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Understanding a cat’s behaviour

By understanding a cat’s normal, natural behaviour, you can create a closer, more empathetic bond with your cat. Understanding a cat’s behaviour starts with looking at the domestic cat’s wild roots.

African wildcat

Domestic cats share ancestry with the African wildcat, a solitary creature which has a wide territory. Within this territory is their core territory, where they take their prey to feed without being disturbed. Prey is limited, so they hunt regularly, often before they are hungry. Wildcats sleep regularly to recover from their tiring hunts.

The African wildcat scent marks its territory to deter other cats and to avoid fights. If presented with a stressful situation, they prefer to run away than stay and fight.

A wildcat keeps hydrated by eating rodents, which contain a lot of water. When searching for drinking water, they visit water sources outside of their feeding and toileting areas to avoid contamination.  


Many domestic cats behave in the same way as the African wildcat, so, it’s understandable that they need to be socialised with humans from an early age, to counteract their solitary instincts. Kittens should therefore have close, positive interactions with humans between the ages of two and eight weeks to ensure they grow up enjoying human company.

Multiple cats

While domestic cats may prefer to be the only cat in the household, they can live together happily if they are in the same social group – cats in the same social group will rub heads and sleep cuddled up together. Often domestic cats are introduced to one another at different stages in their lives. In this instance it’s unlikely they will consider each other as part of the same social group, but they can learn to tolerate one another and avoid each other when they need to. Whether they are in the same social group or not, each cat should be given their own food bowl, water bowl and litter tray to avoid conflict.

Hunting and feeding

Domestic cats are programmed to hunt and like the African wildcat, they will hunt even when they’re not hungry. Hunting releases endorphins and stops them getting frustrated or bored. And just like wildcats, domestic cats will bring their prey into the home, otherwise known as their core territory.

In the wild, cats will catch and eat around 12 rodents a day, so many domestic cats will prefer several small meals throughout the day rather than more set mealtimes, which is why some cats may graze feed. To help them feed in a more natural way, you could hide their food around the house for them to find.

Scent marking and scratching

Cats mark the edges of their territory by spraying to ward off other cats in the area. The edges of their territory can usually be found outside, so a cat spraying inside the home is likely to be a sign of upset or stress. Discovering the cause of the upset could help to find a solution; it could be an intruder cat entering the home or a lack of resources amongst multiple pets.

Scratching is another way that cats like to mark their territory and it also keeps their claws in good condition. Therefore, it’s a good idea to invest in some scratching posts to save your furniture.

Hiding place and high perches

Cats prefer to run away from conflict and hide when they feel stressed or threatened. Make sure your cat always has access to hiding places and leave them in peace when they retreat to these places. Cats also feel safe when they can survey their territory from a height, so give them access to shelves or the tops of wardrobes.

Body language

Cats can be difficult to read as they don’t have many facial expressions. Their body language is a good indicator as to how they’re feeling. A relaxed cat will have their tail up, their ears pointing forward and may be walking towards you. If they rub their head against you or lie on their side with their belly exposed (a source of vulnerability) this shows they are very relaxed in your presence. If a cat crouches with its tail wrapped around them, their muscles tense and their ears back they may be feeling stressed and are searching for a place to run away to. A cat with an arched back, bushed up tail, flattened ears and fur standing on its end is very stressed and can’t find a way to escape.


Your cat may use a litter tray inside or prefer to toilet outside. Either way, make sure their toileting area is kept clean as cats are reluctant to toilet in dirty areas. If you have multiple cats who toilet indoors, provide one litter tray per cat plus one extra so there are plenty of clean toileting areas on offer.

Water sources

In the wild, cats will avoid stagnant water sources and will drink in a separate location to their feeding and toileting areas. Domestic cats should have access to water away from their other resources. Some cats will prefer to drink from running water that is fresh, so you could provide access to a pet drinking fountain or dripping tap.

Indoor vs outdoor

Cats who are given access to the outdoors will have a wider territory to explore and will have more opportunities to hunt, relieving stress and boredom. Cats who are kept solely indoors should therefore be given extra stimulation to prevent stress. Take a look at our top 5 enrichment tips for indoor cats for ideas.

Cats Protection LogoThis article has been written in collaboration with Cats Protection.

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