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Cat Behavior

Cat Behavior Problems: Advice from a Behavior Expert

By Dr. Hagar Hauser, DVM| Behavior

Cats display a wide range of emotions which sometimes can be hard for humans to fully understand. This is particularly true when cats display aggressive or anxious behavior which when left unaddressed can cause problems in the home. It’s important to be proactive about cat behavioral issues and to understand some basic elements about cat psychology before getting one as your pet.

Today we’re asking Hagar Hauser, DVM Behavior Service at Metropolitan Veterinary Associates some important questions about cat behavior to understand our pets better.

What are some fundamentals of pet psychology to know before getting a cat?

Hagar Hauser: Before getting a cat, it’s important to know about its natural behaviors so you can provide opportunities for your cat to perform them in your home and help meet their needs. Natural cat predatory behavior is commonly seen in our pet cats. Their play repertoire includes stalking, pouncing, and grabbing a toy just like they would hunt in the wild. Cats also naturally eat multiple small meals throughout the day and may catch up to 20 mice per day! To help promote these natural behaviors, we can provide individual play time, offer them food puzzles, and hide treats for them throughout the home. It’s also important to know that cats utilize space in order to maintain harmony. If they are not comfortable with a person or another pet in the home, they should have the ability to maintain distance from them, especially on elevated surfaces. Finally, cats are thought to be low maintenance pets, however, they do require mental and physical enrichment in the home. Be prepared to offer them daily play time, toys, and one-on-one interaction.

What are some important cat body language cues to know?

While cats are predators, they are also a prey species so they hide when they are not feeling well or are fearful. Signs of a stressed cat include tail swishing, ears flat or back, dilated pupils, hackles (hair on back) raised, and vocalizations (hissing, growling). When in doubt, always wait for a cat to approach you before interacting with them. Cats rub their face against peoples’ legs, also known as bunting, to release a pheromone from their cheek gland. They may be soliciting petting if they nudge your hand or lean against you. A cat that is hiding should be left alone as they are using distance in order to feel secure.

What are the most common behavior issues?

The most common behavior problem that cats present to the veterinarian for is inappropriate elimination (urinating or defecating outside of the litter box). Some cats squat outside of the litter box and eliminate a normal amount, known as inappropriate toileting. Other cats spray a small amount of urine, typically on vertical surfaces, known as urine marking or spraying. Unfortunately, inappropriate elimination is a common reason for cats to be relinquished to shelters. There are ways to manage inappropriate elimination through changing the environment, modifying behavior, and in some cases using pheromones and/or medications. The second most common behavior problem that cats present for is aggression towards another cat in the home or towards their owner. The aggression may be redirected from another stressor in their life, such as an outdoor cat.

What’s the best way to handle an aggressive cat?

The most common cause of aggression in cats is fear or anxiety. When interacting with a cat, make sure to read their body language. If they are showing signs of stress, go slow and at the cat’s pace. Let them initiate the interaction on their own, if safe to do so, and offer them high value treats to make a positive association. If your cat is showing aggression towards you or anyone in your home, avoid handling them and consult with your veterinarian immediately.

What happens when two cats don’t like each other in the same household? 

It is not uncommon for cats to present to a veterinary behaviorist for aggression towards their housemates. As discussed earlier, cats use space to maintain harmony and if there are too many cats in a small space, they are not able to do so. This may present as one cat blocking another cat’s access to resources (litter box, food, owner) by physically standing in the way or using subtle body language to deter them, rough play, or overt aggression that includes hissing, swatting, scratching, and biting. Every cat should have a core area where they have access to their own food, water, toys, bedding, and litter box. If the cats are actively aggressive towards each other, they must be separated by physical barriers and the owner should consult with their veterinarian. While some cats may be reintroduced with gradual training (using desensitization and counterconditioning), others may never safely be reintroduced.

How does cat behavior change over time?

Kittens are often energetic and rambunctious pets. As they get older, they may be described as “low energy” while others are active throughout their adult life. If a cat has any anxiety or fears, they may intensify as they go through social maturity at three to four years of age. Therefore, if you notice your cat has any behavior concerns at a younger age, it’s important to address them as soon as possible. Other triggers that may result in behavior changes in your cat include environmental changes or illness. For example, if you move homes, bring home a new baby, add another pet, or another significant change occurs in your cat’s environment, then their baseline anxiety level can increase. Similarly, if your cat has gastrointestinal upset, pain, neurologic changes, endocrine disease, or other medical illnesses, then they may become more irritable. If you notice a change in your cat’s behavior, please consult with your veterinarian.

When is it necessary to see a specialist about cat behavior?

When a cat is exhibiting aggression, it is important to discuss safety guidelines with your veterinarian who may recommend referral to a specialist. Other reasons to see a specialist may include inappropriate elimination, inappropriate play behavior, separation anxiety, pica, feline hyperesthesia syndrome, or other behavior concerns. An appointment with a behavior specialist will include filling out a questionnaire that collects information about your cat’s behaviors, an appointment with an in-depth discussion regarding the behavior, and a thorough treatment plan. As a general rule, it is strongly recommended to address behavior problems sooner rather than later as cats typically do not grow out of them. Rather the problems may even worsen.

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