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Is There Such a Thing as Inappropriate Cat Behavior?

Give your cat an appropriate toy to play with
Give your cat an appropriate toy to play with by Shutterstock. Photography by Xseon | Shutterstock.
Last Updated on July 20, 2017 by

It’s frustrating when cats avoid using litter boxes, play war games or yowl throughout the night. Frequently, people label these behaviors and other disagreeable ones “inappropriate.”  Although these activities are unpleasant, they aren’t inappropriate — a more suitable description is “unappreciated.” From the cats perspective, the behaviors are appropriate for the situation. So, is there really any cat behavior that qualifies as inappropriate?

A woman pointing at a cat on a bed.
Although a cat behavior might not be appreciated, it’s not inappropriate. Photography by Shutterstock.

Cats have legitimate reasons for what they do. Many of these cat behaviors are survival tactics, helping to ensure access to resources as well as avoiding potentially life-threatening situations. Kitties also operate from instinct. Some of their activities, such as scratching, are instinctual, natural behaviors. And sometimes behaviors are unintentionally encouraged and reinforced by people.

Once you understand the underlying reasons for an unwanted cat behavior, it can be resolved in a way that addresses it and works for you and the cat.

Changing behaviors starts with how the actions are perceived. Instead of approaching the unappreciated activities as inappropriate, regard them as symptoms of bigger issues that need to be identified and dealt with. Kitties can’t use words to tell their people that they are stressed, bored or not feeling good. Acting out might be the only way cats can indicate that there are problems.

A cat unraveling a roll of toilet paper.
Cats sometimes act out when they are bored. Photography by Shutterstock.

Don’t punish cats for unwanted behaviors

Although living with a cat who acts out is frustrating, yelling at or punishing the perpetrator can make the problem worse. While punishment may momentarily stop a bad cat behavior, it typically stresses cats out and can increase their insecurities, escalating the unappreciated behavior and sometimes causing others. As far as the cat is concerned, she isn’t doing anything wrong — but it stresses her when she is being yelled at or punished by her favorite person. Also, punishment doesn’t teach the desired behavior. Cats have legitimate reasons for behaviors; aversives, yelling and punishment don’t address those reasons.

A woman yelling at a big brown tabby cat.
Yelling and punishing cats can made the problem worse. Photography by Shutterstock.

Play detective to figure out the “why” behind your cat’s behaviors

Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Something is causing the problem, and it’s your job to figure out what it is. The cat may be living with a painful medical problem or there might be unpleasant social dynamics or other stressful circumstances. Sometimes people unknowingly cause the problem.

An orange cat biting a woman's hand.
Playing with cats using hands can lead to cats biting. Photography by Shutterstock.

Some common reasons that cats engage in behaviors that aren’t appreciated:

Medical Conditions

Painful medical conditions are often at the root of behaviors such as aggression and litter box avoidance. Sometimes the only indicators of something that’s wrong are the cat’s actions. Chronic stress can also cause health issues as well as behavior changes. Whenever there is a change in behavior, the cat needs to be examined by a veterinarian.

Poor Litter Box Placement and Upkeep

Kitties aren’t at the top of the food chain. Although they’re predators, there are other animals who view them as dinner. Instinctually, cats try to avoid situations where they might be cornered or ambushed, such as litter boxes in closets and cabinets. Covered litter boxes aren’t always welcomed either. Even when there aren’t any other resident animals in the household, instincts prevail. They also avoid dirty litter boxes — cats are turned off by the sight and smells of excrement. Do you blame them?

A litter box in a cabinet — where it shouldn't be!
Cats would rather avoid areas where they might be cornered. Photography by Marilyn Krieger CCBC.

Interactions with Other Cats

Although cats can be buddies with other cats, they’re territorial — as a general rule, they don’t immediately accept newcomers with open arms. Introducing kitties too quickly to each other can cause skirmishes. Also typically, felines don’t respond favorably to neighborhood cats hanging out around their homes. Some will mark their territory by spraying and/or urinating next to windows and doors because of the strangers.

Two cats fighting.
Cats fighting. Photography by Shutterstock.

Neighborhood Cats

Neighborhood cats are also notorious for causing redirected aggression. Resident felines, seeing the unwanted strangers, become agitated and sometimes vent their angst onto the nearest animal or human. It isn’t a cat thing — animals of all species, including homo sapiens, sometimes take their frustrations out on someone else.

A black and white cat looking out of a window.
Neighborhood cats can cause problems for resident cats. Photography by Shutterstock.

Lack of Scratching Posts

Felines scratch objects for a variety of reasons, including marking territory and to alleviate stress. They have to scratch objects. If they don’t have scratching posts and horizontal scratchers for the job, they’ll find something else to scratch, like sofas or carpets.

A gray tabby cat scratching a tree outside.
Cats have to scratch — it’s an instinctual behavior. Photography by Shutterstock.

People Who Reinforce Bad Cat Behavior

Sometimes people inadvertently reinforce their kitty’s antics. They may feed their midnight vocalizer a treat in their efforts to quiet her, or they play with a biter who’s looking for attention. Cats are smart — they quickly figure out what gets the desired results.

A fluffy brown cat standing next to a broken plant vase.
Sometimes people reinforce the behaviors. Photo by Shutterstock

Although some cat behaviors can be frustrating to live with, they’re not inappropriate. These unappreciated behaviors are usually appropriate responses to specific circumstances. They may be the only indicators that there are serious problems that need to be addressed.

Thumbnail: Photography by Shutterstock.

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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.

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