Managing cat behaviour

Explore the causes of a range of behaviours and help manage them

Five important things

  • cats who misbehave may just be exhibiting normal cat behaviour
  • if your cat's behaviour changes, it could be a sign that they're stressed, scared or sick - and you should see your vet straight away
  • never punish your cat for 'misbehaving' as it will never help - but may stress your cat more
  • you have a legal duty of care to meet your cat's needs, including their need to exhibit normal behaviours
  • you can help to reduce unwanted behaviours by understanding the causes of cat behaviours such as spraying, scratching and fighting and then trying to treat the cause

How can you help your cat behave?

This guide explores some common cat behaviours and what you can do to reduce any unwanted behaviours.

Is your cat trying to tell you something?

Some of the typical cat behaviours that we don't like are actually perfectly normal, while others indicate that your cat is stressed, scared, sick or in pain.

Punishing your cat will only make these problems worse.

If your cat starts doing something new, different or out of character, this could be their way of telling you that something is wrong. Medical disorders often cause behavioural changes. You should take your cat to the vet as soon as they exhibit different behaviours and discuss your cat's behaviour and your concerns with the vet.

Pain - signs to look for

Cats are good at hiding their pain, so it can be hard to tell if they're suffering.

Instead of limping, for example, they might show slight changes in their behaviour or mood. There are many different medical problems that cause discomfort and varying intensities of pain.

If you notice any change in your cat's behaviour, lifestyle or interactions, take them to the vet for a health check. By treating pain you can greatly improve their quality of life.

Signs of pain include:

  • becoming more withdrawn or hiding more than usual
  • sleeping more than usual, especially in one place, or slowing down
  • becoming less tolerant of people or being handled
  • aggressive behaviour
  • hesitating or becoming reluctant to jump up or down from furniture, or use the cat flap
  • being stiff after resting or showing a preference for using a particular leg when going up or down stairs
  • crouching in a hunched up position with squinty eyes
  • playing less, or interacting with you less
  • eating or drinking less
  • disturbed sleep
  • increased anxiety or fear
  • scruffy or matted coat, particularly in hard to reach areas
  • vocalisation, especially when moving or using the litter tray
  • not using the litter tray
  • over-grooming
  • purring - some cats will purr when in pain

Stress - signs to look for

It's not always easy to tell if your cat is stressed, because signs of stress can be subtle and cats can be good at hiding their feelings. By understanding the causes of stress, you may be able to reduce the stress your cat feels, which can in turn reduce unwanted behaviours.

Cats can get stressed for a variety of reasons, including:

  • moving house
  • change of routine
  • bullying or intimidation by neighbouring cats - or other cats in your home
  • addition of a new child, pet or partner
  • unfamiliar visitors
  • unsuitable placement of food, water or litter trays

Signs of stress include:

  • becoming more withdrawn or hiding more than usual
  • appearing to sleep more - some cats will pretend to be asleep while monitoring something that is stressing them
  • becoming less tolerant of people or being handled
  • becoming less keen to use resources such as window sills, furniture, your lap, the litter tray or the cat flap
  • crouching in a hunched up position with squinty eyes, or recoiling if you try to approach
  • being less playful and interacting with you less
  • overeating
  • eating or drinking less
  • disturbed sleep
  • pacing, circling or restlessness
  • scruffy or matted coat
  • soiling in the house
  • over-grooming
  • increased anxiety or fear

Get help with challenging behaviours

The advice on these pages is intended to help you encourage positive behaviours and help you deal with some behavioural issues. However, every cat is unique and the causes of some behaviours can be difficult to identify.

If your cat has a behavioural problem, we recommend you discuss the problem with your vet who can refer you to a qualified behaviourist, such as a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors or a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist that can be found through the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

Seek help sooner rather than later because it can be more difficult to resolve long-standing issues.

Related topics

Shyness - Topic

Aggression - Topic

Spraying - Topic

Toileting - Topic

Photo credit

Banner image - Sarah Dorweiler -

Inset image - Erica Leong -