Preventing Behavioral Problems in Your Cat

Answer me this, purr-lease – why is it that I’ve heard human beings say “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” yet I’ve seldom heard of them actually taking such an approach when it comes to the cats in their life? Whether they’re introducing a new cat into the family and expecting everyone to get along without any problems or whether some new “situation” arises that causes their cat to have a behavioral issue, people often seem to view such problems as unforeseen and overwhelming “cat-astrophes.”

When an Ounce of Prevention Really Is Worth (Far More Than!) a Pound of Cure

Word to the wise – as independent and aloof as you might think we cats are, we really can have our fair share of issues and stressors that cause us to react/act in ways that you might find less than desirable. Sadly, as much as we felines think we are and as much as you’d like us to be, we’re not purr-fect.

The “tomcat tomfoolery” that humans seem to find so offensive can basically be broken down into two main groups – destructive behavior and aggressive behavior. It really is no laughing matter for my misbehaving feline friends though as the top five behavioral reasons cited by the NCPPSP (the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy) related to cats being relinquished to animal shelters really do fall into those two cat-egories and include:

  1. Soiling the house
  2. Problems arising between a new pet and other pets
  3. Being aggressive toward people
  4. Being destructive inside
  5. Being aggressive toward animals

As important as that information is, it really doesn’t take a genius or numerous scientific studies to figure out that the majority of our destructive behaviors are usually related to not using the litter box properly (which can also include what humans so fondly refer to as “spraying”) and scratching your furniture (OK
– sometimes it surpasses mere scratching and enters the realm of “shredding”). And no – our aggression issues aren’t merely limited to hostile encounters with other furry members of our family. Sometimes we do also lash out at the humans we own.

What then can you do to prevent such cat-ty behavioral problems from ever occurring? It’s really quite simple, but let’s break it down by issue, shall we?

Preventing Litter Box and Spraying Problems

  • Provide a litter box for every cat in your household, plus at least one additional box for those “just in case” moments.
  • Clean each litter box often – at least once per day. Admit it – you humans don’t like using a messy toilet any more than cats do!
  • Don’t put litter boxes near your cat’s eating area or in noisy, high-activity areas.
  • Put litter boxes where they give your cat some privacy, but where they can see what’s going on around them and where they have an “escape route.”
  • If your cats have access to multiple floors in your home, be certain you have litter boxes on each of those levels. Youngsters, seniors, and sick kitties will really appreciate this.
  • Be aware that cats might have different preferences for a certain style of litter box – one with a lid and/or door, one without a lid, a tall one, a wide one, one that automatically cleans itself, etc. What works for one of your cats might actually frighten another.
  • Be aware that cats might also have different litter preferences – clumping, non-clumping, scented, unscented, pellets, shredded paper, etc. This can often be a key factor for cats that are declawed (more on that sensitive subject at a later date).
  • If you switch the type of litter you’re using, do so very slowly or you might find a “present” where you really don’t want one.
  • Please don’t use harsh-smelling chemicals to clean the litter boxes. That smell might actually seem worse to us than a dirty litter box.
  • Clean and treat “accident” areas immediately – use odor-neutralizing products like an enzyme-based cleaner and avoid using ammonia-based products which can actually mimic urine odors.
  • If your cat suddenly begins to refuse to use a litter box, it’s a good idea to determine if there are any underlying medical issues causing the problem.
  • When it comes to urine “spraying” problems, prevention is definitely the best approach to take and the best preventative measure is to neuter and spay your cats. Neutering a male cat before it’s six-months-old will greatly reduce its urge to spray. And yes – not only can female cats spray, but unspayed cats in heat can often be a “trigger” for male cats to begin spraying.
  • If you think your cat is spraying due to being stressed out by other cats they see wandering outside your home, do whatever is necessary to block their view of such “territory-invading” cats.
  • Pheromone-based products can be very helpful in preventing litter box problems, as well as spraying problems. By mimicking naturally-occurring kitty compounds, they can help reduce stress levels and increase a greater sense of calmness amongst your cat “clowder.”

Preventing Destructive Scratching Problems

  • Provide “acceptable” alternative scratching areas to your cat(s). Whether a sturdy vertical post covered with sisal rope or a horizontal piece of corrugated cardboard (and yes – some cats might actually have a “directional” preference), locate “scratchable” items near your cat(s) resting area or somewhere they feel safe to use them.
  • To encourage them to use the preferred scratching surface, rub your cat(s) paws on it. Just be prepared for them to look at you like you’re an idiot!
  • Spray the preferred scratching area(s) with catnip spray to also encourage your cat(s) to use them. This will likely earn you some “brownie points” no matter what else happens!
  • Use double-sided sticky tape, aluminum foil, and/or “bitter” sprays to protect “off-limit” scratching areas.
  • Trim your cat’s nails often, whether you do it yourself or take them to a groomer/vet to have it done.
  • Consider “capping” your cat’s nails with one of the various products on the market that can be glued on to prevent destructive clawing. Be aware that such products are only temporary and will need to be re-applied.
  • Declawing (…..s-h-u-d-d-e-r…..) should only be considered as a last resort (if at all).

Preventing Aggression Towards Other Animals

  • Introduce your cat to new animals slowly, regardless of who the newcomer is. Keep them in separate areas where they can become acquainted with each others smell, either through a door or with the use of a piece of material that the other animal has laid on or that you have wiped over their coat. Introduce them visually to each other by keeping the “newbie” crated while the others can freely roam around. Only allow supervised face-to-face visits with one another when any hissing, growling, etc. behavior has ceased. Go slowly though!
  • If aggression arises between your cat and an animal that it’s been happily co-habiting with, a trip to the vet is warranted to verify that an illness isn’t the underlying trigger.
  • Again, pheromone-based products can help create and maintain a happy-cat sense of camaraderie.

Preventing Aggression Towards People

  • If your kitty starts tussling a little too hard during your play sessions together, stop playing with them immediately! An audible “Ouch!” can also go a long way towards helping them figure out what isn’t acceptable. Please – no human swatting allowed though! That might just provoke a bigger cat fight.
  • Provide your cat(s) with plenty of toys to prevent them from getting bored and inadvertently doing something like “attacking” your feet as you tap them while working on the computer. Truth be told though, tapping toes can actually be hard to resist for the best of cats!
  • If you don’t like us giving you “love bites,” then please don’t tease us (like “playfully” pulling our tail or tickling our ear) and then get upset if we strike back inappropriately.
  • I simply can’t say this loud enough, but purr-ty please supervise young children around us! They might get a little too rough with us and the only way we might be able to defend ourselves will be in an aggressive manner. Please don’t set us (or yourselves) up for failure like that.
  • Again, if your once-happy cat suddenly begins acting aggressively towards you or other people, consider a medical exam to ensure that it’s not a physical problem causing them to lash out.

Purr-haps this is a somewhat sideline general note, but I think it’s worth mentioning. Some people like to use the element of surprise to discourage cats from exhibiting certain behaviors. They rely on squirt guns or soda cans filled with small (but noisy when shaken!) stones to distract and scare us away. While this might work for some cats, you can also frighten the be-jeepers out of other cats and create even bigger problems (or simply “relocate” where the problem is happening). Be consistent with this approach and/or be careful.

While I can’t purr-sonally guarantee that you won’t encounter any behavioral problems with your cat, I do know that your chances improve greatly if you have a prevention plan in place versus formulating a plan of attack only AFTER a problem raises its furry and often-frustrating head. Sometimes all that’s really needed to have a well-behaved cat is for you to play with us for a few minutes each day. Toss us a treat when we do things right (OK – we might not catch it or fetch it like a dog would, but we do still enjoy a tasty treat every once in a while). Put a birdfeeder outside a window we can lounge in front of and/or grow a pot of “cat grass” for us to “nom-nom” on. You get the idea. Simply give some “preventative” thought about how best to keep your cat(s) happy and stress-free and they’ll likely do their best to behave like your finest feline friend.