Cat Behavior Problems and Training
Behavioral counseling and modification for cats is an ever growing area of veterinary medicine. Many behavioral modification strategies and medications exist to help our cats deal with anxiety, aggression, destructive behavior, inappropriate urination and a variety of other behavioral disorders. Many of these problems are incredibly frustrating to owners and can often times be helped with a wide variety of techniques.
One of our very own doctors at the Animal Clinic of Billings, Bryna Felchle, DVM, has taken a special interest in veterinary behavioral medicine and is our in-house, go-to source for providing effective and appropriate recommendations for dog and cat behavioral problems.
Problems in animals don’t always have a physical cause, and the sad truth is that more dogs and cats are forfeited to shelters and put to sleep because of behavioral problems than because of disease or injury. Cat behavioral modification measures can ensure that your cat is a well-adjusted and enjoyable member of your family. From training kittens to addressing unwanted behavior in mature cats, our veterinarians can help you achieve a better bond with your furry friend.
At the Animal Clinic of Billings, our veterinarians and support staff have many years of experience diagnosing and prescribing treatment methods for dog and cat behavioral issues. Our vets can help determine the cause of cat behavior disorders such as inappropriate urination and aggression, and then develop an effective, humane behavior modification program.
BEHAVIORAL COUNSELING FOR CATS
The Animal Clinic of Billings offers behavior counseling for a number of issues affecting cats such as inappropriate urination or defecation, aggression, destructive scratching, challenges integrating new cats into the household, and conflict between housemates. Oftentimes a behavior problem, such as inappropriate urination, can be linked to a medical issue (cystitis, bladder stones, and kidney disease).
At the Animal Clinic of Billings, our veterinarians can help you recognize and understand any behavior issues you may notice. We will then work closely with you to develop a plan to help eliminate your pet’s unwanted behavior to the best of our ability.
Although there are many effective solutions to problematic pet behaviors available to us, it’s important to understand that rarely an animal’s behavioral issues are so severe or pronounced, that even our best medical remedies fall short in attempting to modify the behavioral problem. Oftentimes though, we are able to vastly improve or even eradicate the behavioral problem.
Some of the common behaviors in cats that can be treated with behavioral modification programs and environmental management include:
Urinating and defecating outside the litter box is the most common problem behavior we encounter in cats, and is one of the primary reasons cats are forfeited to shelters. While this is indeed a very frustrating situation to deal with, we want to assure you that most cases of inappropriate elimination can be successfully treated, and our veterinarians have helped many owners regain their sanity and harmonious relationship with their troubled feline.
Inappropriate elimination in cats can arise from multiple medical and behavioral causes. Medical conditions that can cause a cat to urinate outside the box include urinary tract infections, bladder stones, idiopathic cystitis (non-infectious bladder inflammation), kidney disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, liver disease, arthritis, and elevated blood calcium levels.
Defecating outside the box can occur due to any condition that results in constipation or intestinal discomfort. If no medical cause is found for a cat’s behavior, then a detailed history will be evaluated to determine the most likely behavioral cause. The most common behavioral reasons for inappropriate urination include urine marking and litter box aversion.
Urine marking is motivated by a desire to communicate a territorial claim, and is most frequently encountered in cats who are experiencing anxiety and a sense of insecurity in their environment. This may be set off by changes to the home (moving, new pet, houseguests, a new baby, absence of the owner, or a major change in routine) or stressful stimuli your cat can see and hear going on outside the home (construction, outdoor cats coming near the house, etc.).
Both male and female cats engage in this behavior, and while it is more common in sexually intact cats, it is also seen in cats that have been spayed and neutered. A cat who is marking will often spray urine on vertical surfaces in strategic locations, such as on a doorframe or in areas where their owner’s scent is the strongest (on bedding or laundry).
The strategy for treatment of marking behavior involves treating the cat’s underlying anxiety and thoroughly cleaning all marked areas with an enzyme-based cleaner to reduce attraction back to those areas. One useful tool is “Feliway” diffusers, which emit a synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone that causes cats to feel confident and secure in their environment.
Our veterinarians can identify any other environmental modifications that may help to reduce your cat’s anxiety and prescribe anti-anxiety medication to improve their confidence and security so they will not feel the need to continue marking.
Litter box aversion is the other major cause of inappropriate elimination. In these cases, a cat urinates and often also defecates outside the litter box because they have developed a dislike for their litter box. Usually this involves a large volume of urine being deposited on a horizontal surface, usually on a soft substrate such as a rug or blanket.
Reasons a cat may refuse to use their box include inadequate litter box maintenance, a dislike for the litter, placement of the litter box in a high traffic/stressful area, fear of entering a covered litter box, and experiencing a stressful or painful event while in the litter box.
A thorough behavioral history will allow our veterinarians to determine which of these factors may be playing a role, and they will then advise you on the specific changes you can make to correct these factors.
As with marking, it is also very important to thoroughly clean soiled areas with an enzymatic cleaner to reduce attraction and repeated incidents. Sometimes, litter box re-training is necessary, which involves confining the cat to a small room with a litter box and all their other necessities for a few weeks until they are consistently using their litter box again.
Aggression Toward People
Usually when a cat behaves in an aggressive manner with their human family members, it is either due to overexcitement while playing, redirected aggression toward an individual they can’t get to (like a cat they see outside), or feelings of anxiety/stress. By taking a detailed behavioral history, our veterinarians can determine the underlying cause of your cat’s aggressive behavior, and help you implement a treatment program to correct it. In most cases, a significant improvement in signs of aggression can be achieved.
Aggression Toward other Pets
Conflict between cats in the same household is a common cause of stress for cats and concern for their owners. The potential causes of inter-cat aggression include conflict over territory and resources, social contention, redirection of aggression toward an inaccessible individual (such as an unfamiliar cat seen out the window), overexcitement, and anxiety.
With an understanding of the underlying cause of aggression in a specific situation, changes can be made to alleviate the source of the conflict and restore household harmony. The general approach to conflict over territory and/or resources is to create a larger territory by taking advantage of vertical space and to provide an over-abundance of all essential resources (litter boxes, food and water bowls, toys, napping spots, scratching posts, etc.) distributed widely throughout the home.
These strategies can also be very helpful for issues stemming from social conflict and anxiety, as they allow a cat to engage in all important activities without having to approach or interact with another cat in the process. Especially important for an anxious or stressed cat is to have access to lots of perches and hiding spots where they can feel safe and secure.
Cats that get into fights due to overexcitement may need more one-on-one stimulation with interactive toys (laser pointer, feather wand, etc.) that can serve as a substitute for their usual target (the other cat). Food-dispensing toys can also be very helpful in dissipating excess energy. In cases of redirected aggression, the stimulus must be identified and blocked. This can be tricky as often the trigger is outside and not in your control (like a neighbor’s outdoor cat), but usually with some creative thinking some changes can be implemented to limit exposure.
Usually, the first step in addressing inter-cat aggression, regardless of the underlying cause, is to physically separate the cats until appropriate changes to the environment can be implemented, and until both cats have settled down. Your veterinarian will then instruct you on how to gradually reintroduce them in a positive and low-stress manner.
In some cases where anxiety is motivating aggressive behavior, anxiety medication may also be helpful. Another useful tool is “Feliway Multicat” diffusors, which emit a synthetic version of the pheromone produced by a mother cat to stimulate bonding with and amongst her kittens. This social bonding pheromone can help to stimulate feelings of kinship and group cohesion that can alleviate conflict. The last resort if aggression between two cats does not improve with sustained efforts is to rehome one of the cats, but this is rarely necessary.
While scratching is a normal and healthy feline behavior, it can become quite a problem when the target of this activity becomes our furniture, carpets, and curtains. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that can be effective in protecting our homes from feline damage.
One of the most effective interventions is to offer your cat alternative, more appealing options to fulfill their natural desire to scratch. Scratching posts and horizontal mats made of attractive material such as sisal, cardboard, and bark should be placed in areas frequented by your cat. These should be large enough for your cat to full stretch out on. To make these even more attractive, catnip or “Feliscratch” (a synthetic copy of the feline scratch-attracting pheromone) can be applied to the posts.
Measures should also be instituted to make their previous scratching targets less appealing, such as covering them with plastic, aluminum foil, or double-stick tape until the cat has become accustomed to using his or her new scratching posts.
For cats who continue to scratch where they shouldn’t, claw caps (“Soft Claws” and other brands) should be tried. These comfortable plastic caps are contoured to a cat’s claws and have blunt tips. They are glued onto a cat’s claws so that when they scratch, it is much less likely they will cause any damage.
Most cats will try to chew them off at first, but after a few weeks, they become used to their new accessories and tolerate them well. As the outer surface of each claw naturally sloughs off, the caps will need to be replaced. One set will last a cat about a month. Declawing, or amputation of the digits at the last joint, is considered a last resort when all other strategies have failed.
Introducing a New Cat to the Household
It can be a very stressful experience integrating a new feline friend into the family. Will he/she get along with the resident cat(s)? What about the kids and the dog? As we all know, cats hate changes, but there are some strategies you can employ to help ease the transition and increase the odds of a successful introduction.
When a new cat or kitten is first brought home, they should be confined to their own room, with a litter box, food, water, and toys. No other pets should be allowed in here—this is their “safe space” as they acclimate to the scents and sounds of your household. They should have access to a hiding spot (such as under a bed), and be allowed to come out and explore the room on their own schedule.
Spend as much time as possible in the room both actively interacting with your new cat as well as doing other things—watching TV, reading a book, etc.—so they become familiar and comfortable with you. As long as he or she is actively exploring and seems relaxed, other human family members can also start to spend time bonding with them as well. Exchange small towels or other bedding items between the new cat and your resident pets, so everyone can become accustomed to everyone else’s scents.
After at least a few days, once the new cat is comfortable and confident in their room, confine your other pets and allow your new friend to explore the rest of the house under your supervision. Supervised excursions like this can be gradually increased in length until they have become familiar with the layout of the house and the location of litter boxes, food and water, and spots to hide and feel safe. Once this point is reached, formal introductions can be performed.
It is best for the new cat and any resident cats to first view each other from a distance. This can be done by putting them in separate kennels or carriers positioned at opposite ends of a room so they can get a good look at each other, but cannot interact. Pairing this with treats or a meal can help to create a positive mental association. Once everyone seems calm and disinterested, the next step is to confine the new addition to a large kennel and allow the resident pets to approach and interact in a limited way. Again, pairing this experience with extra tasty treats or a special meal can make this a positive experience.
After the resident pets have investigated and lost interest, switch everyone’s positions to allow the newcomer to approach the kenneled resident animals. Finally, supervised direct interaction should be permitted for gradually increasing periods of time until everyone has settled down to “business as usual.” This entire process may take as little as a few days or as long as several weeks, depending on the temperaments of the animals involved.
Starting your New Kitten Off on the Right Paw
Behavior problems are always easier to prevent than they are to treat, and there are a number of things new kitten owners can do to reduce the risk of behavior problems developing down the road. First and foremost, a kitten should be introduced to as many different things as possible that they may encounter in their life by the age of 9 weeks. During the 3-to-9-week-old window, kittens will readily accept and become comfortable with new things they encounter and will be much less likely to become anxious or aggressive if faced with them again in the future.
Make sure many people of different genders, ages, and appearances, gently handle and play with your kitten. If possible, introduce your kitten to a relaxed, friendly dog or two, and get them used to confinement in a carrier and car rides. Offer them foods of different flavors and textures (kibble, semi-moist, canned, chewy treats, etc.) to minimize the chance they will become a picky eater.
Get them used to having their ears, mouth, and paws handled, and introduce them to nail trimming. Engage in frequent interactive play sessions to help your kitten learn to expend their energy in a non-destructive way, and make sure favorite toys are always available for independent play. Kibble-dispensing toys are another great form of environmental enrichment to keep your kitten out of trouble when on their own. Pair all new experiences with tasty treats and fun toys to ensure that a positive memory is formed.
Kitten classes are a great aid to socialization and basic training, and are available in most areas. Once your kitten has had his or her first round of vaccines, they can safely attend kitten classes.
Let our highly trained and experienced team of veterinarians and veterinary technicians help you keep your cat as happy and healthy as they can be.
Call the Animal Clinic of Billings and Animal Surgery Clinic to schedule your cats next wellness examination with us today!
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ANIMAL CLINIC OF BILLINGS AND ANIMAL SURGERY CLINIC
providing our region’s companion animals and their families what they need and deserve since 1981
1414 10th St. West, Billings MT 59102