What do we mean by “behaviour problems”?Behaviour problems are things that our pet cats do that are felt to be socially unacceptable. This can range from inconvenient behaviour such as toileting outside the litter tray, to serious issues such as biting humans. However, many cat behaviours (e.g. hunting) are completely normal for them. When cats are put under pressure and unable to adapt to a situation they become stressed and this leads to changes in behaviour.
What are the common behaviour problems?There are a vast variety of behaviour problems in cats. However, many of them arise from problems with fear/anxiety and the cat not being able to avoid conflict. For example, a cat should be the one to initiate contact - as approaching a cat who doesn’t want the attention can cause them to lash out. Here are some examples of common cat behaviour.
Scratching is a natural behaviour used to help cats shed their nails and stop them from growing into their feet. Cats scratch indoors when they have limited access to suitable outdoor surfaces or because they feel safer and more confident indoors.
Cats can also scratch due to anxiety usually when there are too many cats in their territory. These cats will usually scratch all over the house (rather than in one/two spots) and it is important to address your cat’s stress levels to prevent further problems. If you are concerned your cat has stress-induced scratching behaviour please contact your vet for advice or referral to a behaviourist.
Scratching indoors is a problem for owners when your cat is damaging your home even when they have a scratching post to use. You can encourage your cat to use a post by positioning it near where they like to scratch and using their preferred surface (e.g. carpet, curtain, wood) on the post. Pheromones/scents such as catnip can also encourage your cat to scratch in a designated area.
Fighting (other cats):
Cats are solitary creatures and so it is common for conflict to arise in multi-cat households (even when the cats have grown up together) or in neighbourhoods where many cats live. Cats get into fights when the opportunity to escape or avoid conflict isn’t available.
If your cats are fighting at home it is important to identify any triggers and correct the problem. You should ensure there are multiple options for all resources (food/water/sleeping/scratching/litter trays etc) to avoid competition. The general rule is to allow one of each resource per cat plus an extra (spare) so there will always be surplus.
Unfortunately some cats can genuinely be incompatible, and in those cases where cats are unable to compromise re-homing may need to be considered. However, we would recommend speaking to your vet/a behaviourist before coming to this decision.
Fighting can also occur between cats outside which although upsetting, is a natural behaviour. Entire male cats are more likely to fight and defend their territory so it is worth checking to see if the cat causing conflict is owned and whether it is neutered.
To help protect your cat you can try to secure your garden against other cats entering or keep your cat indoors during time periods when fighting seems to occur most. If your cat is in a fight and appears to be in pain or has large wounds or swellings please take them to your vet for assistance.
Fighting can be minimised by having your cat(s) neutered, as without the provocation of sex hormones, fighting is much less likely.
Overgrooming is defined as excessive grooming beyond normal cleaning that typically results in thinning of the coat. You will be able to feel broken hairs which feel rough on stroking and can progress to damage of the underlying skin.
Overgrooming can affect any part of the skin where the cat can lick but is more common on the back half of the cat and is usually equal on both sides. There are many medical conditions (e.g. fleas, skin irritation (dermatitis)) which can result in hair loss so it is strongly recommended you see your vet. If your vet rules out medical causes then the overgrooming is likely to be behavioural.
Frequently overgrooming can begin as a response to skin irritation or pain which then escalates; however in some cases it can be stress/anxiety related. If behaviour is felt to be the underlying cause then the trigger for the cat’s stress/anxiety needs to be identified and addressed.
Cats can bite for a variety of reasons such as pain, inappropriate playing, frustration, fear or conflict pressure. It is important to talk to your vet and rule out any underlying disease. If no medical reason can be found then you may be referred to a behaviourist.
When kittens play fight with each other they learn acceptable biting play behaviour which is normal. Inappropriate play biting typically occurs when we encourage this play fighting with ourselves instead. As the kitten becomes an adult play fighting can become a hunting game where they attack whenever they see feet/hands that they’re used to playing with. To avoid this we advise no human body parts (feet/hands) are used when playing with your kitten but toys are used instead, especially those that can be held from a distance.
Cats that bite when being stroked are torn between enjoying the affection but then feeling vulnerable because they are too relaxed and instinctively want to protect themselves. How much stroking cats will tolerate is influenced by their experiences with humans as kittens but stroking should be stopped when any warning signs are given. These can include tail twitching, hissing/growling, or if they stop purring. Flattening or backwards rotation of the ears and/or a tense posture are also “keep away” signs.
Regardless of the reason, if you cat bites/scratches you it is recommended that you back off calmly to prevent further injury and give your cat time to calm down. If your cat wishes to escape you should allow this as if they are acting out of fear it may be the best way to calm them down. Clean any wounds you may have quickly and thoroughly and see a doctor as bacterial infections from cat bites are common.
This is usually a problem when a cat that has always used an indoor litter tray consistently starts toileting elsewhere. Urinating outside of the litter tray is different to spraying urine and it is important you know which your cat is doing, as the underlying reasons vary. Normal urination involves the cat squatting to relieve itself whereas urine spraying is usually performed when the cat is standing.
Cats may stop using their litter tray if they feel it is too dirty, if the litter inside is off-putting or if there is a change in routine e.g. going to the cattery. The location of the litter trays is very important as if a cat feels vulnerable they will not use it. They should be situated somewhere quiet and secure away from doorways/windows and not near where your cat is fed. Different types of litter trays exist such as those with covers and doors which may help cats feel more secure and hidden. However as cats age many develop arthritis and stepping into a high sided litter tray or through a flap may be difficult.
Cats with arthritis may benefit from low sided litter trays located closer to their favourite sleeping area. Other diseases such as diarrhoea or bladder problems can cause discomfort and a sudden urge to go to the toilet, meaning your cat can’t get to the litter tray in time. If you are concerned this is the case please book an appointment with your vet.
Spraying, on the other hand, is often associated with stress. Stressed or anxious cats will frequently spray around doors and windows; this may be part of “territory marking”. In most cases, it occurs because of conflict with other cats, as we’ve seen above, but changes in the environment or household can also be a trigger.
Entire male cats may spray even if not stressed, as this is an instinctive behaviour triggered by testosterone. It can be prevented by neutering, but this is not always rapidly effective at stopping it once started, so early neutering (before puberty) is usually recommended.