At Montana Veterinary Specialists, cats hold a special place in our hearts. We understand that a cat is not just a small dog, but a completely different creature, whose treatment holds its own unique rewards and challenges. Whether you’re a first-time cat owner or a long-time cat lover, a peek into the fascinating world of cat behavior can protect your home, help you work with your veterinarian and other animal caretakers, and strengthen the bond you share with your four-legged family member.
Scratching is natural and satisfying for cats, but it can also be disruptive and destructive to your home. There are steps you can take to redirect a cats behavior and protect your furniture and carpet.
You need to start on this project by getting your cat a good scratching post or cat tree. A cat tree or post must be stable enough for your cat to climb and pull on, covered with material your cat can dig her claws into, and put in a prominent area so that your cat uses it. Make sure that the post you choose isn’t covered in the same texture of carpet as that in your house or your cat may have a hard time making the distinction between why clawing carpet on the post is okay but not on the floor. Sisal is a rough- textured rope material cats love to dig into and makes a nice alternative to carpet alone.
After you’ve got the post or tree on place, encourage your cat to use it by teasing her with a cat toy and praising her for digging in her claws. If your cat enjoys catnip, rub some on the post to encourage her to spend more time there and give her treats for being on the tree as well. Make sure that she knows in no uncertain terms that climbing and clawing are perfectly fine and encouraged on her scratching post or cat tree. Don’t put her paws on the post, however – cat’s don’t like to be forced to do anything!
Make the areas you don’t want your pet to touch less appealing during the retraining process by covering them with foil, plastic sheeting, or plastic carpet runners with the pointy side out. Use double-sided tape generously as well – cats hate the feel of sticky stuff under their paws. You can still use the furniture yourself by applying the foil, plastic, or what-have-you to pieces of cardboard that you can lift off if you want to sit down.
Since clawing is also a territory-marker, move the cat tree into a prominent place, near that clawed corner of the couch in the center of the room, now covered with deterrents. Praise your cat for using the post instead. Move the post slowly – a few inches a day – to a place more to your taste.
Yes, your house is going to look pretty ugly for a while, with cat-deterrents all over the furniture and a cat tree in the middle of the room. You must live with it until your cat’s new pattern of clawing only where acceptable is established. If you’re patient and consistent, that new pattern will eventually take root.
Keeping your cat’s nails trimmed is another way to reduce her destructive capabilities. Nail trims can be performed on most cats at home with a pair of human nail clippers, a little patience, and some treats the cat enjoys. Be careful not to cut into the pink part of the claw – instead remove just the pointy white area of the long curved nail. Your veterinarian can trim the claws for you if it is difficult at home, and may be able to demonstrate to you how to safely perform this procedure yourself.
For some cats, nail tips help with clawing problems. Glued onto the nails every six weeks or so, these Soft Paws tips even come in a variety of colors.
Even with consistent training and appropriate behavior modifications, some cats may continue destructive behavior. For these individuals surgical declawing may be recommended for cats who will remain indoors. Contact your veterinarian to discuss this option.
Many times people see inappropriate elimination as one problem, when in fact it’s potentially several problems, some of which may be related. The most basic behaviors are those intended to mark territory and those that express dissatisfaction or discomfort with using a litter box. You must first observe exactly what your cat is doing – marking territory or avoiding the box – before you can figure out what to do about it.
Start a journal of your cat’s errant deposits. A simple steno notebook works well. In it, write down the date and time, what you found (urine or feces), where you found it (on a horizontal surface or, in the case of urine, on a vertical one, such as the side of a couch), and the location in the house of the mess (in the bathtub, on a throw rug, next to the litter box). Note taking not only helps you figure out what kind of behavior the problem is and how you should approach it, but also helps you spot even small signs of progress. And perhaps most importantly, having a written record provides you with the information your veterinarian needs to help diagnose any medical problems. Vocalizing while urinating, discolored or foul-smelling urine, or frequent accidents can be signs of a more serious underlying medical problem.
Recognizing inappropriate urinating vs. marking behavior
A cat who’s not relieving himself where he should deposits urine on a horizontal surface. If you see him releasing urine, you’ll notice that he squats. Squatting is a very different behavior from the one used to mark territory, which generally involves backing up to the surface in question and urinating while standing. A marking cat will often hold his tail high and quivering and shift weight from one leg to the other.
Which Cat is the Culprit?
Because many people share their lives with more than one cat, when they’re faced with a wet spot the question immediately arises: “Okay, which one of you did this?” Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to tell.
Some behaviorists suggest that isolating each cat, one after the other, in a safe room. But that approach may not work if a territory dispute is at the heart of the problem. The culprit cat may react positively to the separation and quit his inappropriate behavior, but when you put the cats back together, the problem reappears. And you still don’t know which cat is responsible.
One solution veterinarians sometimes use to help identify a problem cat in a multicat household is to give a fluorescent dye to one cat at a time. The dye will pass in the urine and can be detected through what’s called a Wood’s Lamp (essentially a black light).
By know which cat or cats are urinating inappropriately and when, how frequent, location, and behavior associated with voiding, you can help your veterinarian rule out medical problems and assist you in correcting the underlying reason for the accidents.
Biting & Aggression
You need to do a little detective work and figure out what’s causing your cat to bite or claw you. Aggression takes many forms, and the solution depends on the cause, some of which may be as follows:
Fear or pain
If your cat is striking out because he’s afraid or hurting, your best bet is to leave him alone and work on the underlying problem. A cat in pain or fear has his ears flat back against his head and his body rolled into a defensive posture low against the ground with claws up and ready. This cat is saying, “Don’t come near me!” You need to let your cat calm down – hide if need be – before you can get your veterinarian to examine him. Often under these circumstances that carrier your cat seems to hate will seem like a haven. Place the carrier with the door wide open in the room with your cat. Your cat may choose to go in there and this may save you the “fight” of trying to force your cat to enter the carrier for the trip to the veterinarian.
Overstimulation. You’re petting your cat and suddenly he grabs you with his claws and teeth. Not a full-powered attack, but you’ve still got those sharp tips around your hand. What to do? In the short run, freeze. Don’t fight your cat or you may trigger a real bite. Sometimes smacking your other hand hard against a hard surface – a table top, for example – may startle your cat into breaking off the attack. If you stay still, however, he usually calms down and releases you.
That’s the solution if you’ve gotten to the attack stage. The better option is to be familiar with your cat and his body language and stop petting before he becomes overstimulated. Cat lovers often think such attacks come without warning, but the fact is that they missed the warning signs of a cat who has simply had enough. The tail is the key: If your cat starts twitching his tail in a jerky fashion, the time to call off the petting has arrived. If you watch your cat’s body language you can slowly build up your petting time. Three pats, then four, then five. Push up to, but never over, your cat’s level of tolerance and build slowly on your successes.
Play aggression. Sure, it hurts all the same, but the cat who pounces on your feet and then careens off the wall isn’t trying to hurt you – he’s playing. You need to increase your play sessions with your cat with an appropriate toy, such as a cat fishing pole or toy on a string – not one of your body parts – to help your cat burn off his excess energy before you try for a quiet pet session. Let him know that attacks on you are not permitted by letting him have it with a blast from an air horn or a spray bottle. A little Bitter Apple on your hand can help, too.
Redirected aggression. Your cat sees another cat, an intruder, outside your living room window. He becomes enraged. You walk by, and he nails you. You were just the victim of redirected aggression. This one’s tough to fix. Try to discourage strange cats in your yard: Thump on the window or put the air horn out the door and give them a blast.
Can Your Cat Learn a Trick or Two?
Some people point to the dog’s ability to learn obedience commands and tricks as proof that dogs are smarter than cats. Others point to the same as proof that cats are smarter than dogs.
We’re not going to get into that argument. The important thing to remember is that cats and dogs are different in how they relate to us. Dogs have an ingrained need to be part of a family structure – to have a job to do within that family. Dogs are that way because wolves are that way – survival depends on the family, or pack.
The cat came from a different place – from solitary hunters who didn’t need teamwork to survive. You could say that dogs need to be with us, while cats choose to.
Because of this distinction, you absolutely cannot get a cat to do something he doesn’t want to. Something must be in it for him. With training tricks, that something is usually food. (Although some cats will work for a toy, or petting.) Teach the cat an association between a word – such as “sit” – and an action by using treats and praise.
Start teaching the “sit” command with a hungry cat and a quiet room. Get your cat to stand up by touching her in front of her tail and then hold the treat a little over her head, saying her name and the command “sit.” Slowly move the treat between your cat’s ears, but not high enough for her to pick her front paws off the ground and grab the tidbit. Instead, she’ll sit. After she does, praise her and give her the treat. Work in short sessions and be patient.
Some cats can be taught to play fetch with a similar training method. Start by tossing a treat for your feline friend to chase and eat, then toss a toy that they are fond of carrying. Once your cat has picked the toy up in her mouth, offer to trade her a treat for the toy. Gradually increase the distance you throw the toy – if you are patient, she will catch on.