Cat Behavior and MisBehavior

Cats are a mystery to many of their owners, perhaps more so than dogs.  Dogs are social, like we primates, and so we can often understand their need for attention, the reward of social contact and praise, and even, at a deeper evolutionary level, perhaps a lot of their signals and communication.  But cats – symbols of the unknown, the dark worlds, the places where humans feared to tread – why do cats mystify us so?

One answer is probably their lack of sociality.  Modern domestic cats are descended from relatively solitary species of wild cat (all cats but the lion are considered far to the solitary extreme of the sociality continuum).  So cats do not respond to social signals or rewards in the same way that we do, or our oh-so-social dogs do.  When we are faced with behavior problems in our pet cats, we have to interpret them and deal with them in different ways from similar-appearing issues in dogs.  In this essay, I will review the potential behavior issues in cats, and in later essays, I will explore both the evolution and the diagnosis and treatment of some of these issues in more detail.

Cat behavior issues fall into a few basic categories, each with some subtle nuances of their own, some specific to cats.  But most of these are common to dogs as well: aggression, urination and defecation, fear and anxiety, overactivity, ingestive issues, and scratching and licking issues.

Aggression issues are quite similar to those in dogs; for example,  fear aggression, play aggression, pain-elicited aggression, and redirected aggression.  Some are more common in cats, like territorial aggression and intermale aggression, and finally there are a couple of very rare categories, equally rare in dogs as well: predation and “undiagnosed severe aggressive attacks.”

Urination and defecation issues (“housebreaking”) are usually worse in cats, especially in cats kept indoors (as all cats should be).  While housebreaking is usually a fairly simple task in dogs, cats can be quite finicky about elimination in the house, with strong preferences for litterbox styles and litter substrate types.  In addition, there is the issue of spraying and marking in males (and not uncommonly, in females), as opposed to inappropriate urination.

Fear and anxiety (separation anxiety) issues are very similar to those in dogs, and are treated in similar ways.  Cats tend to be prone to similar overactivity issues, like play and attention-seeking, but can also be more prone than dogs to rare disorders categorized as hyperkinesis.  Cats are prone, perhaps more so than dogs, to ingestive issues like anorexia, grass-eating, and a mysterious syndrome called pica, in which cats eat nonnutritive objects.  Finally, cats, like dogs, can develop repetitive licking and object-scratching behaviors.

All of these issues require very specialized diagnosis and treatment by a behavior specialist/veterinarian team.  They can all be treated by the correct combination of positive behavior modification techniques applied by a qualified professional, modification of the environment (for example, litter), or use of the correct medications by a licensed veterinarian.

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About hafamilyseattle

I am a professor of animal behavior at the University of Washington, specializing in social behavior with a focus on primates, killer whales, crows, and companion animals (dogs and cats). For fun, I love to fish saltwater (spinning, fly), snorkel, and travel with my wife Renee and son Andrew.
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