Behaviourist's Corner

Understanding bad habits


Many owners find that their cats have some curious or annoying behaviours that they expected to have been left behind in the kitten years. Behaviourist Inga MacKellar answers questions and provides sound advice on the reasons for, and ways to tackle, persistent ‘bad habits’.

Q: My 12-year-old cat still scratches the furniture – I thought he would grow out of this as he got older! Is it too late to do anything about it?

A: Scratching is a natural behaviour that occurs throughout a cat’s life. Cats scratch to keep their claws trim, but it’s also a territorial marking behaviour called stropping. It’s important that cats are provided with several sturdy scratch posts from an early age, or else they may learn to use furniture or carpets instead.

Some cats scratch more than others – it depends on your cat’s personality. Try placing scratch posts next to the furniture and make them more attractive to him by initially scraping them with a wire brush. If he won’t use a post, special scratch mats are available which can be attached to your furniture to prevent damage.

Q: Is there a reason why my 11-year-old tomcat still attacks my feet and hands when playing? It’s usually OK, but sometimes he gets carried away and it hurts.

A: This is a common problem that can persist right into later life. Natural predatory behaviour is often encouraged in kittens when owners use their fingers to tease them or when they wiggle their toes under the bedclothes, encouraging their cute little kitten to pounce. This behaviour becomes a habit that is less endearing once the kitten is a fully-grown cat with sharp teeth and claws. Never play with your cat using your hands or feet. Use fishing-rod-type toys instead, or throw balls for your cat to chase.

Q: Why does my cat still want to use a litter tray rather than weeing outside?

A: As kittens start to venture outside, most learn to toilet there, allowing their owners to dispense with the litter tray. However, some cats continue to use a litter tray throughout their life. This can be for a variety of reasons, such as not having access to a suitable outdoor area (a totally paved garden, for example, is problematic). There may be intimidating neighbourhood cats or perhaps noisy dogs that upset your cat when she’s outside. These kinds of things will lead her to choose the security of doing her business indoors instead. I recommend always providing a litter tray, particularly for elderly cats or when there is bad weather.

Q: Why is my elderly cat still kneading with her paws when she sits on me? Isn’t that something kittens do?

A: Kneading is indeed a juvenile behaviour: kittens will knead their mother while they are feeding to keep the milk flowing. This behaviour can remain in older cats though, which some people believe is due to them being weaned too early.

Bear in mind that this behaviour usually occurs when a cat is comfortable, settled and warm – so when adult cats knead, it’s a sign that they’re feeling content. Some cats may even suck on their owner’s hair or dribble as they knead. Although sometimes annoying to the owner, it’s a sign that you have a happy cat!


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