Cat Behavior Articles


Myths - you can teach an old or a young cat new tricks


  Madison Avenue seems to have got to the cat early in history, and given it an aloof personality, a god-like disregard for us lesser beings, and made it the cat that walks by itself and for whom all places are alike.  In fact, while most cats may not treat us with quite the regard and admiration that our dogs do, their PR and the truth seem to me to be poles apart.  Unfortunately, because of this reputation, treating cat behavioral problems can be frustrating.  Behavioral modification, you will be told, doesn’t work for cats; they can’t be taught anything.  So the owners want the quick solution, the drug fix.  Here too you are liable to run into difficulties.  While cats are generally relatively small, cost is less likely to be a factor, however, owners do not in general like giving cats pills.  In addition, drugs do not change the cause of the problem.  This being the case, without behavioral, or at least environmental, modification, in most instances the changes wrought will last only as long as the cat gets its drugs.

  Anyone who believes that cats are not just as capable as dogs of learning behaviors and following direction is referred to Karen Pryor’s tape, Clicker Magic.  The clicker, despite the hype, is not magic.  Unlike other forms of secondary reinforcement it is more likely to be applied consistently and appropriately than such meaningless forms of approbation as, “Good kitty,” which are as likely to be used when the cat is in a frenzy and about to attack, or scared witless, in which case it’s the aggression or fear which is reinforced - not exactly what we want. 

  I will say that there is one thing somewhat unusual about the cat that is shown in the video, which was adopted from a shelter as an adult.  It responds well to food.  Not all cats do, and certainly training is more successful if they come to it hungry.  Other rewards can pique the cat’s curiosity, or include a dab of catnip.

  Behavior modification of course isn’t just about training, but if curiosity killed the cat, keeping its mind occupied may keep it from getting into trouble.  Being able to give a command may enable owners to redirect cats from their poor behavior, or enable the owner to safely move it to a different location, all of which are estimable goals.  If owners and their cats have more fun together and build closer bonds with each other, I for one wouldn’t feel the exercise was a failure.


  It has often been observed that many if not all behavioral problems exist because we have two or more different species cohabiting which do not understand each other’s signals.  What exactly is normal cat behavior?

  Another myth surrounding cats is that they are solitary not social animals.  While their optimal hunting technique of bringing down small, bite size meals precludes pack hunts, research over the last twenty years, has revealed that although the cat can survive alone, and must hunt alone, it is otherwise a very social animal.  Given the opportunity, cats form stable groups.  Within the groups the cats recognize the other members and engage in mutual grooming and rubbing behaviors which further bind individuals.  Queens nest communally and help care for each other’s kittens.  Adult outsiders will generally be rejected from the group at least at first.  Provided resources are adequate, the most common cat social group consists of adult female cats, their kittens and juvenile offspring.  Males and some females leave the natal group at around 1 - 3 years of age.  Adult males may roam from one group to another or become resident in a particular group.  While male territories may overlap, and include one or more female core group, female groups’ territories do not overlap.  Territory size depends on the availability of resources, particularly food sources, and can be very variable in size.  Where cats must rely solely on natural prey for survival, they are unlikely to be found living in social groups.  Individual cats do not seem to show territorial guarding of their home ranges, although cats in groups may appear to defend their territory, they may simply be defending their offspring.  The pattern seems to be followed by feral, semi feral and domestic cats with access to the outdoors.

  Cats bond with each other in much the same way they do with their human companions in order to facilitate close proximity.  They maintain direct bodily contact even, or perhaps especially it may seem, in very hot weather, and often sleep together.  They groom each other, and us, and they rub.  With other cats this may be restricted to rubbing heads, head to body or whole body rubs.  Rubbing is not random, within the cat group certain individuals rub disproportionately more or less, and likewise certain members receive more rubbing than others.  As to why they do it, theories abound.  Certainly, by scent sharing they may be marking the other cat as part of the group, and this is born out by the observation that sniffing frequently precedes rubbing.  However, rubbing also seems to serve the purpose of a friendly greeting.  While sitting or lying down, cats will touch one another at least 50% of the time; this is particularly true of female cats.  They show long-term choices of grooming and sleeping partners within the group.  Even amongst adult cats, which must hunt to survive, play bouts are frequently observed between cats that have established a close relationship within the group.  These include batting and jumping at each other, as well as grabbing and rolling around together on the ground.  There is no display of aggression, and after a wrestling bout, the cats will walk off or lie down together, and perhaps allogroom (groom each other).  Cats will sometimes share food.  I’m often asked if this is why cats bring us back the small rodents and birds they have caught, and I wouldn’t be surprised.  After all it must seem that we share food with them each day. 

  When a queen gives birth, one or more non-mothers will help clean and dry the kittens, and, keeping a communal nest, will nurse, groom and carry other cat’s kittens, whether they are related or not.  Kittens raised in communal nests are always receiving supervision, they develop faster and leave the nest a week or so earlier than kittens raised by a solitary queen.   Female strategy appears primarily directed towards successfully raising the maximum number of healthy kittens.  To this end, they exhibit affiliative behavior to other females within the group.  For males, the drive is to maximize mating opportunities.  They rarely exhibit affiliative behavior with other males, but on joining a group of females engage in it as a form of greeting, to reestablish contact and diminish the risk of group rejection.  Where female groups have few members, male cats are more likely to roam between groups.  If there is a large core group of females, the male is more likely to try and establish himself as a permanent group member.

  For any group living species ritualized signals, particularly those indicating dominance and submission are extremely useful in limiting actual fighting within and outside the group.   Debilitated animals are less able to hunt for themselves.  There is some debate as to whether a strict hierarchy exists among the cats of intermediate rank.  However, this may just be because in a well established group signals of dominance and subordination may be too subtle for researchers to pick up.  Fortunately, when aggression becomes a problem for owners the signs of impending attack are rarely subtle, and by recognizing them we can avoid serious injury.

  Ritualized dominance signals can include nonsexual mounting and stares - yes those sphinx like looks are often trying to put us in our place, just as we suspected.  When the dominant cat approaches, the hind legs are stiff, so that the body slopes up from head to tail, the base of the tail rising in a hump, and the rest dropping down, there may be moderate piloerection (lifting of hairs especially along the spine).  Ears are erect and may rotate to the sides, and the cat may wag its head from side to side.  Submissive cats meanwhile crouch, turn their ears down and avoid looking at the dominant animal.  Some cats will roll on their back like dogs, with their limbs splayed and their abdomen exposed.  Most often young males roll before adult males, but the behavior has been observed in all sex combinations, and it always defuses aggression.  What then must the cat think when, as so often happens, the human to whom it is deferring “attacks” it with a hand or foot on its exposed belly?  Quite often the response is defensive aggression.

  Dominance and aggression are not the same thing.  The dominant cat is secure, he doesn’t have much to prove.  He will only be aggressive if others do not defer to him.  He won’t waste energy by being more aggressive than he needs to be in order to diffuse the situation.  The typical “Halloween” cat has mixed emotions, he is both very frightened (the back is arched, the neck tucked to protect the throat, he is probably salivating and spitting) and prepared to stand his ground if necessary (teeth bared, tail erect, hair raised and fluffed out).  He’s a very reactive individual, and it may not take much to set him off.  This is usually a cornered cat, whenever possible a cat will simply remove itself from the scene.

  Observing parts of the cat can be quite informative.  The tail will be held straight up when the cat is greeting a familiar - where it may wave gently - investigating a curious but non-threatening phenomena, or is frustrated - in the latter situation it will be whipped from side-to-side.  When it is stalking the tail will be down and the tip may twitch.  At the walk or trot the tail normally follows at a 40o angle, getting lower as the cat increases its speed.  A relaxed standing cat’s tail hangs down.  Horizontal tails also accompany friendly, non-threatening approaches.  When a queen solicits a tom’s attention her tail may be anywhere from horizontal to vertical.  The defensive cat’s tail arcs over its back, and is usually relatively flaccid, while the offensively aggressive cat’s tail is held low and is rigid and flicking.  When the cat is extremely fearful or submissive it tucks the tail between its back legs.

  The ears are forward and erect when the cat focuses on a stimulus, but relax when the cat is not preoccupied.  Ears turn sideways, displaying the inner ear if the cat is showing passive aggression.  Swiveling the ears further downward and sideways indicates, more submission, although the cat is feeling threatened and may become defensive.  In the extreme, the ears are pulled all the way back, almost molded to the head, with none of the inside showing.  This cat is extremely frightened and potentially very dangerous.  If the ears are clamped back, but the inner ear is visible, this is an offensively aggressive cat, and should also be avoided.  Whiskers rotate forward with aggression.  Claws are unsheathed.  The pupils are constricted, while those of the defensive cat tend to dilate (this is often hard to assess depending on ambient light conditions - as well as not wanting to be that close in the first place!)   The iris may appear red, due to dilation of the retinal vessels under the influence of epinephrine (adrenaline).

  Other subtle signs of relative dominance in a multi cat environment are worth mentioning.  The dominant cat controls the litter box.  He gets to use it first, spends longer using it, and may even guard access against other cats.  He also has first dibs on sleeping spots, food and, if he deigns to use them, toys.  Needless to say the owner is also his by divine right.

  As previously mentioned, when cats rub against each other or their human companions they may in part be scent-marking the other individual, as well as picking up scent from the other.  Glandular secretions from the forehead, cheeks, flanks, under the tail and foot pads (which are used to knead and scratch mark) are particularly important, as of course is urine marking, in marking inanimate objects.  Free-ranging tomcats, spray about 12 times an hour, vs. queens who spray only once in that time, although more frequently when in heat.  When another cat encounters a sprayed area, it evaluates it with an open mouthed gape, similar to the Flehman of the horse and ruminant, as well as with its nose.  It may also lick its nose.  In response the cat may spray or rub the marked spot.  In general, urine is less interesting when it is 24 or more hours old, although it may still elicit a response for up to 3 days.  By marking cats may be able to avoid encounters with other unknown cats, further reducing risk to life and limb.  In the case of queens in estrous however, the urine and cheek markings (which appear to also carry hormonal data) are set out to encourage rather than deter.  Fecal marking may also be important in this regard.  Cats on their own territory are more likely to cover their feces, while those away from home are not.  Dominant cats are more likely to leave their feces unburied whether at home or away.

  Vocalization is particularly important in the cat; at least 8 pure and three complex calls have been described.  Purring occurs first in kittens at about 1 week of age, and is usually construed as meaning that the cat is content and unlikely to attack.  Different cats have different volume and intensity to their purrs, but it is usually easy to recognize.  Murmurs can be used to greet or encourage contact.  Hissing and spitting usually occur together and indicate a defensive cat.  Growls and shrieks also accompany agonistic encounters, although the latter may be a response to pain.  High pitched-raspy squeaks may occur in play, when food is anticipated or by queens after copulation.  Some cats make a teeth chattering noise when hunting.  A mew (sort of an “eee”) is usually used in mother kitten interactions, but may substitute for a squeak.  Low, long moans may precede hairball production, or requests for food or to be let out.  The meow (ee-ah-oo) is used in a variety of circumstances, from greeting to play to pleasure.

    If the primary motivators of cats are protection of offspring for the female and maximizing mating opportunity for the male, what effect does neutering have on behavior?  In general, affiliative behaviors increase and aggressive behaviors diminish.  Neutering will help diminish most aggressive behaviors, unless they are motivated by fear.  It is also useful for many cases of inappropriate elimination.