Understanding Cat Behavior: Why Do Cats Do That?!...and How Can I Make Them Stop It!?

Cat behavior is very complex and often difficult for us to understand. One minutethey seem happy and content, enjoying a pet, and the next minute they run off like their tail is on fire leaving you to say "What the heck was THAT all about?!".

When trying to understand cat behavior, it is important that the behavior be viewed from the cat perspective...not our human perspective. While we would never consider peeing on the walls to express our emotions, to the cat, this is a perfectly normal and natural method of Cat Communication .

Cats behave the way they do because it has served them well for 1,000's of years. Even though they live side by side with us in our homes, often with other cats, the so-called "domestic cat" is not quite as domesticated as we like to think. There is still a large part of the cat psyche that is thoroughly wild.

In the wild, cats will live together in the same general area where resources like food and shelter is plentiful. A clowder, or group of cats, usually consists of a male who is the father of most of the kittens, and several females that he mates with. Also within the group are young cats, both males and females.

Within this group, the individual cats will mark a small area as his or her own territory. The males are scattered about the area but the females will often have their territories near one another. They share the motherly duties of hunting and bringing back food for the babies. One or two will hunt while another one or two stay behind to guard the little ones. This is because, if left unguarded, the dominant male has been known to kill any kitten that is not his own in order to mate with the mother himself. Because of this, females tend to be much more fiercely territorial than males. They are very protective of their small territory even if there are no babies to protect and will defend against intrusion from both males and females.

In addition to the living area where the cats rest and raise their young, the territory of the group includes areas where they roam and hunt. Because they care for the young, the roaming area of the females is much smaller than that of the males and they tend to remain closer to the main home area. Males on the other hand patrol a much larger area, often as much as 2 miles from the home territory.

Along the way, both males and females will mark the route by spraying urine and stropping (scratch marking) trees, fence posts, etc. The territories of several cats will often overlap and spraying and stropping serve as both a visual and scent alert to other cats that they are entering another cat's territory. These markers help the cats to avoid each other when patrolling and hunting.

Contrary to what many people believe, cats do not like to fight. They would prefer to avoid a confrontation with another, possibly stronger cat. Most "cat fights" are more noise and posturing than actual fighting. In the wild, fighting can cause injury that can incapacitate a cat to the point where they are unable to hunt. Injury can often lead to loss of status within his or her own group. Injuries can also leave the cat open to infection which weakens the cat and can cause death. While cats are well equipped to fight and more than willing to fight in self-defense or to protect their young, or, in the case of males, the right to mate with a female, they instinctively know that fighting is risky and dangerous and prefer to avoid the possibility all together.

Knowing something about how cats behave in the wild helps us to understand the sometimes confusing cat behavior within our home. When we bring cats into our homes, we severely limit their territory and ability to roam. And we certainly don't want them spraying urine all over, tearing up our furniture, and constantly fighting with each other. In essence, we ask them to curb their natural cat behavior and be civilized.

Because they are highly adaptable creatures, this behavior modification can usually be easily accomplished by meeting their needs and minimizing the competition for resources. By providing them with plenty of food in various areas, clean litter and litter boxes in a variety of locations, adding cat trees for climbing and places to hide and get away from each other, and by providing them with toys to play with and interactive play with their humans, a small group of cats can usually co-exist with each other quite comfortably.

In a large group however, it is not so easy to modify natural cat behavior. And, the larger the group, the more difficult it will become to keep them from reverting to their wilder natures. This is especially true of rescue cats that have already spent some time fending for themselves. Kittens, even if they have never been on their own, will easily mimic the natural cat behaviors of the adult cats because it is instinctive, it's how they learn to be a cat. If not kept in check, a large group of cats can easily revert to their wilder natures and completely take over the household!

This doesn't mean that, with a large group of cats you can't redirect their natural cat behavior toward more acceptable outlets, it just means that it will take more effort, consistency, and creativity on your part. And understanding cat behavior is the first step toward harmony in a large multiple cat household.

Cats are in the unique position of being both predator and prey. This is, in part, what makes cat behavior seem so contradictory at times. Why they can be king of their domain one minute and running for their lives the next!

In all our years of rescuing and caring for cats from a variety of backgrounds, there is one thing we can say for certain - there is no such thing as a "bad cat". Cat behavior is always normal, always natural and always uniquely...cat! Cats are completely honest and it shows in their behavior. No matter what they are doing, there is no guile, no subterfuge, no vindictiveness. When, in our eyes, a cat is misbehaving, he is not doing it to be mean or evil. Cats are always simply being cats!

Cats have a very limited world view. They believe the world revolves around them. That the only world that exists is their own little world. And they like to feel that they are in control of their little world. Anything that affects the cat's little world, disrupts their sense of control. Cats are very much like children. But, while we eventually grow up (hopefully!) cats remain perpetually children in their world view.

When a cat misbehaves, any form of punishment WILL NOT WORK! To the cat, he is being punished for being a cat. And how is he supposed to stop being a cat?! Well, he can't. The key to turning misbehavior into good behavior is to change the way the behavior is performed. And to get the cat to believe it is his idea!

When a cat feels he is not in control of his little world, he experiences stress. It is this stress that can cause a cat to perform his natural behavior inappropriately.Self-grooming, self-defense, urinating, and scratching to stretch and condition his claws are all normal cat behaviors. However, self-grooming to the point of baldness, attacking his housemates for apparently no reason, urinating outside the litter box, spraying urine on the walls, and shredding your couch are all examples of inappropriately performed natural cat behaviors.

When a cat performs natural behaviors inappropriately, he is attempting to communicate his feelings. To him, peeing on your pillow is a perfectly natural way of letting you know he is unhappy. When you find yourself saying, with shock and dismay, "He's never done that before!",the first thing to do is to start viewing things from the cat's perspective and try to determine what has changed that may be causing him stress.

A cat that is feeling stress also has a strong need to comfort himself. The behaviors he exhibits are his way of trying to provide himself comfort and attempt to regain control of his little world. But this dysfunctional behavior really only serves to create more stress and increase his sense of loss of control. And the more he misbehaves, the more stressed the entire household becomes.

It is our job to help the stressed cat feel more in control of his world by redirecting his energies into a more positive natural expression of his cat behaviors. Encouraging the cat to perform behaviors more appropriately will allow him to use the behaviors to provide himself comfort. This will help to decrease his stress which will in turn help him to feel more in control of his little world. But how do we do this?

There are certain things all cats need besides food and shelter from the weather. As predators, cats need the physical and mental stimulation of the hunt. Cat Play mimics normal hunting behaviors. A cat that does not get to exercise his natural hunting skills can become bored and full of pent up energy in need of an outlet. This can result in dysfunctional cat behavior. Being able to use their innate hunting skills through play helps cats feel more confident and ultimately, more in control of their world.

The other side of this coin is that, as prey, cats need places where they can feel safe and secure so they can groom, sleep, or just relax. Cats groom after eating to get the scent of food off themselves. They also groom as a form of comfort. Cats will often move to a place where they feel safe to perform these grooming rituals especially after eating. And who can sleep or even relax when some larger predator (or pesty housemate) may be waiting to attack?

Shelving, cat trees, etc. that allow cats to get up high and survey their world helps them to feel more secure about their surroundings. They can see any potential threats and keep an eye on things. Cat cubbies, boxes, and other hiding places provide cats with a place to feel safe and to just get away from it all. Having both types of places for your cats will help them to feel safe, secure, and more importantly, in control of their world.

Cats that live with us need our love and attention, but they also need their alone time. The attention we give them includes, petting, brushing, playing, and even just talking to them. And some cats want more attention from us than others do. Some love to be held and cuddled, others prefer to be petted rather than held. And they seem to like the attention better when they initiate the contact such as when they hop up in your lap while you are talking on the phone and trying to write something down!

Regardless of their preference, if they are not getting enough attention or are getting too much attention for their liking, cat behavior can become aggressive to other cats or to their people, or the behavior can become excessively needy and demanding attention at inappropriate times like when you are busy with something important! Both too much attention and not enough attention can result in a stressed and unhappy cat!

One of the most important things to know when it comes to cat behavior is that cats thrive on routine. They like to eat, sleep, and play around the same times every day. They like knowing what is going on in their little world and routine helps them feel in control.

Cats often have difficulty coping with changes in their routine. A change in your work schedule, workman in the house, visitors, a new pet, even new furniture can disrupt a cat's routine and his sense of control of his world. As a result, cat behavior can easily change from positive to dysfunctional.

Cats are very sensitive creatures. Even YOUR emotional stress can affect your cats and cause them to misbehave. Their misbehavior increases your stress which increases the cat's stress causing more inappropriate cat behavior. This can become a vicious cycle that is hard to break.

When attempting to modify cat behavior, it is important that YOU maintain a calm and even temperament. If you are calm, the cat's stress will be reduced making it easier to redirect his energies toward a more positive performance of his natural behaviors.

Everything we have talked about so far regarding cat behavior are simplified generalizations that can be applied to all of your cats. Cats however, as every owner will tell you, are individuals, each with his or her own personality, likes and dislikes, and personal preferences. What stresses one cat to the point of dysfunction may not even phase another cat. And finding a puddle of urine on your counter top may be the only indication you have that one of your cats is unhappy.

Probably the most difficult thing about living in a large multiple cat household is trying to discover who is the unhappy cat. Whether it is a physical or emotional issue, cats are so good at hiding their pain it can seem almost impossible to identify the unhappy cat peeing on the counter top.

Consider this: You are abruptly awakened early one morning to what sounds like several cats trying to kill each other. As you hurry to see what is going on, you notice that your living room couch, that was fine when you went to bed, is now in shreds. Moving down the hallway toward the sound of the fight, you notice the tell-tale odor of cat urine and realize there is what seems like gallons of cat pee all over the walls. Gritting you teeth, you finally walk into the kitchen where you think the cats were fighting, only to discover all of your cats sitting there, looking content, as they wait expectantly for you to give them their breakfast. So, now what do you do?!

Well, you take a deep breath, pour yourself a cup of coffee and relax for a few minutes until the urge to wring all their little necks passes! Then, you give the little monsters their breakfast, accompanied by the usual petting and sweet talk as though nothing has happened. The walls then get scrubbed down, a cover gets thrown over the shredded couch, and you put on your detective hat and set about trying to discover what in the world started all this misbehavior.

Another thing that makes it difficult to figure out what the problem is in a multiple cat household is that there is often more than one cat with an issue. One may be the aggressor cat, one or two cats may be the ones getting picked on, and yet another may be so stressed out by the tension that she has started to spray the walls with urine to comfort herself and still another has decided that licking all his fur off will make him feel better.

When one or two cats begin to feel stressed and start to misbehave, the increased tension in the household can cause other, previously contented cats to start behaving inappropriately as a way for them to alleviate the stress they are feeling from the other cats.

When you live with lots of cats, figuring out who has the issue and what might have triggered the change in cat behavior goes hand in hand. This can take some time, some detective work and a little experimentation before the problem is solved. But even if you never discover the original trigger, utilizing some basic common sense and understanding of normal cat behavior can help to reduce stress and allow simple behavior modification tricks and techniques to work, returning your cats to the happy little fur balls they were before all the misbehavior started.

Begin by looking for any obvious signs of stress in the individual cats. A decrease in appetite, hiding more, not wanting to play or socialize, sudden aggression toward other cats (or people!), over grooming or poor grooming, wanting to sleep more than usual and inappropriate urination, especially right in front of you, are all signs of a stressed and unhappy cat. And remember, in a multiple cat household, if one cat is unhappy, chances are good that others are feeling the stress too.

While you are on the look out for the signs of stress in the individual cats, ask yourself the following:

  • Are there enough litter boxes?
  • Are there enough high up places and hiding places?
  • Has there been a change in their routine?
  • Are there enough good, sturdy scratching posts?
  • Are they all getting enough play time?
  • Are they all getting enough (or too much) one on one attention

Learning to recognize the signs of stress in your cats and knowing common stress triggers will, at the very least, give you a starting point to work from. Keeping in mind the unique needs of cats and making sure those needs are met will go a long way toward improving cat behavior. Some problems will be easily resolved by meeting their basic needs like insuring they get to exercise their hunting skills through play. Other, more complex issues will require a more complex strategy to resolve. But it can be done!

Utilizing simple environmental modifications, holistic and natural remedies, and our knowledge of basic, normal cat behavior, there is no problem we have encountered that we haven't been able to resolve. And our cats often have to deal with new arrivals and changes in their routine, both of which are major causes of stress in cats!

Some deeply ingrained problems or problems that have been developing over long periods of time such as abuse or trauma, or bringing an outdoor only cat indoors, cannot be solved over night. Time, sometimes months, patience and consistency are necessary in order to affect the appropriate change in cat behavior. And there will be some back sliding. Just when you think the issue has been resolved, it will rear its ugly head again making you feel quite frustrated. But don't give up too soon. Patience, love, consistency and above all time will eventually help turn a problem cat into a happy and contented member of the family!

In this section on cat behavior, we will address some of the more common, yet difficult and complex issues associated with living in a multiple cat household. As always, if you don't find the answers you are looking for or if the problem you are dealing with is particularly difficult or unique, please feel free to Contact Us via email for individual help. Or, post your problem on our Ask A Cat Question page and take advantage of the experience of our readers as well!

While problem cat behavior can be difficult and frustrating at times, the reward of a house full of happy cats makes the effort you put into it wellworth it! Your cats will be happy and you will be happy too!

Links to specific cat behavior issues:

Cat Pee/Spraying issues

Aggression Issues

New Cat Issues

Grooming Issues

Anxiety/Fear Issues

Scratching Issues

(If the above links don't work it means we haven't posted the pages on our website yet. Be patient, they will be up as soon as the cats get off the computer!)

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