Understanding Feline Behavior
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2001
Claude Beata

Despite a longstanding interest in feline behavior, we miss understanding what is really going on in many behavior disorders. The classic error is to consider cats as little dogs and to try to apply the same rules. By respecting their genuine ethology, we can better understand feline behaviour. We have to keep in mind that all behaviorist veterinarians see many more dogs than cats. These one are the “poor parents” of behavior medicine because owners bring cats less to the practice, and also, because generalist veterinarians underestimate the prevalence of behavior disorders in cats. For example, it should be useful to evaluate many feline extensive alopecia cases considering a behavioral approach. About 50% of these are anxiety related disorders and respond very well to anxiolytic drugs with behavior modification and territory management.


The review of authors (1-5) shows there are many differences in the approach of cats’ social life. Consistently, cats are supposed to be territorial animals with little interaction. What appears clearly is that cats are non-obligatory social animals. Everybody knows that some wild tomcats can live without any social relationship with other cats. We will see in the ways that territories can be organized, that cats can use spacing pheromones to prevent other cats from coming closer.

However, obviously, cats also can live with others living beings—cats, dogs, and humans—in a very friendly manner. It seems very important to differentiate a real social life and the ability of interacting in a positive way.

We have often discussed with colleagues—and sometimes argued—about whether or not a hierarchy does exist with cats and if there might be confusion between hierarchy and agonistic behaviors.

Hierarchy is a way of organizing a social group, reducing the energy cost of maintaining the social relationship. We can’t think it relevant to speak about hierarchy between cats or between cats and others animals or humans because we have never seen organized groups, mono- or multi-specific including cats where cats obey a so-called hierarchy.

Many owners have seen dogs exhibiting hierarchy through dominance signals towards cats that are answered by the cat rubbing its body along the side of the dog. The sequence cannot be completed because there isn’t a common background in the communication. The cat doesn’t answer to the threat because it does not mean anything in its own perception.

In the same way, people can teach inhibition to their cats, how to reduce their bites or their scratching but they won’t get a submissive cat. Using the right signal will prevent the cat from scratching too hard or biting, but people won’t be dominant over their cats.

Everyone working with cats can’t accept the idea of cats being only lonesome or solitary creatures because we all live with, or know, cats exhibiting attachment behaviors. Cats, even if they are not a social species, share with humans, dogs, and most of the mammals, attachment as a necessary step in their development. Kittens are bound to their mother by a primary attachment that allows them to discover their environment. As we can see in dogs, in cats we can observe an active detachment from the mother earlier (around the sixth week). The primary attachment to the mother will be replaced by an attachment to the territory, although cats can keep affectionate relationships.

Studies on appeasing pheromones can open a window to understand why cats and human can tie such bonds. Appeasing pheromones are produced during the nursing and the feeding and they are the first factor inducing the attachment. The structures of feline and human appeasing pheromones are very close and this could be a chemical explanation of the attractiveness of humans for cats.

We can imagine more that the attachment ability is linked to the development period. This period can last longer in good conditions, such as when there is no danger or competition. This increases the chance of building good relationships between the cat and other being livings.


Among domestic animals, cats have a unique characteristic. They have a double status: they are very efficient predators and at the same time, they can be hunted by bigger predators as dogs or others carnivores. So, they need to have a wide range of behaviors including agonistic and defense behaviors and need to be able to adapt very quickly. This necessity will explain some sudden changes in behavior that can surprise the owners. Cats can switch from a play behavior to an aggressive behavior, from a confident posture to a fearful position in a glance. Owners many times don’t understand and can be upset because the cat that they were petting one minute before can suddenly bite. The first therapeutic act is to educate the owner about “normal” behavior in cats.

We can define an “aggression field” in cats. Entering into this field can provoke an aggression. When cats are in a good mood, with no internal problem, with no stress, the “aggression field” is smaller than the cat and we can touch him, make an injection, and take the rectal temperature. However, in a snap, the aggression field can increase and be confounded with the limits of the cat. At that time, any contact can lead to an agonistic response. In the worse situations, the aggression field draws a territory around the cat of some meters and any intrusion in that field will trigger an attack. This is really different in dogs and cats!

This double status, the ability to switch instantaneously from one kind of activity to another, are important in better understanding and explaining feline behavior. When the vet does that, he prevents the owners from thinking that their cat is “mad” when he scratches after being petted.


Cats are territorial animals and they organize it by many ways. A cat territory has a precise structure, mixing fields that the animal can share with others and restricted areas where he doesn’t wish to meet anyone else. Part of the consultation must consist in finding how the cat’s territory is built and if the conditions of living allow the animal to organize his life between different activities fields such as an elimination field and an isolation field.

As important as the physical organization of the territory, the chemical one is much more important. In rubbing its face, scratching, or eliminating, the cat is putting different marks that have a signification for him or for other cats. The urine markings at the entrance of precise fields contain spacing pheromones for other cats as well as a visual signal (the urinary spot). The scratches too are a way to keep other cats away from the isolation field that is typically a place the cat doesn’t wish to share. In this case there is again a double signal: visual with the vertical lines made by the scratches and pheromonal. It is thought that because of the weak power of volatility of pheromones, it is useful for the cat to add a visual signal to increase the chance for the signal to be read by other cats.

By rubbing its face against something, the cat releases familiarization pheromones. These are not accompanied by a visual signal because they are self-directed to the cat. Finding its own familiarization marks will relax the animal going from one mark to the other as we can do on a marked track. The spacing pheromones are understood by all cats; the familiarization pheromones are significant only to the one who places them.


As in dogs, we can define, according to Moyer’s classification, various kinds of aggression sequences in cats. We can see predatory aggression, territorial aggression, irritation-related aggression, and fear-related aggression. Obviously there is no hierarchy-related or dominance aggression. Thus, if we except predatory aggression, we can understand that most of time, aggression is triggered by negative emotions (irritation or fear). So the cat is going to exhibit at the same time, signs of aggressiveness and signs of anxiety. If truly “bad cats” exist, they are not numerous.(6) When people come to see us with an aggressive cat, in all the cases, we have to find out what is disturbing the balance of the cat in his territory.

We must not forget that cats have a quicker development than dogs and their level of socialization is related to their mother ‘s own socialization. She can teach to the kitten to be confident or to be frightened and aggressive. The second point that is going to determine this level will be the time of nursing and feeding. Cats can be split in two groups: the ones with an early weaning before the sixth week and the ones with a later weaning around the eighth week. This depends on the quality of the environment and on the oestral status of the mother. If she is again pregnant, she is going to detach very quickly her offspring.

Veterinarians must also keep in mind that some common medications, such as slow-release corticoids or progestogens, can trigger sudden changes of mood and may lead to aggression. This is another evidence of the link in cats between anxiety and aggressiveness.


Another important point if we want to better understand and better manage this increasing feline population, is that cat behavior disorders are dominated by inhibition. Unfortunately, people bring to our practice only the cats with inappropriate or dangerous behaviors. We see only a fraction of cats that need to be treated for their anxiety or their depression.

It is very interesting because if vets have to compete with breeders and trainers when they try to be involved in treating behavior disorders in dogs, they are alone when they speak about the problems of cats. But, they don’t speak very much of these silent affections because they don’t know them; they are not trained to recognize a depressive cat or an anxious one.

As we always evaluate the medical condition when we have a behavior case, it could seem very relevant in many cases to think in the behavior hypothesis in front of a difficult feline medical case.(7) Cystitis, dermatitis, insomnia, persistent inappetance, or polyphagia can often be related with behavior disorders. We see cats treated over months with an extensive alopecia and the vet has never been interested in studying the cat’s physical and social environment, such as the arrival of a puppy in the house, change in the household (divorce, etc.), moving, or other important ecological changes.

This is a true and a hard work for veterinarians; they are the only ones able to find out these very severe and silent affections when they see the cat at their practice for other reasons (annual injections and so on).


Behavior consultations are quite different in cats and in dogs. We have to be cautious with many external factors. Signs of anxiety can be really different in cats: rolling skin syndrome, decrease in face rubbing, decrease or increase in self-grooming don’t exist or don’t mean the same thing in cats and dogs. But the first work, if we want to treat more cats, is to understand better how they live, starting from their genuine ethology and including all what they have added living alongside humans. It’s a great challenge for the vet because they are the only partners for the owners and they must not miss their chance.

Ethological consultations for cats are also ecological consultations and this is difficult because we are not used to evaluating so many different factors, but we think it’s worthwhile to improve our knowledge of cats. The future will be feline.


1.  Houpt K.A, Domestic Animal Behavior for Veterinarians and Animal Scientists, 3rd Ed. 1998 Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa

2.  Landsberg G ; Horwitz D , Behavior of dogs and cats—Questions and answers, 1998, Lifelearn, Guelph, Ontario

3.  0’Farrel V, Neville P, Manual of feline behaviour, BSAVA 1994, Cheltenham

4.  Overall K, Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, 1997 Mosby, St-Louis, Missouri

5.  Basic Course of Gecaf—(French Group of study of pets behavior)—Collective book

6.  Beata C, Le chat agressif, Prat Med Chir An Comp (1999) 34 : 473-476

7.  Dramard V., Hannier I., La depression reactionnelle chez le chat

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Claude Beata

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