Cat Behaviour 101

Live in harmony with your cat by understanding their natural behaviours

Even if you’ve had cats before, you may have some questions as you prepare to welcome a new cat into your home. What if they’re not using the litter box consistently? What can you do about scratching? How can you prevent unwanted behaviour kindly and compassionately?

Since our founding in 2000, MEOW Foundation has found adoptive homes for over 15,000 cats. As Calgary’s only dedicated cat rescue, we have seen and heard it all when it comes to cat behaviour. Read on for information that will help you and your new feline friends live in harmony together.

Correcting unwanted behaviour

Many cat owners may feel dismayed by various behaviours including jumping on counters, scratching furniture, inappropriate marking or aggression. To correct such behaviours, immediacy is key. Discipline must be done in the moment of the unwanted behaviour or not at all. Spray water bottles, loud noises, a firm “No!” or removing your cat from the situation are effective deterrents.

Pet owners of course can’t anticipate all problem behaviour, but there are easy ways to be proactive in order to prevent problems before they start. Cat proof your home and get to know your cat’s natural or normal patterns and behaviours within your home. This will help you better predict and avoid any unwanted behaviours.

Remember: Never physically punish your cat. Behaviour modification or discipline is a form of love. Do it kindly and consistently

The Litter Box

It’s no secret that cats can be particular, and the litter box is no exception. From location of the box to type of litter to how much litter, make sure it’s just right in order to build good litter box habits and make the litter box experience a good one for your cat.

General Tips

  • One litter box per cat is recommended. Open litter boxes are best; hooded or enclosed boxes trap odours and may make cats feel trapped.
  • Scoop the litter box every day (no one likes a dirty toilet!) and wash litter pans regularly.
  • Do not switch brands or types of litter suddenly. Do so gradually by slowly mixing the old with the new.
  • Do not underfill or overfill litter boxes. Cats need enough litter to adequately cover waste; a good depth of litter also prevents urine and feces from sticking to the bottom of the box.

Where do I put the litter box?

Be sure to keep the litter box in a quiet place with low traffic, away from noisy appliances and your cat’s food and water. For newly adopted cats who are just settling in, place a litter box on every level of your home.

If you need to change the location of the litter box, don’t do so abruptly – do it in stages instead. As cats age, you may need to place the box closer to where your cat sleeps or eats.

Multi-cat families

Multi-cat families have a hierarchical nature with lower- and higher-tanking cats. In order to accommodate different personalities, place litter boxes in multiple locations to avoid conflict. One litter box per cat is best.

Remember that different cats may prefer different types of litter. This means that you may have to provide a couple of options to satisfy the different preferences in your household!

My cat isn’t using the litter box

Remember that a cat who is new to you may be nervous or unfamiliar with their new surroundings, and kittens may simply forget the location or not have the control to make it to the litter box. Praising your cat and/or giving a treat when they use the litter box can help with this. However, if your cat has settled in at home and you’re still having litter box challenges, or if you’re noticing a change in litter box habits, read on.

If your cat is having problems using the litter box, the first step is so take away attractive alternatives like fluffy bedding (yours or theirs), laundry piles, and even soil at the base of potted plants (you can cover this with tin foil). These can look very inviting to cats! So can previously sprayed or marked furniture. If a piece of furniture has been marked in the past, the smell can remain for years. Ask your pet supply store about effective cleaning products.

Disruption in routine can cause cats to go outside their litter box. Ask yourself if there have been any changes to your cat’s routine lately. Have there been visitors? New roommates? Schedule changes? A new pet or baby? These kinds of changes may cause stress, especially when sudden, which can result in your cat doing his or her business outside the litter box.

If your cat seems comfortable and happy but is still going outside the litter box, you may want to visit your vet. Your vet may find that it’s due to a health issue (conditions like urinary tract infections can lead to inappropriate bathroom habits) or that it’s more likely a behavioural issue.

Lastly, you can try changing the litter. There is a huge variety available, and cats do have preferences. Dr. Elsey Cat Attract Litter is often helpful for cats who aren’t using the litter box consistently.


For cats, scratching is as natural as breathing! Cats scratch to stretch, exercise shoulder and back muscles, express happiness and play, groom and mark territory. Scratching makes cats feel good and keeps their nails trim and free of old sheaths (layers).

Provide your cat with at least one scratching post at least one metre high – the taller, the better! Place the post near a window or near where your family gathers. Sprinkling catnip at the base of the post or playing a game wiggling a wand toy up the post will encourage use. But most cats will quickly learn to use and love their scratching posts. In fact, large, multi-level posts often become your cat’s playground, bedroom, observation deck, tanning salon, couch and favourite hiding spot.

Some cats prefer horizontal surfaces like a jute door mat or corrugated cardboard scratcher. Trimming your cat’s claws at least every six weeks (be sure to look up an instructional video first!) also encourages good scratching behaviour.

Troubleshooting problem scratching behaviour

There are a number of effective ways to discourage your cat from scratching inappropriate objects. The first step is to place a scratching post or cat tree near where they are scratching. You can also use double-sided tape to prevent scratching of furniture. If you see your cat scratching something they shouldn’t, discipline in the moment with a spray water bottle, a loud noise or a firm “No!” may discourage them.

Another option for problem scratchers is acrylic claw covers. There are a variety of brands available. These covers are applied with a non-toxic adhesive to the cat’s nails and can last up to several months.

Trimming your cat’s claws

Trimming your cat’s claws promotes better scratching behaviour and keeps your cat more comfortable. Small claw clippers from pet supply stores or human fingernail clippers work well.

Trim your cat’s claws when they’re relaxed, take your time, and take a break if your cat becomes impatient or restless. Reward them with a treat to encourage their cooperation. If they’ve never had their claws trimmed, you can get them used to having their feet touched by gently touching their paws without clipping. If you can’t comfortably trim your cats claws, seek assistance from your veterinarian or an experienced cat groomer.

To trim, hold the paw and gently press the toe pad to extend the claw. Trim the clear pointed hook end of the claw. Be careful not to cut into the pink area or ‘the quick’ found in the upper half of the claw as this will cause pain and bleeding.

Don’t declaw!

As an animal rescue society and proponent of animal welfare, MEOW believes that declaw and tendonectomy surgeries are harmful, inhumane and without benefit to cats. All species are equal in their right to be treated with respect and compassion and to express their natural behaviours.

Contrary to popular belief, a cat’s claw not just nail – it’s actually part of the last bone of a cat’s foot. Removing the claw means removing bone, nerve, joint capsule, collateral ligaments and the extensor and flexor tendons. A declaw is an amputation similar to amputating your own finger up to the first knuckle.

Declaw and tendonectomy surgeries can have many serious complications including nerve damage; hemorrhage; infection; excruciating phantom pain for life; chronic back, shoulder and joint pain as previously used muscles weaken; and possible behavioural changes such as biting, social anxiety and litter box problems.

Elective declaw surgeries are illegal in many parts of the world. The surgery is currently banned by the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, the governing professional body for veterinarians where MEOW Foundation operates.

More Questions?

If you’re struggling with your cat’s behaviour and need advice, do not hesitate to speak with your veterinarian or request a referral to a certified animal behaviourist. Professionals can often offer a diagnosis and treatment plan for your pet and help you live happily together.