Behavior Problems?

First, make sure the cat is healthy.

Many behaviors that we interpret as abnormal are actually quite normal, but may not fit our system of expectations, or are acted out within an environment that is not normal for the cat. For example, a cat suddenly starts messing behind the couch. Instead of investigating the problem and handling it quickly, the cat is merely tossed out. It's always the cat's fault. Did anyone check the area? Did anyone have the cat checked? Is it a new couch? Is the cat feeling well? Is there a new addition to the household?

Cats are highly motivated and affected by odors, unusual sights or objects, fear, your mood, and changes in family structure and dynamics. Many people do not seem to realize that cats have feelings and are very attuned to the dynamics of the home. Even slight changes can set off some behaviors that surprise, or irritate, the humans in the home.

Here are some issues that seem to come up quite often:

Aging: As your cat ages, things change. There may be hearing loss, vision changes - even blindness, arthritis, digestive problems, no energy, etc. Sounds like a human you say? Well, how would you want to be treated?

Anger Management: Cats can become angry, but we'll discuss that under the Fighting section. Here, we would like to briefly address HUMAN anger management. Too many pets are the victims of their owners' outbursts and suffer indescribable agonies and injuries, and yes, even death. Unfortunately, the penalties for this kind of cruelty are either too lenient, or in some areas, non-existent. We'll leave it at this: GO GET HELP if you are this kind of person. And, just so you know: Shelter workers can tell when a surrendered animal has been abused.

Depression: Animals get depressed. It's a fact. If they feel left out, displaced, forgotten or abused in some way, they will feel bad. They may lose their desire to play, walk around the house, or even to eat. Depression may lead to what we consider inappropriate behaviors, such as not using the litter box, or vomiting more than usual.

Discipline: First things first here: NEVER EVER HIT A CAT! For one thing, it doesn't work. You might be able to force a dog to cower to your will, but a cat will only run away, hide, or become sneaky. They NEVER learn the lesson you think you're teaching them. They do learn never to trust you, however, and will never become a loving lap cat. But all is not lost. There are things to try. Cats hate loud noises, so one way to make them get off the counter tops, for example, is to make a loud noise. They (hopefully) will make the connection that every time they jump up there, they will elicit that awful noise, and then change their minds about doing it. Cats also, as a rule, do not like water. Using a spritzer bottle for certain trespasses may help serve as a negative reinforcement technique. However, we've seen some cats who actually enjoy this.... go figure.

Fighting: Sometimes it's hard to tell whether your little darlings are fighting or playing. But there are ways to figure it out. For one thing, if no one gets hurt, or there is no screaming and growling, more than likely, they are playing. Unless they are wreaking havoc and mayhem, we let them play like this, as they also use this behavior to establish their hierarchy in the home. Note, too, whether their ears are laid back. That can signal aggression with a potential for a fight, but not necessarily.

Heartbreak and Loneliness: If someone gives up their cat after even a short time, but more commonly after several years, that cat is going to miss you. Hard to believe? It isn't only dogs that pine away for their lost masters. Older cats quite often lose their will to live if given up when they have known only you their entire lives, or if they happen to feel an especially strong bond to you. (Amazingly, some owners don't notice this.) At our shelter, we've lost several due to the heartbreak of family loss. They die. Yes, they do. They have feelings..... They may be in danger of giving up if you even go on vacation too long. They don't know you're coming back. Be sure to have someone spend time with them while you are gone. Boarding and kenneling sometimes are too hard on them as well if they must exist with minimum attention in a cage.

Litterbox Woes: When a cat is not using the litter box, there are many possibilities to explain it. But of more interest, are the solutions for solving it! Of course, understanding the reasons leads to solving it. Here are some places to explore this problem: 1.  2.

Moving: If you have to move, there are things to consider. The cat can't help pack, but his or her needs must be met, too. It's usually best, if you have the luxury, to wait until you are completely moved into the new place before releasing Fluffy there. And then, it's helpful to introduce them to one room at a time. That is, keep Fluffy in one room until she is comfortable there, then let her explore another room, increasing her "territory" by one room at a time. Or, some cats fit in more quickly. If you are in tune with your kitty, you will know.

Multicat Homes: Just face it: If you have more than 3 cats at your home, they need to establish their pecking order. Live with it. Cats count like this: One, Two, Bunch. And once they find themselves in a bunch, they instinctively turn on that competitive edge thing. What's at stake? Well, there's food, attention from you, that warm spot on the back of the couch where the sun shines on it, and the "spot of honor" on your bed at night. Only high-ranking cats can sleep there. Oh, it's not up to you. They decide. (See Fighting, above.) Live with it.

Playing: If your cat likes to play, you have a happy cat. If not, start looking into why. There may be issues with other cats in the home (a bully in the bunch?), or a health issue. Or, perhaps age. It all depends on the cat and the environment. One of our shelter cats (age 12) likes to play! It took over a year, but she is now comfortable there. No one wants to adopt her because she's "too old" now, but she has adapted to her new surroundings. Also, be sure you have plenty of safe toys for your kitty to play with.

Spraying: Some people refuse to adopt male cats because they don't want a cat that sprays. This can be extremely annoying, of course, and there is no sure way to guarantee a cat will never spray. And don't be fooled: Some females spray, too. Literally! We've seen them do it. The best advice we have is to be sure there is no medical problem, first, then be sure the cat is happy. If you can't resolve it, consult an animal behaviorist or help find kitty a home she will be happier in. What NOT to do: Toss the cat outside.

Traveling: Many people say their cats do not like to ride in the car. Well, if all they ever do is go to the veterinarian's, certainly, they will not like to ride. If you train your kitty to take short rides with no consequences, then end up back at home quickly, they learn to enjoy it. We took one of our cats on a one-month vacation in our travel van. She loved it! She also learned to walk on a leash. Many cats do seem to have a fascination for vehicles, however, and will climb inside if you leave your windows down.

Trespassing: A very big complaint we hear about is kitty paw prints on car hoods, made in the night and found by morning as someone leaves to go to work. Or, the neighbor's cat is digging in your garden, leaving presents for you to clean up. Also very annoying. Both behaviors are the symptom of either 1. an irresponsible owner who thinks cats are happiest outdoors, or 2. the presence of stray or feral cats in your neighborhood. Unowned cats account for many, many complaints of this nature. The first possibility is sometimes just as difficult to work with, as some owners are adamant about leaving their cats outside and refuse to cooperate. This means you have to take care of the problem yourself. First, try some aversion tactics. Failing that, you may be forced to consider the offending cat as a stray. If you happen to pick him up and take him to a shelter for his protection, the owner likely has little or no legal standing, unless there is some form of identification on the cat. It's certainly a gray area in some locations. Check with local authorities for the regulations where you live.

Copyright 2009 - Dr. RJ Peters 
The Problem Cat