Behavior and Environmental Needs
Understanding and Enhancing Behavior by Life Stage
For All Life Stages
Feline health and welfare are intricately interrelated at all life stages. From kitten to senior, an appreciation of the behavioral needs of the cat is essential for preventing behavior problems. Problem behaviors may be manifestations of normal feline behaviors, ranging from undesirable to pathological misbehaviors. Such problems continue to be a primary reason for relinquishment.32 House-soiling (marking or toileting outside the litter box)33 and aggression toward people, housemate cats, or housemate dogs34 are commonly reported reasons for relinquishment.
The focus of this section of the guidelines is the identification of key interventions at various life stages. An outline of behavior and ways to enhance the cat’s welfare at each life stage is presented in Table 2. For detailed recommendations about normal cat behavior and management, readers are referred to the AAFP Feline Behavior Guidelines.35
Many of the cat’s natural patterns are consistent with those of their ancestor, the African wild cat.36 Although cats have become a favored companion around the world, they are not considered fully domesticated. Cats are highly social to those individuals they have experienced positive interactions with during their critical socialization period, while at the same time showing independent daily activities.37 They use a wide territory in natural settings, quite unlike the limited environments within human homes. Thus, the ideal feline home environment requires plentiful and thoughtfully distributed resources including resting areas, feeding stations, water sources, scratching posts, and litter boxes.38 Cats develop patterns of resting and hiding in the home that should be complemented by a variety of appealing places. They may naturally seek their preferred hiding spots if startled or fearful. Some cats prefer to go high, which is consistent with the natural behaviors of the African wild cat, whereas other cats retreat to low spaces.36
Cats are popular pets that reside in 25% of U.S. households with a mean of 1.8 cats per household,39 a demographic statistic that highlights the importance of understanding often complex feline interrelationships. Many people believe their cats get along, whereas in reality, they may display overt aggression (hissing or swatting) or become passively avoidant. In contrast, affiliative relationships are characterized by behaviors such as allogrooming, nose touching, or sleeping in close contact.40,41
Feline Communication Signs
Although cats may be distressed, they are stealthy in their ability to hide anxiety. A content cat will hold its ears forward, whiskers loose or relaxed, muscles soft, and tail loosely wrapped. Practitioners should closely observe feline body language postures for even the most subtle signs of anxiety and tension. Clinical signs of fear or stress in cats are displayed through characteristic body postures, vocalizations, and activity. A cowering (tense, flattened) position where the head is lower than the body may be indicative of stress or fear in cats. A state of distress may also be characterized by crouching, crawling, and muscular tension; activity may range from either freezing or hiding to frantic fleeing. The ears may be held flat, rotated to the side or all the way back when the cat is aroused, agitated or stressed. Dilated pupils indicate greater distress. The whiskers may be straight and directed forward. The paws may be flat on the examination surface so that the cat is ready to flee (versus the cat laying with them curled into the body in a typical relaxed pose).
Vocalizations, including hissing, yowling, growling, or screaming, may indicate defensiveness. A rapid respiratory rate not associated with disease or exertion may also be observed. The tail may flip or twitch as the cat becomes agitated; the rate and intensity of the tail movement correlates with the cat’s distress. Other activities and body language postures representing a fearful or distressed feline state include avoidance and carrying the tail low or tucked and swishing.
It is important to be aware of these signs of distress and to respect them. The cat must have a way to tell people to “please stop” or “I need a break.” When those signals are ignored or disregarded, then the cat’s fear increases and the signaling escalates.
Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc., CareCredit, Dechra Veterinary Products, IDEXX Laboratories, Inc., Merck Animal Health, and Zoetis Petcare supported the development of the 2021 AAHA/AAFP Feline Life Stage Guidelines and resources through an educational grant to AAHA.