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Diagnosing Behavior Problems in Cats

Are you concerned about how your cat is acting? Has their behavior changed in a way that might lead you to believe they are experiencing health problems?  

Behavior issues are one of the most common reasons that adult cats are given away to shelters, and unfortunately they are much less likely than kittens to find new homes. House soiling, aggression and scratching are the most common cat behavior issues. Most of the behaviors cats display such as chewing, biting and scratching are actually normal cat behaviors. 

Do Behavior Issues Reflect Health Problems in Cats?

Many “health” problems faced by pet cats are associated with behavior problems or unmet expectations about behavior. Your veterinarian will first need to rule out any possible health problems that could be causing your cat's behavior to change. For example, a medical condition could be causing your cat to become aggressive or to urinate in the house. Stress can also have effects on behavior and can contribute to the development of certain diseases.

After ruling out medical causes, your veterinarian will often examine behavioral history before making any diagnosis. A behavioral history generally includes discussing the following: 

  • The sex, breed, and age of the cat
  • The age at onset of the condition 
  • The duration of the condition 
  • A description of the actual behavior (providing a video of the pet doing the behaviour can be extremely helpful)
  • The frequency of the problem behavior (hourly, daily, weekly, monthly)
  • The duration of a typical episode (seconds, minutes, hours) any change in pattern, frequency, intensity, and duration of episodes 
  • Any corrective measures tried and the response 
  • Any activities that stopped the behavior (for example, the cat falls asleep) 
  • The 24 hour schedule of the cat and owner, as well as any day-to-day changes 
  • The cat's living conditions and environment; anything else that the owner thinks is relevant
  • Description of people and other animals in the home. Did the behaviour start after a recent change in residents of the home or renovation of the home?
  • How many litter boxes are in the home and their location
  • What happens immediately before and after the behaviour

Cat behavior can change as cats learn and mature, your veterinarian will also consider how the problem initially started.

Common Cat Problems and Their Solutions

1. Litter box problems. This is often the most reported issue that people have with their cats, Talk to your vet first. Bladder stones, urinary tract diseases, crystals in the urine, diarrhea or constipation are all reasons your cat might start avoiding the litter box. 

Have at least one litter box per cat. If your cat has to stand in line before they can relieve themselves, they may decide to take their bathroom break elsewhere. 

Always keep the litter box clean. It's recommended that you clean the box at least once daily, twice if there's more than one cat in the house. Use only soap and water since most cats will find strong smelling scented products unpleasant.

2. Scratching. If your cat scratches furniture, rugs or curtains they are often doing it to work off energy, to play, to mark their territory, even to get rid of old claws. 

Scratching is easy to prevent:

Buy one or more scratching posts for your cat. Incentivize use of the post by rubbing it with catnip or honeysuckle.

Trim your cat’s claws. Ask your veterinarian or veterinary technologist for a demo, it’s a skill that can be learned.

Look into claw caps (also known as nail caps). These small, vinyl sleeves prevent cats from doing damage when they scratch.

3. Aggression. A cat may become aggressive because of illness, overcrowding, lack of socialization, maternal protection, or even simple play. Discuss this with your vet. If you or your vet cannot figure out why your cat is being aggressive, inquire about talking to a veterinary behaviorist.

4. Too much activity at night.  Affectionately known as the Zoomies (Frenetic Random Activity Periods), if your cat is unable to sleep at night, make sure it has no medical problems. Talk to your vet if you suspect there is an issue. One thing you can do is to ensure your cat’s environment is stimulating so there is plenty to do during the day, making your cat more inclined to sleep at night. 

5. Biting and scratching when playing. Cats and kittens love to play. Sometimes they can be too aggressive. It's important to give your cat toys, perches, and outdoor enclosures, as well as paper bags and boxes to explore. 

Also, Play with your cat for at least 10 minutes twice a day. Don't encourage your cat to play with your hands or feet. And, don't punish your cat for play bites and scratches. 

6. Yowling of a cat in heat. The best way to deal with this issue is to get your female cat spayed or neutered! 

Your veterinarian and veterinary team are here to help assist you and your cat in terms of changes in behavior. It seems there is unlimited information regarding behavioral issues that are available online. However, the best source of information is your veterinarian. They often know you and the medical history of your cat or kitten best,and are truly the resource to turn to when it comes to behavioral issues. 

Further Reading:

Cat Body Language

Body Language of Cats

Feline House Soiling

Low stress nail trims in kittens

What’s Behind My Cat’s Weird Behaviours