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Signs Your Cat Is Bored Silly and You'd Better Do Something About It Fast

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cat behaviors explained

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cat behavior can be peculiar and mysterious, in part because unlike the fully domesticated dog, kitties are considered only “semi-domesticated”
  • Another reason indoor cats develop odd or annoying behaviors is because they’re often bored, with little to no opportunity to indulge their feline instincts
  • Research is beginning to show that feeding cats in ways that challenge their hunting and stalking skills provides mental stimulation and reduces stress
  • Other ways to alleviate boredom in indoor cats include providing cat trees, elevated vertical spaces, opportunities to go outdoors safely and interactive toys

Like all things feline-related, your cat's behavior can be difficult to understand at times. For example, there's the "Pet me! Why are you petting me?" maneuver so many kitties are famous for. Your cat jumps into your lap or rubs against your legs. She's purring and looking at you with adoring eyes.

You begin stroking her soft fur, and suddenly she lashes out with her paw or sinks her sharp teeth into you. This insanity is known in feline behavior lingo as petting-induced aggression, and it occurs when your cat arbitrarily decides she's had enough handling. Some kitties seem to have a very limited tolerance for being touched by human hands. If your cat gets over-stimulated from petting or her "I've had enough" body language signals aren't obvious to you, she may lash out to make you stop.

Pro tip: If while holding or petting your cat you notice her skin twitching or her tail lashing … if she stops purring or starts meowing … or if her ears are flattened to her head or pointed backward, she's telling you, "Enough already!" Remove your hands from her furry little frame pronto or you might be sorry!

Your Cat Isn't Too Far Removed From His Cousins in the Wild

Part of the reason cats often behave so mysteriously, relatively speaking, is due to the fact that unlike dogs, which are fully domesticated, cats are considered only semi-domesticated.

"They only recently split off from wild cats," explains Washington University School of Medicine's Wesley Warren, Ph.D., senior author of a comparative analysis of the domestic cat genome,1 "and some even still breed with their wild relatives. So we were surprised to find DNA evidence of their domestication."2

Scientists learn about the genetics of domestication by assessing what parts of the genome are altered as a result of animals living with humans. The research team led by Warren compared the genomes of domestic cats to wild cats to look for specific areas of the domestic cat genome that experienced rapid changes.

They discovered that compared to wildcats, housecats have more mutations on genes involved in mediating aggressive behavior, forming memories and controlling the ability to learn from either fear- or reward-based stimuli. The cats with domestication-friendly gene mutations mated and passed those traits down from parent to kitten until there was a good-sized population of less aggressive cats.

According to Stephen O'Brien, Ph.D., another member of the research team and chief scientific officer at the Theodosius Dobzhansky Center for Genome Bioinformatics in St. Petersburg, Russia:

"There's a big difference between house cats and wildcats. A house cat will sit on your lap, but a wild cat will hand you your behind."3

The researchers hypothesize that thousands of years ago, humans probably grew to appreciate cats for their rodent control abilities. In order to entice the little mouse hunters to stick around, humans offered food rewards.

Like Bored Dogs (and Kids), Bored Cats Find Ways to Get Into Trouble

Another very important factor influencing cat behavior, according to an increasing number of animal behavior experts, is the unnatural and unstimulating existence of so many indoor kitties. Said another way, most housecats today are bored stiff, due in large part to their inability to participate in many of their natural behaviors like hunting. Boredom would certainly explain why many kitties develop the annoying little habit of knocking things off counters, tables and shelves.

"What many people do not realize," writes veterinary behaviorist Dr. Wailani Sung, "is that cats are curious and like to explore. They use their paws to help them explore by touching and manipulating objects that interest them.

Sometimes they may push too hard, and items are moved. When objects fall and bounce around, your cat may be fascinated by the movement of the object. For cats that are confined indoors, there is a lot of monotony and routine in their lives. Pushing objects around and making them fall down may give them more mental stimulation."

A Better Way to Feed Your Cat (Even When You're Not Home)

Lack of regular opportunities to hunt may also explain why many kitties with outdoor access bring home small dead or nearly dead critters and present them to their (often horrified) humans as gifts. Hunting is both mentally and physically stimulating for cats, which is why free-fed indoor kitties (who typically graze on kibble) tend to be bored and overweight or obese.

They behave like smaller versions of cows, who also graze all day. Grazing is very different from hunting, and while it's ideal for cows and other ruminants, it's entirely unnatural for felines, who are carnivorous hunters. Studies show that indoor cats thrive eating small, frequent meals throughout the day served in ways that require them to work to get the food.

My friend, fellow integrative veterinarian, and cofounder of our nonprofit, CANWI (Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute), Dr. Donna Raditic, has two cats at home and she's come up with a really creative way to feed her kitties. As she explains in "Two Brilliant Tips to Help Indoor Cats Get in Touch With Their Wild Side:"

"My homemade diet has the consistency of canned food with about 75 percent water, so it can't sit out at room temperature all day. I solved this problem by offering my cats their homemade diet first thing in the morning and when I return home.

I also placed some of the homemade food into an automatic feeder that has cold packs so I'm able to provide them two additional small homemade meals while I'm gone during the day. This means each day my beloved kitties get four small servings of my homemade diet.

Dr. Raditic also places three to four pieces of kibble in another automatic feeder that provides five more timed servings, plus she puts a few pieces in food puzzles that require her cats to spin, roll, poke and paw at them to get the food out. Finally, she puts a few pieces in indoor hunting feeder mice and hides them around the house to provide the kitties with a new hunting experience every day.

"By using my homemade diet to provide the majority of the calories my cats eat each day," explains Dr. Raditic, "plus a small amount of a high-protein/very low-carbohydrate dry food in feeding toys, I can go to work knowing I'm providing them with an optimal diet while also satisfying their need to stalk and hunt."

5 More Ways to Keep Your Cat Mentally and Physically Stimulated

1. Cat trees and elevated vertical spaces — Climbing, scratching and stretching are natural feline activities that help keep their bodies well-conditioned and their minds stimulated. Indoor cat trees should ideally reach from floor to ceiling, be very stable (not wobbly) and covered with a variety of cat-tractive materials to entice kitty to climb, stretch and claw. If you can place your cat tree near a window, even better.

Cats also enjoy climbing to high perches to watch the world from a safe distance, so make sure the cat tree has at least one. You can also add wall shelves and window seats to give kitty a range of choices.

2. Outdoor enclosures and leash walks — Providing your indoor cat the opportunity to experience the outdoors safely provides both physical and mental stimulation without the risks of free roaming. It also gives her an opportunity for beneficial grounding.

Many cat parents are creating safe outdoor enclosures or cat patios — catios — that allow their feline family members secure access to the outdoors. The enclosure should be open air, allowing kitty exposure to fresh air and sunlight, but shielded enough to prevent escape or a predator from gaining access.

Another way to get a willing cat outdoors in nice weather is to walk him on a harness and leash. This obviously won't be the answer for every cat, but if you feel yours might enjoy going for walks, here are 10 tips for training a cat to walk on a leash.

3. Laser pointers, feather toys and fake furry mice — Laser pointers can be used to get kitty chasing and pouncing on the red dot for five or 10 minutes a day. The problem is there's nothing for her to actually catch, so she'll probably tire of it quickly. But definitely keep it in your cat's toybox if you know it will get her moving for short periods of time.

Interactive feather toys, especially one called Da Bird, are irresistible to most cats. Aim for two play sessions a day, and work up to 10 to 15 minutes per session. The goal is to get your cat running, leaping and jumping, as well as staring, stalking, chasing and pouncing on "prey."

Little mouse toys are also a hit with most cats. They're not the real thing, of course, and your kitty knows it, but they'll do in a pinch. Cats seem to like the size, texture and "battability" of the mice. Try flicking one across the floor in front of your kitty and see how she reacts.

4. Catnip and silver vine — Some kitties go wild for catnip or silver vine, so a toy containing one of these herbs can be an ideal way to get your kitty in the mood for some interactive playtime. When a susceptible cat is exposed to these herbs, her pleasure centers in the brain are activated and the next thing you know, she's rolling around in a state of goofy bliss. And despite the fact that catnip and silver vine appear to make kitties "high," they are entirely harmless and non-addictive.

5. Hiding boxes — When cats in the wild feel threatened, they head for trees, dens or caves to seek safety. Captive kitties don't have that option, so their obsession with hiding in boxes may be an adaptation. And studies show access to hiding boxes reduces feline stress, especially in shelter cats. Many cats also use hiding boxes as cardboard jungle gyms and spend time playing in and around them.