Typical Cat Behaviors

Learn whether the behavior your cat is displaying is normal and abnormal.

Typical Cat Behaviors

Some behaviors seem supremely feline, and cats modify others to make whatever they do seem feline-specific. Let's take a closer look at a few of these.


Cat Nip

Stress often causes cats to purr during veterinary exams, making it hard for the vet to hear your kitty's heart and lungs through the stethoscope. Running water often stops a cat's purring, so your vet might turn on a tap when examining your cat.

Purring—what could be more catlike? We think of purring as a sign of contentment, and often it is. Kittens and queens purr during nursing, and most cats purr when they're petted or when enjoying a familiar, safe, comfortable environment. Older cats sometimes purr to signal friendliness to other cats.

But a purring cat isn't always a happy cat. Very often cats will purr when they're sick or injured or when they're under stress. Purring in these situations might be an attempt for the cat to calm herself, or perhaps the behavior is akin to some people's habit of nervous smiling and laughing.


Does your cat seem to sleep a lot? Good! Although a number of individual and environmental factors affect an individual cat's sleep needs, it's quite normal for a healthy cat to sleep 16 or so hours a day—about twice the amount of time most mammals spend in dreamland. And yes, cats undoubtedly do dream, as suggested by their movements during sleep and, more scientifically, by brain wave patterns similar to our own during deep, dream-filled sleep.

Changes in your cat's sleep habits can indicate health problems, especially in aging cats, so if your cat is sleeping more or less than usual, contact your veterinarian.

Is Your Cat a Catnip Junkie?

Catnip, a plant in the mint (Lamiaceae) family, is a nonaddictive “recreational drug” that causes a variety of apparently pleasurable reactions in about 80 percent of cats over the age of about 3 months. Studies suggest that catnip stimulates pleasure centers in the brain, with no long-term or harmful effects. Individual responses vary, but many cats presented with fresh or dried catnip will munch on it, roll and rub their heads in it, have a brief “crazy cat” attack of running, spinning, and playing, and then mellow out into a happy doze. The occasional cat becomes possessive or even aggressive about her “stash.”


Kittens younger than 8 weeks don't respond to catnip. Real interest in the herb doesn't usually begin until the kitten is about 12 weeks old.

You can buy catnip toys, dried catnip, and sometimes fresh catnip in most pet supply stores. You can also grow it, although watch out: typical of most mints, true catnip (Nepeta cataria) is invasive and can take over your garden in no time—unless area cats eat the seedlings to the ground. To keep it under control, grow it in pots. A close relative of catnip is cat mint (Nepeta mussini). I've grown it in my garden for years. It's not invasive, grows 12 to 18 inches high with a 2-foot spread, and has lovely blue flowers most of the summer. Most cats seem to like it almost as well as catnip proper.


Cats love high places. An elevated perch can be a place of safety—when Roger and I got married and I moved in with my Labrador Retriever, one of the resident cats spent 2 weeks on top of the refrigerator whenever the dog was around. (We assume she came down in the dead of the night to attend to necessities!)

Height also provides a strategic vantage point from which a cat can watch what's going on, often without being seen (Raja, my Lab, always knew Kitty was somewhere in the kitchen but he never did figure out exactly where she was). This behavior reminds us that our cats are, at heart, predators.

Comfort might also play a role in the cat's desire to be up high. Heat rises, so the high spots in a room are among the warmest. They're also out of the way, so the snoozing cat is less likely to be disturbed. Finally (or maybe first in your cat's mind), seeking the higher places might literally be an instance of social climbing—the dominant cat usually occupies the highest available perch.

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