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Problem Behaviors in Cats

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Note: Please see the Table of Contents FAQ for a complete list of topics.

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Originally written 1991 & updated through 1997 by Cindy Tittle Moore. Maintained by the Fanciers website as of July 1999.

Cats Inside

You cannot discipline cats as you would dogs. Dogs form social hierarchies that you can take advantage of by placing yourself at the top. Cats form social groups only by necessity and the arrangement is based on respecting territory, not by respecting the "top dog". Many mistakes made with cats are due to thinking that they will react like dogs.

Do not ever hit a cat or use any sort of physical punishment. You will only teach your cat to fear you.

It is always best to train your cat away from undesireable behavior as soon as possible, as young as possible. You will have the most success training your cat when it is young on what is acceptable to scratch and what is not. Never tolerate it when it is "cute" since it will not always remain so.

Plants

Cats are frequently fascinated with houseplants. However, you may not appreciate the attention, which can range from chewing on the plant leaves to digging or peeing in the plant soil.

For chewing, try spraying Bitter Apple or Bitter Orange (there are formulations specifically for use on plants) on the leaves. Dusting cayenne pepper on them may also help. You may wish to grow some grass or catnip for them as an alternative; plants do provide them with needed nutrients (the absence of which may be causing their grazing).

For digging or urinating, cover the dirt with aluminum foil or gravel. If the plant needs it, add some vinegar to the soil to counteract the ammonia in the urine.


A New Baby

Cats can become jealous upon the arrival of a new baby. Reassure the cat that you still love it by paying it plenty of attention. In the exhaustion and turmoil of a new baby, the cat is often neglected, and this will add to its resentment.

There is a myth that cats will kill babies. The superstition is that they'll "steal" the baby's breath; the latter day explanation is that they will lie on babies and suffocate them. While cats may like the baby's warmth and may curl up next to it, it will not often lie on the baby and in any case will move when the baby begins to flail its arms and legs.

Most cats are trustworthy around babies after getting over any jealousy, especially if it is trained not to use people as toys; however babies should never be left unsupervised around any animal.


Spraying

Some cats start spraying in the house. You will want to first rule out any medical causes, such as FUS or cystitis. Sometimes it is useful to distinguish between spraying (which winds up on walls) and urinating (which is generally on the floor). Spraying is more often a behavior problem and urination is more often a medical problem. It is best to check with a vet first. If the problem is medical, then you will need to simply clean up the odor after the problem is treated, otherwise you will need to try some of the behavior modification outlined below (and you'll still need to clean up the odor).

You must remove the odor from items that the cat sprayed on to prevent the cat from using the same spot again later. The ammonia smell tells the cat that this is an elimination spot, so never use ammonia to try and "remove" the odor! See (Removing Urine Odor).

Cats sometimes spray to mark their territory so sometimes an area for your cat that other animals cannot go to will help. Keeping the litterbox immaculate will help in other cases.

Sometimes cats pick small throw rugs with non-skid backing to urinate on. This is caused by an odor from the backing that somehow tells the cat to urinate there (probably an ammonia-like smell). Cat-repellent sprays or washing the rug may help; you might just have to get rid of that rug.

For persistent spraying after the above steps, try the procedure outlined in (Housetraining).


Scratching

For unwanted scratching, provide an approved scratching post or other item. Issue firm "no!"s on unapproved items. You may wish to spray Bitter Apple or Bitter Orange (available at most pet stores) on items that they are particularly stubborn about. Praise them and give a cat treat when they use the approved scratching material. Demonstrate how to use the post by (yes) going up to it and scratching it like your cat would. They will come over to investigate your scent and then leave their own.

Pepper (black, white, or cayenne) can be applied to furniture and plants to discourage scratching. This does not deter all cats. You can also cover areas with double-sided tape (sticky on both sides) to discourage unwanted scratching. (Always be sure to provide an alternative scratching item.)

In general, cats will either use a post a lot or never use it. The deciding factor can be the material that the post is made out of. It has to be fairly smooth (cats usually don't like plush carpet) and shouldn't be a material that their nails get stuck in. Once that happens, they may not use the post anymore. Natural fiber rope wrapped tightly around the post appeals to many cats. Some cats like plain wood; a two-by-four made available may work well. Other cats prefer the kind of "scratching posts" that are horizontal rather than verticle.


Furniture

You may wish to keep your cat off of the furniture or off of a particular piece of furniture. Or to keep them off the counters and or tables. Because of a cat's ability to climb and jump, this isn't always a practical thing to do -- but you can somtimes train them to stay off very specifiic pieces of furniture or locations by covering it with aluminium foil. In most cases, a month of leaving the foil on when you leave the house will be effective.

Housetraining

It is possible for cats to stop using the litter box or to have trouble learning in the first place.

Do NOT ever try to discourage a cat's mistakes by rubbing its nose in it. It never worked for dogs and most certainly will not work for cats. In fact, you wind up reminding the cat of where a good place to eliminate is!

Potential CAUSES for failure to use litterbox:

Treatment


Escaping

The best way to discourage running to the door is never to let the cat succeed! After a history of unsuccessful attempts, the cat will stop trying. After even one success, the cat will try hard and for a long time.

Tip: don't arrive at the door with three bags of groceries in hand and expect you'll be able to keep the cat in. Instead, put down all but one bag and use that bag to block the floor level when you come in. After you're in, bring in the rest. In general, spend the time to be in control whenever the outside door is opened. Kids will need to learn how to keep the cat in too. A waterbottle may help with persistent cats. It will pay off later when the cat stops trying to get out.

To turn a formerly outdoor cat into an indoor one (or to discourage a persistent one, you might try this, recommended by the San Francisco SPCA: Enlist the help of a friend to hide outside the door with a hose and spray attachment and have her or him spray the cat when you let it out. This may take several applications, over several days.

Some cats are remarkably persistent, and never seem to give up.


Drape/Curtain Climbing

If possible, use tension rods instead of drilled into the wall rods. The tension rods will simply fall down on top of the cat if it tries to climb them. Otherwise, take the drapes off the hooks and thread them back up with thread just barely strong enough to hold them up. When the cat climbs up, the drapes will fall down on it (be sure that the hooks aren't around to potentially injure the cat). After the drapes have remained up for some time, re-hook them. These methods have the advantage of working whether you're home or not.

Vertical blinds can work very well; cats cannot climb up them, cannot shred them, cannot shed on them, cannot be bent the way horizontal blinds. It is furthermore easy for cats to push them aside to look outside. Vertical blinds are usually vertical strips of plastic, but they can also come covered with different fabrics to match your decor. These kinds are still pretty indestructible.


Cord (and Other) Chewing

Put something distasteful on the cord to discourage chewing. Substances to try: tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper, Bitter Apple/Orange, nail-biting nailpolish, orange/lemon peel. If you cannot find a substance that will repel your cat, you may wish to use gaffer's tape to secure exposed cords. Gaffer's tape comes in a variety of colors and you will probably be able to find something relatively inconspicuous. (Duct tape can also be used, but it's pretty messy and hard to clean up if you're moving out of an apartment. Consider permanent wiring if you own your place: installment behind walls, etc.

This will work on other chewed items, as well, although you will need to check the compatibility of the chewed item with the substance you put on it.


Biting

Give a sharp, plantative yowl, like the sound a hurt cat will make. Pull your hand back (or if that would score furrows down your hand, let it go completely limp), turn your back on it, and ignore it for a few minutes. People are divided on the issue of whether to allow hand attacks at all or to allow limited hand attacks. You can train the cat to do either with the same method. For the former, always wail when attacked and then offer a toy to play with instead; for the latter, wail whenever the claws come out, but allow attack of the hand up to that point. Be aware that a cat trained not to use a person as a toy at all will be more trustworthy around a new baby (see A New Baby). You may try hissing at a cat that persistently attacks you.

Garbage

The best way to prevent this problem is to get a garbage container with a firm lid. Do NOT start with container that's trivial to get into, then gradually move to harder and harder containers: this just trains the cat to get into the harder container. A hospital type of container that opens the lid with a foot pedal is effective and convenient. Another is the kind with metal handles that swing up to close the lid. The important thing is the lid is tight and secure.

Another way to prevent this is to store the garbage can out of reach, such as in the cabinet under the sink or in a pantry where the door is kept closed. If the cat can open the cabinet door, get a childproof latch for it.

If the problem is one of tipping the container over, several bricks in the bottom of the container may help stabilize it. Once the cat is convinced it can't be knocked over, you can remove the weight.


Counters

It's not a good idea to let your cat on your kitchen counters or tabletops. There are several ways to prevent this. Leave a collection of poorly balanced kitchen utensils or empty (or with a few pennies inside) aluminum cans on the counter near the edge, so the cat will knock them off if it jumps up. Cats hate surprises and loud noises. Leave some ordinary dishwashing liquid on the counters, or some masking tape (or two-sided carpet tape) arranged gummy side up. Don't leave things on the counter that will attract the cat (like raw meat).

These same techniques will work for other surfaces like dressers, TV's, etc.


Early AM Wakeups

Cats are notorious for waking their owners up at oh-dark-thirty. If you wish to stop this, there are several steps to take.

The cat may simply be hungry and demanding its food. By feeding it when it wakes you up at an ungodly hour, you are simply reinforcing its behavior. If this is why it's waking you up, you can handle this either by filling the bowl just before you go to sleep so it will not be empty in the morning, or by ignoring the cat's wakeups and feeding it at the exact same time convenient to you every morning. The cat will adjust fairly quickly to the second.

If it is trying to play, there are again several tactics you can try. If you make a practice of tiring it out with play just before bedtime, you can reduce its calls for play at dawn. What works in some cases is to hiss gently at the cat. You can also try shutting it out of the bedroom. If it pounds on the door, put it in a bathroom until you wake up.

In persistent cases, try the vacuum cleaner, eater of noisy kitties. Go to bed, leaving him out in the hall. Position the vacuum cleaner next to the door, inside it. Plug the vacuum in, and arrange things so you can switch the vacuum on from your bed (eg, wire a switch into an extension cord). Wait for the scratching and wailing at the door. Turn the vacuum cleaner on. If cat comes back, turn it on again. The cat will eventually decide to stop bothering you in the morning.


Toilet Paper

Five ways to prevent cats from playing with toilet paper:

Splashing Water

Some cats like to tip the water dish and empty it all over the kitchen floor. You can try placing it on a small rug. There are large "untippable" (pyramid-shaped) dishes available at the pet store. If the cat then paddles the water out, you may just want to put the dish in the bathtub. Cats should always have a source of fresh water (except for pre-op surgery or prior to a car ride), so removing it while you are not at home is an unsatisfactory solution. If the cat is indoor/outdoor, you may want to put the water dish outside.

Ripping Carpet

Some cats may develop the annoying and expensive habit of ripping up carpet. There are several possible reasons behind this, listed below. In all circumstances, be sure that there is plenty of items that the cat can scratch.

Closet Antics

Cats love closets, since they're dark hidey holes full of fun stuff. But you may not want your cat to swing on your good silk clothing or rearrange your shoes. Conversely, you might want your cat to be able to get into the closet and keep larger pets out.

If you have a swing-and-shut door, you might try a cat door to allow the cat access. A child-barrier that lets the cat jump over but not the dog is another possibility. Or a chain (like the chain some front doors have) might work.

A solution with closets that have double sliding doors is to drill a hole through the area of overlap, with the doors positioned closed or partially opened as you wish. Then you can use a nail or a peg in the hole to keep the doors in position.


Cats Outside

Outside cats, especially those not your own, can present you with difficult problems. Cats are not regarded the way dogs are under law: there is usually nothing that says you have the "right" to keep cats out of your yard, for example (whereas dogs can be required to be kept confined or on leash, for example). There are historical and practical reasons for this -- but there are still practical steps you can take to resolve several problems. The following is written primarily for people who want to stop other cats (i.e., not their own) from being a nuisance on their property.

As a cat owner, you should consider ways to minimize your cat annoying your neighbors. You could keep your cat inside, supervise your cat when outside, bring it inside at night, etc. All cats allowed to roam outside should, of course, be neutered.


Noise

Mating cats can make an unbelievable amount of noise under your window. If these cats are feral, check with your local animal clinic about trapping and neutering these cats. Many will do them at little or no cost, depending on how many cats you're willing to bring in for the procedure. Eliminating the breeding stock in feral cats as much as possible will also help reduce the stray population in your area over time, and reduce similar problems like cat fights and spraying.

If the cats involved are owned by your neighbors, you might try a non-confrontational approach -- let them know what their cat has been doing and suggest that perhaps neutering their cat might help solve some of these problems. A politely worded note can be left on their door if you wish to avoid direct confrontation. You might eventually call Animal Control in your area for help, but first let them know you are having problems with their cat.


Your Garden

Between digging and eating in your plants, cats can do considerable damage to a garden. There are a number of ways to keep cats from digging in, chewing on, or eliminating in your garden.

Some people have successfully used the "diversionary" tactic by planting catnip in another corner of the garden entirely, confining the destruction to one spot.

If you have not yet started your garden, put chicken wire down and plant between the wire. Cats dislike walking on the chicken wire and most plants (unless they grow too big) do just fine growing between the wire.

Other people have reported success with different sprays, gels, and products specifically formulated to keep animals out of your yard. Check your local pet store.

Lemon peels, soap slivers (use biodegradeable soap) dipped in cayenne pepper and other organic materials have also been reportedly successful.

Cats hate water: surprising them with a squirt gun (or turning your sprinklers on) can discourage specific cats from returning.

One reader reported success in putting up cast-iron cut-out cats with marble eyes in strategic places in her yard. The decorative cats were apparently real enough to cats that they kept clear of her yard. Try looking around hardware stores or gardening stores for these. Lifesize cat statues might work as well.


Local "Attack" Cats

Sometimes there is a problem with a particular cat that fights with other cats. If it is feral, try to make arrangements to neuter it, if possible. If it belongs to a neighbor, try to discuss the matter with your neighbor, and avoid being "threatening." When approached reasonably, most people can be reasonable in turn. Sometimes your neighbor just doesn't know his cat is bothering you.

If the cat actually follows your cat through the pet door, you might try an electronic pet door to keep it out (see Pet Doors).


Your Birdfeeder

Locate your birdfeeder in an area where the ground is clear, affording cats no cover. At the same time, try to locate it under something, like a tree, to provide refuge from attack by other birds.

To reduce the problem of birds on the ground (after dropped seeds) getting picked up by cats, use suet feeders instead of seed feeders.


Keeping your cat in your yard

Cats are very good at scaling fences. But if you have a yard that is otherwised fenced in, you can try keeping your cat from going over the fence by attaching corrugated fiberglass to the top of it. There is then no purchase for the cat to pull itself up. It is even possible to find different colors of fiberglass to keep it inconspicuous. Keep in mind, though, that many cats are clever climbers and high jumpers and may circumvent anything short of a yard totally enclosed and roofed over with chicken wire.

You can try making an overhang on the top of the fence, if your cat cannot jump directly to the top of it. Use large bookshelf type angle brackets and drape netting or screening on it, to create an unstable barrier.

There are some "invisible fence" products for cats, where the perimeter of the yard is marked with a wire that will activate an electric collar on the the cat. Do not use these without supervision, and ideally they should be used in conjunction with a visible fence that the cat can use as a visual reminder of its constraints. This seems to work well with some cats and not at all with others. [an error occurred while processing this directive]