Five common cat behaviour problems and how to solve them.
By Francesca Lees BSc (Hons) NCert (AnBeh) ISFM CertFN RVN
If you own a cat, then you may know they're quite complex little creatures. We know that, aside from being cute and fluffy and sleeping a lot they are very closely linked to their wild cat ancestors and their behaviour reflects this.
Because cats are so similar to their wild counterparts, they exhibit behaviours which to us as humans can be problematic. Many cat owners experience behaviour issues with their cats and this is due to cats having very specific needs.
It's really important to remember that if your cat is exhibiting a behaviour issue they're not doing anything wrong. They're just being a cat. Unfortunately when we own cats and we keep them in our domestic homes there are certain expectations that we as humans have, which don't really fit with natural feline behaviour.
What you think is an issue may be a normal behaviour for your cat
Some people have issues with their cats urinating in the house. This is one of the most common behaviour problems that cat behaviourists are called on for help. However, you may think that urinating around the house is abnormal and that your cat has a problem, however, in the wild it's very normal for cats to urinate within their environment to scent mark and make their territory smell familiar to them.
Scent marking isn't a problem behaviour as it's a natural behaviour to cats however, it is a problem to us as humans when they do it within our homes.
The majority of cat behaviour issues arise from, as we can already see, cats exhibiting normal behaviours for a cat that are not compatible with life within a human household.
So, what are the top five behaviour issues that we see in cats and how can we prevent them?
1. Urinating inside the house and not in the litter trays
Cats will urinate in the house and not use the litter trays for a couple of different reasons. Cats who spray urine (standing up against objects or walls and spraying urine horizontally) are usually doing this to mark their territory. This is called scent marking.
Scent marking their environment makes cats feel safe because it helps them to feel that their home is their safe zone which clearly smells of them and this is deterring intruders from coming in. Sometimes cats also urinate in their home because their litter tray is in an unfavourable location.
Litter tray location is really important to cats and cats will often urinate outside of the litter tray if the litter tray has been placed in an area where they don't feel that it is safe or private enough to toilet in. For example, if you place their litter tray by a glass door, possibly looking out to the garden, where other cats can look in and watch your cat whilst they are in their litter tray. Cats do not like to be watched whilst they are toileting and so this can cause cats to avoid using a litter tray if it's placed by a window or glass doors where they are easily observable to other cats.
Also some cats will not use a litter tray if it is very dirty and hasn't been cleaned regularly enough. Cats are naturally very clean animals and would not toilet in an area where there was other cat, faeces and urine. It's really important to keep regularly cleaning your litter tray, and if you are using a clumping litter such as Tippaws clumping litter you can scoop out the urine and faeces daily, which helps the litter tray stay cleaner for longer.
Cats also do not like sharing litter trays so if you have more than one cat you need more than one litter tray.
2. Scratching furniture
Scratching furniture is one of the other very common cat behaviour issues that cat owners report. Again, scratching is a natural cat behaviour, and in the wild cats would scratch their claws on trees to remove the outer shell of the nails and also to mark their scent. Cats have glands in between their toes which secrete a pheromone that leaves a message to other cats to say “this is my space, this is my territory”. Cats mark their territory in this way, again, because it makes them feel safe and they feel that their environment will not be as prone to intruders. If you do not provide your cat with scratching posts, or scratching posts are not in favourable locations, your cat may choose to scratch on something else!
Generally cats like to scratch near doorways and entrances to rooms, because this helps them to feel that the room is clearly scent marked as their space and so it makes them feel safe that they will not be open to intruders. If you do not provide a scratching post, your cat will likely use your sofa, your stairs or other vertical surfaces.
Try and place the scratching posts near doorways and entrances so that they feel their environment is safe.
3. Multi-cat household aggression
This is another common issue that owners often report. People who own more than one cat often find that their cats fight or struggle to get on sometimes. They may compete for their owners attention or compete for food and often they show other signs of stress, such as urinating in the house and over grooming.
Tension between cats within the household is generally reduced by increasing the number of resources that the cats have so that they do not have to share things like food bowls, water bowls, beds or litter trays. The less time the cats have to be close to each other and share items within close proximity of each other the more likely they are to get on.
It's important to note that forcing your cats to do things together, such as giving them one food bowl and putting their food down so that they eat together will not make them more likely to be friends. It will actually increase the stress and tension between them.
4. Your cat drinks from taps and toilets.
This is one that lots of people find their cat doing but why are they doing this!? People often find their cats trying to drink from their toilet if they leave the lid open or their cat desperately runs towards the tap whenever they try to wash their hands, or try to do the washing up, to try and drink from it!
Again, this comes down to natural cat behaviour in the wild. Wild cats always try to drink water from an area with moving water, such as rivers and streams. They will usually avoid drinking from stagnant water, such as puddles and ponds. This is because stagnant water is more likely to be dirty and contaminated and their natural instinct tells them it's safer to drink from moving water. So when you turn on a tap your cat will be more inclined to want to drink from this than a water bowl! You may think, but my cat isn't a wild cat, however cats don't know this! They still think like their wild ancestors. They haven't really evolved much at all and we now say that cats aren't really "domesticated" like dogs are.
To help your cat stop using your taps and toilets you can provide them with a cat drinking fountain. These are available from most pet shops and you just plug them in and fill them up with water. Your cat will enjoy the feeling of drinking from running water and you won’t have to keep fighting them off whilst you try to do the washing up! Cat drinking fountains actually encourage cats to drink more which can help lower their risk of getting urinary issues, so it’s also a great health benefit to your cat too.
5. Aggression towards humans, such as chasing, pouncing, biting and scratching
If your cat is chasing you and pouncing on you or biting your fingers and toes then you may think they're being aggressive or they have “got it in for you!”. However, cats don't have malicious motives and they are only exhibiting natural hunting behaviours.
Cats have a natural inbuilt instinct to hunt, and often cats who are biting their owners are unable to exhibit their natural hunting behaviours elsewhere. This is particularly common for indoor cats. Cats who live solely indoors will not be able to hunt things outside such as birds and insects. This helps cats to feel satisfied in terms of their need to hunt.
If your cat is hunting you then you can try replicating hunting type behaviour by playing with toys which they can stalk, chase and pounce on. Fishing rod type toys work really well for this as you can pull them along the floor and they replicate a moving animal. Make sure you play with these types of toys every day to help your cat to be able to exhibit this natural behaviour without them needing to hunt you instead! Remember not to tell your cat off if they do this, as they are only doing what is completely normal for a cat, and instead go and grab a toy to redirect them onto instead of your skin. Also remember never to play with your cat by wiggling your fingers and toes as this will only encourage them to attack you, even when you aren't playing!
Cat behaviour is not the same as human behaviour
It's important to note that in regards to all feline behaviour issues, although they may appear to be doing it on purpose or you may think your cat is doing something to get back at you for something you've done, cats do not have the ability to think in this way and they do not have ulterior motives. Cats do not have the ability to be malicious or to think in this way, and it is very common for owners to anthropomorphise (attribute human feelings and emotions onto animals) cats motives.
The best way of tackling a behaviour issue is to think like a cat. Put yourself in your cat's shoes and think like they do and you'll soon be able to understand their behaviour better and why they are doing what they're doing.
There's a really fantastic free course for cat owners from Cats Protection which helps you to think like a cat and understand life from your cat's perspective.
Seek professional help
If you are struggling with your cats behaviour and you have been unable to resolve the issue yourself the best thing you can do is to get advice from a professional.
It’s important to go through your vet when your cat is exhibiting a new behaviour issue. This is to make sure that the issue is not caused by an underlying health issue or pain. Sometimes cats will exhibit behaviours, such as the ones stated above, due to un underlying illness or due to them being in pain (such as dental pain, arthritis or cystitis). Once your vet has ruled out a medical or pain issue they can then refer you onto a feline behaviourist
When your vet refers you to a qualified professional behaviourist, make sure to use someone who is registered as a Clinical Animal Behaviourist. You can find advice on animal behaviour and the details of your nearest Clinical Animal Behaviourist on the Animal Behaviour & Training Council website or feel free to contact me by completing this contact form.
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