According to Franny Syufy (on about.com) attention seeking behaviour in cats is one of the most common complaints about cat behaviour. With respect to Franny, to be perfectly frank, I find that very hard to believe because a lot of the time people complain about the cat being aloof and independent (the opposite). The domestic cat is known to be independent. They mind their own business. I feel sure that 90% of domestic cats mind their own business and will ask for food when required and sometimes ask for our involvement in other activities such as playing. But feline attention seeking behaviour does not ring a bell with me. I think it is a concept based on our perception of cat behavior via anthropomorphization. The best books on cats don’t refer to attention seeking behavior.
That said, I’m sure Jo Singer knows a bit more about feline attention seeking behaviour than I do because she has two Oriental Shorthair companions and they are part of the Siamese family of cats who are known to be very vocal and loyal. Purebred cats in the Siamese family are probably more likely to be attention seeking, if that is how a person wishes to describe a cat who wants some sort of interaction with his/her human companion.
I would not call the behavior of a cat who wishes to interact with their human companion, “attention seeking behaviour”. I would call it fun and friendship. Of course, there may be times when a person does not want to be interrupted, in what they’re doing, by their cat. That is fine. A person can simply spend a short time with their cat and then carry on, or feed their cat if that is what the cat is asking for.
Franny describes the following things as possible examples of attention seeking behaviour in cats:
Howling at night. With respect again, this is not an attention seeking behaviour. It is nearly always done by elderly cats who are perhaps confused due to dementia. When a domestic cat howls at night, the cat is not seeking the attention of a person, they are simply expressing undirected emotion.
Begging for food and food treats. Yes, cats do ask for food because usually the only source of food comes from us and therefore they must ask us for it. Sometimes people create routines in conjunction with their cat which become habits and these habits result in the cat asking for food perhaps more often than they should do. Personally, I don’t see this as attention seeking. I see it as habit and routine forming behavior because of the behaviour of both cat and person. It can be broken gently in various ways one of which is simply to not respond quite so promptly to a demand for food or provide food which is not a favourite but good quality nonetheless.
Pawing at your arm or leg. My only experience of this is when my cat lies next to me and he may put his arm out to mine to create contact between himself and me. Sometimes a cat will poke and prod a person to wake them up or arouse them. This is usually a request to feed them as is probably what is happening in the video on this page (the cat is a Scottish Fold and seeks attention in a most delicate and adorable way). Personally, once again, I would not describe this as attention seeking behaviour. It is a request. We all make requests.
Insistent meowing. Yes I have heard about this in some cats. My cat, Charlie, does meow like a Siamese cat but he only does it when he knows he is about to be fed. Some cats are more vocal than others and once again I have to refer to the well-known vocalisations of the Siamese cat and Siamese family of cats. I am probably out of step with many people but I don’t see insistent meowing as attention seeking behaviour. I see it as a committed request for something and the best response is to do the thing that is being requested while paying attention to the dangers of overfeeding due to feline boredom. A cat over-demanding food should be distracted with play and interaction rather than simply providing food on demand. A lot of what we do could be described as a insistent behaviour if we apply the same criteria to ourselves as we do to the domestic cat.
Inappropriate scratching. I’m very surprised to see that Franny has listed this as an example of attention seeking behaviour in cats. It simply cannot be described as that. Scratching is normal feline behaviour with many benefits for the cat. We all know about it. It has nothing to do with seeking the attention of a person. Perhaps people sometimes believe that if a cat is scratching something, the cat is deliberately trying to irritate the person and thereby force the person to pay attention to them. I don’t believe that this is the case. I don’t believe that cats deliberately do naughty things (in the eyes of the person) to get the attention of the person.
As Franny says, so-called attention seeking behaviour in a cat may be due to an illness causing pain and the cat is responding to it but most often a cat who is ill will do the exact opposite to seeking attention. They simply find a place to hide and be still. Cats suffer pain in silence and stillness.
I do not believe that attention seeking behavior in cats is something that needs “correcting”. If a cat is irritating a person because she is meowing too much then the person should ask themselves what they are doing to create the situation which causes this to happen because the causes almost invariably come back to the environment created by the person and the behaviour of the person. As cat behaviourist realise, cat behaviour is really about human behaviour.