Behavior problems in cats can run the gamut from very simple to extremely complex. On one end of the spectrum you could have kitty getting on furniture when you do not want them there. On the other end of the spectrum you have chronic biting/scratching or not using the litter box consistently. Let us work from easy to hard.
Sharpening Claws on Furniture: When kitty uses your couch to sharpen his claws he is doing what comes instinctively to him. He is trying to shed the outer hull of his claws so that he has sharp, fine claws again. This can be a relatively easy fix or it could require more radical change in the cat. As with kitty getting on your furniture, a stern no and/or spraying kitty will stop that behavior in most cats. However, the cat will still need to sharpen the claws. A relatively easy fix is to get a scratching post for claw sharpening. We have seen that getting kitty his own log (yes, a fairly substantial piece of wood) will often work. Most pet stores sell cardboard scratchers which lie on the floor or can be hung from a door knob. You can work your way up the chain to multi-tiered carpeted commercial cat trees (hundreds of dollars at your neighborhood pet store) or make one yourself if you have the time and the talent. If you opt for the carpeted scratching post, please make sure the tree is tall enough and has a big enough base that the cat can stretch out fully and will not tip the tree over because of a small base or insufficient weight. The most radical fix is to have kitty declawed. With the advent of surgical lasers, the procedure is less invasive and healing begins during surgery. Be aware that this surgery can cost from $150-$350 depending on your vet.
Hiding: Many cats will hide when introduced to a new environment. It is not usually permanent and does not mean that kitty doesn’t like you. Be patient with the cat. They just don’t understand why they are in the new surroundings and are thinking: “what on earth did I do to deserve this kind of treatment.” The thing to do with your new cat is to talk to them, pet them softly if you can reach them, and encourage them to come out for more attention. This could involve getting kitty out from under the bed or behind the chair. Once you have kitty out from the hiding place, hold them, talk softly to them, and walk them around from room to room so that they can feel more comfortable with the new surroundings. If you cannot reach kitty in his hiding place, entice him with canned food, cheese, or a piece of meat. Although most cats will venture out when you are not home (or are asleep), sooner or later, you need to get kitty to the litter box and food and water bowls.
Door Darting: Some cats are so curious that when you open a door they feel compelled to see what is on the other side. In some cases, kitty prefers to make it a game – it is lots of fun to see mom and/or dad chasing and trying to get kitty back into the house. Again, the spray bottle of water is a good deterrent to this behavior. Keep a spray bottle near your primary exit door and spray kitty if he shows interest in following you out or even venturing out on his own. The presence of the spray bottle will quite often alert kitty to the danger of hanging around the door and they will stay away. Most cats are frightened when they encounter what is on the other side of the door and want to get back into their comfort zone as quickly as possible. On the other extreme, kitty is frightened and decides to run away. If this happens, make sure you put food, water, and something that has kitty’s scent or your scent on it near that door to possibly entice kitty back home. Kitty will not have any idea where he is when he gets out and, for that reason, will not know where to go for safety. If this occurs, make up flyers and hand them out to neighbors, form a search party and scour the neighborhood, but try not to panic. You should not chase the cat because that could be construed as playing and he will continue to “play” as long as you continue to chase. When looking for kitty, look under cars, shrubs, etc. as these places will provide kitty with a feeling of security.
Picking on Other Pets: Especially when introducing a new cat to your home, there could be a period of adjustment when one cat tries to dominate another. In some cases, it is just the adjustment to the new environment with other creatures sharing the space. In other cases, one cat will try to prove it is the dominant one in that household. If the latter is the case, most of the time the cats will eventually work it out and learn to coexist comfortably. In other cases, it may require human intervention. Spraying the aggressive cat with water will normally resolve the immediate problem and continued spraying will eventually get the cat to stop the unwanted behavior and learn to live together peacefully. You should never purposely show more attention to one cat than the other because cats can sense the preferential treatment and become withdrawn.Try to give equal attention to both cats and they will become friends faster.
Introducing a New Cat: When you bring a new kitty home where one or more cats already reside, it is important to introduce them properly. First, rub a dryer fabric softener sheet over both cats so that they both smell the same. Because new kitty smells different from old kitty, it could make old kitty uncomfortable. The ideal scenario is to put new kitty in a cage which is placed in a prominent area of your home. This way, old kitty can come to see what is different in his house without there being open conflict between the old and new kitties. When it is obvious that the two cats have accepted each other, then release new kitty to see the rest of its new home. In some cases, new kitty and old kitty hit it off immediately while in other cases, it may take days or weeks for the two to accept the presence of each other. Be patient as in 95% of cases they become friends in a relatively short time.
Nipping/Biting: Some cats like to nip at your legs, arms, or fingers when they are playing. We like to refer to this phenomenon as “love bites”. They typically do not hurt you and are intended to show you that your kitty loves you. Sometimes they get a little excited and bite harder than they intended. Although it may hurt when kitty does this, it was not intended to be that serious. Give kitty a stern no or a light tap on the nose, and the behavior will usually stop. If the cat bites and breaks the skin (repeatedly), this is a more serious problem, which must be dealt with at an early age. If you do not try to break your cat of this behavior when they are young, it could likely continue and possibly worsen. When kitty first displays this tendency, give them a very stern NO, a light tap on the nose, or spray them with your water bottle. It is important to take action quickly because cats have a relatively short attention span and /or memory. If you wait five minutes after your cat has bitten to take corrective action, the cat will probably have forgotten what it had done and won’t understand why it is being punished.
Not Using the Litter Box Properly: One of the most common problems we hear about cats is that they are urinating outside the litter box. The cause of this behavior could be as simple as not keeping the box clean. None of us likes to use a dirty toilet; why should your cat be subjected to that? Scoop the litter box at least once a day. If you have multiple cats, it is even more important to keep the boxes as clean as possible. However, do not scoop the box while kitty is still in it. He could get the idea that you don’t want him to cover what he has done, or worse, he may think that you don’t want him in there at all. Wait until the cat leaves the litter box and then scoop. Don’t play “hide the litter box” with your cat. If possible, always keep the box in the same place so that the cat is comfortable with the surroundings. If he has to hunt for the box, he my become discouraged and go potty wherever he chooses. Don’t switch brand/types of litter. If your cat is content with his usual litter, switching brands or types of litter may drive him away. The smell and/or texture of the litter lets kitty know that he is in the right spot, and it is okay to do what he intended when he came there.
Even if you do all of these things described above, your cat might still not use the box properly. The problem could be physical or psychological. If your cat has a urinary tract infection (UTI), there could be a physical need to urinate that is so intense, he goes wherever he is rather than waiting until he gets to the box. A simple exam by your veterinarian can determine whether kitty has a UTI or not. In some cases, the veterinarian must perform a urinalysis to determine if there are crystals in the urine, which could lead to blockage of the urethra. Another physical malady could be an injured paw. If kitty’s paw hurts, going into litter might not feel very nice.
The worst-case scenario is that the cat simply isn’t using the box even though there is no physical problem and you are maintaining the letter box properly. This is now a psychological problem which could be caused by any number of sources. For instance, your cat may resent the fact that you went away for a weekend and he did not get his normal attention. This can cause some cats to soil outside the litter box to show their displeasure. Bringing in another animal can cause kitty to not use the box if they are jealous of the attention the other critter is receiving The addition of a baby has been known to cause kitty to not use the box for the same reason as adding another creature does. The best solution for this situation may be to set aside a small amount of time each day to reassure kitty that he is still your friend. There could be the faint scent of cat urine from the previous occupant of your home. Even though we cannot smell where a cat has urinated months or years before, your cat can tell. If they smell cat urine, it may indicate that it is okay for them to use the same spot.
As you can see, the causes of this behavior are many and the diagnosis of what caused this behavior is difficult. The treatment of this ambient behavior can be fairly simple. If kitty is restricted to a small room (utility room, small bathroom, etc.) or a cage, it reduces the probability of his not using the litter box. Caging is the preferred method, as most cats will not soil where they eat and sleep. In that small area, the choice is reduced to not doing anything or using the litter box. If you confine your cat in an attempt to retrain them to the litter box, you need to keep them confined for two to three weeks to make sure the training is effective. This isolation/caging of the cat may need to be repeated if the first try doesn’t do the job. If your cat is using only one spot outside the box, you can discourage the use of that spot by sprinkling table pepper or moth crystals on the spot. Cats do not like the smell of pepper or moth crystals and may return to the litter box rather than have to smell the pepper or moth crystals again.
Use any of a number of commercially available cleaning products designed to eliminate pet odor to clean the spot thoroughly. Products available from your veterinarian are typically more effective than those at the grocery or neighborhood pet store. Don’t give up hope on your cat returning to the litter box. There are many causes for this behavior and many possible remedies. Consult your veterinarian for what you may want to try with kitty to eliminate the problem. Some veterinarians suggest the use of pharmaceuticals, such as Valium, to calm the cat and, hopefully, relieve the problem.
Overall Problem: We are frequently asked about behavior problems with cats that run the gamut of all the single points discussed above. When we question the person with behavior problem(s) in their cat whether the cat is neutered or not, the answer is very often a resounding no. Once a cat is spayed or neutered their behavior mellows significantly. In most cases, the neutering resolves all behavior issues with the cat. Aggression is gone, they behave, and they use the litter box properly. One more advantage to neutering!
Finally, another calmative (such as Feliway), has a pheromone diffuser which tends to settle kitty down and make him less stressed. The Feliway diffuser is a device that plugs into your electrical outlet and releases pheromones for a period of approximately sixty days. Refills of the pheromones are also available where you purchase the diffuser. This product can be helpful in almost all of the situations described above. The calmer the cat, the less prevalent the behavior is likely to be. Feliway and similar products are available at pet stores and most veterinarian offices.