Is your cat urinating outside the litterbox because she’s upset at changes in the household, or because she has a urinary tract infection? Is she clawing up the furniture because she’s upset, or because she’s sick?
Cats are incredibly sensitive to stress, and that sensitivity often translates into genuine medical problems such as urinary tract and respiratory infections. What’s more, cats often hide signs of illness as part of their evolutionary defense against predators. That’s why behavior changes are often the only sign even the most attentive owner can pick up on that something’s wrong.
On the other hand, sometimes a behavior problem actually is primarily a behavior problem. How can a pet owner know what’s really going on?
At the 2016 NAVC Veterinary Conference, board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Debra Horwitz and board-certified veterinary internal medicine specialist Dr. Gary Oswald mapped out a path to guide veterinarians through that tangled terrain. Their advice will help frustrated cat owners too.
The most important message for pet owners and vets alike is this: The first step when behavior changes are noted by the owner is to rule out all likely medical causes. This goes for changes in eating habits, grooming, meowing or other vocalization, or litterbox usage, as well as the onset of aggression toward people or other pets.
That means the appropriate response to a cat who is urinating or defecating outside the litterbox is not to try to figure out what message the cat is sending you, but to visit the veterinarian to see if kidney disease or some other health condition is behind the change in behavior.
It means that if your cat suddenly turns on another cat in the home with whom he’s always gotten along in the past, you need to head to the vet to rule out medical causes first.
It means if your cat stops grooming herself, or starts grooming herself obsessively, you shouldn’t spend time wondering if it all traces back to some kittenhood trauma; you need to visit the veterinarian.
In their presentation, Drs. Horwitz and Oswald cited neurological disorders as frequent causes of mood and behavior changes in cats. Cancer affecting the central nervous system, toxic exposure, seizures – the list of neurological conditions that can manifest as behavior changes is lengthy, and covers nearly any behavior problem that might occur.
Ditto for the endocrine system, which maintains and balances the complex system of communication by hormonal signals in the body. “Cats with endocrine disorders frequently manifest behavioral changes and clinical signs that can be confused with primary behavioral disorders,” noted the presenters in the conference proceedings. “Cats with clinical signs including aggression, withdrawn interaction with owner, weight loss or gain, poor grooming habits, and inappropriate urination should be evaluated for a variety of feline endocrine disorders.”
Gastrointestinal and skin or ear problems can be behind many behavior issues as well, but one of the biggest triggers is pain. Pain itself can be caused by any number of underlying medical conditions, including arthritis, and is something the cat will often try to hide. Those efforts to act as if nothing’s wrong can lead the cat to withdraw from the owner or from normal behaviors such as play, as well as change the cat’s relationship with other pets in the family.
“Physical examination may not always reveal pain,” cautioned the presenters. “The most common signs that indicate an animal is in pain tend to be behavioral: vocalizations, agitation, abnormal postures or gaits, and subtle signs such as loss of appetite, trembling, stupor, or biting.” They suggested veterinarians proactively encourage their clients to report behavior changes when they first occur, in order to identify pain or illness as early as possible.
This is important with all kinds of illness, but untreated pain carries a particular risk. When an animal is in pain for a long period of time, even when the cause is removed or the pain physically relieved, the behavior changes it caused can persist or become permanent.
There will be times when the medical diagnosis hunt comes up clear, and it’s time to seek behavior help. But without a complete picture of the cat’s physical condition, it’s not possible to tell when one or both are responsible for a behavior change. Make ruling out medical causes for behavior problems your first and fastest response, and you’ll increase the changes of an equally rapid return to normal for you and your cat.