A veterinary professional explains why cats love tinsel and explores the fascinating instinctual drive of cats to kill and dogs to bark.
Cat owners know the drill. Every year, the holiday tree goes up, but after a few hours of cautious regard, the household’s cats are climbing in it, batting at the ornaments, and shredding the tinsel. Some Currier and Ives…this Christmas scene isn’t decorated; it’s detonated.
Your cat’s interest in wrecking Christmas balls and pouncing on presents isn’t a reflection of his or her distaste for the holidays, it’s an unimaginably complex and not fully understood blend of instinctual drives, environmental cues, maturation, and learned behavior.
Funny, but a warning… it’s all fun and games till someone goes to the vet. Keep the hijinx on YouTube and keep your cat off holiday decorations.
What is Animal Instinct?
Instinct is an organism’s irresistible, automatic reaction to something in the environment, but as organisms grow in complexity, instinct’s contribution to behavior becomes diluted. For example, dogs are instinctually driven to bark at things that they find threatening or invasive, but puppies are less inclined to bark or take territorial positions than older dogs, and dogs in general can be trained by people to ‘override’ their natural instinct to bark. In this case, a dog’s ‘instinct’ to bark is shaped by both age and his or her environment. We humans are naturally hardwired to cry when hungry and scared (for example, all babies are born bawling), but we learn to override this instinct as we get older (at which point we just yell at our waitress). In all complex organisms, behavior is shaped by a multitude of internal and external forces.
Was My Cat Born To Hate Tinsel?
No, but it was born with an instinctual desire to hunt. Batting, pouncing and attack are hardwired into your cat, but also shaped by your cat’s external environment. Your cat instinctually wants to prey, but it’s exploring that urge with tinsel. Its body instinctually understands how to crouch, bound and spring, but it’s building on that behavior by practicing on your tree.
You Too Can Kill Your Christmas Tree (we’re all instinctual)
Raised in complete isolation, some birds still know how to sing their species’ song. All chickens are born with the ability to ‘imprint’ on their mother (though they can be deceived as to who that mother is). And humans too may possess a vast amount of untapped knowledge and ability that for whatever reason is not accessible to most of us, but research with savants gives us hope that all of us may be instinctual geniuses!
In a 2015 paper published by Scientific American, Dr. Darold Treffert, an expert in the field of savant behavior, writes,
“One of the most striking and consistent things in the many savants I have seen is that that they clearly know things they never learned.”
And goes on to say,
“…the prodigious savant apparently comes already programmed with a vast amount of innate skill and knowledge in his or her area of expertise—factory-installed “software” one might say—which accounts for the extraordinary abilities over which the savant innately shows mastery in the face of often massive cognitive and other learning handicaps.”
“Savants demonstrate a congenital aptitude for certain mental activities that could have been acquired by the experience of the individual. I call that genetic memory, and I propose that it exists in all of us. The challenge is how to tap that dormant capacity non-intrusively.”
So this holiday season, light the tree, pour yourself a glass of eggnog and watch the destruction begin. Keep in mind that cats that eat tinsel, ribbons or string are at grave risk for intestinal obstruction, so it’s important to keep a supervisory oversight on things. Still, after the second glass of nog, you experience an urge to climb the tree and join them, go for it. You may be unleashing your own lion’s heart within.