Guide to Behavior Problems in Cats

Even though they have a reputation for being independent and self-sufficient, some cats develop behavior problems or bad habits that demand attention. Before finding a new home for your cat, or banishing it to the perilous outdoors, consider learning what is causing the problem, how to deal with the behavior, and how to re-train your pet. With proper know-how, your cat can once again be a loving and enjoyable member of the family.

Inappropriate elimination. Inappropriate elimination is not one condition but rather a cluster of conditions: some medical, some physiological (pertaining to normal biological functions), some to do with elimination preferences, and others related to anxiety and stress. Some cats just stop using the litter box. Others use the litter box for elimination purposes but also mark their territory with urine or feces.

Feline aggression. Aggression is a natural behavior for the cat and was a survival-necessary behavior for the cats' wild ancestors. Although cats have long been thought of as solitary creatures, it has recently been recognized that they can live in true societies and that some may develop as leaders or "alpha" cats. Cats of this persuasion will use affective offensive aggression to procure privileges for themselves.

Aggression directed at other cats. Cats show several different types of aggression toward other cats including status-related (dominance) aggression, fear aggression, territorial aggression, and redirected aggression.

Play aggression. Kittens are adorable, but when they are around four months of age, a shady side of their personality often emerges – a side that involves aggression. In an instant, a kitten can turn aggressive, inflicting painful scratches and bites on its owner. Play aggression is a normal feature of development. In time, it diminishes and eventually disappears but sometimes owners need it to stop or be redirected NOW.

Predatory aggression. Predation is the way in which cats in nature obtain their food. It is debatable whether this behavior classifies as aggression in the true sense of the word but, because it involves the destruction of a third party, it is usually classified along with other types of aggression. Typically, cats hide behind walls, stalking and pouncing on approaching feet and ankles, inflicting scratches and minor bite wounds. Mature cats will capture and kill small rodents and birds.

Medical problems. There are a variety of medical causes of aggression in cats. These include hyperthyroidism, ischemic encephalopathy, brain tumor, head trauma, and thiamine deficiency.

Feline fear. As unpleasant as fear may be to experience, it keeps us and our animals safe by encouraging caution and by preparing us for fight or flight when danger threatens. Problems arise, however, if fears become so excessive and irrational that they disrupt normal functioning.

Separation anxiety. Separation anxiety in any species implies a lack of confidence and an over-dependence on others. Cats with separation anxiety don't howl and bay like dogs and they don't chew on doors and windowsills in frantic attempts to escape. Their misery is far less obvious and it sometimes takes a sleuth of an owner to appreciate what is going on. Housesoiling occurring only in the owner's absence is a good clue.

Thunderstorm phobia. Few species – including humans – are happy with the sounds of a rip-roaring thunderstorm, complete with darkened skies, lightning, and crashing thunder. But some animals become extremely fearful to the point where they show a full-blown phobia. Cats are probably far from comfortable in storms but most don't become phobic – although there are a few notable exceptions.

Compulsive behaviors. Compulsive behavior initially may be performed as a displacement behavior. For example, when a cat is torn between responding with aggression or running away, he may displace into a seemingly unrelated behavior, such as grooming, as a way to reduce emotional tension. The most common compulsive behaviors exhibited by cats include wool sucking or fabric eating, over-grooming/hair-barbering/hair-pulling behavior, and feline hyperesthesia.

Feeding compulsion. Many cats suffer from eating compulsions. Like people, cats may use their compulsive disorders as an outlet when natural behaviors are inhibited by poor management practices and/or a restrictive environment. Genetic factors may also be involved.

Hoarding behavior. In the domestic situation, depositing dead prey animals on the front doorstep is probably one of the most well known forms of feline gathering behavior. Collecting and hoarding of shiny objects, including jewelry and small metal objects, may also occur; the items are not just retrieved; they are stashed and hoarded.

Hyperesthesia. Cats affected by this syndrome show the most bizarre character changes, sometimes appearing to hallucinate, act manically, schizophrenic, or even "possessed." This behavior occurs in bouts.

Psychogenic alopecia. The result of compulsive hair pulling is alopecia (baldness) that can be so mild as to be barely discernable or so severe as to completely denude the skin. The areas most commonly involved are the abdomen and the inside of the limbs.

Furniture scratching. Cats love to scratch. Unfortunately, the things they love to scratch are often the legs of your antique table, your upholstered sofa, or your expensive stereo speakers. And no amount of reprimanding or pulling out your hair in frustration will make them stop. But there are ways of redirecting this species-typical behavior of cats.

Jumping on counters. There are two main reasons why cats find countertops so appealing: 1. Because cats naturally prefer a three-dimensional environment 2. Because they occasionally find food morsels while patrolling the surfaces. You can either work hard at retraining your cat(s) or teach yourself not to worry so much about your cat's counter-surfing.

Once you understand what is underlies your cat's behavior and realize what is needed to correct the problem, you are well on your way to keeping your family intact.