Understanding Your Cat’s Behavior

People and cats have a long relationship together but that doesn’t mean individual relationships don’t hit snags once in a while.

For example, I recently removed all of my treasured houseplants from my house so I could protect them while I teach my 4-month old kitten, Kirk, that the plants are not his private playground. I’ll do this with one plant at a time, supervised, and as he learns to leave that one plant alone, I’ll bring in another one. If I had left all of the plants inside and allowed him unsupervised access to them, I’d be angry at him and that could potentially damage our relationship.

If your cat has some behaviors you’re not happy with, it’s important to understand that cats are not dogs. We can change dogs’ behavior significantly as they are more willing to change to please us. Cats are less motivated to change their behavior than dogs. Many times, overcoming a behavior problem will require some compromises or some changes in the home.

It’s also important to understand where some behaviors (or behavior changes) originate. It’s difficult to make any changes unless we know why it’s happening.

Talk to Your Veterinarian

Most behaviorists believe that 20 percent of behavior problems are rooted in a physical problem. A longstanding ache or pain can cause a cat to be grumpy or quick to react to something with a swat with a paw or scratch. An uncomfortable cat may meow a lot, to the point you become impatient or angry. Many diseases, such as thyroid disease or tick borne illnesses, are known to cause behavior changes. Many medications can do the same thing.

If your cat’s behavior changes and you don’t see any logical reason for the change, schedule a visit with your veterinarian. Jot down some notes ahead of time and include anything that might or might not be applicable. Include information about your cat’s eating habits, litter box habits, exercise, changes in the home, new pets, play time and so on. You and your vet can go through these thoughts together. It’s much better to bring your vet too much information than not enough.

Cats are Sensitive to Stress

Stress is a part of life and learning to deal with it is something everyone (human or otherwise) has to face. Cats, however, tend to be particularly sensitive to stress. Environmental stress is a reaction to changes in the cat’s home. Moving to a new home can trigger some behavior problems, especially litter box issues, until the cat adjusts to the changes. A cat who used to be allowed to go outside and is now confined to the house will be stressed. Boredom, a child leaving for college, the death of a family member, the addition of a new pet or even a severe change in the weather can be stressful.

Cats will show this stress in different ways. House training accidents are common, as is excessive grooming, meowing and crying or pacing. Some cats will hide while others will become demanding for attention. Some will stop eating.

Many times the stress will lessen as your cat gets used to it. For example, your cat will get used to the fact that your oldest child has left for college although you may find the cat sleeping in that child’s room for a while. And that’s fine.

You can help your cat adjust to other stresses. Separate your cat from a new pet for several days until they get used to each other. If your cat will cooperate, increase play sessions so your cat can use up some energy (lessening some stress). Have a couple of play sessions daily if you can. Provide a few meals of your cat’s favorite food or offer more cuddle time if your cat would enjoy it. Be patient and understand one of the stresses your cat is feeling (but can’t express) is his lack of control over his situation. Your cat cannot do anything about the problem he’s feeling.

Aggression Caused by Petting

A previous cat of mine, Xena, who passed away several years ago, had aggression caused by petting. She enjoyed my husband’s and my company, and she demanded petting. However, we had to stop petting as soon as she began to look uncomfortable or she would yowl and swat at our hand. If we didn’t pay attention or persisted in petting her, she would bite. Xena wasn’t a bad cat and wasn’t normally aggressive. She simply had a low threshold for petting. Too much touching irritated her even though she asked for it in the first place.

One of my present cats, Scottie, also invites petting, but he can be petted for a long time and he’ll move his body under my hands so all the parts get petted. I haven’t yet found his upper threshold for petting; there aren’t enough hours in the day.

If you have a cat like Xena, learn to read her body language. Xena would first show her displeasure by flicking her ears back. That was the time to stop. Her second warning was a yowl, a loud harsh, “Rowr!” Thankfully, my husband and I learned to stop as soon as her ears went back. This made things more comfortable for both of us and Xena.

The Night Time Zoomies Keep You Awake

Cats are often said to be nocturnal (active at night) but that’s not always true. Most cats are active in the early morning and evening hours rather than the middle of the night. Since many cats will sleep 16 to 18 hours out of 24, that leaves lots of time for peace and quiet when your cat isn’t having zoomies around the house. However, if you cat is bouncing off you when you’re trying to sleep, or if he’s meowing loudly as he tries to wake you so you can feed him, or if he’s lying on your chest, batting at your face because he’s bored, it really doesn’t matter how, when or where he sleeps, plays or eats. You just want to sleep.

To prevent unwanted nocturnal adventures, I turned an unused back room into a cat room. The cats are fed there, their litter boxes are there, as well as a cat tree, beds and toys. Every night before I get ready for bed, the cats are fed there and I close the door so they spend the night there. By making the space interesting for them and a place where they get good treats and regular meals, they don’t look upon the room as punishment or even confinement; they use the room often during the day. Going to their room every night is the normal routine.

If you don’t have an extra room that can serve as a cat room, close your bedroom door to keep your cat out of your room at night. This won’t limit your cat’s nocturnal adventures but will at least stop his excursions into your bedroom.

Increasing your cat’s exercise in the early evening will help him use up some energy that, if not used, might turn into night time zoomies. Play flirt pole, toss toys for him to chase and play hide and seek with him. Don’t wait until just before you go to bed as this will leave him filled with adrenaline as you try to go to sleep. Instead, play games with him early in the evening; use up his energy and give him a chance to relax before going to bed.

Last but not least, don’t give in to any of your cat’s demands if he wakes you. It only takes one time for you to stagger out of bed and open a can of cat food for your cat to learn that his actions worked.

Teeth and Claws Hurt

Cats have several ways to protect themselves from harm. If threatened, most cats will run from danger. If running isn’t an option, they will then hide if a safe place is close or they will fight using their claws and teeth. Fighting is usually a last resort because cats are small, easily injured, and most predators are larger than they are. Fighting is dangerous.

That said, kittens often wrestle and play fight. This helps them hone their skills, both for hunting and fighting. They also learn physical skills and balance.

When a kitten uses a person as a target for play fighting, though, the person is going to get hurt. Those teeth and claws hurt. Therefore it’s important to teach your kitten that you are off limits for play fighting. When you play with your kitten, direct the play fighting to toys rather than your hands. Don’t use your hands to play fight with the kitten, pin him, wrestle with him or otherwise fight with him. Let him chase, grab and fight his toys.

If you have a cat who is already using you as a punching bag, make sure you emphasize his toys when playing with him. Then stop all play as soon as his teeth or claws touch you. Just get up and walk away. Don’t wait until he plays too hard or draws blood; that’s not a clear enough message. Instead, as soon as he touches you with his weapons, end the game.

Don’t try to punish him in any way by yelling, hitting, pinning him or anything else. This will only cause your cat to fear you and potentially fight back even harder.

Other Behavior Problems

Thankfully most of the time cats and their owners live together quite peacefully; however, if some behavior problems do show up and you’ve eliminated a health concern, try to figure out what’s going on from your cat’s point of view. What is your cat doing? Has anything changed in his routine? Has anything changed in the family? How has his behavior changed? How long has this been going on? Then try to figure out how you can make your cat more comfortable or eliminate his stress. See if you can prevent the behavior you don’t like or if you can substitute another behavior.

Last but not least, remember that most behavior problems are not focused on you. Your cat isn’t punishing you or getting back at you. Instead, he’s either simply being a cat or he’s reacting to something that’s bothering him.

Written by: Liz Palika

Originally published on “The Honest Kitchen’s Blog”.