Cat Behavioral Problems: 3 Common Types

By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley December 30, 2018

Cats continue to grow in popularity as household pets with 30.4% of U.S. households owning at least one cat (AVMA, 2012). Recently it has become more common for cat parents to keep their cats exclusively indoors. This helps protect cats from many risks such as getting lost, predation, car accidents, territorial aggression, and injuries and diseases caused by wild animals and other cats. However, sometimes when we bring our cats indoors they may be unable to perform natural behaviors or remove themselves from stressful situations, which can lead to behavioral problems (Heidenberger, 1997).

Common behavioral problems in domestic cats include inappropriate elimination outside the litter box, scratching furniture, aggression toward other cats in the household, and aggression toward the cat parent or other humans (Heidenberger, 1997; Hart & Hart, 2013; Strickler & Shull, 2014). Behavioral problems are the number one reason cats are given up to animal shelters (Strickler & Shull, 2014). Many cat parents feel helpless and unable to fix or unwilling to deal with these issues. But if your cat is showing any of these behavioral issues, it is important to know that there is hope! Cats are trainable and do respond positively to behavioral interventions if they are done properly. Here we will address some of the common behavioral problems, why they may occur, and discuss some solutions. It is important to note that any sudden changes in your cat’s behavior could be an indicator of a health issue, and a trip to the veterinarian to rule out health issues should always be the first step.

1. Eliminating Outside the Litter Box

The most common behavioral problem that lands cats in animal shelters is inappropriate elimination outside the litter box (Berteselli et al., 2010; Hart & Hart, 2013). Under natural conditions, cats tend to use the same area to eliminate, using odor to detect their preferred spot. Because of this, if a cat starts going to the bathroom outside the litter box, cat parents may have to spend a lot of time and money on properly cleaning the spot to prevent future accidents. Unfortunately, if the root of the problem is not resolved, cats will continue to go to the bathroom outside the litter box (Hart & Hart, 2013). If your cat is going to the bathroom outside of the litter box, it is important to clean the soiled area with an enzymatic cleaner specific to cats. These cleaners are specially designed to break down the specific proteins found in cat urine and feces and will help eliminate residual odors.

If your cat regularly uses their litter box and suddenly starts eliminating outside of the box, you should take your cat to the veterinarian to rule out any medical issues. Some cats will start eliminating outside of the litter box if they have a bladder infection or other disease that causes them pain when they go to the bathroom. They begin to negatively associate the litter box with pain and will stop using it until the issue is resolved.

If your veterinarian rules out any medical issues, the next step you should take is evaluating your litter box situation. Cats can be particular about their litter boxes, so spending some time learning your cat’s preferences can save you a lot of trouble (Villeneuve-Beugnet & Beugnet, 2018). Sudden changes to your cat’s litter boxes should also be avoided, like changes in type of litter, box, or location. If you want to make a change, make it gradual and closely monitor your cat’s response (Hart & Hart, 2013). Many cats tend to prefer unscented, fine clumping litter. If given a choice of litter box type, cats show a strong preference for large, open boxes with deep litter. In multi-cat houses, you should have one litter box per cat plus one extra. Litter boxes should be placed in different areas around the house and their placement should allow the cats to freely use the litter box without being bothered or ambushed by the other cats. You should also avoid putting your litter boxes in areas with a lot of disruption, like by busy doors or by loud pipes or appliances (Villeneuve-Beugnet & Beugnet, 2018).

The primary reason for cats developing an aversion to their litter box is cleanliness. Cleaning the litter box is probably one of the most hated jobs of being a cat parent, but it is important to provide your cat a clean litter box (Villeneuve-Beugnet & Beugnet, 2018). Imagine your cat’s litter box as your own bathroom: If you walked into the bathroom, and there was urine and feces leftover or other gross messes on the toilet, would you want to use it? Scoop the litter box at least once daily, if not twice. It is recommended to completely change and replace the litter every 1 to 3 weeks, depending on cat preference and type of litter. At this time, you should also wash the litter box itself with a mild, unscented, cat-safe detergent, and let air-dry (Hart & Hart, 2013; Villeneuve-Beugnet & Beugnet, 2018).

If your cat is going outside the box, start by thoroughly cleaning the affected area with the proper cleaner. Next, cover the area with plastic or otherwise make the area inaccessible to the cat. Another option is to put a litter box in the spot the cat is eliminating and see if they start using the box. The next step is to figure out what the cause of the problem might be by offering your cat a preference test. Offer multiple different litter boxes with different types of litter (including some boxes with the familiar litter) in a variety of locations. Take note of which litter boxes your cat is choosing to use. If you have multiple cats, observe interactions between cats to identify tensions or competitions that may be causing problems. You can also consider keeping your cat in one small room, such as a bathroom. Sometimes keeping your cat in one space with a litter box helps retrain them how to use the litter box. Once your cat is regularly using the litter box again, you can allow them to re-enter the rest of the house (Hart & Hart, 2013).

Declawed cats tend to be more likely to have issues with using the litter box. Declawing a cat can cause pain in their paws, which creates negative associations with using the litter box. Digging in the litter can cause them pain, either immediately after they have been declawed or as they age and develop arthritis as a result of this procedure. Declawed cats that are having litter box issues tend to do well with lighter litter options, such as lightweight clay or wheat-based litters. If you have an aging declawed cat that is starting to have litter box issues, you can also talk to your veterinarian about pain management options (Martell-Moran et al., 2018).

2. Scratching Furniture

Another problem behavior that gives cat parents a lot of grief is when their cat scratches their furniture. Under natural conditions, cats use their claws for defense, hunting, and communication. Scratching objects helps to condition the claws and keep them in shape. It also leaves olfactory and visual cues about the cat’s territory (Landsberg, 1991; AVMA, 2016). Even when they live in our homes, cats maintain the need to scratch and may do so on our carpets, furniture, or other inappropriate items.

The trick is to figure out their scratching preferences and to provide them their preferred scratchers. There are many different types of cat scratchers, from simple scratching poles to elaborate cat trees with multiple scratching surfaces. Scratchers come in a variety of materials like wood, sisal rope, corrugated cardboard, and carpet (Landsberg, 1991). Provide a variety of options for your cat and put them in many different locations in the house. Many cat parents make the mistake of putting scratchers and cat trees in spare rooms or places that are out of sight of guests. Cats like to scratch in areas of the house that are frequently used, so set your cat up for success by putting their scratchers and cat trees in common areas where you and your family spend a lot of time. Cats like to use scratching as an opportunity to stretch their muscles and have evolved to scratch vigorously on tree branches. Providing sturdy cat scratchers that allow them to fully stretch out their body will help encourage your cat to use the provided scratchers. Cat scratchers should be at least 2 ½ feet tall or longer to accommodate this (Landsberg, 1991; Seksel, 2015).

If your cat is scratching your furniture, put scratchers in front of the spots being scratched. This will help redirect your cat’s scratching behavior. You can also buy special cat tape that helps deter them from scratching on that spot while they learn to use their scratchers. Another way to encourage scratching on appropriate cat scratchers is to rub catnip on them. This helps to stimulate the cat to scratch, creating visual and olfactory marks and encouraging the cat to continue to revisit that area to freshen up their marks. Petting and brushing your cat on their scratcher or cat tree can also encourage them to scratch (Landsberg, 1991; Hart & Hart, 2013).

The best way to prevent permanent damage to your furniture is to regularly trim your cat’s nails every 2-3 weeks. This will help keep them dull. Your veterinarian can show you how to trim the nails and many cats can learn to tolerate it by using positive reinforcement and low stress handling techniques (Swiderski, 2002). Historically, declawing has been used as a way to prevent cats from scratching furniture, but this is no longer a recommended procedure and should be avoided (Martell-Moran et al., 2017).

3. Aggression

Sometimes it can be hard to forget that the pets we bring into our homes are live animals that are capable of aggression both toward humans and other household pets. It can be scary when our cats display aggressive behavior, and it can cause cats to be relinquished to animal shelters or euthanized.

There is a wide variety of aggressive behaviors cats can display. Aggression can be directed toward other cats due to territorial conflicts. Cats can also be aggressive toward humans due to fear, overstimulation during petting, accidental aggression during play, or redirected aggression caused by arousal toward something else in the environment (Hart & Hart, 2013; CFHC, 2016). Cat bites can be painful and can quickly become severely infected. Most cat bites will require immediate medical attention, especially bites to the hand.

To reduce inter-cat aggression in the household, it is important to do proper introductions between cats. Cats are finicky animals and will hold grudges against other cats if they have a bad experience with them. Because of this, slow introductions are necessary between cats. When you bring a new cat into your household it may take at least a month to properly introduce the cats. The cats should be completely separated at first. This gives them a chance to learn the smell and sounds of the other cats without being able to see and interact with them directly. You can swap the cats in the common areas of the house or switch beds and towels between the cats to allow them to continue to be acquainted with the scent of the other cat. First greetings should be short and sweet, which may involve feeding the cats yummy food when they first see each other and not letting them approach each other directly. If at any point the cats display signs of fear or aggression, they need to be separated and the slow introduction needs to continue. If you have cats that are currently showing signs of aggression, it may be necessary to separate them and to do a slow, positive introduction as if they have never met before (Hart & Hart, 2013). Consulting a cat behaviorist or trainer may be necessary.

Many cats show aggression toward humans out of fear. Cats are small prey animals and as such can be defensive toward perceived threats. Humans are much larger than cats, and often times we approach and touch them when they do not want us to. If they feel they cannot get away from someone, they may pin their ears back, hiss, and growl at them. If they still cannot escape, they may try to scratch or bite the human. Often times when cats are aggressive, humans will retreat, unintentionally teaching the cat that aggression works. If your cat shows aggressive behavior toward you, it is best to stop moving towards the cat and to ignore the behavior. Averting your eyes and slowly blinking can help show the cat you are not a threat and dissipate the situation. Once the cat is calmer, you can move away and reevaluate where you went wrong and come up with a plan for success. Any retaliation toward the cat can cause more fear and escalate the situation, likely causing more aggression in the future (Hart & Hart, 2013; CFHC, 2016).

Aggression toward humans can also occur when we are petting our cats. Many cat parents have known of a cat that “suddenly” bites you in the middle of a cuddle session. Often times these cats are giving warning signs that they are uncomfortable or overstimulated before they resort to biting. To reduce aggression toward humans, it is important to build a strong relationship with your cat through positive reinforcement and to learn how your cat likes to be pet by letting them come to you and show you. It is also important to learn how to read cat body language so you know when your cat is uncomfortable and can work to de-escalate the situation before they feel the need to be aggressive. Cats will often show agitation through dilated pupils, flattened ears, and tail swishing (Hart & Hart, 2013; CFHC, 2016).

Cats may bite or scratch humans during play. While this may not be true aggression it can still cause problems as cat bites and scratches can cause infections and injury. This problem is often caused by lack of socialization with littermates and mom, as well as inappropriate interactions with humans as a kitten. You should never roughhouse with a cat or kitten and encourage them to bite or bat at your hands or feet. Playtime should be directed at toys. Any play aggression directed towards hands or feet should be completely ignored, and then the behavior should be redirected towards an appropriate object (Hart & Hart, 2013; CFHC, 2016). Cases of severe or repeated aggression from your cat should be addressed by a cat behaviorist or trainer and addressed using a combination of positive reinforcement and environmental management.

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Works Cited

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Swiderski, J. 2002. Onychectomy and its alternatives in the feline patient. Clinical Techniques in Small Animal Practice 17(4):158-161. 

Villeneuve-Beugnet, V, and F. Beugnet. 2018. Field assessment of cats’ litter box substrate preferences. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 25:65-70.