Warning: Adolescence Ahead!

Author: Chris O’Neil, Founder, Catology – Cat Behaviour Solutions

“The troubles of adolescence eventually all go away – it’s just like a really long, bad cold”

Dawn Ruelas

The above, amusing quote may have been referring to human teenagers, but for many cat owners, it is a very real thing!

Adolescence is a cat’s teenage lifestage. Thankfully, it’s a phase that most grow out of eventually. Depending on who you ask, this lifestage usually goes from about 6 months of age to 2 years. By the age of one year, a cat may look physically fully grown, but their brain is still developing at a rapid pace as they move towards a more mature adulthood.

These changes include more limbic brain activity relative to the prefrontal cortex. To put it in simple terms, your ball of fluff, who used to be so cute as a kitten, is now all about instant gratification and reward seeking, without having developed much impulse control.

So what does cat adolescent behaviour look like?

  • Lots of energy. More than they know what to do with.
  • Attention seeking and demanding behaviours e.g. lots of vocalisation (especially at 4am when they want to be fed), scratching furniture, knocking things off
  • Changes in multi-cat household dynamics – “terrorising” older cats and displaying territorial behaviours

Basically, you’ll probably wonder what happened to your cute little kitten and whether your parenting skills aren’t as great as you thought!

This is normal, and for many owners, it’s worth remembering that it will pass. That’s not to say that it’s all bad either. There are many great things that occur during this period as well. To make sure that it’s mostly good, we need to make sure that a teenager’s needs are met and you will have many lovely times with him/her.

So what can you do as a cat parent of a teenager? Here is the survival guide.

Channel energy appropriately

Your teen will be busting with energy. Often at inappropriate times (most often at 4am or when you’re on an important zoom conference). We need to accept this is the case and provide appropriate outlets for your cat to expend his energy.

Firstly this means structured play sessions. This is almost non-negotiable. Cats in their natural environment will hunt up to 30 times a day, expending physical and mental energy in short, sharp bursts. Proper play is essential to depleting their “prey-drive”, otherwise you might find that it’s redirected on to you or your couch! Here is a link to another article I wrote on proper play [hyperlink: https://catnets.com.au/blogs/cat-demy/how-often-should-i-play-with-my-cat). Twice a day minimum, at his most active times which are probably in the morning when the household energy is high, and also in the evening before bed.

Clicker (or other reinforcement-based) training can also be exceptionally well-received at this time. Lots of functional behaviours can be trained, including “go to mat”, or “leave it”, which can come in handy in everyday situations. This will also provide lots of mental stimulation for your teen, as well as strengthen the bond between you. If you’re interested, there’s lots of youtube videos and guides on proper clicker training.

Enrich the environment

This is so important. A teen who has no environment enrichment will inevitably direct that energy on to things that you deem inappropriate (though he will think it’s extremely appropriate!).

Environment enrichment is a term thrown around a lot in behavioural circles, but basically means providing lots of opportunities for your cat to perform natural behaviours. This usually means hunting/playing, bird watching, scratching, getting up high (cats like to be elevated), scavenging etc. A house with no cat furniture or play, is likely to be one that has an unhappy cat.

You can avoid a lot of bad behaviour by creating an environment that your teen can interact with and get rewarded, appropriately. This means:

  • Cat trees/towers/shelves. Most cats love to be up of the ground – this provides them perceived safety, confidence and a view over their territory. Placing these in socially significant areas (where you and your family spend most of their time) is key. Having a cat tree in the spare room that nobody uses, or the laundry may not be socially interactive enough for a young cat.
  • Scratching posts – very important if you don’t want your furniture to be destroyed. Look for posts that are at least 80cm high so your cat can fully stretch out. Many cat towers double as scratching posts. Also put these in socially significant areas.
  • Lots of play is required at this point. Make sure it’s with toys and not your hands, otherwise you’ll inadvertently train a cat who thinks your hands are play things.
  • Outdoor enclosures or catios are amazing additions and can keep your teen (and older cats) mentally and physically happy for hours. I highly recommend this if you have the ability.
  • Enough litterboxes – the general rule of thumb for the number of litterbox locations is the number of cats, plus one. This ensures choice, and also can prevent “resource guarding” in multi cat households.
  • The same rule applies above for food and water stations.
  • Toys that your cat can play with without you. The right toys can keep a cat from depending solely on you for play, allowing you to confidently get on a zoom call! The “right” toys are very individual to the cat. For instance, I have clients whose cats will shun most toys on the market, but absolutely love ping pong balls. Other’s go bananas over flapping fish. This is really a trial-and-error approach for cat owners.
  • Treasure hunts and food puzzles. Hiding treats around the house before you go to work, or when you need to get some work done at home, can appeal to a cat’s scavenging instinct and will give them some rewarding activity.

Reward the good

Rewarding good behaviour is very important at this stage. It’s very easy to get angry at the “bad” behaviour, but this often only serves to get our attention, which can be rewarding for a cat. Ideally, ignore the bad behaviour (no attention), and reward the good. This means treats for sitting in the kitchen without jumping on the bench, nice affection for sitting on your lap or next to you on the couch. Actively look for opportunities to reward behaviours you want, and that’s what you’ll continue to get.

Lastly, remember, “it will pass”

Provided you create an enriching environment, play appropriately, and reward good behaviour, you can be confident that this is a phase and will pass. The timeline is different for every cat, but over time you’ll notice some reductions in the boisterous behaviour and will start to settle more and more. By then, your teen will start to mature into a (hopefully) better behaved, loving companion!