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The Mad Half Hour
Why some cats have 'flashes of madness'

Most cat keepers cannot help but notice the 'mad half hour' when it first occurs. A cat will suddenly seemingly fly down stairs without touching treads. If there's another cat in the home, then there will be a frenzied feline following in hot pursuit. Vases can fall. Phantom shadows can be chased. Settees can be vaulted and curtains can be climbed. Hanging threads and tablecloths can be teased or hauled to the floor. Collisions will undoubtedly occur. Sometimes humans get in the way. Too bad!

In the 'mad-half hour' related behaviour there can be real rough and tumble. There can also be excessive vocalisation within bouts of this feline madness. Wahhhrrrrsssss and meows. Sometimes flight can come to a dead stop, claws out, retro rockets on. The 'mad half hour' can have numerous stops and starts. The common pattern is the daily half hour.

Cats ready to play
What's it all about, pussycat?

So, what's it all about? Well, the 'mad half hour syndrome' appears to affect most cats. House cats are thought to experience them the most. They are about expending energy in one concentrated burst. Cats that are content to stay indoors are not expending the same energy as outdoor cats. Wandering outside the home for a cat probably takes up a great deal of energy especially when wall and tree climbing skills are brought into play. Cat personalities can also play a big part. Extroverts and introverts have different styles of play. Boisterous and timid.

When your cat suddenly dashes behind the sofa and stares at you with that little "look at me!" face? This part of cat behaviour is all about 'stalking and hunting'. All play-behaviour is a prelude for the real thing. The cat is 'looking' for interaction from another cat' (that can be the keeper in the cat's perception) and instinct takes over during an adrenalin-driven game. You, as the keeper, simply become part of it.

Playing to kill

There are many forms of play behaviour that can be seen to be forms of adaptation from hunting and stalking behaviours. Cats crash through newspaper or paper bags so enthusiastically because bursting through materials is not much different to bursting through undergrowth or leaves.

Cats wiggle their back legs as they get ready to pounce on a bit of fluff on the carpet because this prepares them for a 'leap' - a kind of balance check' before 'the pounce'. These play behaviours in domestication are modes of behaviour linked to prey stalking, attacking and predation in nature.

Wild cat behaviour is inherited by all domesticated cats. Skills that are required in nature are adapted to life in the home. This photograph was taken of a wild cat maintained at Chester Zoo.

The 'Woody Allen' Cat

The mad half hour cat is usually a neurotic. It doesn't simply have to live on the streets of New York to need a therapist. Maybe some feral cat influence has created hyper-alertness and an extrovert personality. Many a sneaky mating been made by a feral cat taking on a pet tabby 'new to the tiles'. On the other hand, a cat's influence towards daftness can have its roots in a lively litter. A group of extroverted 'fraternity members' of which would always be on the mischief hunt. Nonetheless, introverted neurotic cats can be just as prone to the 'mad half hour syndrome'. A nervous cat may hide for most of its time underneath the sideboard, under the kitchen units or in the back bedroom but he too, can suddenly burst into life and chase ghosts and shadows. There has to be some adaptation between nature and a tamed life. Perhaps in domestication, the house cat - without the life-necessity to 'hunt, stalk and forage' - has to somehow make up for such a major loss of lifestyle. A play cat's pupils dilate (due to the sympathetic nervous system) when they're in "mad" phase because the 'fight or flight' syndrome. This adrenalin-driven reaction, that also increases heart rate and blood flow, generally heightens the senses of any animal. This mechanism relates to a need in nature to be watchful and it improves vision, speed and mobility. Unless we can see the world from a cat's perspective and get inside its mind - we can only guess what's truly going on during the wonderful 'mad half hour'. My two pedigree cats have made me laugh a time or two during madness spells. Especially when they collide. Once the mad half hour is past it's time to sleep.

This article is taken from the new book 'To the Rescue - Cats' - a practical guide to giving a rescue or re-homed cat a new life by Dr David Sands to be published in August

September 2001 . The book can be pre-ordered for 10 including p&p via drdavidsands@aol.com

This article was reprinted by permission from the Canine & Feline Behaviour Association