Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Laura Cassiday: Jealousy Between Cats, Feeding Frenzy, and More


Laura Cassiday is a certified cat behavior consultant (CCBC) and owner of Pawsitive Vibes Cat Behavior and Training. Laura is certified through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She is also a Fear Free certified animal trainer. Laura recently published her first book, The Complete Guide to Adopting a Cat (affiliate link*.) She works with cat guardians remotely from all over the world, as well as in-person in her local area of Baltimore, Maryland. For more information, visit Pawsitive Vibes Cat Behavior and Training.

Do you have a question for Laura?
Leave it in a comment, and she’ll answer it next month!

Jealousy between cats

Hi Laura, I have 7-year-old brothers. Max bullies his brother Gus. It’s not constant but happens several times a day. They groom each other and get along most of the time but Max will bite Gus around the neck and is mean. Max seems to be very jealous. When we pet Gus, Max will get in between and want to be pet. Gus always leaves when this happens. How can I get Max not to be a bully? Both cats get pet and loved on a lot! – Pauletta

Hi Pauletta! Sorry to hear that poor Gus is getting picked on. Relationships between cats are very complex and it’s not as simple as saying that Max is the “dominant” cat in the relationship. Because cats evolved as solitary hunters that also happen to form social groups, relationships between them can be a little complicated. You often find that cats get into fights more often than other species because of this interesting social structure. They have less of an ability to read body language and understand social signaling than say, two dogs do, and often, submissive or appeasing behavior from one cat that is intended to reduce conflict is just not understood or listened to by members of their own species.

Living indoors can also add another layer to the mix. Male cats would typically have very large territories in the wild, with plenty of room to avoid other cats and avoid tension. However, indoors, cats often have all of their important resources – food, water, litter boxes, scratching posts, etc – all clumped close together in one central location. Indoors, cats are primarily fighting over access to these resources, not necessarily an entire territory. To add to the mix, you are also a very important resource to your cat, which makes a lot of sense when you say that Max bullies Gus out of the way when receiving attention from you.

In an ideal world, the cats would each own a “timeshare” of the best resources in the home. You may have noticed some of this already – maybe Max owns the bedroom during the day, and Gus spends time in there at night. Spreading out resources throughout the home can really help in reducing conflict. For example, if all of the litter boxes for both cats happen to be in a row in one corner of the room, what happens if they both have to go at the same time? You may have heard of the “one litter box per cat plus one extra” rule already, but that only helps if they’re all spread out in different places. That rule also applies to all of the other “stuff” your cats find important, from feeding stations, to water fountains, to perching and climbing spots.

Often, simply adding and spreading out resources is enough to resolve tension and conflict. An increase in play and enrichment may be very helpful, too! Max biting Gus on the neck could be an unwelcome attempt at play as well. Making sure that both cats are getting lots of mental, environmental, and physical enrichment can go a long way in resolving almost any behavior issues. Good luck!

Feeding frenzy

Hi, Laura! My two cats have been jumping onto counters, eating food from people’s bowls, getting into the trash can and just overall invading everyone’s, I guess food privacy. Their crazy about food and are always looking for more. I don’t know if it’s because we don’t feed them enough, or if we haven’t put enough discipline on them, or maybe when we got them we forgot to train them firstly. Maybe it even has to do with the fact that we found them as strays in our backyard. I was hoping you could educate us on how to stop their behavior of being so obsessed with trying to find food and having bad habits of jumping on the counter, tables, etc. This all happens during the night and we don’t know what to do to stop them. The people in my living situation are becoming outraged because of their behaviors and have even been considering aggression towards them and unfortunately giving them away. So if you can help us it would be extremely appreciated, even if you don’t have a direct answer for us right now in our situation. – Kristin

Hi Kristin! It’s so rough when you can’t get a moment’s peace to even eat a meal in your own house! Hopefully I can help. So, the first step here is having a vet examine your cats to determine if there is a medical component to their behavior. There are certain illnesses and conditions, such as hyperthyroidism for example, that can cause cats to be ravenous for food all the time, no matter how much they are being fed. I would also consult with your vet to be certain that you are feeding them an appropriate amount of food.

Once all this has been taken care of, let’s take a look at your feeding routines. In the wild, left to their own devices, cats are spending about 80% of their time awake hunting for food. In order to obtain their daily calories and keep at a healthy weight, they’d need to catch and eat at least eight mice each day. That’s right, eight! This explains two things: it is normal and natural for cats to be obsessed with where their next meal is coming from, and that two meals per day, 12 hours apart, is not the best way to feed our cats.

I think the two meals a day pattern comes from how people feed their dogs (and to a certain extent, how they feed themselves). Cats are not small dogs or tiny people. They’re hardwired to eat many small meals throughout the day. I recommend feeding your cats at least four or five small meals a day. If that’s not possible, try an automatic feeder.

In terms of keeping your cats off the counters and out of the trash, taking all of the above steps should help. You may need to also utilize some positive reinforcement training, remembering to keep the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard! Something I like to do a lot is teaching your cat a stationing behavior, or to sit and wait on a mat. Essentially, you give your cat an appropriate place to go to where food happens and comes easily. If your cat jumps on the counter, toss them a treat to their mat. They’ll soon learn that waiting on the mat is a lot easier. You can even feed them their meals there to continue to reinforce that place as being where food happens.

Mousey meowing

Hi Laura! Thank you for helping the kitties! My cat Rocky likes to play with a small toy mouse. When he plays with it, he will constantly meow in such a way that sounds as though he is in distress, but he appears to be enjoying himself. I had another cat, Buggy, who did the same thing with a little crocheted ball. Both cats usually had the toy in their mouths when this meowing occurred. I don’t think this meowing was caused by any painful dental issues as they kept the toy in their mouths and did not release it. Any ideas why this occurs? – Lynette

Yay! An easy one. This is so cute, isn’t it? Rocky is just proud of his prize and wants you to notice him. When a mother cat is teaching her kittens to hunt, she may vocalize and let the kittens know it’s time to eat while keeping the prey safely inside her mouth. Some kittens continue to do this into adulthood. We may not ever know for sure what our cats are thinking, but it’s possible that Rocky may be trying to show you how to hunt, or that he may just be showing you as his “mother” what a great hunter he is. Either way, it’s a term of endearment. Give your vicious predator plenty of attention and praise!

Licking the walls

I have an amazing Siamese but she licks the house walls all the time. She has scratching cardboard that she uses, eats raw food, uses the litter box with no problems. How can I help her stop licking the walls? I am sure the non-lead paint is not good for her. No pattern I can detect. Thanks. – Connie

Hey Connie! The first thing I would do would be to mention this behavior to your veterinarian, if you haven’t yet already. This could be caused by any number of medical issues, from malnutrition, to pica, to obsessive compulsive disorder. Cats are very good at hiding pain and illness and they may show you that they’re sick in a strange way.

If medical has been ruled out, there are also many behavioral causes. It could be stress, boredom, or attention-seeking, or a combination of any of these. Are there any major stressors in the home, like kids or other animals she doesn’t get along with? This is a good behavior to look at the “ABCs” – antecedent, behavior, consequence. What happens before she licks the walls? What time of day? How long does she do it for, under what circumstances? How do you react to it? Looking at these aspects will help determine why this is happening and how it can be resolved. You may want to work with a behavior consultant as well as your veterinarian, or possibly a veterinary behaviorist, as there is a chance that this behavior could be a sign of a serious problem.

Cats and dogs

My friend’s new cat does not like her Mastiff dog that is living in her home. The dog tries to be friends but cat swats and hisses. The cat is a rescue kitty and very sweet and cuddly with adults and children. How long does it normally take for adjustment period? Thank you. – Teresa

I hope that things have gotten better since you originally wrote in, Teresa! It can be difficult for cats, who are both predator and prey animals, to share a home with a large, scary dog when they have never been around one before. Hissing, swatting, and growling are all distance-increasing behaviors. The cat is saying that he’s scared and uncomfortable and wants the dog to go away. Remember that the cat is reacting out of fear, and isn’t just being mean. Even if the Mastiff is trying to be friendly, cats can’t read dog body language, so the poor kitty has no way of knowing that he isn’t a threat.

Management, desensitization, and counter-conditioning are the best courses of action in helping a new cat adjust to a dog. Management simply means that we take measures to ensure that the cat feels safe at all times. This could look like keeping the dog on a leash or behind a baby gate until the cat gets more comfortable, or providing the cat with lots of vertical space to climb up where the dog can’t reach him. Once you find a spot where the cat feels safe, you want to start desensitizing him to the dog’s presence and counter-conditioning him to associate seeing the dog with good things happening, rather than seeing the dog and feeling scared. Short bursts of positivity can be very effective. Whenever they’re together, for short periods of time at first and gradually building up, make that time awesome! All the treats, praise, and playtime. Make them look forward to the time they spend together all while keeping kitty feeling safe, and they’re sure to be friends in no time.

Friendly Feral

One friendly fixed feral likes to grab onto the back of my legs as I’m walking during feeding. He wants to be pet but after two pets he tries to scratch me. When he was being TNRed a while back, his adoption failed because he freaked out and started swatting everybody. Can you please tell me why is he going after the back of my legs? He lives outside with several other ferals. Thank you for any help. – Roxanne

Poor guy and poor you! I have a feeling that I know what’s going on. As with any behavior, figuring out the “why” is always the first step in moving forward. Looking at the context of the grabbing and swatting, where it happens around feeding time primarily, I think this cat is probably feeling very frustrated and overstimulated. If you read my response to Kristin about how cats eat, you’ll know that cats who have all day to sit around and think about food tend to get extremely over-aroused when in the presence of that food. Although cats do live in colonies, they do prefer to eat alone as well, so being in a group around a bunch of other cats all competing for the same food source can be inherently stressful.

I would try to have his food prepared ahead of time before you leave the house or the car so that you can give it to him immediately. Do you notice that once he eats, he seems to calm down a little more? If possible, offering all of the cats their own bowls as far apart from each other as possible can cut down on stress from having to share a plate. I know it can sometimes be difficult when feeding colony cats, but increasing the amount of times per day the cats are fed may be helpful as well if you can swing it.

It’s also important to remember that a friendly greeting does not equal an invitation to pet. If I came to your house (and you were expecting me!) you’d likely approach me, say hello, and maybe even shake my hand. That does not mean that you want me to give you a big hug or touch your face, and if I did, you’d probably smack me, too. In that scenario, you’re this kitty and I’m you! When kitty is feeling calm, you can present your hand and invite him to close the distance. If he rubs on your hand, it’s okay to pet him for a second or two. Then, stop petting, wait for him to re-initiate, and pet some more. Continue to ask permission, frequently, to give him the chance to say no nicely. That way, he won’t have to be rude about it. Good luck with this guy and thanks for taking care of him!

Itchy cat

My cat scratches & scratches and her flea & tick collar doesn’t seem to help much What’s wrong? FYI: she’s an indoor cat strictly never goes outside. – Crystal

Hey Crystal! This sounds like a good question for your veterinarian. Being itchy can be caused by fleas, but if you’re not seeing any on her, it’s likely that there is another cause. It could be any number of problems, from seasonal allergies, to a food allergy, to some type of pain or discomfort. If she has been to the vet and they were unable to find a cause, you may want to try a feline dermatologist.

I also generally don’t recommend flea collars. In my experience, they aren’t as effective as a topical flea medication and can sometimes cause burning or discomfort. Ask your vet to prescribe or recommend a good flea preventative.

I hope you can get this sorted out and your kitty feels more comfortable!

Spraying cats

We have 20 cats that can go in and out at free will plus 8 litter boxes. (All spayed and neutered) we have an alpha male that still pees on everything no matter what. He has been to the vet so there is no infection. How can we help him stop? Please? – Stacy

Wow! Twenty cats is a lot of cats. I’m happy to hear that all of the cats have been spayed and neutered and that the offending cat has seen the vet. How can you tell it’s him? Are you catching him in the act? Setting up cameras? If one cat is spraying, I would assume that he’s not the only one.

Spraying is a territorial behavior. It’s also a very normal behavior. He is spraying as a way of saying “That’s mine!” or “I was here.” It can be very difficult for that number of cats to share one space, even if they have free reign of the outdoors. It can only work well if there is no competition over resources – that means, the best hiding places, the best vertical climbing spots, the best hunting areas outside, and of course, the access to food, water, litter boxes, and even human attention. Your cat may be feeling threatened, stressed, or insecure. Perhaps he is one of the lower cats in the ranking and one of the last to be able to access these important resources. Any conflict between cats, whether or not they are a part of “his colony,” can be a big factor as well.

I would be sure that you are using a good enzymatic cleaner to fully clean up messes. If there is any trace of pee there, he is likely to return. A blacklight can be very helpful in locating any places you may have not cleaned effectively or missed entirely. You can also try increased play and enrichment for him, and adding extra scratching posts to areas where he sprays. Scratching can also be territorial communication, and if he has that outlet for marking, he may not feel the need to urine mark as well.

Finally, I don’t recommend re-homing lightly, but it may be very difficult to make these changes and manage this cat’s happiness in your home. If an opportunity arises for him to go to a new home as an only cat or with fewer cats and more plentiful access to resources, his spraying may likely be fully eliminated in a different, less stressful environment. Best of luck!

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