All cats should be allowed to express natural behaviours. Behaviour refers to the way that an animal acts. An important type of behaviour that an animal expresses are those that are instinctive (what they would typically do in the wild). Enough space, proper shelter and housing, as well as company of the animal's own kind, encourages the expression of natural behaviours.
This law is called the Animal Welfare Act. The Animal Welfare Act outlines how people must take care of and act towards animals in New Zealand. The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), the Police and SPCA work together to make sure people in New Zealand follow these laws.
Under the Animal Welfare Act, all animal guardians (owners) are responsible for making sure the welfare needs of animals in their care are met. Learning about the Five Domains helps us to understand these welfare needs and how we can make sure we provide these. One of the Five Domains is Behaviour. In this section you will learn about this domain and how you can make sure your cat or kitten receives the exercise and enrichment they need to express their natural behaviours.
Socialisation is one of the most important things you and your family can do for your kitten. This means letting them gradually meet people and other pets. Allow them to experience everyday sights and normal household sounds in positive and friendly ways, especially in their first few months of life.
With kind and gentle handling and friendly contact every day, your family’s new kitten should soon be comfortable with you and their new home. If there are very young children in your home (younger brothers, sisters or cousins), teach them that a kitten is not a toy – they are living creatures with feelings who must be treated with gentleness and respect.
Make sure an adult in your household gets professional advice straight away for any behaviour problems that your cat may begin to show.
Play gives your cat a chance to exercise and can increase the bond between you. The best toys are those that allow your cat to perform their natural stalking, chasing and pouncing behaviour. Cats often have different toy preferences – some will like balls, some will like toy mice while others prefer toy lizards – it is important to remember this when buying toys.
Buy or make a few different varieties and see which ones your cat likes the best. Remember you don’t want your cat getting bored of their toys, so it's best if you have 10 toys, with only have a few out at a time. You can then swap them every few days.
Don’t use your hands and fingers as toys. This encourages cats and kittens to do what we call ‘play biting’. Even little kittens with their sharp teeth can hurt and frighten younger children.
Be very careful of toys that could be dangerous. Toys shouldn’t have loose pieces that can easily break or fall off and be swallowed by your cat or kitten. Cats and kittens should only play with toys with cord or string when you are supervising and playing with them. Playing with string is dangerous because it can be swallowed or become wrapped or tangled around your cat – this can cause nasty injuries, even death.
Remember to always put such toys away out of reach from your cat when you are not playing with them. Kittens love to play but make sure they get lots of quiet time and lots of time to sleep.
To help prevent your kitten turning their play-hunting skills into real hunting of wildlife, place bells on your cat’s safety release collar and keep them in at night to make sure that the native birds are safe.
Hiding is part of any cat’s nature. They need places to hide as it provides them with a place to escape should they feel stressed, threatened, or just in need of a bit of warmth or relaxation. Cats love to get themselves into small spaces like drawers, sinks, under beds and in boxes because those places make them feel warm, safe and secure.
Cats sometimes choose places to hide that may seem okay to them but that can actually be quite dangerous! Some of these could be clothes dryers, washing machines, inside reclining chairs, behind warm electrical appliances (such as the refrigerator or television) and if allowed access to outside, underneath cars! Be sure to check these places if your cat has decided to hide away.
Providing cats with safe places to hide is necessary to help them to cope with any fear or nervousness they may experience and to give them somewhere to relax. You can make a great hiding place by cutting an entrance and exit hole (big enough for your cat) into a cardboard box with warm, cosy bedding inside. Your family could also purchase igloo or tent type cat beds. The hiding place should allow your cat to be almost completely concealed. Make sure you place the hiding place in a quiet part of your house. This will help to prevent them finding their own places that could be unsafe.
Be sure all family members (and guests) know that when your cat is in their safe spot, they are to be left alone.
Just like you and I, sometimes cats make mistakes. If your cat does make a mistake, such as sharpening their claws on the furniture instead of their scratching post - never, ever punish your cat physically! They will not understand that the punishment is because of their mistake; doing so can ruin your relationship with your cat and make them afraid of you.
If your cat does make such a mistake, quickly show them the right thing to do. For example, if they accidently scratch the sofa, gently pick them up and take them to their scratching post or mat. Scratch the post with your finger nails – often making that ‘scratchy’ noise is all it takes to encourage your cat. If after trying this technique they continue to scratch furniture or do things they shouldn’t, talk to your cat’s veterinarian. They will know and understand your cat and be able to give you the information on what to do that is suited to your cat’s needs.
Scratching furniture or carpet may seem as if your cat is being “naughty,” but this isn’t the case at all! It’s a very natural behaviour for cats. Scratching keeps cat’s claws in good condition and strengthens their muscles. Scratching is also a method of communication. Cats have scent glands in between the pads on their paws that produce a unique smell – this smell is put onto whatever the cat is scratching. Cats may choose to leave this smell as a reminder to themselves, for example to make somewhere more familiar or as a message for other cats.
Providing a suitable scratching post and mat is important if your family wants to save your furniture. A suitable scratching post should be tall enough so that your cat can stretch up fully and be sturdy enough that it doesn’t fall over and onto them when they are using it! Cats that live indoors should be provided with scratching posts in several locations. Cats like to scratch and stretch after they have been sleeping so it can be a good idea to place one scratching post next to their favourite sleeping spot. In addition, if you find your cat does scratch your furniture, try placing the post in front of wherever they usually scratch i.e. in front of the corner of the sofa.
Some cats don’t like using scratching posts or mats. If your cat is one of these, you can encourage them to use the post or mat by dragging some string or another toy over it for them to play with. You could even scratch at it yourself when they are close so they hear the sound. If your cat likes catnip, you can sprinkle some on the post or mat once or twice a month to keep your cat interested.
Cats use a complex system for communicating with each other, with other animals, and with humans. They do this by using sounds (meows, purrs, growls, and hisses), in combination with body language (expressive tails, ears, whiskers, and bodies). They also use odour (smell) and tactile (touch) signals.
A cat's body language can be subtle, so it's not always easy to accurately read how they're feeling. To understand how your cat might be feeling, you can look at their eyes, tail, mouth and posture, and use this chart to help you recognise important body language signals.
Learning to recognise your cat’s body language and other communication signals can help you better understand your feline friend and develop a closer relationship as a result.
If you're ever concerned about your cat's behaviour, always talk to an adult and ask them to speak to your vet.
Click on the image to download the infographic!
Want to learn more? Check out this great video about cat body language from our friends at Fear Free Happy Homes: