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November 24, 2014

Myths about Cats and Cat Behavior

Myths and misconceptions have been spun about cats ever since people started sharing their world with them. Some paint cats as mysterious, others put them in league with the devil. Different factors shaped these inaccurate beliefs—one of the strongest contributors to these myths is that people have found cats and their behaviors puzzling. Many of these erroneous beliefs persist today. Unfortunately, some are harmful and life threatening for cats.

Four of these misconceptions I frequently encounter are:

Cat behaviors can’t be changed

“I used to have a cat, but he peed on the furniture so he had to go”.

Many people believe that once a cat is repeatedly displaying an unwanted behavior, the behavior can’t be stopped. This is a dangerous myth because the consequences include surrendering cats to shelters, abandoning and euthanizing them for fixable behavior problems.

Although some behavior challenges are unpleasant to live with, they can be resolved through a combination of addressing the reasons for the behavior, behavior modification and by making changes to the environment. This is what I do.

Cats can’t be trained

 “No way can cats be trained like we trained our dog!”

The concept that a cat can open his carrier door, go in and close it behind him is often met with eye rolls and heads shaken in disbelief. Many people usually stare in blank befuddlement when told that cats can be trained to do tricks such as shaking hands and jumping through hoops—tricks acceptable and expected from dogs. These folks mistakenly think cats do whatever they want, only when they want and that they cannot be trained. Popular quotes support their misguided beliefs. “Dogs have owners, cats have staff”. “Cats take a message and get back to you”. Although, these idioms may sound catchy and cute, they perpetuate the stereotype that cats are un-trainable.


Cats, like all animals, are trainable. Clicker training, a scientific and force-free method is a popular and effective training technique. Felines can be easily trained to do many of the same tricks dogs are taught to do, such as sitting, shaking hands, playing dead and jumping through hoops. An added benefit is that clicker training is fun for both the learner and the teacher. It’s also a great tool for helping to resolve behavior challenges such as fearful behaviors, furniture scratching, counter surfing as well as many other troublesome behaviors. My book, Naughty No More! details how to use clicker training in conjunction with other force-free methods to solve behavior problems and teach tricks.

Cats are independent and self-contained

“My cat can be alone for a couple of days. I’ll leave enough food for him to eat while I’m gone”. 

There is a widely held belief that cats are self-sufficient and can fend for themselves. The results of this fallacious assumption include cats left to fend for themselves while their people enjoy a holiday away from home as well as being left alone for hours every day without the benefit of a companion or environmental enrichment.

Often cats are chosen as companions over dogs because they are said to be more self-contained and require less maintenance then dogs. To a small degree that is correct. Cats don’t need to be walked and they spend a good portion of their day napping. They are also proficient litter box users.  Regardless of the differences, they still need fresh food and water every day and their litter boxes need to be scooped minimally once a day. Additionally, cats need companionship and mental stimulation. Leaving them alone while on holiday or for hours every day with nothing to do and no one to socialize with can lead to depression, obesity and destructive behaviors.

Cats need privacy

“I spent $500 on a painted designer litter box cabinet. It functions beautifully as a side table and hides the cat box!”

Myths about cats and cat behavior

Litter box hidden in a cabinet

Litter boxes are often placed in cabinets, closets and other out-of-sight areas because people are under the impression that cats need privacy when they go to the bathroom. These may seem like ideal locations for litter boxes because they are out of the way, hidden from view and private. Although this might be a perfect solution for people, it’s not for cats. They have a different perspective on ideal places to eliminate. Often what is perfect from a cat’s viewpoint clashes with their people’s preferences for litter box placements.

Survival and safety take priority over privacy any day. Cats prefer eliminating in areas where they can’t be potentially trapped or ambushed by another animal. Cabinets and closets are perfect set ups for ambush. The types of boxes make a difference too. In addition to the trap potential, covered boxes retain unappealing odors.

An ideal location for a litter box is against the wall in a large room—not in a cabinet or enclosed in a closet. The view from the litter box should be expansive. The cat needs to see the whole room, out the door and down the hall (if there is one). A box with a view is perfect for identifying any potential threat which can then easily be escape from. Litter boxes should not be placed in high traffic areas or areas with lots of noise and activity. Although cats aren’t into privacy like people are, they do not want to do their business in high traffic areas either.

Help for Cat Behavior Challenges is Available

For help with cat behavior challenges, contact Marilyn to discuss scheduling a consultation.

 

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