Cats Behaving Badly

Research indicates inadequate environmental stimulation and undersocialization cause feline misbehavior.

Cats have been domesticated for more than 4,000 years, but shamefully little is known about their normal behavior patterns, the factors that contribute to behavior problems and the best ways to resolve them. One of the most common behavior problems cat owners face is fighting among family cats. Improved methods for fighting prevention and resolution require a better understanding of cat social behavior, including what constitutes normal cat social relationships and the factors that influence whether cats will form affiliative relationships with one another. Recent research discovered neutered, indoor-only house cats exhibited no differences in agonistic or friendly behaviors based on gender pair combinations,) which negates the belief that any particular gender pair (e.g., male/female) is more likely to get along better than any other pair.

This same study also found the level of aggression between cats decreased significantly after living together for more than eight months. Further, other research found few affiliative behaviors (allorubbing and allogrooming) were seen in a group of cats living communally in a shelter until the cats had been together for at least a year.2 These findings hold particular significance for owners introducing a new cat to resident cats. First, cats require significant time to learn to get along with each other. Owners who expect cats to quickly develop a friendly relationship are likely to be disappointed, putting at least one cat at risk for not staying in the home. Second, cat to cat introductions should be very controlled and implemented gradually, by providing opportunities for the cats to watch or sniff each other without direct interaction. Most owners rush cat to cat introductions and, in fact, many do not implement any formal introduction procedure, which contributes to social stress and increases the likelihood development of fighting. Veterinarians can assist owners by providing detailed information about cat introductions.


One significant discovery is the tremendous individual variation among cats in their social behavior and preferences for group or individual living. One factor likely contributing to these individual differences is the degree of socialization a cat has received. It is well known the amount of socialization young animals receive has a tremendous affect on adult social behavior. Further, many behaviorists believe kitten socialization is equally important as puppy socialization. Undersocialized cats exhibit fearful reactions to visitors, new environments, changes in their environments and car rides. Many cats are difficult to handle in Many cats clinic, in part because they are stressed, anxious and defensive by the time they arrive. An innovative socialization program called Kitty Kindy3 encourages owners to bring their kittens to clinic socialization sessions, where kittens learn important social skills, including how to play with other kittens, and owners learn about their cats' behaviors.

Environmental Enrichment

An important topic related to feline socialization is environmental enrichment. The idea of indoor-only cats, especially in urban or suburban areas, has long been advocated by many veterinarians, behaviorists and animal shelters in order to protect cats from disease, injuries and being a nuisance to the community. However, many professionals have begun to question whether a crowded, multi-cat, indoor environment can adequately meet cats' behavioral needs. One study found indoor cats may live at densities as high as 70 times the highest densities observed in studies of outdoor cats. 4 One option toward alleviating crowded, tense situations is encouraging cat owners to provide their cats access to the outdoors in a safe, confined area. Outdoor cat enclosures are becoming more widely available commercially, as are plans for do-it-yourself construction.

Litterbox Behaviors

At the very top of undesirable behaviors for cats is litterbox problems, which often can be the result of the cats' changing surface and location preferences, combined with a litterbox aversion. The type of litter used is often one of several crucial factors that determine whether a cat will reliably use the litterbox. Studies show cats generally prefer soft, fine-grained litters;-5 unfortunately, some new litter product manufacturers don't take this research into account. New pearl and crystal-type pellets seem to have been developed with the cat owner in mind, rather than the cat. These pellets are relatively large and composed of rigid silica material, resulting in a material where the texture and feel is just the opposite of what most cats prefer. Preliminary results from a study of shelter cats found that when given a choice between clumping and pearl litters, the majority preferred the clumping. When litterbox lapses stem from substrate and/or location preference, first compare the litterbox with the soiled areas to analyze what preferences the soiled areas provide that the litterbox doesn't. Common results of this comparison are that the soiled substrates are often softer than the litter (e.g., carpeting, clean clothes or the bed, as compared to clay or pelleted litter), and the soiled locations provide better protection from other family pets or are more accessible than the litterbox. When litterbox problems are the result of litterbox aversion and surface or location preferences, medication is not indicated. Medication however, can be helpful for other types of behavior problems.

Dr. Hefts, a certified applied animal behaviorist, owns a behavior consulting practice in Littleton, Colo. She is the author of a book and several videotapes, and lectures widely to veterinarians, dog trainers and animal shelters.

By Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., CAAB


1. Barry, K1 and Crowell Davis, S. Gender differences in the social behavior of the neutered indoor-only domestic cat. Applied Animal Behavior Science.1999;64:193-211.

2. Bradshaw, JWS. The behaviour of the domestic cat. CAB International. Wallingford, U.K. 1992.

3. Seskel, K. 1997.Kitty Kindly. pp. 28-30 in Mills, DS, Heath, SE and U Harrington, Eds. Proceedings of the First International Conference on Veterinary Behavioural Medicine, Birmingham, UK. , Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, Great Britain.

4. Bernstein, PL and Strack, M. A game of cat and house: spatial patterns and behavior of 14 domestic cats (Felis catus) in the home. Anthrozoos.1996;1:25-39.

5. Borchelt, PL. Cat elimination behavior problems. Veterinary Clinics of North America, Small Animal Practice. 1991;21,2:257-264.

6. Neilson, JC. Unpublished data, personal communication.