Cats can be as fierce as little lions with their toys and as cautious as bunny rabbits when they hear a loud noise. That's because cats show behaviors that we typically associate with predators — and with prey animals.
Both types of behaviors come from a complex mix of life experiences, species-specific behaviors and ancestral behaviors. (Our domestic cats are descended from the African wildcat, which weighs about 6 to 18 pounds and is somewhere in the middle of its food chain.)
We're familiar with the predatory behaviors that cats exhibit, including hunting even when they're not hungry, stalking and ambushing, and play that mimics hunting.
We know their prey behaviors, too, although we may not always recognize them. Cats like to perch in high places where they can see what's around them and hold the high ground if they feel the need to defend themselves. They're cautious around people and objects they're not familiar with. They don't like changes in routine because there may be danger in the unexpected. They're easily startled, and loud noises scare them. Also, like prey animals, their most common fear response is to run and hide.
They also have two behavioral tendencies of animals who are both predators and prey, though these behaviors are less obvious.
Cats have ambivalent body language, reflecting their conflicts between curiosity and caution, approach and avoidance. They also are latent learners, meaning they gain information through observation, but might not demonstrate their knowledge until they need it.
Because we tend to think of cats as predators, we might misinterpret caution, ambivalence and latent learning as aloofness, deception and stubbornness. In fact, a lot of behaviors we interpret as standoffish are actually cautious.
And some of the behaviors we interpret as deceptive actually reflect a conflict between curiosity and caution. When a cat is unsure of a situation, we might see mixed signals. Its ears might be up and relaxed, but its tail might be flicking back and forth (a sign of agitation). Or a cat might sit in front of you and blink (a signal of friendly intentions), but then swat when you try to pet it.
That conflict between approach and avoidance can make reading feline body language a little tricky. The secret is to read it as a whole, consider all the signals and then go with the preponderance of evidence. If there's any doubt, offer an extended finger and let your cat come to you. Being able to control the situation will make your cat feel safe and secure.
Latent learning is a kind of learning that's not expressed immediately in a behavior we can see. Because the cat doesn't react and we can't reinforce the behavior, we think it's not really learning. But it is, and when the cat is motivated enough to show it, it will.
Here's an example: Every morning you open the bottom drawer in the kitchen cabinet, pull out the cat treat bag and give your cat a few treats. Your cat just watches. Then one morning, you sleep late. When you finally get up and go to the kitchen, the drawer is open, the treat bag has a hole chewed in it and your cat is busy cleaning her whiskers.
Here's another way latent learning works in cats. Your cat hides under the sofa every time your friend visits. Your friend sits across the room and tosses a few treats, but your cat remains hidden and watches. After 10 visits, your cat comes out, eats the treat and approaches your friend.
The cat has been watching and assessing whether your friend is safe and trustworthy. It took a while, but now it's sure.