It’s a familiar but embarrassing situation that many dog owners have found themselves in. They stop to talk to a neighbour in the street, it’s a particularly busy school run, or Nan pops over for a cup of tea and suddenly the dog decides to start humping their leg/another dog/Nan (delete as appropriate….). But did you know that some cats will also display humping behaviour? Here we explore why they do this and how we can prevent it becoming a problem.
Table of contents
What is ‘humping’?
When cats hump, they will often latch onto an object with their teeth, wrap their front legs around it and thrust with their back end. It’s no surprise that many people immediately relate this to sexual behaviour, but this is not always the case. The position and movement involved in humping is mirrored in mating behaviour in cats, where the male cat will grab the scruff of the female’s neck with his teeth for the duration of the act, so it is easy to see why this assumption is made. But both male and female cats, neutered and unneutered, can be seen to hump; therefore what are the other reasons for them to do so?
Even if a cat is neutered later in life, they have had a longer period of time under the influence of sex hormones within which to activate latent sexual behaviours; essentially, they learn to behave sexually. However, even when these hormones are removed by neutering, a lot of the learnt behaviours are left behind. Humping can be one of those behaviours that they were used to doing so they can often just carry on.
Humping is often seen in households with two or more male cats (even if neutered). It can be a sign of an attempt to establish social dominance and assert a hierarchy. If a new cat is brought into the household, this can also trigger dominance behaviours from either the new or original cats, of which humping may be one.
As with a lot of cat behaviours, humping can stem from an increased level of stress. And it could be a way for the cat to find some stress relief. These stressors are often in and around the home environment, such as a new animal or person in the household, a new cat in his territory, or even a new home altogether.
Similar to stress, frustrations such as a lack of human attention or lack of physical or mental stimulation can account for some cats displaying humping tendencies as a substitute behaviour. This is sometimes known as displacement behaviour; where one behavioural repertoire (in this case, mating behaviours) are used where another (perhaps more appropriate) one is not available.
How to combat it
First off, in many cases, humping can be seen as a perfectly normal and harmless exercise and may not need to be corrected. However, it is important to ensure there is no underlying physical or mental issue that may be contributing to it. It is unusual for a medical condition to cause a cat to hump. But it would always be worth a check-over at a vet if your cat starts to show this behaviour out of the blue.
If the reason behind the humping is due to social hierarchy and dominance, ensure that each cat in the household has their own space. And always provide at least one litter tray, food bowl and water bowl per cat; and one spare, so they don’t have to share if they don’t want to. Introduce any new member of the house gradually and consider the use of feline pheromones to aid the first meetings.
Stress is an important issue to recognise
This is the one reason for humping that ought to be thoroughly investigated and prevented, as stress in cats can cause many other health problems. If possible, really try to identify the trigger for the cat’s stress as if you can tackle it at its source, you are much more likely to reach a resolution. It’s also important not to punish the humping behaviour as this can increase stress levels more and will just worsen the situation.
Although cats are known for their love of sleep, they also need plenty of play time and a chance to explore either inside or out to keep them stimulated. Many cats are also very sociable and enjoy spending time with their human housemates. Encourage game time using either treats or toys in order to prevent boredom and frustration.
If the humping behaviour is a problem and you need to stop it…
Do so by employing distraction techniques and rewarding any good behaviour. For example if you see they’re about to start humping, try to distract your cat by using their favourite toy. And reward them when they play with this instead.
Humping in cats is not always a problem. And thankfully unlike with dogs, is not likely to happen in a public place; so there is less chance of embarrassment. There is always professional help out there if needed, from either your vet or from a specialised feline behaviourist so don’t be afraid to ask.