Feline Behavior Misunderstandings

Cats are often thought of as mystical and mysterious; in many legends and stories they’re even associated with magic.

As one who shares her home with cats, I can certainly understand why. Agile, athletic, intelligent hunters that can catch a nap anywhere and spring into action in a heartbeat, they often seem larger than life. Cats have changed little over the thousands of years they’ve lived with us. Unfortunately, even though we’ve shared our homes with cats for many years, misunderstandings still occur.

Cats Need to Feel Safe

One of the most important needs cats have is to feel safe. A cat who feels safe from attack (predation, teasing, or pranks) will sleep soundly without hiding. A cat who is worried will hide while sleeping or will only sleep lightly. A cat who is secure in her surroundings will awake to a gentle touch or sound by arching her back and stretching while a cat who is worried will bite, scratch, jump up in alarm, or will leap away.

Many other behaviors that cat owners dislike can also arise from insecurity. Your cat may scratch on furniture, imparting her scent on it, which marks the territory as her own. Some cats will spray (urinate on vertical surfaces) to mark territory much like a dog will lift his leg to urinate. Although many people say this is a dominant behavior, in reality, it is often a sign of unease and insecurity. The cat may not feel safe and is trying to create that safety himself.

Cat owners can help their cat feel safe by making sure people and other pets in the family don’t threaten the cat. No chasing the cat, hunting her, catching, grabbing, or pinning her. Rough games shouldn’t be allowed either. Keep in mind that although she is a predator, she is very small. Both dogs and people are large enough to hurt or even kill her.

Provide places for the cat that are just hers. Carpeted cat trees are wonderful. The ones that are tall and have multiple hiding places are best. Make sure everyone in the family knows that when the cat is here, she’s not to be disturbed; this is her special place.

It’s not hard to help a cat feel safe. Just put yourself in her position. If you were 10 pounds and living with people much larger and stronger than you, what would you need to feel safe and secure?



Aggressive Behavior in Kittenhood

Although cats can become aggressive for many reasons, including feeling unsafe, many times biting, scratching, and other aggressive behaviors are learned in kittenhood. If someone plays roughly with a tiny kitten, the kitten may feel the only response she has is to bite, scratch, or fight back. A kitten who wants attention and leaps on a person or climbs up a human’s leg, digging in four paws full of claws, can potentially continue doing these behaviors as she grows up and that’s a real problem. A 1-pound kitten hurts when climbing up a leg but a 10-pound adult cat doing the same thing can cause wounds.

When I’m fostering kittens prior to their adoption, I interrupt any behaviors that should not continue into adulthood. In other words, would I want one of my adults cats to behave in this manner? If I don’t, then I don’t allow the kittens to do it. A kitten who tries to climb my leg for attention will be gently removed and placed back on the floor. However, the kitten who sits up and waves her front paws at me for attention will be picked up and cuddled every time she does it.

When interrupting an unwanted behavior, do so immediately but without aggression on your part. Do not yell, swat, hit, kick, or otherwise act aggressively with the kitten or cat. In many species, including felines, aggression begets aggression; if you’re aggressive towards your cat, she will react aggressively in return because now she’s afraid. Remember that need to feel safe? Be calm and nonthreatening and help her do something else instead, something you’d like to see her repeat in the future.

Play with Toys

You can prevent a lot of biting and scratching if you play with your cat using toys rather than your hands. Kittens and cats love to play but using your hands as toys is dangerous and is establishing a bad habit. Fishing pole toys (often called flirt poles) are great toys that cats love. I particularly like the ones that have changeable toys so one day we’ll play with feathers on the toy and another time with a squeaking mouse. These toys are great exercise for your cat, too, as well as good interactive toys that make it easy for you and your cat to play together.

My youngest cat retrieves. He likes the foil crinkle toys and will chase those for 15 to 20 minutes if I keep throwing the toy for him. Try a variety of different small toys to see if you cat might like to retrieve.

Inappropriate Urination

A well housetrained cat is not going to urinate outside the litterbox unless there’s a problem. The problems can be varied, however, and depend entirely on the individual cat and situation. Some cats will urinate inappropriately because of changes in the home. An owner’s absence, either due to travel, illness, or death, can upset the cat and the only way she feels she can show her discomfort is to urinate somewhere other than the box. Owners often have to play detective to figure out the cause.

If this is the case, ask yourself some questions. Has the box been cleaned regularly and often? Has the brand or type of litter been changed? Has the box been moved to a new location? Has activity around the box changed? Is there a new cat in the household? Is the cat not feeling well? A trip to the veterinarian’s office is often a good first step in trying to figure out what’s wrong. A urinary tract infection or other problem could cause your cat pain while relieving herself and she may well blame the box for that discomfort.

©istockphoto/fabio lamanna

©istockphoto/fabio lamanna

When Your Cat Loves You

Not all misunderstandings are because of feline problem behaviors or human interactions; sometimes our cats try hard to communicate with us and we just don’t get it.

Most cat owners know that when our cat jumps up on our lap, purrs, and curls up for a nap, she’s happy. And that’s true. Your lap is a safe, warm spot, otherwise she wouldn’t relax there. Pet her gently or just rest your hand on her back or side and let her nap.

Do you know what it means when your cat jumps up on your lap and touches your nose with hers? She’s greeting you, saying, “Hi.” It’s also a mark of trust because a small creature is not going to go nose to nose with another predator who could harm her. My cats do the same thing with my oldest dog who is calm, gentle, affectionate, and trusted by the cats. They do not nose bump my youngest dog who thinks the cats are dangerous.

Eye contact is also something that confuses many cat owners. If your cat looks at you with soft, relaxed eyes (not a hard stare), and then blinks, she’s just said, “I like you.”

Let your intuition guide you in your relationship with your cat. They are very different from us but they try hard to communicate with us. If we can meet them halfway, we can make the relationship work.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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