Cats do not hold grudges. They don’t pee on the bed, bite, ignore their people, or act out in other ways because they are “getting back” at their owners. Nor are they purposely trying to irritate them. Cats always have legitimate reasons for their behaviors. Holding grudges and deliberately being irritating are not among them.
It is easy to anthropomorphize and attribute human characteristics to animals. Some of these characteristics include vindictiveness, spite, and a full range of other traits. Although cats do feel emotions and their responses can be similar to people’s, they don’t act out of revenge, nor do they intentionally try to irritate. These are behaviors that humans can call their very own.
Even though cats don’t get even or do obnoxious behaviors to intentionally irritate their owners, there are legitimate reasons for their actions. It isn’t a coincidence that the behaviors may coincide with significant events such as travel, changes in the household, or a new job. Cats are sensitive to change — many become very stressed and anxious when there are changes to their world. Stressed cats can develop a variety of behavior challenges. Because stress can also lead to medical problems, the first item on the agenda is having cats thoroughly examined by veterinarians when there are behavior changes. Serious and painful medical problems can cause cats to “act out.”
Here are three scenarios that lead some people to believe their cats are holding grudges or purposely acting out with the sole purpose of irritating those around them:
It’s never pleasant to come home and find a puddle of urine on the bed, in a favorite pair of shoes, or on a partner’s clothes. The lovely event may happen when people are traveling or after they come home. A significant other recently moving in or someone moving out may also trigger the unpleasant behavior.
Considering the sequence of events, it’s easy for people to conclude that their sweet kitties are getting back at them. Some people might believe, for example, that a cat is mad for being left alone, or because of a new person or animal brought into the home.
Although the cats are sending messages to their owners, the communiqués are not about revenge. Most likely, they are about feeling insecure and anxious.
Some cats experience separation anxiety when left alone for a long period of time. They might urinate on pillows, clothing, or other places that are heavily used by their favored people — mingling their own scent with that of their owners. There are many other reasons that can contribute to their anxieties. These include medical issues, poor litter box maintenance, and boredom.
Urinating, defecating, or spraying a new partner’s pillow or shoes doesn’t mean the cat is carrying a grudge. The cat might feel insecure about the person and is not immediately accepting the changes that accompany someone moving in. Moving, remodeling, and unpacking are stressful events — often causing cats to have behavior issues. Others, who have been the sole subjects of their owners’ affection, may have problems with attention being focused away from them and onto the new partner. It doesn’t help if the newcomer isn’t a fan of cats. Cats are perceptive — they know when someone doesn’t like them. It is also possible that the new person smells weird.
New partners and roommates can help the situation by feeding, playing with, and interacting with the kitties every day. Doing so will encourage warm, fuzzy feelings and help the cats adjust to their new human friends.
Cat lovers take it personally when their usually affectionate kitties stop hanging out with them. They might believe their cats are mad or don’t love them anymore because the cats stop sleeping with them or shy away from being petted and cuddled. Although this is heartbreaking, cats don’t turn from their people because they no longer love them or are “getting back” at them.
Some cats avoid their favorite people after the humans have petted and socialized with other animals. Cats are territorial and generally do not appreciate other animals laying claim to their people through scent. Owners can keep their kitties happy by washing hands after fraternizing with another animal. If the stranger has enjoyed lap time, cat parents should change clothes before greeting their own special cats.
New jobs, changes in schedules, and travel are all common stressors. Felines respond in a number of ways — some aren’t bothered at all, while others avoid their people and some develop elimination issues. Cat parents can help their kitties adjust by keeping a consistent schedule when they are home — feeding, playing, and doing other activities at the same times every day. Additionally, cat attitudes can be improved by owners making sure that something their kitties enjoy always happens whenever they are together. It may be as simple as giving them treats they adore, toys, or play.
Adopting another household animal can also cause the persona non grata response. Sometimes the new pet takes over the favored sleeping space or there is animosity between the animals. More resources such as toys, vertical territory, and scratchers can help defuse the situation. Or, the cats may need to be separated from each other and gradually reintroduced.
Recently, videos featuring cats knocking stuff off of tables and desks have become popular — some have even gone viral. Unfortunately, most carry labels that call the cats “jerks” or “dicks.” Some state that the cats are intentionally irritating their owners. Although the kitties have reasons for the behavior, being irritating isn’t one of them. And, they are not being “jerks.”
Boredom and rewards are powerful motivators. Bored cats often invent their own forms of entertainment — such as pushing objects off high surfaces and then intensely watching them clatter to the floor. More rewarding than the entertainment value of falling objects is attention from cat parents. Most people react when cats knock stuff off of counters — sometimes they pick up the objects and place them next to the cat, other times they talk, yell, or pick the kitty up. Often, the felines are further reinforced for the behavior with petting and lap time. It doesn’t take long for kitties to learn that when they knock things down they get the attention they crave from their favorite people. Cats are not “jerks” when they knock things off of counters and tables — they repeat the behavior because it is rewarded and reinforced with attention.
Next time your cat does something that is annoying, keep in mind that she is not intentionally irritating you or doing it out of spite. Most likely, she is stressed by a recent event or an ongoing situation, or the unwanted behavior is being reinforced.
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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.
Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses force free methods that include environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.
She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other force-free methods. Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.