Why does my cat do that?

By: Dr. Amy Plankenhorn

Any human that is “owned” by a cat knows that cats have some interesting behaviors, and that they are definitely NOT small dogs! To understand why domestic cats act the way they do, it helps to understand the behavior of feral cats. If you search for information about cat domestication, you will find that some scientists suggest that cats are “semi-domesticated,” in that they are genetically and behaviorally very similar to wild cats. In the wild, cats are solitary hunters, with keen senses of smell and hearing. They eat frequent small meals through the day. They have the potential to be prey as well as being predators, so they want to be able to observe their surroundings from a safe place and be able to escape stressful situations easily. They communicate with other cats through smell, body language, and vocalization, and many cats would prefer not to have to deal with other cats at all.

So, why does my cat...

Why does my cat do that?Rub his face on everything? Cats have scent glands around their mouth, chin, forehead, cheeks, lower back, tail and paws. When a cat rubs, he is depositing scent pheromones on whatever surface he rubs against. These scent deposits change over time, so cats can tell who visited a spot and how long ago he was there. Facial pheromones also establish familiarity and security, which is why we use Feliway, the synthetic form, as an aid in managing anxiety behaviors. Because facial pheromones are such a big part of cat communication, it is important to respect a cat's sense of smell. Leave the scent marks on walls and furniture (because nobody else really cares that all of the corners in your house have brown face rub marks on them), don't wash all of your cats’ bedding at the same time, and minimize strong smells like scented cat litters and air fresheners.

Only play for a short time? Cats are sprinters rather than marathoners. They lie in wait for prey and pounce. They might chase the animal for a short time, but it's usually not worth the effort to mount a long drawn-out hunt. For this reason, short play sessions are best, especially if they end with your cat “catching” the toy or getting a food reward after chasing a laser pointer.

Why does my cat do that?Ignore me or not want to be petted for long? Cats are the ultimate control freaks. In the wild, cats' interactions with other cats are usually brief, except when breeding or caring for kittens. Part of their domestication is to allow humans and (some) other cats to have longer interactions. But they usually prefer to be in control of the time and duration.

Eat only when I'm watching? This behavior goes against what cats in the wild would do. Eating is usually a very vulnerable time for prey animals. A cat that prefers to eat in the company of other cats or humans is usually a cat who is comfortable and not stressed.

Scratch the furniture? Cats scratch to exercise, remove old claw material, and scent-mark. Scratching is actually necessary for their mental health, too. Punishing your cat for scratching can create other problem behaviors. Here are some tips for redirecting this behavior to scratching posts.

Not use the litter box? This is a complex issue, as there can be physical, emotional, medical, and environmental reasons why cats won't use the box. The first step is to have your cat examined and have a urinalysis performed to rule out medical problems. The next step is to determine if your cat has litter and litter box preferences. This article can help.

Also, consider whether your cat might be urinating to mark territory as a response to other cats within the household or cats outside.

Not respond to punishment? Positive reinforcement of desirable behavior is ALWAYS preferable to punishment. If a “problem” behavior is occurring, it is a response to a situation. To correct the behavior, it is important to identify the trigger and correct the source of the behavior. Punishment creates fear and stress, which are the most common sources of negative behaviors such as litter box issues and aggression. Stress is also related to health problems in cats, including sterile cystitis, recurring viral respiratory infections, and gastrointestinal upset.

Some problem behavior is related to boredom, lack of enrichment of the environment or because one of the cat's basic needs is not being met. Here is a great resource for learning what the basic feline needs are. Focusing on making your relationship with your cat fun, playful, and rewarding can help solve some behavior problems. Cats like an enriched environment with things to do, places to explore, opportunities to hunt, and safe places to rest. Some cats become overly active and destructive when bored. Find out what type of toys your cat likes and use them to mimic stalking and pouncing.

Finally, we all want to know why our cats do some of the other strange and hilarious things that they do. Remember that every cat has a unique personality, which is what we love about them!

For more information on behavior in cats, attend the Free Behavior Help Sessions given by Tristan Rehner in the Education Room at Animal Hospital of North Asheville, and watch an excellent video by TED animation (below) with content from Dr. Tony Buffington from Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.