January 28, 2023

Why does my cat have a split personality?

(Q) We took our six-yearold cat Cleo in as a stray four years ago. She is a lovely cat and can be very gentle, but she has this ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ side to her which we would appreciate your advice on sorting out. We have a six-month-old kitten and where our other cat plays with him and comforts him, Cleo only ever growls and lashes out. We try playing with her but she doesn’t seem to know how to play with us or other cats. Can you offer any advice?

(A) Behaviourist Jon Bowen says: A six-year-old cat is like a middle-aged person. Your personality and preferences are set, and unless you are going through a mid-life crisis you aren’t likely to abandon your old ways. Cats are the same; they have definite personalities and preferences, and in Cleo’s case she is not interested in play, either with you or your younger cat.

In the studies we have done at Your Cat over the last couple of years we have also found evidence that middleaged cats are the most likely to get into minor conflict with neighbourhood cats, implying that in middle age they are more territorial. In female cats this is the age at which they would be senior matriarchs in a colony of females. Cats that are under two years of age tend to be more playful, gregarious and accepting of new social relationships. So, you may have a mismatch of personality and age. 

My suggestion is that you stop trying to persuade Cleo to play with the other cats, because this is not what Cleo wants. Respect her preferences and try to find ways to diffuse tension between the cats. For example, play games with your other cats only when Cleo is out of the room or perched somewhere in the room where she feels safe to watch. Make sure that the cats have free outdoor access, give them all food through activity feeding, and provide lots of toys and places to hide.