They may not be playing loud music or staying out late with their mates, but cats go through an adolescent phase just as we humans do. Discover how to help them (and your furniture) get through it in one piece.
People warn you about the challenges of life with a kitten, but what about a cat’s ‘teenage’ years? If you think you’ve navigated through the growing up process and after a year or so you’ve got what looks like a fully grown cat, you may need to think again because even at a year old they are still developing and maturing despite having pretty much reached their full physical size.
We noticed this when our short-haired tabby Rita went through what I thought of at the time as a ‘naughty’ phase. She went from cuddly, cute kitten to tearaway, bouncing off the walls, racing around the house, wrecking the sofa with her claws and — the best trick — leaping on to the tops of doors and sitting there casually like it was the most comfortable spot in the house.
What’s going on?
Of course, she wasn’t being naughty at all, she was simply being a cat. So, what’s happening when cats reach their adolescence?
“They’re nearly fully grown, they’re getting a lot bigger and stronger, a lot more able and agile, and getting a bit more athletic, but mentally, they’re still very much learning about themselves, about the world, and about what it’s like to live with people,” says RSPCA cat welfare expert Alice Potter.
The International Cat Care organisation has an interesting graphic on its website (icatcare.org) that identifies the different stages of a cat’s life and correlates it with human years. It’s a way of helping owners understand what stage their pet has reached, so that they can give them the best care. It describes the seven months to two years period as the ‘junior’ stage when they are no longer a kitten but are not quite in the adult category and associates this with human years from 12 to 24.
So, it’s no wonder a cat of that age is not quite ready to settle into snoozy middle-age.
“You may see an increase in exploratory behaviours, an increase in curiosity, an increase in them wanting to interact with all sorts of different things like objects, people, and other animals — we may see a big burst in those sorts of behaviours,” says Alice.
“Even though cats do a lot of the very important learning during their socialisation period, which is two to seven weeks of age, they continue to learn after that period.”
Part of the issue is our own perception of what’s going on as Alice points out that a lot of the behaviours that can crop up at this time are really the same ones they have always done, it’s just that we’re seeing a larger, stronger animal doing them and perhaps the potential destruction is greater.
“A lot of the behaviours are similar to what you’ll see when they are kittens, but sometimes I think because they’re a bit bigger and more able, their behaviours are a bit more pronounced.
“And then there’s this other thing about expectations, because these cats are starting to look like an adult cat, but mentally they’re still very much learning.
“So we may think that they should be behaving themselves a bit more sensibly now because they’re not a cute little kitten, but really not always appreciating that they still are very immature in their mind.”
Part of what is going on is that they are practising their natural behaviours and learning about ‘being a cat’ and responding to their own hunting and territorial instincts.
Alice says: “One of the reasons kittens play a lot together, even from a young age, are those predatory behaviours. As they get older, the predatory behaviours are going to be coming out more, as well as territorial behaviours, inquisitiveness, curiosity, and exploration, and all those sorts of things. It’s basically practising for adulthood.
“It may look sometimes a bit daft and silly, but a lot of it is about fine-tuning their motor skills, their agility, and their athleticism because that’s what makes them such amazing hunters and those things are massively hardwired into them.”
So does this phase pass? Well, just like people, every cat is individual and they are all different. “You will naturally have some cats that are, because of their personality, high energy and they may always be quite high energy,” says Alice.
But for some cats, once they’ve explored and tried new behaviours and investigated unfamiliar areas, the novelty may wear off and they have no interest in repeating the experience.
“We would expect those behaviours to calm down as they get older but as always, the caveat is to take it case by case and remember that each cat is different.”
Lifelong cat lover Phil Hook is an animal nutritionist and account manager with petfood brand Tribal.
‘My oldest cat is about 14 years old now but we got him at about eight to 10 weeks old. He was a lovely playful, beautiful little cat, really full of fun, and then I’d say at around six or seven months, he turned into this absolute monster and it would be three o’clock in the morning and he would be going around the walls. “I’ve always had boy cats and definitely with them they are a bit more boisterous.”
Phil is a big advocate for indoor cats and he explains that for them it is all the more important that they have plenty of stimulation generally and especially during this phase, because they will get all their experiences inside the home.
“One of the best things I found is, especially with indoor cats, it’s a lot about mental stimulus rather than physically wearing them out; it’s about keeping their brain active.
“Some people complain that they’ve got a cute kitten and it’s so lovely — then six months in, it’s destroying their furniture, their carpets, and their settees, but that definitely calms down after about a year or so.”
Living with a ‘teenager’ — how to make it work
It’s vital to understand the reasons behind your ‘teenage’ cat’s behaviour, but that doesn’t mean you’re happy for your home and furniture to be wrecked, so it’s important to find a way to provide what your cat needs in a way that works for you too.
“Just like human teenagers, cats will display behaviours such as being hyper or too raucous, causing havoc around the home! They are lively, curious, vocal, and into everything, and this is when we need to try and engage with them to match their behaviours, such as giving them stimulating things to do,” says cat behaviourist and author of ‘Let’s Talk About Cats’ Anita Kelsey.
“It is particularly a difficult period for indoor-only cats that may become very frustrated and bored, resulting in unwanted behaviours such as aggression. As with bringing any other species into a home environment, we have to ensure we change our home to suit the specific animal’s needs.
“In terms of cats, this would include climbers to be used like indoor trees, good vertical or horizontal scratching posts, and lots of proper hunting toys to stimulate and encourage mental and physical activity. We also have to watch out for bringing adolescent cats together with more senior cats who will become frustrated with the energy of the ‘teenage’ cat,” says Anita.
RSPCA cat welfare expert Alice Potter also recommends plenty of playtime. “If you don’t want your cat to be running around having crazy energy all the time, then doing things like playing with them every day will help. Providing them with a suitable outlet for their behaviour
— giving them something that you’re happy for them to grab on — means they’re less likely to do it on your hands or your furniture.”
It’s not just about wearing them out physically though. Cats need mental stimulation too and this is another reason why playing with them and introducing mentally interesting toys, such as food puzzles, can help.