Behavior Problems

spraying | elimination problems | aggression | vocalization and overactivity | excessive grooming | destructive behavior | behavior modification strategies

Introduction: Animal behavior has been a subject of study, speculation, fascination, and frustration to mankind since animals and humans have co-existed. Many practicing veterinarians know a great deal about the behavior of domesticated animals and can help when a behavior problem arises. There are also specialists in animal behavior that are highly skilled and great resources. This section will focus briefly on some of the most common feline behavior problems and therapies.

Because many behavior problems are not the result of just one factor or influence, it is often difficult to specifically identify the cause for the problem. A behavior change can come about as a result of genetic, environmental, hormonal, disease related, and age influences. A given problem may evolve as a result of any number of these influences.

This discussion will not attempt to identify or describe all of the possible behavior problems that can be encountered in cats. This information should be used as a guide and reference if certain problems arise. For the specific diagnosis and then treatment for behavior disorders, a local veterinarian and/or animal behaviorist will need to be consulted.

Many of the major behavior problems encountered in cats will fall under one or more of the following broad categories:

  1. Spraying
  2. Elimination Problems
  3. Aggression
  4. Vocalization/Overactivity
  5. Excessive Grooming
  6. Destructiveness

Each of these categories will be discussed and specific problems within each category will be identified. Behavior modification tools, such as desensitization, reinforcement, and counterconditioning are described in greater detail below.

  1. Spraying:

    Spraying is a urine marking behavior which the cat performs in a standing position. The cat holds its tail erect and sprays urine backward onto an object. Urinating in a squatting position outside of a litter box is not considered spraying. Spraying is most likely to be a problem when the pet is an intact male cat. Female cats (both intact and spayed), and neutered male cats have been known to spray, but the incidence is much lower. A cat being treated with steroids also has a higher incidence of spraying, but withdrawal of the drug stops the behavior in most cases.

    The most reliable way to stop a cat from spraying is castration. Neutering a male cat stops or reduces spraying behavior in 90% of the cases. If neutering is not an option, other steps can be taken to remove or reduce the stimuli contributing to the behavior.

    If the object or the situation that causes the spraying can be identified (sight of another cat, foreign objects being brought into the house, etc.), limit the catís access to that stimulus. If the cat sprays in a few areas of the house, changing the look of the area may help. Placing objects, furniture, or the catís food or bedding in these areas may discourage the animal from using that location. It may also be beneficial to limit the catís access to these areas. Many pet shops and retail stores stock pet repellent for this purpose. Certain medications may also be used to treat persistent markers.
  1. Elimination Problems: A cat may avoid using a litter box for a number of reasons. The most common reasons are addressed below.
  1. Undesirable Litter Box or Area - Cats may find a litter box unsuitable for reasons such as infrequent cleaning, the use of the box by more than one cat, undesirable box shape/litter (fragrance, texture, etc.), or placing the litter box in an undesirable location (the laundry room or closet). The cat may have repeatedly experienced a bad event in the litter box, such as having been caught there for medication administration. Infrequent cleaning of the litter box is the most common reason for a cat to not use it. Unfortunately, by the time the owner figures out what the problem is, the cat has often developed a preference for eliminating elsewhere.

  2. Location Preference - If a cat has developed a preference for eliminating in a certain spot, steps can be taken to remedy the problem. First of all, the owner must identify the reason the cat is not using the litter box (some of the suggestions found above can be helpful). Once the reason for not using the litter box is resolved, the cat can be kept from the preferred elimination spot in a number of ways. The simplest way to discourage the cat is to not allow it access to the room it was using as an elimination site. If this is not practical, pet repellents can be used. Changing the site by placing bedding, toys, or a scratching post in the area can also be helpful in these circumstances. The area also needs to be thoroughly cleaned with a pet odor neutralizer (such as Out!) that can be found in most pet stores. Because it will attract the cat to eliminate in that area, avoid using any product that contains ammonia.

  3. Substrate Preferences - Some cats develop a preference for eliminating on certain surfaces (carpet, tile, vinyl floor, etc.). If the cat is using a carpet as its elimination area, it is essential that all areas which have been used by the cat be cleaned with an enzymatic pet odor remover. After the carpet or rug is dry, it needs to be covered with a surface the cat does not find attractive, such as tin foil, newspaper, or heavy plastic. Plastic is the better choice for covering large areas of carpet, since it allows the room to be used. On vinyl or hardwood floors, newspaper or inexpensive area rugs can be used to discourage elimination. Some cats will develop a preference for eliminating in bathtubs, basins, or sinks. This elimination problem can be cured by keeping approximately 2 inches of water in these areas at all times. Over a period of time, the amount of water in the basins can be gradually reduced.

    Once the cat has started using the litter box again, slowly (over a period of months), take up the plastic or newspaper. Start with the areas the cat is least likely to use as an elimination site.

    Changing the surface a cat is eliminating on is not a sure way to get the cat to use its litter box. The cat may not like the shape of the box or the type of litter used; therefore, it may take some experimentation to find out which the cat will prefer (some of the suggestions found in the discussion on undesirable litter boxes above can be helpful). If all else fails, moving the litter box to the preferred elimination spot may result in use of the box. The box can then be gradually moved to a more appropriate spot.
  1. Aggression:
  1. Fear induced or defensive aggression - If two cats have been living together peaceably for some time and suddenly turn aggressive upon seeing one another, this is most likely fear induced or defensive aggression. The sure sign of defensive aggression is the posture the cats take. The defensive posture is identified by an arched body, ears pinned back, and the fur standing on end. Defensive aggression can occur between cats of any age or gender, regardless of whether the cats are intact or neutered. If the aggressive cats are intact, the problem can often be alleviated by having both animals neutered and/or spayed. This problem can also be improved by using behavioral techniques such as desensitization and counterconditioning.

    Unlike territorial aggression, cats displaying defensive aggression do not seek each other out.

  2. Territorial Aggression - This type of aggression is also between two cats living in the same household, but the difference is that one cat actively seeks out the other. The aggressor is relentless in its attacks on the other cat. If the aggressor is not hostile toward people, the best solution is to find it another home where it would be the only cat in the household.

  3. Aggression Toward People - Sometimes cats become aggressive toward people. Most of the time it is in a playful manner and includes behaviors such as stalking, hiding, and rapid attacks on legs or hands. This is called "play-induced aggression." The cat usually directs this play-induced aggression toward its favorite person in the household. Itís important to note that this type of aggression usually does not hurt the person and is most often exhibited by an "only cat" in a household.

    Before using behavior modification strategies to correct this type of aggression, make certain the cat is getting enough exercise, playtime, and social interaction with people. If the cat is getting a reasonable amount of these, and persists in attacking the person, first try to redirect the aggression. For example, if there is a certain event in which the cat always attacks (when a person comes out of a room, comes in the door, etc.), aggression can be redirected by throwing a toy the other way. The cat will usually go after the toy instead of the person. If redirecting the aggression does not work, a well-timed punishment can be used. A loud noise or a squirt from a water bottle right before the attack occurs is usually enough to deter the cat. If the punishment is timed correctly, it should only take a few times before the cat gives up. The owner may have to carry the squirt bottle or noisemaker around the house in order to administer the punishment at the appropriate time. Another effective measure for stopping play-induced aggression is to get the cat another cat of the same age to play with.

    Sometimes cats direct aggression toward people in a manner which is not so harmless. Cats who are harmfully aggressive to people are often cats that feel aggressive towards or threatened by another cat. Instead of attacking the other cat, it attacks a human, often inflicting painful bites and scratches. An owner can learn to live with this type of cat by learning to recognize the signs of aggression early on (the fear posture), and stay clear of the animal for a few hours. This type of predatory aggression can be especially dangerous for infants or toddlers who may be attacked viciously. These excessively aggressive cats may require adoption into homes where their special needs may be managed without posing a danger to children.

    The last type of aggressive cat is one that shows territorial aggression toward people. Most often these cats will attack strangers who enter the home. The best remedy for this situation is to lock the cat in a room if new people will be coming into the house.
  1. Vocalization and Overactivity:

Cats will sometimes pace and vocalize ("meow") excessively. Sometimes the reason is a medical problem or disease; more often, the cat is trying to get the ownerís attention. These cats may want to be fed, played with, petted, let outside, etc. In these cases, giving the cat what it wants when it vocalizes only perpetuates this behavior. The cat will quickly learn that if it meows enough, it will get what it wants. This behavior can be bothersome for some owners, and can be curbed in most cases.

Making sure the cat is fed and has adequate play time and social time with the owner will go a long way toward reducing vocalization. Other behaviors such as meowing and scratching at a door to go out, or begging for food can be handled with a squirt from a water bottle or a loud noise. It is important to remember that giving in to what the cat wants when it vocalizes reinforces that behavior. Whatever method is chosen to stop the vocalization, do not give in because the cat is being bothersome. This tends to make the problem worse and more difficult to resolve. Providing rewards in the form of treats, praise, and affection when the cat is calm and quiet is of great importance. This is known as positive reinforcement and will show the pet what kind of behavior is appropriate.

It is important to know that a cat will pace and vocalize for reasons not related to manipulating its owner. If the cat is excessively restless or vocal and it is not associated with wanting something, the cat should be taken to the local veterinarian. This behavior can signal a medical problem, especially if the cat is older.

  1. Excessive Grooming:

It is well known that cats are clean animals. They spend much of their time grooming. Sometimes, though, a cat will groom excessively to the point of hair loss or self-mutilation. This type of activity is usually exhibited by animals suffering from extreme anxiety or stress. Things that can cause a pet increased anxiety include boarding, hospitalization, adding a new pet to the home, and changes in diet. If the source of the anxiety can be identified, steps should be taken to reduce the petís exposure to it. If all else fails, a local veterinarian can prescribe anti-anxiety medication to stop the excessive grooming.

  1. Destructive Behavior:

One of the most common problems encountered by cat owners is scratching of furniture, or "claw sharpening." Cats sharpen their claws to remove the outermost sheath, exposing new claw underneath. It is also done to leave a visual mark on their territory. This behavior can be minimized by teaching the cat to use a scratching post or a piece of tree bark instead of furniture. When introducing a cat to a scratching post, it is often helpful to put sheets of newspaper around the post. This gives the cat something to shred with its claws. Most cats that are allowed some time outdoors do not spend a lot of time claw sharpening indoors.

If the owner cannot persuade the cat to use a scratching post, punishment with a squirt bottle or loud noise may work, although it is very likely the cat will simply wait until the owner leaves the room to sharpen its claws. Excessively destructive cats may need to be declawed. Before the decision is made to declaw a cat, the local veterinarian should be consulted. A veterinarianís advice can be invaluable in this situation. Declawing a cat is very painful and makes the cat less able to defend itself. However, if performed properly, with pain medication and under the right circumstances, declawing can be a useful option. If the decision is between declawing a cat or dropping it off at the shelter, the former is clearly the best option.


Behavior Modification Program: Planning and accomplishing a behavior modification program is usually very challenging and time consuming; however, the results can be very rewarding if the program is carried out thoroughly and patiently. A behavior modification program is made up of the various strategies or tools which have been previously mentioned under each specific behavior problem. These strategies are also listed in the following information with a brief description of the principle behind each one. Strategies must be selected based on a diagnosis of the underlying behavior disorder. Professional help is recommended when developing a behavior modification program for any animal with a behavior problem.

  1. Behavior Modification Strategies:
  1. Desensitization - Desensitization is one of the most commonly used techniques in behavior modification therapies. It consists of gradually exposing the cat to the event or object which causes the undesirable response. Desensitization is especially useful with anxieties and fears, but is also very helpful in some types of aggression and elimination problems. Desensitization is often combined with other techniques such as positive reinforcement and counterconditioning.

  2. Counterconditioning - Counterconditioning is the replacement of undesirable behavior with an acceptable behavior. The acceptable behavior must interfere directly with the undesirable behavior. For example, if there is a certain event in which the cat always attacks (when a person comes out of a room, comes in the door, etc.), aggression can be counterconditioned by throwing a toy the other way. The cat will usually go after the toy instead of the person. The acceptable behavior can also be rewarded using positive reinforcement techniques. Counterconditioning may be useful for animals with anxieties, aggression, elimination problems, and other disorders.

  3. Reinforcement - This is the process of altering the probability that a certain behavior will repeat itself. Reinforcement can be either negative or positive.
  1. Negative reinforcement: Negative reinforcement works by motivating the animal to do a certain behavior by removing a negative stimulus. Squirting a cat that is scratching furniture with a water bottle is an example of negative reinforcement. The good behavior of not scratching the furniture is reinforced when the cat stops getting squirted with the water bottle. Negative reinforcement can be direct (close range), remote (from a distance), passive (i.e. withholding attention), or active (i.e. squirt bottle).
  2. Positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement also works by motivating the animal to do a certain behavior; however, a system of rewards is used to reinforce good behavior. Rewards generally used in positive reinforcement are attention, play, toys, and nutritious treats.
  1. Flooding - Flooding is a technique, similar to desensitization, in which the animal is exposed to the object or event which causes fear or anxiety. The major difference is that instead of gradual exposure to the object or event, the cat is exposed at very high levels until it stops responding. Flooding is an extremely stressful technique for the animal, and if not used properly, can result in emotional damage. Flooding should generally be used as a last resort in most situations.