Behavior
A naughty kitten scratching at curtains.

3 Common Cat Behavior Problems and How to Fix Them

Did you know that the No. 1 single cause of death in cats is bad behavior? Learn more about how you can identify and solve some common cat behavior problems.

Steve Dale  |  Jul 24th 2018


It’s likely that the No. 1 single cause of death in cats is not cancers or kidney disease — it’s cat behavior problems. Naughty cats are often relinquished to shelters or just tossed outside. In reality, the cats aren’t being “naughty” or spiteful. Instead, cats are merely attempting to cope with their environment and anxiety and/or insecurity they’re feeling.

Here’s a brief overview of three of the most common cat behavior problems. For any of these, visit a veterinarian first before assuming the problem is strictly behavioral. You can add 10 litter boxes and scoop every 10 minutes, but if the cat has diabetes, a cat’s aim won’t improve without medical care.

1. Inappropriate elimination

Sometimes cats don’t feel secure enough to hang around the litter box long enough to read while doing their business, so they will go No. 2 where they do feel secure for the time it takes. Photography ©BilevichOlga | Getty Images.

Sometimes cats don’t feel secure enough to hang around the litter box long enough to read while doing their business, so they will go No. 2 where they do feel secure for the time it takes. Photography ©BilevichOlga | Getty Images.

Inappropriate elimination is one of the top cat behavior problems. This cat behavior problem falls into three buckets, so to speak: Spraying, toileting (voiding) and defecating outside the box.

Spraying

A true marking behavior, like city gang members tagging their territories with spray paint, cats do the same with urine. The intent is to communicate demarcation of territory. Intact cats do this prompted by emotion and hormones, but any cat of either sex may spray.

Typically, cats back up to a wall or object and let loose and vocalize with a quivering tail. The spray then trickles down to the floor or the ground.

Neutering the cat (if not already) doesn’t always change the behavior. Typically, there’s a perceived territorial threat that prompts spraying, often outdoor cats, or perhaps adding a cat into the home or even if Uncle Joe and his stinky cigars come to visit for a week.

Using the pheromone Feliway Classic spray to spritz on the cat spray is like erecting a white flag for peace.

Definitely, though, determining the objection that prompted the behavior in the first place and dealing with it is important. So if outdoor cats are an issue, encourage them to go elsewhere — perhaps with a motion detector sprinkler. Add a litter box near where the cat is spraying as well (you can always inch the box to a preferred location later).

Toileting/voiding

The key: understanding why the cat is having accidents. How would you like it if the toilet is never flushed? Scoop! And the entire litter should be changed out monthly.

The rule is as many boxes as the number of cats inside the house, plus one. So that means if you have five cats, yes, you require six boxes. And ideally, each box in a separate place.

Unscented litter is preferred by most cats, and the finer the traditional clumping litter, the better. Most cats prefer uncovered boxes, but some might even opt for the relative privacy of a covered box.

Location of litter boxes matters. Cats typically like to have toilets away from other cats, and in peaceful locations but not in hard to get to places (such as the back of a basement).

Anxiety may cause the cat to urinate outside the box. One example, when cats go up high, like on a counter, it’s often out of a concern of another cat(s) or other pets — even rowdy children — near the box. Cats who do their business on our bed are choosing an ideal place; it’s soft and cushy and smells like the one they love all while avoiding a perceived threat on the ground.

Never punish a cat for thinking outside the box. You’ll teach him nothing, and it only pushes an already stressed-out cat to be even more anxious. Instead, play with your cat (using an interactive cat toy), as play is a great stressbuster. Pheromone Feliway Classic helps cats to feel more comfortable. However, ultimately the Sherlock Holmes in you must find the source of the anxiety.

One common anxiety-induced issue is idiopathic feline lower urinary tract disease (called by several names, including Pandora’s syndrome). It turns out that the best solution for this is enhancing enrichment opportunities in the home, offering cats hiding places and resources in multi-cat homes, and remembering that cats utilize vertical space.

Defecating

All the above information regarding litter and litter boxes applies. Sometimes cats feel comfortable enough to urinate but aren’t secure enough to take time out to read a book while doing No. 2, where they feel more vulnerable.

“Extra-sized cats” — which are most cats in America — may just require a larger toilet. Getting a storage container (meant to store clothing under a bed) offers more elbow room. Just ensure the box is easy to step into, as more cats than previously thought (especially if they are overweight or obese) are likely arthritic.

2. Inter-cat aggression

Even cats who get along may instantly become arch enemies due to misdirected aggression. Photography ©Wanderer Lindsay | Getty Images.

Even cats who get along may instantly become arch enemies due to misdirected aggression. Photography ©Wanderer Lindsay | Getty Images.

Inter-cat aggression is another one of the biggest cat behavior problems. Cats are indeed social animals, but they choose their friends deliberately. In home environments, we play matchmaker and too often don’t give cats enough time to get to know one another before deciding they should be pals.

The more gradually cats are introduced, the better. Once cats decide they don’t like one another, it’s not so easy to change their minds. And once they aggress, they don’t typically forgive and forget.

In cats, the more aggression occurs, the more it will likely escalate into a cat fight. Cats can’t fight if they are separated from one another and again be reintroduced very gradually, using tools like the pheromone Feliway Multicat.

Sometimes cat fights aren’t fights at all, as it may be difficult to distinguish play from combat in cats. If there are no sounds associated with the activity, it’s more likely to be play. But if there’s any doubt, and there may be, use your phone to make a video and then show your veterinarian.

Even cats who typically get along great may instantaneously become arch enemies, often as a result of redirected aggression. A cat sees another cat outside, can’t get to that threat, so redirects to whatever is available. Once that impression is made — the cats should probably be separated and gradually reintroduced.

Cats returning from the veterinarian may reek of the clinic and scary pheromones picked up there, so much so that the old friend may truly be unrecognizable. This is a phenomenon known as feline nonrecognition aggression. When returning home, place that cat in a second bedroom or den, as if you are introducing cats who have never before seen one another.

Place a safe common scent on all the cats (such as a touch of lavender, your perfume or shampoo for cats). And ensure the re-introduction is gradual.

3. Inappropriate scratching

Place a vertical scratching post where your cat is scratching. Photography ©noreefly | Getty Images.

Place a vertical scratching post where your cat is scratching. Photography ©noreefly | Getty Images.

Inappropriate scratching is another one of the top cat behavior problems. Please don’t think about amputating your cats’ paws — that’s what a declaw is. Aside from your financial expense, research increasingly suggests your cat may pay a lifelong emotional and physical cost.

There’s a new tool to direct cats to scratching posts, called Feliscratch. The product is applied to a vertical scratching post. A blue dye is an attention grabber, catnip attracts most cats from several feet away, and the real secret sauce is a copy of the feline interdigital semiochemical pheromone, which cats naturally deposit each time they scratch.

With a post magnet combined with common-sense tactics to discourage scratching, there’s new hope for even older cats who are accustomed to scratching at places we deem inappropriate. For example, if the cat is scratching at the sofa, that’s the place to position the vertical post and to apply Feliscratch as directed.

The post must be tall enough for a stretch, as well as sturdy (so it doesn’t topple over on kitty). Simultaneously make the sofa an uncomfortable place to scratch. No punishment or catching kitty in the act required. Place an upside-down car mat (nubby side up) or plastic rug runner (nubby side up) over the part of the sofa the cat is scratching — cats won’t scratch there.

Also, further encourage the cat to paw at the post by dangling a toy there. Once a cat “marks” the post as his or her own by depositing those pheromones, it’s like you using your thumbprint to sign on to your phone. And always reward your cat with praise and treats for scratching on the post.

Finding more help with cat behavior problems

Don't let your cat be guilty of any cat behavior problems. Photography ©AnatoliYakovenk | Getty Images.

How to you help your cat overcome common cat behavior problems? Photography ©AnatoliYakovenk | Getty Images.

If you feel you’re not up to making a program for any of these cat behavior problems, never feel ashamed to call an expert, a certified cat behavior consultant (iaabc.org) or veterinary behaviorist (dacvb.org).

And remember: Any time there is a change in your cat’s behavior, contact your veterinarian sooner rather than later.

Tell us: What cat behavior problems are you dealing with / have you dealt with before? What are your tips for handling cat behavior problems?

Thumbnail: Photography ©Ztranger | Getty Images.

Steve Dale, CABC, certified animal behavior consultant, is host of several pet radio shows, appears on TV and speaks around the world. He’s author/contributor to many books, including The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management, and board member of the Winn Feline Foundation. Blog: stevedale.tv.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Catster magazine. Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

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