By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 16 July 2011)
Many owners think that their cats are giving them the cold shoulder when they turn their backs and avoid eye contact or interaction after being scolded. However, contrary to popular belief, this behaviour doesn’t result from wounded pride or a desire to get revenge by giving an owner the silent treatment. This misconception stems from a misunderstanding of feline communication.
To Cats, Staring Can Be Threatening
When a cat stares at another cat, she’s behaving in a dominant manner and challenging her rival. When two cats are locked in a battle for dominance, both may stare, as neither wishes to show weakness. Eventually, the subordinate cat will look away, conceding victory to the dominant cat. If neither cat looks away, a fight may break out.
Given the size of the owner in comparison to the cat (not to mention the fact that the owner provides the cat with food), the cat is likely to view the owner as more powerful, and therefore dominant. When her human companion is behaving in what the cat perceives to be a hostile or aggressive manner (i.e., raising his voice) while staring directly at the cat, the cat feels threatened. She will turn away and avert her eyes in order to signal submission and avoid provoking further hostility.
This is why scolding or punishing cats tends to be relatively ineffective. In such cases, the cat perceives the behaviour as threatening and retreats. The resultant anxiety is actually more likely to provoke another round of undesirable behaviour than to prevent it. Cats respond far better to positive reinforcement for good behaviour than punishment for bad behaviour.
Reference: Morris, D. (1987). Catlore. London, UK: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.