Misbehaving Cats Need Schooling
By Tracy Libby
Spraying urine, avoiding the cat box and clawing furniture are just a few kitty behaviors that can grate on the nerves of even the most fervent feline admirers. While these actions make perfect sense to cats, some owners are convinced their cat isn’t normal. Others go so far as to think their wayward pet is rebelling or misbehaving out of spite. Perhaps, in frustrated moments, you’ve felt that way, too. What you may not realize is that you could inadvertently be the cause of your cat’s reform-school behaviors.
If your cat’s extracurricular activities are causing it to wear out its welcome, don’t despair. Nearly all cat behaviors -- even the most exasperating ones -- are predictable and easily remedied. The key to solving problem behaviors is to see the world through the eyes of your cat, according to animal behavior consultant Pamela Johnson-Bennett, who was certified in Nashville, Tenn., and is the author of Psycho Kitty, Tips For Solving Your Cat’s Crazy Behavior (Celestial Arts). “You can’t truly correct a behavior problem until you discover the cause,” she says, adding that most unwanted behaviors are only problematic to you and not your pet.
Why Cats Do What They Do
A cat’s actions, big or small, can be grouped into two categories: behavioral and medical. According to cat expert Rolan Tripp, DVM, founder of AnimalBehavior online, behaviors related to medical issues can stem from problems such as painful urinary tract infections, diabetes or renal disease. Getting to the litter box in time can be a problem for some of these cats, and accidents outside the litter box are not uncommon. A trip to the veterinarian will rule out any health problems.
If your kitty receives a clean bill of health, it’s time to do your homework because one or more of the following behavioral issues may be the root cause:
- Stress Any seemingly harmless event, such as a neighborhood cat wandering in your yard or a new person or pet in the house, can stress a cat. “How cats cope with stress depends on the cat’s genetic makeup,” says Dr. Tripp. “If you have three cats with identical types of stress, one cat might spray urine, one might scratch furniture and one might rub its cheek on something.”
- Boredom Scratching furniture or unraveling toilet paper rolls throughout the house can be the result of an under-exercised brain. Cat trees with hiding spots, cat perches and shelves will enrich your cat’s environment. Treats or toys hidden around the house so your cat can hunt them down will provide mental and physical stimulation while you are gone. Also try providing puzzle feeders, boxes and paper bags for your cat to explore.
- Lack of training Cats are smart, but many need to be schooled in how to use a litter box or scratch appropriate objects. Cats don’t understand punishment, so positive association is the key. If a cat doesn’t get that it needs to use a cat box, and it potties on the carpet, blot the area with a paper towel. Then place both the paper towel and your cat in its litter box so your pet will make the association. To encourage your cat to scratch its post, sprinkle the scratching post with catnip, or hang fun, enticing toys or treats on the post. Reward with verbal and physical praise when your cat does as it should.
Tackling Three Common Kitty Misbehaviors
Like dogs and kids, cats are not immune to naughty behaviors. A refresher course in good feline behavior may be warranted if your cat engages in any of these three very common activities:
Many owners complain that their cats spray urine, which is also known as marking. Un-neutered males are the worst offenders, followed closely by un-spayed females in season. Any perceived threat, environmental change or stress can also cause cats to spray urine, especially if they haven’t been fixed. Since marking is a natural behavior, experts suggest these steps for redirecting your cat’s instincts:
- Have your cat examined by your veterinarian to eliminate any medical issues.
- Neuter or spay your cat, which, according to experts, will solve the problem in 90 percent of the cases when the cat is fixed before sexual maturity has been attained. That occurs at about six months of age.
- Identify and remove, if possible, the underlying stimulus that is triggering the spraying. For instance, tension among sibling cats may require that each cat be relegated to separate living spaces for a day or more, with a litter box in each area. If your cat is spraying because neighborhood cats are wandering into its yard, momentarily block the view by pulling the drapes, provided your cat doesn’t show any interest in climbing or clawing them. An alternative is to block the view at certain times with a piece of cardboard or another opaque material.
- Thoroughly clean the soiled area with an appropriate enzymatic cleaner, and when dry, temporarily cover the area to prevent the cat from returning to the scene of the crime.
- Provide your cat with a scratching post to help relieve its stress.
Scratching Doors, Walls and Furniture
Cats scratch to groom their front claws, stretch their back and shoulder muscles, relieve stress and leave visual and olfactory markers of their presence. If your cat has picked up this destructive, albeit normal, behavior, experts suggest these strategies:
- Buy or build an appropriate scratching post, which may be horizontal or vertical and can be covered in carpet, wood or sisal rope. Most cats prefer wood or sisal rope, but you may need to do a bit of experimenting to figure out which one your kitty prefers.
- Entice your cat to scratch its post by, as Johnson-Bennett suggests, putting your cat’s scent on the post. To do this, place a pair of socks on your hands and rub your cat gently around its face. Distribute those facial scents on the new scratching post by rubbing it all over with the socks.
- Play with your cat around its new post, which will stimulate interest in it and guarantee that a claw or two will find its way onto the scratching post. Once your cat gets a feel for its new scratching post, it will want to scratch it rather than your furniture.
- Cover the area you wish to protect, such as the cat’s favorite scratch spot on a sofa, with double stick tape. Cats dislike the feel of sticky tape on their paws and should learn to avoid the area.
- Place the scratching post in a central location near areas favored by your cat, such as windows or sleeping areas, since cats often stretch and scratch upon awakening. If possible, also try placing it close to the area where your cat has been scratching.
Urinating Outside the Cat Box
If your cat is relieving itself anywhere and everywhere but its litter box, experts recommend these problem-solving tips:
- Clean the box regularly That involves scooping it at least twice daily. “The No. 1 reason cats potty outside the box is that the litter box needs to be cleaned more often,” says animal behaviorist Sophia Yin, DVM, who is based in San Francisco, Calif.
- Get one litter box per feline Households should have more boxes than cats. Simple mathematics provides the solution, which, according to Dr. Yin, equates to the number of cats + 1= the number of litter boxes needed. For multiple cat households, boxes should be placed in various parts of the house, rather than lined up in a row in one location.
- Check the location It should be in a safe, easily accessible spot with minimum traffic and noise and plenty of privacy. The location, be it a quiet laundry room, basement or spare bathroom, depends on your cat. A cat that spends the majority of its time upstairs may find your bedroom carpet more convenient than trekking down two flights of stairs to the basement. Ideally, there should be a litter box on each floor of the house.
- Check the structure Cats tend to dislike litter boxes with hoods or covers. Cats also like big litter boxes. If traditional cat boxes aren’t big enough, use a plastic storage container with low sides and more room.
- Check the litter Many cats have an aversion or preference for different types of litter. Some cats like a scoopable litter as opposed to clay or pellets. Some cats find scented litter offensive. If necessary, experiment by filling three or four litter boxes with different types of litter. Your cat will let you know which one it prefers.
When All Else Fails, Seek Professional Help
If these lesson plans fail to give your cat a passing grade, don’t be embarrassed to call in the professionals. Some ingrained habits may require the skills of a Dr. Doolittle type of cat behaviorist, located through veterinarians, online and yellow page searches or word of mouth. Cat experts frequently work in conjunction with veterinarians to provide the best and most current information and therapies, which can include medications, if necessary. Before you say, “Pass the catnip,” your furry friend’s reform-school behaviors will be a thing of the past, and you and your pet will once again be purring together.
has authored six books about dogs, including Building Blocks for Performance (Alpine 2002). She exhibits Australian Shepherds in obedience and conformation, and she also shares her home with six cats.