Understanding Your Cat’s Behavior with Dr. DePorter

History of Cats and People

Cats weren’t really domesticated. Instead, cats and humans started hanging out together. The ancestor for the modern cat is the African Wildcat. When humans started becoming cultivators, cats became very important as mice flocked to the grains. Cats followed humans and followed the grain all over the world.

The development of cat litter in 1947 opened the door for cats. It took cats that were outside or on ships and allowed them to come inside homes and become part of the family. Cats have been the number one pet in the U.S. for years. The average household has about 2.4 cats per household.

Are Cats Solitary Animals?

Cats are solitary hunters. They don’t need to gather other cat friends to hunt a mouse. While cats are hunting, they are also avoiding being the prey. Hawks are always hunting overhead at the same time cats are hunting. Cats have evolved to be naturally hesitant or weary for this reason.

Feline Social Interactions

Group persian kittens sitting on cat tower

A mother cat will have her kittens, and she’ll also have maternally related females around who will have their own litters. These cats will nurture and care for each other’s kittens. The sensitive period for cats starts at three weeks and closes at twelve weeks. This is the time when the animal is most receptive to forming new bonds. During the socialization time, it’s important to protect kittens and ensure they have positive social experiences.

During and after this period, kittens will learn everything from their mom. This includes what litter to use, who to be afraid of, food preference, and how to hunt. Kittens learn how to play and interact with other species, including humans.

At eight weeks, kittens start object play and get good at it at about twelve weeks. This is a crucial time to have toys that mimic natural hunting for your kitten to help build their emotional state.

Body Language and How Cats Communicate

Relaxed cats will have a soft face with ears forward. The tail will be away from the body and the body will be relaxed overall. A stressed cat may hiss with the lips drawn back. The ears will be out to the side with the tail tucked around the body and feet underneath the body.

One of the hallmarks of cat tails is that a cat’s tail doesn’t work like a dog’s tail. If a cat’s tail is moving, it means the cat is agitated. The happiest tail a cat can show is when the tail is up in a question mark position.

Cats That Don’t Get Along

Cats may not like another cat, and that’s normal. From the beginning, cat aggression starts with an event, such as an introduction of a new cat or the very first meeting. Onset of cat conflict can also be sudden. The presence of cats outside the home, being scared and associating it with another cat, cats returning home from the veterinary hospital and environmental change can also bring conflict. Gradual onset conflict does occur as well. Cats can get along well for a long period of time, and then develop aggression. It’s also important to remember that cats don’t reconcile.

How to Handle Aggressive Events

kitten, animal, pet, cat, mad

Safety first always. What you don’t want to do is startle cats. Startle strategies may “stop” an aggressive event but does not promote an environment for reconciliation. There’s no place for punishment if you want the cats to be able to coexist. Instead, try to redirect the behavior by calling them to come to you for food, toys, or pets.

Destructive Scratching

Cats can be destructive, and this is one of the common complaints. Scratching is a normal activity. The motion of scratching has functional benefits such as sharpening the claws, removing the outer sheath of the nail, exercising the muscles of the forelimbs and spine, and facilitating stretching.

How to Get Cats to Stop

Always provide appropriate scratching areas. Minimize stress and trim nails regularly. Most importantly, reward desirable behaviors with treats and never punish or startle cats. Don’t spray cats with water.

Reasons Not to Declaw

There are a lot of reasons not to declaw. It is a removal/amputation of the last digit and causes residual pain. Declawing is possibly associated with litterbox issues.

Inappropriate Scratching

In an internet-based survey conducted with colleagues, it was determined that 52% of participants reported scratching on an unacceptable target. Interesting observation found from the survey is that cats under 9 years of age preferred scratching on rope, while cats over 10 years old preferred carpet.

Optimal Recommendations to Reduce Inappropriate Scratching

curious maine coon cat lying on side scratching sofa looking at camera in sunlight

The optimal scratching post is upright, with one or more levels, and 1-3 feet at the base. It needs to be at least 3 feet high or preferably higher and include an area of rope. Place the scratching post in an area that’s easily accessible. It should not be hidden! The intent is for communication purposes, so place it near entries/exits, near sleeping areas, and close to the items already scratched by the cat.

Cat Urine Outside of the Litterbox

There are a couple of reasons why you might see a cat urinate outside of the litterbox. There could be a medical or behavioral basis to inappropriate urination or that the new area chosen is more comfortable than the litterbox. There could also be an issue with the litter itself.

Urine marking is different from urinating outside the box. Marking is about communication. Urine marking, therefore, is usually at nose height to a cat. Marking is at a lower volume and usually up on a wall. Feline marking is often not related to litterbox use or litter habits. It is a social message to other cats and is normal behavior.

Litterbox Issues

For cats, not using the litterbox can be an indication of an underlying problem. Litter preference can be a factor as well as if the box is dirty. If the box is too small or in a bad location, cats will sometimes seek out another area to go.

Litterbox Management

Ways to prevent litterbox issues include scooping daily and dumping the box weekly. You want to have at least 1 more box than cats and keep the boxes in multiple locations. Clean the boxes with hot water and soap rather than harsh smelling chemicals. Allow the box to dry in the sun if possible.

Q and A in word bubbles

Dr. DePorter’s Responses to Unanswered Questions from Class

Would you treat an African serval kitten the same way you’d treat a domestic kitten?

Yes and no. They are cats but more extreme in their catness – so maybe more reactive, bold, intense. Confident cats do very poorly with punishment based strategies and they are super smart so positive reinforcement works even better. Prognosis for changing their behavior towards other cats is poorer.

Why does my cat climb into my lap and make biscuits?

It’s an instinctual, innate pattern. Kind of like nursing. Typically it occurs when the cat is comfortable and likes you. Enjoy the biscuits.

Why do cats drool? My cat drools all the time while on my lap.

I would worry about dental or gum disease. May be a good question for your vet on your cat’s next check up.

In the last year, my 4 yr old neutered male cat has started humping while kneading really soft blankets. Fixed as a kitten, newish behavior. Seems relaxed and unbothered…is this normal behavior?

Hmm. This may be masturbation, which is normal. More common in intact cats but does occur in the neutered cat.

I’m trying to find a home for a 11 week old male kitty who was dumped. Would he get along with female cats? And, can neutering help to prevent spraying?

Neutering can definitely prevent spraying. Tough to guess who he would get along with. Male or Female probably doesn’t matter if they are all neutered. But, another kitten his age or a bit younger would be a great fit.

My cat urinates in the litter box with no issue but often poops on a rug in the same room. What could be the issue there?

Litter aversion. Something about the litter box isn’t ideal. Cats will urinate more readily in a litter that isn’t quite their favorite. Defecation takes more time and more posturing – so the cat may decide not to use the litter. May also be related to pain or discomfort in hips, a litter that is too deep.

I have an elderly cat (about 15 years). What are some behavioral signs to look out for to make sure he’s comfortable and maybe some ways to enrich his life?

Mobility is key that is hard to detect except by watching – cats may reduce their daily steps and reduce their inclination to jump up or down. Observe grooming patterns, litter habits, appetite and thirst for changes. Enrichment – probably the best is heated or super warm insulted type beds. The felted cat caves are nice. Older cats lose muscle and heat retention. Cats prefer an ambient temp that is a bit higher than most people so its important to help them sleep in a warm bed. No one likes feeling cold all the time (Ever see cats sit on the heat register? They are cold.)

Why does my cat’s tail vibrate? It stands straight up and vibrates…does that mean she’s happy? She would do it before feedings or about to snuggle.

Tail twitching is more likely to mean arousal – so stress or agitation. May mean she has mixed feelings about what’s coming next. Maybe another cat nearby. Or too much petting/physical interaction.

Why does my cat sometimes want to sit in her litterbox? I read it means she is nervous but I love her and want to try to make her comfortable.

Assuming she is in a house and not in a shelter cage now. Maybe she is waiting to see if another cat is going to ambush her? maybe she was in a shelter and she did it there so it is comfortable to her. Certainly it means you do a good job keep her litter box clean/tidy.

Speaking of litter, why do cats throw more out of the box?

Digging before eliminating is normal and a good sign that a cat likes its litter. It can be annoying but better than a cat that toilets someplace else. Maybe try a high sided litter box to block some of the scatter. No lid though but a box with high sides may help.

I will be moving in about 6 weeks and am very worried about my 2 cats, especially my 10 yr old, who has always been anxious. What can I do to make the move as easy on both cats as possible? 

Moves are tough. Keep their blankets, toys, beds etc. intact as much as possible. so don’t wash it all. take their familiar scents to the new place. Give them each their own space at first. Plug in Feliway diffusers at the new place. Ideally a day or more before you take the cats there. Consider natural products such as Zylkene, Composure, Solliquin or Anxitane to help with stress. Your vet may be able to prescribe something like gabapentin if the move involves a long car ride or he is super stressed. Update microchip address information or get microchipped. Put on safe collars with your phone number easily visible. Good luck with the move.

What shots are absolutely necessary for kittens?

Yes. There are lots of important infectious disease. Look at the AAHA guidelines This is updated periodically and is done by a panel of experts to guide the profession through changes. https://www.aaha.org/aaha-guidelines/2020-aahaaafp-feline-vaccination-guidelines/feline-vaccination-home/

I have two cats. My 4 year old cat breathes heavy. To the point you can hear it. I hear it the most when he is just laying around. My vet doesn’t seem to be super concerned. What could this be possibly and is it something to worry about?

This isn’t my area of expertise. If you are worried, maybe make a good quality video of your cat doing this and monitor every few weeks or so to compare. keep good notes on your observations. In order for your vet to investigate further you would need to be ready to have radiographs of the chest and an ultrasound of the heart. Probably your vet means “it is unlikely to be a condition that warrants further investigation based on the symptoms presenting at this time”. Continue to monitor. Is your cat getting over weight? Lack of exercise? Maybe play games with your kitty to get him moving. Cats do get allergies and asthma…but that may or may not warrant investigation and treatment.

Our orange cat howls at night. Do elderly cats have symptoms similar to ‘sundowners’ in older people with dementia?

Yes, cats do vocalize at night as a sign of cognitive decline. Cats do get dementia just like people and dogs. However, night time vocalization due to cats outside the home is MUCH more common.

Why do cats howl?

It is an agitated distress call.

Why does my cat always want to chew my bouquet of flowers? Or when she runs outside- she goes straight to eating grass!

Cats do like to chew on plants. Watch the ASPCA toxic/safe plants list to be sure its not harmful. Some plants like lilies are very dangerous. Ok to offer her safe cat grasses to fill her needs.

Do you recommend CBD for stressed out cats? What’s your opinion on CBD and CBG?

I don’t recommend CBD for cats or dogs. We just don’t know enough. Keep an eye on the AVMA position statement on CBD https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/cannabis-use-and-pets

Why does my kitten bite?

May be rough/excessive play or true aggression. Avoid any petting that results in mouthing/swatting or biting. True aggression will often worsen as the kitten matures. Rough play often gets better on its own. Sometimes another kitten helps.

I recently adopted a bottle baby, not even 4 weeks old. He’s doing fine, but my two year old cat hates her and keeps hissing. How do I let her know she’s no longer the baby of the house?

Your cat is afraid of the new kitten. Time may help. rotate blankets to scent exchange. scatter the 2 yr old’s favorite treats on or near the kitten scented blankets. The Kitten wont be ready for socialization for a couple more weeks so the kittens scent may reflect that. Feliway MultiCat (the appeasing pheromone) for all involved cats.

My kitten is about 3 month old. We have bought him so many toys, treats, scratchers. Nothing stops him from biting. What can I do?

May be rough/excessive play or true aggression. Avoid any petting that results in mouthing/swatting or biting. True aggression will often worsen as the kitten matures. Rough play often gets better on its own. Sometimes another kitten helps.

My cat is almost constantly vocal, is that normal?

It can be for some of the oriental breeds. Siamese?

Sometimes when my cat drinks water she covers her face with her paw. Like she’s drinking with a secret.  Is she hogging the water or is she just being silly?

Sounds like she is washing her face. Watch videos of cats face washing. It’s kind of a ritualized pattern and maybe when she gets bit of water on her whiskers it starts the face wash sequence for her.

In our home we have a tom cat and two kittens he sired (male and female). Will they always get along and be happy together or will my tom turn on his son as he matures?

They could continue to get along well. Are all the cats neutered now? Intact males may be less likely to get along. And what breed? If they are an exotic/wild type breed… then maybe not. If you have 3 intact Bengals … then probably not going to work out without some conflict and spraying.

Why does my cat sniff my eyes?

Interesting question. Not sure why. Probably detecting a smell that interests her.

What would help car riding anxiety?

A good carrier that is secure, doesn’t wobble around and is comfortable to the cat. The sleepypod carriers are really nice and really expensive. Feliway spray in advance of the car ride. Play through a Cats Ear music, and maybe an OTC product such as Zylkene, Solliquin, Anxitane or Composure.

Why do both my cats instantly urinate in the box after I clean it?

Just to make you crazy. Lol. It’s clean and you are there – both those factors will draw the cat to eliminate in a fresh clean box. Praise them.

My cat licks my entire face to wake me up every morning, is that normal?

Yes. Your entire face? That seems excessive but cats do help another cat groom by grooming their face/neck so probably she likes you and is grooming you as she would another cat.

What’s your feeling on scat mats, double sided tape or even tin foil as deterrents?

I almost never recommend them. I had a case that the cats were hovering around some really deep and large fish tanks. They could have drowned if they fell in. Scat mats better than drowning. That’s one of the few times I recall recommending it in the last 20 years. double sided tap – may be ok on furniture to prevent scratching and save a special couch. I dont like putting foil or tape down “everywhere” to avoid a problem like urine marking – it misses the point and just decreases the cats available ‘real estate”. I want cats to have more places they are at ease with and be happy, not afraid.

My 13 year old male cat has hyperthyroidism and howls a lot when he is in a different room than the one I am in. Why does he do this and is there anything I can do to comfort him?

May be good to mention to the vet. Have blood pressure checked and blood work done for other conditions. Pheromones may help. Maybe an Anxiety Wrap or Thundershirt.

Do you have a preference of cat litter material? Or would that be another thing that is up to the cat’s preference?

Probably start with plain unscented sandy type scoopable litters are going to be well accepted by most cats. Then ask the cat 🙂

Is there any research on cat preference of open vs. enclosed litter boxes?

I do think there are some old studies saying cats do prefer open versus closed litter boxes.

Any tips for leash training a cat?

Use a mesh harness. Let the cat get used to the harness first. Long light weight leash. Great treats. A LOT of patience. Let the cat take you for a walk, not the other way around. But – be careful about watching the body language – the cat may not really want to be outside. Be sure you have a microchip and a collar with ID.


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