Chatham Animal Rescue and Education, Inc.
Cat Problem Behaviors: Q & A

Here are some really good Q&A's that were sent out by Best Friends, Utah,
in May 2003 re: problem behaviors in cats.


Best Friends: http://www.bestfriends.org

  1. Question from Ann:

    We love our cat and would get rid of the plants before getting rid of her, but is there a way to keep her out of them? She attacks them in spurts, destroys them, then leaves them alone until I get them back to health and looking good, and then starts all over. She actually will climb up and sit in them, or lay in them, eat the leaves or just rip them off. I keep her litter box clean and accessible, she has a wonderful cat tree and toys and I am at a loss. At first I thought that telling her NO, and showing her the plants made a difference, because she stopped for a short time. Is there anything I can do short of clearing the house out of all green living things?

    Traci's response:

    The very first thing I would recommend is making sure that no plants in your house are poisonous. You can get a list of toxic and nontoxic plants for cats through the ASPCA's poison hotline at 888-426-4435 or http://www.aspca.org/site/PageServer?pagename=apcc. Many people don't know which plants can be toxic to cats, such as Easter Lillies. You don't want to have something that will inadvertently hurt your cat.

    A lot of cats really do enjoy playing with and eating plants. I would do what works best with most cat problems, which is to figure out how to allow the cat to do this behavior in a more appropriate way and how to make the current plants unattractive.

    Keep your cat entertained and busy. It's good you have cat toys for her to enjoy. You may want to look back at previous posts about enrichment toys and activities and make sure she is getting enough physical exercise too.

    Offer her a good alternative. You can purchase or make cat grass pots. This is basically rye, or other safe, fast growing grass that you could keep planting so the cat has fresh new grass to use. You can replant or get out the next pot as needed.

    She may also enjoy lettuce or other safe greens. She may not like these as well, but it is worth a try if she does.

    To make plants that you don't want her to eat unattractive, avoid using punishment that your cat perceives came from you for two reasons:

    1. your cat will learn to do the behavior (in this case eating plants) when you are not in the room and this is a behavior you want her never to do

    2. punishment degrades the relationship between you and your cat because it stresses the cat. Cats don't live in social groups where one cat punishes the other, so your cat may see it as you just randomly attack her unpredictably.

    It is better to establish remote punishment. This creates the perception that the plant "gets" the cat or that location is bad rather than you. There is a brand new product by Premier called "Scat". If cats get close enough, it gives out a puff of air. It is a hissing sounding and startling but very humane. You could keep this near the plant or in the pot. So now the cat sees this plant as scary and the cat grass as safe and really attractive because it's on a nice comfy spot for her to enjoy.

    There are also boundary sprays you can spray in an attempt to keep the cat away from a spot, but I don't know these to be very effective. Some people do find that citrus smells repel cats. You can also try products like "bitter apple", but this only works if she is chewing the plants because it tastes bad. It won't affect her if she is sitting on them or batting them around.

    Although this is not the case with this cat, a lot of people will complain that cats use large potted plants as a litter box. For that, there is probably a reason why the cat is out and about looking for a new spot to eliminate, so it is important to review the litter box handout and make the litter box more appealing. One way to make the pot less interesting is by covering the dirt with screening, allowing the plant to come up through middle, or by placing very lightweight chicken wire just barely under the soil so you don't have to look at it but the cat won't like the feel under foot.

  2. Question from Kathleen: Is there a way to minimize or deter nipping behavior in cats? As a cat foster, I occasionally encounter cats who have a tendency to nip or put their teeth on your hand, although it rarely results in an actual bite. This obviously is not desirable behavior, and can reduce the adoptability of the cat.

    Traci's response:

    A very typical type of aggression is what we refer to as "petting related aggression", meaning that the guardian is in some way stroking or petting the cat, and the cat nips them. Sometimes this can escalate to where the skin is broken but more often it is where teeth touch the skin, but do not break it.

    I think there is an ethological reason or drive for this behavior-when cats are grooming each other, a very typical way for a cat to signal they are done and want no more grooming is to turn around and nip the other. Humans don't have the coat to protect our thinner skin.

    Another important thing to note is that cats are easily over stimulated. Unlike dogs, they don't have a lot of good signals built into their behavioral repertories to calm each other down. Cats also have a lot more "touch receptors" on their face and head than dogs, also possibly leading to easy over stimulation. They may be enjoying the petting, but then it becomes too much very quickly.

    A lot of times people will describe that they can see this coming. The cat's pupils dilate (more of the whites of their eyes may also show), people feel the cats muscles or body stiffen, or ear posture changes (like rotating back and flatten), and/or they see the cat's tail start to flash (not the soft wavy tail-more like whip). The whipping of the tail is often one of the last cues you get before a bite.

    Learn your cat's cues. Watch your cat and make a log of this behavior. Once you learn the situations and behavioral signals that precedes nipping you can stop petting when you get those first signals, and avoid the over stimulation and therefore the aggression. If you can't tell those signs, estimate how long you can pet before being nipped (i.e. 3 strokes or 5 minutes), and then have a rule where you only stroke your cat under that threshold.

    If you stroke the cat several times and they don't bite, then give them a small treat, and stop. This rewards the cat, and the more you pet the more treats they get.

    I also see some cats that will run and chase and nip owners walking down the hall, or when wiggling their feet as they sit on the couch. This is more typical of play aggression. For this, you need to focus on providing a lot of environmental enrichment and playtime. These tend to be young cats who need to be kept busy. See previous posts for ideas regarding both.

    Don't encourage this type of rough play. For example, some people put their hand on the cat's belly and rub really hard and the cat bites their hand. You don't want to play rough with them or encourage they put their mouths on you. It is too hard for a cat to learn when it is ok and when not. Many people make the mistake of starting rough play with tiny kittens then are very sorry once they have a large mature cat.

    If you have a cat that seems to be very nippy, and you are trying these things and the issue is not resolving after a month trial period, then you need to see a behaviorist to work through it and make sure you have right diagnosis and treatment plan.

  3. Question from multiple members:

    We had multiple questions about cats that are using their litter box only some of the time or are using other inappropriate areas such as laundry and clothes.

    Traci's response:

    I can't ask the questions to each person that I need in order to get the specifics of each case I'd need, but I can give some basic information that may be helpful to many. It is extremely typical when a client calls me about inappropriate elimination that their cat is using the box partially. It is very A-typical that a cat is not using the box at all.

    I always begin by asking if it is stool or urine, and how often the cat is going outside the box.

    The kinds of patterns I see often relate to the fact that there are some daily differences about the box (ex. how long has it been since you dumped it, who else has been in that box today if it is a multi-cats household, or if you are using scented litter how long the litter has been out of the bag etc). The litter box may fluctuate on a daily basis, as well as its attractiveness to the cat, making you wonder why sometimes cats use it and sometimes not.

    The typical pattern cats use to eliminate stool is to get in, dig a big hole, and spend time covering. Eliminating urine may require a smaller hole and less time in the box to cover up.

    If the cat perceives the box to be very dirty (even if you don't), all that digging is going to get their feet dirty because they will hit other stool or urine pockets as they dig, so you may see just stool outside the box. A significant number of cats show that even when boxes are cleaned up, they like to urinate in one box and eliminate stool in another. You may try two boxes to see if this is the case with your cat.

    There is a list of questions I ask clients that make me strongly suspicious there may be some problem with the litter box:

    • if people say when the problem first started their cat was going right over the edge of the box but very close to it. This tells me the cat went to the box, and said "yuck, I am not getting in".

    • if people can see or tell by the way the urine is running down that the cat is perching on the edge of the box. This says the cat knows where to go but is repulsed with actually touching the litter with his feet.

    • if a cat does not cover their elimination consistently and people see the cat spending very little time digging in the box. This tells me the cat doesn't want to get something on their feet, which could be excrement or a "new fresh scent".

    • if there is displacement digging-instead of digging to cover, cats dig on the side of the pan or on the wall. They want to complete this part of the elimination sequence but don't want to do it in the box.

    • hurrying out of the box

    If your cat is telling you, "I hate my box", you will correct the problem when you make the box appealing.

    Lastly, here is another typical scenario. For some time the litter box hasn't been ideal. Then, for instance, there is a "tipping point". Perhaps the door got shut to the basement where the box is, or pet sitter didn't show up and the box got full while you were on vacation. The cat tried eliminating on something new like laundry, a soft bath mat, or pile carpeting. Now, the cat has preference tested other surfaces and developed a substrate preference. They really like soft cushioned fabric. So, even if you keep the box clean, but are using hard clay, they may not go back. Try to figure out what type of surface the cat likes now and duplicate that in a second box (remember I mentioned earlier never try changes in the main box). The softest grain, sandy type litter you can find is often preferred by individuals who have been eliminating on soft fabric etc.

    Offer the new attractive litter, and remove the things you do not want them to eliminate on for at least 30 days. This will begin to break up the habit-pick up the rug, or laundry. It takes about 90 days to really cement a new habit, whether it is a good or bad one. You can put rugs or laundry out slowly and under close supervision to prevent an accident. Try feeding the cat treats or soft food on the surface you don't want them eliminating on so they associate something different with it-now it is the food bay instead of the toilet.

    I must stress that you can't just do one piece of this-you can't just put food out or just fix the litter box without picking up rug. You need to be holistic in your approach.. make one option good for them and the other thing unattractive, all at the same time.

  4. Question from Heather:

    We have 3 cats: Mo, an 8 year-old male Siamese mix; Percy, a 5 year-old nervous female tabby who is from the shelter; and Jane, a 3 year-old formerly-feral cat who is a hermaphrodite. We refer to the latter as a female. Apparently, from what our vet told us, there were parts belonging to both sexes in the one cat, but none of them were functional. She is our problem kitty. Besides having the usual problems a cat would exhibit having lived on her own for two years, she stalks Percy relentlessly.

    Luckily for Percy, Jane isn't very coordinated and can't jump up to high places, but this behavior has taken a toll on Percy. Jane was just hospitalized for 4 days because of a growth in her throat, during which time Percy was very relaxed, playful and happy. Upon Jane's return the stalking resumed, and Percy is quite upset. Unlike Mo, Percy will not hold her ground, and Jane has a great deal of fun charging at her, staring at her, and stalking her. She is dog-like in her obsession and manner, Can you offer any advice on how to help these two get along? Jane is charming and funny and sweet and is a real success story in many ways, but her introduction to the house a year ago has been the un-doing of Percy.

    Traci's response:

    Inter-cat aggression cases are all very different with lots of nuances. So, it is important to visit with a behaviorist to sort through of your individual details. I don't have all of the information I need to give you full, detailed advice, but I can share some general thoughts.

    Cats are generally a territorial and semi-solitary living species. They are not A-social, but are different than dogs. Dr. Shoron Crowell-Davis in Georgia is doing a lot of wonderful research about the social lives of cats living in outdoor groups. Her research is actually reshaping the way feline social structure is discussed. Typically if there is a feral group, they have specific relationships with each other and come together for mating, or raising kittens, or because they are related, but give themselves plenty of space. It seems to be difficult for cats living indoors to live in high densities. We need to be respectful of individual personalities and their combinations. There is good evidence that multi-cat households can be stressful.

    One study found that for each cat you have, the risk for having inappropriate elimination (either spraying or toileting) is exponential. So, if you have 8 cats, you have an 80% chance than somebody is not eliminating, as they should. Cats also do not seem to have a lot of signals or postures in their behavioral repertoire, like dogs, to de-escalate conflicts & help each other calm down. So if trouble starts it can get very heated quickly & stay so for some time.

    There can be several types of aggression. One is re-directed aggression where one cat gets agitated by something (like an outdoor cat) and can't get to it, so attacks the cat sitting beside him, even if they have always been friends. This can lead to fear aggression where the cat that was attacked starts hiding and behaving fearful which illicits more aggression. Fear aggression is often associated with hissing.

    There is also territorial aggression, which involves a period of stalking where a cat is actively trying to drive another cat out of the territory. Cats may growl or caterwaul during these displays.

    The protocol for treating these types of problems typically includes desensitization and counter conditioning exercises. The cats are brought together for brief periods of time, making them comfortable and relaxed by offering them a delectable treat, and doing this very slowly so that neither shows any fear or aggression.

    Felioway, which is a non-drug option that reduces stress in cats, can also be used. It comes in a plug in or pump spray. Medication can be used during the treatment plan to keep either the fearful cat from running, or inhibit the bossy cat from attacking, or both. Pharmacological intervention in these cases can be tricky, and I always try to utilize it as a last result.

    There are two resources I recommend on this subject. Dr. Karen Overall has written a book that is geared toward veterinarians, but has specific protocols that may be helpful. It is called "Clinical small animal behavioral medicine". Dr. Nicholas Dodman also has a chapter on this in his book "The Cat Who Cried for Help".

    One of the most important things to note is that the introduction of cats to each other needs to be done properly to begin with. It may be a very slow introduction period that takes up to 6 months if that is what the cats need. The cats should not be allowed to get aroused or agitated, and should be able to see or smell each other a little more every day. There is a good article written by behaviorist Dr. Suzanne Hetts called "helping cats co-exist". An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

    As mentioned in a previous post, cats will do better tolerating a higher density of cats if the environment is lush. This means having lots of food dishes, water bowls, litter boxes, etc. Since Jane cannot climb very well, it may also mean giving Percy a lot of vertical space to climb.

    Sometimes people choose to make separate territories in the house if certain cats get along really well and others don't. Often, nervous cats will be happy in a large bedroom/bathroom where they can still get social interaction, but don't get picked on by a bigger, bolder cat. This is something you will need to consider on an individual basis.

  5. Question from multiple members:

    We received multiple questions on spraying and how to stop it. Because there were so many, we didn't want to just pick one so Traci responded with a general overview that we hope would help give some ideas for everyone facing this problem.

    Traci's response:

    We need to first define spraying. It is absolutely critical when treating inappropriate elimination that you know if you have litter box/soiling problems or spraying. Even though both involve urine, they are different behaviors and have different meanings, treatment strategies, and success rates. A study by Dr. Benjamin Hart's group at UC-Davis indicates that the #1 factor for veterinarians successfully treating inappropriate elimination is whether they figured that question out.

    Spraying is a marking behavior and is typically associated with some type of stress in the cat's territory. If you saw your cat spraying, it would look like the cat is standing on all four feet, tail straight up in the air quivering, and urine would shoot out the back of the cat and hit some vertical surface, run down and puddle. It is typically less volume than a full bladder empting would produce.

    If you didn't see your cat spray, but are finding evidence, you will always find it dripping down some vertical surface, and the spot where it started would be about 8 inches off the ground.

    Some of the main reasons why I typically see cats spraying are:

    1. "I hate my roommates"(i.e. not getting along with cats in the house)

    2. outside cats are bothering inside cats

    3. "I'm sick" (ex. could be anything from urinary tract issue, to back pain/arthritis)

    4. "I'm very frustrated" (ex. the cat is on a diet & waiting for food to come, was once allowed outside and not anymore)

    It is always important to rule out medical problems first by taking your cat to a veterinarian.

    If you have multiple cats in your household, make sure you know which cat is spraying. There may be more than one. If you are not sure which cat is spraying, you can rotate cats into different parts of the house, use a video camera, or use a urine tagging protocol. Flourescine dye given in a rotation among the cats will make the offender(s) urine fluorescent. Your veterinarian can find this protocol listed in, "Readings in Companion Animal Behavior" by Dr. Voith/Borschelt.

    I have people send me maps of their homes, and mark where the cats are spraying. You can often see a pattern. If I see a pattern where spraying is by the back door or windows, and generally on the perimeter of the territory (house), then I am immediately suspicious of outside cats. If it is all over the inner parts of the territory, then I am suspicious that household cats are not getting along.

    People should NEVER punish a cat, even if the cat is caught in the act of spraying. Because this is an anxiety driven behavior, punishing will only make it worse.

    It is critical to figure out what the stressor is and remove it. For instance, the #1 reason I see clients whose cats are spraying is that outside cats are bothering inside cats. So, if you have outdoor cats you are feeding, create a place that is not as near your house. Move the shelter or feeding location clear to the back of the property & then discourage them from approaching the house. If you are not caring for them, don't make your yard an ideal territory.

    There are several products that are humane and keep strays away such as alarms that are movement activated. If the cats are coming up on your back patio to sliding glass doors, the sound alarms and will startle the cats away (ex. Scraminal, tattletale, critter getter). A product called the "Scarecrow" turns on a stream of water when movement is detected, which scares off the cats. You can also block the indoor cat's visual access to the outside by closing off an area, putting up a barrier or covering a window.

    Make sure indoor cats are getting lots of exercise. This is the best non-drug stress reliever available.

    If the cat is an intact male and you get him neutered, this will help the most in reducing spraying. However, it is not true that once they are neutered they are unable to spray. Even spayed female cats can and do spray.

    The goal is to get cats to mark in alternative ways such as scratching (even if declawed, a cat can rub the scent from the inside of their paws), and cheek marking (rubbing brow ridges and cheeks on things). Cheek marking generally marks people and things inside the territory where they are comfortable. Spraying is sending anxious messages.

    Kitty combs can be purchased to encourage cheek marking. You can also use Felioway, which is a non-invasive, non-drug option that reduces stress in cats. This is a chemical replication of the cheek marking pheromone. Cats typically won't urine spray over a place where they have cheek marked. So you can try putting this over the spot where they are spraying, or just use the new plug in option.

    It may also help to try feeding, or playing with the cats in these areas. Instead of bad things like spraying or fighting with other cats, the association is changed to yummy treats, petting, and fun.

    Lastly, even though this is not a toileting problem, a study by Dr. Hart's group found that spraying is reduced if people were told not to punish the cat, to give them treat once a day, and shown how to make an ideal litter box. I believe this helped because so many people had punished and stressed their cats out that giving treats helped associate the owner with something positive again, and reduced stress. In addition, it seems that a "bad" litter box can be a stressor for cats, therefor removing it can reduce spraying. This often will not take care of the problem completely, but is a great start.

    People also need to be sure they are cleaning up urine spray appropriately. Use an enzyme odor eliminator to break down the bacteria in urine. The best ones come from veterinarians but you can also get them from pet stores.

    There is a warning that you should not use enzymes and then put Felioway on the spot right afterwards or the enzyme will break down Felioway, so you should read the directions carefully. Never use ammonia to clean up. This may mimic the smell of urine and lure the cat back to spray there again.

    Recent studies about the use of medications have found they can help treat spraying. These are not the old drugs we were using that sedated animals and made them tired and "drugged". These are anti-depressant medications that elevate a neurotransmitter called serotonin, and should help the cat feel less anxious. The intent is to use these medications during a period of time to reduce the stress while you fix the problem, and so the animal can learn a new behavioral pattern. There are no "magic pills"; you have to use them in combination with a behavior protocol to be successful. This course of treatment generally takes 8 weeks before the cat can be weaned off the medication.

  6. Question from Laurie:

    I was hoping you could help me figure out why my 4 year old, neutered cat meows in the morning/day/night and/or evening seemingly for no reason. I know first thing in the morning it's to be fed. But he'll be sleeping and all of a sudden he's up and looking at me meowing like he's in distress.

    I check the food bowl, water dish, litter box, have a play session, trying all the options.... but if none of that works, he'll still meow. I know that's the cat's speech so of course he'll meow sometimes just to talk... could this be the reason all the time? Do I just have a chatter box? Otherwise he is a healthy cat.

    Traci's response:

    Since you don't feel there is a specific pattern, this is a cat who may need a good, thorough examination with a veterinarian. It could possibly be that the vocalizations are due to pain or a physical problem.

    If the cat is determined to be healthy, I recommend you try what I tell my clients whose animals are showing what they feel to be unpredictable behavior. Make a log and write down whenever this is happening. With my clients, if I know how often this is happening, and start a treatment strategy, I then can see if we are making progress. You can also see patterns that you might not see if you were not writing things down. This is helpful in making treatment strategies.

    Since I don't know why this cat is vocalizing, I will talk in general terms.

    • It is important to first make sure the cat's needs are being met (ideal litter box, plenty of food, fresh water). Some cats only like fresh water. I actually got my cat a dish that has constantly recycled, running water.

    • Make sure the cat has enough exercise.

    • Make sure the environment is enriched. Try hiding treats or food all over the house so your cat has to go looking for it. Keep him mentally stimulated with enrichment toys & activities.

    You may be inadvertently rewarding vocalizations because as the cat meows, you react by checking everything and giving him attention. If you know everything is taken care of such as enough food and fresh water, stop responding when he vocalizes.

    You may want to try clicker training and refer back to a previous post that gives a website for clicker training information. When you catch your cat being quiet and doing another activity, click and give a small treat. You are ignoring excessive vocalizations, and are rewarding the right behaviors.

    Dr. Nicholas Dodman's book "The Cat Who Cried for Help," has a chapter about excessive vocalization called that might find interesting. It is a great collection of case histories about feline behavior problems.

  7. Question from a member:

    We get people who want to adopt from us but want to declaw. We don't want to adopt to anyone who declaws but don't want to deny a cat a good home. What can we do to discourage people about declawing and encourage them to try other means first?

    Traci's response:

    My opinion is that declawing is such an invasive procedure, if it is utilized, it should be used as a very last resort. If I had a client who had tried everything to get a cat to scratch appropriately, yet the cat was still damaging things, and this put the cat at risk for being abandoned or euthanasia, then I would support declawing. I would then encourage people to seek out the least painful method and make sure the cats are given pain medications. It is important that all options, and there are some new advancement, are thoroughly discussed with a trusted veterinarian.

    It is unfortunate that a lot of cat owners are not educated about how to get their cats to scratch appropriately, because it is oftentimes is not that hard to do. Instead, I often see people doing declawing because the cat reached a certain age or is already under for spay/neuter surgery, even if there is no problem.

    Cats scratch to keep nails sharp and in good condition, but it is also a species- specific behavior used as a marking strategy. Cats leave a mark or give out territorial information by way of the visual mark scratching leaves, as well as leaving scent through the glands in the pads of their feet.

    We need to look at how can we get these cats to do this behavior but do it in a way that is acceptable. Give them a surface that helps them meet the goal of the scratching-that is to leave a mark. I mentioned in a previous post how to give a good scratching material that allows them to leave a mark. I like pressed cardboard or wood because of the bark. The scratching post needs to be stable because cats will not use it again if it falls on them and surprises them. Make sure it is tall enough for the cat to stretch up fully upon. Placement is important. Place in areas where the territory changes in meaning for the cat, such as where the cat goes to eat, to sleep, eliminate, or areas where the cat may be exposed to other cats like on the edge of where other cats live if you have them separated.

    If I had a cat who had a problem already, I would place a really appealing scratching post right by the inappropriate spot they are scratching because the cat already has a habit of going there for this activity. It helps to change the texture of the item I don't want them to scratch (like putting tape on it so it is slippery now, or foil, or sticky tape). The trick is to make the old thing unappealing and the new post very appealing.

    Once the cat has had about 30 days to form this new habit, you can move the scratching post slowly to a new area if you wish. Only move a couple of inches a day.

    You can also do some things to encourage your cat to scratch. Cats can be rewarded for behaviors with clicker training. A good website is Karen Pryor's site http://www.dontshootthedog.com. If you are using clicker training, and catch your cat on the right post, then click and give him a treat. You can also purchase Pavlov's cat which automatically dispenses food for scratching.

    There are other ways to encourage your cat to come to the scratching area:

    • If your cat enjoys catnip (and is not negatively affected), rub catnip on the post.

    • Take water from a tuna fish can and rub that on the post.

    If you have a cat that is doing a lot of scratching, check to see if there is some kind of stress in their territory. For instance, I had a case where a woman had grass wallpaper on her walls and the cats were shredding the walls up as high as they could reach. It turns out the wall was directly across from where stray cats would come up on her porch. The outdoor cats agitated them so they were using scratching instead of spraying to express their resistance to the territorial invasion. All cats do a level of scratching, but a high level could be a sign of stress.

    Lastly, let people know there are also alternatives to declawing like trimming cats nails, or talking to a veterinarian about using softpaws (http://www.softpaws.org).