Jealous Cat?

“My cat only pees on my boyfriend’s clothes!”
“Our cat is hissing at the new baby!”

“Since I got a new puppy, the cat refuses to use her litter box!”

“MY CAT IS JEALOUS!”

Sound familiar? Some cats seem perfectly happy with just their person and no one else, thank you very much! A new baby, new significant other, or new pet can lead to litter box issues, aggression, and fear. What can be done?

What Do We Mean By “Jealous”?

A cat may get labeled as “jealous” of new people and pets that come into their life if they:

  • Do something destructive to that individual’s belongs - like peeing on their clothes.
  • Seem antisocial or unfriendly toward that individual or display aggressive behavior.
  • Generally start doing things we don’t like when the new individual comes into the home.

In short, this term gets applied to cats that aren’t behaving the way we want them to or who are causing problems in their home. Unfortunately, once this label is applied, it can be difficult to know what to do next. You may find yourself wondering if your cat can possibly stay in your home if they can’t accept the newcomer.

Do Cats Get Jealous?

Jealousy can be defined a feeling of insecurity, fear, or stress over a threat to a valued relationship or possession. In this sense, we imagine our cats are upset by getting less attention from us (or by the potential for getting less attention). Do they act out because they are worried that we like someone else more than them?

Our understanding of animal emotions has grown immensely in recent years. It is now clear that animals can feel basic emotions like happiness and fear. However it is less clear whether or not complex emotions like jealousy are experienced in the same way. To feel jealous of a new person or pet, your cat would need to have an understanding of what you are thinking (that you want to spend time with this new family member) and be able to imagine the future (how that new individual will change their life). Cats probably can’t do this. 

Instead, cats react based on their past and their present. They can be stressed by changes in their routine or changes in their territory (their home), both of which can be caused by a new person, baby, or pet. Cats can also be stressed if they can no longer get something they enjoy and are used to having access to. For example, if a cat is used to being able to sleep with their person but then a new partner moves in and the cat is kept out of the bedroom, they will likely be stressed and may develop a behavior problem.

Black and white cat on Bed
Photo Credit: Pixabay.com/rolandoemail

So stress can absolutely cause behavior problems but is it the same as jealousy? I don’t think so. It is a reaction to a specific change in their life rather than feelings about an individual in their life. Believing your cat is jealous may stop you from getting to the specifics of the problem and also can leave you blaming your cat rather than finding a solution.

Another Way of Looking at the Problem

So if “jealous” isn’t a helpful way to think about your cat, what is?

First, break down the problem behavior to determine your cat’s basic motivation, beyond personality labels. In the case of a new family member, this is often a need to feel safe and security in their home. It may also be access (to a favorite spot or litter box), attention, or play depending on how their life has changed. You can find more about motivation in this post.

The behaviors that get labeled as “jealous” can often be reidentified as one of these:

  • Stress over a change in routine
  • Territorial insecurity caused by changes to smells or important resources (like a resting spot or litter box)
  • Fear-based aggression directed at an unfamiliar individual
  • A reaction to a change in interactions with a familiar person (like being chased away from a baby)
  • Boredom/lack of exercise and stimulation

It is helpful to remember that cats don’t view their actions in the same way we do. For example, we might see pee on our clothes as a personal attack or sign that the cat dislikes us. But cats aren’t “grossed out” by urine like we are. Instead they use urine as an important communication tool. They are more likely trying to provide information about who they are or cope with their own insecurity in their home. When viewed this way, there are many things that can be done to solve the problem. 

Grey and White cat looking dejected
Photo Credit: Pixabay.com/pasja1000

Instead of jealousy, stress and fear are more common sources of problem behavior. The upside is that these issues have concrete solutions.

Now What?

Once you have a better understanding of why your cat is acting the way they are, you can take steps to help them feel more secure and less stressed. These include a cat-friendly home setup, plenty of play opportunities, and proper introductions to new family members. Also avoiding punishment or harsh interactions as these can increase stress and further degrade your cat’s relationships. Follow the links below for help with specific introductions:

By focusing on the behavior you want to work on and your cat’s specific motivation, you can get past the unproductive label of “jealous.” Better behavior, a better relationship, and a happier home will be in your future!

If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.