Top 10 cat behavior tips


Cat owners can have a lot of questions: "Should I get a second cat as a playmate?" "How can I stop my cat from scratching the furniture?" "Why doesn't he use the litter box?" So in the spirit of David Letterman, I compiled this top 10 list of cat behavior tips.

Cat owners can have a lot of questions: "Should I get a second cat as a playmate?" "How can I stop my cat from scratching the furniture?" "Why doesn't he use the litter box?" So in the spirit of David Letterman, I compiled this top 10 list of cat behavior tips. I hope that sharing these tips with your clients will help educate them about their feline friends and strengthen the bond between them and their cats.

Jacqueline C. Neilson, DVM, DACVB


A persistent misconception about domestic cats is that they are not social. Terms such as independent and self-sufficient have been used to describe cats. This characterization was probably based on observations that most felid species do not form classically recognizable, permanent social groups. However, data collected over the last 20 years indicate that domestic cats are indeed social and are flexible in their sociability.1

Concentrated food sources bring free-ranging cats together. Historically these groupings have been characterized as simple aggregations; however, research has elucidated nonrandom social interactions and structure within these groups. This information is helpful in defining feline social organization as well as in rebuking the myth that domestic cats are asocial.

Perhaps the most striking and influential feline social structure is that between female domestic cats. In free-ranging domestic cats, a matriarchal society exists, with adult females forming lineages of related females and their offspring. A large group of cats (colony) may support several female lineages, with the largest lineages securing the best of the available resources. Within a lineage, there are usually amicable interactions among members, in contrast to the hostile interactions that are often seen toward outsider cats. Female cats within a lineage spend more time in close proximity to each other than to nonlineage members. Communal kitten care is noted within a lineage, and parental care of offspring is rare. Although lineages are fairly stable, they can change in composition. For example, lineages often split after the death of a matriarch.

Kittens automatically become integrated into the female lineage. Kittens and juveniles often prefer affiliations with their littermates as opposed to kittens of a different age group or more distantly related members. Cats may disperse from the natal band as they mature, usually between 1 or 2 years of age. Observational data of a stable neutered cat colony showed that related adult cats exhibited more affiliative behaviors toward each other than toward unrelated cats. In our households, this information may indicate that getting two littermates would increase the chances of social bonding, but this has yet to be objectively analyzed.


Although cats are no longer erroneously labeled as asocial,2 having multiple cats can increase problem behaviors. There is not only a purely mathematical probability that the likelihood of a problem behavior increases with an increased number of cats, but the social dynamics of feline-to-feline relationships can create problem behaviors. For example, social tension or aggression between cats may lead to fighting or elimination or marking problems. How many cats are too many? The answer depends on the cats' temperaments, their relatedness, and the space and resources available.

Intercat sociability is probably a function of both genetics and experience. Related cats within a group show more affiliative behaviors such as allogrooming and allorubbing than do unrelated cats,3 perhaps supporting the idea that related cats can live together more harmoniously than unrelated cats can. And a cat with previous negative experiences with other cats is likely to be less social with cats.

Free-ranging, domesticated male farm cats often have larger territorial ranges than female cats do, on average three times as large.4 So a male pet cat may require more space than a female cats does, and this effect may be multiplied in groups. However, most studies examining space use in pet cats are done with cats that have outdoor access, and in these studies, both male and female cats demonstrate range overlap with other cats. A study of indoor-only cats showed that in a 10-room house male cats usually have a larger range (four to five rooms) than their female counterparts do (three to 3.6 rooms) but that the cats often share favored spots on a rotational basis.5 A 2,000-sq-ft house with multiple feeding locations, vertical perches, and litter boxes may be able to successfully accommodate four or five cats, while a house with the same square footage but with limited provisions may only be able to successfully accommodate two cats.

Some owners wonder which gender would be best when adding another cat to the household. A study of indoor-only neutered two-cat households showed that gender (male-male, female-female, male-female) pairings did not affect affiliative or aggressive behaviors.6


Although the socialization of puppies receives a lot of attention, the same is not true of kittens. But with cats surpassing dogs as the most popular pet in the United States, more attention will likely focus on early feline development. Another reason to examine this issue is that with successful spay-and-neuter programs for owned cats and an increasing public awareness of and involvement in feral-cat colonies, feral kittens are being placed in homes. In some areas of the United Kingdom, for example, reproduction by owned cats is not sustaining the demand for kittens, and feral kittens are meeting these demands.7 Knowledge about kitten socialization can help improve the chances of successfully placing kittens, especially those born in a feral environment.

The sensitive socialization period is the period in an animal's life when it is sensitive to and develops social interactions with others. From a human-animal bond perspective, it is desirable that kittens develop social attachments to their owners. Studies have shown that the sensitive socialization period in kittens toward people is between 2 to 7 weeks of age.8 In these studies, the researchers exposed kittens of different ages to handling by people for different durations. The kittens were then tested on their approachability to people, the time willingly spent on people's laps, and other affiliative behaviors toward people (flank rubbing, chin rubbing, vocalization). The researchers found that cats that were handled between 2 to 7 weeks of age were friendlier to people.

Other studies have found that one hour of handling by people per day provides the maximum beneficial human-socialization effect; beyond that hour there is little additional benefit.9 If handled exclusively by one person, a kitten may develop a special relationship with that person but still appears to be able to generalize this human socialization to other people.9 A study testing single-handler kittens vs. multiple-handler kittens found no difference in holding scores.9

A study performed in the United Kingdom examined the effects of socialization on feral kittens.10 The researchers examined 70 kittens of feral origin (born outside of human habitation to an unowned queen) and 28 domestic kittens (born in a home or shelter to an owned or recently owned queen). At different ages, the kittens were exposed to different levels of handling and social contact with people. At 1 year of age, the kittens were tested on the length of time they would stay on their owners' laps with light restraint and on how quickly they would engage in play with a toy. Also, the owners were questioned about their satisfaction with their pets and asked to report any problem behaviors they experienced with their kittens, such as housesoiling, furniture scratching, or fear of people. Twenty-three of the feral kittens had received no handling or contact with people before 7 weeks of age. When tested at 1 year of age, 11 of these 23 kittens could not be held by their owners for one minute. Both the feral and domestic cats played with the object toy, showing no differences between the groups. However, the feral kittens that were raised indoors only were faster to play with the toy than those raised in an outdoor pen.

In this study, multiplicity of handlers improved scores on the holding and the readiness to play tests. No significant differences were noted between the kittens of domestic origin and the kittens of feral origin in common problem behaviors reported by owners. There was also no difference in owners' total satisfaction with their pets between domestic-origin and feral-origin kittens. This study supports the data found in earlier studies that the sensitive socialization period in kittens appears to end at about 7 weeks of age. It also suggests that feral kittens can make acceptable pets if people have realistic expectations.

Socializing a young kitten to people would include having it in the home as opposed to outdoors so that the kitten is exposed to typical household activities and noises. Daily gentle handling by people in the form of holding and petting is advised. Engaging the cat in play with safe toys is also recommended.


Litter boxes are often designed to please cat owners instead of cats, as most people want to keep cat elimination a small part of their cat ownership experience. So commercially available litter boxes tend to be compact. And because many cats are overweight,11 a drastic discrepancy exists between litter box size and cat size, with the boxes being too small for cats to comfortably move around in. A covered box further reduces maneuverability.

Suggesting that clients purchase large, uncovered plastic storage containers or similar items to use as litter boxes may help reduce elimination problems. A good rule of thumb is that the box should be one and a half times longer than the length of the cat. Senior cats with reduced mobility may appreciate a low-sided box or entry area to ease accessibility (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A litter box with high sides and a cut-out opening.


Cats are known for their fastidious behavior—grooming takes up a good portion of their time, only second to sleeping.12 Despite this fact, many owners do not regularly scoop out and wash their cats' litter boxes. It is no wonder that many cats develop aversions to dirty litter boxes and seek alternative sites for elimination. I suggest that owners scoop twice daily and routinely wash the boxes with soapy water. The frequency of washing is dictated by litter type—boxes containing litter that clumps the urine for scoop removal will need less frequent washing (about once every two to four weeks) than boxes containing nonclumping litter (about once a week). Since plastic can accumulate odors over time, after washing a litter box, an owner should sniff it to check for residual odor. If the owner can detect a urine odor, it is probably time to replace the box.


To discover what a cat likes, especially concerning its litter box options, ask the cat. Set up a cafeteria-style selection of different litters and boxes, and allow the cat to indicate its favorite by use (Figure 2). Most cats prefer finely particulate, sandlike unscented litter material (clumping litter) and large uncovered boxes.13,14

Figure 2. Offer cats a variety of options when selecting litters and boxes.


If several cats are kept indoors, they must be given an environment of plenty to prevent and manage behavior problems. An environment of plenty includes multiple feeding, water, and litter box locations and multiple single-cat-size sleeping perches. At a minimum, there should be one station for each cat, but in households with behavior problems, this may be increased to two or more stations per cat. Adding stations increases the space and decreases potential spots of conflict among cats.


Placing bells on a cat-safe collar is an easy way to make a cat more detectable. With intercat conflict, putting bells on the aggressor may allow the victim to use avoidance strategies. And in cats with play-related aggression toward people, the bells can warn people that they are about to be pounced on, so they can then avoid the attack or divert the cat onto a more appropriate target (string, ball). Cats that scratch furniture can be monitored by owners listening for the telltale sound of the bells as the cat tears into the sofa. And cats wearing bells may be less successful in predatory conquests.


When a cat gets aggressively aroused, it can take a while for it to calm down, sometimes days or weeks.15 So before making any attempts at reconciliation, give a cat plenty of time to calm down after an upsetting incident. Cats are also notorious for redirected aggression—when upset they often lash out at the closest target. The slightest action, such as brief eye contact, sneezing, or uncrossing your legs, can trigger a redirected attack in an aroused cat. Watch for signs that indicate an upset cat (ears back, tail fluffed, tail twitching), and avoid interacting with that cat for an extended period.15


Marking is a form of both olfactory and visual communication in cats. Several forms of marking exist, including scratch and urine marking, bunting (facial marking), and rolling. The most problematic markings for pet owners are scratch and urine markings, since they often damage property. Considering that marking is a normal cat behavior, it is understandable that it is challenging to completely inhibit it.

Scratch marking

A cat's motivation for scratch marking varies from maintenance grooming of the claw bed to deposition of an olfactory mark to convey temporal cues regarding the cat's proximity or passage. Owners need to provide outlets for scratch marking and make unacceptable targets less attractive.

Cats tend to scratch mark on surfaces in their usual paths, so scratching posts need to be placed in prominent, well-traveled locations. Some cats prefer to scratch on vertical surfaces while others prefer horizontal surfaces. Cat owners should watch their cats to see what orientation they prefer and should provide scratching surfaces that cater to their cats' preferences. Scratching posts should be sturdy and tall enough to provide a cat with a good stretch. Entice cats to the post or pad with catnip, toys, and treats, and praise them when they use it.

Selecting furniture fabrics (e.g. suede, leather) that do not provide purchase for the claws can make the furniture less attractive to cats. Placing aversive materials, such as double-stick tape, on the unacceptable targets can also deter a cat from using these sites. Spraying unacceptable scratch sites with the feline pheromone Feliway (Ceva Santé Animale; Veterinary Products Laboratories) may encourage bunting instead of scratch marking.

Urine marking

Stress, anxiety, sexual status, and territorial issues can all play a role in urine marking. Social strife among cats is a likely cause of urine marking. If the underlying cause can be identified and removed or modified, then the urine marking behavior may decline. Marking can occur seasonally, coinciding with a cat's mating season. Providing adequate litter boxes (number of boxes = number of cats + 1), cleaning the boxes regularly (scooped daily, washed weekly), and cleaning soiled spots with an enzymatic cleanser can help reduce the frequency of marking.16 And using Feliway can also help reduce urine marking.17

It is often necessary to use drug therapy to treat cases of refractory urine marking. Tricyclic antidepressants (amitriptyline, clomipramine) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (fluoxetine, paroxetine) are the drugs of choice to control marking. Amitriptyline is dosed at 0.5 to 1 mg/kg orally once or twice a day. The pill's bitterness and the marked sedative side effects make amitriptyline less appealing. Amitriptyline also lacks definitive data on efficacy, although anecdotal information is plentiful. Clomipramine dosed at 0.5 to 1 mg/kg orally once a day has been shown to be efficacious in treating urine marking.18-20 Fluoxetine dosed at 0.5 to 1 mg/kg orally once daily has also been shown to be highly effective in treating urine marking.21 And paroxetine dosed at 0.5 to 1 mg/kg orally once daily is another option for treating urine marking.22

If drug therapy is implemented, results are usually noted in one to four weeks. Treatment should be continued for a minimum of two to three months if successful. An attempt can then be made to wean the cat off the medication. Recurrence is probable unless environmental or social changes have occurred to reduce the motivation to mark. If a cat relapses with drug withdrawal, a second course of treatment appears to be just as successful as the first course.23

Jacqueline C. Neilson, DVM, DACVB

Animal Behavior Clinic

809 S.E. Powell Blvd.

Portland, OR 97202.

Dr. Neilson lectured on this topic at the 2005 Central Veterinary Conference. Her paper originally appeared in the conference proceedings.


1. MacDonald DW, Yamaguchi N, Kerby G. Group-living in the domestic cat: its sociobiology and epidemiology. In: Turner DC, Bateson P, eds. The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. 2nd ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000;96-115.

2. Crowell-Davis SL, Curtis TM, Knowles RJ. Social organization in the cat: a modern understanding. J Feline Med Surg 2004;6:19-28.

3. Curtis TM, Knowles RJ, Crowell-Davis SL. Influence of familiarity and relatedness on proximity and allogrooming in domestic cats (Felis catus). Am J Vet Res 2003;64:1151-1154.

4. Liberg O, Sandell M, Pontier D, et al. Density, spatial organization and reproductive tactics in the domestic cat and other felids. In: Turner DC, Bateson P, eds. The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. 2nd ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000;119-147.

5. Bernstein PL, Strack M. A game of cat and house: spatial patterns and behaviour of 14 cats (Felis catus) in the home. Anthrozoos 1996;9:25-39.

6. Barry K, Crowell-Davis SL. Gender differences in the social behavior of the neutered indoor-only domestic cat. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1999;64:193-211.

7. Bradshaw JWS, Brown SL. A survey of current methods used by the Cats Protection League for the care and socialization of feral kittens. Report to the CPL. February 1996.

8. Karsh EB, Turner DC. The human-cat relationship. In: Turner DC, Bateson P, eds. The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988;159-177.

9. Turner DC. The human-cat relationship. In: Turner DC, Bateson P, eds. The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. 2nd ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000;194-206.

10. Lowe SE, Bradshaw JWS. Effects of socialization of the behaviour of feral kittens, in Proceedings. 3rd Int Congress Vet Behav Med 2001;28-29.

11. Lund EM, Armstrong PJ, Kirk CA, et al. Prevalence and risk factors for obesity in adult cats from private veterinary practices. Int J Appl Res Vet Med 2005;3:88-96.

12. Beaver BV. Feline behavior: a guide for veterinarians. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders Co 1992;255-261.

13. Borchelt PL. Cat elimination behavior problems. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 1991;21:257-264.

14. Neilson JC. Pearl vs. clumping: litter preference in a population of shelter cats (abst). In: Abstracts from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. Boston, Mass: 2001;14.

15. Heath S. Feline aggression. In: Horowitz D, Mills D, Heath S, eds. BSAVA manual of canine and feline behavioural medicine. Gloucester: BSAVA 2002;216-228.

16. Pryor PA, Hart BL, Bain MJ, et al. Causes of urine marking in cats and effects of environmental management on frequency of marking. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2001;219:1709-1713.

17. Hunthausen W. Evaluating a feline facial pheromone analogue to control urine spraying. Vet Med 2000;95:151-155.

18. Dehasse J. Feline urine spraying. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1997;52:365-371.

19. Kroll T, Houpt KA. A comparison of cyproheptadine and clomipramine for the treatment of spraying cats, in Proceedings. 3rd Int Congress Vet Behav Med 2001;184-185.

20. Landsberg GM. Effects of clomipramine on cats presented for urine marking, in Proceedings. 3rd Int Congress Vet Behav Med 2001;186-189.

21. Pryor PA, Hart BL, Cliff KD, et al. Effects of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor on urine spraying behavior in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2001;219:1557-1561.

22. Landsberg G, Hunthausen W, Ackerman, L. Handbook of behavior problems of the dog and cat. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders Co, 2003;374.

23. Hart BL, Cliff KD, Tynes VV, et al. Control of urine marking by use of long-term treatment with fluoxetine or clomipramine in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2005;226:378-382.

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