20 Fun Facts About Our Mysterious Feline Friends

Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

1. They can be allergic to you.

Does your cat cough frequently? You might be to blame. According to a 2005 study, feline asthma—which affects one in 200 cats—is on the rise thanks to human lifestyle. Since cats are more frequently being kept indoors, they’re more susceptible to inflammation of their airways caused by cigarette smoke, dusty houses, human dandruff, pollen and some kinds of cat litters. And in rare cases, humans can even transmit illnesses like the flu to their pets.

2. They’re not always affected by catnip.

In fact, half the cats in the world don't respond at all. Sensitivity to Nepeta cataria is inherited; cats with one catnip-sensitive parent have just a one-in-two chance of developing the sensitivity. If both parents have the sensitivity, however, the chances rise to three in four.

3. Cats can actually live with dogs.

Forget what Peter Venkman said about cats and dogs living together causing mass hysteria. A 2008 study by scientists at Tel Aviv University showed that if the animals are introduced while they're still young—six months for cats, and a year for dogs—they'll get along just fine.

4. Despite what you've read, your cats like it when you pet them.

You might have read about a study that suggested cats get anxious when you pet them. But that was a misinterpretation. “As a matter of fact, the majority of the cats enjoyed being stroked,” study co-author Rupert Palme of the Institute of Medical Biochemistry at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, explained later. “Only those animals that did not actually like to be stroked, but nevertheless allowed it, were stressed." So go ahead, pet away!

5. Cats have strategies for sharing space.

“We think we know about [domestic cats] because they are so familiar to us—living in our homes and being part of our families,” Professor Alan Wilson of Royal Veterinary College wrote on BBC.com. “In fact, we know less about some aspects of their behaviour than we do about many wild cats.” So in 2013, Wilson and a team of other scientists attached GPS trackers and cameras to 50 felines in Shamley Green, Surrey, for a BBC special. They found that the cats appeared to timeshare territory to avoid squabbles with other felines—though the cat-cams the kitties wore did capture a few fights.

6. A cat's brain is more complex than a dog's.

Sure, their brains are small, accounting for just 0.9 percent of their body mass. But according to Psychology Today, "the brains of cats have an amazing surface folding and a structure that is about 90 percent similar to ours." The cerebral cortex—the part of the brain that's responsible for cognitive information processing—is more complex in cats than in dogs, and cats have some 300 million neurons, as compared to 160 million in dogs. Some research does suggest that dogs are slightly smarter than cats, but cat owners might have a different opinion on that. 

One more fun cat brain fact: The most sophisticated supercomputer in 2010 performed 83 times slower than a cat’s brain.

7. And their short-term memories are pretty good—under the right circumstances.

Short-term memories typically fade away in about a minute, but in a study published in Current Biology in 2007, scientists determined that cats' short-term memory of certain things lasts 10 minutes. The scientists tested it by stopping cats after their forelegs, but not their hindlegs, had cleared an obstacle. They distracted the cat with food and then waited to see how long the cats would remember having stepped over the obstacle. The cats remembered for about 10 minutes and would bring their hind legs up where they remembered an obstacle, even if it had been removed.

But when cats saw the obstacle and were distracted before they had a chance to step over it with their forelegs, they didn't remember the obstacle, indicating their visual memory is not so great. "We've found that the long-lasting memory for guiding hind legs over an obstacle requires stepping of the forelegs over the obstacle," researcher Keir Pearson of the University of Alberta in Canada said. "The main surprise was how short lasting the visual memory on its own was—just a few seconds when animals were stopped before their forelegs stepped over the obstacle."

8. Feral cats wander farther than free-roaming house cats.

A two-year study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois-Champaign tracked 42 cats with radio collars and showed that the feral cats traveled more than free-roaming house cats. One of the ferals, a mixed-breed male, had the largest range of the wild cats with 1351 acres; the mean distance for house cats was a mere 4.9 acres.

That same study found that feral cats were also more active than house cats, which spent 97 percent of their time sleeping or engaged in low levels of activity. A mere 3 percent of their time was spent engaged in high levels of activity, like running or stalking prey, while the feral cats were active 14 percent of the time. "The un-owned cats have to find food to survive, and their activity is significantly greater than the owned cats throughout the day and throughout the year, especially in winter," said Jeff Horn, a former graduate student in the department of natural resources and environmental sciences, who conducted the study for his master's thesis. "These un-owned cats have to search harder to find food to create the (body) heat that they need to survive."

9. Some of their illnesses are similar to ours.

Cats are susceptible to more than 250 hereditary disorders, and many of them are similar to diseases that humans get. A genetic defect in a cat's DNA can cause retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that also affects 1 in 3500 Americans, and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus is a genetic relative of HIV. Felines even have their own form of Alzheimer’s Disease, and, like us, they can get fat—in fact, 55 percent (approximately 47 million) of American cats are overweight or obese.

10. Cat domestication began in China.

The Near Eastern Wildcat, native to Western Asia and Africa, is believed to be the primary ancestor of all domestic cats now living around the globe. Photo via Sonelle via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

Scientists once believed that cats were domesticated in Ancient Egypt approximately 4000 years ago, but new research, published in 2013, shows that a breed of once-wild cats lived in close proximity to farmers in China some 5300 years ago. "Our data suggest that cats were attracted to ancient farming villages by small animals, such as rodents that were living on the grain that the farmers grew, ate and stored," says Fiona Marshall, study co-author and archaeology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats. Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits."

11. Spots come from a particular gene.

Once, scientists didn't know how cats both big and small came by their distinctive blotched patterns. But a 2012 study pointed to a gene that scientists called Taqpep. Blotched cats had mutations on both copies of the gene, while striped cats did not. They also discovered that patterned markings are caused by variations in another gene, Edn3, and are expressed at high levels in the darkly colored hair cells. The scientists believe that early in a cat's development, the Taqpep gene establishes a periodic pattern for stripes or a spotted or blotched pattern by determining the level of Edn3 presented in each skin area.

12. They don't necessarily purr because they're happy.

Sure, cats purr when they appear to be content, but they also purr when they're giving birth, sick, nursing, wounded, or in a stressful situation. Scientists aren't quite sure why, but they do have some ideas. "Cats purr during both inhalation and exhalation with a consistent pattern and frequency between 25 and 150 Hertz," writes Leslie A. Lyons, an assistant professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, in Scientific American. "Various investigators have shown that sound frequencies in this range can improve bone density and promote healing...Because cats have adapted to conserve energy via long periods of rest and sleep, it is possible that purring is a low energy mechanism that stimulates muscles and bones without a lot of energy." Purring could help alleviate the dysplasia or osteoporotic conditions that are more common in dogs. So it's probably more plausible that cats use purring to communicate and as a source of self-healing.

13. They really can’t taste sweet things.

Cats aren't interested in sweet stuff because of a defect in the gene that codes for part of the mammalian sweet taste receptor. The receptor contains two protein subunits, T1R2 and T1R3, which are each coded for by a separate gene. The defect occurs on the T1R2 protein in domestic cats, as well as in cheetahs and tigers.

14. Disrupting their routines can make them act sick.

Even healthy cats can exhibit symptoms of illness—including going to the bathroom outside the litter box, vomiting, and a decreased appetite—if there's a change in their routines, according to study published in the January 1, 2011 issue of Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

15. They are masters of lapping up liquid—and keeping their chins dry.

Unlike dogs, cats don't dip their tongues into liquid like ladles. Instead, it's only the surface of their tongues that touch the water. According to MIT News, "The smooth tip of the tongue barely touches the surface of the liquid before the cat draws its tongue back up. As it does so, a column of liquid forms between the moving tongue and the liquid’s surface. The cat then closes its mouth, pinching off the top of the column for a nice drink, while keeping its chin dry." Liquid adhesion causes liquid to stick to the cat's tongue, and the cat draws its tongue back so rapidly that inertia—the tendency of the moving liquid to continue following the tongue—overcomes the gravity that's pulling the water back down to the bowl. The cat snaps its mouth shut before gravity can overcome inertia.

16. They know exactly how to get what they want from their owners.

According to a 2009 study, they do it by mimicking babies crying. Cats in want of food will make an urgent cry or meowing sound in the 220 to 520-hertz frequency range while purring at a lower frequency. Babies also cry in this frequency range (usually between 300 and 600 hertz), and humans find it difficult to ignore.

Another annoying behavior that cats use to get their way is herding—darting between and rubbing on their owner's legs while they walk. “While cats are certainly not bred to be herding animals like some dogs, they do learn to direct human behavior—and motion—when their behavior is reinforced,” Dilara Goskel Parry, a cat behavior expert at Feline Minds, told The Dodo. "For example, ‘I do this, and my person is going to feed me.’ The darting and rubbing, which is called marking, likely starts as excitement, such as they feel right before feeding time. Many cat guardians reinforce these behaviors that they may find annoying simply by moving faster and feeding the cat.”

17. Even computers love cats.

Your cat loves to sit on your computer, probably because it's warm. But computers love cats, too: Google’s artificial “Brain,” a computer that contains 16,000 processors and can learn whatever it wants from the Internet, is really into cat videos.

18. There's a reason they drink water off their paws.

It's basically a matter of preference. Feline expert Mikel Delgado told The Dodo that "some cats may prefer licking their paws to drinking out of a water bowl if they don't like the shape of the water bowl. Cats are subject to ‘whisker stress’ where they may not like pressure on their whiskers while they eat or drink. It could also be because the water level isn't quite what they would like it to be—it’s usually too low.” Of course, they could also be doing it for a far simpler reason: Pawing the water creates ripples, which makes the water more interesting.

19. Males have barbed penises.

Hey, at one point, humans did, too. Scientists aren't entirely sure what cats need the 120-plus backward-pointing spines for, but they have a number of theories: That the spines encourage ovulation in the female; that they provide stimulation for the male; that they ensure his genes are passed along; or that they keep the penis in place during mating. Neuter your cat early, and he'll never develop those spines.

20. Cats spend a lot of time grooming.

OK, that fact on its own isn't very surprising. But just how much time cats spending grooming is. According to Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, cats spend between 30 and 50 percent of their days cleaning themselves.

Self-cleaning has a number of benefits: It helps cool cats off, comforts them, stimulates circulation, and keeps them clean of odors that might attract predators. Sometimes, your cat might even groom you—that's her way of showing affection and marking you as one of her family group. Enjoy it!

All images courtesy of Thinkstock unless otherwise noted.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

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12 Fascinating Facts About Crows

Mick Thompson, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Mick Thompson, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Crows often get a bad rap. In many Western cultures, they've historically been associated with death, disease, and bad omens; reviled as crop-stealers by farmers, and condemned as nuisances by city dwellers. But the birds are fascinating creatures, adaptable and brainy to an extent that's almost scary. Here are a few facts about these crafty corvids that might surprise you.

1. All crows and ravens belong to the same genus.

Members of the genus Corvus can be found on every continent except Antarctica and South America (although other close relatives live there). To date, scientists have named 40 species. Colloquially, some of them are referred to as ravens while others are called crows, rooks, or jackdaws.

Historically, the name raven has been given to several of the big-bodied Corvus birds with shaggy feathers on their necks. Mid-sized members of the genus are usually called crows, while the very smallest species go by the name jackdaws. There's also a large-beaked outlier known as the rook, which was named after the unusual sound it makes. But pervasive as these labels may be, they're not scientific and do not reflect the latest research. Despite its informal name, the so-called Australian raven is more closely akin to the Torresian crow than it is to the common raven.

In the U.S., when people talk about crows and ravens, they're usually referring to the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and the common raven (Corvus corax). Telling them apart can be tough, but it is possible for eagle-eyed birders. One big indicator is size: The common raven is much larger, about the size of a red-tailed hawk. It also has a more wedge-shaped tail. As Kevin J. McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology writes on his crow FAQ page, ravens soar longer than crows, and you can see through their wing feathers as they fly (among other differences). And the birds' calls are substantially different. "American crows make the familiar caw-caw, but also have a large repertoire of rattles, clicks, and even clear bell-like notes," McGowan writes, whereas common ravens have "a deep, reverberating croaking or gronk-gronk. Only occasionally will a raven make a call similar to a crow's caw, but even then it is so deep as to be fairly easily distinguished from a real crow."

You can hear crow vocalizations here and raven vocalizations here.

2. Older crow siblings can help their parents raise newborn chicks.

Like a lot of intelligent animals, most crows are quite social. For instance, American crows spend most of the year living in pairs (they usually mate for life) or small family groups. During the winter months, they'll congregate with hundreds or even thousands of their peers to sleep together at night in a sprawling communal unit called a roost.

Come nesting season, a mated pair of crows might be lucky enough to receive chick-rearing help. Juvenile birds are frequently seen defending their parents' nest from predators. Other services they can provide include bringing food to mom and dad, or feeding their younger siblings directly. One study found that 80 percent of American crow nests surveyed had a helping hand. And some birds become regular nest assistants, providing aid to their parents for over half a decade.

3. When a crow dies, its neighbors may have a funeral.

The sight of a dead crow tends to attract a mob of a hundred or more live ones. During this ritual, the live crows almost never touch the dead one, which rules scavenging out as a motive. Why do they do this? Some studies suggest that the mass gathering is part of a survival strategy: The birds are learning about threats and seem hesitant to revisit any spot where they've encountered a dead crow, even if food is plentiful there.

4. Crows have caused blackouts in Japan.

Since the 1990s, crows have experienced a population boom in Japan, where—not coincidentally—delicious garbage is more plentiful than ever before. This is bad news for power companies. Urban crows like to nest on electric transformers and will often use wire hangers or fiber-optic cables as building materials for their nests. The result was an epidemic of crow-caused blackouts in major cities around Japan: Between 2006 and 2008, the corvids stole almost 1400 fiber-optic cables from Tokyo power providers, and according to the Chubu electric company, crows are responsible for around 100 power failures per year in their facilities alone.

To fight back, Chubu started installing artificial "love nests" in 2004. Made with non-conductive resin, the nests are placed on company towers high above the power lines, where the birds are unlikely to cause any trouble. The strategy seems to be working: 67 percent of the faux nests are currently in use, making life a lot easier for Chubu employees.

5. Proportionally, some crows' brains are bigger than yours. 

According to McGowan, crows are "smarter than many undergraduates, but probably not as smart as ravens."

Crows are so smart and so good at improvising that some zoologists admiringly call them "feathered apes." And yet, from a primate's perspective, crow brains might look puny. The New Caledonian crow, for example, has a brain that weighs just 0.26 ounces. But relative to its body size, that brain is huge, accounting for 2.7 percent of the bird's overall weight. By comparison, an adult human's three-pound brain represents 1.9 percent of their body weight.

Of all the living birds, crows, ravens, and parrots have the biggest brain-to-body size ratios. And in lab experiments, these avians show a degree of cognition that puts them on par with the great apes. In fact, research has shown that they have a much higher density of neurons in their forebrains than primates do. The amount of neurons in this region is thought to correlate with a given animal's intelligence. Theoretically, having more neurons translates to better cognitive reasoning.

A 2020 study looked at whether crows, like humans and great apes, can demonstrate consciousness. Crow brains lack a cerebral cortex, where most of the primate brain's conscious perception happens. Researchers tracked the brain activity in two crows as they performed different tasks, and discovered that they could perceive sensory input—suggesting that there is much more to understand about the evolution of consciousness.

6. Crows have regional dialects.

Apart from the famous caw, caw noise, crows emit a number of other sounds. Each one sends out a different message; for example, cawing can be used as a territorial warning or a way for crows to signal their location to relatives.

This avian language isn't homogeneous; two different populations of crows may have slight differences. As ornithologist John M. Marzluff and author Tony Angell noted in their 2005 book In the Company of Crows and Ravens, the calls these birds use "vary regionally, like human dialects that can vary from valley to valley." If a crow changes its social group, the bird will try to fit in by talking like the popular guys. "When crows join a new flock," Marzluff and Angell wrote, "they learn the flock's dialect by mimicking the calls of dominant flock members."

7. Some crows can read traffic lights.

In Japan, carrion crows (Corvus corone) use cars like oversized nutcrackers. The birds have learned to take walnuts—a favorite treat—over to road intersections, where they put the hard-shelled snacks down onto the pavement. The crow then waits for a passing vehicle to smash the nut, after which it will swoop down and eat the delicious interior.

It's a risky trick, but the crows aren't usually run over because (unlike some people) they've figured out what traffic lights mean. Carrion crows wait until the light turns red before flying down to place the un-cracked nut on the road. The second the light goes green, the crow takes off to watch the nut get run over from afar; it will even wait for the next red to scoop up the nut's insides.

This behavior isn't limited to just one corvid species: American crows have been observed doing the same thing in California.

8. Crows can recognize your face—and hold a grudge.

You don't want a crow for an enemy. In 2011, a team from the University of Washington published a remarkable study about the brainpower of local crows. The researchers' goal was to figure out how well the birds could identify human faces. So—in the name of science—they went out and bought two Halloween masks: One resembled a caveman, the other looked like Dick Cheney. It was decided that the caveman getup would be used to threaten the birds, while the Cheney mask was relegated to control status.

At the five sites, a scientist donned the caveman mask before catching and banding some wild crows. Getting trapped is never a fun experience, and upon their release, the ex-captives loudly "scolded" their assailant with a threatening caw. Seeing this, other birds who had been sitting nearby joined in the fray, swooping down to harass the neanderthalic visitor. Over a period of several years, both masks were regularly worn by team members on strolls through all five test spots. Without fail, the caveman mask was greeted by angry scolds and dive-bomb attacks from crows—including many who'd never been captured or banded—while the birds largely ignored the Dick Cheney mask.

Amazingly, the caveman disguise continued to provoke a hostile response five years into the experiment—even though the team had stopped trapping crows after those first few site visits. And some of the birds who antagonized the mask-wearer weren't even alive back when the whole thing started. The younger crows couldn't possibly have seen the imitation caveman grab an acquaintance of theirs—but they scolded it anyway. Clearly, the grudge had been passed on; birds were still attacking the mask as recently as 2013.

The moral of this story? Mind your manners around crows. Because if you mistreat them, they won't forget you and neither will their friends—or the next generation.

9. New Caledonian crows make and use tools.

Lots of non-human animals, including chimpanzees and orangutans, create useful implements which help them survive in the wild. The New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides) is one of only two species on the planet that can craft its own hooks in the wild. The other is called Homo sapiens. The South Pacific avian uses the hooks—which are made from pliable twigs that the crows bend using their beaks and feet into a J-shape—to extract insects from tight crevices.

Another surprising attribute is this species' bill. Unlike virtually all other birds, the New Caledonian crow has a bill that does not curve downwards. For years, the quirk went unexplained, but scientists now think that the avian's unique beak evolved to help it grasp tools more easily, as well as to better see what the tool is doing.

The New Caledonian crow isn't the only implement expert in the corvid family. In 2016, scientists at the University of St. Andrews demonstrated that the ultra-rare Hawaiian crow, or ‘Alalā (Corvus hawaiiensis), is similarly adept at using and modifying tools.

10. Crows fight off predators by ganging up on them.

Crows have to deal with a menagerie of predators, such as hawks, owls, coyotes, and raccoons. To ward them off, the corvids exploit the fact that there can be strength in numbers. Upon seeing a would-be attacker, crows are known to gather, with some groups consisting of a dozen birds or more. Individual crows then swoop down to deliver passing blows with their beaks, often inflicting serious bodily injury in the process. If all goes well, the target will back off—though it may kill a few of the dive-bombers before they retreat. Corvids are by no means the only avians that mob would-be attackers. Swallows, chickadees, and even hummingbirds have all been documented doing this. In fact, crows are sometimes at the receiving end of mob violence as smaller songbirds often feel threatened by them and lash out collectively.

11. Crows understand a thing or two about impulse control.

A 2014 study shows that at least some corvids can resist the urge for instant gratification—if you make it worth their while. The research was led by University of Göttingen graduate student Friederike Hillemann, whose team assembled five common ravens and seven carrion crows. Through careful note-taking, the scientists figured out what the favorite meal items of all 12 animals were. Then the experiment began.

With an outstretched hand, one of the researchers gave each of their birds a morsel of food. Then, the animals were shown a different piece of grub. The corvids were made to understand that if they liked the second option better, they could swap snacks—but only if they were willing to sit patiently for a certain period of time first. If a bird ate the original treat during that stretch, it forfeited the chance to trade it for a new one.

Hillemann's results showed that the crows and ravens didn't mind waiting around for an improved snack option. As such, a bird with a piece of bread was content to sit quietly if it knew that some fried pork fat would eventually be gained in the trade-off. However, if that same bird's second choice was another piece of bread, sitting tight would be pointless. So understandably, corvids who were put in this kind of situation tended to go ahead and eat whatever they'd been given. Why wait for more of the same?

12. YOU CAN CALL A GROUP OF CROWS A MURDER, BUT SOME SCIENTISTS WOULD RATHER YOU DIDN'T.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the correct term for a group of crows is a murder, an expression bird-watchers and poets have been using since at least the 15th century, which the OED speculates may allude "to the crow's traditional association with violent death, or … to its harsh and raucous cry." But maybe it's time to come up with a replacement. McGowan hates the phrase "murder of crows." To him, it only feeds the public's negative outlook on the animals. "These birds aren't a gang of nasty villains," he wrote in the book Birdology. "These birds are just birds." McGowan would also have you know that American crows rank among "the most family-oriented birds in the world."