Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: Humping Behavior in Neutered Male Cat, Litter Box Issues, and More

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Dr. Marci Koski is a certified Feline Behavior and Training Professional who received specialized and advanced certificates in Feline Training and Behavior from the Animal Behavior Institute. While Marci has been passionate about all animals and their welfare, cats have always had a special place in her heart. In fact, Marci can’t remember a time when she’s been without at least one cat in her life. She currently relies on her five-member support staff  to maintain the feline duties of her household.

Marci’s own company, Feline Behavior Solutions, focuses on keeping cats in homes, and from being abandoned to streets or shelters as the result of treatable behavior issues. Marci believes that the number of cats who are abandoned and/or euthanized in shelters can be greatly reduced if guardians better understand what drives their cats to certain behaviors, and learn how to work with their cats to encourage appropriate behaviors instead of unwanted ones.

Do you have a question for Dr. Marci?
Leave it in a comment, and she’ll answer it next month!

Humping Behavior

I have a neutered male cat who is 5 years old. He was fixed when he was about 3 months old. He’s also an indoor cat. For the last year, a few times a month, sometimes 2 or 3 times in one week, he’d dry hump my leg. This would always be at night when I’m under the covers. I’m not sure why he does this, if it’s normal or something I should be concerned about. – Abby

Hi Abby,

Thanks for your question.  Humping behavior is not too terribly uncommon, but it is most frequently seen in intact males.  However, both males and females can demonstrate humping, even if they have been neutered or spayed.  Humping isn’t necessarily something to worry about, as it is a natural behavior.  However, it can also be a sign that your kitty is bored, stressed, or frustrated.  To ensure that your kitty’s stress levels are well managed and to nip boredom in the bud, you’ll want to step up your enrichment game.  Make sure that your cat has plenty of vertical space in the rooms he most commonly spends time in – cat trees, shelving, window perches – these can all help increase the amount of space he has available to explore and utilize.  You’ll also want to give him plenty of opportunities to scratch, which allows cats to leave scent marks throughout their territory and relieve stress when the stretch – have plenty of scratching surfaces available to him.  Next, give your kitty at least one (and two is better!) daily play sessions using an interactive wand toy – Da Bird is my favorite.  Each play session should be at least 10-15 minutes and take him through the prey sequence: staring, stalking and chasing, pouncing and grabbing, and performing a kill bite.  Follow each play session with a snack or small meal to initiate the hunt-eat-groom-sleep sequence.  Finally, make sure that your kitty has plenty of self-play toys to use when you’re not around – these are small objects like balls, mice, etc. or even food puzzles from which he can get treats.  These are no substitute for interactive play sessions using a wand toy, but if you rotate these toys regularly, he’ll be more likely to engage with them and not get bored.

Also, never punish or scold your cat for humping; after all, this is a natural behavior.  If it makes you uncomfortable, you can redirect him to a different activity (did I mention the wand toy???) or something that he enjoys.  Learn to recognize his body language that indicates he may be getting ready to hump; that’s the time to redirect.

And lastly, you might want to make sure he’s healthy with a vet check-up.  Urinary tract infections can lead to humping in some cats, and it will never hurt to rule out medical causes for this behavior.  I hope this gives you some peace of mind and some ideas to try with your kitty!

Litter box issues after urinary tract disease or diarrhea

Hi Dr. Marci, working for a rescue I get a lot of questions from people looking for help with litter box issues. I pass along a lot of your helpful advice regarding litter box placement, litter, size, number of boxes etc.  One situation that I often struggle with is when the cat refuses to use the box after there is a medical condition or crisis- such as when a cat has a bout of diarrhea or a urinary blockage. I always of course have the owners make sure the medical issues are resolved first and in addition to all the regular litter box rules I offer suggestions such as buying new boxes, adding new locations, trying empty boxes, using cat attract litter- even confining them to a smaller area. even after all of these suggestions some cats continue to ignore their box- to either pee or defecate depending on their issue and often either go near it or in the same room. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for getting cats who have a bad association with the box back to using their box? – Karen

Hi Karen,

Oh, this is a conundrum!  First, thank you for educating cat guardians about the best way to set up litter boxes in the home; so many issues can be avoided in the first place by making sure boxes are big enough and placed in good locations, etc.  But I know the issue that you’re asking about – sometimes, after a medical issue that comes with pain, cats will associate the litter box with that pain and refuse to go back to it.

If this is a problem, I agree with your advice to try to set up the litter boxes so that they are different than the original setup; this can include using a different type of box (shape, size, color, etc.), a different litters, and putting boxes in alternative locations.  I don’t necessarily like changing everything at once, since then you can’t tell what it is about the new setup that your cat did (or didn’t) like; therefore, I recommend changing one thing about the litter box at a time, or keep the original setup and offer something completely different or new at the same time (so the cat has a choice).  I also don’t like confining cats to small areas so that they are forced to use the box that is available to them, as this can cause increased fear, anxiety, and stress, which can compound a medical or litter box dissatisfaction; therefore, I use that tactic only as a last resort.

This can be a very tricky situation, but I think the best thing is to 1) look at where the cat has been going instead of the litter box, and 2) try to replicate that in a way that ends up with the cat using a litter box.  For example, if you notice that the cat prefers to use the carpet in one corner of the living room, run with that.  Try using no boxes at first – put down puppy pads in the area the cat is using for elimination to use, or put newspaper (or a carpet remnant, in our example) over the puppy pads.  And even though this might sound gross, if you have a tiny amount of litter (or something else) with urine in it or a small amount of fecal matter you can put on the substrate; that might draw the cat over to use that area.  Many cats will go over and try to bury it (scratch around it); once they use the new substrate (whether it’s a puppy pad and/or newspapers, carpet, etc), remove any solid materials and dispose of them.

Once you get a cat to use a new location without a box, gently transition them to using a box first by putting the substrate (puppy pads, newspaper, carpet remnant, etc.) on a large shallow tray, like a large baking sheet that has a small lip. Once the cat is fine using that, then try adding a little bit of litter, either the same type they had been using, or something entirely new to see if they have a preference.  Keep adding an “approved” litter gradually, then, you can switch from the tray to a very shallow storage box (which is what I generally recommend for litter boxes anyway).  Keep the same substrate in the box but add more litter each day.  Finally, remove the substrate (newspaper or carpet remnant, etc.) and just have litter in the box.

This can be a long process, and frustrating if guardians can’t find a combination of substrate, box, and/or litter the cat likes.  It may help to give the cats calming supplements like Zylkene or Solliquin, which contain safe, natural, hydrolyzed milk protein that has a calming affect on cats.  They may not solve the problem, but they can help take the edge off of stress and perhaps help cats let go of some of that pain association and try something new that is offered to them.  Of course, active playtime and enrichment activities can help with that too.

Again, thank you for working with cat guardians and your rescue – what you do is hard work, and I know that there are many cats and people who are grateful for all of the dedication and care you have given to them.  Hugs to you!

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Cat poops underneath litter box

Hi Dr. Marci, I have a 5 yr old female cat who has always had toilet issues.  Her latest issue is that she off and on goes underneath her kitty litter tray (poo).  There is no real pattern she does it when her toilet is clean or when it’s two days old etc.  She did have a urinary tract a couple years ago but has been diagnosed.  Not too sure how to stop this bad behaviour. –

Hi Rachael,

Thanks for writing.  It’s my experience that most situations where cats defecate outside of the litter box have some sort of medical issue that is causing or contributing (at least partially) to the behavior.  This could be something like feline inflammatory bowel disease, or even just a little bit of constipation or diarrhea (which can both cause a lack of control).  So, take note of the consistency of your kitty’s feces – are they on the hard side, or too soft?  Either way, my first piece of advice to you is to get your cat examined by a veterinarian to rule out any medical reasons for her behavior.

Next, you mention that when she does go outside of the box, she goes underneath her tray.  When cats go next to the box, it can indicate that there’s something about the litter box that they don’t like.  I’m wondering what you mean by “going underneath the tray” though – is the box raised up off the ground?  If so, I’d recommend putting the box firmly on the ground – she may not like hopping up to access her box, or may feel unsteady when she’s using it.  You’ll also want to make sure that you’re setting up the litter box correctly – have enough boxes in the home (one for each cat you have plus one is the general rule), and ensure that the box is big enough (generally, the box should be at least 1.5 times as long as the length of your biggest cat, not including the tail).  Don’t use litter box liners, and fine-grained, clumping, unscented litter is generally the preferred substrate for cats.

Also, is there a possibility that she’s “hanging over” the side when she poops?  If the box isn’t big enough, she may be missing the box, with the feces landing outside of the box, even if she is inside of it.  That’s another thing to consider.

But please get your cat checked out by a veterinarian – that’s going to be your first, and best, step.  It always helps to get medical issues ruled out so that you can address any litterbox dissatisfaction issues.  And if you still can’t resolve the problem, you’ll want to get in touch with a qualified cat behavior consultant (such as myself!) to look at your situation with a fresh eye.  A consultant will be able to help you identify things that your cat might not like about the litter box, or other stressors in the home that could be contributing factors.  Best of luck to you and your kitty!

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6 Comments on Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: Humping Behavior in Neutered Male Cat, Litter Box Issues, and More

  1. Kim
    August 30, 2020 at 4:20 am (2 months ago)

    Hi there!
    We have a beautiful 8 year old ginger foster cat that we recently adopted after foster failing haha! He used to be a outdoor cat but we have him as an indoor cat and he’s adjusted really well.
    We have had him for nearly two months now and in the last week or so he has started to become very bitey, and aggressive.
    He tries to bite us 80% of the time and will attack our legs as we walk past and has even jumped up onto the bed to attack my arm whilst I’m reading.
    He wasn’t like this in the first 4 weeks of us having him… he was very affectionate and smoochy. It’s really strange. Nothing has changed, we give him lots of space and he’s fed well, played with every day. Even when he comes up for cuddles and sits on my chest he will then attack my arm that’s laying by my side without warning or after petting.
    Really at a loss as to why he is acting this way ? When he bites we try not to react and pull back our hand or arm, but he comes back harder. He makes this small squeak meow too when he attacks. Like a tiny battle cry.
    I’ve tried not moving at all when he attacks but he just goes harder and harder.
    He just gnaws and gnaws until he draws blood.
    We have ordered a harness so we can take him on little adventures outside, hopefully that can help a little with any boredom. Would love some advice please.

    We just want him to be happy and content and back to his smoochy lovely self.

    Thanks in advance !

    Reply
  2. maureen
    April 30, 2020 at 2:54 am (6 months ago)

    Hello!
    I have a bit of a perplexing situation. In my neighborhood, around the time the quarantine started, a new little calico cat appeared in my yard. She was skittish at first, but since I have been mostly home for the last 6 weeks, I have spent alot of time outside in my yard and we kind of bonded. I love cats and I have one myself, but he is mostly indoors except when I walk him on a leash. Anyways, I knew this cat was sick as her eyes were really goopy sometimes and I could tell she had some respiratory issues so I kept her and my cat apart, which was pretty easy at first as she would go to another area when i would bring my cat outside. I also during this time thought she was a stray that someone dumped because she looked pretty ragged and had no collar so i started feeding her a little. I could tell she was jumpy but really sweet and I seemed to make her feel safe. I had been feeding her for a while thinking when the quarantine was over I would take her in and see what was wrong health wise and adopt her! Because of the quarantine, all the shelters were closed so I couldnt take her in to check if she was microchipped…..but then I saw that some neighbors were also feeding her so I left a note in their mailbox asking them what their relation was to her and I was thinking of taking her to the vet and taking her in to live with me. Well turns out, she has a lovely home across the street, she has feline herpes, she had been a street cat but had been living with them for 3 years indoors and had done well! Their Sr dog that they had that she liked had passed away and they had gotten a new puppy and now she wanted nothing to do with them. She stopped eating, seemed super depressed so they thought an indoor/outdoor situation may be better for her…but once they let her out she wouldn’t go back, and thats when she met me! Now she has decided that she lives in my yard in a very intense way and will not leave my porch or my yard. I have stopped feeding her as she has food at her house right across the street…I cant walk my cat because she has Herpes and follows us everywhere. She literally sits at my front door and just stares inside looking sad. I feel so bad, and where I live there are coyotes like crazy and I am afraid she will get eaten! We got her into the neighbors house but she miraculously opened their back screen door and bolted within minutes and was waiting for me to wake up the next morning at my front door! Neither of us knows what to do..she is really sweet but definitely some emotional trauma. Any thoughts on how we could best help get her back home safely, and give my cat his yard and porch back would be amazing. Thx so much!

    Reply
  3. Kim Miles
    April 19, 2020 at 9:35 pm (6 months ago)

    Hello Dr.Marci,
    I have a female cat that has been pooping outside her litter box for months. Always in the same room (bathroom)as her box. Lately she has started peeing on the rug but I added another litter box with new litter and now she is using that BUT now pooping outside of that one. I’m stumped! Two different types of litter and she still chooses the floor. She is missing a front leg due to amputation and is also diabetic. We recently had a vet visit and everything was fine expect her insulin was increased. Any ideas?

    Reply
  4. Bridget
    March 27, 2020 at 5:34 pm (7 months ago)

    SIGH….My 18 month old just underwent surgery for a “lime-sized ball” of yarn in her stomach and intestines. (Many thousands of dollars…)She had to climb to get it, so needless to say, all yarn is under lock and key. I’ve removed everything I can think of, fringe pillows, string, mouse toys with tails…The only things I cannot remove are the carpets. And yes, I’ve caught her sucking on the carpet. Any treatment for her pica? I cannot put ‘don’t chew’ on the whole house. 🙁

    Reply
  5. darlene
    March 25, 2020 at 12:58 pm (7 months ago)

    Good morning Dr Marci.
    I do have a little problem. I have Sir Tiger who just turned 4 yrs old he was a feral kitten at 14 weeks old Tabby I was suppose too be a foster but after working with him I couldn’t part with him. I also have a nine yr old who i had way before him she is pretty tolerant. Anytime I play with her he wants too play also but that isn’t a problem I will play with both but he wants the hand that is playing with her and she gets annoyed. So I try too play with her quietly when he is asleep but he seems too know something for he comes downstairs and wants too play too. So how do I play with both of them without him getting jealous.

    Reply

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