How to Solve Cat Behavior Problems

By: Dr. H. Ellen Whiteley

Understanding Cat Behavior

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. A cat's posture, even the movements of the tail, can give you a clue as to what she is thinking.

Before you can tackle behavior problems, you need to know a little bit about cat behavior and what your cat is trying to tell you.

There are so many fascinating ways that cats communicate with each other. Some of their methods are so subtle that we humans are not sensitive enough to understand what they are saying. Cats often use mild and controlled signs of body language. A minor flick of the tail or the slightest movement of the ears send messages that are worth a thousand words to another cat.


But since their body language is so restrained, we often find it difficult to comprehend, so we end up making mistakes trying to interpret their messages. It's easier for us to discern what cats are saying when they use their voices. Their range of sounds -- from a gentle purr to a seething hiss -- let us know if a cat is happy or angry. Once we learn to make sense of the body language and the vocalizations of cats, we are one step closer to understanding cat behavior.

Nature or Nurture?

In the study of behavior, experts talk about nature versus nurture, meaning which behaviors are inbred (or instinct) and which are learned. It's an argument that will probably never be completely settled. Most experts agree, however, that animals like cats and dogs have both kinds of behavior; they just disagree on which ones are which -- and which kind is more important.

An example of an instinctual behavior would be what happens when you run your hand down the cat's back, from his head to his tail. That response of sticking his backside up in the air is hardwired into his nervous system. A learned behavior is something like your cat running into the kitchen whenever he hears the can opener. That is, if you've ever fed him anything out of a can.

Reflex actions. Classical animal behavior talks about reflexes and has its own nature versus nurture debate. Unconditioned reflexes are those the body seems to produce on its own. For example, if you kick your leg up when the doctor taps your knee with a rubber hammer. A conditioned reflex is a learned response. Most of us have heard of Pavlov's dog, who was trained to know that food was coming whenever he heard a bell ring. After awhile, Doc Pavlov could ring the bell and his dog would start salivating -- even if there was no food present.

The great debate resolved. Actually, even Pavlov had to admit that his conditioned dog didn't have a completely learned response. If there wasn't an instinctive response of salivating in the presence of food to begin with, Pavlov could never have trained the dog to do it when he heard the bell. What Pavlov really proved was that animals are born with a set of instinctive, natural behaviors, and they learn how to apply and adapt them as needed.

What it all means for your cat. In order to train your cat, you need to understand his behavior. You'll never get him to do anything that's totally outside of his natural behaviors, but you can teach him how to adapt those behaviors so that both of you live happily ever after.

The best example is the litter box: Cats have the instinctive behavior of digging in loose materials and burying their urine and feces. As long as the litter box is the place that appeals to the cat most, that's where he'll consistently eliminate. However, he may be more intrigued by soil in your potted palm, the loose, fluffy pile of your carpeting, or the nice, soft pile of socks left in a corner of the utility room. As long as the behavior is shaped toward the litter box, you've got no problem.

Speaking Feline

Obviously, cats don't have a spoken language like we do. But they do have a voice, and they make sounds that have different meanings. This is their means of communication. "Speaking feline" not only means understanding cats' vocalizations but also understanding the more complex language of cats -- body language.

Cat "speech." Cats make a variety of sounds that have been given colorful and descriptive names. Their purpose can range from expressing contentment to a call for help, from solicitation of food or companionship to a bloodcurdling expression of stark terror.

The classic cat sound (or vocalization) is the meow. Newborn kittens will meow with surprising volume. These vocalizations are probably to indicate hunger or cold and to help the mother cat locate them. As the cat gets older, the meow is still used largely to solicit or attract attention (for example, if your cat wants to signal you that he feels it's time for dinner).

An angry, frightened, or aggressive cat may hiss, which is a clear warning that whoever or whatever is approaching should come no closer. Hissing is often accompanied by a yowl, a throaty warning sound that rises and falls. An extremely frightened or angry cat will scream -- a sound that needs no further explanation.

Calling or yodeling is that mournful, slightly spooky sound your cat makes (usually in the middle of the night) while wandering around the house. New cat owners (and even some veteran ones) sometimes mistake this normal vocalization for pain, confusion, or loneliness, assuming that their cat is in distress. Female cats in heat (estrus) yodel to signal their readiness to mate. The tomcat calls to the female to advertise his availability in a loud voice called caterwauling. This call also serves the purpose of warning rival males of his amorous intentions.

Three sounds are unique to cats. The chortle, a happy greeting sound, sounds a lot like a quick, high-pitched chuckle. There's also that strange chirping or chattering noise cats make that's usually reserved for when they see birds outside the window. This is the elusive wacka-wacka, a term coined by famed cat cartoonist B. Kliban. Finally, the purr is, of course, the most sublime of all feline sounds. It's also one of the most hotly debated.

While a supremely contented cat will purr loudly, so will an extremely nervous or stressed one. This leads some researchers to think cats do it to reassure themselves. It's not even completely clear how cats purr. Most of the wild members of the cat family purr, but the household variety of cat is about the only one that can make the sound on both the exhale and the inhale.

Read my hips. The lithe, often silent movements of a cat actually speak volumes. Every inch of your cat, from the nose to the tip of the tail, communicates something.

We can think of the cat's state of mind as being more inward, more outward, or somewhere in between. A cat that is being defensive is more inward and will usually only attack if pursued. On the other hand, a cat that is ready to launch an offensive attack is more outward.

The ears are a good marker of the how inward or outward a cat is feeling: The farther back the ears are laid, the more inward the cat's state of mind. This also means a curious or friendly cat will have his ears pricked (forward and erect), since those are both outward states of mind.

Wide-open eyes are an outward sign. Other body and vocal signals will tell you if it's a good kind of outward, meaning that a happy or playful cat will have wide-open eyes but so will a terrified cat. Relaxed, open eyes reflect a more neutral internal state; relaxed, narrowed eyes usually means the cat's submissive, but it could also indicate a contented cat.

The size of the cat's pupils also offer a clue to his feelings: Dilated pupils may indicate fear while constricted pupils suggest aggressive feelings. A direct stare is an outward sign, meaning, "Back off, buster!"

Even the position of a cat's mouth says something about his feelings. The more open the mouth, usually the more outward the cat's state of mind. Again, this can be rage (lips drawn back, tense) or play (lips not drawn back, relaxed). Of course, if a cat also opens his mouth wide to hiss, spit, and show sharp teeth, it is definitely an indication of anger.

©2006 Publicatioins International, Ltd. An open mouth can indicate aggression, anger or even rage.

A cat's tail serves many purposes, with one of them being an indicator of what a cat is saying. An erect tail is an outward sign, usually part of a friendly greeting or a "follow-me" message -- watch a mother cat leading her kittens, or check out your cat the next time he tries to lure you toward where the cat food is stored. A lashing tail shows agitation, which may mean anger, excitement, or anticipation, especially just before pouncing in play or hunting. A bristled tail indicates fear, while a relaxed, gently swishing tail suggests contentment.

Body orientation is another indicator of inward or outward behavior. A straight-on approach is friendly, confident, or aggressive. When a cat makes himself bigger, by standing taller over another cat, climbing higher, or "puffing up" his hair, it's usually a display of dominance or aggression or an outright threat.

This strategy is played out in the familiar "Halloween cat" posture (sometimes called spidering or arching), where the cat turns sideways, arches his back, puffs up his hair, and hisses. This posture combines defensive elements (such as turning sideways) with clear threats (such as making himself look larger). On the other hand, when a cat makes himself smaller, by scrunching down, rolling to his side, or leaning away, he's trying to show that he's not a threat.

Aggression and Play

When a cat becomes destructive, the owner is often shocked to hear the professional advice: Get a second cat. The owner's understandable concern is that two cats will do twice as much damage, and the destructive cat will now have another cat to shred. Fortunately, the former is rarely true, mostly because the cat's energy is focused on another cat.

This also seems to make the latter a valid fear. There must be a period of introduction, and some hissing and minor scuffles are normal. However, many multiple-cat owners witness normal vigorous feline play and are convinced the cats still aren't getting along.

Play we must. Play is an instinctive behavior. All mammals -- including cats, dogs, and people -- play. While play is more frequent and energetic in younger animals, adults play as well. In fact, play persists throughout an animal's lifetime.

We must...but why? For decades, animal behaviorists have argued that play -- like all instinctive behaviors -- must have some deeper reason behind it. Citing the theory of natural selection, they say that if play behavior was completely frivolous, it would be a waste of time and energy and would have been eradicated over time. Clearly, these researchers need to get out and have fun more often.

Play may well serve as practice for important adult behaviors, which is why so much of it looks like aggression. So when one cat hunkers down, twitches his backside, lashes his tail, and then pounces on his feline roommate, landing full on the unsuspecting victim's back and seizing his neck in his jaws, it's definitely play; the real-life use of that sequence of behavior is stalking and killing prey. But researchers are finally, grudgingly admitting that play could have another purpose, one which humans have known about for time immemorial: It's fun!

How do I know when it's for real? Feline play is often no-holds-barred: noisy running, hot pursuit, pouncing, stalking, slamming bodies, wrestling, biting, the works. But in terms of vocalization, it's relatively quiet. An out-and-out catfight would include all the same behaviors as a fun bout of play but with lots of loud hissing, yowling, screaming, and flying fur. Play uses the same behaviors as aggression, but they are inhibited: There are smacks to the head but with claws retracted; bites but with relaxed jaws and exaggerated movements.

Other hallmarks of play include frequent changes in who's the aggressor -- who's on top in the wrestling match, who's chasing whom, or whose body language is more inward or outward -- and the play face (a relaxed, open jaw and wide-open eyes). If you doubt that humans use the play face just watch a bunch of schoolchildren heading out the door for recess!

Bring out the best. Now that you can recognize play behavior in your cat, you can make him happier and healthier by encouraging it. If there's only one cat in the home, you have the responsibility of being his playmate.

Cat toys are fine as long as they're safe, but your cat also needs you to play with him. Chasing, stalking, and pouncing games are at the top of the feline hit parade. Cats see moving edges better than stationary ones, so toys that wiggle, bounce, roll, or bob are particularly intriguing.

Even in multiple-cat households, the humans need to play with the cats. Play is a kind of "social glue," and the more your cats recognize humans as potential playmates, the better socialized to people they will be.

Just because you understand cat behavior doesn't mean you have to put up with it. There are steps you can take curb your cat's bad habits. In the next section, we will cover the basics of cat training.