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Preventing Unwanted Behaviors in Your Cat


Although all cat pee is pretty much the same to most people, to your cat, there's a big difference between urinating to relieve a loaded bladder and spraying urine onto vertical surfaces to proclaim ownership of territory and things. Intact males and cats who live in multi-cat households are most likely to spray.

Prevention is the best solution to spraying, and the best prevention is neutering. Very few cats who are neutered before 6 months of age ever have the urge to spray. If other cats wander through or near your yard, block your cat's view to reduce his urge to post “no trespassing signs.” To reduce stress establish a routine so he knows when to expect food and clean litter, and keep his litter box(es), bowls, scratching post, bed, and whatnot in the same places. If your cat isn't fond of guests, put him in a quiet room when you have company.

Perrfect Words

A group of cats is called a clowder.

If you have more than one cat, encourage your clowder to get along so they see themselves as “family.” You can promote mutual grooming, a terrific bonding activity, by wiping them both with a damp cloth. Feed them near one another, play with them together, cuddle them together, and encourage them to sleep together. If they don't see one another as competitors, they'll be less inclined to spray.

If your cat has already started to spray, getting him to stop will be a challenge. Clean the area thoroughly and remove all trace of urine odor. Keep him away from the spot until the habit is broken. If you can't keep him away with a physical barrier, try a repellant made specifically to discourage cats. (First be sure you can tolerate the smell of the repellant!)

Biting and Scratching

Cats can and sometimes do display aggression toward people. It's unpleasant and potentially dangerous to live with an aggressive cat, so let's look at some of the causes of aggressive behavior as well as some potential solutions.

As with other behavior problems, the first step in dealing with aggression is to rule out a physical problem. If your cat is ill or in pain, touching or disturbing her can trigger defensive aggression. Even a healthy cat can occasionally get cranky because of acute pain—if you've ever accidentally stepped on your cat's tail or toe, you know about this! If your new cat shows aggression or if your established cat suddenly turns crabby, take her for a check-up.

Fear can also bring on defensive aggression. For instance, if a cat is cornered, injured, or otherwise frightened, he might hiss, spit, swat, and bite to protect himself. Pain can trigger fear, so if your cat appears irrationally fearful, see your vet. Similarly, if you startle your cat, especially when he's asleep, his first response will often be a defensive one.

Petting can occasionally trigger a bite. Some vets and behaviorists believe that the “bite to the hand that pets” phenomenon, which most cat lovers have experienced at some time, might be due to irritation or even pain brought on by repetitive petting. (Imagine shaking hands with someone who keeps on shaking until you can't stand it anymore. You might not bite, but I bet you'd want to!) It's also important to realize that some cats just don't like to be cuddled or petted.


People sometimes say their cats bite or swat them without any warning. Most cats do, in fact, issue warnings, but many people don't get the message in time. If your cat growls, twitches his tail or skin, stiffens his body, pulls his ears back, or unsheaths his claws, he's telling you to back off.


Never hit, kick, or otherwise physically correct your cat. It won't solve the problem and will probably provoke more aggression and fear.

If you've ruled out physical problems, then it's time to manage and hopefully change the behavior. First, try to determine what triggers the aggression. If a particular person or pet causes your cat to bare his claws, see if you can figure out why. Is the dog pushy? Does your son clomp around in big clunky shoes? Sometimes even a simple change—training the dog to leave the cat alone or having your son change his shoes in the house—can fix the problem. Also consider general stress or change in the environment. Have you moved recently, put in new carpet, -changed the furniture around, or added a new family member?

You might be able to stop your cat's aggressive behavior through counterconditioning, a technique in which you offer a reward for the behavior you want and ignore the unwanted behavior. For instance, if your cat reacts aggressively to being picked up, start by simply touching him while he's on the floor and simultaneously giving him a treat. When he's relaxed with that (which might take several encounters), up the ante a little by running your hand down his side, still giving him a treat. Then get your hand under his belly without lifting him. Work from there to lifting up on his belly but without raising his paws off the floor, then lift him just a little, then a little more, and so on. Be patient, and don't try to push him too quickly. The key to success is not to pass his tolerance limit. At the first sign he might be getting cranky, back off slightly. Stay at that level until he's relaxed and comfortable with the stimulation, then proceed again slowly. This approach will take a while, but the results will be more dependable than any attempt at a quick fix.

Remember, above all, that the first priority when dealing with an aggressive animal is to keep others—human and animal—safe. An angry or frightened cat can cause a great deal of damage with those sharp teeth and claws, so don't take chances with yourself, other people, or other pets. If your cat poses a danger during the normal course of household activity, seek help immediately from a qualified behaviorist who can evaluate the behavior and develop a treatment plan. Be aware, too, that among cats—as among people—an occasional individual might be mentally unbalanced and beyond treatment. If all other options fail, or if you cannot be certain that the cat won't injure someone (especially a child), the kindest and most loving solution may be to release the cat from his demons through humane euthanasia.

Cat Nip

If your cat has scratched drapes, furniture, or other items in your house, he has left his scent on them. In addition to encouraging him to scratch where you want him to, you need to remove his scent from the “illegal” places. Clean the areas thoroughly, then apply an enzyme cleaner designed to remove the scent. Follow the manufacturer's directions; some are premixed, others need to be activated with water. Then make the area inaccessible until the habit is broken, or spray it with a pet repellant. (Test the repellant first—some might repel you, too!)

Destructive Scratching

Cats scratch to sharpen their claws, and to mark objects with their scent. Your job is to encourage your cat to scratch and mark “legal” objects—scratching posts and similar items—and discourage them from marking and shredding drapes, furniture, carpets, and other off-limits items. You can't completely prevent your cat from scratching—even declawed cats go through the motions to apply scent. But you can teach your cat to scratch only certain objects.

Be sure the scratching post is convenient, preferably near your cat's favorite sleeping spot. Many cats like to scratch when they wake up, perhaps to refresh their scent. Your cat will return to the spots that already carry his scent, so it's important to get her to scratch the post, marking it as hers.

If your cat just won't use his scratching post, try a different type. When he does use the proper place, praise him and, at least at first, give him a little treat. Positive reinforcement is very effective (see Using Positive Reinforcement to Train Your Cat).

Another option that works well for some cats is soft plastic covers that slide onto the cat's claws to prevent her from using them destructively (see Your Cat's Claws).

More on: Pets

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.


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