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Introduction to Cat Behavior Problems

Introduction to Cat Behavior Problems

It is the very nature and behavior of cats that make them one of the most popular pets in France and around the world today. Their independence, their playful nature and their curiosity are some of the character traits that melt many cat lovers.

By understanding the behavior that cats have evolved to thrive in a changing world, we can learn to better care for our cats, meet their needs, maximize their well-being and ensure lasting friendships for cats and happy owners.

Happy cat owner

To understand the behavior and needs of today's domestic cat, we must first explore its wild origins.

The domestic cat shares common ancestors with the African wildcat – a shy cat native to the Middle East that has many physical and behavioral similarities to our domestic cat and is still found today.

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Changes in human breeding systems led the cat to naturally evolve to become closer to humans around 10,000 years ago . This is a fairly recent "domestication" and, the influence of man on the breeding of certain cats being relatively weak, the domestic cat retains many behaviors and needs of its wild counterparts.

What is the study of behavior?

Scientific study on cat behavior

Behavioral medicine is the scientific study of everything that animals do, whether they are insects, birds, mammals, fish or humans. The field of animal behavior aims to understand the causes, functions, development and evolution of behavior. Behavior refers to an organism's actions or reactions overall and in a given situation.

Behavior is generally related to the environment and is controlled by the endocrine and nervous systems. The complexity of an animal's behavior is linked to the complexity of its nervous system. In general, animals with complex nervous systems have a greater ability to learn new responses and therefore adapt their behavior.

Understanding the study of behavior in general

Animal behavior of genetic origin

An animal's behavior is influenced by many factors. Some of these factors include genetics, experience and learning, environment and physiology. Several studies have shown that behavior can be inherited to some extent. The influence of other kittens in the litter , the amount and type of human handling (especially true for kittens), and exposure to new objects and experiences can influence a cat's behavior and character.

The brain and its neurotransmitters also play a fundamental role in temperament and behavior. Abnormal levels of various hormones play a role in some forms of aggression and fear. The regulatory functions of the brain decline with age, which results in an increase in fears and anxieties.

Aggressive behavior of a cat

Understanding the nature of behavioral problems is essential to developing a rational basis for their treatment. Although this section focuses primarily on abnormal cat behavior, the extent to which a cat's behavior is abnormal is defined by its deviation from "normal" or the problem that this behavior poses to its owner.

Diagnosing Behavioral Problems in Cats

Diagnosis of behavioral problems in cats

Many health problems experienced by pet cats are associated with behavioral problems or unmet behavioral expectations. Your veterinarian will first need to rule out any health issues that could be causing your cat's change in behavior.

For example, a medical problem could cause your cat to become aggressive or urinate in the house. Stress can also have effects on behavior and can contribute to the development of certain diseases, for example feline interstitial cystitis.

Cat behavioral diagnosis

After ruling out medical causes, your veterinarian will review your cat's behavioral history before making a diagnosis. The behavioral history typically includes the following:

1) the sex, breed and age of the cat
2) the age of onset of the illness or behavior in question
3) duration of illness
4) a description of the actual behavior
5) frequency of problem behavior (hourly, daily, weekly, monthly)
6) the duration of a typical episode (seconds, minutes, hours)
7) any changes in the pattern, frequency, intensity and duration of episodes
8) any corrective measures attempted and your response thereto
9) any activity that ended the behavior (e.g. the cat falls asleep)
10) the typical day of the cat and the owner, as well as any daily changes
11) the cat's family history if known (in other words, are there signs of similar problems in the cat's parents or siblings
12) the cat's living conditions and environment
13) any other element that the owner deems relevant.

Attitude of a specific cat

You and your veterinarian need to consider the "ABCs" of problem behavior. What happens before the behavior (the antecedent)? What is the behavior? What happens immediately afterwards (the consequences)?

Because behaviors can change as cats learn and grow, your veterinarian will also look at how the problem started.

Veterinarian's checklist regarding your cat's behavior

Modern veterinary care includes routine screening questions about specific behavioral complaints (e.g., refusal to use the litter box, fighting with other animals, strange behavior) in addition to routine questions that alert your veterinarian to problems potential medical conditions.

This routine exam will help determine what is “normal” for your cat. If your veterinarian doesn't ask about behavioral problems, be sure to mention them yourself. Unfortunately, many owners do not report behavioral problems to their veterinarian, and these problems are one of the main reasons animals are given away or euthanized.

Aggressive cat

Since behavioral diagnoses cannot be made based on a one-time event, you can complete a questionnaire at each visit to clarify your cat's behavior pattern. The veterinarian can then determine if the signs (growling, hissing) create a pattern that meets specific diagnostic criteria, such as fear aggression.

Little advice

Video of your cat's behavior

A video of your cat's behavior can help make an accurate diagnosis. The questionnaire is based on your description and, therefore, is more subjective. However, when paired with a video , your veterinarian can use this information to diagnose and manage the problem. Your understanding and support are essential for your cat's behavioral disorder to improve. Only by recognizing the behaviors that lead to or are associated with the problem situation can you avoid or prevent the problem situation from occurring.

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Definition of the behavioral problem

Here is a brief glossary of terms commonly used when talking about behavior.

Abnormal behavior

Abnormal cat behavior

This is behavior that is dysfunctional and unusual. It is different from a behavioral complaint, which is a normal but unwanted action (like scratching furniture).

Repetitive abnormal behaviors occur when cats do not adapt to a situation appropriately, often responding with repetitive or fixed movements or actions. Abnormal repetitive behaviors include compulsive/impulsive behaviors and stereotypic behaviors (see below).


Cat bite and growl

This is anything related to a threat or attack . Cats may become aggressive toward people or other cats out of fear, play, predatory behavior, and perhaps to maintain social status among other cats. Examples of aggressive acts in cats include hissing, biting, chasing, and growling.

Compulsive behaviors

Compulsive behavior of a cat

These are abnormal, repetitive behaviors that are usually aimed at achieving a goal. They may start from normal behaviors (such as grooming, stalking, or chasing) and normal situations (frustration or conflict), but then progress to inappropriate situations and intensities.

Stress and anxiety (which can be caused by inappropriate punishment) can make these disorders worse. Some compulsive behaviors appear to be genetic, such as wool sucking in oriental breed cats. These disorders are probably due to an abnormal release of neurotransmitters ("chemical messengers") in the brain.

Conflict between cats

A conflicted cat tends to perform more than one type of activity at a time. For example, a cat may want to approach a person to get a treat, but it may also be afraid of that person and not want to get too close.

Conflict motivation, except in extreme cases associated with survival functions (e.g., eating), is very difficult to identify in animals. Conflict may result in aggression or displacement activity.

Fight between cats

Displacement activity is the resolution of conflict through the performance of a seemingly unrelated activity. When a cat is unable to perform an appropriate activity physically or behaviorally, it will often perform a seemingly unrelated activity.

Displacement behaviors may result from conflict or frustration or be an empty activity. For example, a cat that is clearly conflicted between sex and aggression or between aggression and fear may respond with irrelevant activities, such as grooming, eating, or sleeping.

The fear

Little reassured cat

It is a feeling of apprehension associated with the presence of an object, an individual or a social situation and is part of normal behavior. Deciding whether a fear is abnormal depends on context. For example, fire is a useful tool, and fear of being consumed by it is normal behavior.

However, if the house were not on fire, such fear would be irrational. If this fear were constant or recurring, it would likely be considered abnormal behavior. Normal and abnormal fears generally vary in intensity. The intensity increases with the real or imagined proximity of the object causing the fear.

Scared cat hiding

Most fear responses are learned and can be unlearned through gradual exposure. Phobias, on the other hand, are deep, rapid fear reactions that do not diminish, either with gradual exposure to the object or without exposure over time.

A phobia involves sudden, all-or-nothing, profound, and abnormal reactions that result in panic. Phobias can develop quickly or over time, but once established, they are characterized by immediate and intense anxiety. Fear may develop more gradually and, during an episode of fearful behavior, the intensity may vary more than in the case of a phobic reaction.

Once a phobic event has been experienced, any event associated with it or the memory of that event is enough to generate the reaction. Even without re-exposure, phobias can remain at or exceed their previous high levels for years. Phobic situations are avoided at all costs or, if unavoidable, they are endured with intense anxiety or distress.


Indoor cat looking outside

This occurs when a cat is unable to perform a behavior due to physical or psychological obstacles. When cats are frustrated – for example a cat who cannot access an outdoor cat it sees through the window – they may exhibit redirected behavior (for example, attacking another family pet or owner), moving behavior or signs associated with anxiety.

Another example of goal frustration is a cat chasing a laser light toy but not being able to catch it. This frustration can lead to an obsessive pursuit of other lights and shadows.

Interactive laser cat toy

Thanks to its few keys to the study of behavior and the different emotions and reactions that your cat may encounter throughout its life, we hope that you will be able to identify these problems more easily. It is important to identify cat behavior problems early in order to correct them quickly.

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