At their best, cats are cuddly, loving little companions. When they’re good, they’re very, very good. And if they’re good most of the time, even their more mischievous moments can be pretty funny. But some cat behavior problems are more infuriating than they are amusing. That said, there are things you can do that might help curb even the most frustrating feline bad behavior. Read on.
The Most Common Behavioral Problems In Cats
When your cat starts to exhibit behavioral problems, it’s easy to feel like you’re on your own. But rest assured these problems wouldn’t be common if a lot of cat parents hadn’t already dealt with them. And because they have, there have been plenty of studies on how to deal with them.
The most problematic cat behaviors generally fall under two categories: aggressive behavior and elimination issues.1
Cats can exhibit many different types of aggression, including:
- Play aggression
- Fear aggression
- Petting-induced aggression
- Pain-induced aggression
- Inter-cat aggression
- Redirected aggression2
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with feline aggression. Certain remedies are more effective for some types of aggression than others.
Most cats that are aggressive toward their owners are usually exhibiting play aggression. These cats can bite and scratch just a little too hard when you play with them. Though they may only think they are playing, they don’t know when enough is enough.
There are a number of reasons for this. Young cats that have been raised without other cats to model behavior may not have been socialized properly. Also, cats that spend long hours alone may not have enough opportunities to play. They may release all that pent-up energy through destructive behavior like biting.3
You may be able to help reduce play aggression in cats by giving them adequate exercise. Also, try to avoid rough play. Instead of using your hands or arms to play with them, try using toys. That way, they will learn that that body parts are not things to be attacked.
If your cat does scratch your hand or arm, stop the play immediately until the cat has calmed down. But don’t try to correct your cat through physical punishment. Your cat may see this as a threat, and you could injure the animal and make things worse.4
When a cat feels afraid, it will usually try to escape whatever stimulus it interprets as threatening. And if it can’t do that, it may get aggressive and mad. Common signs of fear aggression include:
- Dilated pupils
- A defensive crouch
- An arched back
- Flattened ears
- Angry hissing5
If you know what’s upsetting your cat, you can try to desensitize it using reward-based exposure training. When your cat sees the fear inducing stimulus, keep it at a distance, but give the cat something it loves, like treats, to create a positive association.
It’s important to be patient when practicing exposure training. It can take weeks, or even months, but with a calm demeanor and a disciplined approach, you can help your cat feel more secure.6
Petting induced aggression is also called overstimulation aggression. In short, it just means you may be giving your cat too much affection. Your cat may enjoy being pet, but too much petting can irritate it to the point that it suddenly lashes out.
Often, though, it’s just about control. The cat wants to control when petting starts — and when it ends. When your cat feels it’s had too much of a good thing, it may exhibit some warning signs. Look for:
- A twitching tail or skin
- Extended claws
- Stiff posture
- Dilated pupils7
If you detect these signs while petting your cat, simply stop and allow it to leave. Don’t try to pick up or the cat. Simply let it walk away when it decides it’s ready.
Sometimes, what looks like petting-induced aggression may actually be pain-induced aggression. Cats with osteoarthritis, infected ears, or other irritating conditions may lash out at you without warning. This is especially true if you happen to touch the areas where they experience discomfort.
In the case of pain-induced aggression, refrain from touching the irritated area. Then take your cat to your veterinarian to work out a plan for pain management.8
Adult cats — often unneutered male cats — often compete with each other for mates and territory. But inter-cat aggression isn’t limited to them; it’s just more obvious.
Less obvious are the conflicts between household cats that have been spayed and neutered. Inter-cat aggression can occur between two male cats, two female cats, and even between a male and a female. It may be that one cat is less socialized. It could be that one cat associates another with something unpleasant. Or it could be a simple clash between two different personalities.9
Whatever the reason, there are steps you can take to de-escalate the situation. You might be able to disrupt a fight between cats with a simple, loud clap of your hands.
After separating the cats, try setting up different food, litter, and sleeping areas for each cat. That way, they won’t feel like they’re competing for resources. And when you see them getting along, be sure to reward them with praise and treats.10
Redirected aggression occurs when a cat can’t directly interact with whatever is causing it stress. This might happen if your cat sees a strange cat on the other side of a closed window. Your cat may then take out its aggression on other cats in the household — or even one of its human family members.
Sometimes there’s a kind of chicken-egg relationship between inter-cat aggression and redirected aggression. If you have another cat at home, redirected aggression can spiral into inter-cat aggression. This may not resolve itself without human attention. Try to identify and remove whatever might be triggering the aggression, if you can.11
Elimination issues may not be as scary as aggression issues, but they can be every bit as difficult to live with. Elimination issues in cats include:
- House soiling (going outside the litter box)
Feline elimination issues are among the most common complaints of cat owners. They’re also a common reason people give up their cats to animal shelters.12 Whatever the issue, it can usually be chalked up to one of three categories:
- Medical problems
- Litter problems
Medical Causes Of Elimination Issues
If your cat has made a habit of doing its business outside the litter box, the first thing you should do is take them to the vet to rule out any health problems.13 It may be that your cat just can’t make it to the litter in time.
Your cat could have a urinary tract infection. With a UTI, your cat may urinate more frequently than usual, and may end up doing all that urinating somewhere other than its litter box. Always have your vet check your cat for any potential medical problems that could be causing elimination problems, including a UTI.14
Sometimes, the culprit may simply be old age. Older cats can often forget where their litter is. They may also suffer from kidney issues that make it hard for them to get to the litter in time.
If you have an older cat, it may be helpful to place more litter boxes around the house. The more boxes your cat has, the easier it will be for it to find one.15
Marking issues in cats can be maddening. Your cat can urine-mark its territory on both horizontal and vertical surfaces. Neither one is particularly pleasant.
Sometimes, urine-marking is a form of mating behavior. Spaying or neutering your cat usually takes care of this issue, even if yours is an adult cat. The longer you wait to spay neuter, though, the more ingrained marking behavior becomes.
Stress can also lead to marking behavior. Cats are very sensitive to even small changes in their living environment. They can also experience separation anxiety.16 Spraying their urine can be their very unsubtle way of telling you they’re anxious. If your cat is spraying, try to determine the source of that anxiety, and isolate the cat from it.17
It may be that your cat has an issue with the litter itself. This could be because the litter isn’t clean enough for them. It can also be because the litter is in a stressful location.
Make sure your cat’s litter isn’t too dirty. Just like people, cats like a clean place to go to the bathroom. Clean your cat’s litter at least once a day. Once a week, change out the litter in the box completely.18
Cats like to relieve themselves in quiet locations that make them feel safe. Make sure your cat’s litter box isn’t near anything that makes a lot of noise, like a washing machine or a furnace. The litter box should also be in a place that is convenient for them to get to.
Changes in the type of litter the cat is used to could trigger a reaction. Most cats generally prefer clumping litters. You may prefer them as well — clumping litters may help reduce the frequency with which you have to change out the entire litter in the litter box.19
Remember To Keep It Positive
No matter how frustrating your cat’s behavior issues may be, it’s important to keep a level head about it. Your cat will not respond well to harsh punishment, which can often make the situation worse.20
You should also make sure your living space feels like a secure environment for your cat. Cats have very particular housing needs. The more accommodating their living arrangements, the healthier they will be, both physically and mentally. This is especially true for indoor cats.21
You can make simple adjustments to your home that may help put your cats at ease. Make sure to provide them with fresh food and water and a clean litter box. There should plenty of scratching surfaces and a variety of toys. There should also be plenty of hiding spots and comfortable places to perch.22
Also, pay attention to other behaviors that might give you a clue. Is your cat meowing more or less than usual? Subtle changes in normal behaviors may give you clues to the causes of abnormal behaviors.23
If you can’t determine the cause of your cat’s abnormal behaviors, ask your vet if they have any advice. If you are still struggling, it may be time to see a cat behavior specialist. The right specialist can teach you cat training techniques that will help both you and your cat find the peace of mind that you both crave.24
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