Listen to the audio version of this article
Nobody adopts, rescues or purchases a cat with the hope the new pet will develop behavior problems. The dream you have of life with your new cat involves one of companionship, good behavior and many long years together. Unfortunately though, things can go wrong for a variety of reasons and you may find yourself living with a cat who has now developed one or more unwanted behaviors. It’s frustrating, to say the least, for everyone concerned – most especially the cat.
If you knew you were dealing with a medical problem, the answer would be very clear, right? If your cat started bleeding, limping, had stopped eating, was coughing, seemed in pain or was lethargic you’d call your veterinarian to set up an appointment immediately. But when it comes to behavior problems, some pet parents tend to make assumptions, over-complicate or under-evaluate. In other words, we tend to think we know why the cat is misbehaving and then we create our own solution to the situation. The problem with this plan is that some pet parents misread the behavior and as a result, the solution becomes either ineffective or counter-productive. A common example of this is when a cat parent assumes a cat’s unwanted behavior display is because the cat is “mad” or “getting even.” Thinking that an animal has the ability to come up with planned out punitive action in order to get back at a family member creates a break in the human/animal bond. The relationship starts to change in that the cat parent begins viewing the cat as an adversary who must be put back in his place. The other option is that the cat parent goes overboard in trying to make up to the “ticked off” cat in order to win back his love and approval. All the while, the cat parent is missing the actual cause of the behavior problem and using up valuable time that could be better spent looking for the right solution.
The Top Cat Behavior Problems
When it comes to behavior problems in cats, the specific causes and details are impossible to document in an article because each situation is based on your cat’s unique circumstances, but the broad behavior categories most often seen in cats are:
1. Time for Your Cat to See the Veterinarian
Regardless of how convinced you are that the problem is behavioral or the cat is acting out of anger or spite, the first call you should make is to your veterinarian. There are many medical conditions that could be the underlying cause for an unwanted behavior. For example:
- a cat may be displaying aggression toward you when you pet him because he’s in physical pain
- a cat may be eliminating outside of the litter box due to a urinary tract issue
- a cat may might have become fearful of people because of vision problems
- the overgrooming that a cat is displaying might be due to hyperthyroidism
A thorough check-up by the veterinarian is always the first step when it comes to dealing with a behavior problem. Once your cat gets a clean bill of health, look at the problem from his point of view and not yours. My think like a cat technique is based on simply looking at the environment from the perspective of what a cat needs and whether the situation encourages the cat to engage in natural behavior or whether it creates stress. Look at all behavior problems with a think like a cat eye-view for effective problem-solving. Here are some other examples to get you thinking in the right cat-direction:
- A cat may have stopped using the litter box because another cat has ambushed him there
- Litter box avoidance might be due to the fact that there are too many cats and not enough boxes
- A cat may be spraying because a new cat was introduced into the household
- A cat may be showing aggression toward visitors because he wasn’t properly socialized to people
- A cat may be hiding in fear because the family dog wasn’t properly and safely introduced
- A cat may be scratching the sofa because there’s no appealing scratching post around
- A cat may unexpectedly attack a companion cat because he just returned from the veterinarian and smells threateningly different
2. Act Early When it Comes to Cat Behavior Problems
Don’t wait on a behavior problem with the hope it’ll resolve itself. If you have two cats who aren’t getting along and you’re of the mind they’ll “work it out” you may be setting them up to establish an ongoing tense relationship. If you notice your cat has peed on the carpet and assume this is a one-time event, you may miss the fact he has already peed in a number of undetected places. Don’t wait when it comes to a problem. The earlier you address it, the greater the chance of success.
3. Be a Detective to Help Your Cat
You won’t be able to successfully solve the behavior problem unless you know what’s causing it. If your cat is peeing outside of the litter box, the problem may have less to do with the litter box itself but might have more to do if the fact that a companion cat is stalking and ambushing him every time he walks down the hall in the direction of where the litter box is located. In that case, you’d now have the information you need so start a behavior modification plan that would not only include adding more litter boxes in secure locations but would also include addressing the cat-to-cat relationship. Working on a behavior problem requires you to first uncover the cause (as best as you can) so you can then create a specific plan or make appropriate environmental modifications.
4. Never Punish Your Cat
Any type of punishment, whether it’s spanking, shaking, scruffing, squirting with water, electronic correction, rubbing the cat’s nose in his mess or yelling, will only serve to elevate your cat’s stress level. It doesn’t send the message to the cat the behavior he displayed was unwanted – it sends the message he should fear his owner because of the threat of physical pain. This method of problem correction will damage the bond you share with your cat, decrease his trust of you, increase his fear and could even lead to a more serious problem such as aggression. If he’s now unsure whether the hand coming toward him is going to stroke him or strike him, he may lash out in defense if the option to get away isn’t available.
5. Create a Feline Road Map
Rather than punish your cat for what NOT to do, create a road map that clearly defines what TO do. This doesn’t just mean placing a scratching post in the room to magically get your cat to stop scratching the furniture. What it means is to create an effective “think like a cat” roadmap. The scratching post you put out needs to meet the cat’s needs (tall, sturdy, covered in an appealing material, placed in a good location) in order to have the furniture become less appealing. If your cat is eliminating outside of the litter box because the box is not being kept clean, swatting the cat isn’t going to solve the problem – cleaning the litter box more often is the answer. Set the cat up to succeed by providing a better option when it comes to the behavior you want displayed. How would you feel if your boss kept telling you what NOT to do and focused on what you do wrong and never encouraged you by showing you what TO do and acknowledging what you’ve done right?
6. Regain Your Cat’s Trust
If you’ve punished your cat or if he has experienced stress and anxiety due to the behavior issue, this is the time to work on rebuilding the bond of trust. You may not feel like playing with him, creating fun games, petting him or doing things to instill calmness and security but that’s exactly what you should do. Believe it or not, any behavior problem he’s experiencing is already causing him lots of stress. He needs to know you are a source of security and comfort. If he doesn’t have that from you he’ll distance himself even more.
7. Stay Calm so Your Cat Will Stay Calm
Even if your cat has just urinated on your extremely expensive sofa, don’t panic or your little furry emotional sponge will pick up on your stress. If he’s stressed out enough about something to pee on the sofa and then he sees you acting like a raging maniac, it will only confirm in his head that the bottom has really fallen out of the world as he knows it. This will elevate his anxiety level and I can pretty much guarantee you that it will then increase the chances of even more behavior problems. Panicking and getting upset about the soiled sofa won’t do anything about getting the stain out. It will only add more damage to an already tense situation.
8. Remember to Praise Your Cat
Let your cat know when he has done something right. Again, it comes down to creating that effective road map. No matter how small of a step he may make, if it’s a step in the right direction, reward him with praise (a treat couldn’t hurt either).
9. Know When You Need Help Solving Your Cat’s Behavior Problem
Some behavior problems are beyond the cat parent’s ability. If the problem is too serious, dangerous or you simply don’t feel equipped to figure it out yourself, seek qualified professional help. Contact your veterinarian for a referral to a cat behavior expert. There are many people on the internet who claim to be experts and whisperers but they lack the ethics, qualifications and experience. Make sure the expert you choose has the credentials and experience because an unqualified person could make the problem worse. If you’re in doubt, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist, certified applied animal behaviorist or a certified cat behavior consultant.
10. Don’t Give Up on Your Cat
Your cat is a member of the family and one who deserves your time and attention to solving whatever is bothering him. Working on a behavior problem isn’t a magical overnight fix and it will require a commitment on your part but the pay-off is well worth it. Too many cats end up in shelters because families don’t realize that behavior modification can change unwanted behavior problems. When we bring a cat into our lives we take on the commitment of making sure we’ve provided what that precious animal needs to thrive and be happy. Fortunately, you’re not alone on this journey. There are so many resources available and the number of qualified behavior professionals throughout the world is increasing every year.
Need More Information?
For more specific information on training your cat and solving unwanted behavior problems, refer to Pam Johnson-Bennett’s books. Think Like a Cat is a comprehensive behavior and health manual for all life stages. Starting from Scratch exclusively covers adult cat behavior problems. Cat vs. Cat is for multicat household issues.
We’re sorry but Pam is unable to respond to questions or remarks posted in the comment section. If you have a question about cat behavior, you can find many answers in the articles Pam writes for the website as well as in her best-selling books.