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When it comes to understanding animal behaviour, cats can be a bit of an enigma. While some behaviours such as purring, grooming, kneading and climbing are both expected and easily understood, others are less so.
Abnormal behaviours such as toileting around the house, sudden aggression and overgrooming among others can be more difficult to manage or pinpoint a reason behind.
If you’ve noticed a sudden change in your cat's behaviour and wish to understand why or simply wish to learn more about your furry friend, this guide is for you.
Healthy Cat Behaviour
To begin with, let’s take a look at what is deemed normal and healthy behaviour in your cat. This can help you form a baseline of what to expect behaviourally as well as more easily pinpoint when something is outside the realm of normal.
Purring is most often the result of your car feeling content and happy. Considered one of the clearest signs of affection of a cat towards its owner, purring can also signal love and trust.
If your cat consistently jumps in your lap and settles down purring, you know you have a happy cat.
When your cat rubs against you they are actively marking you as theirs by transferring its scent. You’ll often notice this behaviour on returning from work or other locations outside the home and this is simply your cat's way of saying welcome home and reestablishing scent markers that show you belong to them,
3. Scratching Things
While this behaviour can be destructive and at times hugely frustrating, it is quite normal. An instinctive behaviour, scratching also works to leave their scent on items while also helping to keep their nails healthy and deal with boredom.
Keep in mind that cats have no concept of right or wrong, cats operate purely on a needs basis. This means they will engage in behaviour to meet their needs regardless of what this means for you.
For example, with scratching they do not consider where you prefer them to scratch, only what they like to scratch. This is why it is important to provide them with options for scratching that both of you are happy with.
This is of course separate from the issue of scratching people or other pets, but we’ll come to this later on.
Your cat will have a variety of different meows that they use to communicate with you. Quick repetition of meows can indicate an excited cat, high-pitched meows can indicate pain or fear and low meows that sound like a growl are usually a warning to give them space.
While repeated meowing at 2 am outside your door is not usually welcome, this is considered quite normal. They feel they have something important to tell you and have zero concepts of timing and appropriateness. Interestingly, fully grown cats rarely meow at one another and save this for their humans.
Similar to purring, kneading blankets or your lap is a sign of contentment. It can also be a coping mechanism for a stressed cat that is seeking to calm itself down. There is nothing to worry about with this behaviour unless it is painful, they're simply indicating their happiness and that they feel safe with you.
6. Tail Swishing
Tail swishing is completely normal and can give you insights into how your cat is feeling. By learning to interpret your cat's swishing you can quickly see when they are annoyed, unhappy or excited.
Always give them space if you feel they're annoyed as the tail swish can be a precursor to aggressive behaviour.
A little disconcerting at times, your cat's habit of staring at you and blinking slowly is a sign of affection. Naturally curious, this can also be your cat watching you to see if you do anything interesting or to indicate that they wish to play.
When To Intervene
While we wouldn’t label these as ‘bad cat behaviour’ exactly as they are means of communicating, any behaviours that negatively impact your relationship with your cat or their health need to be addressed. Disciplining a cat or redirecting their behaviour can be more challenging than with a dog for instance, but it can be done.
If your cat is toileting on furniture or carpets rather than their litter box, this is going to be a concern. For cats who have previously used their litter box without issue, this is often an indication that they are stressed or anxious.
Start by assessing the placement of the box as changes in location can cause cats to choose to toilet elsewhere. You also need to keep the box as clean as possible as cats are quite fastidious and will often not use a dirty little box. For this reason, you should also keep their food bowls separate from their litter trays as this can also negatively influence their normal feeding behaviour.
New pets, a new home and other changes can also cause problems with toileting, however, these usually settle down once your cat is more familiar with these changes. Placing extra litter boxes around the house and limiting access to other areas can help to get your cat back into routine litter box use.
Medical issues can also contribute to your cat suddenly toileting in unexpected locations, so always speak with your vet if you notice sudden changes in their toileting behaviour.
Contrary to popular belief, cats do not bite out of anger or spite. They always bite as a result of their perceived need to protect themselves. When scared, stressed or frustrated, they have limited ways to communicate this and so biting can occur. Sometimes biting is due to play aggression, however, should still be addressed.
While biting during play may be cute in a kitten, it won’t be when they're fully grown. If biting occurs during play, try to redirect this towards a toy and avoid letting your cat use your hands as a plaything.
For sudden, aggressive biting at other times, take a step back and review what led up to this behaviour. Cats are very good at warning people before these aggressive outbursts, so watch for changes in their body language such as tail swishes, flattened ears, dilated pupils or similar.
You can help manage biting in your car by giving them plenty of structured playtimes while also being careful not to overstimulate them.
As with sudden changes in toileting, if your cat has a sudden shift towards aggressive behaviour, we recommend seeing your vet to rule out any underlying medical concerns.
Similar to biting, scratching is a way of communicating to humans when a cat has had enough of their attention. The best way to manage this behaviour is to remove yourself from the situation.
Be mindful of your own body language when interacting with your cat also as backing them into a corner, making extended eye contact or using your feet to block them can elicit a fear response.
Again, if scratching is becoming a sudden problem paired with aggression in a formerly content cat, speak with your vet.
Given most cat owners have high hopes for companionship, it can be quite disheartening if they decide to hide away and keep to themselves.
While cats are often more solitary than other domesticated pets, and happily so, excessive hiding or failure to interact with their owners at all can indicate anxiety or stress in a cat. This is something both a vet and a behaviourist can help you to navigate.
Causes Of Negative Behaviour In Cats
Changes in behaviour with cats are not always down to the way you’re interacting or changes in their environment. Female cats that are in heat and cats who have recently mated or just given birth can also behave quite differently from normal.
This is all due to the hormonal changes occurring and will most often settle on their own as time goes on. As always, you should be mindful of your cat's body language and use this as a guide for how to interact with them. Do not force attention on them at these times as you may be met with aggression.
Likewise, you may notice a change in your cat's behaviour following a fight with another feline. Even if they are not injured, fighting can leave your cat feeling stressed and vulnerable, as mentioned above, a cat that feels stressed is more likely to bite or scratch.
Always check your cat for injuries following a fight and seek immediate veterinary care if necessary as cat bites and scratches can quickly become infected.
Where To Seek Help
If you are worried about any aspect of your cat's behaviour, whether this is a sudden shift into antisocial or anxious behaviour or aggressive outbursts, your vet is the best person to speak with.
Ensuring there is no underlying medical issue contributing to their behaviour means you are best able to support them and navigate this change effectively.
In instances where toileting indoors or repeated aggressive outbursts or destructive scratching keep happening despite your best efforts, you may need to engage the support of a cat behaviourist.
No matter the situation, it is possible to pinpoint and address your cat's behaviour in a positive way that ensures you and your cat are both happy and able to enjoy each other's company.