Animal care and behaviour

Behavioural Problems in Cats


Poesje Mauw who lives in Amsterdam, Holland. 'Poesje Mauw' is Dutch for 'Pussy Cat'.

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Cats: Behavioural Problems

Some cats may have, or develop behavioural problems, though many 'behavioural problems' are simply natural behaviours, exhibited in an inappropriate situation. To put this in less fancy terms, the cat is just doing what comes naturally, at a time and place that's inconvenient to you! Your first port of call if you're worried about your cat's behaviour should be your vet. Any change in behaviour may be due to illness, and your vet can also advise on behavioural problems, but may want to refer you to a pet behaviour counsellor.

A few common behavioural problems are discussed here, along with suggestions for possible solutions. It's also worth looking at our article on Indoor Cats for suggestions on how to give your cat a stimulating environment, because many behavioural problems are linked to boredom.

is also useful for further information.


Aggression, in the sense of cats attacking their owners, or other animals, is one of the most common behavioural worries of cat owners. It's helpful to class aggression into different types, like petting aggression, fear aggression, re-directed aggression, and inter-cat aggression, to work out why a cat is being aggressive, and what can be done about it. Always check with your vet if your cat suddenly becomes aggressive, because this may well be due to illness. 

Inter-cat aggression

This may sometimes occur in multi-cat households, often when a new cat is introduced, so careful introductions are important. Take it gradually, and unless the cats are especially laid.back, it's worth delaying an introduction until the newcomer has been eating the same food for a couple of days, so smells more like the established cat(s). If you pet each cat separately, each will be able to get used to the other's scent on your clothes and skin. Let the cats get used to one another's scent before you let them see one another, and when they do meet, a mesh barrier is handy, so you can see how relaxed they are with one another. Once they are relaxed, you can let them interact without a barrier, always under supervision at first. If you have more than one established cat, introduce the newcomer to them one at a time. Give the cats plenty of space when they first meet. If the room where they are introduced has plenty of hidey-holes, the warier cat can watch from a safe space. Older cats may find kittens too plaguey, so ensure they can get some peace and quiet away from the little one.

Despite careful introductions, an established cat may take a dislike to the newcomer, perhaps because it feels that its home territory is being threatened. Sometimes the newcomer will be aggressive towards the established cat or cats, due to fear. Future interactions between the cats will have to be carefully manipulated. You can try using a wire mesh pen to isolate one or other of the cats, or even two pens placed beside each other, so that the aggressor and victim can be exposed to one another's scents, but with no actual physical contact. Both cats can then be fed to distract them. However, such pens can lead to further stress, and the temperament of the cats is an important factor in determining whether pens will be helpful or make matters worse.

You can also try mixing the cats' facial pheromones, using a cloth to stroke both cats cheeks, chin and head. The cloth can than be wiped on furniture and doorways to invoke a feeling of security in both cats. Perhaps the best you can expect is a mutual tolerance, and if this doesn't happen, the only option may be to re-home one or other of the cats. It's a very difficult decision, but the best interests of the cat are what counts.

Redirected aggression

Many cat owners may have experienced redirected aggression without realizing it. They've approached their pet whilst it is looking out of a window, and have met with an aggressive response. Perhaps the cat has seen another cat outside, and, as that cat is inaccessible, the aggression and frustration are redirected towards an accessible target - the poor owner! If the cat is approached by another cat in the household in the same situation, the same thing can happen, and this can damage the social bond between the two cats. Cats may also be fired up because they're spooked by a dog, and lash out when an owner tries to pick them up to comfort them.

Humans are also capable of redirected aggression. We can get snappy with those around us when we're stressed out, and can overreact even to a touch. As with fellow humans, it's worth being sensitive to body language, and if your companion looks stressed, use very gentle words rather than touch. If cats are regularly on edge from seeing rival cats, or dogs, you can also try to dissuade them from jumping on windowsills to see outside, or screen part of the window or door from where your cat has seen a threat. Try restoring cat friendships damaged in this way using the same techniques used for inter-cat aggression, reintroducing the cats to one another by mixing facial pheromones or using wire mesh pens.

Fear aggression

Cats exhibiting fear aggression may strike out when they feel cornered, using their forepaws to grip whilst kicking with the back feet. Such cats may be genetically shy, becoming aggressive when fearful, though some cats can learn to become fearfully aggressive. Using food treats can help to desensitize the cat to the stimuli that caused the fear. Give the treats when the cat is calm and not reactive, then gradually introduce whatever it is that the cat's afraid of.

Fear aggression may be a particular problem where children are concerned. Their enthusiasm may appear threatening to cats, and they may indeed be threatening, for example if they try to pull the cat's tail! Some cats are very tolerant of children's attempts to pet or manhandle them, and simply move out of the way, if they've had enough. Others may respond with fear aggression. You can ask a child to sit quietly and ignore the cat, while you place a treat at a distance from the child. If the cat takes the treat, try again, each time with the treat nearer the child. Tell the child not to stroke the cat unless the cat asks to be stroked, and only to do so for very short periods, and very gently, using a soft voice.

Some cats and children simply do not mix. The children may be too young to be able to respect cats, while some cats are too unpredictable to be allowed near children. All cats need an escape route from very young children, who really need to be supervised if they interact with cats. You need to use your own judgement here. If there is any risk of injury to either the child or the cat, you just have to keep the two apart. Generally, though, there's a good chance that older children can win the confidence of timid cats. (also see under-attachment).

Status-related aggression

Assertive and confident cats may want to control a particular member of the household, and the cat may try to block that person's path by posturing and vocalizing, until the human gives the cat what he or she wants! If this produces no results, the cat may lash out. Signs of impending aggression are tail flicking, staring, growling and ears back, flat against the cat's head. You can sometimes defuse the situation by refusing to interact with the cat, and walking calmly away, leaving the cat until he or she has calmed down. Don't try direct physical corrections like tapping the cat. This may be interpreted as a challenge and the aggression may be intensified, though a puff of air and even blowing in a cat's face can be effective.

The person being 'victimized' should ensure that the cat isn't rewarded for bullying - if you feed a cat immediately after it has lashed out at you, this is sending the wrong message! Instead, exert more control by calling the cat an providing a tasty titbit, at times when the cat is calm. If your cat tries to steal your food when you are eating it, remove the cat from the room, and never offer titbits while you're eating, or you'll be encouraging your companion to develop bad habits. 

Petting aggression

This occurs when the cat suddenly attacks and bites the hand that is stroking it. Most cats have a level of tolerance to petting, and when this is reached they will either try to move away or respond with aggression. Humans often enjoy stroking cats, and believe it will always be pleasurable for the cat, but this isn't always so. If you pick your cat up for a cuddle, and interrupt an interesting feline activity, like bird-watching, your cat is likely to express displeasure.

Cats also have particular likes and dislikes when it comes to petting, and will tell you in no uncertain terms if you are too rough for their tastes. Signs of impending attack are often obvious, such as tail twitching and growling, so the owner can act on these signs by stopping the petting. Children should be taught these signs! Owners can also try different ways of interacting with their cat, such as through play, using a variety of toys.

Play-related aggression

This isn't really aggression, it's just that a youngster hasn't learnt how to play acceptably, and is pretending you are prey. Young cats may attack humans with a pounce simply because it's fun, or they can get very bitey during cuddles. Just don't carry on playing if it means you're getting scratched or bitten. When the cat is active, and looks ready for a game, offer a session, of, say, 'hunt the toilet-roll innards on a string', or 'chase the golf ball', which directs the cat's attention to objects rather than encouraging the cat to attack you. 'Fishing rod' or flirt pole games can be great fun for young cats and their owners.

Fabric Eating

Some cats will eat, chew or suck certain fabrics, such as wool, although many other fabrics are also favoured. This trait often occurs in Oriental breeds and may be inherited, but could also be a response to trauma or stress triggered by the absence of the owner, particularly in over-attached cats. (also see over-attachment) Try increasing levels of stimulation, with new games, toys etc, and of course access to the preferred fabrics should be made impossible. If this can't be done, taste deterrents, such as eucalyptus and menthol can be applied to the fabrics.

Indoor Spraying

Many cats spray urine outdoors and it is a way of conveying information to other cats. However when it happens indoors it can mean that the cat does not feel secure in its own environment any more. This may be due to a new pet addition, a new baby, or a new cat in the neighbourhood - perhaps appearing through the cat flap. Try and work out what the initial trigger could have been. Even just rearranging the furniture may be the cause. The solution is to try to look at ways of making the cat feel more secure, and food is often a successful deterrent to spraying. If dry cat food is placed at the base of the spraying site, it is reassuring to the cat, rather than threatening. There are also artificial facial pheromone sprays available from vets, which may help to increase the feeling of security and discourage spraying. Your vet may prescribe medication if behavioural approaches are not successful.

Indoor Toileting

Cats that suddenly start eliminating (urination/defecation) indoors, or, in the case of indoor cats, away from the litter tray, should initally be checked by a vet, in case it's due to illness.

There are several possible causes for this type of behaviour, including aversion to the location of the litter tray, aversion to the type of litter being used, or a change in the type of litter, and control of access to the litter tray by another cat. If the problem occurred after changing the type of litter used, simply changing back to the old litter will probably resolve it. However it is important to clean the area that the cat has been using throroughly, as any remaining odour may encourage the cat to return to that area. After cleaning, dry cat food can be placed there so that the cat forms a new and positive association with the area.

It is important to provide enough trays for the number of cats in the household, a good guide is one tray per cat, plus another one. This will usually solve the problem where one cat is controlling access to the only litter tray. Site the trays in a quiet location, away from main thoroughfares, the cat flap and wherever the cat is fed. Whatever the cause, the cat should not be punished, or any anxieties it may already have could be made much worse and the problem will be exacerbated. If an outdoor cat suddenly starts eliminating indoors, there may be a new cat or dog in the neighbourhood, making it reluctant to go outside. Again it may be possible to help solve the problem by putting a litter tray with a hood in a quiet spot outside, or perhaps in a garage or other type of outbuilding to which the cat has access.

Loud meowing

Most female cats will be extremely noisy when in season, while toms can be very noisy when they fight. The obvious answer is to neuter cats, especially since there are far too many unwanted cats in shelters. Meowing can be useful, for example if a cat is shut in somewhere, meows can help you find the cat. A lot of meowing may well be a sign of boredom, so it's worth investing in cat trees and other toys. Some breeds have very loud and penetrating meows, and Siamese cats are famous for this trait. Siamese devotees accept this as an endearing quirk, but if you'd find it a little too much to bear, don't get a Siamese! 


Over-attached cats may follow the owner about continuously and may even suffer separation anxiety when the owner is absent. They may show a sort of infantile dependence, and may be bored, with the owner as the only source of interest in their lives. It helps to encourage such cats to develop new interests. For instance if the cat is an indoor cat, consider allowing the cat outdoors for short periods under supervision, or build an enclosed outdoor garden, if you have the space. If it's not possible for the cat to go outside, try to provide a stimulating indoor environment, with cardboard boxes to play in and cat aerobic centres to climb. If there are other members of the family, encourage them to help with cat care, so that the cat becomes less dependent on any particular person. 

'Over-attachment' sometimes means that the cat has problems, because there's not much going on in their lives to entertain them, apart from their owners. Other times, the cat is perfectly happy, but just likes human company. Cats of some breeds are more likely to follow their owners everywhere, and want frequent interaction, especially Siamese and Burmese cats. That's fine if you want that sort of close relationship, and if you don't, it makes sense to avoid those breeds.

Cats boarded in a cattery when owners are on holiday can become quite stressed. This is sometimes described as 'separation anxiety' but may be linked to being in an unfamiliar territory and being surrounded by strange cats and their smells, as well as being with unfamiliar humans. You can help your cat to adjust by taking the cat's familiar toys and bedding to the cattery. Cats like to hide when stressed, so a cat igloo which your cat has already used, can provide a safe space, with familiar smells.

Scratching Furniture

Scratching is a natural behaviour and acts as a communication and navigation signal, and also helps to keep claws in trim. However when this occurs in the home it is likely to result in shredded furniture! If it occurs in several places around the home it is likely to be marking behaviour and may mean that the cat feels insecure. This should be treated similarly to indoor spraying. If it is just in one or two places it is more likely to be to keep claws in trim. The cat should be provided with a scratching post of its own, such as a sisal wrapped post, which is placed where the cat was originally scratching, and then gradually moved to a more convenient area as the cat starts to use it. Many cats find catnip irresistible, so try impregnating their scratching posts with it, to lure them away from your furniture.

Separation anxiety

See over-attachment.


Under-attached cats may dislike handling or even being approached. This may be due to lack of early socialization, trauma, enforced handling during illness or over-enthusiastic handling. Some cats, like farm cats, live independent lives outdoors, and their owners don't especially want a lot of interaction with them, but cats unused to being handled are difficult to treat if they become ill. If you adopt a cat which is easily spooked by humans, watch to see what the cat's body language is telling you. Use this as a guide to see what the cat's 'comfort distance' is. Try feeding small, frequent meals, giving the cat space at first, then gradually approaching as the cat becomes more relaxed. Stroke timid cats gently and for very short periods, keeping an eye on them to see how comfortable they appear. You can gradually increase the frequency of stroking. 

The key to making friends with your cat is to let him or her approach you and initiate contact, rather than constantly approaching the cat. If you ignore your cat, you're much more likely to have a feline form approach you and settle on your lap or near you. This tends to happen if you try to read a newspaper on the floor - cats seem to know which bit you're reading, and sit right on it! 

Some cats are very much affected by their early upbringing, especially if they have been feral or farm cats which have had little contact with humans. Others are naturally quite independent - often true of Persians. If you want a cat that interacts with you a lot, try one of the breeds that likes to interact with humans, like Burmese cats. (Also see Fear-aggression.)

Further reading:

Beaver, B.V. Fractious cats and feline aggression.J Feline Med Surg. 2004 Feb;6(1):13-8.

Borchelt, P.L. Cat elimination behavior problems. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 1991 Mar;21(2):257-64.

Curtis, T.M. Human-directed aggression in the cat. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2008 Sep;38(5):1131-43, vii. doi: 10.1016/j.cvsm.2008.04.009.

Gourkow, N., Hamon, S.C., Phillips. C.J. Effect of gentle stroking and vocalization on behaviour, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease in anxious shelter cats.
Prev Vet Med. 2014 Nov 1;117(1):266-75. doi: 10.1016/j.prevetmed.2014.06.005.

Moesta, A. and Crowell-Davis S. Intercat aggression - general considerations, prevention and treatment. Tierarztl Prax Ausg K Kleintiere Heimtiere. 2011;39(2):97-104.

Nicastro, N. Perceptual and acoustic evidence for species-level differences in meow vocalizations by domestic cats (Felis catus) and African wild cats (Felis silvestris lybica).J Comp Psychol. 2004 Sep;118(3):287-96.

Potter, A. and Mills, D.S. Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) do not show signs of secure attachment to their owners PLoS One. 2015; 10(9): e0135109.
Published online 2015 Sep 2. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0135109