Animal Behavior Clinic

Preventing Feline Behavior Problems

The most common type of aggressive behavior is play aggression, which is normal for all young mammals. For cats, play aggression includes stalking, pouncing, and mock fighting. A young cat may hide in a corner and then stalk, chase and pounce on an object or person! Kittens normally play with each other, with their mother and with a variety of moving objects. If none of these are available, they will treat human arms and legs as playthings.

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It’s important to teach kittens an acceptable way to play right from the beginning. If possible, take home two kittens so they can fulfill their need to play with each other. If this is not feasible, then direct the kitten to “fun” toys such as long strings with toys or feathers attached (don’t let your kitten swallow it!) or ping-pong balls. This will help minimize those secret ambushes, and prevent you from becoming, in effect, a big squeaky toy. Always keep these toys, especially the ones with strings, away from your cat when you are not around to supervise. Many people misinterpret play as a sign of serious aggression. Playful cats “attack” silently and do not typically break the skin when they bite. Seriously aggressive and potentially dangerous cats often hiss or growl and bite more severely. Using a water spray bottle to keep the cat at bay is sometimes a helpful temporary measure. Hitting a cat is not recommended since it often causes a defensive reaction, may lead to aggression, and is inhumane.

InterCat Aggression
Intercat aggression is the second most common reason owners bring their cats to Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic. Cats may not cohabitate well for a variety of reasons, including incompatible temperaments, territorial competitions or as a consequence of overcrowding. Cats that have gotten along well for a long period of time may experience an abrupt falling out following a separation such as when one cat is returned home after a visit to the veterinarian’s office for treatment (non-recognition aggression) or when both cats are startled by an external stimulus and one cat attacks the other as a result of its agitation when, for instance, it views an intruding outdoor cat through the sliding glass door (redirected aggression).

Most of these situations require a gradual reintroduction paired with positive experiences to reunite the feuding felines. How long this process will take depends on a variety of factors, including the severity of the meltdown and the duration of the duress. Medication may facilitate your behavior modification efforts, but there are no magic pills and some management changes and training efforts will be required on your part.

Finally, know when you need help and be sure to call the Tufts Animal Behavior clinic at 508-887-4640 for appropriate counsel.

Destructive Scratching
This behavior is a common cause of frustration for cat owners. Cat scratching is a normal feline behavior that serves to mark and claim territory. It also helps cats to stretch their muscles and tendons and to remove the husks of old nails.

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Some veterinarians feel that declawing is a safe procedure to remedy this complaint, while others feel it is inhumane and painful. The process involves removal of the last digit as well as the claw. Alternatives to declaw surgery are often effective and include: scratching posts, deterrents (both physical and chemical), environmental measures such as reducing stress and territorial squabbles, nail covers and nail trimming.

Scratching posts should be at least three feet tall (to allow the cat to fully stretch), kept in prominent locations near where the scratching behavior occurs, covered with rough fabric such as burlap, and stable enough that the cat cannot knock them over. Deterrent agents include mothball aerosol spray, Boundary pet deterrent spray, or plastic sheeting to cover valuable objects. Smaller objects such as table legs can be covered with double sided tape, and larger objects can be covered with contact paper (sticky side up). Many cat owners have success with nail covers (Soft Paws), plastic caps which are glued on, or with frequent nail trims to reduce damage caused by scratching. Destructive scratching is a behavior problem which can often be easily managed.

Environmental Enrichment and Social Interaction
Many people adopt cats because they believe they are less labor intensive in terms of care requirements than dogs. While in most cases this is true, it does not mean that they don’t have physical and social needs! To avoid behavior problems, be sure to enrich your indoor cat’s environment. Daily exercise periods can do wonders to burn off your cat’s excess steam and prevent the development of unwanted behaviors. Five to 10 minutes once or twice per day may be all that’s needed depending upon your cat’s energy level and desire to interact. An unoccupied cat will find its own means of entertainment and rest assured it won’t be your first choice for occupational therapy! Provide an appropriate release for your cat’s predatory tendencies by playing games with a feather wand, laser light or other such object that your cat can “hunt.”

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Believe it or not, many cats respond well to training, especially when the click and treat method of training is used. You can teach your cat simple tricks such as “sit,” “come,” “high 5” and jumping on stools on command to complex tricks such as turning off lights and navigating an agility course.

Engaging your cat in interactive aerobic play and training sessions will go a long way to solidifying your relationship and making for a behaviorally healthy feline friend. Cat videos, bird feeders within view, cat grasses, rotated toys, vertical perches and a myriad of other cat entertainment devices can be found at your local pet store or in pet catalogues. Your cat needs a break from excessive solitary snooze time and rotating toys and entertainment devices on a daily basis can keep your cat interested and independently occupied when you’re away from home

Inappropriate Urination
This is the most common feline behavior problem presented to Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic. A full medical examination is always necessary to help determine the cause of this behavior. If a clean bill of health is confirmed, you may wish to consult a professional animal behaviorist to help you identify the cause of your cat’s change in elimination habits and develop a treatment plan to retrain your cat to the litterbox. Inappropriate elimination typically falls into two motivational categories: 1) litterbox aversion or substrate preference or 2) territorial urine marking.

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Housesoiling or a lapse in litterbox usage can be caused by a urinary tract infection, urethral or bladder stones or crystals. Conditions that increase water consumption lead to increased frequency of urination so that the cat may not be able to find a convenient litter box in time. Older cats with arthritis problems may find it difficult to step into the litter box. In these cases, treating the underlying medical condition frequently resolves inappropriate urination.

When medical conditions aren’t the cause of a lapse in litterbox training, we begin to look for behavioral explanations. Some cats may become averse to their litter box when something about the box becomes disagreeable. Typical causes include a dirty litter box, a preference for a certain kind of litter or a litterbox that is placed in an inconvenient or noisy area of the home. In multiple cat households, an insufficient number of litter boxes may trigger a cat to find a more suitable location of cleaner substrate for elimination. No one likes to stand in line for a public restroom only to find a filthy toilet! A good rule of thumb is to have one more box than the number of cats in your household. Making the litterbox very attractive and the inappropriately soiled areas unattractive will help to lure your cat back to her litterbox.

Territorial marking is generally but not always directed onto a vertical surface and you may observe your cat twitching his/her erect tail while spraying a small amount of urine. Most frequently, spraying is associated with un-neutered male cats who tend to spray during mating season. Neutered male or female cats may spray as a result of anxiety. If the cat is not spayed or neutered and physical examination findings are normal, neutering or spaying usually resolves the problem of spraying. If the cat is already neutered, identifying and if possible, removing the stressful stimulus is important. This may involve deterring wandering cats from entering your property or addressing social conflict amongst your own indoor cats.

For both house soiling and territorial marking, it is important to remove the odor from the soiled area with an appropriate enzymatic cleanser. If the plush carpet in the quiet corner of your living room smells like a latrine, how is your cat supposed to know it’s unacceptable to you? If your cat is leaving “pee-mails” to mark his territory, you can bet your bottom dollar that he’ll be upgrading his posts on a regular basis as soon as his odoriferous message begins to wane!

Introducing New Cats Into Your Household
Upon bringing your new cat home, immediately put her into a private room where she will begin to settle in for her first week. Your resident cat should not be allowed to enter this room or to stay at the door growling and hissing. After one week has passed, allow your resident cat to explore the door of the room where your new cat is residing. After all signs of aggression (hissing, growling) have subsided, open the door a crack. Use a doorstop or hook to secure the door. Again wait for the hissing and growling to disappear.

If you have a large carrier or crate, place your new cat in it. Bring the cat into your main living area. Try to feed both cats treats or food at the same time so they associate each other with pleasurable experiences. When the cats are comfortable in this situation, let them interact through the barrier. If there are any signs of aggression, you may want to start out with introductions for only short periods of time (five to ten minutes) or go back to the separation phase. Gradually increase the time the cats spend together as long as they are not aggressive to each other.

Litterbox Training
Since most cats prefer to eliminate in private, put the litter box someplace that’s easily accessible, but away from heavy foot traffic. Position the litter box away from your cat’s feeding or bedding area as most cats do not like to eliminate in the same vicinity as their feeding or resting areas. Show your kitten a litter box, demonstrate how to scratch in the litter, and she’ll get the picture pretty fast. Sand textured scoopable litters are preferred by most cats. Both urine and feces should be scooped from the litter box daily and the entire litter box contents should be changed weekly. If you have multiple cats, keep one suitably sized box for each cat, plus an extra litter box (n+1). If your kitten is still very small or you share your home with an elderly cat, make sure that the litter box is not too deep so that she can easily climb in and out. If the litter box is too small, your cat might be reluctant to use it or, if she does, she might urinate over the edge, missing the box. Some cats will not use covered litter pans, or even open pans that sit beneath closely hanging objects such as brooms or mops.

Overweight cats face serious health risks, lower quality of life and perhaps even a feline form of depression. Fat cats have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, liver disease, diabetes, orthopedic problems, and even neurological problems. As our cats’ protectors, we should take obesity seriously and feed and exercise them sensibly.

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For cats, twice daily feeding of reasonable amounts of high fiber, low fat cat food is a good approach. Also, treats should be suitably formulated, small and strictly rationed. But even with such measures, some cats still don’t lose weight. This is when you should enlist your veterinarian’s help to check for medical conditions that may be contributing factors to your cat’s obesity. Your veterinarian may also prescribe a specific diet to help with weight loss. Exercise can also help. Not only does regular exercise help to burn calories, but it also provides an outlet for pent-up energy that might otherwise transmute into anxious eating behavior.

Outdoor vs. Indoor Cats
There is no one right answer to the question, “Should I let my cat roam outside?” Once you know the facts, you can make an appropriate decision that takes your cat’s well being into account. Outdoor cats face many hazards including, but not limited to: traffic fatalities, cat fights, infectious diseases, predation, and environmental extremes.

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Indoor cats have an average life span of 14 years, whereas outdoor-indoor cats have an average life span of only four years. However, an exclusively indoor life may be restrictive and is possibly a factor leading to compulsive behaviors such as wool sucking (when the cat sucks, chews or ingests fabric) or psychogenic alopecia (when the cat pulls his own hair out). One solution is to provide supervised (perhaps on harness or by providing a secure outdoor enclosure) outdoor time for your cat. Another is to provide environmental enrichment for your indoor cat. Some ideas include providing company (another cat), toys, climbing frames, fish tanks (with firmly attached lids), window bird feeders, or even videos that are specially designed to keep your cat occupied and happy. Feeding your cat ‘s meals in play and treat balls will help to satisfy her predatory instincts

Plant Eating
Plant eating is a normal cat behavior that provides cats with dietary fiber to act as a laxative or an emetic (in large quantities) to relieve hairballs. In fact, providing non-toxic grasses such as wheat grass can enrich your cat’s environment and provide a safe source of fiber. Toxic plants (such as Easter lilies, Oleander and Dieffenbachia) can kill cats and should not be kept where the cat has access to them. If, however, you have houseplants that are receiving your cat’s unwanted attention, you should try to deter your cat’s attention from them by placing them out of reach, spraying them with aversive spray (such as Citrus Magic), or adding mothballs to the soil. If your cat persists, it may be helpful to provide your cat with non-toxic grasses which are acceptable for him to eat. If these measures fail, a water pistol or loud noise may sometimes deter your cat from eating your plants.