Behaviour problems in cats are very common, and there are lots of different types. Many of these can be treated with correct diagnosis and retraining techniques. Medication is also available but often unnecessary.
The most common behaviour problems include:
- Aggression and biting
- Destructive behaviour
- Fear of noises
- Inappropriate urination
- Feline aggression
House soiling is the most common behaviour problem reported by cat owners. It includes urination and/or defecation outside the litter box, as well as urine spraying.
Why do cats eliminate outside of the litter box?
One common misconception is that cats soil in inappropriate places for revenge. So why do cats urinate or defecate on your bed or carpet?
Medical problems are one possibility. Inflammation of the urinary
tract may cause painful or frequent urination, inability to urinate,
bloody urine, and crying during urination. An affected cat is likely to
eliminate outside the litter box if he comes to associate the box with
painful urination, or if he has an increased urgency to urinate. In
addition, kidney, liver, and thyroid diseases often lead to increased
drinking and urination.
Inflammation of the colon or rectum, intestinal tract tumours, intestinal parasites, and other gastrointestinal conditions may cause painful defecation, increased frequency or urgency to defecate, and decreased control of defecation.
Age-related diseases that interfere with a cat’s mobility (for example, arthritis, nervous system disorders, or muscular diseases), or with his cognitive functions can also influence his ability to get to the litter box in time. In short, any medical condition that interferes with a cat’s normal elimination behaviour can lead to house soiling.
Litter Box Aversions
Behavioural problems, such as litter box aversions, inappropriate site preferences, or urine spraying can also lead to house soiling. An aversion implies that there is something about the litter box that your cat finds unsavoury. It could be the box, the litter, the location of the box, or all three.
Something about the litter box bothers your cat
- The box contains harsh odours. The litter box may have an offensive odour if you clean it with harsh chemicals. Or, if you don’t clean it enough, the box may smell strongly of ammonia (a normal by-product of urine). In either case, covered litter boxes hold in and amplify such odours.
- The sides of the box are too high. Cats with painful legs, sore joints, or other mobility problems may have trouble getting into a box with high sides. Kittens have similar problems.
Something about the litter bothers your cat
- The litter is dirty. Cats usually prefer clean litter.
- The texture of the litter is distasteful. Your cat may have a preference for finer-textured clumping litter over coarser non-clumping litter—or vice versa.
- The scent of the litter is unpleasant. Most cats prefer non-scented litter.
The location of the litter box bothers your cat
- The box is in an unpleasant area. Avoid placing the litter box in high-traffic, noisy, dark, or dank areas.
- Your cat is afraid to use the box. If another cat, dog, or human terrorizes your cat when she’s in the box, or ambushes her as she exits, she may avoid the box altogether.
Cats with aversions usually eliminate on varying surfaces. You may find puddles of urine and/or faeces on either soft surfaces like carpets, beds, or clothing, or on hard, shiny surfaces like tile floors or bathtubs. Depending on the severity of your cat’s aversion, he may continue to use the litter box, but only inconsistently.
Inappropriate Site Preferences
Alternatively, your cat may develop a preference for eliminating in a spot other than the box. Preferences can be categorized as follows:
- Another surface is more desirable for elimination. Cats that prefer certain surfaces usually stick with that choice. For example, a cat that finds it more pleasing to eliminate on soft surfaces like clothing or carpets would be unlikely to use tile floors.
- Another location is more desirable for elimination. This usually results from an aversion to the current box location.
As with aversions, cats with preferences for certain surfaces or locations may continue to use the litter box inconsistently. One cause for house soiling may lead to another. For example, a cat with a urinary tract disorder that can’t make it to the litter box in time will urinate wherever she is. She may then develop a preference for the new site and continue to eliminate there.
When your cat rubs against your leg with his face, or scratches his scratching post, he is also depositing his scent from the glands in his cheeks and paws. Another equally normal but less pleasant marking behaviour is urine spraying – the deposition of small amounts of urine around a given area. Spraying announces a cat’s presence, establishes or maintains territorial boundaries, and advertises sexual availability.
Cats usually spray on vertical surfaces, like the backs of chairs, or walls. They don’t squat to spray (as they do to urinate), but the tail lifts and quivers, and small puddles of urine are left in several consistent locations. Cats that spray are usually un-neutered males and, to a lesser extent, un-spayed females, but 10% of neutered males and 5% of neutered females also spray. In households with more than seven cats, the likelihood of spraying is high.
Cats may spray when they perceive a threat to their territory, such as when a new cat enters the home, or when outside cats are nearby. New furniture and carpet smells can prompt spraying as well. Cats may also spray out of frustration resulting from factors – like restrictive diets, or insufficient playtime – often wrongly perceived by humans as revenge.
My cat is not using the litter box reliably. What should I do?
First, address the problem promptly. The longer the behaviour
persists, the more likely it is to become habit. If you have more than
one cat, you may need to separate them until you can identify the
responsible individual. In cases of defecation outside the box, you can
feed one cat small pieces (about twice the size of a sesame seed) of a
brightly coloured non-toxic child’s crayon that will show up in the
faeces. If you find urine puddles in the house, it is important to
distinguish between spraying and other forms of house soiling. Watch
your cat for signs of spraying – or set up a video camera when you’re
Once you have identified the house-soiling cat, it is wise to take him to your veterinarian for a thorough physical examination and appropriate diagnostic tests to see if there are underlying medical problems. Cats with medical conditions may not always act sick.
Once medical causes have been ruled out, your detective work begins. Here are some patterns that may point to a cause:
- Is there one type of surface upon which your cat eliminates? If so, she may have a preference for certain surfaces, and you can modify your litter to match it. If she likes soft surfaces like carpeting, buy a softer, finer litter, and put a carpet remnant in her box. If she has a penchant for smooth, shiny surfaces, consider putting tiles in her box, covered with only a small amount of litter. Over time more litter can be added.
- Is there a certain location she prefers? She may have developed a preference for a new area because something bothered her about the old area. Try placing a litter box in her “preferred” location. Once she reliably uses it, gradually move the box just a few inches a day back to the desired location. Stop moving the box if she stops using it; instead simply move it back to the spot where she last reliably used it, then gradually begin moving it again.
- Is yours a multi-pet household where another animal terrorizes your cat while she’s in the litter box or as she exits? If so, the cat may be afraid to use the box. If you currently use a covered box, replace it with one that gives her a 360-degree view. This will give her more confidence while she’s in the box and make her less prone to ambush. Also, position the box so that she has more than one way out (i.e. don’t have the box surrounded on three sides). Finally, place multiple boxes in multiple locations to give your cat more options.
- When your cat uses the box, does he cry, refuse to bury his waste, perch on the edge of the box without touching the litter, or eliminate right near the box? If so, first be sure the box is clean. Some cats refuse to use a box containing any urine or faeces whatsoever; meticulous litter box cleanliness is necessary for these individuals.
- Your cat may dislike the litter you use, especially if you’ve recently and suddenly changed brands. If you must switch brands, do so gradually, adding more of the new litter to the old with each cleaning. Most cats prefer their litter unscented, and an inch or two deep.
The box itself may be the offender. Larger cats need bigger boxes, and kittens and elderly cats need boxes with low sides. Although humans like covered boxes for reducing odour and stray litter, from your cat’s point of view, covers hold odours in and restrict his view of the area. You may need to purchase several types of boxes and several types of litter to determine which combination your cat likes best. Finally, provide as many boxes as there are cats in the house—plus one. For example, if you have two cats, there should be three litter boxes. This decreases competition and gives each cat a box of his or her own.
How can I stop my cat from spraying?
Because spraying is different than other types of house soiling, different tactics are necessary to manage it. First, because there are often hormonal components to spraying, any intact animal should be desexed. Next, identify the stimuli that cause your cat to spray. If outside cats are responsible, motion detectors that trigger sprinklers can be used to deter them from coming onto your property.
Address possible sources of frustration that may be causing your cat to spray. For example, introduce a new diet gradually, or discontinue it until the spraying is under control. Increasing the amount of playtime for an under-stimulated cat may also help ease frustration.
Spraying can also result from territorial disputes between cats in the same household. They may need to be separated and reintroduced slowly, using food treats to reward and encourage peaceful behaviour.
Applying odour neutralizers anywhere your cat has sprayed may prevent him from spraying there again. Another useful commercial product is Feliway®, a synthetic pheromone that, when applied to household surfaces, mimics the scent of cat cheek gland secretions. Many cats will not spray on areas that have this scent.
Will medications stop my cat from house soiling?
Spraying is more responsive to anti-anxiety drugs than other types of house soiling. However, medication is only part of the solution, and must be used in conjunction with environmental changes. Cats placed on long-term medication must be monitored closely by a veterinarian.
What can I use to clean my cat-soiled carpet, couch, and other household items?
Cats will re-soil and spray areas previously impregnated with their scent. Therefore, cleaning up your cat-soiled belongings is important, not only to undo the damage, but to break the cycle of elimination. Because it is much easier to eliminate odours in recently-soiled areas, clean them as soon as possible. A cat’s sense of smell is far keener than ours; therefore odours must be neutralized, not just deodorized eg Biozet (enzyme washing powder). However, avoid cleaning products containing ammonia or vinegar—they smell like urine and can be irritating.
What other methods should I consider?
- Sheets of plastic, newspaper, sandpaper or a carpet runner with the nubs facing up may all discourage your cat from entering a soil-prone area.
- Try changing the significance of a soiled area. Cats prefer to eat and eliminate in separate areas, so try placing food bowls and treats in previously soiled areas. Playing with your cat in that space and leaving toys there may also be helpful.
- Try denying your cat access to a given area by closing doors, or by covering the area with furniture or plants. (Baby gates will not keep a cat out of a room).
- Catch him in the act. A bell on a breakaway collar tells you his whereabouts. If you can catch him within the first seconds of his elimination routine and startle him with a loud noise so that he associates being startled with those actions. It is important that you startle rather than scare him; fear will only worsen the problem. Moreover, if you catch him after he’s eliminated, your window of opportunity is gone—you must catch him just as he’s about to eliminate. This method is not ideal as you cannot monitor them 24hours a day and consistency is the key.
- Never hit, kick, or scream at a cat. Not only does this create more anxiety, which may contribute to house soiling behaviour, but also such tactics provide no link between the “crime” and the punishment. Some owners resort to rubbing their cat’s face in their excrement to “teach the cat a lesson.” This is completely ineffective, first because cats do not view their urine and faeces as distasteful, and second, because even moments later, cats cannot make the connection between the mess on the bed and this kind of punishment.
A common and frustrating problem, inappropriate elimination can be difficult to control. A full resolution depends on early intervention, followed by detective work to determine the cause of the behaviour, and time and effort on your part to solve the problem. In partnership with veterinarians, cats and the people who love them, can live in harmony and good health.
Helpful hints for preventing litter box problems
Choose an appropriate litter and box
- Most cats prefer unscented, finer-textured litter, at a depth of one to two inches.
- Young kittens, elderly cats, and cats with mobility problems need boxes with low sides.
- Overweight and large cats need bigger boxes.
- Most cats prefer an uncovered box that lets odours escape and allows a 360-degree view of their surroundings.
- Have as many litter boxes as cats in the house – plus one.
Choosing a good litter box location
- Most cats prefer a location that is quiet, private, separate from their feeding area, and easily accessible 24 hours a day.
- Do not locate the litter box up or down stairs if your cat has trouble climbing.
- Place multiple boxes in different areas of the house.
Keeping the box clean
- If you use clumping litter, remove faeces and clumps daily and add clean litter as needed.
- A liner may help keep the box cleaner, but many cats don’t like them.
- To clean the box, scrub it with a gentle detergent, dry it, and refill with clean litter. Litter should be changed often enough so that it looks and smells dry and clean. The more cats using the box, the more often this will need to be done.
- Replace old boxes that smell or are cracked.
What is normal?
Cats often behave very differently to dogs and humans. Some normal behaviour that your cat may exhibit are stalking, pouncing, or exploring their surroundings. In order to understand cats, you should learn normal cat behaviour. Cats hate their routine being changed and can act out or misbehave, which drive us humans crazy. When their environment is to their liking, they coexist with humans very well.
When cats exhibit bad behaviour it is typically due to owners not being aware of cues sent by the cat beforehand. For example if your cat nips or bites you. Your first response would be to punish or shout at the cat for being bad or aggressive. Usually what happened was the cat gave you a warning sign when you where over stimulating him with petting and you didn’t recognize this as a cue to stop.
A few to the warning signs a cat may exhibit are:
- The cat’s body may tense up
- The tail starts to quiver or twitch
- The ears become pinned back
When you observe any of these signs while petting or interacting with a cat it would be wise to stop. These are signals in his body language that he has had enough petting. If you don’t stop and continue to pet the cat even though the cat is trying to communicate with you, his only recourse is to bite or nip your hand to get your attention. That usually gets you to immediately stop petting him!
Cats are natural-born hunters. Their stalking and pouncing behaviour comes from this and it is something that you are not going to get your cat to stop. Younger cats are especially fond of stalking any prey they can find even if it larger than them. This includes their owners who find the cat attacking their ankles or feet without warning. When they are in the mood for hunting it is better to distract them with another form of play activity.
Though dogs are usually known for their digging activity, cats also have an instinctive need to dig. Litter boxes and house plants are common victims to this digging behaviour. Cats hate the smell of citrus so one way of keeping them from digging is to spray a citrus (orange, lemon or lime) product on or around areas that are off limits.
Cats are very territorial and will claw to mark their territory, visually and by leaving their scent. This behaviour can be distressful when it involves furniture or that expensive oriental rug! Clawing increases when there are other cats in the house. The best way to discourage this is to provide plenty of scratching posts or boards scented with catnip. This gives the cat an appropriate avenue for clawing without destroying valuable property.
Aggression with other animals
Cats can sometimes show aggression to other animals that live in the same household. This is commonly a dog or another cat. Cat versus cat aggression is the hardest to treat as most dogs will submit to the more dominant cat. The first step when multiple cats are in a household is to identify the cats that do not get along.
Cats that get along well together groom each other, sleep together and approach each other with a relaxed elevated tail. However, not all cats live together amicably and it is possible to have varying levels of tension ranging from avoidance to overt aggression. Recognizing and dealing with some of the early warning signs may help to prevent further break down of the relationship or higher levels of aggression. People often interpret the lack of overt fighting as evidence that the cats are still getting along normally when that may not be the case.
Early warning signs may be as subtle as a lack of direct interaction between the cats and this may go unnoticed. In more obvious cases, you may see the cats avoiding each other or spending more time in parts of the home away from the other cat. In some cases, you may also see active displacement of one cat from a favourite resting locations by the other, or one of the cats resting in such a way that they block the other cat’s access to food, water or litter box locations. There may also be periods of tension after situations such as one of the cats being reintroduced after being absent (e.g. returning from a veterinary appointment) or after seeing an outdoor cat through one of the home windows.
Normal play in cats includes mutual interaction from each of the cats and can be very active with intense physical contact. However, if all of the physical interactions are characterized by one cat chasing or stalking the other or if the “target” shows frequent hissing, swatting or avoidance behaviours, the relationship may not be as friendly as it first appeared. In many cases there may not be a clear aggressor and victim. Being able to identify signs of a fearful cat is crucial. You could video what your cats are doing and what they look like in various situations to work out who is the aggressor and who is the victim.
Treatment of cat -to-cat aggression
- Cat shelves should be placed around the home to offer an elevated escape location for the victim or offer the aggressor a location where he is less motivated to control the other cats. By increasing vertical space in the home, the owners are effectively increasing the living space for the feline companions.
- Placing various hide spaces such as tunnels, cardboard boxes etc. around the house provides opportunities for a fearful cat to eliminate a visual source of fear/anxiety. Although we want cats to be able to hide when they are fearful, the intention is that this serves as a temporary respite. If a cat is choosing to hide the majority of the time, this is a red flag that the environment is not conducive to a state of good welfare and the cat is likely experiencing generalized anxiety.
- In addition, an owner can place a cat door within the home that only the resident cat/s can access (via electronic tags).
- In all cases, the aggressor should also wear a collar with bell which may provide the other cat with an advance warning, allowing for easier conflict avoidance.
Providing cats with increased availability of resources such as food stations (not necessarily more food), water sources, and litter boxes (one for each cat, plus one, distributed throughout the living space) all help to decrease the social pressure and decrease resource based competition between the cats.
In households where the tension between the cats is already intense, it will be necessary to physically separate the cats until they can be gradually reintroduced to each other with rotational access to a shared living space, scent transfer, and behaviour modification sessions. You should be aware of the physical and emotional damage that could be caused by constant exposure to an aggressor without a way to alleviate that stress. Attempts at behaviour modifications may be unsuccessful or at least less successful without segregation.
It is also important to be sure that young, active cats have access to appropriate outlets for predatory and play behaviours so he is less likely to strike out at the other cat(s). Using active toys, clicker training, increasing the number of owner-initiated play sessions, feeding with food dispensing toys, providing supervised outdoor access can all help to lessen tension between the cats.
Pheromones are naturally produced by cats and can bias their behavioural responses. Feliway may be useful in cases of mild to moderate inter-cat aggression to help decrease anxiety. Both cats (both the aggressor and the victim) should have a Feliway diffuser in their space while separated.
The cornerstone of a behavioural program is to help change the cats’ perception of one another. In short, we want the cats not only to be exposed to one another in a very minimal manner and to less anxious or scared (desensitization), but we also want them to associate the other cat with very positive things. If this is done successfully, the cats underlying emotional state about the other cat will change followed by their behaviour.
Medications are commonly used for the aggressor to calm them. One should consider medicating the victim as well if he/she is experiencing considerable anxiety. Once the decision is made to start medication, there is often a lag time of 2 weeks and the individual usually has to stay on medication for at least three months. The cats will be reassessed at that time, and if successful the doses can be reduced or we may attempt to wean them off, but some cats may need to remain on meds for life.
However, you should be aware that medication alone is not a cure; you must still put in the hard work on behaviour modification in order to have a successful outcome.
Aggression with humans
To a cat, play is all about prey. Body postures of play aggression are the behaviours a cat shows when searching for and catching prey. She stalks her target from behind a door or under a chair. She crouches, twitches her tail, flicks her ears back and forth, then pounces, wrapping her front feet around the prey, chewing it and kicking it with her back feet.
We enjoy watching these cat antics, but kittens don’t know when to stop. Their rough play can result in scratches and little bites that don’t break the skin. You must teach your cat when enough is enough; otherwise, as she gets older, the scratches may get deeper and the bites harder.
- Use a fishing pole type of toy to keep her away from your body when playing with her.
- If she starts chewing or scratching any part of your body, immediately say “uh-uh,” and redirect her to a toy. If she continues to chew or scratch after you say, “uh-uh,” stop playing immediately. Never hit her or yell, or she’ll become afraid of you.
- Don’t resume playing until she has calmed down; then use the toy.
- Some cats are easily overstimulated, and their play can escalate into true aggression. Pay close attention to your cat’s body language; if she’s getting too intense, stop playing immediately and give her time to cool off.
Sometimes when you’re petting your purring cat, she might bite you out of the blue. Cats vary in how much they’ll tolerate letting you pet or hold them. There are usually warning signs that they’re reaching their limit, but their signals can be subtle and hard to detect.
- Tail twitching
- Ears turning back or flicking back and forth
- Turning or moving her head toward your hand
- A sharp meow, low growl, or a hiss
- She may even put her teeth on you lightly to tell you to stop.
When you see any of these signals, it’s time to stop petting the cat immediately and let her sit on your lap, or go her own way. Never yell or hit; any kind of physical punishment almost always makes the problem worse, as it makes the cat more likely to bite. She might fear you and/or associate petting with punishment.
If you have a cat who doesn’t like being petted, you could try to win her over with food rewards.
Before your cat shows any of the behaviours described above, offer her a special titbit of food. Pet her lightly for a short time while offering her treats. She’ll come to associate being stroked with more pleasant things.
Stop petting before you see the signs of irritation. If you keep petting until the cat reacts badly, you’ve defeated the purpose. Each time you work with your cat, try to pet him for slightly longer periods using the food.
Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is aroused (in a bad way) by an animal or person, but has no outlet for her naturally aggressive feelings.
The cat gazing out the window may have seen another cat outside, which makes her want to defend her territory. When she can’t get to that cat, she attacks the first thing that crosses her path. She’s so worked up about that strange cat that she’s not aware that she has redirected her aggression to you.
Observe your cat closely before approaching her. Does she:
- Stare so hard out the window that she doesn’t know you’re there?
- Not respond when you call her?
- Jerk her tail back and forth?
- Growl, hiss, or meow loudly?
Don’t mess with her! Clap your hands loudly to break her fixation, or just walk away and let her calm down by herself. You may also be attacked if you try to interfere with two cats fighting. Don’t get in the middle of it. Use a squirt bottle or pillow to break up the fight and distract the cats.
Cats are by nature very territorial. Usually, cats only feel the need to defend their territory from other cats. Occasionally a cat may become dominant with their owner. It is important to give “time outs” and redirect their attention with loud noises (clapping or banging a saucepan with a spoon) or squirt with a water bottle. Cats that are aggressive to humans due to dominance are dangerous and often need medication in combination with behavioural modification to treat.
If your cat’s behaviour has started suddenly, there could be a medical issue causing it. Take her to the vet for a check-up; if she gets a clean bill of health, she needs behaviour modification.
If her behaviour improves when she’s confined to one room, her aggression may be due to stress in her environment (loud kids, other cats or pets).
Animal behaviour is a fascinating and sometimes complex subject. We hope the foregoing has been of help. If you have any questions regarding your pet’s behaviour or you have any concerns, please contact one of our clinics to make an appointment to speak with one of our veterinarians.
By Macarthur Veterinary Group