Undesirable Behavior in Cats

Should punishment be used in cats?

Punishment is the application of a stimulus that decreases the chance that a behavior will be repeated. It must coincide with the undesirable behavior, and must be unpleasant enough to deter the cat from repeating that behavior.

“…punishment the least desirable tool for changing behavior.”

Inappropriately applied punishment can cause fear, anxiety and owner avoidance, making punishment the least desirable tool for changing behavior (also see our handout on ‘Behavior Modification – Why Punishment Should be Avoided’). Keep in mind that you are punishing the behavior, not the cat. Punishment should never be considered unless the pet has the means to satisfy its nature and its needs. For example, the scratching cat should be provided with an appropriate scratching post before any attempts to punish undesirable scratching are initiated.

When is a physical reprimand acceptable?

Physical reprimands are one of the most frequently utilized and least successful forms of punishment. Hitting a cat can lead to hand-shyness, fear of the owner, and potential injury for both the owner and the cat. Depending on the problem, the cat will likely continue to perform the undesirable behavior in your absence since it learns that it can perform the behavior without punishment when you are out of sight. Physical punishment is generally ineffective, potentially dangerous and likely to have a negative effect between the owner and pet.

What can I do to stop my cat from engaging in rough play with me?

A light tap on the nose or top of the head has been advocated for owner directed behaviors such as play biting, hissing and swatting. However, even these mild forms of punishment can lead to retaliation, fear and an increased level of aggression in some cats, and cannot therefore be universally recommended. At the very least they tend to make the cat wary of your approach. Instead, whenever the cat begins to swat or play attack, immediately stop the play by walking away or by using some non-physical form of punishment such as a water sprayer, can of compressed air, cap gun, hand held alarm or perhaps a loud hiss. Although ideally you should just walk away from these forms of playful behavior to ensure that they are not reinforced, many cats will continue to pursue as part of the play and chase. Before any punishment is considered, the cat should be given ample opportunities for social play. Toys that can be chased, swatted, and batted should be provided (See our handouts on ‘Play and Play Toys in Cats’ and ‘Aggression in Cats – Play Predation’). Species appropriate punishment such as “hissing” or the use of a punishment devices such as a water sprayer, can of compressed air, or hand held alarm are better than using any physical techniques since they are less likely to lead to fear and retaliation. There may be times when gently shaking or lifting the cat by the scruff of the neck can be used to successfully calm, distract or restrain a cat but only to disrupt undesirable behavior and not as a punishment. Remember that giving any form of attention to a cat that is swatting, or attacking in play, might, at the other extreme be misconstrued as play, and further reinforce the behavior.

How can I discourage my cat from other behaviors?

“The key to successfully stopping undesirable behavior is to associate an unpleasant consequence with the undesirable behavior.”

The key to successfully stopping undesirable behavior is to associate an unpleasant consequence with the undesirable behavior. However, unless the owner remains out of sight while administering punishment the cat may learn to cease the behavior only when you are present. Punishing the cat remotely, while you remain out of sight, is an effective means of deterring undesirable behavior. However, it takes preparation, time and forethought. Another effective means of punishment is to booby-trap an area, so that the cat learns to “stay away”. Keep in mind that the cat must also have appropriate outlets for play, exercise, scratching, climbing, jumping and chasing.

How does remote punishment work?

For remote techniques to be successful there are two key elements. First, you must monitor the cat while out of sight so that you know when the problem begins. The second element is that the punishment must be delivered while the inappropriate behavior is occurring (and while you remain out of sight).

Keep a close watch on the problem area while hidden around a corner, in a nearby closet, or behind a piece of furniture. Or, monitor your cat using an intercom, a motion detector or even just a set of bells that might “jingle” when disturbed.

As soon as the cat enters the area or begins to perform the undesirable behavior (climb, scratch), use a long-range water pistol, noise device or remote control device (see below) to chase the cat away.

If the cat cannot determine where the noise or water is coming from, it should quickly learn to stay away from the area whether the owner is present or not.

A commercial remote device is the citronella spray collar. It can be attached to a harness on the cat or just placed in the area and activated remotely as the cat enters the area. Another option is to set up a remote control switch near the problem area and have a device such as a water pik, alarm, or hair dryer plugged in.

When the owner is not around to supervise and monitor, booby-trap devices can be utilized or the cat should be confined to an area of the home that has been cat-proofed and supplied with a litter box, bedding area, toys for play and areas for scratching or climbing.

How can I booby-trap the environment to punish the pet?

Punishing the behavior remotely, with you out of sight, is impractical if the cat cannot be prevented from performing the undesirable behavior when you are not there to supervise and monitor. Booby-traps are a way of teaching the pet to avoid the area or the behavior itself. One of the simplest ways to discourage a cat from entering an area where an undesirable behavior is likely to be performed (scratching, eliminating) is to make the area less appealing (or downright unpleasant) for scratching or eliminating. If the cat is scratching furniture, a large piece of material draped over the furniture may do the trick, since the cat won’t be able to get its claws into the loose fabric. A small pyramid of empty tin cans or plastic containers could also be balanced on the arm of a chair so that it topples onto the cat when scratching begins. A piece of plastic carpet runner with the “nubs” facing up can be placed over a scratched piece of furniture to reduce its appeal; a few strips of double-sided sticky tape would send most cats looking for another place to scratch (hopefully to the scratching post!). Mousetrap trainers, shock mats, or motion detector alarms are also very effective at keeping cats away from problem areas. There are devices that are triggered by motion that will spray the cat with compressed air and startle them so they leave the area (See our handout on ‘Scratching Behavior in Cats’). For outdoor use, there are motion detector sprinklers, a motion activated compressed air spray, and a variety of sonic and ultrasonic motion detectors (See ‘Behavior Management Products’ handout for more details).

“To be effective, the first exposure to a product must be as repulsive as is humanely possible, so that the cat is immediately repelled whenever it smells or tastes that product again.”

Most of these same booby traps would also be effective for destructive behaviors such as chewing and sucking. Taste deterrents might also be helpful, provided they are unpleasant enough to deter the behavior. Products such as bitter apple, bitter lime or Tabasco sauce are often recommended, but many cats quickly learn to accept the taste. A little water mixed with cayenne pepper, oil of eucalyptus, any non-toxic mentholated product, or one of the commercial anti-chew sprays often work. To be effective, the first exposure to a product must be as repulsive as is humanely possible, so that the cat is immediately repelled whenever it smells or tastes that product again. Therefore a spray of the bitter spray into the cat’s mouth might be most effective to reduce the chances of the cat returning to the area. Never leave any objects or areas untreated until the cat learns to leave the object or area alone.

Perhaps most important, punishment whether interactive or remote should never be a substitute for good supervision and the opportunity to engage in the proper behavior. This is very important with kittens that are learning what is acceptable in a new home. Prevention, by confining the cat to a cat-proofed area with toys, scratching post, litter and water, is often the best solution when the owners are not available to supervise.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, Diplomate ACVB

© Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Scratching Behavior in Cats

Why do cats scratch?

Scratching is a normal feline behavior. Although scratching does serve to shorten and condition the claws, other important reasons why cats scratch are to mark their territory (both visibly and with the scent of the foot pads) and to stretch. Some cats may increase their territorial marking (e.g. scratching, urine marking) in situations of anxiety or conflict. Cats may also threaten or play with a swipe of their paws.

“Scratching does serve to shorten and condition the claws…”

For cats that live primarily outdoors, scratching is seldom a problem for the owners. Scratching is usually directed at prominent objects such as tree trunks or fence posts. Play swatting with other cats seldom leads to injuries because cats have a fairly thick skin and coat for protection. When play does get a little rough, most cats are pretty good at sorting things out between themselves. Occasionally, rough play or territorial fighting does lead to injuries or abscesses that would require veterinary attention.

Cats that live primarily or exclusively indoors may run into disfavor with their owners when they begin to scratch furniture, walls, or doors, or when they use their claws to climb up, or hang from the drapes. Claws can also cause injuries to people when the cats are overly playful or don’t like a particular type of handling or restraint. With a good understanding of cat behavior and a little bit of effort, it should be possible to prevent or avoid most clawing problems, even for those cats that live exclusively indoors.

How can I stop my cat from scratching?

It is impractical and unfair to expect cats to stop scratching entirely. Cats that go outside may be content to do all their scratching outdoors, but the urge may still arise when the cat comes back indoors. Cats that spend most of their time indoors will need outlets for their scratching and marking behaviors. If you don’t provide appropriate outlets for your cat, don’t be surprised if you come home to find objects strewn all over the floor, scratches on your furniture, and your cat playfully climbing or dangling from your drapes. While it may not be possible to stop a cat from scratching, it should be possible to direct the scratching, climbing and play to appropriate areas indoors. Building or designing a user friendly scratching post, providing a regular daily routine of social play, object play and exercise, and keeping the cat away from potential problem areas will usually be adequate to deal with most scratching problems. Further details on providing an enriched indoor environment and encouraging appropriate play are discussed in separate handouts.

How do I design a scratching area for my cat?

Since cats use their scratching posts for marking and stretching as well as sharpening their claws, posts should be set up in prominent areas, with at least one close to the cat’s sleeping quarters. The post should be tall enough for the cat to scratch while standing on hind legs with the forelegs extended, and sturdy enough so that it does not topple when scratched. Some cats prefer a scratching post with a corner so that two sides can be scratched at once while other cats may prefer a horizontal scratching post. Special consideration should be given to the surface texture of the post. Commercial posts are often covered with tightly woven material for durability, but many cats prefer a loosely woven material where the claws can hook and tear during scratching. Remember that scratching is also a marking behavior and cats want to leave a visual mark.

“Be certain to use a material that appeals to your cat.”

Carpet may be an acceptable covering but it should be combed first to make certain that there are no tight loops. Some cats prefer sisal, a piece of material from an old chair, or even bare wood for scratching. Be certain to use a material that appeals to your cat. If the cat has consistently scratched a piece of funiture that is now going to be replaced, salvaging some of the material and covering a scratching post with that material may help attract the cat to the scratching post.

Another alternative is a food-dispensing cat-scratching device called “Pavlov’s Cat”.

How can I get my cat to use its post?

Placement is important when trying to entice your cat to use a scratching post. Because scratching is also a marking behavior, most cats prefer to use a post that is placed in a prominent location. It may be necessary to place the post in the center of a room or near furniture that the cat was trying to scratch until the cat reliably uses it and then move it to a less obtrusive location.

Even after you move it, the post may need to remain in the room where the cat spends a great deal of time and wishes to leave its “message”. A good way to get the cat to approach and use the post is to turn the scratching area into an interesting and desirable play center. Perches to climb on, space to climb into, and toys mounted on ropes or springs are highly appealing to most cats. Placing a few play toys, cardboard boxes, catnip treats, or even the food bowl in the area should help to keep the cat occupied. Sometimes rubbing the post with tuna oil will increase its attractiveness. Food rewards can also be given if the owner observes the cat scratching at its post. Products have been designed to reward the cat automatically by dispensing food rewards each time the cat scratches. It may also be helpful to take the cat to the post, gently rub its paws along the post in a scratching motion, and give it a food reward. This technique should not be attempted, however, if it causes any fear or anxiety. For some cats, multiple posts in several locations will be necessary.

What can I do if the cat continues to scratch my furniture?

Despite the best of plans and the finest of scratching posts, some cats may continue to scratch or climb in inappropriate areas. In these cases, the first step is to determine whether the scratching is excessive and whether anxiety is a factor. Scratching of new areas and sites may be related to anxiety and marking behavior. Sometimes, the scratching problem is related to a change in the household such as the introduction of a new cat, moving or a change in the family’s schedule. Other signs of anxiety such as a change in appetite, a change in social behavior (e.g. more aggressive or more withdrawn), or the onset of urine marking may also occur. When, where and how often the cat scratches might be a clue as to the possible cause. If the cat is not satisfied to scratch in one or two selected areas, then look at the environmental and household factors that might lead to anxiety. If the cat scratches new objects or furniture in the home, this might be a marking behavior. Cats that scratch in a particular room or on a particular person’s possessions may have a relationship problem that might need to be resolved. Providing the cat with a more enriched daily routine, including multiple feeding sessions, additional opportunities for social / predatory play, and new objects to manipulate and explore, may help to better settle the cat at times when it might otherwise be scratching. In addition to determining the cause and trying to resolve the underlying anxiety, the feline facial pheromone FeliwayTM may be useful to reduce marking when sprayed on the inappropriate locations (but should not be used to deter normal marking of preferred scratching sites).

If the scratching is not anxiety related, but the targets of scratching are undesirable for the owner, a little time, effort, and ingenuity might be necessary. The first thing to consider is partial confinement or “cat-proofing” your home when you are not around to supervise. If the problem occurs in a few rooms, consider making them out of bounds by closing off a few doors or by using child-proofing techniques such as child locks or barricades. The cat may even have to be kept in a single room that has been effectively cat proofed whenever the owner cannot supervise. Of course the cat’s scratching post, play center, toys, and litter box should be located in this cat-proof room.

If cat-proofing is not possible or the cat continues to use one or two pieces of furniture, you might want to consider moving the furniture, or placing a scratching post directly in front of the furniture that is being scratched. Take a good look at the surfaces of the scratched furniture and ensure that the surface of the post is covered with a material similar to those for which the cat has shown a preference. Some scratching posts are even designed to be wall mounted or hung on doors. Placing additional scratching posts in strategic areas may also be helpful for some cats. Another option is to try using a feline facial scent on scratched surfaces. This may help to reduce scratching at these sites but the cat will still need alternate areas to scratch. Keeping the cat’s nails properly trimmed or using commercially available plastic nail covers are also useful techniques for some owners.

How do I punish my cat for inappropriate scratching?

All forms of physical punishment should be avoided since they can cause fear or aggression toward the owners, and at best, the cat will only learn to stop the scratching while the owner is around. Indirect, non-physical forms of punishment may be useful if the owner can remain out of sight while administering the punishment. In this way the cat may learn that scratching is unpleasant even when the owner is not present. Water rifles, ultrasonic or audible alarms, or remote controlled devices are sometimes useful.

“All forms of physical punishment should be avoided since they can cause fear or aggression…”

Generally, the best deterrents are those that train the pet not to scratch, even in the owner’s absence. If the surface or area can be made less appealing or unpleasant, the cat will likely seek out alternative areas or target for scratching, (hopefully acceptable scratching posts). The simplest approach is to cover the scratched surface with a less appealing material (plastic, a loosely draped piece of material, aluminum foil, or double-sided tape). Another effective deterrent is to booby trap problem areas so that either scratching or approaching the area is unpleasant for the cat (e.g. motion detector air spray, motion detector alarm, odor repellents or a stack of plastic cups that is set to topple when the cat scratches). (See our handout on ‘Behavior Management Products’). Of course, neither remote punishment nor booby traps will successfully deter inappropriate scratching unless the cat has an alternative scratching area that is comfortable, appealing, well located, and free of all deterrents.

My cat is using her claws to injure family members, what should I do?

The first thing you need to do is determine why the cat feels the need to use her claws. If the cat uses its claws on the owners in play or when climbing onto or jumping off of the owner’s lap, try keeping the nails trimmed, or redirecting the cat to acceptable play behavior. If the cat is anxious, fearful or frustrated, then she may be using her claws to escape. In these cases, it is important to identify and prevent situations in which the cat might use its claws. A more in-depth behavioral assessment is needed to determine why your cat is clawing at family members.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, Diplomate ACVB

© Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Cat Behavior Problems House Soiling – Synopsis

House soiling or feline inappropriate elimination, is the most common behavioral complaint of cat owners. The problem may be urine and/or stool deposited outside of the litter box, or marking behaviors. When cats urinate on vertical surfaces, it is known as spraying or marking. Usually the cat backs up to a vertical surface, raises its tail, which may quiver, treads with its back feet, and directs a stream of urine backwards (see (42) Marking and Spraying Behavior and (40) House Soiling).

The first step is to rule out medical causes. Any disease of the urinary tract that causes increased discomfort, volume or frequency of urination can cause house soiling with urine. Similarly any disease affecting the intestinal tract that causes increased discomfort, volume or frequency could lead to house soiling with stools.

Medical problems in which the pet cannot control its urine or stool (incontinence), and conditions that cause pain or stiffness so that the cat cannot comfortably enter and use the litter box should also be ruled out. Once a cat has persistently eliminated outside of the litter box for medical reasons, the cat may learn to eliminate in the wrong location. Therefore, even if the medical problem has been resolved, behavioral therapy may be needed to re-establish regular use of the box.

“Therefore, even if the medical problem has been resolved, behavioral therapy may be needed to reestablish regular use of the box.”

The first step is to rule out medical causes. Any disease of the urinary tract that causes increased discomfort, volume or frequency of urination can cause house soiling with urine. Similarly any disease affecting the intestinal tract that causes increased discomfort, volume or frequency could lead to house soiling with stools. Medical problems in which the pet cannot control its urine or stool (incontinence), and conditions that cause pain or stiffness so that the cat cannot comfortably enter and use the litter box should also be ruled out. Once a cat has persistently eliminated outside of the litter box for medical reasons, the cat may learn to eliminate in the wrong location. Therefore, even if the medical problem has been resolved, behavioral therapy may be needed to re-establish regular use of the box.

What could the problem be if it is not medical?

Diagnostic possibilities for elimination problems in cats include (a) aversions or avoidance of the litter, litter box, or location aversions and/or (b) preferences for other substrates or locations. On occasion, some cats will eliminate on horizontal surfaces when they are frustrated, stressed, or anxious. In these cases, the diagnostic and treatment suggestions in (42) Marking and Spraying Behavior should be reviewed.

How do we determine the behavioral cause?

This requires a close look at the history including information about the home environment, litter box type and litter used, litter box maintenance (cleaning) and placement, and the onset, frequency, duration and progression of problem elimination behaviors. Other factors to note include other pets in the household and how they get along, any household changes and any patterns to the elimination such as the time, days of the week, or seasonal variations. The number and placement of litter boxes is extremely important in multi-cat households. Other information required is whether the cat is using the litter box at all, and the location, types of surfaces soiled and whether it is urine, stools or both.

What can I try first?

The first step is to identify the nature of the problem. There are several steps you can take until you establish why your cat is soiling outside the box:

Start with determining if you made a change to the litter or litter area around the time the problem started and switch back to the preferred litter or site.

Make sure the litter box is scooped daily and clean the box itself regularly. The litter should also be changed often since it absorbs odors and moisture. Most cats prefer a freshly cleaned box, but some will not enter a new or recently cleaned box.

If you have more than one cat at home add additional litter boxes in additional locations. A general rule is to increase litter boxes to equal the cats’ number plus one (i.e., if you have two cats, have three litter boxes).

If your cat has a preference for one location or substrate (i.e., living room carpet) you can try blocking its access to this area or use a product to make the area less appealing.

Change the function of the area to a feeding, sleeping, or play area. You can place food and water in the area, your cat bed, or place furniture in the area. Using the feline appeasing pheromone (Feliway®) may help.

Make sure the litter box is placed in an easily accessible area throughout the day. Your cat should be able to enter the box without disturbances (i.e., furnace turning on, another cat or the dog preventing access.

Litter aversion and substrate preference

“Test your cat’s preference for different litter types by providing two or more identical boxes with different litter inside.”

Test your cat’s preference for different litter types by providing two or more identical boxes with different litter inside (e.g., clumping vs. nonclumping). Once you clearly identify which litter your cat prefers compare this type with other types. Do so several times until you establish your cat’s preference. You can also try the substrate that is found where your cat inappropriately soils (i.e., piece of carpet, towel, floor tiles, soil, or even an empty box). Once the preferred litter type has been determined, begin to alter the depth in one of the boxes. For defecation deeper litter is often preferred. If you use an odor neutralizer you can then compare one litter with the product and one without.

Box preference

Provide your cat with two or more different boxes such as covered vs. none covered box, small vs. large box, regular vs. automatic cleaning box, etc. Based on the litter and substrate test above use the favored litter in both boxes. Make sure the boxes are consistently well cleaned.

Location preference

Place several litter boxes in different locations in your house and establish your cat’s preference. You can also place a box where your cat commonly soils inappropriately. If your cat uses this box regularly, you can try to move it several inches every few days, gradually moving it to an acceptable location.

I’ve made the litter more appealing and the house-soiling areas less appealing but the cat continues to eliminate in inappropriate areas. What next?

“First determine whether the pet ever soils when someone is supervising or at home.”

First determine whether the pet ever soils when someone is supervising or at home. If not, the cat can be allowed free when someone is watching and any use of the litter can be immediately reinforced with favored treats (or even clicker training). A body harness can be used to ensure that the cat does not.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Cat Behavior Problems – Vocalization

Why does my cat persistently cry?

Most owner complaints about feline vocalization are either to do with the intensity and persistence of the vocalization, or the fact that it occurs at night or at other times when family members or neighbors are trying to sleep. Attention getting behaviors, sexual (estrus or male) behaviors, play behavior, medical problems, discomfort, and aggressive displays are the most common reasons for feline vocalization. Of course, since some cats are quite active at night, it is not surprising that many owners are concerned about their cat’s nighttime vocalization and activity. Some breeds such as the Siamese are much more likely to be vocal than others.

What can be done to prevent undesirable vocalization?

For excessive nighttime vocalization, providing a stimulating daytime routine with regular offerings of food, social play, and exploratory toys may help to program and change the schedule of the cat so that it sleeps through the night (see Nocturnal Activity). The goal is to engage the cat in desirable activities where the cat is not vocalizing such as playing with toys, working for food, and engaging in exploration, climbing, or perching (see Trimming Nails and Brushing Teeth, Enrichment for Indoor Cats, and Play and Play Toys). Rewards of all types (play, affection, treats) should only be given when your cat’s behavior is acceptable (quiet and not vocal); in fact, clicker training might be an excellent way to effectively reward quiet behaviors (see Clicker and Target Training). Never reward vocalization by providing food, attention, or play when the cat vocalizes, since it is likely to reinforce the behavior and cause it to continue. Mild outbursts of vocalization can either be ignored or interrupted with remote punishment techniques such as a water gun, compressed air, loud verbal no, or alarm device, but never with physical punishment.

How can excessive vocalization problems be treated?

Understanding the problem

The cause of the cat’s vocalization, those stimuli that are associated with the onset of the behavior as well as all factors that might be reinforcing the behavior, must be understood. For some cats, especially those that are middle aged or elderly, veterinary examination is recommended to rule out potential medical causes of vocalization such as pain, endocrine dysfunction and hypertension. Some older cats may begin to vocalize as their senses or cognitive function begins to decline (senility) (see Senior Pet Behavior Problems).

“Some older cats may begin to vocalize.”

Modify the environment

If the cat can be denied exposure to the stimuli for the vocalization (e.g., the sight or sounds of other cats), or prevented from performing the behavior (e.g., keeping the cat out of the owner’s bedroom at night), the problem can often be successfully resolved. Alternately, providing activities that will keep the cat quietly occupied through the night (timed feeders, manipulation feeding toys) might also be acceptable

Modify the behavior

The most important aspect of a correction program is to give the pet a sufficiently enriching program and enough activities to keep it occupied and content. Develop a daily routine that provides a variety of social play and object exploration activities. Focus on when and where the pet is most likely to vocalize and schedule playtime or a stimulating activity (such as a feeding toy or a paper bag to explore) before the problems arise. Then, when the vocalizing begins, determine what may be rewarding the behavior.

“Many owners inadvertently encourage the behavior by giving the cat something it values during vocalization.”

Many owners inadvertently encourage the behavior by giving the cat something it values during vocalization, perhaps in an attempt to quiet it down. Attention, affection, play, a treat, and allowing the cat access to a desirable area (outdoors, indoors) are all forms of reinforcement. Reinforcement of even a very few of the vocalization outbursts perpetuates the behavior. Although removal of reinforcement (known as extinction) ultimately reduces or eliminates excessive vocalization, the behavior may at first become more intense as the cat attempts to get the reward. This is known as an “extinction burst.”

Punishment

Physical punishment should never be utilized in cats. Not only is it ineffective at correcting most behavior problems, it can also lead to fear and anxiety of the owner, people in general or being handled and petted. Although ignoring the vocalization, so that the cat receives no reward for the behavior, is the best solution, in the long run it can be difficult to do. Punishment devices can be used to interrupt the behavior immediately and effectively. A spray of water, an ultrasonic device, an audible alarm or a quick puff of compressed air (from a computer or camera lens cleaner) is often effective at stopping the behavior, and at the same time ensuring that the cat has received no form of reward. Punishment that is not immediately effective should be discontinued. With some ingenuity, remote control devices can be used to activate punishment devices and remove the owner as the source of the punishment. In some cases, a remote citronella collar may successfully deter the behavior.

“With some ingenuity, remote control devices can be used to activate punishment devices.”

As soon as the undesirable behavior ceases, reinforce the cat and give it an activity to keep it occupied so that it does not resume the vocalization.

What can be done for cats that vocalize through the night?

For those cats that vocalize through the night, it is first necessary to try and reschedule the cat so that it stays awake and active throughout the daytime and evening. Food, play, affection and attention should be provided during the morning and evening hours, and as many activities as possible must be provided for the cat during the day (cat feeders, activity centers, or perhaps even another pet). Drug therapy may also be useful for a few nights to help get the cat to adapt to the new schedule. Older cats with sensory dysfunction and geriatric cognitive decline may begin to wake more through the night and vocalize more frequently. These cases will need to be dealt with individually depending on the cat’s physical health.

“Under no situation should the owner go to the cat if it vocalizes.”

If the cat continues to remain awake through the night, there are two options that might be considered. The first is to lock the cat out of the bedroom by either shutting the bedroom door, or confining it to a room or crate with bedding and a litter box for elimination. If the cat is ignored it may learn to sleep through the night. Alternatively, the cat may learn to keep itself occupied if there are sufficient toys, activities or another cat to play with. Under no situation should the owner go to the cat if it vocalizes (even to try and quiet it down), as this will reward the behavior. If the cat must be allowed access to the bedroom, inattention and punishment devices such as an ultrasonic alarm, compressed air, or a water sprayer, can be used to decrease or eliminate the cat’s desire to vocalize.

Will neutering help?

Some forms of vocalization are associated with communication, especially with regard to estrus cycles and mating, in adult male and female cats that are not yet neutered. Cats in estrus are particularly vocal at “calling.” Neutering should help to reduce vocalization in these cats.

‘Neutered animals still may wish to go outside and roam. If there are other cats in the neighborhood that frequent the home territory, this may encourage your cat to vocalize. Blocking visual access and providing “white noise” may help if you are unable to get the outdoor cats to leave your property.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2012 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Cat Behavior Problems – Scratching Behavior and Declawing

What is Declawing?

Declawing is the surgical removal of the toenail and the portion of bone from which it grows. In most cases, only the front paws are declawed. Depending on how the procedure is performed, it might best be referred to as an amputation of the small bone on the end of each toe. As a surgical procedure, it requires a general anesthesia and appropriate and sufficient pain management throughout the recovery procedure. It generally takes a few days to a few weeks for healing to be completed, after which time the cat can walk, climb, knead and scratch comfortably. Anecdotally, adult cats and those that are heavier may take longer to heal and adapt. Your cat may be hospitalized for several days after the surgery, and pain management medications may be dispensed for the first few days that your cat returns home. In many cases, a special, dust-free kitty litter may be recommended to prevent contamination of the surgery sites until the paws are entirely healed.

Should I get my indoor cat declawed?

Declawing is a surgical procedure that may be painful and may affect the cat’s mobility during the postoperative recovery period; it should not be considered a routine or preventive surgery. Declawing a cat merely because it will be staying indoors or because it might one day cause damage with its claws is difficult, if not impossible, to justify. To decrease the need for multiple anesthetics, declawing is often performed at the time of surgical sterilization. Many cats are spayed or neutered at approximately 6 months of age. This gives you time to teach your cat where to scratch and how to use its claws appropriately. If you add in some partial confinement or a few strategically placed booby traps, most cats can be prevented from doing damage while learning what is acceptable to you. Regular nail trimming and commercially available plastic nail caps can also be useful to minimize damage to furniture.

In some cases, scratching is a form of marking behavior that might be due to anxiety. In these cases, declawing might stop the scratching and damage, but does not address the problem. Finding out what’s wrong and resolving the anxiety might eliminate the scratching behavior.

In most cases understanding why a cat scratches and developing strategies for encouraging appropriate scratching and resolving inappropriate scratching will effectively remove any need to declaw. Note that in some jurisdictions and a number of countries declawing is considered inhumane and has been banned.

My cat is causing unacceptable damage. In this situation, is it acceptable to declaw?

Declawing is a drastic but permanent solution to most scratching problems. As mentioned already, it may be avoidable with some attention to training and prevention. However, declawing is a quick and effective means of eliminating scratching problems when other options have been exhausted. In some homes, the issue comes down to the options of removing the cat from the home or having it declawed. In one study, it was estimated that as many as 50% of cat owners who declawed their cats would not have otherwise kept their cat.

“As many as 50% of cat owners who declawed their cats would not have otherwise kept their cat.”

This might be the case where the cat continues to damage the furniture, or where the cat causes injuries to people during play or handling. Even the slightest scratch can have serious consequences when a member of the household suffers from an immunosuppressive disease or a disease such as diabetes. It might also be argued that the short-term pain and discomfort of declawing (which can be minimized with appropriate attention to pain medications) may be preferable to a life of constant confinement and excessive (and unsuccessful) attempts at punishment. Although it has been estimated that approximately 25% of cats are declawed in North America, declawing is considered immoral or even illegal in some jurisdictions and in some countries.

What is the effect of declawing on the cat?

There are many myths and anecdotal reports about the dire behavioral and surgical complications of declawing. In the past few years, a number of behaviorists, pet psychologists and epidemiologists have studied the effects of declawing on the cat, the owner, and the cat-owner relationship. At least 10 scientific studies have examined the consequences of declawing on the pet and on the pet-owner relationship. These studies show that declawing does not alter the cat’s behavior. In fact, cats may continue to scratch furniture after declawing, but cause no damage. There is no increase in behavior problems. Declawed cats are not at greater risk of getting bitten or injured in catfights. Owners of declawed cats report a higher number of good behaviors than the owners of clawed cats.

“At least 10 scientific studies have examined the consequences of declawing.”

There is some speculation about whether declawed cats might be more prone to either biting or house soiling. In a study of biting frequency and intensity, declawed cats did not bite any more often or any more seriously than a control group of nondeclawed cats.

With respect to house soiling, some cats might find it uncomfortable to use their litter for the first few days after declawing, and may develop a litter avoidance problem during this time. Close attention to litter maintenance, the use of non-adherent litters and early attention to any emerging problems are generally successful at preventing litter box aversion. House soiling problems appear to be equally common in cats that have been declawed and those that have not.

The only consistently recognized effect of declawing is a few days of post-surgical discomfort. Therefore be certain to discuss pain management options with your veterinarian prior to surgery.

When owners of declawed cats are asked to assess the effects of declawing on the cat-owner relationship, declawing always met or surpassed their expectations, and more than 70% indicated an improvement in their relationship with their cat. Declawing allows people to keep their cat and stop household damage.

What is a tendonectomy, and how does it compare to declawing?

Another surgery to reduce household damage associated with scratching is a “digital flexor tendonectomy.” In this procedure, the flexor tendon on each claw is cut so that the claw cannot be used for scratching. When compared to declawing, tendonectomy surgery resulted in less pain during the first two days post-operatively. However, after the tendonectomy you will need to regularly trim your cat’s nails, as they will continue to grow. Since the surgery alters the anatomy and prevents the claws from retracting normally, your cat may accidentally get its claws caught in the furniture. If it is difficult for you to properly maintain your cat’s nails, declawing may be the preferable option for your cat, as long as appropriate pain management is provided.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2013 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Cat Behavior Problems – Nocturnal Activity

Why does my cat seem to be most active at nights?

Some cats are active at night, or are awake and “raring to go” very early in the morning. Since many owners are out at work or school during the day, the cat may spend the daytime hours in rest and relaxation, especially if it is the only pet in the household. The cat’s day then begins when the owner arrives home to provide the cat with feeding, play and social interaction. This is also the most natural time for cats to be active since they normally are most active in hunting and exploration at dusk and dawn (this is known as crepuscular behavior). Typical complaints are cats that nibble or even attack the owner’s ears or toes in bed, walking across the sleeping owners, nighttime vocalization, or explosive, uncontrollable play sessions across the furniture and/or owners, during the night or early morning. Some owners inadvertently reward the behavior by giving the cat a little food, affection, or attention to try and calm the cat.

How can I stop my cat from keeping me up at night?

You must learn to schedule and encourage play and feeding during the daytime and evening hours, so that the cat’s schedule more closely matches that of your household. Adjusting the timing of feeding or the type of food may help to alter the cat’s sleep schedule. For example, eating a few hours earlier or later, may help to alter the cats schedule just enough that it sleeps through the night.

“Encourage play and feeding during the daytime and evening hours, so that the cat’s schedule more closely matches that of your household.”

Keeping the cat awake and active by playing, feeding and interacting with the cat throughout the afternoon and evening can resolve the problem in some cats. Since nighttime activity may be a form of social play and attention seeking behavior, the first consideration is whether the cat is getting sufficient amounts of social interaction and social play during the daytime. This may be particularly problematic for an only cat in the household and an owner who works all day. Offering several social play sessions with chase toys, as well as some reward based training exercises might help to fill the cat’s needs. In addition, the cats daytime hours can be further enriched by offering fewer but more frequent meals, perhaps providing some of the meals in foraging andplay toys, as well as providing new objects of exploration each day.Catnaps in the evening should be discouraged.

If the cat continues to disturb you during the night, confining your cat out of the bedroom, as far out of earshot as possible, and providing it with a comfortable sleeping area and litter may do the trick. Do not provide food through the night as this encourages the cat to stay awake. However, providing a litter box, a play area for climbing, scratching and perching, and a few favorite play toys may help your cat to feel more comfortable in the area. If the cat sleeps through most of the night but wakes very early for food, placing a self-feeder in the room (one timed to deliver food at 5 am) may do the “trick.”

How should I respond to my cat’s vocalization and nighttime activity?

Cats that are vocal during nighttime hours must be ignored. Going to the cat or giving attention in any way will only serve to reward the demanding behavior. Cats that scratch or bat at the bedroom door can be kept away by the use of an upside down carpet runner (one that has plastic projections that are intended to grip the carpet), an electronic pet mat or perhaps a motion detector (although it might disturb the owner). Motion-detector spray devices are also available. If the cat is overly vocal, lock it away in as sound proof an area as possible such as a washroom, or in a cat carrier in a distant bedroom. Nested corrugated cardboard boxes around the cage may act as baffles to help further reduce the noise.

“Cats that are vocal during nighttime hours must be ignored.”

What if it is necessary to have my cat sleep in the bedroom?

If you decide that your cat would do best if allowed to stay in the bedroom, you must remember that any attention whatsoever will further reinforce the behavior. React to the demanding cat with inattention. However, if the cat persists or the behavior escalates to a point where it cannot be ignored, punishment may be effective.

“Punishment is generally contraindicated in cats”

It should first be noted that punishment is generally contraindicated in cats because punishment that is too mild is likely to be ineffective and may actually serve to provide enough play or attention to reward the behavior. On the other hand, punishment that is too harsh could lead to an increase in anxiety, fear of the owner and even aggression. If punishment is to be used, devices that quickly deter the cat without the need for owner contact, such as a water sprayer, air horn, ultrasonic device, can of compressed air or a spray of citronella are usually the safest and most effective.

Is there medication that might help?

If all else fails and the cat does not sleep through the night with behavioral techniques alone, your veterinarian may be able to provide some medication to help your cat fall asleep for the first few nights. There may be natural sleep aids such as melatonin or valerian or drugs such as antihistamines and benzodiazepines that can help to induce sleep. However, some cats will develop a tolerance of these medications, and after a few nights of success, if you have not established a new routine, then the drugs may no longer be effective.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2013 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Cat Behavior Problems – Marking and Spraying Behavior

What is spraying?

Spraying is the deposition of small amounts of urine on vertical surfaces. In most cases, the spraying cat will back into the area, the tail may quiver, and with little or no crouching, will urinate. Although much less common, some cats will also mark their territory by leaving small amounts of urine, or occasionally stool, on horizontal surfaces.

Why do cats “mark” with urine?

Cats mark the locations where they live or where they visit in many ways. Cats will mark with scent glands on their feet, cheeks, face, and tail as well as with urine. Cheek rubbing (bunting) and scratching (with both the odor from the glands in the footpads and the visual mark) are both forms of marking. By depositing an odor, the cat communicates to other animals that it was there long after it has gone. Cats will mark their territory to signal “ownership” and to advertise sexual receptivity and availability. Marking can occur due to the presence of other cats in the vicinity, either outdoors or among cats that live in the same household. Cats will also mark their territory when they feel threatened or stressed. This can occur with a change in household routine, compositions, living arrangements, new living locations and other environmental and social changes. In these cases, the cat may mark new objects brought into the household or the possessions of family members, especially those with which there is the greatest source of conflict or insecurity. Because marking is a method of delineating territory, urine is often found in prominent locations or at entry and exit points to the outdoors such as doors and windows and around the periphery. When outdoors, cats tend to mark around the periphery of their property, on prominent objects on the property, on new objects (e.g., a new tree) introduced into the property, and in locations where other cats have marked.

Which cats are more likely to urine mark?

Both male and female cats can mark with urine. Urine marking is most common in intact (non-neutered) male cats. When an intact male sprays urine, it will have the characteristic “tom cat” odor that is strong and pungent. Castration or neutering will change the odor, and may reduce the cat’s motivation for spraying, but approximately 10% of neutered males and 5% of spayed females will continue to spray. While cats in multiple cat households are often involved in spraying behaviors, cats that are housed singly may spray as well.

“Neutering will decrease the odor of tomcat urine.”

I am finding small amounts of urine in multiple locations. What does that mean?

Some cats will mark their territory with small amounts of urine (and on rare occasions, stool) in various locations. These locations can be similar to those for spraying (i.e., near doors, windows, new possessions in the home or favored locations), but may occasionally be found on owner’s clothing or other favored possessions.

However, small amounts of urine deposited outside of the litter box is more commonly due to either a disease of the lower urinary tract or litter box avoidance, which could have many causes. Similarly stool found outside of the litter box can be due to a multitude of medical causes including colitis, constipation and any other condition leading to difficult, more frequent or uncomfortable elimination. As with any other elimination problem, a complete physical examination and laboratory tests are necessary to rule out each physical cause.

How do I treat a spraying or marking problem?

As with all behavior problems, the history will help determine treatment options. The location of the urine marking, the frequency, duration and number of locations are important. The number of cats both inside and outside of the home should be determined. Changes in environment, social patterns of humans and animals, and additions (people, pets, furniture, renovations) to the home should also be examined.

“The location of the urine marking, the frequency, duration, and number of locations are important.”

If the cat is not already neutered, and is not a potential breeder, castration is recommended. A urinalysis should be performed to rule out medical problems. The location of the urine spots should be determined. Is the urine found on walls, 6 to 8 inches up from the floor, or are the small urine spots found in multiple locations?

Treatment is aimed at decreasing the motivation for spraying. It has been shown that spraying may be reduced in some cases by reviewing and improving litter box hygiene. Ideally, the minimum number of litter boxes should equal the number of cats plus one, the litter should be cleaned daily and changed at least once a week, and proper odor neutralizing products should be used on any sprayed sites. In addition any factors that might be causing the cat to avoid the use of its litter should be considered.

If marking appears to be stimulated by cats outside of the home, then the best options are to find a way to deter the cats from coming onto the property or prevent the indoor cat from seeing, smelling, or hearing these cats for remote control devices and booby traps that can be used to deter outdoor cats and to keep indoor cats away from the areas where they are tempted to mark. It may be helpful to house your cat in a room away from windows and doors to the outdoors, or it may be possible to block visual access to windows. When you are home and supervising you can allow your cat limited access to these areas. It also may be necessary to keep windows closed to prevent the inside cat from smelling the cats outside, and to use odor neutralizers on any areas where the outdoor cats have eliminated or sprayed.

If the problem is due to social interactions inside the home, it may be necessary to determine which cats do not get along. Keep these cats in separate parts of the home with their own litter and sleeping areas. Reintroduction of the cats may be possible when they are properly supervised. Allowing the cats together for positive experiences such as feeding, treats and play sessions, helps them to get used to the presence of each other, at least on a limited basis. However, when numbers of cats in a home reach 7 to 10 cats, you will often have spraying and marking problems.

I’ve cleaned up the spot, but the cat keeps returning to spray. What else can I do to reduce the problem?

Because the “purpose” of spraying is to mark an area with urine odor, it is not surprising that, as the odor is cleaned up, the cat wants to refresh the area with more urine. Cleaning alone does little to reduce spraying.

“Cats that mark in one or two particular areas may cease if the function of the area is changed.”

Cats that mark in one or two particular areas may cease if the function of the area is changed. It is unlikely that cats will spray in their feeding, sleeping or scratching areas. It has also been shown that cats that mark an area with cheek glands are less likely to mark in other ways such as with urine. In fact it might be said that cats that use their cheek glands are marking in a more calm, familiar manner while those that urine mark are doing so in a more reactive, anxious manner. A commercial product containing synthetic cheek gland scent (Feliway®) has proven to be an effective way of reducing urine marking in some cats. When sprayed on areas where cats have sprayed urine or on those areas where it can be anticipated that the cat is likely to spray, it may decrease the likelihood of additional spraying in those areas. The use of feline facial pheromone may stimulate cheek gland marking (bunting), rather than urine spraying. It is available as a room diffuser that covers about 700 square feet for cats marking multiple sites or as a spray to be used directly at the area where your cat sprays. It has also been used to calm cats in new environments, including the veterinary hospital and to help familiarize the cat with a new cage or cat carrier.

Where practical, a good compromise for some cats is to allow them one or two areas for marking. This can be done by placing a shower curtain on the vertical surface, tiling the area, or by taking two plastic litter boxes and placing one inside the other to make an L-shape (with the upright surface to catch the marked urine). Another option is to place booby traps in the sprayed areas; but with this option, spraying of another area may then develop.

Are there any drugs that are available to treat this problem?

Over the years many pharmacological means have been tried to control spraying behaviors. The choices have focused on the theory that one of the underlying causes for spraying and marking behaviors is anxiety and territorial competition. For that reason, antidepressants such as clomipramine and fluoxetine have proven to be effective for controlling marking in some cats. Anti-anxiety drugs such as buspirone and benzodiazepines have also been used with varying degrees of success. Dosing, cost, and the potential for side effects will all need to be considered in selecting the most appropriate drug for your cat.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2013 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Cat Behavior Problems – Fears and Phobias

My cat seems to be afraid of people and/or other animals.

Why might that be? There are many reasons that cats can develop such fears. Your cat may have had limited exposure to people and other animals when it was young. Socialization is an important aspect of raising a kitten. Research studies have indicated that cats that are handled frequently and regularly during the first few weeks of life are generally more exploratory and more social. Without adequate, continuous and positive interactions with people, other animals, and new situations, cats may develop fears. Because the socialization period in cats begins and ends earlier (generally between 3 and 9 weeks) than it does in dogs, the early environment of the kitten is most important.

“The socialization period in cats begins and ends earlier (generally between 3 and 9 weeks) than it does in dogs.”

Cats adopted as strays or from shelters may not have had adequate early exposure to many different and novel things. Cats can also develop fears through the effect of just one unpleasant experience (“one trial learning”) that was intense or traumatic. This learning may then generalize to similar situations. For example, a bad experience with a small child could result in a cat that is fearful of all small children. Sometimes a number of unpleasant events “paired” or associated with a person or animal can lead to increasing fear. For example, if a pet is punished or if some disturbing event occurs in the presence of a particular person or other animal, it may begin to pair the stimulus (the person or other animal) with the unpleasant consequence (punishment).

Genetics and the early environment are other important contributing factors to the development of fear. There are some cats that are inherently timid and fearful. These may never become outgoing and highly sociable. Still other cats experienced poor nutrition or poor maternal care during development or while kittens, and this affected their emotional development.

Can I prevent fears from developing in my cat?

Early, frequent, and pleasant encounters with people of all ages and types can help prevent later fears. Because genetics plays a role in the development of fears, select kittens that are non fearful and sociable. Some evidence The socialization period in cats begins and ends earlier (generally between 3 and 9 weeks) than it does in dogs. has indicated the importance of the father’s role in personality; therefore, assessing and observing the kitten’s parents, in particular the father, may give some insight into the personality that a kitten may develop when it grows up.

What are the signs of fear?

When frightened, some cats may hide, try to appear smaller, pull their ears back and be immobile. Other cats may show signs of agitation or aggression, such as dilated pupils, arched back, pilo-erection (hair standing on end), and hissing.

What information do I need to identify and treat my fearful pet?

A behavioral consultation is needed for cats that are showing extreme fears and/or aggression. If the fears are mild, then owner intervention may help to prevent them from progressing. First it is necessary to identify all fearful stimuli. This is not always easy and needs to be very exact. Which person(s) or animal(s) is the cat afraid of, and where does the fearful behavior occur?

Often there are certain situations, people, and places that provoke the behavior more than others. For treatment to be most successful, it is important to be able to place the fearful stimuli along a gradient from low to high. Identify those situations, people, places and animals that are least likely, as well as most likely, to cause the fear.

Next, examine what factors may be reinforcing the behavior. Aggressive displays may be successful at getting the fearful stimulus to leave, and thus also reinforce the behavior. Any ongoing interactions that provoke fear need to be identified and removed. This could be teasing behavior, painful interactions, and punishment or overwhelming stimuli. Some owners reward the fearful behavior by reassuring their pets with vocal intonations or body contact, which leads the animal to assume that what they are doing at the time, is appropriate.

After I have identified the stimuli, what’s next?

Before a behavior modification program can begin, you must be able to control your cat. This can be accomplished with a figure eight harness and leash, or, if needed, a crate. Cats can also be trained to respond to basic commands for rewards (e.g., sit, come, give a paw). Once you are able to control your cat, teach your cat to pair a non fearful situation with food rewards. The goal of this training is to allow the cat to assume a relaxed body posture and facial expression in the presence of the stimulus.

For mild fears, cats may settle down with constant exposure (flooding) to the fearful stimuli, provided there are no consequences that aggravate the fear. For example, cats kept in a cage for a few days in a boarding facility will often get used to the situation and settle down, provided there are no events that add to the fear.

For most cats a program of counter-conditioning and desensitization will be required to acclimatize the cat to the stimuli that cause the fearful response.

Do this slowly. Start by exposing the cat to stimuli that are sufficiently mild that they do not evoke fear. Reward the cat for sitting quietly and calmly. Save all favored rewards for these retraining sessions so that the cat is highly motivated to get the reward.

“Cats can also be trained to respond to basic commands for rewards.”

The cat soon learns to expect rewards when placed in the cage and exposed to the stimulus. Gradually the stimulus intensity is increased. If the cat acts afraid during training, the stimuli are too intense and should be stopped. You must set up the cat to succeed.

Over time, the stimulus can be presented at a closer distance, or in a louder or more animated manner. The situation may then need to be changed to advance the training. For example, if your cat is fearful of a particular person, once that person can sit beside the cage while your cat eats, the person could then attempt to feed the cat favored treats through the bars of the cage. Next, the cat might eat and take rewards while out of the cage, wearing a leash and harness if necessary; it might be wise initially to increase the distance between the person and the cat, to ensure success and safety. Over time the person can move closer at feeding times, until he or she can give the cat its food. Cats that are fearful of other cats in the home might be fed in two different cages in the same room. Once the cats will eat with the cages next to each other during feeding times, you could begin by keeping one cat in the cage during feeding and allowing the other one out, and alternate at future feedings. Next, both cats could be fed while out of the cages at a distance, with one or both on halters; then progress to having the cats side-by-side at feedings. This can then advance to play sessions, catnip and treat times, and other times when the cats could “enjoy” themselves in each other’s company.

What should I do if my cat still encounters the fearful stimulus when we are not in a training exercise?

Each time the cat experiences the stimulus and reacts with a fear response, the problem is likely to be further aggravated. Also, any time the stimulus (e.g., other cat, person) threatens, retaliates or displays fear, the fearful behavior may become intensified. Each time the stimulus retreats or the cat escapes, the behavior has been reinforced. Therefore, until behavior modification has been completed, try and avoid the fear-producing stimulus, if possible. This may mean confining the cat when children visit or when the house is full of strangers.

“Until behavior modification has been completed, try to avoid the fear-producing stimulus if possible.”

Pheromone therapy in the form of a diffuser in the home or a spray on the cat’s mat or bedding (Feliway®) may help to reduce fear. Drug therapy can also be useful to reduce fears and anxieties during times when the stimulus cannot be avoided. Drug therapy can be discussed with your veterinarian.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM. © Copyright 2012 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Cat Behavior Problems – Chewing and Sucking

During exploration and play, kittens (and some adult cats) will chew on a variety of objects. Not only can this lead to damage or destruction of the owner’s possessions, but also some chewing can be dangerous to the cat. Because some forms of excessive licking, chewing, and sucking can be caused by health problems such as gastrointestinal disorders, all possible medical causes should first be ruled out (see Diagnosing a Behavior Problem – Is It Medical or Behavioral?).

What can I do to stop my cat from chewing?

The first step is to ensure that the cat has appropriate opportunities and outlets for play, scratching, climbing, chewing and exploration (see Play and Investigative Behaviors). Next, potential targets of the cat’s chewing should be kept out of reach. When this is not possible the cat may need to be confined to a cat proof room, or the problem areas may have to be boobytrapped (see Behavior Management Products and Prevention and Punishment of Undesirable Behavior). Strings, thread, electric cords, plastic bags, twist ties, pins, and needles are just a few of the objects that cats may chew or swallow, resulting in intestinal obstructions that may require surgical removal.

“The first step is to ensure that the cat has appropriate opportunities and outlets for play, scratching,climbing, chewing, and exploration.”

Another common target of feline chewing is houseplants. Ideally, keep the cat away from household plants whenever you cannot supervise your cat. When you are unable to supervise your cat, booby traps may be an effective deterrent. Placing rocks or gravel, mothballs, or a maze of wooden skewers in the soil can help to keep the cat from climbing on, digging in, or eliminating in the soil. Some cats may be interested in chewing on dog toys or biscuits. For other cats, feeding a dry cat food, especially a dental formula, or dental treats, may provide increased oral stimulation, better satisfy the need to chew, and promote slower eating. In other cats, the desire for chewing plant material may best be satisfied by providing some safe greens (e.g., lettuce, parsley) in the food, or by planting a small kitty herb garden for chewing.

What can I do if my cat sucks on wool and fabrics?

Sucking on wool or other fabrics may be seen occasionally in any cat, but is most commonly a problem of Burmese and Siamese cats, or Oriental mixed breeds. Although some cats do grow out of the problem within a few years, the problem may remain for life (see Compulsive Disorders). The first step in correction is to provide alternative objects for chewing and sucking. Some cats may be interested in one of the many chew toys or chew treats designed primarily for dogs. Feeding dry and high fiber foods or dental foods and dental treats may also be helpful. Sometimes, making food more difficult to obtain by placing large rocks in the food dish encourages the cat to “forage.” Food-dispensing toys designed for cats are also available and provide a foraging alternative. The next step is to provide the cat with plenty of play periods with the owners, or even with a playmate to keep it exercised and occupied. This may require the owner to not only schedule playtime, but also to control the cat’s toys, changing and rotating them every 1 to 3 days to stimulate usage. It is possible to teach cats to perform tricks, and some cats will respond well to training sessions with their owner. Finally, cat proofing techniques or booby traps will likely be required whenever the owner cannot supervise.

Some cats are so persistent in their desire to suck wool that more drastic measures may be required. Covering chew toys with a small amount of a product containing lanolin (such as hand cream) is occasionally helpful. In some cases, it may be necessary to leave the cat with one or two woolen objects to suck on, provided no significant amounts of wool are swallowed. If these techniques do not help, then it may be necessary to use a cat cage with perches when the cat is unsupervised to avoid continued ingestion of material.

“The same drugs used for human compulsive disorders may be useful for some of these cases.”

Some cats have such a strong and seemingly uncontrollable desire to suck that the condition has been compared to compulsive disorders in people. The same drugs used for human compulsive disorders may be useful for some of these cases. If your cat persistently sucks, chews or ingests material, a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist or an applied animal behaviorist may be necessary to control the behavior (see (38) Compulsive Disorders).

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, Diplomate ACVB

© Copyright 2013 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Cat Behavior and Training – Play and Play Toys

What should I be looking for when I am buying toys for my cat?

The toys that you choose for your cat must take into account the natural behavior of the species. Often, the simple ones are the best and ones that offer unpredictable movement, rapid movement and high-pitched sound are likely to provide your cat with hours of entertainment. Rolled-up pieces of paper work very well, provided that you are on hand to move them in an unpredictable and exciting fashion. You can add to the value of this sort of play by rolling the paper down stairs or along ledges and incorporating an element of agility into the game.

“Cats also like to be able to pick their toys up, so small items are often more attractive than larger ones.”

Cats also like to be able to pick their toys up, so small items are often more attractive than larger ones. If your cat appears disinterested in a toy it is possible to increase its incentive to play by attaching a tasty treat. You can also increase the variety of the “prey” that you offer by attaching different items onto the end of the string attached to a rod for different play sessions. Cats that initially show interest in chasing a toy may quickly lose interest. However, this may not be an indication that the play session is over, but rather that the novelty of the specific toy has worn off. In fact, for some of these cats, the play intensity might be heightened and stopping might only lead to chasing less appropriate objects such as your hands or legs. Therefore, be certain to try at least one or two additional toys before ending the session.

Should I buy catnip toys for my cat?

A number of cat toys are advertised as being impregnated with catnip and this substance can make the toys very attractive. However not all cats show a reaction and indeed as much as 50% of the cat population is not responsive to the chemical which is contained in this herb. Those that react will experience a period of mild hallucination when the chemical nepetalactone acts on their brain and will show a short-lived response of excitement that borders in some individuals on euphoria. There is no harm in this response and the chemical is not addictive, so if your cat is a responder giving access to catnip can add another dimension to his life!

My kitten loves to play a game that involves chasing my fingers as I run them across the back of the sofa or pouncing on my toes as I move them under the covers. Is it okay to play these games with her?

Chasing and pouncing are vital elements of feline predatory behavior and your kitten will spend hours engaging in these activities. When toes and fingers move rapidly across her field of vision they are seen as a suitable target and it can be very amusing to play with your kitten in this way. However, the problem is that your kitten will learn to target human flesh within a predatory context and as she grows up you may live to regret these seemingly innocent games.

“As a basic rule, it is best to only play predatory games with toys that your cat can eventually catch and ‘kill,’ such as toy mice, pieces of food on the end of string, or balls of rolled-up paper.”

As a basic rule, it is best to only play predatory games with toys that your cat can eventually catch and “kill,” such as toy mice, pieces of food on the end of string, or balls of rolled-up paper. Therefore, be certain to offer several play sessions with chase toys each day, and schedule them at times when the cat has a history of becoming most active in order to preempt other forms of undesirable chase and play. The size, texture, movement, and possibly odor of the toy can all be used to stimulate the cats interest. However, even though the cat may soon lose interest, owners should be encouraged to play with a few different toys since the novelty may quickly wear off but the cat’s interest in play may remain heightened. Interaction with human hands should be limited to the context of affection and to being stroked and petted.

I have heard about cat toys that dispense food. Are these a good idea?

These toys are often referred to as cat puzzle feeders and they can be a very useful way of increasing activity in sedentary or indoor cats as well as providing entertainment for food orientated individuals, who will work hard to get the treats out from inside the device. They are available in many pet shops and have varying sizes of holes that deliver food as the toy is batted or rolled. However, it is also easy to make your own from a plastic bottle, by making small holes along the sides that are just big enough to release pieces of dry cat food that are placed inside. As the cat knocks the bottle around the floor it will be rewarded with pieces of food and the fact that the bottle is transparent and makes a noise as it moves will help to keep the cat’s interest. It is also useful to use small soft plastic bottles, which are easy for the cat to pick up and carry around, as this appears to increase their level of attraction in feline eyes!

My neighbor has bought her cat an aerobic center. Would you recommend one of these for my indoor cat?

Over recent years there has been a trend toward the use of cat aerobic centers and these can be very good value. They incorporate the opportunity to climb, balance and scratch and many of them have small toys suspended from them, which offer the opportunity to practice predatory skills. Providing an outlet for these sorts of behavior is essential for an indoor cat such as yours, but even when a cat has access to outdoors it can benefit enormously from this sort of equipment. There are also a number of motorized cat toys and cat puzzles that might keep cats interested in the chase and predation sequence when you are not around. More information is available in (26) Enrichment for Indoor Cats.

What is a scratching post, and why is it important?

Scratching posts do provide an opportunity for play but they are also very necessary since scratching is an important behavior for cats and one that needs to have an acceptable outlet within the home. Probably the most important features of a scratching post are its height, its stability, and its surface texture. Tall posts allow cats to scratch at full stretch and the surface material needs to offer a good purchase for the claws. Wooden scratching facilities can help to transfer scratching behavior into an outdoor context. If your cat is destined for an indoor life you need to avoid future confusion by ensuring that the material on the scratch post does not resemble any of your household furnishings.

When my cat was a kitten, I played with her every day, but surely as an adult these playtimes are no longer necessary?

It is a common misconception that cats only play when they are kittens, when in fact adult cats also benefit from regular playtimes and playful interaction with their owners. As they get older, their play may alter, but the drive to chase, pounce, and kill remains throughout the cat’s life and games that allow for these behaviors are always popular.

When should I play with my cat?

The best time to play with a cat is when it appears to be naturally interested. Predatory activity will naturally occur around dawn and dusk so morning and evening playtimes are likely to be the most successful. Sessions can be varied in length depending on each individual cat’s interest but in general terms a number of short playtimes of a few different toys over 10 to 15 minutes will help maintain novelty and keep the cats attention.

What is the best way for me to play with my adult cat?

Playing with cats using remote style toys has a number of advantages especially for the more independent adult cat. If a toy is being held in the owner’s hand the cat will be aware of their presence and this can interfere with the full expression of their predatory behavior, as it does not seem “real.” The close presence of human hands can also encourage cats to “play” with moving fingers and can encourage predatory responses towards owners’ hands and ankles. The easiest way to encourage play while remaining a little distant from the cat is to use fishing rod style toys and the aim is to keep the object moving and let the cat repetitively stalk, chase and “kill” the prey. During a natural hunting sequence cats will often spend time observing the movement of potential “prey” without chasing it and while many owners interpret this as a sign that the cat is not interested in the toy the truth is that this cat has just become more efficient at waiting for the right moment to pounce.

I have given my cat lots of toys, but he only seems to play for very short periods of time and then gets bored. Is this normal?

Although cats are naturally playful creatures they are also designed for short bursts of intense physical activity interspersed with long periods of sleep. This means that short intense play sessions are the most beneficial in feline terms and owners often misinterpret the lack of staying power as a sign of boredom. In fact your cat’s play pattern is perfectly normal and you can maximize the benefit of these short playtimes by rotating the toys on a regular basis and ensuring that there is always something new and exciting to keep your cat’s interest!

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, Diplomate ACVB © Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.