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Prevent Unwanted Behavior: See the World as Your Cat Does

Understanding that house cats have the same instincts as their feral cousins can help you head off behavior problems and keep everyone happy.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Nov 18th 2016


Cats engage in some puzzling behaviors. They might be cute while others are unwanted and problematic. The behaviors are not random — many of them are instinctual, and they up the odds of surviving in an unfriendly world. Understanding the underlying instinctive characteristics of cats can help cat lovers prevent troublesome behaviors and strengthen relationships.

Young man cuddling his cat.

Young man cuddling his cat. Photo by Shutterstock

Food stress

It’s easy for people to forget that cats do not approach their world in the same way we do. One of the many ways we differ is our relationship with food. Eating is often a social activity — we enjoy sharing meals with others. Conflicts are often mended around meals; bonds between people are developed and strengthened. Although we need food to live, food is also an effective social tool. It’s different for cats — they hunt and eat alone. Hunting and eating are not communal activities.

Cats are solitary hunters and eaters — they hunt alone, and adults don’t willingly share their meals with other adults. Cats’ social lives don’t revolve around food. Cats are not social eaters.

Cats are solitary hunters.

Cats are solitary hunters. Photo by Shutterstock

Many cat lovers, not understanding the solitary hunter-eater nature of cats, accidentally cause tensions, stress, and, at times, aggression in their multicat households. They feed their kitties together in one area — sometimes placing food bowls only inches away from each other. Problems can also occur when cats are forced to share a common food bowl.

Food stress is easily preventable. Every cat in the household needs her own feeding station. Instead of putting food bowls next to each other, put distance between them. Some cats do best being fed in separate rooms. Although cats will eat right next to each other if they have no other choice, they prefer not to. It stresses them.

Each cat needs her own food bowl.

Each cat needs her own food bowl. Photo by Shutterstock

It’s not just food bowls. Cats need to have an array of resources, such as litter boxes, vertical territory, scratchers, and toys to choose from. Scatter them throughout your home, in areas that your cat can easily access at any time.

One uncovered box per cat, plus one extra, located in different areas of the home

One uncovered box per cat, plus one extra, located in different areas of the home. Photo by Shutterstock

Cat wars

It is not uncommon for intense wars to break out between cats when they are poorly introduced to each other. Some people assume that cats will accept each other with a minimum of strife within a short time of meeting each other. It’s seldom hugs and kisses when the cats’ natural behavior characteristics are ignored.

Conflicts are common when cats are poorly introduced to each other.

Conflicts are common when cats are poorly introduced to each other. Photo by Shutterstock

In the wild, cats form colonies comprised of related females. Living in colonies increases the odds of survival — protecting the members against predators as well as providing communal kitten care. Queens share parental duties, nursing and caring for youngsters that aren’t their own while mums hunt. Kitties easily identify the other members of the colony, through visuals and a group scent. Cats who don’t carry the group scent are considered strangers and as a general rule are chased away. Sometimes these little outsiders, wanting to join the colony, hang out around the periphery until they are gradually accepted into the clowder. Adult males are usually excluded, except when it’s time to mate. Although our sweet, household kitties don’t need to live by their wits, they still are governed by instincts and won’t readily accept outsiders into their home without benefit of slow introductions.

A clowder of cats.

A clowder of cats. Photo by Shutterstock

Cats are also territorial, in the wild and in our homes. In nature, territories include resources such as prime hunting grounds and safe, sheltered areas. Instead of using fences to define their territories, cats use scent and visuals to mark. Marking sends strong messages to other felines. Depending on the number of other cats who live in the area, territories often overlap and are shared. They work it out, avoiding conflicts by taking turns. Our little household kitties are also territorial and will trade off, sharing rooms, vertical territory, furniture, and scratchers with each other at different times.

Cat marking her territory.

Cat marking her territory. Photo by Shutterstock

Unfortunately, humans sometimes don’t consider these characteristics when introducing cats to each other. Homes become war zones. By changing how kitties are integrated together, the introductions become smoother, with minimal stress. Start by spaying and neutering. Fixed cats are less territorial and are generally easier to integrate.

Whenever possible, adopt family members together — they have a group, familial scent. Kitties are more likely to fight with strangers than with relatives who smell familiar. Also, introductions are a non-issue when adopting kitties who are bonded with each other. Never separate bonded pairs — doing so is sad, kitties grieve.

Never separate bonded pairs.

Never separate bonded pairs. Photo by Shutterstock

Although strangers can become best buds, it takes time and patience. They need to be kept separated while gradually introduced to each other. Keep in mind the importance of territory and divide your home into zones — sanctuary rooms and a neutral zone. The cats need their own rooms that are off limits to each other. They should share the neutral zone, but not at the same time. Let them go into each other’s inner sanctums only after they are cool with each other.

Controlled scent exchanges will also help integrate kitties. Gently pet each cat’s cheek with a separate clean towel. Put the resident’s scent-laced towel in the newcomer’s room and the newcomer’s towel in the resident’s room. Don’t put their scents directly on each other. Doing so can cause stress and undermine the process because kitties can’t retreat from the other’s scent.

Scent exchanges can help introductions go smoothly. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Scent exchanges can help introductions go smoothly. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Even though our cherished little house cats are safe in our homes, they still have the same instincts their feral cousins have. Understanding these instinctual characteristics can help prevent behavior problems and insure our kitties are happy at home.

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Do you have 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, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, 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 positive reinforcement 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.