It’s a question every cat owner has asked at some point: why does my cat do [that thing]? Sometimes it’s with a laugh when the cat is doing something funny or weird (and there are so many cat behaviors that fall into this category!) but sometimes it’s a serious question. Why does my cat pee on my bed? Why does my cat attack my other cat? Why does my cat bite my feet when I’m trying to walk? With many behavior issues, getting to the heart of “why” can get us on the right path to better cat behavior.
The Heart of “Why”
Much of our cats’ behavior is driven by consequences. A cat may behave one way in order to get something it wants (like food) or another way to escape something unpleasant or scary (like the vacuum). There are many names for the things that a cat works to get or avoid (reinforcers and punishers, for example) but here I’m going to refer to it all as “motivation.” You can think of motivation as what inspires a cat to behave a certain way.
Most importantly, your cat decides what its motivation is. You may think your cuddles are the best treat a cat could ever want but if your cat wants the food in the kitchen, they’re going there. Or maybe you think a spray bottle will keep your cat off the counter but they’re more motivated by getting up high than by avoiding the water. Motivation can change too. In the morning, maybe all your cat wants is breakfast but later in the day they’re more interested in getting your attention.
Finally, emotionally-based motivations, like escaping something the cat thinks is scary, are very important to consider. But this motivation can change too – specifically you can use classical conditioning to change your cat’s emotions around a person, place, or thing.
Think of your cat’s motivators as some of their most basic needs.
Every cat needs to eat so food is one of the “primary” motivators – they don’t need to learn to want it. It is also one of the easiest for us to use to change behaviors.
Some cats will display unwanted behavior to try to get food – waking owners up in the morning or begging at the dinner table. If these behaviors ever lead to getting food, the cat learns to keep doing them. But you can also use food to reward the behavior you want by using treats.
Cats are natural hunters. Before they had kibble in their bowl, they had to hunt for every bite of food. This connection has left cats with a strong desire to practice their hunting behaviors. In our homes, we call this “play.”
Young cats in particular might turn their need to play on the wrong targets. Giving them ample opportunities to play appropriately generally solves this problem. Play can also be used to motivate shy cats to interact and provide a positive experience between a cat and other family members (human or otherwise).
Despite media claims, cats aren’t antisocial. Most cats seek out the attention of their favorite people and are even more likely to interact if a person shows an interest in them as well.
A need for attention can motivate a cat to wake their owner up, climb on a computer, or even start scratching the sofa (has your cat learned this is the only way to get you to look at them?). Attention can be a powerful motivator, so don’t forget to tell your cat when they are being “such a very good kitty!”
Safety and Security
All beings, cats included, need to feel safe. Cats often do things that confuse us but are related to their desire to feel more secure in their space. Most owners can identify a fearful cat that is trying to escape. But many litter box issues also relate to a cat’s concern about their safety. The cat may be reluctant to go to where their box is or they may be trying to communicate and avoid conflict with other cats in or around their territory. Many other issues (aggression, for example) can also be linked to a cat’s need to feel safe and escape perceived threats.
This is only a partial list and other motivators will vary from cat to cat. Some, like a desire to mate, are decreased or eliminated when pets are spayed and neutered. Other motivators, like getting access to a certain area, are learned based on a cat’s experiences. Cats also have natural needs like a place to scratch and a clean, safe place to eliminate that must be met.
Notice that none of these motivators are personality traits. A cat isn’t said to behave in a certain way because they are “stubborn” or “alpha.” Labels like this also don’t provide insight on changing the behavior. It’s much easier to remove food from the counter and give treats on a cat tree than it is to change “stubborn.”
If your cat is doing something you would like to change, try the “why” game.
Pretend you’re an annoying child. Each time you come up with an answer as to why your cat is doing a particular behavior, ask why again. Keep going until you’ve identified a basic motivation that you can either use or work to change.
Why is my kitten attacking my feet? Because she’s crazy!
Why is she crazy? Because she has so much energy!
Why does she have so much energy? Because she’s young and I work all day while she’s stuck at home alone. She doesn’t get much playtime.
Plan: More interactive play, food puzzles, and solo play. Maybe another kitten?
Why is my cat peeing on my bed? Because he’s mad at me.
Why is he mad? Because I got a dog and he hates it.
Why does he hate the dog? Because it tries to play with him but he’s scared of it. He doesn’t feel safe.
Plan: A safe zone with a litter box for the cat. Lots of vertical space so the cat can get up high. Training and management for the dog to prevent unwanted play. Build positive associations between cat and dog to change to emotional reaction.
Where to Go Next
Understanding your cat’s motivation is an important first step to changing their behavior. By working with your cat to meet their needs and provide for their wants, you can end up with a cat that is both happy and well behaved.
If you’re still not sure why your cat is doing something, ask for help from a professional like your vet or a behavior specialist. Many behavior problems are complex and involve multiple or complex motivations. Or maybe you’ve identified a motivation but aren’t sure what to do about it. While food is easy to work with, some things, like a sense of security, are more difficult to control. Someone with education and professional experience can show you the steps to success.
If you need figuring out why your cat does something and how to fix it, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.