Managing feline behavior with modifications
Animal behavior experts discuss common issues with cats and recommended treatment options
In interviews with dvm360®, Carlo Siracusa, DVM, PhD, DACVB, DECAWBM, and Lena R. Provoost, DVM, DACVB, from the Behavior Medicine Clinic at Penn Vet’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as well as Liz Bales, VMD, a cat expert on the Dean’s Alumni Council at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and on the advisory boards for dvm360®, American Association of Feline Practitioners’ Cat Friendly Practice, Vet Candy, and Fear Free, discussed common feline behavioral issues and how to manage them.
What are some common feline behavior issues?
Provoost: The 2 most common ones we see are elimination in undesirable locations, otherwise known as inappropriate elimination, and aggression directed toward both familiar and unfamiliar people. And that can manifest as stalking, chasing, pouncing, biting, [and] vocalizations like hissing and scratching.
Siracusa: [I’d say the same.] This mirrors what the literature says. Inappropriate elimination is the top concern for people and then aggression, but [feline aggression] doesn’t have the same relevance as dog aggression.
What causes these behavioral issues?
Provoost: It depends on the motivation for the behavior. When you have an inappropriate elimination case, you try to figure out whether this is a marking behavior, an elimination behavior, aka toileting behavior. Also, is it anxiety based? Or is this a normal behavior where the cat is signaling its presence by leaving its scent vs the cat feeling anxious about its environment and attempting to feel more secure and stable?
Siracusa: I would add that inappropriate elimination and aggression may seem unrelated but are not. One thing [with aggression] is that people tend to be more concerned about their cat urinating everywhere than hissing or swatting. People get very concerned if a dog is growling but not as concerned if a cat is manifesting aggression, but this aggression may actually trigger inappropriate elimination. Many cases of inappropriate elimination, in fact, are caused by some type of social conflict that does not manifest as severe aggression.
What do you recommend for correcting inappropriate elimination?
Bales: The first thing you want to do is look for a medical cause medical. That includes a chemistry, complete blood count, urinalysis by cystocentesis, urine culture, and some [form] of imaging to look for bladder stones/kidney stones. If a cat is 1 to 10 years old without another medical condition, It’s highly unlikely [to be] a urinary tract infection. Crystals don’t necessarily mean stones, and if there are crystals, you can have a crystal of one type and a stone of another. That is another challenge to deal with. If you find a medical problem, you need to treat it.
Fifty percent to 70% of the time, all [test results are] negative. If this is the case, it’s time to look at the environment you are asking your cat to live in. Cats commonly urinate outside of the litter box, and have bouts of bloody, painful urination in response to an environment that does not meet their minimum behavioral needs.
The way that humans set up their homes typically doesn’t take into consideration their cat’s behavioral needs. Trying to figure out a particular stress, which I call the last straw, and remove it is really hard. The better play is to look at the whole home environment and intentionally set it up in a way that meets you cat’s minimum behavioral needs, and it’s highly likely that the problems will disappear. Not only are you less likely to have medical and behavioral problems but also less likely to create them. Every kitten and cat should live in a house that’s set up to meet their minimum needs.
Do you have any tips [for] clients [to] be compliant with at-home treatment plans for behavior?
Provoost: We do offer a follow-up period, so we encourage clients to reach out to us if there are any questions. We give them a detailed plan but also tell them not to feel overwhelmed. Maybe take 1 point at a time and work on it for a week. Focus on trying to manage it, but realize all the things we may be implementing now are for a long-term goal in the future.
Bales: Educate. A litter box, food, and water are not enough. We need to simplify adequate cat care and help people understand what a cat needs to feel safe and how to provide that in an easy, affordable way. Help people understand how important these things are and that providing them is not only the humane thing to do, but it also prevents problems down the road.
Why wait until you have a problem? If every person who [left] the shelter with a kitten or cat understood their minimum needs, and how to meet them, the world would be a much better place for cats and their caretakers.
What is "decoding your cat?"
Siracusa: It’s the book by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists on cats. [Decoding Your Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones] was written by veterinarians, and I am a coeditor. It has the approach [of empowering cat owners] with science-based knowledge and it covers when a behavioral problem may be the manifestation of a physical problem. I think it has [a] unique perspective.
Is there anything new or exciting happening in the world of feline behavior?
Bales: I’m excited that people are talking about it. So many of us did not get this education in veterinary school. You have to work really hard, even as a veterinarian, to get this information. If the vets don’t have it, how are the average pet parents going to get it? I’m excited it’s being taken seriously as an important part of physical health is mental health for animals as well as people.