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MacKenzie Look-alike Feral Cat Behavior -
Why Do Cats Sniff Butts?

By Jack Carter


Here is my first (in what I hope to be a series) of write ups on cat behavior. The data presented here is based upon years of Feral colony study, and is open for discussion, corrections, and improvements. Please, don't be shy!

We'll start with a question most people one time or the other have asked about their cat...that is, why do cats sniff each others butts!

In order to understand the reasoning behind my answer, we'll first look at the protocols I used in the experiments I performed to find an answer to this question, and the basic theory I was attempting to prove or disprove.

From my work with ferals, I had started to suspect that, unlike what the currently available literature on the subject says (ie. that this behavior is an identification behavior), this was instead a means of determining what other cats in the colony have been eating; that it was part of a much more complex method used by feral cats, and other animals in general, to communicate food availability. Other behaviorists have stated that cats have poor near vision and use this as a method to identify members of the colony...as I have observed colony members running off former members, after spotting them from a distance, I never held faith in the ID reason...if cats needed to verify another cats identity with butt-sniffing, then how would the colony know to run off an intruder that they see from over 400 feet away ?

To prove this, I selected a cat in the colony that was not feral, but had been absorbed into the colony just the same. In this, I was lucky, as this tame colony cat was to become a very important part of my study. This cat would allow me to hold him, and otherwise treat him as a tame house cat, thus making it much easier to set up experiments such as this.

I first got the colony used to the presence of a food that they were very much crazy about, ie. fresh tuna...a food treat hard to beat for a cat's reaction. The colony location allowed me to set aside three "feeding stations" where I would place the day's food, underneath an enclosed, air tight, container.

The cats were taught that tuna would be made available at ONE feeding station ONLY. The other two feeding stations would normally be used for dry food, or a combination of dry and moist food, but never fresh tuna, or tuna moist food. My rational for this was that, if the colony can determine if the tame cat had been eatting tuna, it would go to the feeding station that contained the tuna. I did not feed tuna everyday, but only enough to get them used to the fact that only that feeding station ever had tuna.

Once a week I would take the "tame" cat and remove it from the colony just before feeding time. I would locate this cat out of sight of the others, and hand feed him a half can of fresh tuna in spring water. This would be repeated once a week with another food other than tuna.

After waiting anywhere from one to two hours, I would release this cat back in the colony, observing the reactions of the other cats in the colony. This time delay was to give the tame cat time to digest the food.

I would have an assistant return the tame cat to the colony, so that the colony would not see me, and get hints as to where, or if, food was at any of the stations. This assistant was used for various tasks, and was never allowed to feed or talk to the cats...their job was to perform tasks with as little interaction with the animals as possible.

When the cat was returned to the colony, normal greeting behavior started, including "butt sniffing;" within 5 minutes, each cat that had "greeted" the tame animal started heading in the direction of the "tuna" feeding station.

The days the tame cat was not feed tuna, no cat approached the tuna station.

This tended to back up my assertion that "butt sniffing" is one manner that cats use to communicate food availability.

Now, this is not to say that this is the ONLY information that cats get by this activity...other information includes indications of the health of the animal, sex, etc...you can almost think of cat dung as the social column of the local cat daily!

Well...maybe not earth shattering information, but it may answer a question or two about your cats!

Jack Carter


This article originally appeared on the Feral Cat Rescue mailing list: Rescue Cat   (21 April '98)  
It is reprinted here with the author's permission. Contact Jack Carter at: jcarter@amby.com


Why Do Cats Sniff Butts? The Day in a Feral Cat's Life Stalking a Mouse . . . Territorial Marking

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