MadSci Network: Zoology

Re: Why do some cats click their teeth together somtimes?

Date: Sat Feb 6 17:10:22 1999
Posted By: Andrea Bixler, staff (postdoctoral associate), biology, UM-St. Louis
Area of science: Zoology
ID: 916430891.Zo

Dear Eric,
My cats do this too.  It is very strange!  According to the world's cat 
experts, the answer to your question is either "we don't have a clue" or 
"it is related to the killing instincts of the cat."  I would suggest, 
therefore, that you accept that the behavior _might_ be related to the 
behaviors cats perform when they kill their prey, but that we really don't 
know for sure.

To be more specific about how that clicking noise you hear relates to 
killing prey, I'll tell you what Desmond Morris says in his book 
_Catwatching_.  He explains that when a cat kills any prey item, it opens 
and closes its jaws around the animal's neck very rapidly.  This 
opening-and-closing movement is the best way for the cat to slide its 
canines inbetween the prey's vertebrae, killing it quickly and risking less 
injury to the cat itself.  Morris suggests the reason we hear our cats make 
that noise while watching birds through the window is because they are so 
excited about seeing their prey that they are making the killing bite in 
advance.  It's the same idea as when our mouths start to water in 
anticipation of a good dinner just because we smell the food.

The main problem I see with this theory is that it is extremely 
disadvantageous for a predator to make any noise while hunting.  It might 
scare off the prey, right?  So do cats only make their instinctive, advance 
killing bite when they are "hunting" birds through the window?  If so, it 
would seem that Morris' explanation does not take this into account, or 
maybe is incorrect.

I'm sorry I can't give you a clear-cut "this-is-the-way-it-is" answer to 
your interesting question.  Surprisingly, there are lots and lots of things 
we don't know about domestic animals like cats and really common wild 
animals like opossums and skunks.  If you're interested in these sorts of 
questions, I would suggest reading books like Desmond Morris' 
_Catwatching_, and thinking about the answers he gives to common cat 
questions.  Do they make sense to you when you think about how your cats 
behave?  You could be heading towards a career in animal behavior, and the 
possibility of answering some of those questions yourself!

Thanks for your question,
Andrea Bixler

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