Cats: Instinct vs. Domesticated Life

stretching white cat

Cats are “opportunistically domesticated”.  Cats initially became domesticated because they helped control the rodent population and therefore people found them acceptable to live with.  For us, that means that unlike dogs’ people did not selectively breed cats for traits that would make them better companions.  The exception to this is certain breeds like the Persians, Siamese, etc.

So, for most people, the behaviors they find annoying in cats are 100% natural and have never been selected against.  But we can learn to find enrichment activities for our cats that give them access to their natural behaviors while keeping our households in the state we would like them in.

  • Scratching
    • Cats scratch things in their environment both as a way of leaving their scent to mark territory and to help sharpen and maintain their nails. Sometimes they have preferences for different textures or they are trying to mark their territory causing them to pick certain areas of the house to scratch at.
    • If there is an area of the house that they are consistently scratching using something like double-sided tape in the area will deter most cats from scratching a certain area. Just next to that space you should place a scratching post for them so that you give them the opportunity to scratch on an appropriate object.
    • Use different types of scratchers throughout the house to give them options. Most cats prefer upright scratchers, so they can flex their nails while they scratch.
    • Cats that tend to go more towards carpeting may benefit from a flat scratching post.
    • Using things like cat nip or treats can help entice them to use scratching posts.

black cat holding persons arm

  • Jumping on Objects
    • Most cats prefer to jump onto objects and watch the world go by. This is normal behavior. The most common place cats jump up and are not wanted is in the kitchen counters.
      • First, if they are on the kitchen counters and you don’t want them there, make sure that food is never left out unattended on the counter. If it is and they can consistently steal and eat the food, then they are being reinforced for the behavior of jumping up.  Also, do not offer them food directly from the counter to help lessen the value of being on the counter itself.
      • Next place a cat tree or other object they are allowed to be on right next to the counters. Then encourage them to use the cat tree by using either cat nip or treats to get them up on it.  This will allow them to still watch what you are doing without being in the food you are preparing.  It would also work to place shelving they are allowed to be on in the same area so again they have a place to watch from.

grey kitten on floor

  • Play Aggression and Hyperactivity
    • Some cats, especially younger kittens and cats enjoy hiding and then pouncing on you when walking by in an effort to entice you to play. Some cats will find it fun to make your house into a speedway at 3am, causing mayhem.  Remember, cats by nature are either nocturnal or crepuscular (meaning most active at dawn and dusk).  The reason behind this behavior is that is the time when most of their prey would be naturally active in the wild.
      • One important note for cats that like to wake you up at night or very early in the morning, is to ignore them. If you wake up and give into them by either playing with them or feeding them they will only continue to pester you.  So, try your best to get them tired out prior to bedtime and ignore the behavior, especially when it first starts.
    • The best way to combat this is to give them appropriate outlets for their play.
      • Set aside 10-15 minutes daily to play with your cat using a laser pointer, feather toy, or other toys they enjoy to help tire them out. Having an object like a feather toy that they can actually “hunt, catch and kill” is a very good outlet for them.  If possible, after letting them enjoy that activity, offer them a meal to help simulate what their natural environment would be.
    • For cats that are especially active, creating an obstacle course throughout the house, and using either the laser pointer or treats to lure them through it, can help burn off additional energy.
    • Also, be sure to have different-sized cat trees and shelves they can climb around in the house and place them near windows, so they can watch the world go by.
      • Cats that are especially fascinated with the outdoors can be trained to wear a harness and leash and go for walks outside. Another option is to build an enclosed space or “catio” that they can safely be in to explore the world.  If you chose to let your cat out in your fenced yard placing another piece of fence, chicken wire, or even netting at a 45-degree angle from the top of the fence into the yard will prevent almost all cats from being able to climb over the top of the fence.  If you do not want to let them in the yard, then doing edible grass in the house that they can snack on is another option.
    • Another great option for enrichment is having a fish tank for them to sit near and interact with.
  • Overeating
    • Some cats, just like people, tend to overeat, especially if they are bored. For this reason, we do not recommend free-feeding cats.  Instead, meal feedings will help deter them from overeating.  If they still tend to pig out at meal times, then using food dispensing toys is the next step.  The food-dispensing toys will do two things – first, it will make them work for their food and help burn some calories, and second, it will help prevent them from overeating.  They are a lot less likely to overeat if they have to actually work to get the food out.

Enrichment ideas are used for our pets to help them be able to express their natural and instinctual desire in a way that we find acceptable within our lives. For more tips to help you live in harmony with your feline friends, reach out to our staff!

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