A naughty kitten scratching at curtains.
A naughty kitten scratching at curtains. Photography ©Ztranger | Getty Images.

3 Common Cat Behavioral Issues 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 common cat behavioral issues.
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It’s likely that the No. 1 single cause of death in cats is not cancers or kidney disease — it’s cat behavioral issues. 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 behavioral issues. 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 topcat behavioral issues. 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 behavioral issues. 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 behavioral issues. 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 behavioral issues

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 behavioral issues, 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 behavioral issues are you dealing with / have you dealt with before? What are your tips for handling cat behavioral issues?

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.

Read more about cat behavioral issues on Catster.com:

23 thoughts on “3 Common Cat Behavioral Issues and How to Fix Them”

  1. Pingback: Diabetes Type 2 What Causes Kidney Problems In Cats

  2. I adopted a six month old cat and love him dearly. One problem. He loves my husband but hates me. I feed him, scoop his box, play with him etc. and when I try to pet him he runs away from me. He is definitely not a lap cat and he hated his cat bed. I would love for him to sleep with me but he prefers tables. I cannot get this cat to give me love!!!H does purr and jump on my husband at times but with me he is annoyed and runs away. As a relatively new cat owner I am so frustrated. What do I do? He will always be my boy so he has a permanent home but I am thinking about adopting another cat. I truly wanted a lap cat but one never knows with cats. Maybe getting him a friend might help the situation?

    1. Totally ignore your cat and he will eventually be curious enough to venture over. My niece insists on picking up my cats, so they run from her everytime she enters the room. I have 3 cats and only one is a lap cat. They are all lovable but DO NOT like to be picked up.!!!

    2. Hi there Judy,

      We are sorry to hear this is happening to your cat. These articles might help your situation by providing more information on how to socialize a cat:

      How to Socialize Your Cat

      How to Socialize a Cat Who Frequently Hides

      What Exactly Does It Mean to Socialize a Kitten?

      Here is an article on how to introduce yourself to a cat:

      Cat Introduction: 8 Tips for How to Introduce Yourself to a Cat

      Here is another article you might find helpful if you decide to get another cat on how to introduce them:

      What to Know When Introducing Cats to a New Cat

  3. I adopted a two year old cat about 6wks ago, and her worst behavior is playing too hard with me. She runs up to me or sits beside me then randomly bites and scratches me quite often. Even the bites sometimes break my skin, and she’ll bite or scratch any part of me she has access to, regardless of whether that skin is bare or covered. First time she did that, she went straight for the Achilles!
    I broke her of not *just* using her litter box soon after adoption (she stopped doing that after being spayed and then a round of antibiotics), but this hasn’t stopped. She also takes random swipes at my dog, but she doesn’t treat him like a bunny-kick toy the way she treats me.

  4. I prefer using Animal Relief Formula, a flower essence blend, specifically formulated for cats in transition, under stress, or dealing with jealousy/territorial issues. Sometimes a custom flower essence blend designed for a particular cat’s emotional issue is even better. Flower essences are a gentle yet powerful substance that works on an energetic level. They help people and pets heal on an emotional level and are 100% natural and non-toxic. Synthetic, chemically produced products like Feliway don’t resonate with many cats and don’t address deep-rooted emotional issues. This product has saved a marriage or two and restored harmony to my own home and many clients of mine that have used them.

  5. I have a 2 1/2 year old male cat that loves to lick the sides and bottom of a very old footed chest. I have tried spraying this chest with commercial bitter apple, etc. sprays but that has not stopped him! Any suggestions? I don’t want him to be licking something that could hurt him.

      1. Glenda MacDonald

        My cat also licked her lower stomach until there was no fur. The vet said it is probably because she is a little overweight & cannot lick her behind properly to clean the glands which can become full of scent hormones causing the cat to feel uncomfortable. The vet emptied the glands & my cat stopped licking.

  6. I have two cats that get along well with one another, a 7 year old neutered Maine Coon and a 5 year old Tortie spayed female. For about a year now (I’v ehad her since she was 14 weeks old) my Tortie has started leaving “logs” at the foot of the stairs and wo’t go in the litter box. She now pees in my kitchen. While the locations make it fairly easy for me to get to (I have mobility issues), I have taken her to the vet to see what her issue might be since she started doing this after living with me and Duncan (the Maine coon) for about four years. I even invested in a Litter Robot, which Duncan enthusiastically uses. Phoebe won’t go near it. I have tried other boxes and put them near the foot of the stairs to tempt her. She just goes beside the box. Any other ideas?

    1. No suggestion, because I have the same problem, it is really fruistrating., if you get a response please share, she doesn’t urinate, she poops in my living room, I keep the low, large litter box in the utility room with a night light, her mother uses it fine, no problem!

  7. My cats like to shred the fabric under the sofa and the beds. They do not scratch the furniture just the fabric. When a hole starts they keep going until they make it large enough for them to crawl in and out. We have plenty of safe hiding places so I am not sure what the fascination is with the sofa and beds. It is frustrating.

    1. For the underside of your box spring, a fitted sheet used over the bottom (applied reverse from the way you would use on a mattress) works great.

      You could staple a section of bedsheet (or the fabric of your choice) to the underside of your sofa, as well.

  8. We have 4 cats–2 male and 2 female. Our house has old windows with metal screens. Although all 4 cats like to sit on the windowsills and look out the windows, the 2 females jump at the screens with their claws out. Their claws have done quite a bit of damage to the screens over the past couple of years. My husband has a roll of window screen that he bought to fix the screens but the material is plastic. If the cats can do as much damage as they have on metal, the plastic would be shredded even faster. Yesterday, the one cat did an especially large area of damage to the one screen. This particular cat has never been outside (unlike the other 3 who come and go). I honestly don’t think she would go out and not return just as the others do, but I am concerned about her possibly using the windows as entrance and exit points and getting hurt. It would also be nice to replace the screens to keep out the insects who also have found great entrances into our home. Any suggestions?

    1. There is a screen that can be bought in a roll that is very durable. I don’t remember the name exactly, pet proof ? We replaced the screen in our patio door with it and it has held up very well. We purchased it at a store that has everything from building supplies to hardware, appliances, flooring, pet supplies, groceries…..did not know if it was allowed to say a store name. Hope this helps.

  9. Pingback: A Brief Introduction To Diabetes

  10. Since a kitten he bites…out of the blue jumped on me n bites. I have lupus..this worried me. How do I stop him?

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