A Beginners Guide to Cat Behavior

Co-existing with cats can be an interesting experience to say the least. Their behaviour can range from amusing to downright deranged. But when your cats’ extreme or repetitive habits get out of control, they can signal cause for serious concern or even medical attention.

As a protective cat parent, how can you tell which quirky behaviours are natural and which are a sign of a problem? This guide provides an overview of some of the most common cat behaviours, and practical advice on how to deal with them if they turn into problems.  

 

Curbing “Bad” Behaviors

In most cases, your cat's behaviours are just the result of their natural instincts. When your cat jumps onto the counter, scratches the furniture, or eats tasty but toxic foods, they're just following their natural drives. So instead of shaming your cat, offer alternatives and reward your cat with loving praise when they accept them.

 

Aggression

Cats may be small compared to dogs, but their teeth and claws can inflict some serious pain, possibly leading to infection in humans known as “cat scratch fever”. Any sign of feline aggression should be taken seriously, as it points to a root problem causing your cat stress.

 

Aggression Caused by Petting

 While most cats are comforted by physical contact with humans, they'll let you know if and when they would like to be petted. Common signs of annoyance include gentle nips and signs of avoidance, but watch for these signs of more serious aversion which could lead to physical aggression:

  •  Dilated pupils
  •  A sharp turn of the head toward your hand
  •  Flattened ears
  •  A twitching or restless tail

 

Cat Fights

Do your housecats have frequent fights? There are a few causes of aggression to consider. If you adopted an older cat, they may not have been adequately socialized with other animals. Just like humans, cats learn social skills at a young age. Because of their territorial nature, it could be difficult for two unrelated male cats, or unrelated female cats who weren’t raised together to share the same home. Cats are creatures of habit and prone to personality clashes, just like humans.

Your cats will count on you to end their in-house fights rather than to let them tough it out, but don’t approach an overly agitated cat. Make sure you provide each of your cats with their own food bowl, bed, and perch to eliminate aggression caused by competitiveness. When fighting occurs, make a loud, distinct noise such as hand clapping and separate your cats. When they get along, give them rewards. As a last resort, separate the cats until they have calmed down. Gradually open the door between them an inch-at-a-time, stopping at any sign of resistance. Use a harness or crates to further restrain your cats if necessary.

You can safely leave your cats alone together when they can eat next to one another in peace, as this is a great sign of trust. If they just can’t seem to get along, get in touch with a certified veterinary or applied animal behaviourist for help. In the case of an endless personality clash, it may be best to find one of them a separate home.

 

Rough Play

This behavior is normal for kittens under two years old. But when it becomes aggressive toward you, resulting in scratches and bruises and broken household items, it's definitely a cause for concern.

When kittens play fight amongst each other, they learn to keep their claws retracted and refrain from biting. In the case of shelter or rescue cats who weren’t properly socialized, these soft play behaviours may have never been instilled.

 

Redirected Aggression

When a cat is agitated by something they can’t access (commonly, through a window), they can become frustrated and lash out aggressively at anyone in close range. This reaction can be delayed, occurring up to several hours after the initial provocation. 

At the time, it’s difficult to understand what provoked this behaviour, but it’s important to try to get to the bottom of it without taking it personally. Watch for triggers that can cause this redirected aggression, such as obsessively stalking birds or cats through a window, being harassed by a dog, or having experienced a traumatic fight. Stressors that occurred in the original shelter environment your cat came from may also be the cause of such reactions.

With any sign of feline aggression, it’s never a bad idea to seek the help of a vet or qualified behavioural therapist.

 

Stress

General signs of stress:

  • Failure to use the litter box
  • Obsessive self-grooming
  • Not eating or drinking enough
  • Excessive hiding
  • Excessive hissing or growling

If you notice any of these behaviours, it’s important to check your home for any obvious stressors, such as fights between your pets or strays visiting your home.

 

Inappropriate Urination

Cats are prone to urinary tract infections and diseases. If your cat isn't using the litter box, it could be the case that they have a UTI, or simply that the litter box isn’t being changed every day, deterring your cat from using it. If urination outside the box is an ongoing issue, be sure to schedule a visit to the vet.

 

Spraying

Spraying is a different problem than inappropriate urination. It usually occurs in male cats, when they direct a small, vertical stream of urine on your furniture or walls. This is your cat’s way of marking his territory to other cats. 

Having your cats spayed or neutered is the most effective way of preventing this behavior. For cats who have already been fixed, spraying should be interpreted as a non-verbal signal that something is wrong in their home environment. It can signal anxiety caused by threatening changes in his living situation. This could stem from something as minor as a change in their litter box placement. Make sure to clean any soiled areas immediately to prevent repeated spraying behavior, and visit a vet if this aggressive activity continues.

 

Bringing You “Gifts” of Dead Prey

It’s natural for your cat to leave gifts of dead prey on your doorstep. In the wild, a mother cat teaches her young to catch and eat prey by bringing them both live and dead animals. In your home, you are essentially the mother cat since you provide food. So your cat is likely just showing off their hunting skills.

It may be tough to feign delight when you receive these gifts, but it’s not helpful to discipline the behaviour. Punishing what comes naturally will only confuse your cat. Give your talented mouser a bell to warn prey, or keep her inside.

Hoarding

You may also notice your cat carrying toys to their food bowl area. This is likely to mimic the activity of gathering prey to eat later. Less understandable, though, is the habit of some cats to collect and stash away shiny objects like jewelry. This behaviour, by contrast, is related to obsessive-compulsive tendencies resulting from some underlying anxiety.

 

Self-Grooming

Cats are serious about their self-care, which proceed in order from paw-licking, to face-grooming, to body-grooming, and then finally to limb and tail maintenance. With so much to do, it's no wonder your cat spends so much time per day in their cleaning routine.

 

Nail Biting

This could just be your cat’s way of asking for a trim. It could also be a nervousness or boredom, however, just as the nail-biting habit indicates in humans. This is known as a “displacement behaviour” because it indicates that your cat is suppressing an impulse of some kind and channeling it into nail biting. If it becomes compulsive, look for the root cause of your cat’s anxiety.

 

Houseplant Grazing

It’s normal for cats to be drawn to houseplants. They like chewing on leaves, flowers, and bulbs out of curiosity, and it can sometimes signal a craving for plant matter in their diets. Be sure to cat-proof your home by avoiding lilies and many other plants which are toxic to cats.

 

Chewing on Cords

Many cats find the chewy plastic coating on electrical cords quite satisfying, so leaving a jumbled pile of them in your home can be a dangerous invitation. If this is an issue for your cat, put all unused cords in storage, and hide any necessary ones under rugs.

Try giving your cat safe, rubber alternatives to gnaw on. If that fails, coat the cords in a bitter apple-flavoured deterrent. The safest defence against this behaviour is to neatly wrap any cords used on a daily basis in cat-proof covers. A cheap DIY version is to protect your cords with hard ¼ “split loom” plastic tubing that cats can’t chew through.

 

Eating Litter

It’s normal for very young kittens to ingest litter out of curiosity. This phase isn’t a problem provided you use digestible litter. Make sure not to use clay-based litters designed to clump when training a kitten. They often contain sodium bentonite, a compound which can cause severe dehydration. In older cats, eating litter can be a sign of anemia and should be treated as a veterinary emergency.

 

Compulsive Chewing of Non-Food Items

While cords and houseplants are very commonly irresistible to cats, there could be cause for concern if they chew on other household items. A cat behaviour of chewing and eating non-edible items excessively is known as “pica”. It is often seen in Siamese, Burmese, and Tonkinese cats and may be a hereditary behaviour. Popular materials include wool, rubber, wood, leather, paper, and plastic.

Playful chewing is normal in kittens, but if your cat tears off and consumes pieces of household items on a regular basis, they could have pica. This is very serious as, in some cases, removing undigestible material will require surgery.

The first line of defence is to make the desirable household items less appealing with a bitter apple or eucalyptus oil. Provide your cat with a low-stress environment and a healthy level of stimulation, as this condition often shows up in cats who are confined to small spaces. Next, remove all of the offending chew-worthy items, and try increasing the fibre in your cat’s diet. If the problem persists, consult a behavioural specialist who is familiar with pica.

 

Excessive Meowing

Meowing is normal and healthy, especially with talkative breeds like Siamese cats. But watch for sudden increases in vocalization, which could mean something is wrong and that a visit to the vet is in order. Otherwise, meowing is just a healthy and normal way for your cat to chat with you.

Meowing Early in the Morning

Cats are very much in tune with nature’s circadian rhythms, so as the sun rises earlier in the spring time, they are likely to wake you up by meowing earlier as well. If you give in to their meows and get up to feed them, you will only reinforce their early morning wakeup calls. 

To curb this behaviour, try to break the association between you getting out of bed and food being served. Schedule your cat's first meal of the day at least an hour after you rise, and their last meal of the day just before you go to bed.

 

Nighttime Activity

If it seems like a switch is flipped at midnight that causes your cat to go wild with activity, this isn't your imagination. Cats are periodically alert through the night, just as they nap periodically throughout the day. This nighttime activity can be increased if your cat gets used to sleeping while you’re at work during the day.

It may be impossible to resist the urge to get up and try to quiet a cat who has a case of the “midnight crazies”, but use caution. They may take your acknowledgement as a reward for this playful behaviour.

Are you currently dealing with any of these cat behaviors, or experiencing any that aren’t listed? Which behavioral deterrents have you had success with, and which cat habits continue to plague you? Let’s talk (or “meow”) in the comments below!

2 comments

Great website and cat items

Polly Larkin November 22, 2018

What a great article.

Herkus Miller November 22, 2018

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