Feline Behavior Primer

Depositphotos_7359624_originalLong-time cat owners will quickly recognize the joke in the title of this section. They understand that the relationship between cat and human is quite different from that of master and canine – that it is the cat that usually trains his human to do his bidding. All we can do is try to redirect bad habits and behaviors in a positive direction. Except in rare cases of abuse, neglect, or underlying medical pathology, most behavioral problems can be resolved with some patience, consistency, and above all trust.

The secret to creating a peaceful household and long lasting bond between cat and owner is the gaining of a true understanding of how our cats view us. In some circles cats get a bad rap. They are often described as aloof, independent (as a pejorative; to show contrast against the loyalty of man’s best friend), and creatures that view their human benefactors as a source of food and occasional entertainment. Their job is to sleep, poop in a box, and cause whatever trouble strikes their mood at any hour. The later the hour, the sweeter the mischief. The reality is that cats are affectionate, loyal companions capable of exhibiting a complex variety of emotions, social/wild instincts, and means of communication. While modern science and medicine have gained enormous strides toward gaining a better understanding of the Feline species, from the King of the Jungle to the Domestic Shorthair, much what makes up their unique personalities and bonding rituals with humans and other species remains as mysterious and unique as the coloring of their fur.

Except in rare unique circumstances, cats do not view us as a source of safety or security as does your average mutt. The dog is smart enough to know that keeping his owner happy and safe is directly linked to his survival. Pack animals depend on their leader for safety and guidance. This doesn’t mean your dog loves you any less, nor that he is any less devoted to you because of it. If your cat suddenly became separated from you and the safety of your home, his first instinct will be to survive. Even an indoor cat will quickly adapt to his new priorities, hunting for food and seeking an alternative safe shelter. He may even be wise enough to seek out other friendly humans to tend to his needs. He may miss you, be afraid, lonely – but his objective is survival. Even if he enjoys chasing the other family cat around the house, and they’re great pals – if he has to go on the lam, he may choose to do so on his own. Now place your average family dog in the same situation (removing from this example the possibility of prior abuse or neglect), and the dog’s number-one goal will be to find you. If he absolutely cannot find you – the next friendly-smelling human who comes along with a couple of milk bones and a pat on the head will suffice.

Of course the example above proceeds under several assumptions – especially that this horrible and all-too-common scenario is happening to your average well-adjusted family pet with a lifelong trust in people. This understanding of how our cats view us opens up a path towards a true understanding of why our cats’ independence and wild instincts can result in negative or destructive behaviors. It is true our cats are not driven by the same desire to please us, and are far less likely to be motivated by a bright ball or pat on the head. That being said, training your cat to be a good citizen of your household is not as difficult as you might think. It just requires a different strategy.

Exercise your cat's predatory instincts

Exercise your cat’s predatory instincts

The explosion of feline celebrities like ‘Grumpy Cat’, and the millions of viewers seeking out ‘funny cat videos’ on the Internet proves that people continue to be enamored by these amazing creatures. The driving force behind this phenomenon is understandably lost on folks who have never shared a home with a cat. Cuteness and the ‘awwww’ factor is certainly part of it, but the antics of these animals are the real draw. Once their basic needs for food and shelter are met, they tend to embark on an endless series of wildly entertaining adventures, with little regard for how silly they might look on camera. They will attempt to squeeze their bodies into every mysterious tiny space in your house, coordinate sneak-attacks on that shoelaces, shred toilet paper for sport, and indiscriminately scarf down unsuspecting houseplants (Jim Davis didn’t come up with that bit for Garfield on his own). As unique, strange, and often comedic behaviors seem to be, each one is tied to a very specific purpose – sharpening powerful base instincts should they become necessary at some point in the future, as in the scenarios discussed earlier. Of course a cat chasing a piece of string is what it appears to be – a game for fun. The cat needn’t be aware of its underlying purpose, just as we do not consciously exercise our muscles during sport just in case we may need to fight off a bear someday.

Ok, so this is all fascinating stuff, Adam…super interesting. Yet Mittens is peeing in my laundry basket and shredding the curtains. She is an evil menace who views me only as competition for my wife’s attention, and I suspect she is secretly planning my demise with a perfectly-timed shin-attack as I make my way down the stairs. How do I get this cat in line without marriage counseling?

This type of behavior is almost always resolved in three steps:

After ruling out any underlying medical conditions, most negative behaviors can be resolved in three steps:

  1. Determine your cat’s behavioral association
  2. Satisfy the underlying desire your cat is expressing
  3. Apply behavior modification to adjust negative associations

Sounds complicated, but really all this means is that your cat is missing something he needs and is acting out. The bad behavior is a form of communication. Ask yourself: Why is my cat doing this? What associations might be connected with the act?

At this stage people often wonder whether this behavior constitutes a deliberate act of vengeance, manipulation, sheer defiance, or all three. The good news is that all can be remedied with a change in attitude, routine and/or environment, and a healthy dose of patience. There is an ongoing debate as to whether cats are actually capable of spite, but I have to believe the majority of folks who have experienced a close bond with a cat believe spite to be their crudest of weapons, with more nuanced human traits like self-importance or even sarcasm also available when the mood strikes.

OK, back on track. Mittens could be using the laundry basket as a litter box for a number of reasons:

Mittens has some negative association with your clean laundry in the basket. Laundry time (the chore itself), or your pile of clean clothes – the smell, texture, placement, etc. reminds her of experience that displeases her. That displeasure could range from a mild annoyance to a perceived threat. Peeing in the basket will allow you to share in that irritation, causing you to make an adjustment. Your first inclination? Move the laundry basket, placing it out of her reach. Doing so would only relieve a symptom without addressing the cause. There is also a better than average chance that Mittens will figure out how to get to it anyway, seeing the escalation as a challenge. The battle of wits has begun. However it is really only perceived as such. While the level of intelligence and insight I detect from cats continues to amaze me after a lifetime in their presence, I do not believe these behaviors to be apart of a carefully calculated plan to manipulate us, aggravate us, or rebel against unjust laws against eating the goldfish.

Is there an instinctual behavior that is closely related to the behavior?

From here you can usually discern which of your cats needs are not being met, within reason. We all can’t move into a cardboard box filled with twine and salmon. Regardless of how your cat might see things, you are still in charge, highlighting another important paradigm shift away from one’s attitude when training a dog. The assertion of dominance or claiming the role of ‘pack leader’ isn’t necessary or helpful with your cat. They will ignore or disobey with that feline-specific brand of smug disregard mastered during adolescence. This may sound crazy to some, but cats are the only animals from which I have ever detected sarcasm. I have lived with cats since I was sleeping in a crib (where they napped with me), and understand the tendency to apply human traits to our cats or any domesticated animal that has become part of a family.

Can you think of an activity that may provide a positive outlet for these instincts without causing the same damage or trouble? For example, more games that exercise the ‘prey’ instinct could reduce kitty’s desire to sneak-attack your ankles on your way to the bathroom at 3am!

Is your cat a climber? When he is relaxed and exploring his territory, does he prefer to survey the landscape from the top of the refrigerator, or peer out into the living room from underneath the couch?

Is my cat just being a jerk, or is he trying to tell me something?

Have you ever had a hard time understanding when your cat was hungry or wanted attention? Even those quiet, shy ones who always seem to stay hidden are very adept at communicating their needs. The only time a cat has a difficult time communicating with humans is unfortunately when they are seriously ill or in distress, at which time the first instinct is usually to hide. Have you ever felt like your cat wanted something from you, but you didn’t know what it was? Of course not – he’s either hungry, wants to go out, wants affection or play – whatever it is, a cat will make these signals crystal clear after a very short period of cohabitation.

Unless they are very young or unusually dopey, they generally know when they are out of line. Unlike dogs, they can exhibit behaviors I once argued was intended to manipulate their humans into behaving the way they want. For example, “You travel too much. Maybe if I pee in your suitcase, you’ll stay home more. The horrible stink will be a lasting reminder that remaining available to tend to my needs is more important than any vacation”.

Like any puppy or toddler, cats will push the boundaries and test your limits. Much of the time these problems are easily solved with a little education and patience. However all too often, these kinds of behavioral issues turn would-be cat owners sour on cat ownership, and indirectly contribute to the ever-present problem of a growing homeless feline population.

And, by the way she is always showing up underfoot, tripping me on the stairs, there is little doubt she is planning my demise to

Why is my cat doing this? What associations might be connected with the act?

At this stage people often wonder whether this behavior constitutes a deliberate act of vengeance, manipulation, sheer defiance, or all three. The good news is that all can be remedied with a change in attitude, routine and/or environment, and a healthy dose of patience. There is an ongoing debate as to whether cats are actually capable of spite, but I have to believe the majority of folks who have experienced a close bond with a cat believe spite to be their crudest of weapons, with more nuanced human traits like self-importance or even sarcasm also available when the mood strikes.

All doubt regarding a cat’s ability to act purely out of spite was cast aside after an experience I had during my pal Mini’s 13th year as my best pal. A diabetic with chronic health issues, this sort of thing could probably be explained with some medical excuse – if you didn’t know Mini. I never accepted this as a coincidence. Whenever I get ready to take a trip, I climb up and down the stairs of my split-level condo repeatedly. I am terribly disorganized and a notoriously bad packer, so I this process continues until I am sure I haven’t forgotten anything (though I almost always do). As Mini got older and less tolerant of inconvenience (much like we all do), he began to let me know how long it was OK to be away from home. Unfortunately as his care became more complicated, my trips became lengthier and more frequent. Finding a pet sitter comfortable giving injections to a cat whom was also approved by Mini to administer said injections was no small feat. He would communicate his disapproval in a number of ways, failing to greet me when I came home (if he was really mad), withholding affection for a few days, or just yelling at me when I walked in the door. The fact that there was a fresh ‘package’ on one of those frequently traveled stairs shortly after I brought him home from a boarding facility could not be confused with an accident. I left him there for two weeks, the longest I’d been away from him in more than a decade. The fact that he’d been cooped up in a ‘cat condo’ only added to the insult. I swear the little *%&$ even waited until I was barefoot to add impact to his message. It was tucked under one of the stairs so there was no way that I would see it before my foot was already planted.

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