Like humans, cats experience fear, pleasure, hunger, anxiety, frustration, and many other emotions that may affect their behavior. Several common kitty behaviors are seen as undesirable and can affect the quality of life for both owners and their pets. Fortunately, many of these 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.
You’ve finally fallen asleep when suddenly you hear your cat howling and crying at the top of its lungs outside your bedroom door. This happens all the time with cats, and this behavior may be completely normal for your kitty. After all, cats are nocturnal, like their wild relatives, so they may be more active at night while you're trying to sleep, though it may also be a sign that something's wrong.
- Howling can be a sign of senility in older cats.
- A breed like the Siamese is naturally more vocal than others and will simply meow loudly for your attention at night.
- Your cat may be bored in the middle of the 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 indoors, are also reasons for these vocalizations.
- Meowing, crying, or howling during the day could simply be attention-seeking behavior.
Cats scratch to mark their territory. If your cat is scratching objects that you prefer it wouldn't, you can redirect the behavior by providing scratching posts and other toys your kitty can dig its claws into.
Cats are not known to be the voracious chewers that dogs can be. Yet some still manage to do quite a bit of damage with their teeth. Chewing behavior in your cat may be caused by boredom, aggression, a nutritional deficiency, teething in kittens, or having been weaned too young. It might also simply be because your cat is playing or likes the texture or taste of the item.
Cats can have a variety of urinary issues. Infections, inflammation, bladder stones, stress, tumors, and other factors can cause a cat to urinate outside its box, spray, or be unable to urinate. Conflicts between cats or other pets and changes in the house (e.g., construction, family members leaving, new family members arriving) can stress cats and lead to litter box issues as well.
Cats may become aggressive toward other pets and people, and it's a major behavioral problem. The aggression can be caused by stress and anxiety or by a medical problem that causes pain or hormonal changes in a cat.
Chronic licking in cats typically stems from pain or stress and anxiety. While all cats lick themselves, excessive licking may be serious and should be addressed without delay.
A cat that's in pain may lick an area on its body until it's hairless and raw—and it isn’t always in the area that's causing pain. A stressed or anxious cat may lick its belly until it has no fur or obsessively overgroom other parts of its body.
How to Stop Behavior Problems
Some behavioral issues stem from a cat's instincts, but it's best to begin by ruling out medical problems with your vet. If you suspect your cat is ill or in pain, seek veterinary care. Discuss supplements, medications, pheromones, special diets, and other things that are designed to help older cats or curb excessive licking.
Providing your cat with something to keep it busy while you sleep may help prevent night howling. You could also provide more exercise during the day so it's less active at night.
Your cat may howl when it wants food, to go outside, or to be petted. The response you give your cat (e.g., giving in to its demand for a treat) will train it to continue to make these vocalizations to get what it wants.
Entice your cat to use a scratching post by sprinkling catnip on it and placing it in front of the items you don’t want it to scratch. Some cats like certain fabrics and materials more than others, so you might need to try scratching posts that offer various textures. If your cat doesn't like its current post, try one made with carpeting, rope, or corrugated cardboard.
Aside from scratching posts, you can use pheromones and nail caps on an ongoing basis. Nail caps are small plastic nail coverings that are glued over your cat’s nails to protect your furniture. Pheromones are available as sprays, wipes, and diffusers to help calm your cat and discourage any scratching behavior that's due to stress or anxiety.
Declawing—which is actually an amputation—is a controversial subject but is also sometimes performed to prevent cats from scratching furniture. This nonreversible surgery should be researched thoroughly and discussed with your vet.
If your cat's chewing is a concern, look to the cause for a solution:
- Make sure you're feeding your cat 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.
- If your cat is bored, provide it with safe toys to play with.
- For persistent cats that try to chew on things they shouldn’t, you can try a bitter spray as a deterrent. You can also cover small and dangerous items, like electrical cords, with plastic housing.
Litter Box Issues
If you spot your cat straining or unable to urinate, it needs immediate veterinary care. Special litter, diets, pheromones, supplements, and medications can all help with urinary behavioral problems in your cat. When medical reasons have been ruled out, then it's oftentimes a behavioral problem that needs to be addressed.
- Ensure that the litter box is never dirty because cats are fastidious about their toilets.
- Having too few litter boxes may also be an issue. The general rule is to have at least one litter box for each cat and at least one box on each floor. For example, a household 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're using or it may be too deep in the box. Try using less, switching to 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.
- Look for and try to eliminate potential stressors around the house. For instance, when an indoor cat becomes anxious upon seeing, hearing, or even sensing a cat outside, you can close the curtains.
Observe your cat for any triggers that cause it to be aggressive. If you can figure out what the trigger is and get rid of it, this is the easiest way to deal with aggressive behavior.
Quite often, your cat may have to learn to live with the trigger. Again, pheromones, supplements, medications, and special diets may help. You can also give your cat other things to focus its energy on, like exercise-inducing toys. Try other simple solutions, such as setting up dividers between food bowls and litter boxes.
Černá P, Gardiner H, Sordo L, Tørnqvist-Johnsen C, Gunn-Moore DA. Potential Causes of Increased Vocalisation in Elderly Cats with Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome as Assessed by Their Owners. Animals. 10(6):1092, 2020. doi:10.3390/ani10061092
Cats that Lick Too Much. Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University.