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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Diagnosing Behavior Problems in Cats

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

Many “heath” problems faced by pet cats are associated with behavior problems or unmet expectations about behavior. Your veterinarian will take a behavioral history before making any diagnosis. A behavioral history generally includes the following items: 1) the sex, breed, and age of the cat; 2) the age at onset of the condition; 3) the duration of the condition; 4) a description of the actual behavior; 5) the frequency of the problem behavior (hourly, daily, weekly, monthly); 6) the duration of a typical episode (seconds, minutes, hours); 7) any change in pattern, frequency, intensity, and duration of episodes; 8) any corrective measures tried and the response; 9) any activities that stopped the behavior (for example, the cat falls asleep); 10) the 24‑hour schedule of the cat and owner, as well as any day-to-day changes; 11) the cat’s family history (in other words, are there signs of similar problems in the cat’s parents or littermates?); 12) anything else that the owner thinks is relevant.

Modern veterinary care includes routine screening questions about specific behavior complaints (for example, failure to use the litter box, any fighting with other pets, any odd behavior) in addition to routine questions that alert your veterinarian to potential medical problems. This routine screening will identify what is “normal” for your cat.

Because behavioral diagnoses cannot be made on the basis of a one-time event, you can complete a questionnaire at each visit to clarify the pattern of your cat’s behavior. The veterinarian can then identify whether the signs (growling, hissing) create a pattern that meets specific diagnostic criteria such as fear aggression. Both you and your veterinarian must use the same definitions for the same nonspecific signs.

Video of your cat’s behavior can help ensure that an accurate diagnosis is made. The questionnaire relies on your description and, because of this, is more subjective. However, when combined with a video, your veterinarian can use the information to diagnose the problem. Your understanding and compliance are critical if your cat’s behavior disorder is to improve. Only when you recognize the behaviors leading to or associated with the problematic ones, can you avoid or prevent the problem situation from arising.

Defining the Problem

The following is a brief glossary of terms that are commonly used when discussing behavior.

An abnormal behavior is one that is dysfunctional and unusual.

Aggression is everything related to a threat or attack. There are various kinds of aggressive behavior in cats, such as territorial defense, predatory aggression, and inter-male aggression. Examples of aggressive acts in cats include hissing, biting, chasing, and growling.

Anxiety is the anticipation of danger accompanied by signs of tension (vigilance, increased movement, and tense muscles). The focus of anxiety can be internal or external.

A cat in conflict has tendencies to perform more than one type of activity at once. For example, a cat may want to approach a person to get a treat, but may also be afraid of the person and unwilling to come too close. The motivation for the conflict, except for extreme instances associated with survival functions (for example, eating), is very hard to identify in animals.

Displacement activity is the resolution of a conflict by performing a seemingly unrelated activity. When a cat is obviously in conflict between sex and aggression or between aggression and fear, it will often perform an apparently irrelevant activity. Examples of irrelevant activities are grooming, feeding, and sleeping.

Fear is a feeling of apprehension associated with the presence of an object, individual, or social situation and is part of normal behavior. Deciding whether a fear is abnormal depends on the context. For example, fire is a useful tool, and fear of being consumed by it is a normal behavior. However, if the house were not on fire, such a fear would be irrational. If this fear was constant or recurrent, it would probably be considered an abnormal behavior. Normal and abnormal fears usually vary in intensity. The intensity increases as the real or imagined closeness of the object that causes the fear increases.

Frustration arises when a cat is unable to complete a behavior due to physical or psychological obstacles. This term is overused and usually undefined, which means it often is not very helpful when diagnosing a behavior problem.

Most fearful reactions are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure. Phobias, however, are profound and quickly developed fearful reactions that do not diminish either with gradual exposure to the object or without exposure over time. A phobia involves sudden, all-or-nothing, profound, abnormal reactions resulting in panic. Phobias develop quickly, with little change between episodes. Fear may develop more gradually and, within an episode of fearful behavior, there may be more variation in intensity than would be seen in a phobic reaction. Once a phobic event has been experienced, any event associated with it or the memory of it is enough to generate the reaction. Even without re-exposure, phobias can remain at or exceed their former high level for years. Phobic situations are either avoided at all costs or, if unavoidable, are endured with intense anxiety or distress.

Stereotypic behaviors are repetitious, relatively unvaried actions that have no obvious purpose or function. They are usually derived from normal maintenance behavior such as grooming, eating, or walking. These behaviors are abnormal because they interfere with the normal functioning of the animal.