Written by Lorie A. Huston, DVM
The first step in correcting feline behavior problems is to recognize why your cat is exhibiting the behavior and to recognize normal cat behaviors. Feline behavior modification can be used to correct what we, as cat owners, see as behavior problems. In many cases, we are actually directing the cat toward another outlet for the behavior. In other cases, we will be trying to reduce the amount of stress experienced by the cat and reduce “abnormal” or undesirable behaviors that occur as a result of that stress.
Make Your Cat Feel Safe with Perches and Hiding Places to Modify Feline Behavior
Cats like to rest on elevated perches where they feel safe from predation and can survey the area surrounding them. Providing adequate numbers of perches for all cats in a household is extremely important. Cat condos can be used and even the back rests of furniture are often claimed by cats as perches. One of my cats likes the top of the refrigerator.
Cats also need hiding places where they feel secure. These should be places where the cat can retreat if he feels threatened or frightened or even if he just wants to be alone for a while. Cat beds, cardboard boxes, and medium to large carriers or crates (left open so the cat can enter and exit freely) are all suitable hiding places. Cats will also frequently hide under beds and furniture as well. In multi-cat households, there should be adequate numbers of hiding places available for all cats. Cats may prefer not to share their hiding spots.
Providing Scratching Areas and Entertainment for Your Cat is Part of a Feline Behavior Modification Program
Scratching posts should be provided to allow cats to sharpen claws and stretch muscles. These are normal cat behaviors and if you do not provide a place for your cat to do so, he will choose his own spot. Some cats prefer upright scratching posts while others prefer flat surfaces. Cat owners may need to experiment to find out which their cat prefers.
Toys are also helpful. These can be used to simulate a cat’s normal prey behavior. Experimentation may be necessary to determine which type of toy an individual cat prefers. Some cats prefer toys with feathers, some prefer toys which can be pulled along the ground and other prefer things like laser pointers which can simulate the movement of an insect. Toys also provide a great way for cat owners to interact with their cats and can provide much-needed exercise. (Obesity is also a major problem in cats, but that’s a different subject.)
Provide Adequate Resources for All Cats to Decrease Competition and Alter Behavior
In multi-cat households, several food and water stations may need to be provided so there is no competition for these resources between cats. As an example, I have one cat which will lie near the food dish and growl at the other cats when they come around to eat. By providing additional food and water dishes in other areas of the house, the other cats can get their food and water without having to get to the dish being guarded. Food and water dishes should also be located away from litter boxes.
Proper Litter Box Management is Essential to Correcting Behavior Problems
Litter boxes and the proper management of them is also extremely important.
- In a multi-cat household, there need to be adequate numbers of boxes provided. The rule of thumb is to provide one box for each cat plus one. (For two cats, three litter boxes. For three cats, four litter boxes. And so on).
- Litter boxes should be big enough to allow the cat to occupy the box comfortably and turn around in the box. Most cats prefer larger litter boxes to smaller ones. For young kittens and older cats that have mobility issues, a litter box with shorter sides may be necessary.
- Litter boxes should be located in low-traffic areas of the house which the cat or cats have easy access to and it is important that cats not be interrupted or frightened when using the box. A common mistake is putting the litter box near a washing machine that may be noisy enough to scare the cat away from the box.
- Keeping litter boxes clean is essential. Some cats will not use a litter box that is soiled.
- Hoods on litter boxes can also be problematic. Hoods can trap odors in the box and make the box unpleasant for a cat.
- Type of cat litter is also important for some cats. Cats may show a preference for one type of litter over another. In general, scoopable litters tend to be preferred over non-scoopable and are convenient for cat owners when it comes to cleaning as well. Scented litters should be avoided. Most cats do not find strong scents attractive. In cases where inappropriate urination or defecation is occurring (i.e. outside of the litter box), providing a number of different litters with different textures and watching to see which the cat prefers can help the cat owner choose the best litter for their individual cat.
Changes in Environment or Routine May Affect Feline Behavior
Changes which cause stress for cats include:
- new family members (such as a new child or a new roommate),
- new pets in the household (other cats, dogs, other types of pets),
- the loss of an existing pet or other household member,
- rearrangement of furniture,
- construction in or around the house, and
- changes in an owner’s schedule (for instance, being away from home more often or less often than previously or working a different shift than previously).
Even simple things like having company for dinner can be stressful for some cats. If you know there are going to be stressors taking place in your cat’s life, it is a good idea to provide an area where the cat can retreat by himself. This area should have food, water and litter boxes available. If noise is anticipated, leaving a television or radio playing in the background can be helpful. You should also attempt to spend extra quality time with the cat playing, petting or cuddling with him.
What Your Indoor Cat Sees Outside Can Cause Behavior Problems
While some indoor cats appear to enjoy watching birds, squirrels and other animals outside, some cats object to seeing these animals near their home. This is especially true if they are seeing stray cats near the house. In this case, keeping window blinds and doors closed can help block the view of these animals. Steps can also be taken to discourage stray and wild animals from approaching the house. Placing bird feeders away from the house, instead of near windows, can help. Motion sensors can be placed to scare off intruders also.
Use Feliway to Decrease Feline Stress and Alter Cat Behavior
Feliway is a pheromone product which can be used in the household to reduce stress and provide a calming effect on cats also. I use it in my house and notice a big difference in my cats’ behaviors with it. I would consider using it in any household which houses more than one cat, any household with cats that are experiencing behaviors characteristic of stress (nervousness, fear, irritability, fighting) or in any situation where stress is likely to be induced (moving to a new house, new family member, construction/renovation, etc.)
Lorie Huston is a veterinarian in Rhode Island, where she cares for the dogs and cats in the local community. She is also a successful freelance writer. At home, Lorie is the proud pet parent of six cats: Lilly, Midge, Rusty, Dillon, Rhette and Merlin (shown with Lorie). All six cats were rescued and adopted by Lorie after being injured, sick and/or abandoned.
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Featured Image Credit: Inga Gedrovicha, Shutterstock
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.