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Behavior and environment

Click to access the 2015 AAHA Behavior Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats. 

An outline of behavior and environmental items for discussion at each life stage is presented in Table 1. The following discussion elaborates on those items, where applicable. For detailed recommendations about normal cat behavior and management refer to the 2004 AAFP Feline Behavior Guidelines.10

Environmental needs change with life stage

All ages

  • Provide plentiful resources – hiding spots, elevated resting spots, food, water, scratching posts and litter boxes – throughout the home, particularly for cats kept indoors and in multi-cat households (Fig. 3).
  • Controversy exists over whether cats should be kept indoors-only or in an indoor/outdoor environment (see box on page 82). These debates reflect geographical and cultural differences, as well as individual owner preferences. 30,37–41 They underline the importance of providing an appropriate and stimulating environment for the cat.35


  • Play: Kittens have a high play drive; inter-cat social play peaks at about 12 weeks of age,45 then object play becomes prevalent. Toys offer an outlet for normal predatory sequences as part of play, and help prevent play biting.
  • Litter boxes: Litter box set-up and cleaning is critical for box usage. Although individual preferences can vary, most cats prefer clumping litter46 and a clean box in an accessible but not busy location. Initially, kittens can be simultaneously offered a variety of litter box options to permit them to express personal preference through usage. Some cats may find scented litters aversive.47
  • Socialization/handling: Kittens should be gradually and positively acclimated as early as possible to any stimuli or handling techniques that owners plan them to encounter during their lifetime (eg, children, dogs, nail trims, tooth and coat brushing, car transport). This can be accomplished with food or other appropriate rewards, avoiding interactive punishment as it may elicit defensive aggression.


  • Inter-cat relations: The reduction in social play combined with the dispersal effect (when free-living offspring leave the family unit at about 1–2 years of age) means that inter-cat aggression may develop at this stage of life.
  • Litter boxes and elimination: Litter box rejection can stem from a variety of causes including litter type, box cleaning, box style, and box size. Cats have shown a tendency to prefer larger boxes.48,49
  • Urine marking: Most intact cats and about 10% of sterilized cats mark their territory with urine.50 The onset of this behavior can coincide with sexual maturity.
Lifestyle Choices
Photo courtesy of Deb Givin
Photo courtesy of Deb Givin.
  • Indoor-only: An indoor-only lifestyle may decrease the risks of trauma and certain infectious diseases and increase longevity, but may also increase the risks of compromised welfare and illness due to environmental limitations. Appropriate environmental enrichment is thus essential for maintaining the mental and physical well-being of cats.10,42–44
  • Indoor/outdoor: An indoor/outdoor lifestyle may provide a more natural and stimulating environment for cats, but may also increase the risks of infectious disease and trauma, and result in increased predation on wildlife. Supervised or controlled outdoor access, for example via leashed walks or cat-proof enclosures, may reduce some of the risks otherwise associated with access to the outdoors, and has been recommended by the AAFP and others.10,40,44


Adult and mature

  • Play: Declining play activity increases susceptibility to weight gain. In one study, three 10–15 min exercise sessions per day caused a loss of approximately 1% of body weight in 1 month with no food intake restrictions.51

Senior and geriatric

  • Senior and geriatric cats exhibiting behavioral changes (eg, vocalization, changes in litter box usage) should always be evaluated for an underlying medical problem.5