Cat Behavior Resources

The Jacksonville Humane Society’s Animal Behavior team is here to help you and your furry family members. We offer a free resource library (below), free help hotline and training classes. Need support? Contact us!

Behavior Hotline: 904-493-4586

Email: [email protected] 


When you bring a new cat into your home, remember this is a period of adjustment for them as well as you and your family. Do not expect your cat to have a hearty appetite right away. A change of diet, new environments, and overall stress can cause a lack of appetite. Start your cat on a feeding schedule and give them time to adjust. If your new cat has not eaten or drank within 24 hours of bringing them home, contact your veterinarian. Start by initially introducing your cat to one quiet room that has food, water, a litter box, scratching pads, toys and some “safe” places. Too much space, too soon can be overwhelming. Close doors to closets and secure any cabinets or drawers. Bringing home a kitten? Remember to put away anything you do not want broken and secure anything dangling like cords or wires. Allow your new cat to come to you. Use toys or treats to help with bonding.

Cats and Kids (and Adults, too!):
  • Allow your cat and children to spend short periods together to give time to adjust to one another.
  • Always monitor cats and children when interacting together.
  • Leave cats alone when eating or sleeping.
  • Avoid invading their personal space. Avoid putting your face in the cat’s face.
  • Do not pull or tug on cats’ tails, whiskers, ears, etc.
  • The side of the face, under the chin, or behind the ears is a place that most cats would prefer to be pet.
  • Speak softly and avoid yelling or screaming at your cat
Cat and Dog Introductions
  • Make sure the cat has access to a dog-free area at all times. The cat should also have plenty of high spaces to retreat to when in the same room as the dog.
  • Start by keeping the cat confined in the dog-free area. Allow the dog and cat to get comfortable with the new smells and sounds first.
  • Feed on opposite sides of the door to build an association with each other and pleasant things.
  • Use baby gates for visual introductions in a neutral, open space. Do not use either animal’s safe space.
  • Do not restrain either pet in your arms. Leave a leash dragging on the dog in case you need to remove them.
  • Using a partner, reward both pets with treats for calm behaviors around each other.
  • Keep sessions short and always monitor as they get to know each other.
Body Language: Cats communicate through body language. Being aware of what our cats are trying to say can help strengthen our relationship and help with everyday living. If your cat is showing signs of stress, they may need a break from the interaction. Never punish a cat when they express that they are not comfortable. If the cat is punished, they will stop giving warning signals and resort to more drastic measures. Click here for a cat body language chart. For more information, contact our Behavior department at [email protected].
Cat enrichment is an extremely important aspect in the wellbeing of a cat. Cats are natural hunters and using their senses is good for their mental and physical health. Cats that do not get regular enrichment can begin to show destructive behaviors, have anxiety, have conflict with other cats in the home, changes in appetite, over-groom, or retreat into isolation and hide. There are many types of enrichment that can be offered to cats, but they fall into two categories: interactive play and solo play.

Solo Play

Solo play includes activities that cats can engage in on their own or with other cats. Here are some examples of solo play:
  • Mice, balls, or other small toys. You can hide them in boxes or cat trees to make it more interesting
  • Puzzle feeders or Kongs
  • Vertical space like trees, catwalks, or shelves
  • Hideaways like covered cat beds, tunnels, a box, or paper bag
  • Visual enrichment such as videos made for cats or a bird feeder outside an accessible window
  • Cat pheromones sprayed on cat’s bedding and furniture
  • Catnip or wheat grass, on its own or inside toys
  • Cat drinking fountain
  • Exercise wheel
  • Interactive Play

    Interactive play is when you actively participate in playing with your cat. This can strengthen the bond between cat and owner and teach the cat how to play appropriately, without biting or scratching. Examples of interactive play include:
    • Fishing pole toy, play with owner
    • Pet/carry around/brush
    • Talk/read/sing to the cats
    • Hide and seek with treats/searching for food/hide food around the house
    • Agility: make an obstacle course and clicker train your cat!
    • Additionally, if you have an outdoor cat or want to add enrichment to an outdoor environment here are some ways to do that:
      • Walk your cat! Use a harness
      • Catios/cat enclosure
      • Cat strollers, nice cats that don't like the harness

      Lastly, clicker training for cats!
      • Use a soft click (clicker in pocket or ballpoint pen; cats' ears are sensitive)
      • Click, then treat. You can toss the treat if you're cat does not want to take it from your hand. It's okay if they don't eat right away but try using something tasty like tuna if they are not interested in normal cat treats.
      • Click then treat for any behaviors you want your cat to continue

      Clicker training is great for:
      • Shy cats: if the cat comes out of hiding, click then treat.
      • Over-stimulated cats: Click and treat for calm behaviors. Do very short sessions, for example: 3-5 seconds at a time of gentle handling.
      • Desensitizing to cat carrier: if cat approaches carrier that is on the ground click and treat. Continue this as the cat explores the carrier. If cat enters carrier, click then offer multiple treats.
      • Teaching name recognition: Say cat’s name then click and treat. Repeat in different location at different times of day.
      • Recall: after teaching cat’s name get a toy that they like, say their name, and when they come click and treat.
      • And many more!
Properly handling cats is one of the most important aspects to a happy and healthy feline. Cat owners may need to hold their cats for medical handling, transport, or just as another way to interact with them. Here are some tips for handling your cat without adding fear:

Body language - We need to read your cat’s body language in order to determine if they are ready to be held. Is their body loose and relaxed or is it tense with no movement? Is the cat’s tail resting or is it flicking back and forth? Is the cat’s face tight with ears standing up or is the face relaxed? Learning what your cat looks like when they are nervous, scared, happy, or excited can go a long way in making them comfortable when being handled.

Petting - Cats can tell us if they want to be touched with their actions. Present a knuckle to your cat about 6-8 inches in front of your cats face and hold your hand still. Your cat may show interest by sniffing the air or moving closer to sniff your fingers. Your cat may rub their cheek on your hand, which is a way of spreading their scent on you.

Be sensitive - All cats aren’t alike but most cats have certain areas where they prefer to not be touched.

Legs/Feet - Most cats don’t like to have their legs or feet touched or held because they feel trapped. If handling legs or feet, go slow and avoid petting too hard.

Tail - Cats use their tails for a variety of reasons and can be very sensitive about touch in that area. Squeezing, pulling, and even petting the tail can be very uncomfortable to a cat.

Belly - Although cats may show you their tummy, it doesn’t mean "pet me there." Cats show their underside as a greeting, it’s a way of showing trust. It doesn’t mean that it’s okay to touch them there; in fact trying to touch their belly violates that trust they just extended.

Holding a cat - It is important to understand that not all cats like to be held. While some cats enjoy being held or sitting in a person’s lap, others may feel anxious and uncomfortable. Understanding what your cat is comfortable with is important to maintaining trust.

Picking up a cat - After greeting your cat, slide a hand under the chest and between the front legs. Use your other hand to support the hind area and lift at the same time. Once in the air, shift your arms to help support the full weight of your cat.

Holding - Cats need to have support under their torso and back legs. Cats that have a free back leg may kick while trying to find footing. Try to hold cats up against your body to add more security.

Make it easy - If you are trying to hold a cat and think you may be scratched by their claws, grab a bath towel, fold it in half, and lay it on a chair or couch. Place a treat or otherwise entice the cat to position itself in the middle. Now you can carefully fold the towel over the cat and now you have a cat that is easy to hold, a cat "purrito"!

All cats have specific ways that they prefer to be handled. Spending time with your cat and trying different ways to hold them or handle them is a great way to strengthen the bond between you.
Play aggression is when cats play too roughly with their owner or with other cats and cause scratches or bites. Cats can become aggressive in their play for a few reasons:
  • Being separated from their littermates or mother too soon. Mother cats and siblings teach kittens to not be too rough when they play.
  • Human caretakers playing too roughly and using hands or fingers to play.
Make sure to rule out other forms of aggression like fear or pain. Become familiar with cat body language. Hissing, lying flat or arching their back, making airplane ears, growling, and trying to escape are all signs that a cat is very uncomfortable. More subtle signs include twitching ears and a swishing tail.

Ways to stop play aggression directed towards people:
  • Do not play with your hands, fingers, or feet.
  • Do not play with your cat by moving your hands or feet under a blanket.
  • If your cat bites when playing, do not pull away: relax.
  • Have a toy handy to use as an alternative when your cat plays too rough.
  • Give the cat short time outs: no more than a few seconds. You can leave the room so the cat knows playtime is over.
  • Always reward calm behaviors, do not punish undesirable behaviors. Do not yell.
  • Consider getting another cat as a playmate.
Ways to stop play aggression towards another cats:
  • Provide hiding spaces for both cats.
  • Play with the cats one-on-one.
  • Use toys or food enrichment as a distraction.
  • Do proper cat introductions, see the JHS handout for tips on safe cat introductions.
  • Pay attention to if the play is one-sided or consensual. Play aggression is not the same as rough play.
Check out our Cat Enrichment tips for information on hiding spaces and ways to play with your cat! Cats may also bite and scratch if they are being handled in a way they are not comfortable with. These tips will help you pick up your cat safely:
  • Say a cue word, like "hold," before picking up your cat so that they know what to expect. Practicing this many times will help your cat feel less fear of the unknown.
  • Make sure to provide your cat with a steady surface to lean into. Most cats do not like being held too loosely or too tightly.
  • Know how your cat likes to be held. Some cats prefer to have their chest against the handler’s torso, while others prefer to sit upright in the handler’s crossed arms.
  • Practice holding your cat in short sessions, rewarding them with treats for calm behavior.
  • If your cat does not want to ever be held, consider teaching them to go to a crate or kennel on command. This will allow for transporting your cat without picking them up.
Here are some tips to help shy cats more be comfortable with approaching you:
  • Create a secure, calm, and quiet environment. Make sure your cat has somewhere to hide, like a cat tree or hiding spot.
  • Make it fun for the cat! Offer treats or toys the cat is interested in. Let them feel comfortable eating near you, without worrying about being handled yet.
  • Always be aware of body language! Your cat might not be in the mood to be petted or might not like the way you are petting them. Most cats like to be petted on their head or chin, avoid the belly and paws!
  • No tricks! Do not use this bonding time to trim your cats’ nails or administer medication.
  • Always let the cat make the choice to move towards you or be petted. Forcing the cat to be near you can damage your relationship.
Cats can bite or scratch for many reasons. These can include new people interacting with the cat, petting the cat improperly, or play gone too far.

Cats give warnings before they scratch or bite. You can watch their body language to look for these warnings and know when to stop what you are doing. The more obvious warnings include hissing, flattening ears, arching back, trying to escape and growling. The subtle warning signs can include ears that are twitching or a swishing tail.

Play aggression is when playful bites and scratches become more serious and can cause injury.

Some ways to prevent play aggression are to never use your hands as toys, and make sure you have appropriate toys for your cat.

Cat play sessions should be about 10 minutes long, twice a day.

Always reward good, calm behaviors.

If your cat is social, consider getting a companion!
The first meeting between two cats should always be a positive experience, and the best way to help ensure a positive experience is to plan ahead! Before you go out and get supplies for the new cat, you are going to want to make sure that you have separate areas for each cat in order to make the transition as smooth and seamless as possible. You will not even have the cats meet each other the first day you bring home the new cat because slow and steady is how cats acclimate to changes. So take a deep breath, relax, and take a cat nap because there are a couple of things that will need to be done before they meet!

Once you have separate rooms for each cat, you are going to want to go out and gather supplies for the new cat:
  • Litter box (get 2 if you only have one litter box in the house; a good rule of thumb is to have one more litter box than you do cats. Example: If you have 2 cats, then you will need a total of 3 litter boxes)
  • Food/water bowls
  • Cat scratching posts
  • Multiple hiding spots

Remember, not only is the new cat going to have to acclimate to the home, but any existing cats are going to have to get acclimated to the new addition. So let’s take it nice and easy!

Step 1: Bring the new cat straight into the room designated for where they will be staying during acclimation. Do not let the cat roam freely into the current resident cat’s area. You may want to leave a blanket with the resident cat’s smell in the new cat’s room. Once the new cat has been in the home for a couple of days, you can leave a blanket in the resident cat’s area with the new cat’s smell in their area.

Step 2: During the first week or so, feed the cats wet food on either side of the door. This will allow them to continue getting use to the smell of each other and will associate it the positive experience of getting wet food.

Step 3: Slowly start opening the door a little each time, allowing them to see each other a little through the cracks. Remember, you can never go too slow! If they start hissing or growling, then go back a step and make the crack smaller. Use a baby gate to keep them separated once the hole is large enough to slip through.

Step 4: Start giving them treats in the presence of the other cat. Have one person give treats at one side of the room to one cat, and another to the cat on the other side of the room.

Step 5:Allow them to meet each other! Keep these sessions short to start and make it as positive as possible! Make sure they also have a way to escape from each other in case they do not want to interact. If they do not get along right away, do not be afraid to go back a step in the process. Each cat is different and has their own acclimation time needed.

Other items that you may want to consider having throughout the process is Feliway or essential oils to help de-stress the cats.

Once you have successfully introduced the cats, keep rewarding them for positive behavior and make time to be with each cat one on one without the other cat. You should also wait until the cats are completely comfortable with each other before leaving them unsupervised with each other.

Causes of Conflict between Cats

Conflict between cats most commonly occurs over various resources in the home. Whether they have access to the resources 24/7 or not, it comes down to how the cat(s) perceive the scarcity of the resource. The easiest way to alleviate this issue is to make sure that each cat has their own set of resources and their own space to retreat to. Make sure your cats have the following available to them:
  • A separate space with hiding spots, food, water, and a litter box for each cat (keep one additional litter box for both cats to use)
  • A good rule of thumb is that you will need a litter box for each cat and one additional one. Example: If you have 2 cats, then you will need 3 litter boxes.
While competing for resources commonly happens when introducing a new cat to the home, it can even occur with cat’s that have lived with each other for several years once they reach social maturity. This means that kittens from the same litter can grow up together and not experience any type of conflict between them until they are between the ages of 2-5 years old. While they may have gotten along great the first couple of years, the perception of scarcity of resources can occur at any time. This is why it is important to make sure there are plenty of resources for each individual cat.

Always make sure they have their separate areas they can go to and get breaks from each other, and never leave them together without supervision if they are experiencing conflict in the home. If the cats are not altered, then getting them altered can also help with the conflict issues.

Signs of Conflict:
  • Spraying
  • Growling/hissing/fighting when in contact
  • Guarding of resources from the other cat(s)
  • Rubs cheek, head, chin, and tail on people, doorways, and objects at cat height
  • Constantly avoiding the other cat or hiding from other cat
  • Development of behavioral or medical issue(s)
A cat's claws are an important part of their physical and emotional well-being. Scratching is a natural behavior that provides exercise and enrichment. Scratching allows your cat to:
  • Stretch their back and muscles
  • Mark their territory
  • Sharpen claws and shed old nail tissue
  • Curb boredom
Reasons not to declaw:
  • The surgery is not only expensive, it can be painful and traumatic for cats
  • May cause difficulty running, climbing, or jumping
  • May lead to other medical and behavior issues, including litter box issues
Indoor cats sometimes scratch things that we would prefer them not to, like couches, beds, and other pieces of furniture. Providing appropriate places for our cats to scratch is important for their happiness, but it will also save our furniture.
  • Provide scratching posts that are stable and tall enough
  • Provide cat furniture like trees and condos
  • Provide multiple posts and scratch pads of different variety (shape, texture, etc.)
  • Place cat furniture and posts in areas where they like to scratch
  • Use catnip, high value treats, or their favorite toy to encourage them to use their posts. Praising your cat for scratching appropriately will create a positive association between your cat and the scratch pad.
For additional tips and information, contact our Behavior department at [email protected].
Litter box issues are one of the most common problem areas for cat owners. It’s always a good idea to get your cat looked at by a vet if there are any litter box issues to rule out a medical need. Cats naturally want to cover their feces in the wild, so we just need to make it easy for them to do so in a home. Let’s go over some tips for helping make sure your cat finds the litter box comforting and safe!

How big is the box? Sometimes cats have issues eliminating inside the box and will go on the edge or just outside. It could be that the litter box is not large enough for them. A litter box should be at least one and a half times the length of your cat.

Where is the box? Cats prefer to have a secure and safe place to go, without a lot of other cats or people around. While it is important to have the box in a place your cat can find easily, try to have it away from doors and walkways.

Is your box covered? For cats to be comfortable they need to have plenty of room for their head. When we cover litter boxes it can cause the cat to feel trapped preventing a quick getaway. When a cat positions itself to go, its head rises and may be interfered with by low shelves or tops of covered litter boxes. Pay attention to how high your cat’s head is when they sit and plan for at least another few inches.

What kind of litter? There are many types of litter for cat owners to choose from, and the best kind of litter for your cat may not be the first one you try. The main types are clumping and non-clumping, which offer different litter experiences for your cat. Clumping sticks together when moisture from urine or feces interacts with it. This makes is easy to clean up and keep the box tidy for your cat. Non-clumping does not stick together and may require a full box change more often. Other types of litter include paper, wood, unscented, and crystal. Crystal litter can last longer and have less smell than other litters, but some cats do not like the texture and they can be dangerous if the cat ingests them. The best way to find out what kind your cat likes is to offer several types at once in a similar place, let them choose for you!

How many litter boxes do I need? Cats do best in a home when they have a choice of where to eliminate. As a general rule you should have a litter box for each cat plus one. For a single cat this means two boxes in different places, for three cats you would use four boxes. This gives them choice and helps reduce any anxiety they might have.

Other tips:
  • Make sure to keep the box clean, cats will not use a dirty litter box and may look for other areas to eliminate.
  • Make sure to have the litter box in a different area than your cat’s food and water. Ideally they are not in the same room.
  • Pay attention to how other cats in the home use the litter box and try giving any cats that are not using the box successfully some space of their own.
  • If you need to clean an areas that have been soiled use an enzymatic cleaner specifically for cats. Normal cleaner may not be able to break down the specific proteins in cat urine. Enzymatic cat stain removers may also leave a scent behind that deters cats from returning.
Having you cat use the litter box successfully is one of the keys to having them feel comfortable in the home. Please use these tips to get started and contact [email protected] if you need more help.
Fearfulness is one of the most common emotions that cats experience when being removed or introduced to new locations and situations. It can be a temporary reaction to a new person in their home, being brought to an unfamiliar location, or meeting a new animal for the first time. Fearfulness often manifests itself in unhealthy or unwanted behaviors.

Fearfulness: Fearfulness is anxiety that is caused by an unfamiliar stimulus. Noises, sights, and touching are examples of these stimuli. There are many causes of fearfulness in cats and it helps to understand what some of the main causes are what owners or caretakers can do about them.

Is your cat fearful? Your cat’s body language can signal to you how they are feeling.
  • A fearful cat may avoid contact with people or freeze up when someone comes near.
  • Look at the cat’s face: loose cheeks, normal size pupils, and relaxed ears usually signal comfort and confidence. Stiff cheeks, large pupils, and ears standing erect or pinned back tell us that the cat is uncomfortable
  • A confident cat will have a tail that is loose or wavy as it walks. Fearful or nervous cats may flick their tail back and forth.
Preventing under socialization: Unfamiliarity with a person, place, or other animal is a common source of anxiety in cats. Kittens have a window from about 2 weeks to 7 weeks that are primetime for socialization. It is important to remember that kittens are more susceptible to infections and diseases, but we can still get started with socialization.

Kittens learn a lot from their nursing mother and siblings. Cats are cared for very carefully by their mother and learn basic socialization and play from their siblings. During that special 2 to 7-week period it is important to work on handling of areas like ears, mouth, and feet. If able it is important to have more than one person handle them to instill a positive experience with new people. Clean hands and gloves are recommended.

After they are spayed/neutered, have the appropriate shots, and have reached around 8 weeks, kittens can begin to meet other cats. Kittens have another socialization window up to around 14 weeks that makes it important to add positive experiences like meeting and play with new friends. If you do not have access to other well socialized cats, you can look for a "Kitten Kindergarten" meet-up near you.

Make common objects familiar as early as possible. Familiarizing cats with object like cat carriers, brushes, toys, and nail trimmers at an early age will help prevent fearfulness later. Objects like vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and garbage disposals can also become familiar early on to prevent anxiety later. Doorbells and new friends entering the home should also be worked on as soon as possible.

Helping adult fearful cats: The most common sources of fearfulness in adult cats is anxiety around a new living situation and discomfort around a new person.

New home: If you have a new cat coming into the house, try setting up their food, water, and litter box in a bedroom or bathroom. Keeping out other animals until the new cat is comfortable enough to meet new friends. Before you bring the cat home, look at the house to see if there is any furniture that a cat might hide under. Either keep the cat in a different area or block the space with towels or blankets. All of this is designed to keep the cat in a small area to allow it to eat, sleep, eliminate comfortably in a small space before expanding to the rest of the house.

Fearful already in the home: Sometimes a cat will be fearful despite best efforts by the owner to keep people or animals away. Some ways to make the home more comfortable for your cat include:
  • Food - Food is one of the most important tools we must help socialize fearful cats. By giving cats treats or food we can build a positive association between ourselves and the yummy treats. Start by offering high value wet food or treats in a place where the fearful cat can reach easily. Try placing a bit on the end of a Popsicle stick, gradually working your way closer to you.
  • Hiding space - Many of the fearful behaviors a cat can show are results of the cat feeling vulnerable. We need to make the home a safe space and give the cat places to hide that are not under the bed or couch. Many times, the cat carrier is a great place to start for new cats, their smell is already in there and it works well temporarily. Soft top beds are great for all cats, cat furniture like cat towers are also great, or you use paper grocery bags to give them some space.
  • Toys - For cats that are out and about but not quite ready for you to handle them, try some different toys. Ideally have several to choose from like dangly ropes, balls with bells on them, or even a laser pointer. It is important to balance having the cat’s attention and not intruding on their space. Having toys cross a few inches in front of them or moving away would be best.
Petting a fearful cat: Depending on the level of fearfulness and socialization your cat has, petting can be a big step in your relationship. Some cats are more interested in being touched that others, so make sure not to pass the threshold where pleasant petting turns into too much stimulus.

Build trust: When working with a cat that has anxiety, confidence issues, nervousness we want to take small steps moving forward. We do that by gaining the cats trust through small, slow, and visible movements. Too big and too fast of movement by us and the cat can get scared and retreat. We also want to make sure our hands are visible to the cat as much as possible. Fearful cats can be very weary of hands that come from outside their field of vision.

Be gentle: Fearful cats need to go at their own pace, so we want to allow them to decide how much contact they get. Try to allow the cat to sniff your fingers first by placing your hand about six inches away. Cats love to sniff and then rub their cheeks on fingers, so let them do so without pushing back. Focus only around the head and neck until there is more trust and take it slow.

Contact the JHS Behavior Team for more help: 904.493.4586 or [email protected]