How to Solve Behavior Problems in Cats

Cats can have aggression problems and bite and scratch their owners
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Like humans, cats experience fear, pleasure, hunger, anxiety, and many other emotions that may affect their behavior. Some common behaviors are seen as problems and can affect the quality of life of both the owners and their cats. Fortunately, many of these undesirable behaviors can be corrected.

Why Do Cats Have Behavior Problems?

Cats tend to be mysterious, so discovering the cause of certain feline behaviors can be a challenge. To further complicate things, there's not necessarily one single reason behind a particular behavior and every cat has a distinct personality. While some of these issues are part of a cat's natural instincts, there are ways you can discourage behaviors or use them to help your cat overcome whatever issue is the cause.

Vocalization

You’ve finally fallen asleep when suddenly you hear your cat howling and crying at the top of their lungs outside your bedroom door! It happens all the time and this behavior may be completely normal for your cat. After all, cats are nocturnal so they will be more active at night when you want to sleep. However, it can also be a sign that something's wrong.

  • Howling can be a sign of senility in older cats. Discuss supplements, medications, pheromones, special diets, and other things that are designed to help older cats with your vet.
  • A breed like the Siamese is naturally more vocal than others and will simply meow loudly for your attention at night.
  • Your cat may need something to keep them busy while you sleep. You could also provide more exercise during the day so they are less active at night.
  • Daytime meows and howls could be a sign of pain. Cats that are crying while eliminating in the litter box are usually experiencing discomfort or pain while trying to urinate or defecate. Other obvious signs of pain, such as catfights or pinched tails in doors, are also reasons for these vocalizations. If you suspect your cat is in pain you should seek veterinary care immediately.
  • Meowing, crying, or howling during the day could also simply be attention seeking behavior. Your cat may want food, to go outside, or to be pet. The response you give your cat (e.g., giving in to the treat request) will train it to continue to make these vocalizations in order to get what they want.
  • If you hear changes in your cat’s voice, it could be because they have been crying for a prolonged period of time, they have had some sort of irritation to their throat (e.g., after surgery when a tube has been placed down their throat), or they are sick. Some illnesses, such as having lungworms or asthma, may also cause your cat to sound differently. If you suspect your cat is ill, seek veterinary care.
Black cat meowing
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Scratching

Cats scratch to mark their territory. If your cat is scratching things that you prefer they do not, you can redirect the need by providing scratching posts and other toys they can dig their claws into.

  • Entice your cat to use a scratching post by sprinkling catnip on it and placing it in front of the things you don’t want them to scratch.
  • Some cats like certain fabrics and materials more than others, so you might need to try scratching posts covered in various textures. If your cat doesn't like the post you initially provide, try one covered with carpeting or rope, or made from corrugated cardboard.
  • Aside from scratching posts, pheromones and nail caps can be used on an on-going basis. Nail caps are small plastic nail coverings that are glued over your cat’s nails to protect your furniture. Pheromones come in sprays, wipes, and diffusers to help calm your cat and discourage any scratching behavior that is due to stress or anxiety.
  • Declawing—which is actually an amputation—is a controversial subject but is also sometimes performed to prevent scratching furniture. This non-reversible surgery should be researched thoroughly and discussed with your vet.
Kitten named Gus playing under furniture
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Chewing

Cats are not known to be the voracious chewers that dogs can be. Yet, some will still do quite a bit of damage with their teeth. Chewing behavior in cats can be due to boredom, aggression, a nutritional deficiency, teething in kittens, or having been weaned too young. It might also simply be because they are playing or like the texture or taste of the item.

If your cat's chewing is a concern, look to the cause for a solution:

  • Make sure you are feeding a nutritionally complete food with the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) seal on the container.
  • Check with your vet to eliminate any dental concerns.
  • Explore the possibility that your cat is taking its aggression out on the object it's chewing. Products geared toward decreasing stress and anxiety, such as pheromones and supplements, may help decrease aggressive behaviors. You should also do your best to prevent your indoor cat from seeing any cats that may be outside.
  • If your cat is bored, provide them with safe toys to play with.
  • For persistent cats who try to chew on things they shouldn’t, you can try bitter sprays as a deterrent. You can also cover small and dangerous items like electrical cords with plastic housing.

Urinary Problems

Cats can have a variety of urinary issues. Infections, inflammation, stones, stress, tumors, and other factors can cause cats to urinate outside their box, spray, or be unable to urinate.

If a cat is ever straining or unable to urinate, they need immediate veterinary care. When a medical reason has been ruled out, then it is oftentimes a behavioral problem that needs to be addressed.

  • Special litter, diets, pheromones, supplements, and medications can all help with urinary behavioral problems in your cat.
  • Ensure that the litter box is never dirty because cats are fastidious about their toilets.
  • Having too few litter boxes is also an issue. The general rule is to have one more box than cats: a house with one cat should have two boxes, a two-cat house should have three, and so on.
  • Your cat may not like the type of litter you have chosen or it may be too deep in the box. Try using less, switching to an unscented litter or a different brand, or using an alternative to standard clay litters.
  • In a multi-cat household, make sure one cat cannot see another when they're using different litter boxes at the same time.
  • Conflicts between cats or other pets and changes in the house (e.g., construction, family members leaving, new family members, etc.) can stress cats and lead to litter box issues.
  • Look for and try to eliminate other potential stressors around the house. For instance, when an indoor cat becomes anxious when seeing, hearing, or even sensing a cat outside, you can close the curtains.

    Aggression

    Cats may become aggressive towards pets and people and it is a major behavioral problem. The aggression can be due to stress and anxiety or from a medical problem that causes pain or hormonal changes in a cat. It's best to begin by ruling out medical problems with your vet. After that, you can start to address aggressive behavior.

    • Observe your cat for any triggers that cause them to be aggressive. Seeing cats outside a window, not liking other pets in the household, food aggression, as well as stress and anxiety, can all cause your cat to attack another pet or even people in your home.
    • If you can get rid of the trigger, then, of course, this is the easiest way to stop the aggressive behavior.
    • Quite often, your cat has to live with the trigger. Pheromones, supplements, medications, and special diets may help. You can also give your cat other things to focus their energy on, like exercise inducing toys. Try other simple solutions like blocking your cat’s view of stressors by closing window curtains or setting up dividers between food bowls and litter boxes.

    Obsessive-Compulsive Licking

    Chronic licking behavior problems in cats typically stem from pain or stress and anxiety. While all cats will lick themselves, excessive licking is serious and should be addressed without delay.

    • Cats that are in pain tend to lick an area on their body until it is hairless and raw—and it isn’t always in the area that is painful on their body.
    • Stressed or anxious cats often lick their bellies until they have no fur or obsessively over groom other parts of their body. If your cat isn't in pain, supplements, special diets, and pheromones may help reduce stress and decrease or eliminate this licking behavior.
    Ginger cat cleaning itself
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