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Behavior Problems in Cats

By

Gary M. Landsberg

, BSc, DVM, MRCVS, DACVB, DECAWBM, North Toronto Veterinary Behaviour Specialty Clinic

Last full review/revision May 2018 | Content last modified May 2018
Topic Resources

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.

For both the prevention and treatment of behavior problems, it is important to be sure your cat can engage in normal feline behaviors. Although they can vary between individuals, a cat's major behavioral needs include eating (hunting), drinking, elimination (urine and feces), security, play and exploration, climbing, perching, and scratching. Specifically, hunting and feeding needs might be satisfied by giving food in small portions throughout the day and placing food or treats inside toys that require some manipulation to release the food (batting, chasing, rolling, pawing). To add an element of hunting, the cat can be given opportunities to chase, pounce on, and bite toys you dangle or pull in front of the cat.

To motivate cats to play, you should find a number of toys that interest your cat and play with several different toys until the cat’s interest wanes. Cats may also be offered small toys for batting and chasing; boxes or containers to explore; appealing outlets to climb, perch, and scratch; and perhaps an occasional catnip toy (to which 50%–75% of cats respond).

Rewarding desirable behaviors with positive reinforcement techniques (such as treats or favorite toys) can help you teach your cat to urinate, defecate, climb, scratch, or perch in appropriate locations. Clicker training can be particularly useful to reward desirable behaviors. Punishment should be avoided, because it can cause your cat to become scared of you and, at best, will stop the undesirable behavior only when you are present. After meeting all of your cat's behavioral needs, the best approach to stop the undesirable behavior can be to prevent access to areas where problems might arise. Another alternative is to teach the cat to avoid the area by making it unpleasant with taste (eg, cayenne pepper), odor (eg, citrus), touch (eg, upside-down carpet runner, double-sided sticky tape), or perhaps a motion-activated device (eg, alarm, air spray).

Teaching an alternative desirable behavior (called response substitution) can be a useful approach if the cat is reward trained with food or favored toys to respond to one or more simple commands (eg, "come," "sit"). A leash and harness can be used as an aid in training as well as a way to prevent undesirable behaviors and ensure safety. Fearful cats should be kept away from anything that causes their fear, at least in the short term. For example, if cats are fearful or aggressive with other cats or visitors, confinement away from the cats or visitors is an essential first step to ensure safety as well as preventing the problem from getting worse. This generally involves housing the cat in its own room with litter, toys, bedding, and food. When the cat is calm and comfortable, it might then be possible to gradually reintroduce the cat using desensitization and counterconditioning techniques.

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 below). 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.

Where to Get Help

Owners seeking help for a behavior problem with their cat can turn to several sources. The American Veterinary Medical Association recognizes a variety of specialties within veterinary medicine. Similar to specialties in human medicine, these include veterinarians who are board-certified in surgery, internal medicine, ophthalmology (eye care), dentistry, behavior, and many other areas of expertise. Most board-certified veterinary behaviorists work in veterinary colleges or private referral practices.

There are also veterinarians who are not board-certified, but who have a special interest in behavior. These veterinarians have a range of experience and expertise in the field, and many offer behavioral consultations as a part of their regular veterinary practice.

In addition, nonveterinarians may call themselves behaviorists and offer counseling on behavior problems of pets. Some have a doctoral or master’s degree in psychology or a related field, and some have earned a certification. Others, primarily trainers, have no formal education in behavior but offer advice on solving behavior problems of cats. Owners who need help for their pet should ask about the background and training of the person offering the behavior consultation before setting up an appointment. Because many behavior problems in cats can be influenced by medical conditions, veterinarians are the professionals who can offer the most comprehensive care.

Behavior Problems Associated with Aggression

Aggression toward people may be fear induced, related to play, or due to predatory instincts. Cats that bite during petting may not enjoy physical contact, and some cats bite to keep people from touching them when they are resting, sleeping, or eating. Aggression may be particularly intense if the cat is approached when it is aroused. Aggression towards strangers usually involves fear.

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. 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.

Aggression toward other cats in the household may be due to play, predatory behavior, redirected behavior, fear, and perhaps as a status-related behavior in which cats use aggression to retain control of sleeping areas, common areas, or food. Aggression toward unfamiliar cats can be related to fear or to protection of its perceived territory.

Fear aggression occurs in situations that make a cat afraid. Fear causes many types of aggression. Fearful cats may try to avoid the triggering threat but can become aggressive when they cannot escape or learn that acting aggressively can remove the threat. Animals that learn that aggression "works" to eliminate threats may act aggressively even when they are not threatened. Poor socialization, temperament (inherited from parents), previous punishment, and learning can also lead to fear aggression.

Maternal aggression is excessive aggression by a mother cat ("queen") toward people, other cats, or her kittens. A small amount of aggression may be normal, especially around the time of weaning. High levels of aggression may harm the kittens. The aggression should resolve after the kittens stop nursing.

Pain aggression is a defensive reaction that occurs when a cat is in pain. It may happen when a cat anticipates being moved or touched. Certain illnesses and diseases can also lead to aggression. This is why veterinarians rule out medical causes of aggression.

Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is prevented from reaching its intended target. The attack is then directed at another cat or person. The aggression is not accidental, and the cat will actively pursue the other cat or person. For example, if a cat sees another cat outside and becomes aroused, it may turn and attack a third cat within the house because it can't reach the one outside.

Predatory aggression is behavior associated with predation (for example, stalking, pawing, pouncing, chasing, and biting).

Play aggression occurs along with play behaviors and may include biting, chasing, and play fighting.

Treatment

The first step to treat aggression is to prevent further injuries to people and to other cats. In cases of aggression against other cats, the cats will need to be separated and only be slowly reintroduced after implementing behavioral modification techniques. 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 it will be successful.

Behavior Problems Associated with Elimination

With housesoiling, your veterinarian will always first exclude any medical problems, because many conditions can cause cats to urinate or defecate outside the litter box. Your veterinarian will ask questions about how and where the accidents occur, litter box details (including the number and location of boxes, cleaning routines, and type of litter). Blood and urine tests are also typically necessary to rule out health conditions.

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

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

Spraying (also called urine marking) 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. Urine marking is more common in male cats, and neutering can help to reduce or eliminate spraying behaviors in approximately 90% of cats. Cats may spray as a form of marking or as a sign of anxiety.

Cats with inappropriate elimination urinate and/or defecate on horizontal surfaces (such as carpet, rugs, beds, or clothes). Cats that return to the same area or surface may have a substrate or location preference. Location preference involves consistent elimination in an area outside of the litter box. Substrate preference is consistent elimination on a particular surface or substrate (for example, carpet or tile). Alternatively, cats that do not use their litter for urine, feces, or both may be avoiding the litter itself, the litter box, or its location, also called litter box aversion. After ruling out a medical problem, your veterinarian will focus on addressing the behavioral issue. Avoidance of the litter box might arise because of aspects of the litter (texture, depth, scent, cleanliness), box (size, shape, hood), or location that reduces appeal; unpleasant experiences at or near the box (eg, insufficient cleaning, noises, pain due to medical problems); or difficulty in gaining access to the box. Cats may also avoid the litter or box if fearful or when there is conflict between cats in the home. In addition, some cats may actually have a preference for a particular odor, texture, or location.

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, number of boxes, and location is preferred by your cat. If anxiety or marking is part of the problem, medication and behavior modification techniques may also make a big difference in managing the problem. Punishment is not recommended and may even make the problem worse. 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. A cat may groom the area excessively, hiss at or bite its back, cry, dash away, or defecate. Your veterinarian will first rule out medical causes, especially pain and skin conditions, which can cause similar signs. If a medical condition is not present, a compulsive disorder may be to blame.

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, other fabrics, plastic, rubber, cardboard, or string. 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.

Fear can result from insufficient early socialization as a kitten or frightening experiences. It can also be inherited. Cats may fear unfamiliar people, unfamiliar cats, dogs, noises, or places and situations such as car rides, veterinary visits, and unfamiliar environments. Some cats may also be fearful of familiar people and cats. Fear can result in threatening behavior (such as growling or hissing), overt aggression (biting or scratching), avoidance, hiding, and possibly spraying. If possible, it is best to identify what is causing the fear. Your veterinarian can then create a treatment plan that includes avoidance (if possible), behavior modification techniques, and possibly medications.

Older cats can experience a number of medical conditions that can cause abnormal behaviors. They can also have pathologically abnormal behaviors, which can be more difficult to treat than those seen in younger animals. Older cats may also have cognitive dysfunction syndrome, which is similar to Alzheimer disease in people and can cause disorientation, agitation, anxiety, memory loss, housesoiling, and personality changes. If you notice behavioral changes in your older cat, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian, who will rule out medical conditions and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

For More Information

Also see professional content regarding behavioral problems of cats.

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