Why are cats so moody?

They rub their heads against our hand, demanding a pat or perhaps even a belly rub, and then, out of the blue, a cat will hiss at us or even bite. Kittens might show, in their early weeks, little of this behavior, but as they grow older, it might become more frequent. How moody a cat becomes, depends a lot on its very own character. The question is: Why do cats switch from one mood to the next within the blink of an eye? Why do they cuddle with you and the next moment they scratch or bite?

Cats are very unique pets. The wild types are not social but solitary animals (lions being the only exeption to this rule). Wild cats only meet for mating and, of course, the mother will take care of its young. Once the offspring grows old enough, they will develope the drive to live solitary and hence look for their own territory.  Under these circumstances it is quite curious and fascinating that cats have become our pets - even more so considering they have done so on their own accord. Cats have in fact domesticated themselves. They have learned that our company and living environment is advantageous for them and have adapted accordingly. This includes understanding our behavior and reacting to us and our ways. They have become somewhat social. However, certain "feral traits", stemming from their "wild times", have endured.

A cat will, often without reserve, show us how they feel. That is not to say they have not reigned in some of their "feral manners" in the process of adaptation. In general, their rule is pretty straightforward and simple: If a cat doesn`t like something, it will react accordingly. It will make it clear. Thus, if it enjoys a belly rub for some minutes and then it becomes unpleasant, perhaps because they have been touched at a sensitive spot, they will respond instinctively.

Not all cats are the same. Some might "understand" to be more patient and insightful with their owners and either endure the unpleasantness or just run off. Others will make it clear to you that they want you to stop or leave them alone and they do so by their natural forms of communicating. This includes hissing, biting and scratching. Do not consider this behavior malignant. In 99% of the cases the cat is not expressing anger or hate or anything of that matter. Its behavior is equivalent to us telling somebody we do not like something. 

For instance: If somebody offers to adjust your tie for you but you would feel uncomfortable with that, you would decline. The cat is doing exactly the same, sometimes in a, from our view point, harsh manner, yet without being aware of it. A scratching cat might simply be saying `no` to your offer of a belly rub. And yes, they might change their mind from one moment to the next, this includes them jumping from a cuddle mood into the play mood and mock-attacking your hand.

For owners it can be tough and challenging to accept a cat`s form of communication. It is important to understand that it is part of their nature, that it is not mean-spirited and to remain calm. Do not become angry with your cat when it uses its natural ways of communication.

There are, however, limits as to what to tolerate. A cat should not injure you in any serious way. It should not bite hard or excessively nor scratch in such a manner. Kittens learn these limits during their socialization phase from their mother and their siblings. That is why it is absolutely vital not to separate them too early. See the section on understanding your kitten for more information on this issue.

For more information on how to handle a kitten developing aggression, see the How to deal with an aggressive kitten page.