How to have a better-behaved cat

15th Jan, 2024

Written by Jennifer Davies

Believe it or not, you can teach your cat good manners and put a stop to behaviours you don’t want. With consistency and the right approach, our feline friends of all ages are amazingly adept at learning good behaviour. Here’s how to tackle some of the most common cat behavioural issues so that you and your feline friend can live in happy harmony.

Furniture shredding

What is it about a sofa, door or table leg that seems irresistible to cats? Actually, it’s about the convenience, not the specific item. Cats need to be able to “sharpen their claws” (where they stretch out and run their front paws, claws extended, over a textured surface). This instinctive behaviour keeps their claws healthy by helping to shed the dead outer layer, provides stretching exercise and entertainment, and marks territory.

Step 1 is to provide better alternatives in the form of scratching posts or pads. Ready-made options come in all shapes, sizes and prices, and are usually made of wood, carpet, sisal, and compressed corrugated board, but often even a coir mat can do the trick. A general rule of thumb is that they should be textured, very stable (shouldn’t move if your cat uses it), and long/tall enough that the cat can stretch out fully when using them; horizontal and vertical options should be provided.

Step 2 is positive behaviour modification, which involves deterring them from using the wrong areas (your couch), redirecting their attention to the right ones (the scratch post), and praising and rewarding them when they do what you want. Deter them from their favourite scratch-sites by covering them with something uncomfortable but harmless, such as tinfoil, double-sided tape, or thick plastic, and, if you catch them in the act, say “no” or make a hissing sound (e.g. Ssshht!). Check out cat behaviour expert Jackson Galaxy’s video about teaching your cat not to claw furniture here.

NOTE: Never have your cat “de-clawed”. This is cruel and unnecessary surgery in which part of the cat’s toes are amputated – like removing your fingers up to the first knuckle. It causes long-term chronic pain and can trigger behavioural issues like aggression, biting, pulling out their own fur, chewing on their toe stumps, and inappropriate urinating. Cats instinctively hide pain as a survival mechanism, so although you may think it doesn’t bother your cat, they are suffering. It’s our responsibility to teach our cats properly, not punish them painfully if we didn’t do our duty.

Curtain climbing and counter surfing

It’s important to understand that it’s in a cat’s nature to love climbing. Not only is it instinctive, it’s also fun, good exercise and entertaining, plus they can observe everything from a safe distance (especially important when there are things they’d rather avoid, like toddlers, dogs, and vacuum cleaners). Outdoor cats usually have trees to clamber, but indoor kitties are at your mercy and they’ll choose whatever is there, be it curtains, countertops, tables, shelves, or stoves. This can be a nuisance, is unhygienic when preparing or eating food, and could even be dangerous, as a fall from a curtain or leap onto a hot stove can cause serious injury.

It’s crucial that you provide alternative climbing options like cat trees/castles, as well as plenty of interaction and toys to keep them busy. Pet-friendly deterrent sprays, tin foil, and double-sided tape on the curtain edges and furniture can help while training but, unless you give them another option, they’ll keep going back. Of course, it goes without saying that you should avoid leaving temptations like food on these surfaces – even the most well-trained cat may not be able to resist hopping up for a bite of roast chicken.

Toilet troubles

Most cats adeptly figure out where they can do their business (urinate/defecate), whether that’s in your garden or a litter box. Even kittens have either been taught by their mother before you bring them home or will soon learn if you show them to the litterbox after meals and drinks. But what about cats that suddenly start peeing or pooping where they shouldn’t (e.g. on your bed, the carpets, flower pots, etc.)? Cats have a powerful instinct to go in a suitable place and to scratch sand over it, so, if your cat isn’t doing this, something is amiss – it’s not because they’re naughty. Your first step should be a trip to the vet, because an adult cat with sudden toileting behaviour changes is a cat needing help ASAP.

Reasons for “toileting issues” include:

  • Urinary tract infection (UTI) or blockage: These are a common cause of cats urinating where they shouldn’t and, because they can be fatal, a prompt vet visit is advised. Because they cause discomfort, your cat may associate their usual toilet areas with pain and go elsewhere. UTIs can also cause urgency, so they may not reach their litter box in time, or the cat thinks its emptied its bladder but urine leaks out. In addition, the stress of illness can cause behavioural changes.

  • Upset tummy: Kittens and newly adopted cats are prone to digestive upsets and may go outside the litter box because they simply can’t control it. This can be due to worms, a side effect of deworming, change in diet, or stress, as well as various infections.

  • Old age: Ageing animals can develop cognitive decline and forget what they’re doing or lose control of their bladder or bowels. Ageing-related ailments like kidney failure, hyperthyroidism and diabetes can lead to increased water intake and elimination, leading to accidents. Arthritis can make it hard for them to get into and out of a litter box.

  • Litter box: The litter box itself could be at fault. The general rule is that there should be at least one per cat in the household and they should be cleaned daily. Cats can be fussy about the box shape and size or its location, so you may need to try different options (e.g. flatter or taller, bigger, with or without a cover, etc.) in different places. Ensure that children and pets can’t access it, not just for hygiene reasons but also because this interference can cause anxiety in the cat and they might start avoiding it.

  • Stress: Highly stressed cats can start spraying everywhere or doing their business in strange places. Look at what’s going on – have you had a baby, adopted a new cat, have lots of cats in the home, started building work, are packing to move, etc. – and try to compensate for this.

  • Not sterilised: Intact or unsterilised cats – male and female – spray around the house to mark territory and attract mates. Having them spayed/neutered usually resolves this issue swiftly, as well as helping to prevent unwanted litters, preventing diseases like certain cancers, and more. Find out more about the health risks of not sterilising your pets here.

Houseplant destruction

Not only is it annoying when your houseplants get nibbled or chewed, it can make your cat extremely ill or even be fatal. Many common houseplants and flowers are toxic to cats, particularly all lilies, amaryllis, sago palm, daffodils, and cyclamen. You’ll find a detailed list of cat-unfriendly plants on the ASPCA’s website here, and check out our article about the dangers of cut flowers here.

Deter cats from nibbling plants by placing them out of reach and providing alternatives like cat grass. Cats may shred houseplants out of boredom, so providing toys and other enrichment activities may be all that’s needed to keep them occupied. If you have a kitten or insistent plant snacker, rehome all toxic plants to a non-cat household. Note that even lily pollen can be dangerous to cats, so, even if your cat doesn’t take a chomp, they can still be dangerous.

Nipping and biting

This often starts in kittenhood, with teething kittens chewing on your hands for relief. If they’re not corrected, they may grow up thinking it’s okay (this is where having more than one kitten helps because they correct each other and learn not to bite). Some cats, however, just nip or bite gently as a playful way to express themselves or communicate with you and, as long as it isn’t painful, there’s no reason to stop them. Cats can also use biting to signal discomfort, fear, or overstimulation. In some cases, it could be a manifestation of predatory instincts during play. In general, if it isn’t a medical problem, providing cat toys to chew on instead and redirecting their attention through play usually does the trick. Check out this video from cat expert Jackson Galaxy on cat biting.

Aggro kitties

Firstly, be sure if this is actually aggression. First-time cat owners in particular may mistake normal feline behaviour, such as hissing if it gets a fright, playful nipping, or jumping onto you, as aggression. It may also simply be unmanaged nipping and biting as above. However, if your cat is normally friendly and suddenly behaves aggressively, possible reasons include pain, stress, fear, and illness, so a vet visit is in order. If it’s a newly adopted cat, contact the animal welfare organisation you adopted from to find out if this is normal; your kitty may just need time to decompress, but sometimes they’re unwell or are feral or semi-feral and unused to human interaction.

Cats are complex creatures and resolving behavioural issues can be challenging at times. If you’ve tried to resolve the issue with vet visits and fixing their environment, you may need to bring in an animal behaviourist (positive reinforcement only). You’ll find a list of Centre of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE) behaviourists in your area here: or ask your vet for recommendations.

As poet and playwright Jean Cocteau said, “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.” And what could be better than having a well-behaved cat as the soul of your home?

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