Normal Cat Behavior - A Healthy Cat - The Veterinarians' Guide to Your Cat's Symptoms - Michael S. Garvey, Anne E. Hohenhaus

The Veterinarians' Guide to Your Cat's Symptoms - Michael S. Garvey, Anne E. Hohenhaus (1999)

Part I. A Healthy Cat

Normal Cat Behavior

Cats can be loving, affectionate companions. They are clean, soft, and small, are often cuddly, and are usually quiet and calm—a combination of traits that makes them especially ideal pets for older people and apartment dwellers. The fact that they do not need to be walked and are able to be left alone for fairly long periods of time without suffering from serious distress also makes them excellent pets for people who have to be away from home all day (although most pet cats greet their owners’return with signs of affection). An added plus for working people is that cats are crepuscular by nature, and one of their primary activity times is in the evening, when owners have returned home from work.

In this chapter we will describe normal cat behavior so a first-time owner will know what to expect. We will also cover several of the most prevalent types of inappropriate feline behaviors and provide some suggestions about how to deal with them.

Social Behavior

Are cats basically social animals or are they generally independent and aloof, as many people believe? There is great flexibility in the social system of cats. In the wild, cats are generally a nonsocial predatory species—that is, they are usually solitary hunters (with the exception of lions). However, when there is a concentration of food, which is always due to human activity, cats often live in large groups. But in a human household cats are more apt to be social and respond to people, other cats, dogs, and even other pets that might normally be considered prey, such as hamsters and birds.

A great deal depends on how a kitten has been raised. If she was gently handled by humans on a regular basis at an early age (the critical period is between two and seven weeks), she will usually respond positively to human handling as an adult. If this handling has not occurred, she is likely to be fearful of human contact and may never be able to be taught to be social with new people. It is also generally thought that a kitten raised with other kittens will become more socially responsive to other cats in a household when she matures, although some cats are loners by nature. By the same token, a kitten that has been raised with a friendly dog will be much less apt to be fearful of all dogs than one who has never encountered a dog before adulthood, or one who has had nothing but negative relationships with dogs.

At the usual time a kitten is adopted (around eight weeks of age), she is already housebroken and is quite mature physically. She is well coordinated and physically able to climb and jump, for instance, although she still has to grow to adult size and sexual maturity. She is already past her critical socialization period (the time during which she learns about her littermates, humans, and the environment), which means that it may take a while for an owner to establish new patterns of behavior in a kitten of this age.

Sleeping Behavior

Domestic cats sleep a great deal both during the day and at night. As a rule, they spend at least ten hours a day sleeping, interspersed with short bursts of activity. As we mentioned above, they are crepuscular and are most active at both dawn and dusk. Cats are often hungry in the early morning but don’t want to eat by themselves and try to wake their owners by meowing or walking across them while they sleep. Owners who do not want to be awakened by a hungry or playful cat three hours before the alarm clock goes off find that if they leave a dish of dry food in the bedroom, it will at least temporarily satisfy and distract a cat.

Like all mammals, cat’s sleep alternates between light or wakeful sleep (slow-wave sleep, or SWS) and deep (REM) sleep. Just like humans, dogs, and other mammals, cats dream during REM sleep.

Cats do not sleep in one spot all of the time, but change the “favorite” place where they sleep during the day from time to time (the exception is at night, when many cats sleep on their owner’s beds). They will sleep in one chair for a few weeks, then switch to a bed, then the sofa, and so on. Behaviorists think this may be a form of instinctive parasite control.

Eating Behavior

In contrast to dogs, which usually eat during daylight hours, cats eat both night and day. A peculiarity of domestic cats, which they share with lions, is that they do not like sugar and water mixed, so will not lick sweet liquids, although they do not mind sugar and fat mixed and will often eat human desserts, for instance, given the chance.

Left to their own devices (free-choice feeding), cats will eat as many as twelve times a day. Owners are often troubled if a cat displays signs of being finicky and does not eat certain foods or doesn’t eat much at all. A relatively little-known fact that may help explain this is that cats have been discovered to have innate cycles of body weight. If a cat is on one of the down cycles of her body weight, she will not have much appetite. If the cat is eating nothing, rush her to the veterinarian. As long as a cat is still eating something on a regular basis, and the period when a cat is “off her feed” does not last too long (more than a month or so), an owner should not be concerned; nor should he rush out and change cat foods, although it won’t hurt. Cats particularly like novelty in their food and welcome a change of flavor, for instance. This is perfectly all right if the diet is complete and balanced for cats, and as long as the formulation of the diet is not changed drastically so as to upset a cat’s digestive system.

Grooming Behavior

Cats groom themselves often and their grooming pattern is programmed. For instance, cats always wash their faces with their front paws exactly the same way, starting in small circles around the nose and then up around the ears. They then lick the rest of their bodies in order; some may end up cleaning between their footpads. Cats groom themselves after eating, upon awakening from a long sleep, and after being handled. If a cat suddenly stops grooming herself, it is a sign that something may be seriously wrong with her.

Cats in the same household also frequently groom each other. Mutual grooming can be arousing and may precede either sexual behavior or aggression. What begins as gentle grooming can become harder and harder and lead to a wrestling match.

Because of cat’s continual grooming it is very important for an owner to keep a cat brushed and as free as possible from loose fur, which can be ingested and cause the formation of hair balls (for more about hair balls). This is especially true in the case of longhaired cats, which are apt to groom themselves more frequently than shorthairs, but which also need owner help in order to keep their coats free from mats.

Territorial Behavior

Cats are territorial by nature. Males have larger territories than females in a natural situation, often encompassing females’territories. That is why it can be difficult to integrate a male cat, either castrated or not, into a household where there are other cats because he may try to drive all the other cats away.

Feline territories vary with the food supply. In a natural situation where cats have to hunt for food, each cat has her own territory. But when the food supply is concentrated, such as in a garbage dump, a granary where there are a lot of rats, or a fishery, for example, then many cats can live in the same area. In these situations each cat will have a small territory, or several cats may “time-share” a territory—that is, one cat may rest in a place from one to three o’clock, another from three to five, and so forth. Fortunately, unlike dogs, cats usually share food fairly amicably, although many do not get along with others in a home situation because of their territorial nature. Two cats get along much more readily than three or more in the same household. It can be very difficult to predict problems in a multiple-cat household.

Unneutered male cats (tomcats) mark their territories with foul-smelling urine. In fact, they produce a sulfurous-containing substance found only in cat urine (felinine). Neutered males and females, spayed or not, often mark also. See below, for more about this.

Cats also mark by scratching and with scent glands located in their cheeks and the upper surface of their tails. They will wind their tails around objects or people, or bunt (cheek rub) them.

Clawing Behavior

All cats claw regularly for several reasons. The first reason is to stretch; another is to get rid of loose claw material; the most important reason a cat will claw is to mark her territory. Clawing can be a social behavior, too. A good example of this is when an owner comes home and a cat immediately goes to the nearest prominent object and claws it. Outdoors, a cat will scratch on the trees that are in the area she frequents most—this is not to mark her territory but is a more social aspect of clawing.

We discuss suitable scratching devices for cats in Chapter 2. It is helpful to have several scratching devices in a household, each placed in front of whatever piece of furniture is most prominent in the room, and another next to a favorite resting place.


Feline Communication

Cats use body language and facial expressions to communicate with other cats and with humans. For example, a cat that is greeting a person or another cat will hold her tail high, raised up in the air. One that is frightened will crouch, ears flattened to head, and she will salivate and spit. See below for a chart of some of the most common feline postures and facial expressions.


Cats make a number of different sounds that they use to communicate with other cats and with humans. They meow in greeting and to demand attention from their owners; growl and hiss in fear and anger; and caterwaul—the latter is usually a cat-to-cat communication between fighting tomcats. There is a similar call a cat gives when carrying prey. It is also like the sound a cat will make before vomiting up a hair ball. Adult cats do not usually purr when alone, but they do purr as a means of communicating with an owner, just as kittens purr to their mothers.



The sounds owners hear most frequently from pet cats are meowing and murmuring. There are breed differences in cat “voices.” Siamese and Abyssinians, for instance, have very loud, raucous, and insistent meows, while Persians’meows are softer. Some owners encourage their cats to meow, or meow back to them, on signal. The demanding meow signifying “let me out,” “feed me,” and so forth is easily recognized. Behaviorists don’t know exactly why some cats meow to their owners for no apparent reason.

Communicating with a Cat

Owners communicate with their pet cats by talking to them, stroking them, grooming them, and patting them. Most cats prefer to be petted under the chin rather than on top of their heads. Some cats enjoy gentle stroking, others like harder, firmer petting. An owner has to discover what method suits his pet best. Cats can be very demanding when they want to be petted. They will meow, bunt their owners, rub against their owners’legs, and even reach out with a paw to pull their owners’hands toward them. Many cats do not like to have their tails touched; others dislike it when their feet are handled. It is very common for a cat to roll over on her back, exposing her stomach as if she wants it rubbed. Some cats will immediately attack an owner’s hand with all four feet, claws extended, when he does rub her stomach. Cat-loving visitors have to be warned of this propensity. It is not clear why some cats do this. For more about cats that are aggressive when being petted, see “Aggression Toward People,” below.

If an owner wants a cat to sit on his lap or next to him, he needs to remain quiet and not move around too much. Sometimes a cat will get too hot sitting or sleeping on an owner’s lap and will prefer to sleep nearby instead. This is especially true of longhaired cats.

Cats that are close to their owners do respond to vocal praise and scolding, although to a lesser degree than dogs do. For instance, “No,” accompanied by a loud hand clap, will certainly get most cat’s attention.

Elimination Behavior

Cats appear to eliminate in daylight hours rather than at night. An owner will often notice that a cat goes to the kitty litter first thing in the morning. As with most mammals, defecation in cats is stimulated by eating. They are most likely to have a bowel movement after a meal. Cats normally have one or two bowel movements a day. Of course, the more a cat drinks, the more she will urinate. An increase of either defecation or urination can be a sign of disease.

There is a discussion of litter trays and litter in Chapter 2, and below. Owners should be aware that constipation is a fairly common problem in cats, so it is important to be aware of a cat’s normal elimination habits.

As a rule, neutered male cats and female cats squat to urinate. Unneutered males (tomcats) almost always stand with their tails raised and spray urine on an upright surface. As we said above in “Territorial Behavior,” sometimes neutered males, and females neutered or not, will also spray urine. If a cat regularly sprays urine in the litter box, an owner may need to use plastic to protect the wall or any furniture that abuts a litter tray. An enclosed litter tray works well, too, but many cats will not use one.

Some Inappropriate Feline Behaviors

Aggression Toward People

An owner of an aggressive cat who had bite marks up and down his legs once coined a phrase, “the abused owner.” Some cats are extremely aggressive toward people. They may attack people without seeming provocation, and have been known to knock an older person down.

There are three types of aggression displayed by cats. One kind is predatory aggression, which causes a cat to jump out from beneath a piece of furniture and attack a person’s ankles. This usually occurs with kittens who have not been left with their litters long enough to learn to inhibit their biting behavior. An owner can often avoid this kind of attack if he remembers to make a loud noise as he approaches the spot where the cat is hiding, or squirts the cat with water before she has an opportunity to attack. He should also be sure the cat has lots of opportunities for interactive play with a dangling object, rolling ball, windup mouse, or crinkled paper, for instance.


Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is really upset at something else. A strange cat outside the window, for example, may cause her to attack a person who just happens to be there.

The third kind of aggression is dominant/territorial aggression, which is similar to that in dogs. This type of aggressive cat will bite a person who pets her, but will rarely scratch a person. Dominant/aggressive cats can be treated by using the method of trying to become dominant over them. For instance, if a cat jumps on an owner’s lap and then bites when the owner pats her three times, the owner should pat the cat once and then stand up, forcing her to jump down. A dominant/aggressive cat should not be allowed to rub her cheek or tail glands against her owner; the owner should just walk away.

Teaching a dominant/aggressive cat to do tricks will also increase an owner’s dominance over the cat. Cats can be taught to do various tricks such as sitting, climbing a ladder, jumping through a hoop, and so forth. In general, cats can be taught better with tempting food treats (tuna fish, for example) than with praise.

As a breed, Persian cats have been found to be less aggressive than other cats.

Aggression Toward Other Cats in a Household

We spoke about the problems of territorial aggression between cats in the same household under “Territorial Behavior,” above. A dominantly aggressive cat may make life miserable for another cat by preventing the use of the litter box, not allowing the other cat to eat or sleep where she wants, and so forth.

When a resident cat returns to the household after a stay at the veterinarian’s, she may be treated aggressively by a formerly friendly feline housemate. This hostility may be triggered by several factors. First, cats are so smell oriented they recognize each other almost completely by scent. Therefore, a change in a cat’s odor makes her seem to be a stranger to her former friend, triggering an aggressive reaction. The other contributing factor may be that if the cat returning from the veterinarian’s is the least bit under the weather due to anesthesia or whatever procedure she has undergone, the other cat will immediately seize the opportunity to attack.


Aggression also occurs frequently when a new cat is introduced to a household. Owners must realize that a resident cat, or cats, will probably not be pleased with a newcomer and should initially protect the new cat from aggression by isolating her. Isolate her in a room for a week; exchange litter pans daily (the new cat’s and the resident cat’s), and rub each cat with the same towel, especially in the cheek area. If there is no growling or other signs of aggression by either cat, it may be safe to release the new cat. Isolation is a good idea for any cat in a new house, even if she is not new to a family. This way she will be able to become used to a small space before she has the entire house, and/or the outdoors, to get used to. (Note: In Chapter 2, we speak of isolating a new cat as a means of preventing the spread of infectious or contagious disease.)

The same type of redirected aggression that may occur in a cat toward a person (see above) may occur in one cat toward another.

To reintroduce righting cats, place both cats in carriers or cages at opposite ends of a room while the cats are fed. The cages should gradually be moved closer together until both cats are able to eat peacefully, side by side. At this point the nonaggressive cat can be allowed her freedom at mealtime, while the aggressive cat remains caged. Eventually, if both cats are able to eat in close proximity without growling or hissing, they can both be allowed their freedom. In severe cases, or if the aggression is triggered by fear, a tranquilizer may be prescribed by a veterinarian.

Destructive Behavior

Clawing of furniture and rugs is probably the most commonly seen destructive behavior in cats. Appropriate scratching posts, or devices, are helpful for many cats (see above in “Clawing Behavior”). Owners who are at home most of the time find that clapping their hands loudly and spraying a cat with water the moment she lays a paw on an inappropriate object will help, as long as she is then redirected to the scratching post. Kitty condos and other play/climbing furniture can also be used to redirect a cat’s clawing instinct. Even when an owner is not home all of the time, many cats will respond to scolding and spraying and learn not to claw furniture.

We mentioned vinyl claw covers, or caps, in Chapter 2. These can be used if a cat steadfastly refuses to use a scratching post and claws the furniture instead. As we discuss in Chapter 2, if a cat is a persistent, destructive clawer, a declawing operation may be the only alternative to getting rid of her.

A second type of destructive behavior is chewing of nonfood items. Most common is wool chewing or fabric chewing, especially by Oriental breeds such as Siamese. Increasing the roughage in their diets with a high-fiber prescription diet and providing a “cat garden” of safe plants may help. Cats may eat ribbon, telephone or computer cords, plastic, or wood. If they have no tooth or gum problems and diet changes do not help, drug therapy for a compulsive problem may be necessary.

Housebreaking Problems

Elimination outside the litter box is often caused by a medical problem, so the first thing an owner should do if he is having a problem with a cat eliminating in the wrong place is to have her examined by a veterinarian.

The second major cause of house soiling in cats is lack of hygiene. Most cats simply will not use a litter box that is not clean. Owners often put a litter box in the basement, where it is out of sight and cannot be smelled, and forget to clean it regularly. Most cats prefer to urinate in one place and defecate in another, so a single cat should have two litter boxes. A cat will often refuse to use a litter box that has been soiled by another cat. If there is more than one cat in a household, the rule of thumb is to have one more litter box than the number of cats.

In multicat households, house soiling can also have a social cause. That is, one cat may frighten another whenever she approaches the litter box. A timid cat may also be frightened away by a loud noise such as a washing machine, or other distraction that occurs just as she’s about to use the litter pan.

Cats will sometimes urinate directly into a bathtub or shower drain. Behaviorists speculate this may be because they always dig a hole before urinating, and a drain is a nice hole already dug for them. This behavior can also signify a medical problem; the coolness of the porcelain may feel good to a cat that is not feeling well. One way to discourage urinating in a sink or tub is to leave an inch or two of water in the tub all of the time. But remember, a cat may then find an equally unacceptable alternative!

Some cats also have location preferences and will not use a litter pan that is in the “wrong” place. An owner must turn into a detective in this case and experiment with different locations for the pan.

Covered litter pans are preferred by a small number of cats, but most cats like to be able to see in at least three directions while using a litter pan because they feel vulnerable at this time.

Preferences as to type of litter can be very strong—nine out of ten cats prefer clumping litter (fine sand that forms a clump when wet) to the plain, coarser, clay variety. Although most owners do not like this type of litter because it is messy, one of the best ways to lure a cat back to using the litter tray instead of the bathroom rug is to give her clumping litter in her pan. There are a number of mats and pads on the market today that are designed to clean a cat’s paws once she has walked in clumping litter and help prevent the fine sand from being tracked all over the house.

Longhaired cats, Himalayans and Persians in particular, are apt to develop elimination problems. Behaviorists do not know why, but there has been speculation that longhairs may not like to get litter on their furry feet. Anyone who is contemplating ownership of a longhaired cat should be aware of the fact that housebreaking problems may arise.

Urine spraying can be a big problem with all cats. Unneutered male cats (tomcats) and females in heat spray continually. One out of every ten neutered males and one out of every twenty spayed females also spray from time to time. Inappropriate spraying occurs most often in multiple-cat households. There is now a product on the market made from cheek pheromones that may help deter a cat from spraying. But, because excess spraying is usually due to some kind of social stress, appropriate drugs or a redistribution of cats frequently are used to treat the problem.

Predatory Behavior

Of course, the best way to prevent a cat from hunting is to keep her indoors all of the Some indoor-outdoor cats are hunters and some are not. If a cat is a hunter, a breakaway collar (one which the cat can slip out of if she becomes caught on a branch or other object) with two bells, one on the top and one on the bottom, may help warn birds in some cases. One bell underneath a cat’s chin often does not work because a determined cat can learn to hold the bell quiet with her chin. An owner should place bird feeders in locations where the cat can’t reach them, and also make it a point not to let a hunting cat outdoors at the time the birds are most active.

How Cats Behave When Theyre Not Feeling Well

Even a cat that is very close to her owner will usually find a dark, small space to hide in when she is not feeling well. She often cannot be coaxed out to eat or drink. Behaviorists believe that this behavior is instinctive predator avoidance. That is, if a cat does not feel well and is unable to flee from a potential predator, she feels safer if she is well hidden. Thoughtful owners should leave the cat alone as much as possible. Of course, a pet cat cannot be allowed to remain hidden, without food or water or medical care, for more than twenty-four hours. She must be gotten out of her hiding place, forcibly, if necessary, so that an owner can assess the situation and provide veterinary care.

What to Do if a Behavior Problem Develops

If a cat develops a behavior problem the first step for an owner to take is to go to the veterinarian to be sure there is no medical reason for the cat’s misbehavior. For example, a housebreaking problem could be a sign of a urinary tract disorder or hyperthyroidism; sudden aggressive behavior might be caused by toxoplasmosis or a brain tumor.

Once a medical cause for the misbehavior has been ruled out, a veterinarian may be able to prescribe medication intended to modify the behavior. Or he might suggest behavior therapy and put the owner in touch with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, or someone certified by The Animal Behavior Society, who has passed requirements to practice animal behavior modification. There are very few cat trainers available to owners for advice.

Owner Responsibilities

Cat ownership is a great deal less onerous than dog ownership. But although cats are able to spend considerable time alone at home, a potential cat owner must be sure that he provides the proper environment for a cat to thrive in.

A cat that is left alone for hours at a time should have an appropriate clawing device and also some type of play furniture and toys for exercise. She needs clean litter and fresh drinking water. If she is allowed to snack on dry food during the day, her food bowl should contain plenty of food.

Besides providing for her physical needs, a cat owner needs to give his pet loving attention and playtime when he arrives home in the evening. As we pointed out earlier, because cats are crepuscular by nature, the evening hours are particularly appropriate for playtime.