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Behavior Problems in Cats

By Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, ABS Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, University of Pennsylvania

The most common feline behavior problems are associated with elimination. Some of these are related to the litter box, while others reflect social conflicts and involve anxiety or aggression. Much feline aggression is subtle and passive, so its real frequency may be greatly underestimated.

Many behavior problems in cats are similar to those in dogs, including some types of aggression and elimination problems (see Behavior Problems in Dogs). Additional behavior problems in cats are discussed below.

The process of diagnosing and treating behavior problems in cats is complex and requires a face-to-face meeting with a qualified behaviorist (see Where to Get Help). The descriptions in this chapter are intended to help you understand the types of behavior problems in cats, but are not a replacement for seeking professional help in solving a problem.

Behavior Problems Associated with Aggression

Aggression due to lack of early handling is an abnormal, out-of-context threat or attack demonstrated by cats toward people when people approach or attempt to handle the cat. As mentioned above, early exposure to people is essential for kittens to develop into friendly adults. However, sometimes these problems are hereditary. In such cases the cat may learn to be friendly with its owner, but not other people.

Status-related aggression is scratching or biting by cats towards people that try to control the cat’s behavior. This is another name for what has been called the “leave-me-alone bite.” Unlike similar situations in dogs, this behavior in cats is not associated with resources such as food, toys, or space.

Other types of aggression in cats, including fear, inter-cat, maternal, pain, play, predatory, and redirected aggression, are similar to the same conditions in dogs (see Behavior Problems in Dogs : Behavior Problems Associated with Aggression).

Treatment

Treatment of feline aggression is similar in principle and practice to that of canine aggression. Cats, like dogs, will work for food rewards in counterconditioning programs. It is best to seek the help of your veterinarian for a successful treatment program. The earlier a treatment program is started, the better the chances that it will be successful.

Behavior Problems Associated with Elimination

Aversion to type of litter or location involves consistent avoidance of a litter box location or litter type formerly used for elimination.

Cats can be picky about the type and location of the litter box.

Location preference involves consistent elimination in an area outside of the litter box.

Spraying is the elimination of urine through a small stream of urine. It is done standing up, with the tail raised and quivering. The urine is directed onto a vertical surface, such as a wall, curtain, or door. Cats may spray as a form of marking or as a sign of anxiety.

Substrate preference is consistent elimination on a particular surface or substrate (for example, carpet or tile).

Treatment

Treatment of feline elimination disorders includes addressing the underlying anxieties and any associated aggressive behaviors, keeping the litter box as clean as possible, and determining what combination of litter, box, and location is preferred by your cat. If anxiety or marking is part of the problem, medication may also make a big difference in managing the problem. Your veterinarian can help you to identify the best treatment program.

Other Feline Behavior Problems

Other kinds of behavior problems also occur in cats. Hyperesthesia is a syndrome that is not completely understood. Cats with this problem are overly sensitive to being touched, especially along the back. They may howl or become agitated when handled. Compulsive behavior also occurs in cats. These are otherwise normal behaviors that occur out of context or so often that they interfere with normal activity. The most common types are excessive grooming, and chewing of wool or other fabrics. In many cats compulsive behavior results from stress or anxiety. Chewing wool or other fabrics tends to occur in Siamese and similar breeds and is likely inherited. Your veterinarian can help you with a behavior modification program and medication in order to manage these types of behavior problems.

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