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Preventing Unwanted Behaviors in Your Cat

Correcting Your Cat's Behavioral Problems

It's important to realize that although we might dislike something our cat is doing, our reaction doesn't make the behavior abnormal or wrong. Most behaviors that we find problematic are normal to the cat. As a result, it's our job to engineer a solution that provides for both human and feline needs and sensibilities.

If your cat's behavior takes a turn for the worse, you should first determine if he has a medical problem. Be sure to tell your vet about the problem, because behavior can be important in making a diagnosis. If you can confirm your cat's good physical health and can rule out nutritional factors, it's time to figure out why your cat is doing what he's doing. Sometimes a simple change in the environment can clear up a problem. When that doesn't work, retraining and behavior modification are needed to effect a change.

Tinkling Outside the Box

The most common problem behavior in pet cats is inappropriate elimination—soiling in the house outside the litter box. Although this behavior takes many forms, typically the cat will deposit urine or feces outside the litter box. Poor potty habits can develop in cats who have previously been fastidious, making the behavior all the more disturbing to their owners.

Cat Nip

It's important to act quickly to determine why your cat's behavior has changed. The longer the behavior continues, the harder it is to correct.

Medical conditions often trigger the start of house soiling. Any health problem that causes pain on elimination or that makes getting in and out of the litter box difficult or painful, can underlie the soiling behavior. Diseases and medical problems such as feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD); kidney or liver disease; colitis, bowel, or anal sac disease; hyperthyroidism; diabetes mellitus; arthritis; or vision problems (see Common Feline Diseases) have been known to cause behavior changes.

The stress brought on by a new routine, moving, new family members or pets, loss of a family member, and other changes can also cause house soiling. Simply providing a safe and private refuge for your cat and ensuring that some things remain “normal” can make a big difference in his stress level (see Bringing Your New Cat Home).

Sometimes the litter box itself is the problem. “Odor-reducing” boxes with lids might appeal to cat owners, but I've never had a cat who liked them. If your cat has arthritis or other aches and pains, a high-sided box might be too much of a challenge. The same goes for a small kitten. The box might even be too small—your cat should be able to turn, squat, and dig without being cramped.

Cats can be picky about the litter in their boxes as well. Perfumed or heavily scented litters or a residual odor in the box from soap or detergent can repel some cats. The texture of a particular litter can also be a problem. (For more on cat litters, see Using Positive Reinforcement to Train Your Cat) The amount of litter in the box might influence your cat's behavior. Some cats like only a little litter; others want more of it. Some cats don't like litter at all, or like it for one “number” but not the other. If your cat is choosing to go on smooth surfaces (bare floors, sinks, bathtubs), try offering an empty litter box. Some cats dislike plastic litter box liners, too.

The location of the litter box can be a problem. Cats don't like to eliminate where they eat and drink (who does?), so putting the litter box too near food and water might cause your cat to seek other “facilities.” Most cats also prefer a location where they don't feel vulnerable to other pets, although the box should be reasonably accessible. If you have more than one cat, you should provide more than one litter box—at least one per cat. If you have the space, you might try placing two or more litter boxes in different spots around the house to see if location makes a difference.

Cleanliness can also be a factor—many cats dislike what they regard as “dirty bathrooms,” and some cats need two boxes—one for pee, one for poop. Some cats don't like to use a box that has been used by another cat.

Cat Nip

If you have more than one cat and don't know which one is pottying in the wrong places, ask your veterinarian for an edible dye that will color urine. Give it to one cat at time to identify the one with the bad habit.

If your cat has pottied outside the litter box, it's critical that you remove all trace of urine or feces odor because those scents label the area as the “bathroom.” Remember, your cat has a great nose, so even if you can't detect an odor, your kitty might. Neutralize surface-level urine odors with a 50-50 mix of white vinegar and water or with enzyme-based cleaners that remove organic odors. If the urine has soaked through to the pad or subfloor, however, you might have to replace the carpet and pad and clean and seal the underfloor.

Whatever you do, don't punish your cat for inappropriate elimination. Rubbing his nose in it, hitting him, or yelling at him will simply increase his stress. He'll learn to be more secretive about where he potties, and he will lose his trust in you. Positive approaches to changing his behavior will get you farther, faster. Here are some additional suggestions:

Perrfect Words

A remote correction is one that you apply at a distance so your cat doesn't realize you're responsible. For instance, a squirt of plain water directed at the cat (but away from his face and eyes, please), or a pop can with a couple pennies sealed inside tossed near—not at!—the cat can disrupt an un-wanted behavior and enable you to redirect the cat to a more appropriate action.

  • Keep litter boxes clean.
  • Take your cat to the litter box after meals or playtime, and if she uses it, reward her with a treat and praise.
  • After deodorizing the area, feed your cat where he was pottying inappropriately, at least temporarily. Most cats won't potty where they eat.
  • Discourage your cat from visiting the area by closing a door, using repellants (sprays, motion detectors, scat mats), or providing unwelcoming surfaces (plastic sheets, aluminum foil, double-sided sticky tape, or carpet runners placed upside down with spikes or nubs up).
  • When you can't supervise her closely, confine your cat to a small room or even a kitty cage with water, bedding, toys, litter box, and food if you free feed. When she uses the litter box reliably in the small space, gradually let her into other parts of the house unsupervised.
  • If you see your cat going or preparing to go (usually by digging) outside the litter box, say “No!” or use a remote correction to disrupt the behavior. Then take him to the litter box.


More on: Pets

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting and Owning a Cat http://life.familyeducation.com/cats/health/45708.html 2005 by Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


September 1, 2014



Don't forget to hydrate! Forego sugary juices and sodas and pack a bottle of water in your child's lunch. If your child likes a little more flavor, spice it up with lemon, lime, cucumbers, or fresh fruit.


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