Do cats have a conscience?

Are cats aware that what they are doing is bad?

What are some ways/strategies that you approach managing the behavior of cats who misbehave?

What common mistakes have you seen cat owners make in trying to manage cats that demonstrate negative or anti-social behaviors?

Cats are keenly aware of cause and effect and seemingly know instinctively how to push our buttons; they are masters of manipulation. Cats have the intelligence of a 2- or 3-year-old child, which means they think any attention from a parent is better than no attention at all. (Think 2-year-old screaming in a restaurant while mom is trying to have adult conversation with friends. The kid knows he is going to get in trouble – but at least mom’s attention will be on them and not diverted.) Therefore, ignoring unwanted behavior is the best way to get it to fade. I often get people reaching out to me because their cat is meowing incessantly. I ask “What do you do when he follows you around meowing?” and the person will often reply “I ask, ‘what do you want?’ then I give him a treat because I think he’s hungry.” We often don’t see how we are positively reinforcing unwanted behaviors.

Because people (generally) don’t really understand the feline species’ needs, cats seem to be trying to get our attention, or tell us something; it might be that we aren’t feeding a species-appropriate food, or we aren’t feeding frequently enough, or “I’m bored”, or “aren’t you going to do something about that cat crossing our yard?!” Cats will go to great lengths to get what they need. Here are a few examples:

  • Chewing blinds – cats are highly territorial and great hunters, so they are interested in what’s going on outside. They need to see the potential territory invaders crossing the yard, and they want to salivate over the birds at the feeder, so they chew through the blinds to look out if you leave them down. So stop it. Leave them up so the cat can see out. If you are having intercat aggression issues due to cats outside, get frosted window film to obscure kitty’s view instead.

  • Biting while petting – many cats get over-stimulated easily and are sensitive in particular parts of their body. After what they think is enough touching, they will bite you to get you to stop. They have usually given more subtle hints before the bite that we probably didn’t notice (ears flick back, whiskers held close to sides of face, eyes dilate, etc.) We should learn cat body language better and pay attention when they start to become uncomfortable.

  • Scratching the sofa – Cats need to scratch. Period. If you don’t provide them with the proper type of scratching device, properly placed, they will use what is natural. Cats scratch to mark territory (with scent pad between their toes and visual lines, they are creating a visual marker for other cats) so if your cat is seeing another cat cross the yard, it will want to scratch near the window it looks out. If there is not a tall/long (length of the cat stretched out) scratch pad/post there, they will likely use the nearest piece of furniture.

In conclusion, cats are very self-centered beings who have needs that are not generally understood/met. They pay close attention to what we react to, and will exhibit behaviors to get our attention – bad or good. The behaviors we pay attention to will increase, and the ones we ignore tend to fade. People should be responsible for understanding cats’ body language and what the species needs — and satisfy them.

I know when my cat is behaving in attention-seeking behavior – and when he does, I ask myself “what does he want/need”? Usually it’s food related but often it’s that he needs help burning off pent-up energy. In the wild our cats would spend six hours a day hunting, so when we keep them indoors (recommended) they don’t get to release those natural instincts as frequently as they’d probably like to. We could be responsible for helping them with that through prey play, treat toss, and other engaging games.