When reader Hilary Brown’s cat, Wasabi, left a holiday gift that looked a lot like a lump of coal on her bed, we figured that was one mad kitty.
But was it?
Weird Animal Question of the Week asked experts: "What are some of our pets’ behaviors we completely misread?"
Cats mark their territories by leaving various scents, often via defecation—a phenomenon called middening, says Nick Dodman, author of Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry.
So Wasabi's pooping in the bed wasn't an angry statement—more likely, he was anxious because Brown had recently been traveling, Dodman says. (Read surprising things you never knew about your cat.)
Wasabi went to where his owner's scent is strong and left his feces, a gesture that essentially says, "I want to be close to her, but physically I can’t be, so let's just combine smells," Dodman says.
Pooping in a place other than the litter box may also be a cat's way of reclaiming its territory after a houseguest has visited, he adds.
Even so, cats don't necessarily need to feel anxious to mark their territory, Dodson explains: Wasabi, for instance, poops in the bed on normal days, too.
Watch the Birdie
Cats aren’t the only ones that leave, er, homemade gifts.
"Many pet birds perform a behavior that looks like they are throwing up on their owners," Zach Olson, animal behaviorist at the University of New England, says via email.
It's not showing their distaste: Birds regularly vomit food to feed their chicks and flirt with suitors, so "regurgitate is a sign of affection,” Olson says.
Rabbits are prey animals, and they don't forget that, even when in the comfort of our homes. The animals get alarmed pretty easily by situations such as smelling a cat or dog, being taken to the vet, or in some cases, being handled.
In these cases they may freeze, a posture mistaken for relaxation, when really “the animal is terrified,” Olson says. “Much like an opossum 'playing dead' will avoid predation," rabbits go limp hoping the danger will pass. (Related: "Here’s What a Rat Looks Like When It’s Happy")
We’ve seen a zillion “smiling” dogs on the Internet, but what do they really mean?
Canines with “lips raised vertically is an aggressive sign,” Dodman says. (Read about how dogs are more like us than we thought.)
On the other hand, "if the lips are retracted horizontally, it’s a submissive sign”—an expression owners may inadvertently train their dogs to do.
Since this doggy grin looks so cute, the owner pets and praises the animal whenever it happens—which makes them do it more, Dodman says.
Licking is often mistaken for dogs wanting your body salts, but it has multiple meanings, Dodman says.
When dogs sniff things, they’ll also lick them, which brings the chemicals in the object toward an organ inside their mouth called the vomeronasal organ. This "nose within the nose,” just behind its front teeth, allows dogs to get a better read on what they've encountered. (See "Can Dogs Feel Our Emotions? Yawn Study Suggests Yes.")
So a dog's sloppy licking could be just a way of figuring you out.
Licking can also signal submission or a gesture of kindness, which dog owners often call a "kiss"—though dogs don’t really kiss, Dodman says.
“You never see two dogs with their lips pressed together in the moonlight,” he quips.
We're not so sure: These two pit bulls look so smoochy you'd think it's Valentine's Day.