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Some Helpful Hints on Feline Behavior

By: Angell Memorial Animal Hospital

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Cats have finally surpassed dogs in the race for America's number one pet. It's easy to see why in a fast-paced society like ours. Cats are more independent, do better when left alone and require less time-consuming care, e.g. daily walks. But like their canine counterparts, domestic cats come with their own set of natural feline behaviors that can confuse and inconvenience owners.

The most common cat owner complaints have to do with litter box habits, clawing furniture, and aggression toward other cats or people. Fortunately, most of these problems stem from normal feline behaviors and can be prevented or resolved. A little patience and enough understanding to allow you to see the situation from your cat's point of view can foster a long, loving life with your feline friend.

Good Litter Box Habits

Cats are generally fastidious creatures that groom themselves and bury their droppings. You can be sure that your cat prefers his or her litter box to be clean and fresh. Dirty or otherwise objectionable litter boxes often result in house-soiling problems, as your cat seeks out other locations in which to eliminate. Both urine and feces should be scooped from the box daily -- it is the urine that gives the box its strong odor -- and the entire litter box should be changed weekly if coarse, clay litters are used. Since most cats prefer to eliminate in private, place the box in a location that is away from heavy foot traffic but convenient for the cat to use.

If your cat begins to have litter box mishaps, the first step is to see your veterinarian so that she can rule out any contributing medical conditions. Once a clean bill of health is established, your veterinarian can help you in treating this behavioral problem.

Some cats will urinate outside of the litter box as a form of territorial marking. When cats mark their territory, they are essentially leaving urine calling cards for other cats. Urine marking is most often performed in a spraying posture (standing with tail upright and quivering, while urine is sprayed onto vertical surfaces) but some cats mark in a squatting posture as well. Urine marking is a normal feline behavior; lions and tigers urine mark, too. Neutering is the best way to prevent urine-marking. Neutering should be done at an early age, preferably between 5 and 7 months, or even before you take your kitten home. New surgical protocols allow the neutering procedure to be safely performed as early as 8 to 10 weeks.

Controlling Clawing

Cats have an instinctive drive to scratch and claw and this has ruined many a couch and stereo speaker and created an unnecessary market for declawing surgery. Some simple advice based on normal feline scratching behavior may help both your furniture and your cat to remain whole.

Scratching removes the sheaths, or outer layer of dead cells, from the claw. It also serves as a visual and olfactory territorial marker. Cats naturally claw trees and wood but, if not provided with an adequate surface in the house, will select their own site so, it's best to provide a natural, desirable scratching posts -- sisal rope coverings are best. Rug coverings are pretty but not as effective.

The post can be introduced through play. The kitten or cat should be rewarded with soothing words for using it. If he uses another surface, he should receive an immediate, mild punishment such as loud handclap or no!

Aggression

Most common type of aggressive behavior is play aggression, which is normal for the young of all mammals. For cats, play includes stalking, pouncing, and fighting. A young cat may hide in a corner and then stalk, chase and pounce on an object or person! Kittens normally play with each other, with their mother and with a variety of moving objects. If none of these are available, they will treat human arms and legs as playthings.

It's important to teach kittens an acceptable way to play right from the beginning. If possible, take home two kittens so they can fulfill their need to play with each other. If this is not feasible, then direct the kitten to "fun" toys such as long strings (don't let your kitten swallow it!) or ping-pong balls. This will help minimize those secret ambushes, and prevent you from becoming, in effect, a big squeaky toy. Always keep these toys, especially the ones with strings, away from your cat when you are not around to supervise.

Many people misinterpret play as a sign of serious aggression. Playful cats "attack" silently and do not typically break the skin when they bite. Seriously aggressive and potentially dangerous cats often hiss or growl and bite more severely. Using a water spray bottle to keep the cat away is sometimes helpful. Hitting a cat is not recommended since it often causes a defensive reaction, may lead to aggression, and is inhumane.

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