Too often we have people joining the forums begging for help with feline behaviors which disrupt their lives.
"Help! I'm about to lose my mind because my cat won't let me sleep at night!"
"Why can't I have any nice things? Kitty keeps breaking everything that I place on the shelf..."
"My hands are covered with scratches. How do I stop my cat from biting and scratching me during playtime?"
"My cat keeps attacking my boyfriend. One of them has to go!"
"My cat is always begging for food when we're having our meals - what to do?"
When it comes to human offspring, experts and parents agree: Boundaries are good for kids. But what about our furbabies? Should you establish boundaries when it comes to your cat's behavior?
The answer is an overwhelming "yes".
It is amazing to see just how long some people put up with disruptive cat behaviors. These aren't the more extreme feline behavior issues either. There are actual cat behavior problems, such as cats that pee in the owner's bed, or those that viciously attack every household member. The more severe cat behavior issues rarely last for very long, as it's clear to the owners that they need to be dealt with. Yes, sometimes finding an effective solution takes a while, even a long while, but attempts are made almost right away. It's clear to owners that they should not have to live with inappropriate elimination or extreme feline aggression. It's the borderline cases that tend to hang around for a long while, with stories of disruptive behavior that has lasted for years.
This doesn't mean dealing with these borderline situations is much easier. Unfortunately, such owners sometimes join us when they're very close to reaching the limits of their patience, often feeling guilty over their anger with a generally well-behaved cat that's doing something annoying (and no worse).
Many of these situations can be avoided by setting healthy boundaries as soon as the cat joins your household. Preventing your cat from breaking your collectibles, waking you up at night or scratching your arms during playtime is something which you should decide on and apply as early on as possible. It's perfectly ok to have your limits and not allow your cat to take over your life.
It's not that simple though. Deciding on healthy boundaries requires a good understanding of the nature of cats. It's not necessarily about "teaching" your cat and it's definitely not about discipline. It is about setting up your life together in a way that will be good for you and your cat, allowing you to enjoy the human-feline bond and relationship to the max.
What Are Healthy Boundaries?
Trying to force your cat to do something she can't simply won't work. Worse than that, your attempts are likely to stress the cat, and possibly yourself, and damage your relationship. Setting up healthy boundaries means you should be recognizing Kitty's limitations and abilities, and working with them instead of against them. Here are a few guidelines for setting healthy boundaries.
1. Consider what really matters to you
This is one of the key guidelines for setting your boundaries. It holds true for your relationship with humans as well as felines. We'd all love to live in a dream world where we always get our way and everyone else behaves according to our rules. Unfortunately, life doesn't work like that. Getting others to behave the way we want them to takes a considerable investment of energy. Sometimes it just doesn't work and can be extremely frustrating. So, before you set a new house rule, ask yourself: Is it worth it? There is no one right answer. If having a cat on your counter top drives you nuts, then setting this area up as "no-jump zone" could be a good rule for you. If it doesn't really bother you, let it be. The same goes for every other aspect of cat behavior. Some people love sharing a bed with their cat. Others literally lose sleep from having a companion animal in their bed. There is no right and wrong here, just what's right for you and your cat.
2. See the world from your cat's point of view
Our cats are such sweet communicative darlings it can be easy to forget they have a very different view of the world. They literally have a very different perception of the environment. This can have a huge effect on any boundaries that you set in your household. For example, you may assume that your cat might be scared to be left in the dark outside your bedroom at night. In fact, a healthy cat has no issue with darkness. She can be lonely, or bored, or hungry, but she's not likely to mind the darkness, as even very little light is enough for a cat to find her way around.
The way your cat smells, hears, sees and feels the world around her can be crucial to your decisions about setting the boundaries. What would be out of sight - and therefore out of mind - for a young human is not necessarily out of the sensory perception range of a cat. Your cat could be reacting to sounds and smells in ways which could undermine your decisions about specific house rules.
3. Take your cat's natural instincts into account
As the saying goes, "You can take the cat out of the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of the cat". Cats have been domesticated for only a few thousand years and retain the natural instincts of a small predator. Cats are intelligent hunters with a need for constant stimulation. They are agile animals with an ingrained need to run and climb. They have an intrinsic need to sharpen their claws and mark their territory in various ways. In other words, they are cats and not miniature furry humans with four legs and a tail (apologies to the Manx, Sphynx and three-legged cats out there - they are just as much "cat" as any other feline!).
When setting up your house rules, you have to take your cat's instincts and natural behavioral patterns into account. You cannot expect your cat to avoid sharpening her claws anymore than you can expect her to fly around the room. Does that mean you should forgo any boundaries in the matter? Definitely not. Just keep in mind that deciding on the leather couch being "off limits" cannot happen without providing your cat with appropriate alternatives. The emphasis here is on "appropriate", in the cat's eyes, not yours. It's not just a question of effective nail filing. The feline behavior of scratching certain objects satisfies many needs, and you have to learn all about it in order to provide good alternatives before declaring the couch a "no go zone".
Read more here: How To Stop Your Cat From Scratching The Furniture
4. Keep your cat's safety and well-being in mind
Safety considerations should be key when deciding on boundaries. Your cat may prefer to spend time on the balcony railing and it may not even interfere with any of your own needs and desires, but it's still your responsibility to make sure she stays out of harm's way. Just like you would with a toddler, it is up to you - and only you - to keep Kitty safe. That means preventing her from jumping on hot stoves, climbing onto open window sills, playing with yarn and a multitude of other behaviors. Sometimes the danger is not immediate. For instance, some cats can easily turn into junk food addicts if you share your own take-out with them. Unless you set up the boundaries there, and draw a firm line at those chicken nuggets, you could end up with a cat that not only begs for food but is also dangerously obese.
5. Keep the humans' safety and well-being in mind
Cats rarely pose a health risk to humans but sometimes they can. Immunocompromised individuals may need to set special boundaries for their cats to decrease the risk from cat scratches or bites. A firm decision to keep Kitty away from food preparation areas may also be required. Just what the rules should be depends on the specific medical condition, but keep in mind that such limits may be needed. Risk management should be applied to all household members. If you're expecting a baby, you should not allow unsupervised interactions between the cat and your newborn. Making the crib "off limits" to Kitty could be a sensible rule to apply in some situations.
How To Find The Right Healthy Boundaries
With the above considerations in mind, it's time to sit down and do some thinking. Grab a pen and paper and make a list of cat behaviors which you are not happy with. Take a few days to compile a list which could end up looking something like this -
1. Waking me up in the middle of the night by pawing at my chest.
2. Demanding breakfast at 5 AM every day. Even on a Sunday!
3. Stealing food from plates that are left on the table.
4. Jumping on boyfriend's ankles whenever he walks out of the shower.
5. Climbing on the curtains.
6. Scratching the green velvet ottoman.
Next, analyze each behavior. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this a natural behavior for a cat?
- Do all cats need to do this? Do all cats do this?
- What does the cat achieve here? Attention? Stimulation? Food?
- Do I want the behavior to disappear, or do I just want to change it a little bit? (For example, you may not mind Kitty asking for food at 5 PM, and it's the 5 AM wake-up call that bothers you).
You may have to do some research to find your answers. You can start by looking in the Cat Behavior Articles section, searching our forums, or asking about the specific behavior in the Cat Behavior Forum. Once you have your answers, and only then, can you assess the necessary means for changing the behavior.
So, How Do I Make The Unwanted Behavior Stop?
Ahh, the million-dollar question! The answer is, "It depends" (annoying, we know!)
In most cases, you'll have to provide Kitty with a substitute that will fulfill the same need which the unwanted behavior addresses. For example, if you want to stop her from scratching the couch, you'll have to set up appropriate scratching posts. If the behavior is a form of playtime aggression, you may need to work on releasing that pent-up energy by setting up play sessions with your cat.
Once you make sure Kitty's natural instincts are satisfied, it's time to think about limiting the actual behavior, either by blocking the object or by making a firm decision - and sticking to it! - not to grant the coveted prize. For example, once you make sure Kitty has enough vertical space she can use for climbing, you can block her access to the shelf which holds your collection of vintage Holly Hobbie plates.
Make sure you read this before attempting to change a cat's behavior:
We also have specific guides that can help you with modifying specific behaviors in natural stress-free ways -
These and similar guides are available in our Cat Behavior Articles section.
It can be done! You should not have to live with feline habits that bother you and disrupt your life. In the long term, setting healthy boundaries and sticking to them is better for you, for your cat and for your relationship.