Normal Cat Behavior (Part 2)

The Veterinarians’ Guide to Your Cat’s Symptoms: Normal Cat Behavior

Some Inappropriate Feline Behaviors Aggression

Toward People

An owner of an aggressive cat who had bite marks up and down his legs once coined a phrase, “the abused owner.” Some cats are extremely aggressive toward people. They may attack people without seeming provocation, and have been known to knock an older person down.

There are three types of aggression displayed by cats. One kind is predatory aggression, which causes a cat to jump out from beneath a piece of furniture and attack a person’s ankles. This usually occurs with kittens who have not been left with their litters long enough to learn to inhibit their biting behavior. An owner can often avoid this kind of attack if he remembers to make a loud noise as he approaches the spot where the cat is hiding, or squirts the cat with water before she has an opportunity to attack. He should also be sure the cat has lots of opportunities for interactive play with a dangling object, rolling ball, windup mouse, or crinkled paper, for instance.

Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is really upset at something else. A strange cat outside the window, for example, may cause her to attack a person who just happens to be there.

The third kind of aggression is dominant/territorial aggression, which is similar to that in dogs. This type of aggressive cat will bite a person who pets her, but will rarely scratch a person. Dominant/aggressive cats can be treated by using the method of trying to become dominant over them.

For instance, if a cat jumps on an owner’s lap and then bites when the owner pats her three times, the owner should pat the cat once and then stand up, forcing her to jump down. A dominant/aggressive cat should not be allowed to rub her cheek or tail glands against her owner; the owner should just walk away.

Teaching a dominant/aggressive cat to do tricks will also increase an owner’s dominance over the cat. Cats can be taught to do various tricks such as sitting, climbing a ladder, jumping through a hoop, and so forth.

In general, cats can be taught better with tempting food treats (tuna fish, for example) than with praise. As a breed, Persian cats have been found to be less aggressive than other cats.

Aggression Toward Other Cats in a Household

We spoke about the problems of territorial aggression between cats in the same household under “Territorial Behavior,” above. A dominantly aggressive cat may make life miserable for another cat by preventing the use of the litter box, not allowing the other cat to eat or sleep where she wants, and so forth.

When a resident cat returns to the household after a stay at the veterinarian’s, she may be treated aggressively by a formerly friendly feline housemate. This hostility may be triggered by several factors.

First, cats are so smell oriented they recognize each other almost completely by scent. Therefore, a change in a cat’s odor makes her seem to be a stranger to her former friend, triggering an aggressive reaction.

The other contributing factor may be that if the cat returning from the veterinarian’s is the least bit under the weather due to anesthesia or whatever procedure she has undergone, the other cat will immediately seize the opportunity to attack.

Aggression also occurs frequently when a new cat is introduced to a household. Owners must realize that a resident cat, or cats, will probably not be pleased with a newcomer and should initially protect the new cat from aggression by isolating her. Isolate her in a room for a week; exchange litter pans daily (the new cat’s and the resident cat’s), and rub each cat with the same towel, especially in the cheek area. If there is no growling or other signs of aggression by either cat, it may be safe to release the new cat. Isolation is a good idea for any cat in a new house, even if she is not new to a family. This way she will be able to become used to a small space before she has the entire house, and/or the outdoors, to get used to. (Note: In Chapter 2, we speak of isolating a new cat as a means of preventing the spread of infectious or contagious disease.) The same type of redirected aggression that may occur in a cat toward a person (see above) may occur in one cat toward another.

To reintroduce righting cats, place both cats in carriers or cages at opposite ends of a room while the cats are fed. The cages should gradually be moved closer together until both cats are able to eat peacefully, side by side. At this point the nonaggressive cat can be allowed her freedom at mealtime, while the aggressive cat remains caged. Eventually, if both cats are able to eat in close proximity without growling or hissing, they can both be allowed their freedom. In severe cases, or if the aggression is triggered by fear, a tranquilizer may be prescribed by a veterinarian.

Destructive Behavior

Clawing of furniture and rugs is probably the most commonly seen destructive behavior in cats. Appropriate scratching posts, or devices, are helpful for many cats (see above in “Clawing Behavior”). Owners who are at home most of the time find that clapping their hands loudly and spraying a cat with water the moment she lays a paw on an inappropriate object will help, as long as she is then redirected to the scratching post. Kitty condos and other play/climbing furniture can also be used to redirect a cat’s clawing instinct. Even when an owner is not home all of the time, many cats will respond to scolding and spraying and learn not to claw furniture.

We mentioned vinyl claw covers, or caps, in Chapter 2. These can be used if a cat steadfastly refuses to use a scratching post and claws the furniture instead. As we discuss in Chapter 2, if a cat is a persistent, destructive clawer, a declawing operation may be the only alternative to getting rid of her. A second type of destructive behavior is chewing of nonfood items.

Most common is wool chewing or fabric chewing, especially by Oriental breeds such as Siamese. Increasing the roughage in their diets with a high-fiber prescription diet and providing a “cat garden” of safe plants may help. Cats may eat ribbon, telephone or computer cords, plastic, or wood. If they have no tooth or gum problems and diet changes do not help, drug therapy for a compulsive problem may be necessary.

Housebreaking Problems

Elimination outside the litter box is often caused by a medical problem, so the first thing an owner should do if he is having a problem with a cat eliminating in the wrong place is to have her examined by a veterinarian. The second major cause of house soiling in cats is lack of hygiene.

Most cats simply will not use a litter box that is not clean. Owners often put a litter box in the basement, where it is out of sight and cannot be smelled, and forget to clean it regularly. Most cats prefer to urinate in one place and defecate in another, so a single cat should have two litter boxes. A cat will often refuse to use a litter box that has been soiled by another cat. If there is more than one cat in a household, the rule of thumb is to have one more litter box than the number of cats. In multicat households, house soiling can also have a social cause.

That is, one cat may frighten another whenever she approaches the litter box. A timid cat may also be frightened away by a loud noise such as a washing machine, or other distraction that occurs just as she’s about to use the litter pan. Cats will sometimes urinate directly into a bathtub or shower drain.

Behaviorists speculate this may be because they always dig a hole before urinating, and a drain is a nice hole already dug for them. This behavior can also signify a medical problem; the coolness of the porcelain may feel good to a cat that is not feeling well. One way to discourage urinating in a sink or tub is to leave an inch or two of water in the tub all of the time. But remember, a cat may then find an equally unacceptable alternative!

Some cats also have location preferences and will not use a litter pan that is in the “wrong” place. An owner must turn into a detective in this case and experiment with different locations for the pan.

Covered litter pans are preferred by a small number of cats, but most cats like to be able to see in at least three directions while using a litter pan because they feel vulnerable at this time.

Preferences as to type of litter can be very strong—nine out of ten cats prefer clumping litter (fine sand that forms a clump when wet) to the plain, coarser, clay variety. Although most owners do not like this type of litter because it is messy, one of the best ways to lure a cat back to using the litter tray instead of the bathroom rug is to give her clumping litter in her pan. There are a number of mats and pads on the market today that are designed to clean a cat’s paws once she has walked in clumping litter and help prevent the fine sand from being tracked all over the house.

Longhaired cats, Himalayans and Persians in particular, are apt to develop elimination problems. Behaviorists do not know why, but there has been speculation that longhairs may not like to get litter on their furry feet. Anyone who is contemplating ownership of a longhaired cat should be aware of the fact that housebreaking problems may arise.

Urine spraying can be a big problem with all cats. Unneutered male cats (tomcats) and females in heat spray continually. One out of every ten neutered males and one out of every twenty spayed females also spray from time to time. Inappropriate spraying occurs most often in multiple-cat households. There is now a product on the market made from cheek pheromones that may help deter a cat from spraying. But, because excess spraying is usually due to some kind of social stress, appropriate drugs or a redistribution of cats frequently are used to treat the problem.

Predatory Behavior

Of course, the best way to prevent a cat from hunting is to keep her indoors all of the Some indooroutdoor cats are hunters and some are not. If a cat is a hunter, a breakaway collar (one which the cat can slip out of if she becomes caught on a branch or other object) with two bells, one on the top and one on the bottom, may help warn birds in some cases.

One bell underneath a cat’s chin often does not work because a determined cat can learn to hold the bell quiet with her chin. An owner should place bird feeders in locations where the cat can’t reach them, and also make it a point not to let a hunting cat outdoors at the time the birds are most active.

How Cats Behave When They’re Not Feeling Well

Even a cat that is very close to her owner will usually find a dark, small space to hide in when she is not feeling well. She often cannot be coaxed out to eat or drink. Behaviorists believe that this behavior is instinctive predator avoidance. That is, if a cat does not feel well and is unable to flee from a potential predator, she feels safer if she is well hidden. Thoughtful owners should leave the cat alone as much as possible. Of course, a pet cat cannot be allowed to remain hidden, without food or water or medical care, for more than twenty-four hours.

She must be gotten out of her hiding place, forcibly, if necessary, so that an owner can assess the situation and provide veterinary care.

What to Do if a Behavior Problem Develops

If a cat develops a behavior problem the first step for an owner to take is to go to the veterinarian to be sure there is no medical reason for the cat’s misbehavior. For example, a housebreaking problem could be a sign of a urinary tract disorder or hyperthyroidism; sudden aggressive behavior might be caused by toxoplasmosis or a brain tumor.

Once a medical cause for the misbehavior has been ruled out, a veterinarian may be able to prescribe medication intended to modify the behavior. Or he might suggest behavior therapy and put the owner in touch with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, or someone certified by The Animal Behavior Society, who has passed requirements to practice animal behavior modification. There are very few cat trainers available to owners for advice.

Owner Responsibilities

Cat ownership is a great deal less onerous than dog ownership. But although cats are able to spend considerable time alone at home, a potential cat owner must be sure that he provides the proper environment for a cat to thrive in.

A cat that is left alone for hours at a time should have an appropriate clawing device and also some type of play furniture and toys for exercise. She needs clean litter and fresh drinking water. If she is allowed to snack on dry food during the day, her food bowl should contain plenty of food.

Besides providing for her physical needs, a cat owner needs to give his pet loving attention and playtime when he arrives home in the evening. As we pointed out earlier, because cats are crepuscular by nature, the evening hours are particularly appropriate for playtime.