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Compendium February 2006 (Vol 28, No 2)

Understanding Behavior: "Preventing Behavior Problems in Cats"

by Terry Marie Curtis, DVM, MS, DACVB

    A few of the common behavior problems in cats include furniture scratching, eliminating (urinating and/or defecating) outside the litterbox, urine marking, and aggression (directed at humans and/or other pets in the household). The perfect time to educate clients about these potential problems and discuss ways to prevent them is when clients first come to the clinic with their new kitten(s).

    Inappropriate Scratching

    Scratching is normal feline behavior, but there is no single reason for it. Scratching is part of grooming behavior, serving to loosen the old layers of the nails and hone them into sharp points. Scratching is also a marking behavior, providing visual and olfactory cues to other cats. Not all surfaces appeal to all cats, so kittens may scratch to learn which substrate is most desirable. Appropriate vertical options include cat "condos" and "trees," real tree trunks, and door hangers, and horizontal options include corrugated cardboard and woven "welcome mats" (see box). Regardless of the owner's choice, it is important to place the scratching substrate in an area where the cat spends a lot of its time. If the cat likes catnip, the dried herb can be sprinkled onto the post or mat to make it more desirable. If the cat ignores the various scratching alternatives and continues to scratch inappropriate items, the client should attempt to mimic the texture and density of the preferred substrate and offer it in a "legal" manner, such as wrapped around a wooden post.

    In addition to offering a desirable scratching substrate to the cat, the owner needs to make inappropriate surfaces aversive. This can be done by applying any double-sided tape product or aluminum foil to off-limit items (e.g., the arms of furniture) or by using motion detectors that make a loud sound when the cat gets too close to an inappropriate item. Punishment for scratching works only if the following conditions are met:

    • The punishment must happen every time.
    • The punishment must happen immediately after the behavior.
    • The punishment must be appropriately intense so that the cat stops scratching but does not become afraid or aggressive.

    In many cases, cats learn not to scratch an inappropriate item only when the owner is not around; a motion detector or double-sided tape can provide punishment even when the cat is alone.

    Another important part of preventing scratching problems is keeping the cat's nails trimmed. Veterinary staff can teach clients how to trim their cat's nails when the cat is young. It is important to make nail trimming a positive experience for the cat. Giving the cat treats during the "pedicure" can help. Clients should be taught how far back the nail can be trimmed because cutting into the quick can result in a negative experience for the cat, causing it to be afraid of nail trimming in the future. Other options for nails include various types of nail caps and surgery, such as onychectomy and tendonectomy. Clinicians should remember that after tendonectomy, owners still need to be able to trim the cat's nails. If the client is not able to trim the cat's nails because the cat becomes too aggressive, tendonectomy may not be the right choice.

    Inappropriate Elimination and Urine Marking

    With inappropriate elimination, the cat generally stops using the litterbox and instead eliminates (i.e., urinates and/or defecates) in areas with a texture suitable to the cat. The cat may show signs of aversion to the litterbox and/or litter. When a cat inappropriately eliminates, it usually squats and deposits a large amount of urine.

    With urine marking, the cat generally continues to eliminate in the litterbox. The target areas of urine marking have behavioral significance. When a cat urine-marks, it usually stands with its tail up and twitching. A small amount of urine is usually deposited. It is important to note that by the time the owner mentions the problem to veterinary staff, there may be a combination of inappropriate elimination and urine marking (i.e., the cat deposits a large amount of urine on vertical surfaces).

    Medical causes of inappropriate elimination need to be investigated and include any disease causing polyuria, dysuria, diarrhea, or constipation; neurologic diseases; and any condition causing pain or discomfort while the cat is urinating or defecating (e.g., declawing, tendonectomy). A change in litter after surgery can also be the cause. In elderly cats, arthritis, visual or olfactory impairment, cognitive dysfunction, and hyperthyroidism should be considered. In some cases, the cat's hair length can be a contributing factor. Long hair in the perianal and/or perineal areas can cause discomfort during elimination, and long hair between the toes may change the tactile sensation in the litterbox.

    In a multicat household, there may be more than one culprit. Confining one cat may determine which is the eliminator, but if there is an underlying social issue, confinement may not help. For example, the confined cat may eliminate normally because it is no longer being intimidated.

    Differentials for inappropriate elimination include substrate aversion or preference, litterbox aversion, and location aversion or preference.

    With substrate and/or litterbox aversion, the signs may include perching on the edge of the box, minimal digging and/or covering, shaking the paws, or a hurried exit. Causes include a change in the substrate, litterbox and/or litter type, poor litterbox hygiene, and/or a history of a painful event associated with the current litter and/or litterbox. When the cause is substrate preference, the cat prefers a specific texture, such as carpet, wood floor, or linoleum. This could be the result of early learning. A multitude of substrates are available, but research1 shows that cats prefer a finely textured clay litter. However, there are individual preferences for texture, granularity, and coarseness. The important thing is to provide a substrate that the cat likes. Owners may need to be creative by trying substrates such as diapers, carpet swatches, towels, or potting soil, especially if the cat is accustomed to eliminating outdoors.

    There should be plenty of litterboxes (i.e., as many as the number of cats plus one more). The litterbox can be uncovered or covered, but the owner should ensure that the cat can easily get into and out of the litterbox without having an unpleasant encounter with another cat or a "hungry" dog. It is important to keep the litterbox clean by scooping it at least once a day. The litter should be completely changed and the box washed with mild soap and water every 1 to 2 weeks. It is also a good idea to place the litterbox where the cat spends most of its time. Ideally, the litterbox should be placed in an area that is quiet and well lit, away from the cat's food and water. Location aversion or preference is not common. It may not be discovered until the litterbox is moved to another location for some reason and the cat continues to eliminate in the former location. There may be an anxiety component, such as separation anxiety, in which the cat eliminates outside the litterbox while the owners are away or when they return.

    Urine marking (spraying) is normal feline communication. However, the message of the communication is not entirely understood. Spaying or neutering decreases the incidence of urine marking by approximately 90%. Denying access to windows for indoor cats and deterring outdoor cats by using various available motion detectors may help. Interactive play is recommended. Feliway (Veterinary Products Laboratories, Phoenix, AZ) spray or diffuser may also help. Feliway is marketed as a synthetic analogue of feline facial pheromone used "to calm the cat in an unknown or stressful environment≥." Pharmacologic treatment (including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [e.g., fluoxetine, paroxetine, sertraline] and tricyclic antidepressants [e.g., clomipramine]) for urine marking is usually warranted, and its use should be based on the cause of the problem (i.e., anxiety component), the health of the cat, pertinent underlying social interactions, owner compliance (i.e., can the owner medicate the cat one or two times per day?), and expense.

    Other alternatives for cats that urine-mark include cat enclosures in which the cat is safe but has access to the outdoors. Cat fences can keep cats safe inside the yard and stray cats out.

    Prevention of feline elimination problems can begin with client education, which can be done by veterinarians or members of their staff. Discussing litterbox issues (e.g., number of litterboxes, hygiene, litterbox location) is important. Clients and their cats will be prepared to succeed, and clients will know what to watch for and will be more likely to contact their veterinarian as soon as a problem develops.

    Aggressive Behavior

    Play and fear are the most common causes of feline aggression toward humans. In play-motivated aggression, the cat tends to take a stalking stance and pounce on its "victim." Many owners may feel awful that their cats "hate them," but, in fact, the opposite is true—the owner is the most fun thing around! In cases of play-motivated aggression, there is often only one cat in the household and nothing else to play with. Therefore, it is important to discuss with clients the need for appropriate cat toys. In some cases, adding another cat may help.

    In fear-motivated aggression, the cat tends to hide from the person it is frightened of. However, there are cases in which the cat may attack, especially if it is cornered and cannot get away. An aversive incident, such as a loud noise, that occurred in the past may cause a cat to be afraid of a particular person. If that is the case or the cat is just timid in general, desensitization and counter-conditioning can be used as treatment. In desensitization and counterconditioning, the cat is exposed to the person closely enough that the cat is aware of the person but far enough away that the cat does not feel threatened. While the cat is in the "scary" person's presence and not attempting to flee, it is important to reward it (e.g., with treats, petting, and/or play). The person and cat can slowly be moved closer together, and the cat should be rewarded each time. It is important to conduct desensitization and counterconditioning exercises gradually so that the cat learns that good things happen when the "scary" person is around.

    Socialization and other long-term influences on behavior are often restricted to early stages in the life cycle and are called sensitive periods. Prevention of fear aggression involves working within the cat's normal sensitive periods for socialization toward humans and play. For cats, the sensitive period is considered to be 2 to 7 weeks of age. Kittens that are held early (i.e., 3 to 14 weeks of age) spend more time with humans and more readily approach them, showing less fear. Play is first seen in kittens by 3 weeks of age. It increases from 4 to 11 weeks of age and then decreases. By 8 weeks of age, almost all play is in pairs. This is important to realize when raising a kitten. If the kitten is alone for most of the day, it will be ready to play with its "pair mate" when its owner is home. Play-motivated aggression can be prevented by the owner playing more with the kitten and/or adding one or more feline playmates.

    Research2 shows that cats become more attached to each other and groom each other more if they are raised together from kittenhood. Therefore, educating clients about the benefits of adopting more than one kitten at a time can prevent a number of feline behavior problems. Because kittens learn how to be socially appropriate from their mothers, it is also a great idea to adopt the queen at the same time as the kittens.

    1. Borchelt PL: Cat elimination behavior problems. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 21:257-264, 1991.

    2. Curtis TM, Knowles RJ, Crowell-Davis SL: Influence of familiarity and relatedness on proximity and allogrooming in domestic cats (Felis catus). Am J Vet Res 64:1151-1154, 2003.

    References »

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