige. Females become reproductive at 4-6 months, with peak sexual activity in the spring and fall.
A given queen’s (reproductive female) estrous cycle can last from one to three weeks, depending on how many days she was in heat. All told, that can lead to several cycles of lovesick yowling per season.
But vocalizations actually are a rather small component of most cats’ daily communication repertoire. Olfactory interactions are of primary importance. To understand their scent-based communication system, it’s useful to first consider the territorial behavior of wild and feral cats.
Unlike dogs, which have retained much of the group-oriented behaviors of their wolf pack ancestors, cats are solitary hunters. It’s not that cats are asocial — barn cats form loose colonies of individually known group members — but each cat craves its own spaces. Note the plural ending of that last word.
In nature, each cat maintains a relatively small core territory within a much larger peripheral territory. The peripheral territory includes an array of hunting and latrine sites, which are located a distance from each other. The core territory is a safe haven for resting and, for females, rearing kittens.
The size of the peripheral area varies greatly with the availability of food, from 70 to 450 acres (0.1 to 0.7 square miles) according to various studies. A typical core territory might be about 1-2 acres.
Cats have scent glands on the pads of their paws, their cheeks, head and on either side of the rectum, and of course their urine is also strongly scented. The scents from these sources serve different purposes, which are reflected in how they are used within an animal’s territory. The scents contain pheromones (chemicals that affect the behavior of other animals) that not only identify the individual but also its gender, reproductive status, general health and group membership.
Because pheromones deteriorate over time, other cats can even tell how long it’s been since the territory owner last visited a particular marking station. Cats repeatedly mark the boundaries of their peripheral territory with pheromone-scented claw marks, typically on vertical surfaces. Along boundaries between neighboring territories, they also add a splash of urine spray.
Research suggests these peripheral territory markings may serve not so much as “keep out!” warnings as traffic signals. As solitary hunters whose success depends on intact physical capabilities, cats generally prefer avoiding confrontation over fighting. However, in areas with limited resources, hunters may have little choice but to cross one another’s territories.
Because scent markings decay with time, neighboring cats have a mechanism to learn each other’s patrolling patterns. “Since Puff typically makes her rounds on this side of her territory around 9 a.m., I’ll restrict my wanderings there until after noon.”
The core territory is instead scented with face and flank marks. Because the cat does not anticipate the approach of unfamiliar cats here, these markings a more of the “note-to-self” variety than a message to other animals.
All this behavior plays out in intriguing ways for indoor/outdoor cats and for pets that are not permitted outside of the house. Indoor/outdoor cats typically have much smaller peripheral territories than feral cats, 6 to 12 acres in one study, with females seldom straying more than 700 yards from home.
For feral and indoor/outdoor cats, males’ peripheral territories are commonly 10 times the size of females’ territories. For females, the limiting resource is typically food; for males, it’s more often about the availability of queens. Not surprisingly, neutered, well-fed cats tend to have the smallest territories.
And what about indoor cats? Their core territories will be reduced to a selection of safe places around the house where they feel protected. Their peripheral territories will consist of active areas for “hunting” and playing and a regularly patrolled set of pathways between these, the litter box and their food and water bowls — which should be separated by at least several feet.
Ken Baker is a scientist and a professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Heidelberg University. If you have a natural history topic you’d like the author to consider for an upcoming column, please email your idea to