Common behavioral problems seen in feline practice (Proceedings)


Aggressive cats can be a danger to other pets in the household or to the humans themselves.


Of the various behavioral issues, this may be the least common but the most worrisome to owners. Aggressive cats can be a danger to other pets in the household or to the humans themselves.

Aggression toward humans in the household can occur for a variety of reasons, and determining the reason can help to curb the behavior in the future. If the cat is intact, it can be sexual aggression. Other forms include play behavior, fear induced aggression, redirection from something else that is bothering the cat, or physical intolerance, such as occurs when cats become aggressive after being petted.

Play aggression is usually an issue with younger cats, but can occur in older cats as well. Play is a normal, healthy, and necessary behavior, and in most cases the cat needs to be taught proper boundaries for play. Cats who are play aggressive will hide and stalk their owners, might bite and scratch legs and ankles as the human is walking by, or crouch and pounce at the owner. These cats normally seem very happy – the ears are forward, the tail is active, they do not seem defensive. Cats who demonstrate these behaviors are rarely satisfied with a fuzzy mouse on the floor that doesn't move. Interactive play can help reduce the frequency or eliminate the unwanted behavior. A key to redirecting play aggression is to recognize the initial clues the cat gives that he is about to engage in the attack behavior. The cat may be crouching, stalking, or twitching the tail as the human is about to walk by. If these behaviors are seen, the cat can be redirected to a different target, such as a toy on a string, a foil ball that is thrown, or other interactive toy that keeps vulnerable human parts away from the dangerous parts of the cat. Unfortunately, there are times when the human may be caught off guard and be attacked. This is one of the few times that punishment may actually be indicated. For punishment to work for a behavioral problem, it has to be immediate (within several seconds), and consistent. Many people advocate water pistols to interrupt the cat's behavior, and that will work with some cats. Other cats, however, think that this is a really cool game, too. Air horns can be used to effectively stop the behavior, but may be too loud for some. They key for the punishment is to stop the behavior but absolutely not create a fear response.

Once the owner is aware that the behavior may occur, he or she can take steps to prevent it. Avoiding things that seem to excite the cat is key. For example, if the owner realizes that every night when she comes home the cat is waiting to pounce on her from the top of the washer, she could come in through a different door. Alternatively, she could come in prepared with toys to throw or have other interaction with the cat. Over time, this behavior can be retrained to happen not as the owner walks in the door, but at a specified time of the owner's choosing. The cat can look forward to that predictable time of play, and the unwanted aggressive behavior can be minimized. Rewarding good behavior should never be ignored.

Fear aggression is challenging, and patience is required to help ease the cat's anxieties. Fear can occur within a household in which the cat has lived peacefully for years, and it may have nothing to do with any trauma induced by the humans in the house. If the stimulus occurs while the humans are in the area with the cat, for example, a loud crash outside the house or a cat fight outside the window, the cat may associate the human who was there with the scary event. Fearful cats will lay back their ears, tuck their tails, avoid people, and will typically only become aggressive when approached and cornered. Their preferred response at this time is 'flight' not 'fight.' Correcting fear aggression requires a period of desensitization with reconditioning that the human involved is not a threat. Sharing space with the cat in a non-threatening way can illustrate to the cat that the owner is harmless. This may involve, say if the cat is hiding under the bed, sitting on the floor in the same room, quietly reading, not specifically interacting with the cat. Over time, introducing food or treats into the mix, offering the items and retreating to a place where the cat does not feel threatened but still being present. The next step may be to introduce a favorite toy on a long string, 10-15 feet, and engaging in play behavior. Gradually shortening the string as the cat becomes more comfortable will retrain the cat and re-develop the trust between the human and the cat. In extreme situations anti-anxiety meds may be tried, but with the knowledge that environmental changes also have to occur (ie, rebuilding trust), and that the act of medicating may itself be a stressful occurrence.

Redirection aggression is usually easy to recognize. Typically this behavior occurs after the cat is stimulated by another cat or other object. If one tries to interact with the cat while it is aroused, it may attack. An aroused cat should never be handled in its aggressive state. Avoidance of the stimulus is the best prevention for this type of behavior. Identifying and removing the inciting cause can eliminate this behavior altogether.

Overstimulation aggression, or intolerance of petting, is also relatively easy to diagnose and prevent. If the cat is healthy and not painful, this behavior can be a type of dominance behavior. Most cats will give warning signs, although subtle, before becoming aggressive. Typically these may be tail swishing, a low growl, or skin twitching. Signs may occur as soon as 30 seconds or as long as a few minutes into petting. Being able to identify the signs and stop petting before the cat becomes overstimulated will prevent this behavior. Unfortunately, the majority cats who exhibit this behavior will not likely become lap cats who eventually enjoy a lot of petting, regardless of how much counterconditioning is done.

Intercat aggression may occur when introducing a new cat, or can occur between cats who have previously interacted well together. When introducing a new cat, it must be done gradually, with the existing cat being allowed to take a lead role in establishing boundaries. Having areas in the house in which the cats can avoid each other if desired is key. Vertical space can eliminate many intercat behavioral issues. Making sure that there are ample feeding and elimination locations is important. Most cats will eventually at least learn to tolerate each other if provided with an enriched environment of excess.

Scratching behavior

Scratching behavior is a normal and healthy feline behavior. It is used to mark territory as well as exercise and groom the nails. It isn't always welcome, however, when the cat decides the new furniture is the best option for a scratcher.

Kittens can be conned. They can be made to believe that cardboard is the most wonderful substance in the world. Actually, they can be made to believe that just about anything is great – we just have to take the initiative to tell them what they think. As a new kitten is introduced into the house, care should be taken to provide adequate scratching opportunities. The material chosen to be scratching material should be unlike anything of value the owner has in the house. Therefore, cardboard scratchers, rope, or raw wood (a log for the fireplace) are often great choices. Not too many people have cardboard furniture in their houses. Showing the kitten the appropriate choice several times a day, as well as redirecting to the appropriate place when he attempts to scratch at something inappropriate, is key to developing non destructive scratching behavior. Rewarding good scratching behavior with treats, toys, or catnip is great. Kittens should also be trained that having their nails trimmed is not terrible. Owners should practice handling their feet, extending their claws at least several times a week. If training methods are not 100% successful, vinyl nail caps are a great option to prevent destruction of property. These are easy to apply and maintain, especially if the kitten has been trained to have his feet handled. Declawing is not recommended, and should always only be considered a last resort. Tendonectomy should never be performed under any circumstances.

Adult cats may be a bit more of a challenge, since they've already developed their scratching preferences. However, you can teach an old cat new tricks by making new, preferential scratching surfaces more appealing. Scratchers must always be big enough for the cat who will be using them. Some cats like vertical, some horizontal, some on an angle. Sprinkle with catnip, locate in areas close to where they like to scratch (remember, they are marking their territory), and have multiple options. To help deter them from scratching the new couch, double-sided sticky tape is enough to keep many cats away. Stopping the cat in the act of scratching the inappropriate area and redirecting to something that is acceptable can also help re-educate the cat as to what is allowed and what is not.

Inappropriate elimination

Inappropriate elimination, whether urine or feces, is one of the leading causes of cats being left at shelters to be euthanized or readopted. Some of these cats have medical problems that the owners have not wanted to pursue, and many of them have issues with the way the owners want them to eliminate. Determining what the cat wants can eliminate the vast majority of inappropriate eliminating issues.

As always, a cat who is presented with a complaint of inappropriate urination or defecation should always have a thorough medical workup to determine if there is pain, infection, or other physical problems. Cats who have cystitis may avoid the litter box because they associate it with pain, as will cats with constipation or colitis. Once medical issues are eliminated, the quest to determine what is going on in the cat's brain can be started.

There are several questions that must be answered in taking a full history for this problem, including but not limited to:

1. Where is the problem occurring?

2. How often?

3. Are there other pets in the house?

4. How many litterboxes? Where are they? Covered or uncovered? Scoopable or not?

5. How often are the boxes scooped? Completely cleaned?

6. Is the cat fed near the litterbox?

There are two main non-medical reasons for cats not using the litterbox: avoidance and marking.

Spite is not a reason! Ever!

Urine marking does not have to be spraying (vertical surfaces). Typically it will occur near a window or door, ie, the cat may see another animal outside and wants to mark its territory. Alternatively, it will occur on items in the house that the cat feels are important to mark, things that may have scents that change regularly. Examples may include kid's backpacks, throw rugs, laundry, or bed linens. These are things that the cat may sense as having threatening or different scents, and by marking them he is making sure that everyone knows that they are spoken for by him. Unfortunately, this is natural cat behavior, it just happens to be unacceptable in our homes. Wanting to mark everything may be a sign of a little bit of insecurity, and creating a safe area in the home that is resistant to any changes can help tremendously. It is important to clean marked areas with appropriate cleansers to remove any odor that may stimulate the cat to mark there again. Items that can be removed or put away should be moved.

As changes are made to lessen the temptation to mark, the client can also start retraining the cat to the litter box. Confinement to a small area until appropriate behaviors are reestablished can be invaluable. Most cats will do well with confinement. Starting with a small room is fine, but if the behavior persists, a cage will have to be employed to reestablish appropriate behavior.

Trying to maintain consistency in the house is also very important. Keeping normal routines and predictability will help keep the cat calm and reduce the urge to mark in response to changes. If complete consistency is impossible, confining the cat during known times of stress can provide a different sense of stability, safety, and consistency for the cat and can help prevent the unwanted urine marking.

Litterbox aversion can happen for several reasons. The box may be too small, too dirty, too closed in, too close to something scary, in a place that's too busy, too close to food, and on and on. We can't assume that owners have made litterbox decisions with the cat in mind. Usually these decisions are made for the owner's convenience. In general, there should be one more box than there are cats in the house. The box should be scooped at least daily, and completely dumped weekly. Only mild cleansers should be used to clean the box. Boxes should be uncovered. The multiple boxes should be in different locations in the house, away from noisy appliances and the cat's food. Most commercial litterboxes are too small for cats, and using nonconventional items as litterboxes can solve some elimination problems. I prefer under-the-bed storage containers, others prefer larger plastic storage containers with doors cut into them. Some cats prefer clumping litter, some clay, some topsoil, others mulch. There can be significant trial and error before determining what the best substrate is for each cat. Cats who prefer carpet or fabric may need a box with a swatch of carpet or old blanket to start, with gradual addition of litter until the cat is retrained.

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