RVT, KPA CTP, VTS (Behavior)
Rachel is a veterinary nurse and a member of the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. She is the lead veterinary behavior technician at The Behavior Clinic in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. Rachel is a Certified Training Partner through the Karen Pryor Dog Trainer Professional Academy. She is a Fear Free Certified Level 3 Professional, is on the Fear Free Speakers Bureau, and is a member of the Fear Free Advisory Panel. Rachel is also the speaker committee chair and website chair for the Clinical Animal Behavior Conference and serves as secretary for the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians.Read Articles Written by Rachel Lees
Cats are a one-of-a-kind species with many positive, and some negative, attributes. They are small, elusive, and self-sufficient. For cats to maintain a healthy quality of life, they must be able to carry out relatively unaltered lives in ways that are consistent with their natural behavioral repertoire. Certain behaviors help define cats for what they are, and cat owners need to understand which behaviors are natural and which are unnatural. Behaviors such as scratching, climbing, and predatory play are natural behaviors but can be considered undesirable by cat owners; however, eliminating these behaviors can diminish the cat’s quality of life.
Unlike dog trainers, who are readily available, people who can offer advice on feline behavior are harder to find; therefore, veterinary personnel are often among the first to be consulted about feline behavioral issues, and educating clients about feline behavior often falls on the veterinary team. This is an area where veterinary nurses can shine and educate clients in ways that help keep the cat in the client’s home and enhance the human-animal bond.
This article should help veterinary nurses distinguish between natural and unnatural behaviors of the domestic cat. It describes typical feline behavior in a human household and provides strategies for helping clients meet their cat’s natural behavioral needs while minimizing undesirable behaviors. Strategies include environmental enrichment and identifying and minimizing the causes of undesirable behavior.
Feline Environmental Enrichment
Environmental enrichment is a way of modifying the cat’s environment to provide an outlet for the cat to channel natural behaviors. Enhancing cats’ mental and physical wellbeing helps ward off behaviors considered undesirable by their owners. Many feline behavioral issues stem from lack of environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment can be divided into 5 categories: social, psychological, physical, sensory, and nutritional (TABLE 1).1
Using the physical needs category as an example, zoo personnel use enrichment techniques to enhance the welfare of captive wild animals confined to small spaces. For domestic cats living with humans, their living space is also much smaller than their natural living area would be. A study conducted by Heidenberger discussed that, on average, cats will typically use approximately 360 square feet (40 square yards) of open living space, which can be considered as their own territory.2 In smaller homes with multiple cats, lack of space can cause increased agitation between cats within the home. Increasing the square footage of each cat’s territory by adding vertical space is one way to enrich the cats’ environment.
When done correctly, enrichment will increase a cat’s range of natural behaviors, reduce the occurrence of undesirable behaviors, and increase positive use of the environment.
Natural Versus Undesirable Feline Behaviors
A cat’s natural behavior repertoire comprises behaviors such as scratching, climbing, and attention-seeking.
From the feline perspective, these behaviors maintain claw health, enable visual and pheromonal territory marking, and can provide safe vantage points for potential threats (especially in multiple-cat households). Depending on early experience and genetics, some cats may be more social and interactive with humans than others.3 Because of this they may demonstrate more attention-seeking behaviors.
From the human perspective, however, some of these behaviors are considered undesirable and may lead cat owners to have the cat declawed, rehomed, or even euthanized. However, other options exist.
Natural Feline Bahevior
The natural behaviors discussed in this article are scratching, climbing, and attention-seeking. All have the potential to destroy property (e.g., clawing furniture, climbing curtains, knocking objects off counters) and can range from annoying to downright dangerous (e.g., chewing electric cords, biting or otherwise distracting people).
According to a study published by Morgan and Houpt, about 60% of cats with no underlying behavior problem will scratch furniture.4 Scratching serves to remove dead cells from the claws and to communicate the cat’s territory. Some cats prefer to scratch on vertical surfaces; others prefer horizontal. Scratching is a self-reinforcing behavior; ignoring it will not solve the problem.
Problem-Solving Suggestions: Recommend that clients provide an appropriate outlet for the cat’s scratching behavior. Ask them to note if the cat is scratching a vertical or horizontal object, its height, its substrate, and its location. Then suggest that the client purchases or builds a scratching object (usually a post or a mat) that meets the cat’s personal preferences. After the alternative scratching object is in place, the client should then block access to the undesirable scratching object. They should give positive reinforcement (treats or praise) when the cat scratches the new object. They can also make the new object more attractive by applying a commercially available artificial pheromone released by cats during scratching. Placement of the pheromone on the desired scratching object should encourage the cat to scratch it.
Alternatively, or in addition, clients can make the undesired scratching location less attractive; however, doing so without providing an alternative scratching location can increase stress and anxiety for some cats. Products available to help eliminate scratching in a minimally stressful way include nail caps, which are soft, nontoxic caps that can be placed on the cat’s claws. If placed correctly, they should cause no damage or discomfort to the cat.
Cats climb to increase their territory and to find safe vantage points and resting places. This behavior is natural for cats, and absence of a climbing outlet can decrease the cat’s welfare.1
Problem-Solving Suggestions: Recommend that clients provide things for the cat to climb. These can be commercial shelves, cat trees, hammocks, or elevated walkways. These places can be made more appealing by adding soft substrates and fleece bedding. As with scratching, clients should provide positive reinforcement when the cat climbs and interacts with the new appropriate object. Suggest that, if possible, they block the cat’s access to the areas with undesirable climbing surfaces.
This behavior can be anything that the cat intentionally does to receive human attention. Attention-seeking behaviors include chewing on cords, jumping on counters, or anything to attract attention from a person who is focused on something other than the cat.
Any human interaction with the cat is a potential learning experience for the cat. Even scolding may be interpreted by the cat as reinforcement (i.e., attention received). For example, if a cat walks on kitchen counters to obtain attention and the client scolds and pushes the cat off the counter as punishment, the cat may perceive the human voice and physical contact as positive attention.
Problem-Solving Suggestions: Inform clients that the best way to discourage attention-seeking behavior is to ignore the behavior (if possible and humane) and to help the cat replace undesirable behavior with something more appropriate.5 As an example, if the client is watching television and the cat begins to chew on the television cords, the client should give the cat something else to chew on. A food puzzle might keep the cat’s mouth busy. It is best to provide the alternative before the undesirable behavior begins. If the cat has learned foundation behaviors (those for which the cat has been trained to perform on cue, such as “Sit,” “Down,” “Target,” and “Go to a Mat”), the cat can be cued to an appropriate location and then be given positive reinforcement for staying in the desired location. Clients should also re-examine their environmental enrichment measures to see if they are meeting the cat’s social, psychological (exploratory), and physical needs.
Undesirable Feline Behavior
When cats are under a certain amount of stress, anxiety, or confinement in an inappropriately enriched environment, the potential for unnatural behavior patterns is increased. The most common unnatural behaviors are inappropriate elimination, aggression toward feline housemates, and excessive play/predatory behavior. Remember that these undesirable behaviors may need lifelong management and there may not be an easy or simple way to resolve them. Expectations should be reviewed with each client to eliminate future frustration.
One of the most common complaints by cat owners and the most common behavioral reason for relinquishing cats to shelters is elimination outside the litter box.6 Cats use scent as one of their many means of communication and may eliminate outside the litter box to communicate stress, anxiety, or fear.
Because inappropriate elimination may also reflect an underlying medical problem, cats exhibiting this behavior should first undergo a full medical workup before focus is devoted solely on behavior. The workup for all animals presented for behavioral changes should generally include physical and neurologic examinations and basic blood analysis.7
Two types of inappropriate elimination are house soiling and urine marking. These behaviors may appear the same to the client, but they are different and have different causes and potential solutions.
Cats avoid using the litter box if they are experiencing environmental and/or social stressors, if they prefer a different substrate than what is being provided, or if they are averse to the current options.
Problem-Solving Suggestions: If the behavior is deemed house soiling, obtain a brief history to help determine the cause. Clients understanding the appropriate litter box requirements is crucial to success. Be sure to confirm that all litter box needs are being met (BOX 1) before looking for another cause.
Box location(s): To avoid guarding of box locations in multiple-cat households, have 1 box on each floor. Place boxes in quiet locations with low human traffic.8 Box size: Cats prefer boxes 1.5 times their body length.9 Litter type: Many cats prefer unscented clumping litter, which most closely approximates the sand their ancestors would have used.10 Liners: Liners may be preferred by clients but are usually not preferred by cats. Hygiene: Boxes should be scooped daily and emptied and cleaned at least once per month.11
Box location(s): To avoid guarding of box locations in multiple-cat households, have 1 box on each floor. Place boxes in quiet locations with low human traffic.8
Box size: Cats prefer boxes 1.5 times their body length.9
Litter type: Many cats prefer unscented clumping litter, which most closely approximates the sand their ancestors would have used.10
Liners: Liners may be preferred by clients but are usually not preferred by cats.
Hygiene: Boxes should be scooped daily and emptied and cleaned at least once per month.11
Marking is a sexual or anxiety-driven behavior. Cats mark by urinating on a vertical or horizontal surface. This behavior can be associated with anxiety triggered by many causes (often unknown to the client), such as new objects, a visitor to the home, social issues between cats, or changes to the cat’s or human’s routine.
Problem-Solving Suggestions: Find the root cause of this behavior because it will continue if not addressed. The cause will determine the full treatment plan. In every case, providing appropriate clean-up recommendations is crucial. Enzymatic cleaners can help eliminate the scent of the urine (for both the client and the cat). In some cases, along with a prescribed treatment plan, medications or supplements may be recommended to help reduce the cat’s overall stress and anxiety.
Aggression Toward Housemates
Cats can be solitary or social, depending on their early rearing, exposure during the socialization period, and genetics.3 Cat owners commonly have multiple cats with different early life experiences. A trend seen in multiple-cat households is that cats can be quite territorial and unaccepting of outsiders.3 Aggression may erupt when a new cat is brought into a home where an adult cat is already established.
For clients wanting to get a kitten, recommend that they adopt 2 kittens. Kittens adopted at the same time can create strong social bonds with each other.
Suggest that clients provide ample resources (food, water, litter boxes) and increase the amount of vertical space to decrease social tension.
Suggest that clients systematically introduce a newly adopted cat to a household with already established cats by practicing desensitization and conditioning (BOX 2).8
- Desensitization is performed by slowly allowing each established cat to safely see and smell the new cat. The new cat should be kept in a separate room that provides all resources for environmental enrichment. The desensitization hierarchy is as follows:
- Present the new cat with scents from the established cat (e.g., towel or blanket).
- Present the established cat with scents from the new cat.
- Allow under-the-door play (which can promote a positive experience with the other cat if neither cat is displaying aggression).
- Place baby gates at the doors as a visual barrier between the cats.
- Conditioning is performed by positively reinforcing the established cat for interacting with the new cat (or its towel or blanket).
- Use food or play to reinforce interaction with the new cat’s scent.
- Use food to positively reinforce the cats when they look at each other through the baby gate without displaying aggression.
Excessive Predatory Behavior
Given their high predatory drives, many cats show undesirable qualities such as play biting, excessive play, overarousal during play, and stalking/hunting prey (and leaving their “prize” at the feet of their humans). Cats typically explore the environment with their paws and their mouths. Cats are also prone to hunting for their meals and therefore need an appropriate outlet for predatory behavior. With younger cats, this behavior can become problematic. Owners may inadvertently encourage this behavior by allowing young cats and kittens to play with inappropriate objects (e.g., slippers) or to mouth and bite their hands, which, although cute initially, can promote inappropriate play and may later injure the owner.
Problem-Solving Suggestions: Providing regular play times with the cat will minimize potential for play deprivation. Recommend that clients play with the cat at least 2 times per day.8 Doing so can help satiate the cat’s desire for predatory behavior and provide appropriate play outlets. Any type of play involving a human should always provide an appropriate outlet. Toys such as feathers, mice, and crinkle balls are appropriate outlets and will also promote healthy exercise and social behavior with the client.8 To avoid having the cat associate play with human feet or legs, the cat should be encouraged to play away from the human. For this reason, toys on the ends of poles can be extremely useful.
This article is only a brief overview of natural and unnatural, but potentially undesirable, feline behavior. For each behavior described, many other potential treatments can be recommended or prescribed by the veterinarian. If at any point the client is considering euthanasia or rehoming the cat because of a behavioral concern, the veterinary team should triage the problem (to give the client immediate help) and refer the client to a veterinary behaviorist. Doing so provides the best chance to keep the cat in the home and repair any broken bond between the cat and the client.
Bradshaw J. Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. New York: Basic Books; 2013.
American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. In: Herron ME, Horwitz DF, Siracusa C, eds. Decoding the Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2020.
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