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San Diego Humane Society

Tips for Cat Behavior Problems

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One of the best things about having a cat is watching him or her play. The cat runs, leaps, skids across the floor and then takes off in the opposite direction to start all over again. However, there is plenty in a cat’s play style that may become undesirable, irritating or even downright painful to a human housemate.

What cat owner hasn’t been woken up during the night by an overly active cat? Or perhaps suffered a foot attack when walking down the hall? Or watched in horror as beloved Fluffy climbs to the top of those expensive new drapes?

Cats Need to Play

The appropriate amount of playtime varies based on the age and personality of the cat. Most cats choose certain games because they appeal to certain innate feline characteristics. Our task as good cat companions is to teach our kitties what is and is not appropriate — and provide them with adequate playtime, activities and toys to keep them both healthy and happy.

Most cat games are of the stalk-and-pounce variety. Such games are instinctual and begin as early as kittens are able to wobble about and play with one another. These games serve as important practice for catching and killing food prey items in the wild. Nevermind that our pampered pets receive daily helpings of specially prepared meals, — such games are a part of feline genetics and are here to stay.

If your cat displays stalking behaviors, she is telling you she needs lots of challenging activity. She’s not trying to hurt you, make you crazy or ruin your household items. Your cat is merely doing what her inner wiring tells her to do.

Tantalizing Toys

Many people love having cats as pets because they’re fairly low-maintenance — well, compared to dogs, anyway! While it’s true that some cats will be perfectly content to chase that same little ball around the house day after day, the majority of cats need more variety and excitement in their lives. Without enough of the right toys, cats start seeking out their own fun, and this fun often does not mesh with human ideas of appropriate cat play.

Some of you may say, “But I have tons of toys scattered all over my house and my cat never plays with any of them!” While the toys you have for your cat are probably wonderful, she may just be bored with seeing them all the time — they have lost their initial interest and become part of the surrounding furniture to your cat. Here are the top tips for promoting play with toys:

  • Rotate your toys. Put all of the toys away except for a select few, and regularly rotate the toys out for your cat. She will be excited every time you bring out an old favorite.
  • Introduce catnip. Some cats can’t resist anything with catnip. There are toys that have catnip inside or a pouch to hold catnip. You can even rub other toys in catnip before rotating in a new selection from your cache. However, even with catnip and even with rotation, the sort of toys that cats bat around the floor will only hold their attraction for a short while.
  • Buy interactive toys. Something you use to play with your cat rather than having your cat play alone is perfect to help your cat get exercise and attention. Examples include the Cat Dancer (a wire with cardboard bits on the end) or one of the toys that consist of a stick with a cord and a toy tied to the end. Most cats love these, and you do not have to run around to toss the toy for your cat. Please, always remember to put toys with string or cord parts away when not in use to prevent cats from any potential harm.
  • Get toys that play. These keep your cat busy when you’re not home or are unable to play too. Try a toy with a ball in a track with a cardboard scratcher in the middle. Many cats love these, and the dual nature of the toy makes it even more interesting and versatile. If your cat likes to stalk furry toys or is very active, try one of the toys on an elastic cord, which can self-entertain for hours.

Ouch! Dealing With Feisty Felines

Many of us have experienced a cat who just doesn’t seem to know how to play gently. Perhaps the cat plays nicely then suddenly grabs onto a human hand and “bunny kicks” and bites. Maybe the cat seems addicted to stalking and pouncing on human fingers and toes. Here are ways we can teach our cats how to channel this very natural drive appropriately.

  • Teach kittens and cats to play with toys, only. It’s common to encourage kittens to play by “wrestling” with our hands. Then they grow up and want to play the same fun games and don’t understand that they now have adult teeth and claws that hurt humans. All they know is that they had fun before, and their humans rewarded them with attention. By using toys, any game you played with your cat as a kitten, she can keep safely playing as an adult.
  • Do not play rough with your cat, ever. Don’t play “wiggle the toes under the blanket” — you will end up with a cat who wants to attack your feet at night. Don’t play “bat the fingers” — you will end up with a cat who will try to grab and wrestle with your hands if you try to pet her while she is feeling feisty. If you never teach your cat that these games are appropriate, you won’t have to retrain her later in life. Play the same entertaining wrestling and stalking games with a toy.
  • Freeze to retrain. If your cat is already playing rough, unwanted games, all is not lost — you can train a cat to play more gently! First, immediately stop rewarding the cat by responding. If your cat grabs your hand or pant leg, freeze and don’t move until she lets go. We call this playing “dead mouse.” Anyone who has ever seen a cat playing with a mouse has seen her flip it over her head and play with it until it finally goes limp, whereupon she generally loses interest immediately. Don’t struggle to get away — this will only intensify her desire to hang on. When she lets go, immediately praise her, give her attention (or perhaps a small treat) and begin playing with her with an appropriate toy instead of your hands or feet. Do this consistently and she will realize that she has far more fun playing with other things and not attacking you.

Midnight Marauders

Many people wonder why their cat, normally so docile during the day, can suddenly turn into a hyperactive lunatic as soon as the lights go off. The most basic answer: Cats are nocturnal. Since housecats no longer need to stalk their nightly meals, they find other ways to amuse themselves and pacify the instincts telling them to roam about in the dark.

Depending on the cat, this behavior is expressed in different ways. Some cats will pounce on human fingers hanging over the side of a bed. Others will run laps around the house like mad creatures. Some will very delicately knock items off shelves, one at a time, enjoying the racket each item makes when it hits the floor. Many simply wander the perimeter of the home, yowling periodically.

Fortunately, there are some measures you can take to help curb an overactive kitty:

  • Tire your cat out by keeping her up during the day. Make sure your cat gets lots of playtime during waking hours with plenty of different toys. If your cat has toys she can stalk alone during the day, she probably will do so. Then, if you have some interactive toys to play with her when you come home, you can tire her out with a good play session shortly before you go to bed. If she doesn’t sleep the day away, she’ll be ready for shut-eye when nighttime comes.
  • Increase mental activity to make your cat sleepy. There are some ways you can keep your cat entertained at home even when you are not there to be a part of the action. Install a bird feeder outside a window where your cat sits or get a small fish tank (with a secure cover!). One word of warning with these tactics is to watch your cat to make sure she is not overly frustrated by seeing birds or fish while unable to “get” to them. Most cats are content simply to watch, yet some will become frustrated and confused. If your cat doesn’t like this “kitty television,” it’s best to remove the distraction completely.
  • Take your cat for walks on a leash and harness. While you must go slowly when introducing your cat to walking on a leash as well as getting used to going outside with you, many cats enjoy this option. In addition to providing them with some physical activity, the many sights and smells provide for lots of mental activity as well. Before taking your cat outdoors, make sure she is either up to date on all vaccinations or has had a recent blood test done to confirm that your cat is sufficiently protected against illness and disease. You will also want to make sure your cat has a breakaway collar with a current ID tag. Of course, always keep vigilant watch for dogs coming your way.
  • Consider getting another cat. If you have a single cat, sometimes the best solution is to get a second cat. Not only will your cat have another kitty to play with at night, she will also have a playmate during the day. This means your cat will likely not be sleeping all day, when you’re away. Most cats are very social and with a proper, slow introduction, most greatly appreciate feline companionship.
  • Try these nighttime solutions. If daytime tactics don’t work, there are a few other options you can try. If your cat can stand to be separated from you, try shutting the bedroom door and leaving the cat with the rest of the house at night. You may also consider sleeping with earplugs; some of the foam varieties are comfortable and block out most kitty noise.

Avoid Punishment

When a cat acts out, people often don’t know what to do in response. Always remember that punishing a cat will never properly stop the behavior. Punishment will only confuse your cat and/or make your cat afraid of you. Instead, find a way to channel your cat’s play interests and instincts into activities that keep her healthy, happy and regarded as a wonderful member of the family.


Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

Behavior Helpline

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing behavior@sdhumane.org or filling out our Ask a Trainer form

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-299-7012, ext. 2398. 

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