Is Your Cat's Behavior Normal or a Sign of Something Else?
Behavior problems are the number one reason for feline relinquishment and euthanasia. Sadly, many of the common behavior problems are actually normal cat behaviors — they just don't coincide with living in our homes with our routines! The best things that you can do for your cat is provide environmental enrichment like personal playtime and toys, decrease stress, and know the difference between medical behaviors and behavioral problems.
Cat Behaviors — The Big Five
- Feline Marking — Underlying social issues within your home can lead to urine marking (spraying). Marking often happens on an owner's possessions, on the other cats' toys, and along the walls of doors or windows.
Factors that contribute to feline marking are arousing situations, disruptions (remodeling or visiting company) within the home, changes in smells (new cleaning products) of the house, changes in routines and the presence of outdoor cats.
First, you will want to figure out if this is a medical problem (intact males frequently mark) instead of a behavioral problem. Try to correct the disruption. Do not allow access to the area that has been marked (cover with a litter box or aluminum foil). Calm the cat and area by using a pheromone spray or diffuser.
- Inappropriate Urination — This is most often caused from a medical problem, such as bladder stones, urinary tract infection, arthritis or problems associated with the litter, location or number of litter boxes. Try to determine if anything has changed in your household — new routine, addition of a pet, different litter box or litter, etc. Do you have enough litter boxes (one per cat plus one) and do you clean it appropriately (scooping every day and breaking it completely down, washing with hot water and soap and replacing with new litter)?
- Inter-Cat Aggression — When you introduce a new cat to an existing cat in the home, the existing cat's illness, fear, anxiety and territorial responses may contribute to inter-cat aggression. In general, kittens and younger cats are easier to introduce than adult cats. Introduce two cats slowly and make sure there are several food and water bowls, scratching posts and litter boxes throughout the house. Utilize vertical surfaces so that a cat can climb to different height levels for safety. Place a collar with a bell on the bully cat to warn the one that is being bullied.
- Play Aggression – Usually during play aggression, cats inhibit their bites, swat with retracted claws and there is no vocalization. Cats need to play; this is normal behavio.! Owners should not engage in rough play or "tug-of-war" games. Most cats enjoy wand and teaser toys or things they can chase around the room. A favorite window to see the outside world, scratching posts, enrichment toys (puzzle toys with hidden food) and scented toys make it an enjoyable play-time for both owner and cat.
- Redirected Aggression – Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is stimulated to a heightened state of arousal and directs that aggression to a person or animal that was not the cause. This is very dangerous. Male cats are more likely to show this type of aggression. Triggers that can cause this arousal include the sight or sound of another cat, unusual noises, odors of other animals, and unfamiliar people or environments. Remove the cat's access to the stimuli. Isolate the cat immediately and try to learn what triggers this behavior.
It's hard to believe that cats lounging around the house feel stressed. However, cat behaviorists have proven that they do and that it can lead to aggressive play and poor behaviors. "We put cats in abnormal situations when we keep them inside and confine them with multiple cats," says Valerie Tynes, DVM, Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB). "We further change their natural nocturnal behavior and feed them fish instead of their preferred red meat diet. It's no wonder they become confused and predatory at times."
To keep cats happy, veterinary behavior specialists suggest that owners play for at least 5 minutes each day with cats individually or in a group. Playtime provides mental stimulation and exercise.
To Help Teach Cats Appropriate Play:
- Follow the rules. Cats that attack moving feet or jump on owners without warning do not understand the rules. Kittens learn if they hurt another kitten (or you!), play ends. People need to stop all play when the rules are broken. Start with correct toys (not hands or feet) and games that involve chasing and pouncing. Kitty fishing lines, balls and furry mice are good tools to use.
- Use distraction. Play aggression normally occurs when cats misinterpret owner actions as games (such as kids screaming or chasing each other enticing the cat to join in the chaos). Close the cat in a room when the family is particularly vocal or active. Throw a toy across a cat's line of vision so he will chase it instead of your feet
- Recognize body language and the limits of your cat. Some cats are finicky about what types of toys they like and are specific about the type of attention they want. Most cats do not like to be held upside down or scratched on the belly. A crouched position, ears thrust backward, twitching tails and low growling noises are warning signs and you should heed them!
Cats love attention. They love to be rubbed and played with. However, don't take it to extremes. Know when to stop by recognizing body posture, facial expressions and vocalizations. Identifying whether a new behavior is due to a medical reason or YOU can stop a behavior from getting out of control. There are times when behavior can be altered with pheromone sprays or diffusers, desensitization, counter conditioning and, in some cases, behavior drugs.
For more information, call us at (803) 648-5489 or visit the American College of Veterinary Behavorists' website. Don't give up!