Today’s domestic cats are descendants of Near Eastern wildcats, and you might be hard-pressed to see the difference between the ancient ancestor and her modern progeny when placed side-by-side. Near Eastern wildcats still roam the Middle East, and if you consider their daily routine, you can better understand why cats do the things they do. Many feline “behavior problems” are actually activities inherent to cats, however inconvenient and frustrating they may be for cat owners. Unfortunately, that frustration too-often leads to relinquishment or euthanasia of cats, but understanding your cat’s instinctual behaviors can go a long way toward maintaining the bond the two of you share.

Normal feline behaviors

Normal feline behaviors include:

  • Communication — Cats communicate in three ways:
    • Vocal: meowing, hissing, growling
    • Visual: body language, such as the position of the ears or tail
    • Olfactory: scents, like facial marking, anal secretions, and urine marking
  • Elimination — Cats typically eliminate independently at around 4 weeks of age. They instinctively prefer fine, not coarse, litter material that has good drainage. The normal elimination routine that wild cats follow is investigating a spot, digging a hole, eliminating in the hole, and covering up the hole.
  • Sleeping patterns — While we tend to think of cats as nocturnal, they are actually crepuscular in nature, meaning they are most active at dusk and dawn.
  • Scratching behavior — Scratching serves a variety of functions:
    • Scent marking
    • Visual marking
    • Stretching muscles
    • Conditioning the claws

Unfortunately, these completely normal feline behaviors are not always conducive to a peaceful home. But if you consider that behaviors like scratching your furniture or door frames, loudly prowling the house at night, and marking territory with urine are completely normal behaviors in cats, you can shift the blame away from your cat and toward your unrealistic expectations. After all, your cat is just being a cat.

But while cats are just being cats, they can destroy furniture and cause us to lose precious sleep.  How can we shape normal cat behaviors into behaviors that are acceptable in our homes? 

Feline behavior problems

Common owner complaints about feline behavior include:

  • Scratching furniture, carpet, and woodwork
  • Feline house soiling, including urine marking to establish territorial boundaries, and inappropriate elimination, when cats choose a new toileting area, such as a throw rug or a pile of grocery bags
  • Nighttime activities, such as howling, that interferes with owner sleep

Medical versus behavior problems

When considering new behavior complaints, you should first rule out medical problems as an underlying cause; for instance, a urinary tract infection can cause inappropriate urination. In addition, any condition that causes cats to drink more water, such as liver or kidney disease, or diabetes, will increase urine production, and may lead to inappropriate urination in places other than the litter box. Endocrine disease may be to blame for increased nighttime activity—cats with overactive thyroid glands are notorious for howling the night away and begging for food every chance they get. 

Once underlying medical conditions have been ruled out, you can work on correcting unwanted behaviors. The lifestyle changes imposed on our domestic cats vary greatly from the way their ancestors lived. While today’s cats seemingly have the perfect luxury lifestyle, we’ve really ended up with a nation of fat, bored cats. And cats who are bored are prone to behavior problems.

Enriching your cat’s environment

The best thing owners can do for their indoor cats is enrich their home environment. The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine has a program called The Indoor Cat Initiative, which aims to help owners solve their indoor cat’s behavior problems and offers suggestions on providing a stimulating environment.

Environmental enrichment for your cat is as easy as:

  • Providing adequate environmental resources, such as food and water stations, litter boxes, resting and perching areas, toys and play activities, and scratching posts
  • Placing litter boxes in a quiet place and scooping daily
  • Providing one litter box per cat, plus one extra, and filling them with clumping clay litter
  • Instituting regular play sessions using toys that mimic your cat’s preferred prey (e.g., feathers on a pole or small toy mice)
  • Devoting regular time for affection 
  • Eliminating or minimizing conflicts between household cats
  • Following predictable routines and instituting household changes slowly to minimize stress
  • Adding vertical territory, such as shelves or perches—this is especially important in multi-cat households to maintain social hierarchies without aggression
  • Providing food puzzles at mealtime, which has been proven to reduce problems ranging from urine marking and inappropriate urination to obesity and aggression 

Many indoor cats are happy with a lazy life of luxury, and if your cat is content, don’t rock the boat. But, if your cat’s behaviors are negatively affecting the bond you share, or relationships with other household pets, contact us for advice that will ensure your indoor cat behaves appropriately and you are both stress-free.