Living with Teenagers: The Joys and Challenges of Adolescent Cats

It’s spring and that means prom season! But not all teenagers are donning dresses and taking pictures. If you have a feline teenager, they may be terrorizing your household instead.

Cats have a much longer adolescent (or teenage) phase than most people realize and it can affect them, and those around them, in many ways. If you find yourself using words like “crazy” or “out of control” to describe your young cat, you may have an adolescent on your hands!

What is an Adolescent?

The Inner Details

Adolescence in cats is their teenage phase. Exact age can vary but generally 6 months to 3 years is considered the adolescent phase. While a cat’s body may look fully grown by 1 year, they are still maturing. Specifically, adolescence is marked by the changing of your cat’s brain, and their behavior, as they transition to adulthood.

During adolescence, a cat’s brain is developing. However the different parts of the brain mature at different rates. Like a teenage human, a teenage cat has more development and activity in the limbic system compared to the prefrontal cortex. Don’t remember your high school biology? Basically, the limbic system is all about instant gratification and reward seeking while the prefrontal cortex handles impulse control. This leads to a young cat that is eager to explore the world and seek out fun but that doesn’t yet have many brakes on their behavior.

innocent kitten
What happened to your innocent little kitten?!
Image by Ty Swartz from Pixabay

During this transition period, a cat will develop new requirements for physical exercise, mental stimulation, and territory. All of which can disrupt your household if you’re not expecting them!

The Outer Effects

What does all this mean for you, the proud owner of an innocent kitten that has suddenly gone insane?

New Behaviors!

Your little angel is going to be trying out a whole bunch of new behaviors – and you might not like all of them. Adolescent cats can become more confident and demanding: trying to dart out of doors, waking you up at 4am, or hopping up on the table to share dinner with you. Or they may be more cautious or less tolerant: resisting nail trims or running from the carrier. All of this relates to their brain maturing and starting to ask what is safe, what works, and what doesn’t?

No More Angel Kitten

It’s completely normal for a teenage cat to have worse behavior than when they were a kitten. They are pushing boundaries and testing new ways of interacting with the world. What they had learned and what they put up with as a kitten is flying out the window (for now).

Friends Become Enemies

Conflict between resident cats often increases as one cat enters adolescence. The teenage cat is trying to figure out where they fit into the home as an adult but may not be making the best decisions along the way. This can lead to new conflict over resources (like special napping spots), inappropriate play, or straight-up bullying. It’s also good to note that either cat can be the instigator, not just the teenager.

Surviving a Teenage Cat

So now you know what’s going on and what you’re dealing with – what can you do about it?

Home Setup

First off, your home can dramatically affect your cat’s behavior. Any cat, but especially a young one, needs plenty of appropriate options to get up off the ground. Cat trees, shelves, bookcases, furniture, even the top of their carrier – look for places in every part of your house where your cat can get up higher. Along with managing annoying behavior like counter-surfing, increased vertical space is important if there is cat conflict in your home. Find more on home setup here.

Your home setup can also help prevent bad habits from forming. Be extra alert to anything you can do to stop a behavior before it starts. For example, keep food of the counters (unless you are there) so your cat never learns to hunt for snacks. Or keep the door to the spare bedroom closed to prevent scratching on furniture in that room. The main goal here is to prevent your cat from having the option of an unwanted behavior so that it doesn’t become a problem to solve later. Over time, your cat will be more trustworthy and able to have more freedom but maybe not right now!

Reward What Goes Right

Some days it may feel like a struggle but your cat isn’t actually doing everything wrong! Keep on the lookout for any behaviors that you like and reward them. Your cat is learning what works and doesn’t, make sure they learn the lessons you want by reinforcing what you want them to keep doing. Pet them for hanging out on the window perch (assuming they enjoy petting) or leave treats sprinkled on the cat tree for them to discover. If the counter has no food but the cat tree sometimes has treats, your cat will quickly decide where they want to hang out.

Work Their Mind and Body

wild kitten with mouse toy
Give your teenager an outlet for their energy.
Image by Flensshot from Pixabay

All that energy and curiosity has to go somewhere. During this phase of your cat’s life, play and mental stimulation must be a priority. Regular interactive play burns energy and decreases many unwanted behaviors. Feeding out of food puzzles is easy and can be another tool to minimize playful aggression, cat conflict, annoying or demanding behavior, and more. Safe outdoor experiences can add to your cat’s world. Think about engaging all of your cat’s senses and see what they respond to.

Hang in There

Adolescence is just a phase. In the end, your cat will come out at the other end as an adult. Most cats outgrow much of their impulsive behavior and “chill out,” at least a bit. Your goal will be to continue to reinforce the behavior you want, minimize opportunities for your cat to develop bad habits, and then to stay the course until their brain catches up with their body.

Seriously, This is Normal

In conclusion, your wonderful little kitten has not lost their mind; they’re just becoming a teenager. An increase in frustrating and problematic behavior in your home is normal. While some cats take it to the extreme, in most cases, you will make it through with a little work and lots of play and patience. It’s also normal to feel overwhelmed though so remember that you can talk to your vet or a behavior consultant about these issues. They can guide you through and help you raise a well-mannered cat. You can do it!

If your teenage cat is driving you crazy, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation to get help.