Animal Psychology Module 8

A Cat’s The Only Cat Who Knows Where It’s At

People who share their lives with cats are familiar with their endearing, individual and sometimes quirky natures. This module focuses on getting your cat’s litter tray arrangements right, helping you to read body language, and interpret communication.

What you will learn in this module:

8.1 Kitties and litter trays

8.2 Some of the top reasons cats do not use a litter tray

8.3 Understanding cat body language

8.1 Kitties And Litter Trays

Indoor cats live, on average, 10 years longer than cats that live much of their lives outdoors. This is one reason why owners like to keep their cats inside. Living an outdoor life exposes them to the dangers of traffic, wildlife, and possibly extreme weather conditions. So, for cats that live mostly or totally in homes, owners need to provide somewhere they can relieve themselves that is hygienic – a cat bathroom. This is called many names – sandbox, litter tray, litter pan, litter box or cat box.

Among all the issues with cats, inappropriate elimination is the biggest complaint owners make about their cats.Even people who are tremendously patient with plant chewing, clawed sofas, and excessive cat vocals can lose their cool when a cat refuses to use the litter tray. It is the number one reason why a relationship fails to become harmonious and the cat is dropped to a rescue shelter. Maintaining a litter arrangement that works is one of the biggest responsibilities of cat ownership. Moreover, it is a job that requires regular, ongoing work, and commitment.

8.2 Some Of The Top Reasons Why Cats Do Not Use A Litter Tray

1. Litter tray is not clean enough

Cats are instinctively clean creatures. They like to groom themselves very often and they are particularly fussy about their toilet routines. In the wild, they choose to go in soft, sandy soil they can dig easily to scoop over their leavings and cover them. They would never choose to walk around on their urine or feces. Also, they have a sense of smell that is many times more sensitive than a human. We all know how bad the odor is from an un-flushed toilet. This is exactly how an unclean litter tray smells to a cat. If any urine comes in contact with the tray it can leave an odor. For it to remain clean enough to invite a cat to use it, it needs to be cleaned out at least twice every day making sure that you get every last possible sign of leavings.

2. Type Of Litter

The type of litter you choose to fill the tray is a big consideration. From the cat’s point of view, it needs to be comfortable to walk on and easy to dig. So, ideally a soft, clay-like material would be best. There are varieties made from clay, grass, corn, wheat, and feline pine. The advantages to these are that they have clumping qualities – they clump around the urine and feces that allows you to easily clean out all the leavings. The idea is also to clump around urine and feces before they can reach the bottom of the tray. Given cat’s sensitive noses, this is essential. However, they can also be dusty, which the cat can inhale, possibly leading to health issues. Moreover, the dust can travel on the cat’s paws around your home.

The pelleted or crystal type of litter has less dust but is not as effective at clumping. Therefore, you may not remove all smells, and your cat  may be put off. It will clump reasonably well around feces but may not get all the urine. This type is also less comfortable to walk on that could be another off-putting aspect for your cat.

For kittens up to 6 or 7 weeks of age, you may need to use the pelleted variety as their little paws sink too easily into the clumping litter. At this age, diarrhea can be common which means, for this short time, you will need to clear out the whole tray at every cleaning.

3. Size Of The Litter Tray.

Cats tend to like a roomy bathroom. If you have the space, the bigger the tray the better. If the tray is small, the greater the chance your kitty will step on their own waste and start to go elsewhere to soil your home. Some cats squat to pee, others stand up. For those that stand up, think about a bucket shape storage container with an access door cut out. The high sides prevent urine escaping and provide a discreet environment. Covered boxes work well for some owners and cats. However, for some cats they can lead to a sense of claustrophobia – they feel trapped. Also, while your reason for choosing a cover is to minimize smells to you, this serves to concentrate the smells for your cat. To minimize odor, the best solution is regular clearing out.

4. Location And Number Of Trays

This is a consideration if you have more than one cat or if you have a cat that likes to urinate and defecate in different places which requires two trays. Some cats will not use a litter tray that has been used by another cat. A dominant cat may block a more timid cat’s access or route to the tray so you will need another option in a safe place for them. Even though the laundry room is a preference for many people, the noises may put some cats off from going there. Do not locate trays near the cat’s eating area. If you have a young kitten, timid adult or recently adopted a nervous rescue cat, and you live in a large home, you might need to locate a few boxes in different places. This will help the not-so-adventurous cat easily get to one without negotiating a lot of scary territory. A full bladder won’t make them brave enough to seek out a distant one. It is a good idea to allow this kind of cat or kitten to adjust first to one room with a tray close by before allowing access to the run of the whole place. They may get lost and accidents happen. Think about all the things that might scare a cat or prevent them from reaching or using a litter tray – fear of a dog, active child, loud noises, strange people, etc. Choose locations in places where these distractions are at a minimum.

There can also be some medical reasons why a cat might stop using a litter tray. It is always a good reason to visit your vet to rule these out before addressing the practical reasons.

8.3 Understanding Cat’s Body Language

Cats mainly communicate with each other and with us through body language using ears, tail, posture, eyes, and legs.They can give messages vocally too. Through observing wild and domestic cats, a lot has been learned about what cats are trying to communicate without needing a voice.

Once your cat is living with you, you will be able to tell a lot about how they are feeling and what they are communicating to you by watching their body language. Each cat will have their own individual variations but you will know your cat’s body language best.


One fundamental difference in the body language between dogs and cats is the messages their tails give. Tail wagging in a dog usually means happiness; not so for a cat. When a cat is pleased to see you or someone familiar and feels safe, trusting, and affectionate their tail will be straight upright, and possibly quivering a little. It could even be flipped forward over their back.

As a cat becomes more alert for some reason his tail goes down to a neutral position – level with his back or a little lower and straight. The tail may puff out that shows uncertainty or may be tucked under. A tail that is held straight but with the tip twitching could mean slow stalking. As alertness increases and the cat prepares to be aggressive, the tail remains low and will kink at the base. You will see this if they begin to chase something. An angry cat will swish their tail from side to side. The more vigorous the slashing of the tail, the more aggressive and excited the cat is. This is a warning to back off.

If a cat’s tail is up and puffed out or bushy it also means he is angry or reactive. The coat along their back may also be standing up. The cat is trying to make themselves appear larger.

At other times, when the tail twitches at the tip, it means playfulness. Read the other body signals to help you distinguish. For example, lying on their side with a twitching tail tip is a welcoming, playful gesture.


A confident cat holds their head up. If there’s any sign of danger, they will drop their head. If the cat wants to indicate they are not aggressive, they will turn their head to the side. When you stroke their head, they will often raise it up to lengthen their neck inviting it to be stroked. This is because of the concentration of pheromones in those areas. They are also present under the chin and in the cheek pouches. This explains why a cat will often position themselves to be stroked in these areas. The cat wants to transfer their personal odor signature to you, showing that they accept you as a friend and loved one.

The cat will often raise their hind area when stroked, giving you permission to sniff them for personal scent information. Owners tend to decline this offer! Head butting is another way a cat shows friendliness. Cats often softly butt heads with each other, and might do the same to you. It is like a thank you when you are putting out their food.


A cat’s eyes are captivating in the way the pupils change to allow and restrict light. When there is maximum daylight, the pupils narrow to a slit. In darker, nighttime conditions they will open to take up almost the entire eye area. In general, a calm relaxed cat, in daylight, will have narrow, elliptical pupils. As soon as an uneasy situation appears, the pupils will expand to take in everything that is happening. This can also happen from excitement like when you arrive home.

Cats look upon direct eye contact as aggressive. Rival cats can be seen having a staring match to resolve their disagreement. If you stare directly into their eyes they will think you are challenging them.

A fearful cat’s pupils will be wide and large. A cat that is stalking a mouse or a toy will keep their eyes fixed and focused. When they are ready to pounce, they will narrow them, and focus the pupils even more.

Some cats have an endearing, engaging habit with their eyes. They will share a blink. If you can catch your cat’s eyes without staring and blink in a slow, relaxed way, they will probably copy you and blink back!


Cat’s ears are very flexible, allowing them to move with agility. They have over 20 tiny muscles, can turn through 180 degrees, and are very efficient at catching every little sound within range. Ears are quite easy to read. A happy, relaxed cat will have their ears straight up and facing forwards slightly or a little to the side. The whiskers will also be relaxed. As a cat gets more alert, nervous or uneasy their ears will move more to the side, and the whiskers will drop down. The more the ears move further back, the more uneasy the cat is getting. Once a cat is angry or frightened, the ears will be flat and facing sideways or fully back. They might start to move away from where they think the threat is, and keep their ears facing back to keep picking up the audio signals.

Sometimes, you will see their ears working ingeniously without an accompanying mood, like turning one forward independently of the other that is sideways to pick up subtle sounds or vibrations.


A cat that is relaxed will have their claws retracted. As soon as the cat needs to be ready to defend themselves, they will extend them. If the cat swipes them, watch out – they are ready for battle! As we mentioned already, most cats lap trample when they are particularly comfortable and happy. Many cats who are very bonded with their humans will put their paws around your neck. There seems to be nothing more to this than an expression of pure love and affection.


Most cats have 24 whiskers, divided equally between two sides of the nose, and arranged in four horizontal rows. The whisker follicles are embedded deeper than other hair which gives them more capacity for sensory input. The top and bottom rows can move independently of each other. Contrary to popular belief, whiskers do not necessarily match the width of the cat, but they do help a cat orientate themselves so they can be at a disadvantage if they are removed or cut.

Scared or angry cats hold their fur erect in an effort to make themselves appear larger, starting with the tail. When a cat is curious, angry, or  feeling their way around in the dark, they hold their whiskers forward. Whiskers are pulled back when a cat is frightened.


Put a cat’s posture together with all  the other signals and you will have the best idea of what is going on with them. An upright posture with the head held high is the posture of a confident, contented cat. Turning their head sideways and avoiding eye contact shows either a lack of interest or a non-aggressive stance.

If the cat is aware of any possible conflict or danger, their head drops and their back arches preparing for defense or attack. The cat might then lower their whole body to the ground, tuck their front paws in, and fold back legs down.

When hunting, the posture is similar but this time with front paws extended. As the cat is preparing to jump up or pounce, their rear part raises up, and their head remains very low to the ground. The fur on their shackles (shoulder area) and tail will be up. They will tilt their head from side to side judging the distance from their prey.

If there is a more obvious and bigger threat that makes a cat defensive or aggressive, you will probably see the “Halloween Cat” pose – a completely arched back, and raised fur all along the back and neck. The cat will then either run or attack. They might roll onto their back to use their claws and teeth. Do not attempt to approach a cat in this mood. Wait until the danger passes.

A very relaxed cat lies on their side with back legs extended outwards. The environment has to be completely comfortable and secure for the cat to feel this trusting. An arched back, which is just to accommodate stroking, is safe. On any other occasion, do not approach!

Well Done!