Behavior and Training
Cats exhibit a wide array of behaviors -- some natural for them, others frustrating for you. It is important to understand what is normal activity for cats and give them the constructive time and space to act upon them, like scratching and chewing. Other behaviors can be problematic to socialization, cleanliness and health. These are behaviors you will need to train your cat either not to do or to do differently.
One way to prepare for cat ownership is to make sure you understand the natural behaviors associated with cats. Here are a few basic behaviors inherent to a cat's constitution and disposition:
Cats are nocturnal creatures and will be active at night. Although cats can also be active during the day, you cannot retrain your cat to sleep through the night. Just make sure you give your cat plenty of positive activities to focus on at nighttime and leave fresh water out to satisfy its thirst.
Chewing is part of a cat's fundamental hunting talents and needs to be expressed. It is also good for strengthening your cat's teeth and jaws. To accommodate this behavior, you need to focus your cat's chewing needs on items designed specifically for this purpose. Give your cat plenty of chew toys that are made from softer materials â€” nothing too hard that might crack or chip its teeth.
Roaming is also part of a cat's hunting behavior. For indoor cats, this can be a problem. That's why you need to keep your cat active with plenty of toys and activities to stimulate it physically and mentally. If activities are available, don't be concerned if your cat spends time continuously wandering around the same room or throughout your house. It's simply expressing its need to roam.
Scratching serves two important functions for cats. First, it helps them fully stretch their bodies and muscles. Second, it provides a way for cats to shed dead sheaths from their nails. You cannot teach a cat not to scratch. It is an inherent behavior. However, you can teach a cat what to scratch by giving it a positive outlet for scratching with a scratching post. If needed, you can also spray items you don't want your cat to scratch with scents its dislikes. There are commercial products available in pet stores that bottle up scents cats will avoid.
Cats combine different forms of vocalization along with specific body positions or gestures to communicate how they feel. The most common of these is also the one most widely recognized, the purr. Purring typically is a sound of comfort for a cat. Pet owners like it, too. But many people don't realize that purring is also a sound a cat makes in the most extreme circumstances of stress. Meowing is the second most commonly made cat sound. It is a call for attention. Cats meow when they want to be fed, played with or are stuck and need help getting free. Cats make a sound, referred to as chirping, when they get excited by the sight of prey. You may hear your cat chirp when it is watching a video of birds. Cats chatter when they are frustrated. Kittens have a unique sound, called an angry wail, which is a distress call they send to their mothers. When cats feel threatened, they use vocalizations that are produced with an open mouth. A hiss indicates that a cat was surprised by a perceived adversary. A shriek or scream is the sound cats make when they are in pain or experiencing extreme fear or aggression. Snarling is the sound males make when they fight over territory or a female cat. A long, low-pitched growl sound means danger.
Problem Behaviors and Training
Most problem behaviors for cats are the result of boredom, inactivity, lack of attention, stress, illness or inappropriate training techniques. That's why it is so critical to provide your cat with lots of daily physical and mental stimulation. Stress may result from changes in routine, even those as simple as changing the placement of food dishes or a litterbox. A new family member can also cause stresses that result in problem behaviors.
Inappropriate training happens when cat owners want to train cats to respond in a particular way, yet inadvertently reward the wrong behavior. For example, if your cat meows and cries for you to get up and play with it at nighttime, you may, after a time, just give in to make it stop. This actually rewards the cat's behavior and teaches it to repeat these cries to get your attention. When training cats around behaviors, it is critical that you identify which behaviors you want to reinforce and which you want to change. Then only reward completion of the desired behavior. Don't give in to your cat when training for change. One or two bad nights of sleep to make the message clear is a lot less of a price to pay than a lifetime of getting up to play with your cat in the middle of the night.
If you experience problem behaviors with your cat, the first thing to do is rule out any medical causes. You also need to make sure you pay attention to where your cat is in its life cycle. Adolescence and old age create physical changes that may cause stress to your cat. Then you can look to training solutions. Commonly demonstrated problem behaviors cats include:
Biting or nipping
Cats don't understand your motivations or preferences and they won't learn to behave in any way other than those that are innate. The only way to train a cat is with patience, consistency and routine. To teach new positive behaviors, you have to give your cat a chance to get accustomed with your desired behaviors and reinforce positive achievement with rewards (treats) to motivate the cat to adopt the change. Changing negative behaviors can be harder. To keep cats away from areas or items, use a commercial spray product to spray surfaces with a scent cats dislike. To train cats to stay away from particular surfaces, cut out a piece of cardboard the size and shape of the surface area you want the cat to stay off of. Apply double-sided sticky tape to one side and place the cardboard, sticky side up, on the surface. Cats dislike stickiness and will avoid the surface. After a short time, your cat will avoid that surface instinctively because it will relate it with stickiness.
Sometimes you will need to catch your cat in the act of a particular behavior to train it to change. For example, if your cat scratches furniture, in addition to using a bad-smelling spray, use a spray water bottle and squirt your cat when you catch it scratching the furniture. The element of surprise and the sudden wetness gives cats a fright and they will run away. After a number of repeated incidents, your cat will get the message and should stop the behavior.
If you are unclear about how to get your cat to change a problem behavior, there are lots of helpful websites that give you the benefit of first-hand experience from other cat owners. Your vet can also give you tips on techniques that can help you get your cat behaving the way you expect.