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5 Common Mistakes That Can Lead to Cat Behavior Problems

All behavior problems have a cause, and you might be contributing to one without knowing it.

 |  Aug 30th 2013  |   26 Contributions


Cat behavior problems are hard to live with. It is not fun living with cats who urinate outside the litter box or become aggressive without obvious provocation. Behaviors do not occur in a vacuum -- there are always reasons for behaviors.

Cats do not decide out of the blue to urinate on the couch or attack their favorite person as he is relaxing. Nor do they start howling in the middle of the night just because they can. Many of these unpleasant behaviors can be avoided -- they are caused by mistakes unknowingly made by cat parents.

Is your cat a little uneasy? It could be something you’re doing but don’t know it. Photo by Robert W. Howington

Here are the five most common mistakes that often lead to behavior issues:

1. Not taking a cat to a vet after a sudden behavior change

This is a serious mistake. Often cat parents jump to the conclusion that problems such as eliminating outside the litter box, aggression, and shyness are behavior challenges. Because cats hide their illnesses well, changes in behaviors may be a cat parent's only indications of medical issues that need immediate attention. Changes in behavior should be approached as a behavior challenge only after a veterinarian examines the cat and gives the cat a clean bill of health.

2. Inadequate attention to litter boxes

Elimination issues make up a good portion of my cat behavior consultations. It is also one of the top reasons cats are surrendered to shelters. The majority of elimination challenges are caused by cat parents not cleaning litter boxes often enough, poor choice of litter boxes, placing the boxes in bad locations, and not having enough litter boxes. Elimination problems can be avoided by following a few basic rules.

  • Scoop the litter boxes a minimum of once a day and wash them on a regular basis. Although this may seem obvious, many people forget to scoop the boxes every day, and some seldom wash them.
  • Place litter boxes in areas that please cats, not people. They should not be all together in one room, nor should they be located in areas where cats can feel cornered, such as closets and cabinets.
  • Choose boxes cats will be comfortable using. Litter boxes should be large and uncovered. Ideally, litter boxes should be at least 1.5 times the length of the cat.
  • Make sure there are enough litter boxes available. The rule of cat boxes is one box per cat and one for the home. If you have three cats, your cats need four litter boxes.

Cabinets and closets are poor locations for litter boxes

3. Rushing introductions

A common mistake people often make is hurrying introductions between cats. Cats are territorial and as a rule, do not immediately accept other cats into their home territory. Introducing cats too quickly to each other usually leads to violence and loud, unfriendly displays. Instead of rushing the introductions, keep cats separated from each other and gradually introduce them to each other. It can take one month or longer to do successful stress-free introductions.  

Introduce cats to each other gradually. Stress-free introductions can take one month or longer.

4. Using hands during play

Many people cannot resist using their hands when playing with kitties. Cats and kittens who are played with using hands often do not understand boundaries and will sometimes bite and scratch their people when soliciting attention and play. From the cats’ viewpoint, it does not make sense that they are sometimes encouraged to bite hands whereas at other times hands and other body parts are off limits. Instead of using hands when playing, use toys. Don’t make the mistake of using hands when playing with cats, it can make the difference between living with a Ninja-attack cat or a well-mannered cat.

Don't use hands to play with cats, instead use toys

5. Adopting a cat who's a poor match for ones in the household

Adopting a second or third cat can be a good thing -- if it is a good match. A mistake some people make is adopting kittens as companions for their older resident adult cats. The age discrepancy can be problematic -- stressing the older cat and not satisfying the kitten’s natural instinct for playing. Kittens, by definition, have an abundance of energy and need to play. Everything and everyone in their world is a toy that needs to be pounced on and batted about. Older, adult cats typically prefer taking quiet naps.

Although they do enjoy playing, they do not want to play as intensely and as often as kittens do. Kittens, in their efforts to play with the older cat, can annoy the adult and cause them to respond aggressively. When adopting a new cat, do your homework. Look for a cat of similar age and energy level. Check the history, find out if the cat does well with other cats who have a similar disposition to your resident cat.

Bok Choi, a visibly annoyed adult cat, would rather nap then play incessantly with a kitten

Stopping unpleasant cat behaviors before they start makes life easier and less stressful for everyone in the household. In addition, it saves cats' lives and keeps them from being surrendered to shelters for fixable behavior problems.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior issues through force free methods that include clicker training, environmental changes and other behavior modification techniques. Marilyn is big on education—she feels it’s important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cats behaviors.  She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.

 Read more by Marilyn Krieger:

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