Cat behaviour – your problems answered

Cats can sometimes behave in ways that their owners regard as inappropriate. But often what we regard as misbehaviour is a sign that something is very wrong from your cat’s perspective. Here’s how you can help.

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While we naturally cherish our bonds with our cats, sometimes we can be puzzled by their behaviour or even see it as problematic. It is important to remember, however, that a cat’s behaviour offers important clues into their wellbeing. For example, a cat that is behaving nervously or aggressively may be suffering from stress, be in pain, or be subject to bullying by cats in the local neighbourhood or other pets within the household.

If your cat’s behaviour appears to change suddenly, it is important to take them to the vet straight away to rule out any possible medical causes. Be prepared to give your vet as much history as possible about the problem, including details about when and where you first started to see the behaviour you are concerned about, and any possible triggers. Once they have ruled out medical reasons, your vet may refer you to a qualified behaviourist.

Behaviourists also need lots of history. Consider whether any changes to their environment might be behind your cat’s apparently problem behaviour. Significant events such as house moves, the arrival of a new pet or baby, or visitors coming to stay, can cause cats to become stressed. Their behaviour may change so that they avoid interaction with people, soil the house, overgroom, eat or drink less, or display other signs of stress.

Remember that helping your cat to feel safe and relaxed is important for their overall health. Anxiety and stress can cause several health issues in cats, including cystitis.

Here are four common behaviour-related issues that suggest all may not be well with your cat, along with some practical strategies for how you can support them:

1. My cat hides away when visitors come

Some cats struggle with strangers. This may be because of an inherited tendency towards shyness or a bad experience in the past, or because they haven’t been socialised with people at a very young age (between two and seven weeks).

If your cat isn’t a fan of visitors, it’s best to allow them to escape to a safe place when the doorbell rings. Make sure they have plenty of hiding spots around the house, preferably in high and dark locations, and leave them alone. They may then choose to be sociable on their own terms.

Hiding away can also be a sign that a cat is in pain, so look out for indicators that your pet might be suffering from a medical condition. These indicators could include changes to eating or toilet habits, overgrooming and your cat being more – or less – vocal than usual. If you suspect that your cat is hiding away because they are in pain, take them to the vet straight away.

2. My cat won’t go outside

There could be several reasons why your cat won’t go outside. Firstly, they may have a problem with their health, such as diabetes. Diabetes is a common health condition in cats, with one of the main symptoms being lethargy and weakness. If you suspect that your cat has a health condition, book an appointment for them with the vet.

Another reason why your cat may not want to go outside is that they may have recently had a bad encounter – for example, with a car, a dog or another cat. Or they may have been exposed to loud noises, such as fireworks. It may be that your cat can see other cats in the garden and that puts them off wanting to go outside.

If your cat has started to see the outside world as a threatening place, it will probably take some time and patience to encourage them to venture outdoors again. You can start by making them relaxed indoors by using a cat pheromone diffuser, which mimics the pheromones that your cat naturally releases when feeling at ease.

You could also make your garden secure with cat-proof fencing, so your pet doesn’t feel threatened by the presence of other cats. Also try providing your cat with lots of hiding places (such as boxes) at various levels in the garden. Don’t leave food outside for your cat as this will attract other cats from the neighbourhood into your cat’s territory.

Once your garden is more secure, try leaving your back door open when you’re outside on sunny days to see if your cat follows you out. If they do decide to join you, you could feed them a treat or reward them with their favourite toy. Don’t physically carry them outside with you, however, since this could lead them to feeling stressed and even more scared of the outdoors.

3. My cat isn’t getting along with my other pets

Cats are territorial animals that enjoy their own space. So, their behaviour can change if they’re not enjoying the companionship of other cats or dogs that live in the same household. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help your pets get along.

Neutering encourages harmony in relationships between cats. This is because it helps to stop or reduce aggressive behaviours. Neutering will also bring health benefits to your pet, including lower risk of life-threatening conditions, including cancer. 

Since cats are not innately social creatures, they don’t tend to share resources. So, if you have more than one cat, make sure that each one can access their own food, water, litter tray and scratching post. It's also a good idea to provide an extra set of resources as an alternative option so that one cat won't have to pass another to get to them.

If your cat is hanging back before eating, or standing at an angle so other cats can’t see or access their food, then consider feeding them separately, in a place where they feel secure. In fact, cats generally prefer to eat separately anyway, even if they do get along.

Similarly, if your cat is not getting along with your dog, feed your cat in a different location. Also, place their litter tray well away from where your dog tends to spend their time and ensure that your dog can’t access their litter tray. Make sure your cat has high places to retreat to for when they want to get away from the dog. Also, keep your dog exercised so that they are not bounding around the house with high levels of energy that may seem overwhelming to your cat.

4. My cat brings home prey

Hunting is normal cat behaviour that arises from their natural predatory instincts. If your cat isn’t hungry, but makes a kill, the natural thing for them to do is to take it to a safe place – your house.

If your cat’s hunting behaviours really upset you – or you are worried about local wildlife – try keeping your cat inside the house at dawn and dusk, when prey are most active. You could also fit your cat with a quick-release collar with a bell, which will help to warn their prey that they are coming.

Alternatively, you could give your cat another outlet for their hunting behaviour by playing with them using a fishing rod toy. has shown that this can help to reduce hunting. For safety reasons, be sure to store the fishing rod out of your cat’s reach once the play session is over.

Problem cat behaviour

As well as the issues cited above, cat owners can also be worried about inappropriate urination, biting and furniture scratching, as well as other undesirable behaviours. Since these behaviours are almost always indicators that something is wrong with either your cat’s physical or mental wellbeing, or their home environment, it is vital that you try to get to the bottom of the problem as soon as possible. You may need the help of your vet, or a qualified behaviourist registered with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.

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