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Nine Cat Behavior Lessons

If you love cats, sharing makes us purrrr :-)
Updated: 2020. Please note: Dr. Miller no longer responds to comments. This week's Vet 101 article, Nine Cat Behavior Lessons is by Dr. Letrisa Miller DVM. These are her top nine feline behavioral issues pet parents need to know. As a behaviorist, I agree with them especially #3, the leading cause of litter box issues and #5 and #6 are the top clients concerns. Tell us which one is your biggest concern.
It's our mandate at Cat Wisdom 101 to share information to improve the human-feline bond. We never stop learning. What I find amazing are the never-ending lessons our feline friends can teach us. Even if we've already read some of the information before, it bears repeating. There are exceptions, twists and nuances to be further explored.
The photo montage is a love letter to my biggest teacher and muse, Merlin who died at age 21 in 2016.
Nine Cat Behavior Lessons
More households are adding new cats to their families. This can be a trying time for some, but the difficulties can be minimized if you understand some basic cat behavior. We have only recently started to understand just how different feline behavior is from that of many other types of animals. Although we have a lot still to learn, what follows is my top list of things people should know about how cats behave and interact.
1. Cats are social and left on their own will form matriarchal groups. However, they do not need feline or human companionship in most cases. Much research has been conducted in this area, thanks in part to the many feral colonies that in recent years have been developed with consistent care. Observing these colonies, researchers have found that mothers and their daughters tend to form groups, often sharing in kitten-rearing duties. Related males may also stay in the group, and unrelated males may join it, but unrelated females typically are not allowed in. This is one reason why housing two unrelated adult female cats in the same household can be difficult.
2. Cats form social groups with as few as one member in multicat households. An example: A household with three cats could have three groups (each comprising one cat), two groups (one with one member, the other with two), or a single group of three. Cats in the same group will groom one another, play together, and sleep together. Figuring out which cat is in which group can be difficult without a lot of observation over a fairly long time period, but mutual grooming (the technical term is allogrooming) is an important clue. In general, only cats that are in the same social group groom each other.
3. Cats are subtle creatures, and nowhere is this more evident than in aggression behavior. For example, cats that do not physically fight do not necessarily belong to the same social group. Most cats try their best to avoid physical contact with cats outside their social group because physical fights are dangerous to the well-being of all cats involved. Feline signaling methods are a useful way of keeping an unfriendly cat at bay, as well as for communicating with friends.
odin-Mystery miss-tree
Many cats display aggressive toward others simply by looking at them. “The Stare” is a behavior commonly used by cats that are litter box guarding. One cat will position itself so it can see the access route to a litter box. When another cat enters the access route, the guarding cat will give the other cat an aggressive stare, and the cat needing the litter box will go and find a less dangerous place to urinate or defecate.
This is one of the most common reasons for house-soiling problems in multi-cat households. Cats have many subtle ways of being aggressive to other cats in the same environment, most of which do not involve actual physical contact. Often the aggressor is the quieter of the cats in a nonphysical altercation. That is, the cat making the scream-like vocalizations is probably not the instigator. Such vocalizations are usually a defensive response. Look to the other cat as the troublemaker.
4. Violence begets violence. If you have an upset cat, yelling, spraying it with water, or using other aggressive means to break up a fight may cause more violence because it further excites the cats. A better approach is to startle the startle the cats in order to shift their focus away from each other. Quietly separating the cats (if you can do so without endangering yourself!) is an even more effective response.
Cats are highly visual. Thus, if two fighting cats can’t see each other, they will usually calm down. Placing a piece of cardboard between two cats so they can’t see each other often works to stop the yowling and growling. If you need to modify behavior in an aggressive cat, try using time outs at the first sign of any aggression. Just be sure you send the aggressor to timeout, or you’ll be rewarding bad behavior! For this method to work, you’ll need to apply it consistently over not just days or weeks but possibly months.
5. Cats use social signals to communicate. These are primarily odor, voice, body posture, and facial expressions.
The most commonly used odor signals are face marking and tail marking. Cats rub their faces and the tops of their tails on items to mark them as places that are home. This marking tells other cats who has been there and that another cat considers this area to be a part of its domain. Urine and feces marking is a stronger signal that cats most commonly use when they are threatened by the presence of cats not in their social group or to advertise that they are sexually available. Both male and female cats mark in this way, and unspayed and unneutered cats do this a lot more commonly than “fixed” cats.
Note: To learn more about how cats use scent The Art of Smell Tasting and the Flehman response.
Voice is used extensively in communication between cats. Cats can make many vocalizations and appear to engage in complex vocal interactions with other cats.
Most humans can recognize a cat that is happy to see them: it puts its tail straight up and shows a “friendly” face. At the opposite end of the body posture spectrum are the postures a cat might use to it help avoid a close confrontation with an unknown cat. These postures are menacing and designed to make the cat look larger by, for example, arching its back, standing its back hair straight up, and fluffing its tail. Body posture can be seen from a considerable distance, so it is most useful to cats that aren’t in close proximity.
Find out more about how cats use their tails to communicate with Tail Talk
Facial expressions are for close-up communication. Eye, whisker, and ear positions are all important in these expressions. If you think about the look on your cat’s face when you pet it, compared to when it is getting ready to pounce on a favorite toy, you can get some idea of how cats use their faces to communicate. And feline facial expressions aren’t all about showing aggression. Cats don’t smile like we do, they do have an expression that means the same thing!
6. Humans are inherently poor at reading cat signals. We tend to miss or misinterpret the smelling, seeing, and hearing signals cats commonly use. This causes us all sorts of grief for humans and cats. Making the effort to learn more about how your cat communicates will pay off richly.
More pet owners are seeking the help of animal communicators but the skill can be learned. Check out our post 10 Easy Ways To Communicate With Your Cat
7. Cats do not like to eat near their water. Cats consider water that is near food to be contaminated. This goes back to the fact that cats are hunters. When they catch prey, things can get messy, leaving nearby water contaminated. While our indoor cats are not usually catching prey, the instinct of the hunter is still strong.
Editor’s note: Ironically, cat food and water bowls often come in pairs forcing cats to eat and drink from the same location. Some of the food/water bowl combos are beautifully designed but cats don’t care if a bowl is pretty or fits in your decor. Place the water at least a few feet away from the food source and have extra water bowls or fountain in another room. Elevated bowls make it easier to digest food especially for older cat.
We use a variety of Cat bowls Check out our tips in the links.
We use different sizes both flat and elevated. Flat bowls are raised with a tray or small box. It’s important the the bowls are wide enough to avoid whisker stress.
8. Each cat will have a core area where it likes to eat, drink, and play. If you’re uncertain where your cats’ core areas are, watch for where they take naps. These are great places to position toys and scratching posts or scratching pads so that when the cat wakes up and wants to stretch and sharpen its claws it has an appropriate surface.
Litter box placement, type and size is key to happy cats. Cats, like people, don’t like to live in the bathroom, so litter boxes should be placed somewhere other than where they sleep or eat but not too inaccessible like a basement. Find out if bigger really better when it comes to a Litter box
Most cats prefer an uncovered box but some prefer more privacy. The type of litter plays an important role. Most cat prefer unscented but texture is equally important. As always. the cat owner is 100% responsible and completely control over for every aspect of a cat's life .
9. Cats, especially indoor-only cats need activities that entertain them or give them pleasure in another sense. These are hunting/playing, eating, and interacting with humans and sometimes interacting other cats. It is essential to our cats’ happiness that we provide an environment that fulfills their instinctive needs and wants so that they live happy, low stress lives. The less entertainment and pleasure they have, the lower their quality of life and the higher the risk for stress related illness and behavior problems.
Bored cats are unhappy cats. For Happy Cats And A Happy Holiday Season: Think Like A Cat Our advice extends beyond the holidays to every day habits.
Dr. Letrisa Miller is an award-winning veterinarian and feline specialist in Manchester, Connecticut. Visit her Website


  • Anonymous

    I have had cats for maaaaaaaany years and did not know about the placement of the water dish!!!!!!! Just proves that one is never too old to learn something new. Thanks so much,

  • Ron sherman

    I have two cats one being named mittens and the other milky. One weird thing they do us when they are laying down milky will like to lightly bite mitten’s tail. Mittens doesn’t seem to mind to much but i don’t know why they do this.

  • Theresa

    I have 2 cats, 1 neutered male/1 spayed female. They get along great, but now I have another spayed female that I am babysitting for a friend, its been almost a year and the females flat out REF– — — USE to get along! The biggest problem is the one I’m watching likes to sneak up on the older (16) female and attack, which starts a huge throwdown! I’ve been using a water spray when it’s severely vicious but it is clearly a temporary fix as the fighting is not getting better! My older female doesn’t need to be harrassed due to her age and fragility as she is barely 5 lbs! Is there anything else I can try to help these two at least leave each other alone?!?!

  • Abby

    Wow we found this fascinating. One thing that really stood out to us was about the non related females bonding, or lack thereof. I enjoyed the link to cat vocalizations too. So interesting. One of my favorite videos is of the “talking cats”. So cute and they so obviously adore each other.


  • Bernadette

    Wow, once I finally got past your stunning artwork I had an in-depth and interesting article to read! I’m so glad someone compiled all this advice into one article. I had heard many of them and modified my litterboxes, food and water bowls accordingly, as well as the rest of the environment, as much as possible in this tiny house, and in a very mixed household entirely of up to 9 unrelated rescues it made a huge difference.

    I have a question about #5–I had always heard that in a non-human-related group, such as a stray/feral colony, cats don’t talk except in rituals like mating and in extreme circumstances like actual aggression or pain. Most of the feral cats I rescued really did not talk, and I had always taken that otherwise as a sign of a truly feral cat, not a frightened stray, which will react to sweet talking with at least attention.

    Back to that artwork, Layla, you really outdid yourself in this. I could tell it was an expression of your love for Merlin even before I read it.

    • boomermuse

      Bernadette, your comment about my artwork made my day coming from you. I never post kind of work here but thought I’d take an artistic risk.
      Re # 5 it’s widely accepted that cat, whether feral or not don’t usually talk (verbally) to each other but I’ve seen instances including with my own cat clan.

  • CATachresis

    Packed full of good info! Yes agree with no 6 big time! How thick can we be?? lol I have the water near the food and wonder why I never see him drink it much! Will have to move, though as he goes out, I am sure he gets a drink!

  • Tamago

    Very interesting and helpful information to understand kitties!
    One of my boys grooms the other frequently, but the other doesn’t groom back much. I rarely see mutual grooming but I guess they are probably in the same social group.
    They do a lot of face expressions. I love seeing them narrowing their eyes when they are happy.

  • Cheysuli

    It is very interesting about the groups. Can a cat be part of more than one group. I regularly mutually groom with Gemini but also snuggle and mutually groom (at his start) with Ichiro but Gemini LOATHES Ichiro and will have nothing to do with him.

    • Letrisa Miller, MS, DVM

      Thanks for the question. In feral groups it is rare to see a cat older than 2-3 years of age that belongs to more than one group. In my own experience with housecats, I have seen the situation you describe fairly commonly. I expect that this behavior is more common in indoor cats because of the close quarters.
      Dr. Miller

  • Brian

    That really was one great bunch of info!

    Thank you for the kind and thoughtful words on the passing of my beloved Alex. I appreciate you. Sister Gracie from Brian’s Home

  • Deb Barnes - Zee and Zoey

    Great information! Thankfully our clan is relatively peaceful and the kitty hierarchy is firmly in place. Years ago, when our Maine Coon Zee was a young adult, he went through a very aggressive stage with his other catmates. A “time-out” system worked wonders for him! As well as getting him a kitten playmate to share his energy with (Zoey)!

  • Fuzzy Tales

    Excellent information. I didn’t know a lot of point #1. Heck, even one female in the house can cause issues with the others.

    #6 is absolutely true. I’m a bit better now, having had the past 11 years with cats in my life, but by and large am still pretty clueless, I’m sure.

    The miracle is that my boys are gracious enough to forgive me, repeatedly. 🙂

  • Cherry City Kitties

    This was really insightful, we all learned a lot. the Momma said that she instinctually has never had more than one girl kitty at a time and it’s probably been a good thing. She says she is gonna have to be paying more attention to our “ways”… meh, we’ll just keep doin’ what we do and then laugh when she doesn’t get it quite right! Thanks for a great post!

  • Kathryn

    So much wisdom here. Did not know that about cats that they are matriarchal or that daughters and mothers bond over kitten duties. Or that cats don’t like to drink near their food.

    Wonder where we can put the water…

    Ched and I have uncanny communication. I really have him down to sign language.

    If I blink or make kissy sounds, it means I’ll rub your belly if you come to the desk. We manipulate each other.

    Mao I still can’t communicate with. He has different roles for different people. Our daughter is his mommy; the other people are sort of okay; I am only the feeder. But he loves to sleep on my ankles or knees.

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