cat behavior

Cat Behavior

Understanding and Changing Cat Behavior

While most of us think of cats as being cute and playful and good lap warmers, we in the veterinary community understand that some cats have behaviors that can make living with them more difficult than expected. Some behaviors are due to issues that may have occurred before you adopted the kitten. Kittens who don’t have their mother’s guidance or positive interactions with other kittens are more likely to develop problem behaviors. Other cats simply don’t flourish in an indoor environment - the call of the wild is too strong for them to be comfortable as indoor pets. There are many ways cat behavior problems can manifest, and the sooner they are addressed with the help of your veterinarian, the easier it will be to correct the behavior. Understanding cats is no easy feat but these beloved pets are worth the extra effort. 

If you suspect some behavioral issues in your kitten or cat, contact a local veterinarian to get some guidance on how to train a cat and make life easier for both you and your beloved pet.

Excessive Vocalization

Cats meow for various reasons yet, interestingly, cats don’t meow to each other - they only meow to humans. Kittens may meow for attention from their mothers but, once they’ve grown up a bit, that behavior stops. Cats may meow to greet their owners, to ask for attention, to ask for food, or to ask to be let in or out. If your cat is meowing excessively for food, keep to a set schedule for meals and don’t feed treats in response to meowing. Consider a timed feeder - your cat will learn to wait by the feeder instead of waking you up early. If your cat is asking for attention, don’t provide it until he or she is quiet. But don’t ignore them unless you are certain you know why they are meowing at you. Whatever the motivation appears to be for excessive vocalization, it’s a good idea to have your cat checked out by a veterinarian to make sure he or she is not painful, restless, or unusually thirsty or hungry due to a disease.

Destructive Scratching

Cats like to scratch, and they scratch for many different reasons. They may scratch while they play, while they stretch, or to mark territory. They also need to keep their claws sharp, so they will scratch to remove the worn-out older nails and, in turn, to expose newer, sharper nails. All of this can add up to your furniture, drapes, and carpet getting scratched and possibly ruined.

It may take some time, but the key way to help with this cat behavior is to figure out your cat’s preferred scratching surface. Offer different but similar surfaces, such as rope, sisal, wood, cardboard, carpet, or upholstery. Some cats prefer their scratching posts to be vertical and tall enough for them to be able to fully stretch and still be able to scratch. Others will prefer a slanted or horizontal surface.

Once you’ve determined your cat’s desires, you can provide personalized scratching posts near areas of your house where the destructive scratching is occurring, and encourage the use of the scratching posts by scenting them with catnip or hanging toys from them. At the same time, you can discourage the destructive scratching by blocking access and putting down double-sided sticky tape or plastic where your cat normally stands to engage in destructive scratching.

Inappropriate Elimination

Urinating or defecating outside the litter box can be a particularly frustrating cat behavior. The first thing that should be done is to have your cat checked out by a veterinarian to rule out any medical causes, especially if it’s a new behavior. Once you’ve ruled that out, you can focus on behavioral causes of inappropriate elimination. 

Cats prefer clean litter boxes, so be sure to scoop the litter box at least once daily and give it a thorough cleaning once weekly. If you live in a multi-story house, be sure to have a litter box on each level. The litter box should be somewhere out of the way, but not where cats will feel boxed in. They like to be able to see humans or other animals approaching, and they like to have more than one possible escape route from their box if needed. Make sure your cat is able to easily get in and out of the litter box, especially as he or she gets older and begins to have difficulty stepping over the edge.

In a multi-cat household, you’ll need to have at least one litter box per cat plus one more so, if you have two cats, you should have at least three litter boxes. Cats can be territorial and block other cats from using a particular litter box, so making sure there are plenty of boxes to go around will help with that potential problem.

Aggression Between Cats

Not all cats are happy in a multi-cat household. This is particularly true of cats who weren’t socialized as kittens. It’s quite possible they never learned how to properly interact with other cats, are fearful of the unknown, and dislike the disruption to their established routine. Cats are territorial creatures and, while some can peaceably have significantly overlapping territories, others simply don’t like sharing space. Unrelated cats of the same sex tend to have the most difficulties sharing territory, which is something to consider when becoming a muti-cat household.

Be sure to introduce new cats slowly, allowing them minimal direct contact at first. You can allow more supervised time to interact as they get adjusted to each other’s scents and presence. Stop any fighting that occurs with a loud noise. Cats don’t resolve their differences by “fighting it out” - the fighting will only escalate. Don’t directly intervene and try to separate them, as that may cause your cats to direct their aggression towards you. Make sure to provide places for your cats to be away from each other, even to the point of providing separate but identical food, bowls, and bedding in different areas of the house if needed. Consult your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist if the aggression continues or escalates.

Cat Aggression Toward Humans

Fortunately, cats are less likely to be aggressive towards humans on a day-to-day basis, but there are definitely some instances when it could happen. If they are fearful or feeling cornered, they can lash out in an attempt to get away from the situation. A new person in the house can cause aggression towards that person as the cat attempts to make his or her territory known. Then there is redirected aggression, where your cat wants to lash out but is unable to do so, such as seeing a strange cat outside the house. Your cat can’t get to the strange cat so, instead, he or she will lash out at the next animal or human that comes within reach. Cats can also be aggressive if they are painful, or are anticipating a potentially painful event.

One of the most important things you can do to help curb unwanted behaviors is to establish good habits from the very beginning. Make sure your cat’s litter box is in an appropriate place and that your cat is able to use it without any difficulties. Limit the number of animals in your house, and try to provide a relatively stress-free environment for your cat. Encourage the use of scratching posts. 

If you do start to see some behavioral problems, reach out to a veterinarian near you sooner rather than later to discuss potential health issues and determine a plan for managing and/or changing cat behavior.