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 – 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.

Behavior Problems – Causes and Diagnosis

What makes a pet misbehave?

Behavior problems can be due to medical or behavioral causes, or both. A clinical history, physical examination, and diagnostic testing will help determine if there are underlying medical conditions contributing to the problem.

“Although there may be a single cause for a behavior problem, it is often the combined effect of the environment and learning.”

Although there may be a single cause for a behavior problem, it is often the combined effect of the environment and learning on the pet’s mental and physical health that determines behavior.

For example, the pet that is fearful of children may become more reactive, irritable, and aggressive as conditions such as dental problems, arthritis or an infection make the pet more uncomfortable, painful or less mobile. Another example is the cat that has been exposed to other cats roaming across its territory, but only begins to mark when it developed an overactive thyroid gland at 10 years of age. Correcting the thyroid problem or providing pain relief as well as behavior modification techniques can resolve some of these problems.

What are some behavioral causes of misbehavior?

Any change in the environment or the daily routine may contribute to the emergence of behavior problems. For example, schedule changes, a new member of the household (baby, spouse), moving, illness or injury of a family member, loss of a family member or another pet, or the addition of a new pet can have a dramatic impact on behavior. Medical or degenerative changes associated with aging may cause the pet to be even more sensitive to these environmental changes.

“Learning also plays a role in virtually every behavior problem.”

Learning (e.g. reinforcement, punishment) also plays a role in virtually every behavior problem. When a pet’s actions result in unpleasant consequences (e.g. punishment), the chances of repeating the behavior will decrease. Punishment might be the application of something unpleasant or the removal of something good (i.e. petting stops if you do that behavior). If a behavior is followed by pleasant consequences such as obtaining food, attention, or affection (rewards), the behavior is likely to be repeated (positive reinforcement). These consequences could be administered unintentionally by the owners, as when the owner gives a reward following a behavior, or obtained by the pet itself through its actions (as when the pet gets a favored treat when rolling around its feeding toy. Although in practice the goal would be to use rewards to encourage desirable behavior, many undesirable behaviors are encouraged because of rewards. Examples of these rewards include the owner who allows the dog into the house to stop the dog from barking or the dog that finds leftovers in the garbage.

Another very powerful form of learning is that of negative reinforcement where the pet’s behavior is reinforced because something either pleasant or undesirable has been removed. This might be the case when a dog exhibits aggression and the stimulus (person, other animal) retreats. It can be difficult to determine what might be reinforcing a behavior, but if a behavior is ongoing, then (from the pet’s perspective) reinforcement is operating to maintain the problem behavior.

What role do genetics and early experience have in the development of behavior problems?

Some of the most important causes of behavioral problems are genetic and environmental factors, and these might be most difficult to improve. Genetic factors can influence or even dictate the pet’s response to stimuli. The environment that the pet experienced during its most sensitive periods of development has a major impact on behavioral development. The most sensitive periods include a) the socialization period from 3 to 12 weeks b) prenatal and neonatal experiences and c) secondary socialization and development through to maturity. Lack of stimulation, lack of handling, lack of exposure, insufficient socialization, and particularly stressful or traumatic events during these times can have a major impact on the pet’s behavior.

What tests can be done to determine a behavioral cause?

A good history is one of the most important means of determining the cause of a behavioral problem. This involves an in depth analysis of the pet’s medical and behavioral history including any training, as well as the circumstances surrounding the problem itself. Daily interactions with the pet and any changes in schedule need to be explored.

“We cannot ask the pet how it is feeling or if anything hurts”

Often the event that precipitated the behavioral change may be different from that which maintains it. If you can catch the problem on videotape, this can be a valuable diagnostic aid for the veterinarian. Perhaps the most important element in determining the cause of the problem and what diagnostic workup might be needed will be the clinical signs that you report. Since we cannot ask the pet how it is feeling or if anything hurts, we will need to find out from you, the pet owner, all of the signs that your pet is exhibiting, both behavioral and medical. Then based on the history you provide, previous health problems, any medications that your pet might be taking and the findings of a physical examination, additional diagnostic tests might be warranted. A final diagnosis of a behavioral cause can only be made after all medical factors have been ruled out.

What medical conditions can cause or contribute to behavior problems?

A decline in the pet’s hearing, sight or other senses, organ dysfunction (e.g. liver or kidney disease), hormonal diseases, diseases affecting the nervous system, diseases of the urinary tract (infections, tumors or stones), any disease or condition that might lead to pain or discomfort, and problems that affect the pets mobility can all cause or contribute to behavior problems.

a) Any condition that leads to an increase in pain or discomfort can lead to increased irritability, increased anxiety or fear of being handled or approached, and ultimately to increased aggressiveness.

“If these aggressive displays are successful at removing the “threat” the behavior is reinforced.”

If these aggressive displays are successful at removing the “threat” (and they usually are) the behavior is reinforced. Medical conditions that affect the ears, anal sacs, teeth and gums, bones, joints, or back (discs) are some of the more common causes of pain and discomfort. If the pet’s mobility is affected, it may become increasingly aggressive, choosing to threaten and/or bite, rather than retreat. A decrease in mobility could also affect urination and defecation by reducing the pet’s ability to utilize its elimination area.

b) Sensory dysfunction: Pets with diminished sight or hearing may have a decreased ability to detect or identify external stimuli, and might begin to respond differently to commands, sounds or sights. Sensory decline is more likely to be seen as pets age.

c) Diseases of the internal organs, such as the kidneys or liver, can cause a number of behavior changes, primarily due to the toxic metabolites that accumulate in the bloodstream. Organ decline and dysfunction is more common in the older pet. Any medical condition that causes an increased frequency of urination or decreased urine control, such as kidney disease, a bladder infection, bladder stones, or neurological damage, might lead to an increase in house soiling. Similarly, those problems that affect the frequency of bowel movements or bowel control, such as colitis or constipation, might lead to house soiling.

d) Diseases of the nervous system (brain and spinal cord) can lead to a number of behavior and personality changes. Conditions such as epilepsy, brain tumors, infections, immune and degenerative diseases can all directly affect a dog or cat’s nervous system and therefore its behavior. In the older pet aging changes can have a direct effect on the brain, leading to cognitive dysfunction and senility.

e) The endocrine (hormone) system also plays a critical role in behavior. Over-activity or under-activity of any of the endocrine organs can lead to a number of behavior problems. The thyroid and parathyroid glands (in the neck), the pituitary gland (in the brain), the adrenal gland (by the kidneys), the pancreas, and the reproductive organs can all be affected by conditions or tumors that lead to an increase or decrease in hormone production. Endocrine disorders are more likely to arise as the pet ages.

f) The aging process is associated with progressive and irreversible changes of the body systems. Although these changes are often considered individually, the elderly pet is seldom afflicted with a single disease, but rather with varying degrees of organ disease and dysfunction. Cognitive decline and senility have also been recognized in older dogs and cats. See our handout on geriatric behavior problems for more details.

What tests need to be done to determine if my pet’s behavior problem is due to a medical condition?

a) Clinical history and physical examination: The assessment begins with a clinical history and physical examination.

“The history you provide may be the only way to determine if there are behavioral or medical changes.”

Remember that the history you provide may be the only way to determine if there are behavioral or medical changes. Be certain to mention any changes or problems that you may have noticed in your pet’s behavior, no matter how minor. Based on the signs that you report and the findings of the examination, laboratory tests and a more comprehensive examination such as a neurological examination or sensory testing may be required. For some of these tests your pet may need to be referred to a specialist.

b) Medical, surgical, dietary or pharmacologic treatment: Before beginning behavior therapy, any medical problems that have been diagnosed should be treated. A change in diet or a drug trial may be an important aspect of differentiating a medical from a behavioral cause (such as a food trial or steroid trial that might be used to rule out an underlying allergic cause). Surgery may be indicated when a tumor is diagnosed or when castration is indicated to reduce male sexually influenced behaviors. Your veterinarian may commence medical and behavioral treatment for long-standing behavior problems. One or more of a variety of behavioral drugs and supplements might be useful or necessary depending on the type, intensity and severity of the behavioral disorder (see our handouts on behavioral drugs and complementary medicines).

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.

Behavior Counseling, Behavior Consultations – Seeing a Behaviorist

Why should I take my pet for a behavior consultation?

With mild or minor behavioral problems, clients are often able to correct the problem by means of reward-based training, as is outlined in the other handouts in this series. However, when problems are more serious, it is easy to make the problem worse rather than improving it.

“…a consultation with your veterinarian or a referral to a knowledgeable and properly trained veterinary behaviorist helps you obtain results faster and more effectively.”

With serious problems such as severe fears or phobias, or with aggressive behaviors that represent safety risks to humans, a consultation with your veterinarian or a referral to a knowledgeable and properly trained veterinary behaviorist helps you obtain results faster and more effectively. In addition, should you require the further assistance of a trainer, both you and your trainer will have guidance on how you should proceed.

What will happen during the behavioral consultation?

The veterinarian or animal behaviorist will ask you questions about the history of your pet’s problem, including when it began, how long it has been occurring, and what specific triggers cause or worsen the problem. You will also be asked how you have been trying to deal with the problem. Finally, the behaviorist will discuss the treatment strategy that is most appropriate for your circumstances.

The more detailed and objective your information is, the more likely that the behaviorist can reach a diagnosis or tentative diagnosis of the problem and formulate an appropriate treatment plan.

Who should be involved with the behavioral consultation?

It is ideal if all members of the family are present during the consultation. In this way, each member can tell the behaviorist what he or she has observed,and all of the family members can participate in the discussion. For dogs, if you are working with a trainer, check with the behaviorist to see if it might also be advisable to invite the trainer to the consultation, because some trainers may use techniques that are consistent with what you want to accomplish and others may be counterproductive.

“Veterinarians and animal behaviorists are trained to observe behavior and body language of animals and can determine whether the animal’s reactions to a situation are typical and/or normal.”

Once all the information is gathered, the behaviorist can then discuss the treatment plan with everybody involved and ensure that each family member understands how the pet will be treated.

Will I need to bring along my pet?

It is important for the behaviorist to observe the pet, as well as determine what sort of relationship there is between the pet and each family member.

Veterinarians and animal behaviorists are trained to observe behavior and body language of animals and can determine whether the animal’s reactions to a situation are typical and/or normal. The behaviorist will observe the general demeanor of the pet, as well as the pet’s response to specific test situations. Other pets within the home may also have an impact on the expression of problem behaviors and, if they can safely be brought to the consultation, they may need to be included. Please ask your behaviorist if this is necessary in your situation.

The pet’s behavior in the clinic environment may not be representative of the normal behavior when at home. Therefore, it is important for you to let the behaviorist know whether your pet’s reaction is similar to its reaction at home. In most cases, videotapes of the problem situation can be useful to help the behaviorist understand the pet and the actions within the home context. Never provoke the pet to get video footage; safety for family members and other animals must be the first priority.

What will be involved in the treatment?

“By going to a behaviorist, your family will all become part of the solution for helping your pet become a better member of the family.”

In all cases, some sort of behavior modification program will be recommended. If your pet does not have basic obedience training, you will need to start with this step. Then, depending on the situation, the therapist will teach you how to modify your pet’s behavior by means of techniques such as desensitization, counter-conditioning, response modification, shaping, or other appropriate means. In addition, various management techniques may be used to avoid the triggers for problem behaviors and to keep people and other animals safe. In some cases, drug therapy may be necessary.

Why can’t I just send my pet away for training?

You and your family are the key to modifying and managing the behavior and reactions of your pet. In many cases, the environment plays a role in the development and maintenance of problem behaviors. Training in another environment may not have much effect on the behavior in your home. Having a trainer or another person teach the dog how to behave does little to ensure that you will have the necessary control over the pet once it returns to your home environment.

It is important not only to modify the pet’s behavior, but also to teach all the family members how to maintain this training properly, using a combination of positive and negative reinforcement. By going to a behaviorist, your family will all become part of the solution for helping your pet become a better member of the family.

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 – Aggression Redirected

What is redirected aggression?

Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is aroused by another animal, person or event, but is unable to direct aggression toward the stimulus. For example, your cat is sitting on a windowsill and sees another cat out on the property. Your cat becomes very agitated, begins to focus on the other cat and shows aggressive body postures, hisses, or growls. If a person or animal in the home were to walk into the room, they may be the recipients of an aggressive attack. When this happens between resident cats, sometimes they will no longer tolerate being together and will fight whenever they see each other. The initial stimulus that arouses the cat is most frequently another cat, but it could be any sight, sound, or a source of discomfort that leads to a heightened level of anxiety or arousal.

What should I do if that happens?

“First and foremost, you must avoid the cat until it calms down.”

First and foremost you must avoid the cat until it calms down. If the aggression is being redirected toward a second cat in the household, the two cats may have to be separated. In some cats, separation to another room with water and litter may only be required for a few minutes, but it is not unusual for it to take hours, or in some cases days, until the cat is calm enough to be reintroduced safely to the other cat. In some cases, regardless of the length of confinement, the cat remains aggressive to the other cat after it is released. This is most likely if the redirected aggression was met with retaliation, punishment or another fearful event (perhaps in an effort to separate the cat from the victim). In addition, if the attack leads to a change in relationship between the cat and the victim (fear, defensiveness) then the aggression may persist.

The best way to calm an agitated cat is to put the cat in a darkened room and leave it there. If the cat does not retreat into a room where it can be confined, or cannot be moved safely into the room, then a large blanket, thick gardening gloves, or a large piece of wood or cardboard should be used to protect yourself while maneuvering the cat into the room. Alternately throw a large blanket or comforter over the cat, wrap it around the cat and quickly deposit the cat in the room, blanket and all. If the problem is recurrent, you should work to devise a safe method to enable quick and effective future confinement. While the best solution would be reward training so that the pet immediately comes to its room on verbal cue or perhaps a shake can of treats. Other options would be to leave a leash and harness attached at times when problems might arise, or to use a citronella spray, water spray, or noise deterrent device to chase the cat to its room.

“The biggest mistake that owners make in trying to resolve this problem is to try and bring the cats together too soon.”

Once confined, the cat may need to be kept in the room anywhere from several minutes to several days. You can go in, turn on the light, offer food or a favored treat, and if the cat remains fearful or does not accept the food, turn out the lights and leave. If the cat continues to remain aroused for a couple of days, make certain that there is a minimum of food, litter, and water in the room, and offer favored treats or play toys each time you open the door. Be certain to read the cat’s actions and attitude to determine if it is calm enough to be released. If aggression has been directed toward a second cat in the home, it is very important to wait until the cats are calm before reintroducing them. The biggest mistake that owners make in trying to resolve this problem is to try and bring the cats together too soon. The use of pheromones in a spray or diffuser (Feliway®) may help calm very agitated cats.

How should I get my cats back together again?

Reintroductions are best done slowly. Food rewards should be used to facilitate calm, nonanxious behavior. The cats need to be far enough apart (10 to 20 feet) so that they are relaxed and will take food or a treat while in the presence of the other cat. For safety and control, it is often advisable that the cats have harnesses and leashes on them. If the cats will not eat, then they are too anxious and probably too close together, and should be moved apart. In this situation, try moving the dishes further apart. If the cats still will not eat, separate them until the next feeding. If the cats eat at that time, allow them to remain together while they eat, and then separate them. Repeat at the same distance for the next feeding. If things go well the next time, the dishes can be moved slightly closer together. If the cats are comfortable, you can leave them together to let them groom, and then separate them.

This is a slow process; you cannot rush things. Allowing the cats to interact in an aggressive manner sets the program back. The cats are separated except when they are distracted, occupied, and engaged in an enjoyable act (feeding or playing). The goal is to make sure that good things are associated with the presence of the other cat. It may be helpful to switch litter pans between the cats. Another technique is to rub the cats with towels and switch the towels from one to the other, mixing their scents.

If the aggression has not been severe, it may be possible to get the cats reacclimated to one another through play. The best toy is a rod-type handle with a catnip mouse or feathers on the end for chasing and pouncing. With each cat on either side of a slightly open door introduce the toy and see if they will play with each other.

Another possible way to reintroduce cats is with the use of a crate. Place one cat in the crate while the other cat is loose in the room, usually starting with the victim loose so that it can find a comfortable distance and feel secure. This might best be done at feeding or play times. Allow the cats to become comfortable in the presence of one another. Then, the next time, switch occupants of the crate for the session, unless the occupant of the crate is too frightened. An alternate method is to use a screen door on a room to separate the cats but allow them to visualize each other and get used to the sight of one another. Feeding the cats on either side of the door can also be used to facilitate the process. The use of pheromones in a spray or diffuser may help calm very agitated cats.

If the problem is severe, one or both of the cats may need to be medicated. This is a step that needs to be discussed with your veterinarian and all the risks and benefits explored (see Aggression – Treating Intercat Aggression in the Home and Introducing New Cats).

Can redirected aggression be directed toward people?

“Resolving the aggression requires that the source of the arousal, agitation, or aggression be identified.”

Yes. Aggression can also be redirected toward people when a cat that is highly aroused by a stimulus is approached or disturbed by a person. Avoidance of the aggression-producing situation is necessary. Situations include the sight or sound of intruder cats on the property, especially in the spring and fall, new people or pets in the household, the sight or sound of prey, loud or unusual noises, and a variety of other new or novel stimuli that are sometimes difficult to identify. If the problem arises, the owners must avoid the cat until it is calmed down. As with redirected aggression to other cats, the immediate treatment is to avoid the cat, preferably by finding a safe way to confine the cat in an area away from people, and then releasing the cat only after it is calm. Again this can take a few minutes to a few days and each time you open the door to check on the cat, you must determine if it is calm and safe to release. Offering food, treats, or a play toy can help to determine whether the cat is sufficiently settled.

How can redirected aggression be treated?

Resolving the aggression requires that the source of the arousal, agitation or aggression be identified (see Aggression – Introduction). Although desensitization and counter-conditioning would be the best way to resolve the anxiety associated with the stimulus, this is seldom practical except perhaps for noises (which might be presented at varying gradients of intensity) or when the arousal is due to other cats or people in the home (see Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning, Implementing Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning – Setting Up for Success, Fears and Phobias, Aggression – Play and Predatory and Multi-Cat Households – Adding a New Cat). It might also be possible to teach the cat to settle and take food rewards in the areas where it gets aroused by stimuli such as other cats (e.g., on the windowsill). Avoiding exposure to the arousing stimuli is, at least from the outset, the safest and most practical means of preventing further aggression.

This might be achieved by confining your cat away from the doors and windows, where the stimulus might be seen, heard, or smelled. Keep it out of the room (this may only be necessary at times when the stimuli, such as other cats, are livkely to be around) or use booby-traps such as motion detectors to keep your cat away from the doors and windows. Installing vertical blinds or shutters, or placing sticky tape or upside down carpet runners along the windowsills or in front of the doorway may be sufficient. Alternately remove the stimulus or keep an intruder off the property by using repellents or outdoor booby-traps such as ultrasonic devices or motion detector alarms or sprinklers. Keeping garbage locked up and removing bird feeders can reduce the chances that animals will enter your property and disturb your cat (see Behavior Management Products and Prevention and Punishment of Undesirable Behavior). Drug therapy may also be useful in some cases to prevent excessive arousal.


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 – Aggression in Cats, Fear and Territorial to Other Household Cats

What is territorial aggression?

Territorial aggression is aggression that is exhibited toward people or other animals (usually cats) that approach or reside on the pet’s property. Aggression can occur toward outside cats or to cats that live in the same household, especially new cats coming into the territory. This can occur with the addition of another cat, or when resident cats reach social maturity at 1 to 2 years of age. Another situation is when one cat is removed from the household (perhaps for routine surgery or boarding), and aggression is exhibited when the cat is brought back into the home. This aggression may be a combination of territorial and fear-based aggression (perhaps the returning cat smells, looks, or acts unfamiliar in some way).

Territorial aggression can manifest as stalking, chasing, and aggressive encounters.

Territorial aggression can manifest as stalking, chasing, and aggressive encounters, which may lead to injury. At times the aggressor will prevent the victim from having access to certain areas of the home, resulting in a cat that lives on top of furniture, bookshelves, or under beds. This may in part be related to the social relationship (status) of each cat and can lead to other problems such as house soiling and non-litter box use. Although the aggression of one cat to another may be due to territoriality, there are also components of fear, sociability and social status that contribute equally, or perhaps in some cases more, to the aggressive response (see Aggression – Introduction).

What is fear-based aggression?

Fear is a physiologic, behavioral, and emotional reaction to stimuli that an animal encounters. The physiologic reaction results in an increase in heart rate, increased respiratory rate (panting), sweating, trembling, pacing, and possibly urination and defecation.

Behaviorally, an animal will exhibit changes in body posture and activity when afraid. The animal may engage in an avoidance response such as fleeing or hiding. A fearful animal may assume body postures that are protective such as lowering of the body and head, placing the ears closer to the head, widened eyes, and tail tucked under the body. If the animal perceives a threat, the response can also include elements of defensive aggression. Whether an animal fights or flees when frightened depends on its genetic predisposition, previous experience (what it has learned from similar situations in the past) and the environment that it is in. Previous experiences with other cats in the home may influence future responses.

How can territorial aggression be prevented?

Territorial aggression can be prevented or minimized with early socialization, patient and slow introductions of new cats, and providing adequate resources, including litter boxes and food bowls plus sufficient space for climbing, hiding and dispersing. However, when a new cat is introduced (or reintroduced) into a household with existing cats, problems can best be prevented by slowly introducing the new cat to the environment, by keeping the new cat in a separate room with water and kitty litter, and by supervising all interactions. The correct time to begin cat-to-cat interactions can be highly variable. If both cats have had adequate socialization with other cats, and are not too timid or fearful, it may only be a matter of a few days to a few weeks before the cats work things out on their own and are able to share the territory with little or no aggressive displays.

Behaviorally, an animal will exhibit changes in body posture and activity when afraid.

However, in some homes, the aggression between cats persists. In these cases, a lengthy separation is likely to be required in addition to a more formal desensitization and counter-conditioning program (see Aggression – Treating Intercat Aggression in the Home and Introducing New Cats).

How can fear-based aggression be prevented?

Fear-based aggression may come about when cats are forced into social circumstances due to inadequate resources or different temperament types. In a multiple cat home it is essential that the resources (food, water, litter pans, and resting areas) be adequately distributed through out the home so that each cat has access to them. In some situations a cat may feel confined to one or two locations due to the social interactions with the other cats. If they do not have access to the resources they need in those locations, they may attempt to enter other areas of the home. If they are fearful and anxious, they may respond aggressively when they encounter other cats.

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 – Aggression – Petting Aggression

When I am petting my cat, why does she turn around and bite me?

This type of behavior in cats is usually quite confusing to owners. Initially, the cat acts like it enjoys the physical contact and may even purr and rub against the person. However, after a variable period of time, the cat may become agitated and turn and bite the hand that is petting it. Usually these bites are inhibited, but they can be injurious and severe in some cases.

This has often been called “go away” bite. What appears to be happening is that for a period of time the cat enjoys the interaction, but at some point the physical sensation of being stroked and scratched is no longer pleasant. The cat then endeavors to change the situation by an aggressive outburst.

Is there any way for me to predict when this is going to happen?

For some cats, it is important to realize that interaction with the owner may not always be a solicitation for petting. Sitting nearby or on the lap may not mean that the cat desires petting. Subtle signs of a change in motivation are usually present, but owners often miss these signs that the cat no longer wants physical contact. The cat may show very slight changes in body posture including tail twitching, body tensing, dilated pupils, or ear movements such as flattening the ears against the head, or more obvious signs such as growling or hissing. In some cases, if you stop all physical interactions, the cat will become calmer and will not bite. In other situations, the cat may bite and then move away or leave the situation.

“For some cats, it is important to realize that interaction with the owner may not always be a solicitation for petting.”

The behavior is often directed toward familiar people, but can also be displayed toward unfamiliar people. Fear is the most likely cause if the cat does not allow any petting or interaction by strangers.

Are there other reasons my cat might bite me when I attempt to pet her?

Anxiety, pain or skin conditions may all be contributory in a cat that resists physical contact. Dental disease or other metabolic conditions or illness may increase irritability and lower the cat’s threshold for aggressive responses and tolerance to handling. If the behavior is new, a veterinary examination for medical causes is warranted. For some cats, it is important to realize that interaction with the owner may not always be a solicitation for petting. If the cat was not handled as a young kitten, or was poorly socialized, it may not be familiar with nor desire physical contact with people.

“Anxiety, pain, or skin conditions may all be contributory in a cat that resists physical contact.”

Once this behavior begins, owners will respond to the cat’s bites in one of a number of ways. If you respond by no longer petting the cat, you will reinforce the cat for biting. If you punish your cat or become increasingly upset or anxious, you may add to the problem, since the cat may allow petting in the future but also be anxious and nervous at the same time. This is known as a conflict behavior (competing motivations).

How can I treat this condition?

The first step is to become aware of the warning signals that the cat gives as it is becoming agitated (e.g., twitching tail, ears back, dilated pupils). At the very first sign of these signals, all petting and physical contact must cease. In some cases, this will prevent the aggression from escalating and may be enough to control the problem.

In other situations, it may be possible to teach the cat to tolerate increased physical contact without an aggressive response. This entails identifying the threshold for the aggressive response (i.e., “how many” or “for how long” the petting is tolerated before the cat begins to become agitated). The goal is to stop petting the cat before that threshold is reached, and to reward the cat with a tasty food tidbit for tolerance of petting. If the cat shows aggression, the petting session must be stopped. Over time it may be possible to increase the number of “pats” before the cat no longer tolerates the interactions.

“It may be possible to teach the cat to tolerate increased physical contact without an aggressive response.”

In some circumstances, it is more realistic to understand and embrace the type of interaction that the cat desires. For some cats, this means that the cat sits close by or even on your lap without physical contact. Other cats may tolerate light scratching around the neck and chin rather than long strokes down the back and sides.

Petting interactions can be supplemented or replaced with other types of interactions that are mutually satisfying to owner and cat. These might include play time with toys, wand toys, teaching tricks or games.

At no time should you yell at the cat or use physical punishment. These actions will tend to increase anxiety, fear and arousal rather than teach the cat not to be agitated. If the cat begins to show anxiety or aggression, calmly but quietly leave the area even if it means slowly standing up and allowing the cat to jump off your lap.

For some cats the use of pheromone diffusers (Feliway®) are quite calming and may be a useful adjunct to treatment. Keeping the cat’s nails trimmed may also diminish injury. If the problem is severe, the cat may need to be confined away from small children and people with physical disabilities or immune compromised status.

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