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What’s Normal Behavior for My Cat?

Understanding Cat Behavior

Cats have very unique behaviors and inherited traits that many owners have a hard time understanding. Something as simple as stalking and pouncing on its toy is a nod to the cat’s instinctual genetic background — a background shared by lions, tigers and even leopards. For many owners, it can be hard to imagine that their tiny cat shares anything in common with an animal like a 400-pound tiger, but indeed they have a lot in common. It is the very thing that makes our house cats so unique and their behaviors that much more complex. Although cat behavior can be difficult to understand, it's important to become familiar with common behaviors that you will see. This will help you understand your cat's body language and provide insight into what they are telling you, what they’re thinking and their overall status of health. 

Common Cat Behaviors

Cats can exhibit many sides to them, and as an owner you may observe different behaviors that mean many things. Here are some common behaviors that owners may see in their cats:

  • Vocalizations
  • Tail carriage   
  • Ear positioning
  • Eye appearance change
  • Stalking behavior
  • Climbing
  • Nesting in blankets or cloths                 
  • Brushing against objects with their head 
  • Bathing themselves 
  • Purring or meowing
  • Stretching
  • Playing
  • Hissing
  • Sleeping (cat naps)
  • Hiding in dark areas

SEE ALSO: Why Is My Cat Not Eating or Drinking?

What do some behaviors mean for your cat?

Social Behaviors of Cats

Even though cats are known to be solitary and do well on their own, they do love to socialize, and many behaviors showcase their socialization habits. Some behaviors are simply a way for cats to greet one another, like brushing against one another. If your cat brushes against you with their head, they’re greeting you. 

An article in Cat Health noted that in kittens, we see social behaviors begin at 2-4 weeks. At this stage, they learn behaviors that will allow them to survive. They will play with other kittens to build social skills — they’ll practice attack and defense, chase each other, or pounce on toys. If your kitten or young cat likes to attack toys and look like he or she is hunting, it's totally natural. Most cats develop these skills at a young age and keep them their whole life. It's part of growing up!

The Odd but Normal Behaviors of Cats 

Ear Twitching and Eye Appearance Change

Cats are very sensitive creatures — you may have noticed your cat's ears moving and their eye appearance changing. Many owners tend to think something may be wrong, that your cat may be sick or anxious. In fact, this behavior is indicative of their sensitivity. Cats can hear noises a lot better than humans can, and when they hear noises, their ears tend to move toward the direction of the noise. Depending on what they sense, their pupils may change size to focus better on what they're seeing. These two behaviors are proof that our cats are true hunters at heart.

Teeth Chattering 

This behavior can be interesting and confusing. It is usually observed when a cat is still while staring at prey that they may not be able to reach, and you’ll notice their mouth opening and closing rapidly. Owners may observe this if they are watching television and their cat sees prey on television, like a mouse or a bird. 

Some cat experts say this behavior may be due to frustration, as if the cat wants something it can’t have. “As they become frustrated, their body tenses and their teeth begin to chatter. Other experts think it's the exaggerated version of a prey bite that cats usually use to destabilize their prey. The cat may think it has prey in its mouth, so it begins to bite down and chew.” (Cat Health, 2019)

Grooming Behavior and Why It's So Important

Grooming is a behavior that seems simple but is very complex. Many owners may think it would be irresponsible to not clean their cat. On the contrary, it's a good idea to not clean your cat — let your feline handle that. A cat’s anatomy plays a key role in grooming. Their spiked tongues have ridges to help grasp hairs so they can groom themselves and others. Cats usually are great at taking care of themselves and do not have a need to be bathed otherwise. In fact, overcleaning your cat may cause health concerns and cause undue stress to your pet. 

In the event that your cat gets a potentially harmful substance from their coats, you can feel free to clean them, as it may be difficult for them to do so, especially if it's sticky. If your cat does not groom themselves or stops grooming entirely, seek the help of a veterinarian, as this may be a sign that your cat is not feeling well. 

What Is Considered Bad Cat Behavior?

Cats are unique pets and therefore their behavior is also  unique. Some cat behaviors may be great, others may be a bit intrusive or worrying to owners. Most owners have issues with their felines when it comes to litter boxes, the occurrence of aggression, and knowing the behavioral signs of a medical emergency. These are natural worries of  cat ownership, and it's natural to feel confused sometimes.

Cat behavior can be difficult to understand and manage,but each behavior has a meaning and a solution to help you deal with unwanted behaviors from their furry felines. You may make changes at home, visit your vet to rule out health concerns, or schedule a procedure like a spaying or neutering to help limit some hormones that can affect your cat’s behavior. 

The Origin of Domestic Cat Behavior

Before going into the details of how to fix unwanted behaviors of our cats, we should first understand a cat’s behavioral background. Cats have been domesticated for centuries, but they are descendants of wild animals, sharing common genetics with big cats such as lions and tigers and other wild cats such as the bobcat and even leopards. 

The common thread between these wild animals and the cats in our homes is behavior —your cat is a version of its wild ancestors. When your cat gets low to the floor slowly, pupils becoming bigger, with focus is set on a target, and a mini attack is underway, it's simply a genetic hunting behavior that has been passed down for generations. Most behaviors are genetic, but other behaviors can be learned throughout many different breeds of domestic cats depending on the home environment and training. 

Behavioral Issue of Learning the Ins and Outs of the Litter Box

Most owners find it easy to train their cats to use the litter box but may find that after a few uses their cats don't use it any longer or have issues with the litter box itself. Some cats may go to the bathroom in places other than the litter box, some may kick litter everywhere and cry, and some may not go to the bathroom altogether. This is not your cat being stubborn but a way for them to tell you something through their behavioral traits. So what are they trying to tell you exactly? 

If your cat is going to the bathroom outside of the litter box, this could mean a few things. It might  mean your cat is not a fan of the litter box itself. Cats can be picky when it comes to odors and placement. So if the litter you are using has a very strong scent that's pleasing to humans, it may not be so pleasing to your cat; be sure to check for litter that is cat-friendly and odorless. The other issue could be placement; like humans, cats like their privacy. If the litter box is in a very public area where many people in the household come and go, your cat may feel uncomfortable and resort to going somewhere else. So, if you think placement could be the issue, try moving the litter box to an area you know your cat loves to see if the issue gets resolved. 

If your cat is still not using the litter box, it may be a sign of a medical issue. If you see your cat straining to go to the bathroom, your cat may be experiencing urinary issues or even constipation. These are very common issues with cats, so if you see your cat is not going to the bathroom or is going to the bathroom too often, have a talk with your veterinarian to rule out the possibility of a health issue.

Let's Talk About Cat Aggression 

There are many types of aggression in cats that owners may witness, mostly consisting of but not limited to:

  • Maternal Aggression
  • Multi-Cat Aggression/ Territorial Aggression  
  • Play Aggression 
  • Fear Aggression 

To understand and fix aggression, we must understand how each of these aggression behaviors manifest in a cat. Each behavior has a different cause and therefore they have a different solution pertaining to such aggression.

Maternal aggression 

This is usually caused by a mother cat protecting her young. If your cat has recently given birth to kittens, it is normal for her to experience aggression as a way of protecting her kittens from harm. Even if this aggression is towards you or other cats in the home — this maternal aggression comes from a deep instinct to protect her young from harm, other cats, and any trouble that the mother cat deems threatening. Solutions to this aggression include a spaying procedure, which can help prevent your cat from conceiving and can further prevent maternal aggression (note, though, this should be done after the kittens have weaned. Check with your vet on timing). If you  would rather not do a spaying procedure, just give your mother cat her space. Offer her a quiet area in the home to spend her time with her kittens, away from loud noises, people and other cats. Until the kittens can venture around on their own, be sure to give mom cat some privacy that may be much needed. 

Multi-Cat Aggression 

This is usually caused by cats not getting along in the household they are in due to lack of space, territory inconvenience, and even personality clashing. Most cats that experience multi-cat aggression are very aggressive to cats in the home — they may get into fights, hiss and scratch, or even bite each other. This is mostly due to the issue of lack of space and an inner instinct to build a territory away from other cats.  

Even if your home has a lot of places to go, some cats can get in each other's way or interact too much. If you start to see that your cats are not getting along with one another, try to separate them to give them each space in a secluded area, and allow them to develop their own territory. Make sure their space includes their own litter box, food dish, and anything else your cat likes. If you see no change in aggressive behaviors, you may have to keep them separate continually, but more than likely your cats may just need some time apart from one another. 

Play Aggression

This is a behavior that comes very naturally and is completely normal for cats. Typically owners will see this type of aggression in young kittens, as it is a way for them to socialize with one another and learn to play or get along. This aggression is not truly aggressive, but can be misunderstood by many owners as fighting or multi-cat aggression. Play aggression usually manifests as  tackling each other, lightly biting one another playfully, and meowing or purring. This behavior is seen throughout young cats as big as lions and tigers, as well as small as the cats in our home. It is another instinctive behavior that has been passed down from generations to allow our kittens to grow into social and well-adapted cats. 

Fearful Aggression 

This behavior is usually seen within cats in households. This aggression is usually accompanied by a change in body language and posture. Cats who exhibit this aggressive behavior may have ears that are flattened, backs that are raised, lowly crouch and usually loudly meow or hiss. Cats who are also fearful aggressors can be known to bite and swat at people or other cats. This aggressive behavior is usually caused by fear itself. If a cat is in a new area of the home, near a cat it has never been around, has been raised in a territorial environment or even heard a scary sound, a cat can exhibit this fearful aggression. 

If your cat is experiencing fearful aggression, there can be multiple solutions depending on what is exactly frightening your cat. The first step is to identify what is causing this fear. Usually, when the fear-causing component is identified, it is best to remove it. If your cat is afraid of a new home or area, there is no need to pick up your things and move again —rather try to make your cat at home. New toys and even new treats spread around the house can encourage your cat to explore rather than be scared. 

If the fear is towards another cat, find a way to make the cats slowly interact with one another. Don't keep them in a room and force them into becoming friends, but gradually allow them to be closer to each other, one day at a time. Introductions can be scary for any animal, and cats are preternaturally weary of other cats, so it is normal to see some friction between them. However if this fearful aggression does not go away, it may be best to separate the two permanently to reduce the excessive stress.  

When Should I Talk to My Vet About Bad Behavior 

The biggest question asked by cat owners is: When does a change in behavior mean it's time to go to the veterinarian? Oftentimes your cat’s behavior will tell you something is wrong, as long as you listen and watch. Understanding your cat’s behavior and body language can be a big component of knowing when it is just a normal behavioral change or a medical emergency. 

If a behavior changes overnight with no reasonable cause, it may be an indication that your cat is stressed from an illness or a medical need, therefore we recommend contacting your vet. If a cat is overly aggressive and no training has changed the aggression, a visit to the vet may be a good idea to get further analysis on why the aggression may be happening and what can be done to fix  it. 

Helpful Medications 

To help behavior, a veterinarian may recommend some prescription medications to correct the behavior. One medication that is recommended is Trazodone, which is known to help with anxiety and overly stressed pets   and can help relax your cat. The recommendation is to start your pet on this medication but because it is a very mild sedative, your cat may be tired when given a dose of trazodone. This is a normal reaction and is nothing to be concerned or worried about. 

If your cat's behavior is changing due to a medical issue, a vet may prescribe Gabapentin, which has the same effects as Trazodone but works more as a pain sedative. If your pet is experiencing any pain or discomfort, this may be a medication to familiarize yourself with, as it can address the discomfort that is affecting your cat's behavior.

Helpful Procedures 

It may be hard to believe, but surgical procedures can help with behavior problems. It's important to know that your cat's biology plays a big role in how they behave. Behavior can be regulated by factors like hormones and organ pathways. Hormones play an influential role in behavior. For instance, if a female cat is being defensive towards other female cats and favoring other male cats, this may be a sign that she is in heat rather than just picky. In female cats, progesterone surges after mating and ovulation, whereas estrogen is what triggers typical heat behaviors and leads to mating. For males, testosterone is the  hormone that’s released,which signals to the male’s body it is time to mate with a female. 

Since some of these hormonally influenced behaviors can include cats wandering off and getting lost, having menstrual cycles and being aggressive towards one another, it may be best to consider a spay or neuter procedure.

Spaying and Neutering 

For spaying a female cat, this procedure would be very simple and is a routine surgical procedure.  both the uterus and the ovaries are removed — only removing one would not have the same effects hormonally nor behaviorally. After the procedure, the female cat will be sterile and will not have future litters. The same goes for a neutering procedure in which the testicles of male cats are removed, making them sterile as well.  

Bad Behavior Isn't All That Bad 

When a cat behaves badly, it can be very stressful for a pet owner. The more owners learn about  bad behavior, the more they realize it isn't always a curse. If you understand your cat’s body language and the root of your cat’s behavior, it can be easier to deal with. There are always solutions to bad behavior that can allow your cat to readjust and behave better. When you find your cat is behaving badly, it is best not to get stressed out but rather observe and learn your cat’s behaviors to see if the problem is something you can control or change. If not, behaviorists and veterinarians are here to assist you and your cat.

It’s a Joy to Own a Cat 

Cats are unique pets, and they are lovable and amazing companions. As smaller family members of lions, tigers, and other big cats, our house cats’ behaviors are extremely special. They have hearts of hunters and intense skills, so everyday can be a new experience with your pet. Spend time with your little feline and see if you observe any of the behaviors listed above — understanding their behaviors can be very beneficial for your bond. And, knowing what’s normal behavior for your cat can help you detect health problems early. Embrace every behavior and don't be afraid to learn as much as you can about your furry companion. 

Source: Cat health. Common Behaviors of Cats. 2019

SEE ALSO: Cat Vision: Seeing Things From Their Perspective

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