Top Behavior Challenges
The Most Common Cat Behavior Issues
Like humans, cats experience fear, pleasure, hunger, anxiety, frustration, and many other emotions that may affect their behavior. Several common kitty behaviors are seen as undesirable and can affect the quality of life for both guardians and their felines. Fortunately, many of these behaviors can be modified.
Cats tend to be mysterious, so discovering the cause of certain feline behaviors can be a challenge. To further complicate things, there’s not necessarily one single reason behind a particular behavior, and every cat has a distinct personality, personal history and living environment which may be contributing to the current behavior.
Nibbling On Fingers
It’s cute at first, but kitten finger-nibbling can eventually be painful—and remember, kittens (and their teeth) get bigger. One of the best teachers is another cat. Mom-cat and siblings are quick to teach kittens that biting hurts. When a kitten has no playmate or mother (weened too early or rescued), they’re much more likely to turn your ankles and hands into attack-targets, so it’s often a good idea to adopt kittens in pairs.
Experts also recommend learning to speak cat—let out a hiss or a sharp “eek” to communicate that the behavior hurts. And, always have plenty of chew toys on hand. Best to not use your hands as toys ever! Wand toys are good substitutes and work well for playing with energetic kitties.
Litter Box Avoidance
Cats can have a variety of urinary issues. Infections, inflammation, bladder stones, stress, tumors, and other factors can cause a cat to urinate outside its box, spray, or be unable to urinate. Always consider and eliminate a medical condition with veterinary professional.
Conflicts between cats or other pets and changes in the house (e.g., construction, family members leaving, new family members arriving, etc.) can stress cats and lead to litter box issues as well.
Sometimes it’s because she doesn’t like the litter or just doesn’t like the box. Your best bet is to use unscented litter in an uncovered box, and scoop it at least once a day. Put the box where there’s not a lot of traffic. Try using more than one box and try different litters. (When making changes do not removing the old box—add boxes until you find what she likes and slowly move or remove boxes. Remember, change causes stress. It can be best to work with a cat behavior consultant.)
Urine marking isn’t a litter box problem—it’s a communication problem. Urine marking is a form of indirect communication used by cats.
Cats have a somewhat unique social structure in that they do not hunt, eat or sleep in groups like dogs. Given the opportunity, cats go off on their own when they mature and claim certain areas or territories for themselves. Thus, cats can use their urine to say “back off” to other cats. They tend to do it when they’re in conflict with another cat, feeling insecure, or looking for a mate.
If there’s conflict, many cats in the house, or changes in routine, there’s more chance a cat will mark his territory. To stop the spraying, have your cat neutered or spayed (if not already). Use an enzymatic cleaner where he’s sprayed. If your cat keeps spraying, ask your vet for advice and consult with a cat behavior consultant.
It’s purrfectly normal for cats to scratch objects in their environment for many reasons:
- Chemical communication*
- Visual messaging*
- Nail care (remove the dead outer layer of their claws)
- Full body stretch (including flexing their feet and claws)
- Playing (to work off energy including stress)
*Cats have scent glands located on the bottom of their paws that enable them to leave a visual and scent mark for other cats.
Because scratching is a normal and necessary behavior, and one that cats are highly motivated to display, it’s unrealistic to try to prevent them from scratching. Instead, the goal in resolving scratching problems should be to redirect the scratching onto acceptable objects. This is an easy problem to solve. Declawing a cat is never an option.
Aggression In Cats
Aggression is serious and people or cats can quickly become seriously injured. Before dealing with a cat who is acting aggressively, seek the advice of your veterinarian. You may then be referred to a qualified, behavior professional. The aggression can be caused by stress and anxiety or by a medical problem that causes pain or hormonal changes in a cat. In general though, the best way to deal with an aggressive cat is to not deal with her at all – just leave her alone.
Cat guardians are often confused about why they’re getting bitten when petting their cats. Things start out just fine and then suddenly, without warning, the cat turns around and lashes out with teeth or claws. In many cases the behavior being displayed is called petting-induced aggression. It seems to come out of nowhere from the cat guardian’s point of view. A quiet session of petting and affection suddenly turns violent as the cat sinks his teeth into the very hand that’s stroking him. Generally, the cat guardian is not reading her cat’s mood and body language correctly. Cats generally give us warnings and the aggression can be prevented with some education and behavior modification.
Intercat Aggression (Between Cats)
Cats may become aggressive toward other pets and people. The aggression can be caused by stress and anxiety or by a medical problem that causes pain or hormonal changes in a cat.
Intercat aggression happens when two or more cats have a hostile relationship with each other. This may be the result of two cats who have just come upon each other in an outdoor environment, cats who are challenging each other for status or territory, or as a result of a human bringing a new cat into an existing cat’s environment.
Intercat aggression can occur between unfamiliar cats or ones who have previously had a good relationship. In the case of an ongoing relationship, something can trigger the aggression. Intercat aggression can also be the result of redirected aggression. It is best to consult a professional to resolve these issues (i.e., behavioral veterinarian and/or cat behavior consultant).
The most common reason for intercat aggression is undersocialization—a lack of pleasant experiences with other cats early in life. If your cat grew up as the only cat, with little or no contact with other felines, he may react strongly when he’s finally introduced to another cat because he’s afraid of the unknown, he lacks feline social skills, and he dislikes the disruption to his routine and environment.
Chewing, Wool Sucking, & Pica Behavior
Cats are not known to be the voracious chewers that dogs can be. Yet some still manage to do quite a bit of damage with their teeth. Chewing behavior in your cat may be caused by boredom, aggression, a nutritional deficiency, teething in kittens, or having been weaned too young. It might also simply be because your cat is playing or likes the texture or taste of the item.
Chronic licking in cats typically stems from pain or stress and anxiety. While all cats lick themselves, excessive licking may be serious and should be addressed without delay.
A cat that’s in pain may lick an area on its body until it’s hairless and raw—and it isn’t always in the area that’s causing pain. A stressed or anxious cat may lick its belly until it has no fur or obsessively overgroom other parts of its body.
Morning Wake-Up Calls
If you have a cat, you probably also have a morning routine that starts much earlier than you’d like. Sometimes cats are subtle about it, with a soft meow or nuzzle. But if you don’t get up, it can turn into smacking you in the face, climbing over your head, chewing on the window blinds, and yowling like it’s the end of days.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Believe it or not, you can have a cat and sleep in with a little training and adjustments to your cat’s schedule.
It’s all about figuring out why your cat is waking you up. They aren’t doing it out of spite or because they don’t respect the fact that you work hard all day and need a good night’s rest. Cats have instinctual needs, and when you figure out which need is causing this particular behavior, only then can you meet that need in a way that works for you and understand how to manage the unwanted “WAKE UP!” behavior when it happens.
Contrary to what many people think, cats are not nocturnal. They’re crepuscular — most active at dusk and dawn. They’re predators, right? And when do the birds and mice and other little critters start scurrying around? Sunup and sundown. Even if your cat is strictly indoors, they’re still programmed to perk up and get active when their prey is active. But they should be sleeping overnight.
There are other reasons cats wake us up early:
- Hunger – While feline obesity is a major problem, many people aren’t feeding their cats often enough. They have very small stomachs (only about the size of a ping pong ball). Your cat will start to get hungry about 5 hours after eating. If you’re going more than about 8 hours between meals, which many people are when they feed in the evening and not again until morning, your cat is starving by morning.
- Sleeping all day – If your cat isn’t getting play and enrichment during the day, of course, they’re going to be up at other times. They aren’t designed to sleep as much as we’d like to think. They do it because they’re bored.
- Age – Senior kitties dealing with muscle or joint pain may sleep a bit more uncomfortably. And older kitties starting to feel the effects of dementia will often wake up at odd times.
- Temperature – Cats like it pretty warm. Their thermoneutral zone (the temperature at which they aren’t expending energy to maintain body temperature) is 86 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s higher than the human thermoneutral zone, thought to be about 82 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. If they’re cold, they may not sleep well or as long.
The first step in stopping your cat’s early morning wake-up call is meeting whatever need has them up so early. Think about the list above and what your cat does when they get up? Are they begging for food, trying to get you to play, zooming through the house, fighting over the sunny spot in the window? You can’t make that need go away. No amount of “I’M SLEEPING! KNOCK IT OFF!” will change thousands of years of instinct. But you can meet that need in a way that doesn’t ruin your sleep and encourages them to sleep later.
These suggestions are based on the different reasons cats wake us up.
- Try not to go more than about 8 hours between your cat’s meals. Feed your cat a meal or snack right before you go to bed.
- Try an auto-feeder. Initially, set it to go off about 20 minutes before your cat’s normal wake-up time. If you don’t want your cat eating so early, spend a couple of months gradually pushing out the time on the feeder so they’re eating just a little later each week. When you get to a point where it’s going off around the time you wake up, try removing the auto-feeder and going back to manual feeding when you get up. But there’s nothing wrong with using the auto-feeder early in the morning if it works for you and your cat. And it doesn’t have to be a full meal. It can just be a snack.
- Give your cat lots of play and enrichment during the day so they’re ready to sleep at night.
- Prey sequence play sessions right before bed work great. You can follow the play session with their nightly meal or a snack.
- Giving a food puzzle or two during the day gets your cat using their brain. You can even hide treats around the home for them to sniff out. Follow some of these tips if you have a bored cat.
- Have lots of self-play toys available and swap them out often to spark interest in play. Several self-play toys are listed in our bored cat article.
- Do training sessions for mental enrichment and quality bonding time. Check out Cat School Clicker Training on YouTube. It’s a fantastic cat training resource.
- In cooler weather, try a heated bed to encourage a longer and better sleep for your cat. A cat-safe heating pad works well, too. These are also great for older kitties with joint and muscle aches. The heated bed and mat we link to are made for cats. Do not use heating mats for humans, as the temperature setting can burn your cat’s skin.
- In warmer weather, try a cooling pad.
- A super cozy sleeping spot can go a long way in getting your cat to stay in bed later each morning. We found some super cute cat caves on Etsy. Some cats love to sleep all wrapped up.
- As hard as it is, ignoring this behavior is key. And I mean 100% ignore. Don’t look at your cat. Don’t have a conversation with them about how crazy they’re driving you. Don’t talk to your partner. Don’t even roll over. The slightest indication that they got your attention with their vocalizing, scratching, climbing the curtains, or whatever else they’re doing will give them a reason to keep trying. Pretend nothing is happening.
- If needed for your own sanity, it’s fine to put your cat outside the bedroom when this starts. But you want to do it as neutrally and quickly as possible. Don’t say anything. Just get up, pick them up, set them outside the door, close the door and go back to bed. Make it as much of a non-event as possible.
- Here’s the tough part. It will get worse before it gets better. This is called an extinction burst. Children actually do the same thing. When something that used to work suddenly stops working, they think they need to try harder, get louder, and make more of an effort. Power through this phase, and they should soon realize that this behavior is getting them absolutely nothing at all. We’re not punishing them. We’re just saying, “This isn’t the way to get my attention.”
- For every “no,” there needs to be a “yes.” You can’t expect your cat not to need your attention. You’ve got to offer play and other enrichment throughout the day. Otherwise, it’s just not fair to expect your cat to stop asking for attention at night. Meet that need for attention at more appropriate times.
If you try these tactics and have ruled out medical issues, but you’re still having issues with your cat’s early morning wake-up call, consider working with a feline behavior consultant. They can help determine what’s triggering your cat and give you tactics to address it.
You’ve finally fallen asleep when suddenly you hear your cat howling and crying at the top of its lungs outside your bedroom door. This happens all the time with cats, and this behavior may be completely normal for your kitty. After all, cats are nocturnal, like their wild relatives, so they may be more active at night while you’re trying to sleep, though it may also be a sign that something’s wrong.
The cat’s meow is her way of communicating with people. Cats meow for many reasons—to say hello, to ask for things, and to tell us when something’s wrong. Meowing is an interesting vocalization in that adult cats don’t actually meow at each other, just at people. Kittens meow to let their mother know they’re cold or hungry, but once they get a bit older, cats no longer meow to other cats. But they continue to meow to people throughout their lives, probably because meowing gets people to do what they want. Cats also yowl—a sound similar to the meow but more drawn out and melodic. Unlike meowing, adult cats do yowl at one another, specifically during breeding season.
Jumping On Countertops & Tables
You know where those paws have been, and you don’t want them near your food. Unfortunately, cats like to explore, so if your table or counter is their only chance to get a bird’s-eye view of the room, they’ll take it. If possible, provide a space that is counter height, near a window and has a smooth surface for rolling around in the sun—essentially, the ideal cat lookout point. You can also place clear vinyl carpet runners on the table when not in use—the nubby underside is not comfortable to walk, nap, or land on, so your cat will find better accommodations.
Snacking On House Plants
While not as tempting as a fish tank, your houseplants still have snacking potential—in the wild, even carnivorous cats have the occasional side salad. Always choose plants that are non-toxic to cats, and then plan a line of defense. (Take a look at ASPCA’s toxic and non-toxic plants list.) Experts recommend adding pinecones to the planters (cats don’t like the texture) or using double-sided tape that makes rooting through plants less enjoyable. Or, provide some designated cat plants—a pot of easily accessible catnip or wheatgrass will likely spare your ferns.
Older Cats With Behavior Issues
As they age, cats often suffer a decline in functioning, including their cognitive functioning. It’s estimated that cognitive decline—referred to as feline cognitive dysfunction, or FCD—affects more than 55% of cats aged 11 to 15 years and more than 80% of cats aged 16 to 20 years. Memory, ability to learn, awareness, and sight and hearing perception can all deteriorate in cats affected with FCD. This deterioration can cause disturbances in sleeping patterns, disorientation or reduced activity. It can make cats forget previously learned habits they once knew well, such as the location of the litter box or their food bowls. It can increase their anxiety and tendency to react aggressively. It can also change their social relationships with you and with other pets in your home. Understanding the changes your cat is undergoing can help you compassionately and effectively deal with behavior problems that may arise in her senior years.