Photograph by Amy White & Al Petteway, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Pet cats resting atop and under a sofa in Fairview, North Carolina
Photograph by Amy White & Al Petteway, Nat Geo Image Collection

Why Does Your Cat Like Stinky Shoes?

It’s official: Cats are mysterious. Here are some explanations for their odd behaviors.  

It’s official: Cats are mysterious. I got a cascade of questions from curious cat people this week, proving that even their owners can’t fathom them. I hope these answers to your Ask Your Weird Animal Questions will make your feline a little more relatable. (See “What Do Cats Think About Us? You May Be Surprised.”)

Why do all my cats like the smell of my stinky shoes? They can’t seem to get enough! —Anne Deason Spencer via Facebook

In nature, scents are messages, so in general “animals tend to be attracted to smelly surfaces,” said Carlo Siracusa, a veterinarian at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital in Philadelphia. Smelly shoes are likely to come with odors, including pheromones, from other cats or animals. When a cat rubs on smelly shoes, he probably wants to ‘rewrite’ the message on the shoes, adding his signature; he may also want to exchange signals with the owner who is a member of the same social group.”

Can an FIV+ cat (one with feline immunodeficiency virus) live happily and healthily with a non-FIV+ cat? —Lisa Reddy via Facebook

Julie Callahan Clark, also of Penn Vet, said it depends on the relationship of the cats. The virus, which lives only a short time outside the body, can’t be transmitted by sharing water bowls or by mutual grooming and is primarily transmitted by biting. (See National Geographic readers’ pictures of cats.)

“Therefore, if the cats know each other and have no aggressive tendencies towards one another, they could coexist happily,” Clark said, though a cat fight could transmit the disease.

Clark noted that “transmission of FIV in multi-cat households is considered to be an infrequent event.”

Will clipping a cat’s claws make them not scratch things as much? My husband says when you clip them, they scratch more to re-sharpen them. —Ellen Sherman Jewel via Facebook

The Science of Meow: Study to Look at How Cats Talk

Scratching is a complex behavior which serves many functions,” such as keeping the nails sharp and functional and communicating with other cats, said Siracusa.

Barbara Sherman, of North Carolina State’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, added that even declawed cats will scratch, and that this characteristic behavior may have to do with stretching and “conditioning their limbs.”

"It’s usually done after a nap, so often we try to put a scratching post for a cat near their resting site,” she said. (Learn about National Geographic’s Little Kitties for Big Cats initiative.)

She encourages owners of indoor cats to trim their pets’ nails, which they can learn to do with the help of a vet—and a few treats. This can minimize damage to the home and injuries to the cat, as well as avoid the surgical procedure of declawing, which provides no medical benefit to the animal, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

How can I stop one cat from clawing my door sills and the other from urinating in the bathtub and sink and on floor mats? —Melissa Dempster-Daly via Facebook

Sherman laughed and said this doorsill scratcher “has made a personal choice.” Cats have a need to scratch and stretch, and there’s just something about this surface the cat likes, she said. In order to save your sills, provide the cat with an alternative, like a scratching post, that she will like and use (it might take a few tries).

Once that need is met, then cover the doorsills with double-sided sticky tape or a similar product. “We’ve got to barter with the cat, to say, ‘We don’t want you to use the sills anymore, but we want to give you what you need,'” Sherman said. (See “How Cats and People Grew to Love Each Other.”)

The cat that urinates outside the litter box may have an underlying medical problem, she said. Cats prefer a loose, absorbent surface as a latrine; if urination is painful, the cat might associate the litter box with that pain and “may go to a place that’s very different and try it and see if it’s less painful.”

Last, owners shouldn’t yell at or punish a cat for either behavior, Sherman said, especially for urination. Cats may just be trying to communicate something to you, so you have to learn how to listen.

Got a question about the wild and wonderful animal world? Tweet me or leave me a note on Facebook.