How to Solve Cat Behavior Problems

By: Dr. H. Ellen Whiteley
Gray Cat Being Kissed by Male Owner
Though cats are very stubborn but they can be trained. Carlos G. Lopez / Getty Images

Is your cat turning your couch into confetti? Or your best carpet into a litter box? Maybe she's up on the table at mealtimes or dashing through doors and into trouble.

Next to allergies, behavior problems are probably the most common reason cats lose their homes. But there's no need to toss Fluffy out into the street. This article will give you the answers to your behavior questions, including:


  • Understanding Cat BehaviorCat behavior problems can be quite frustrating, but the first step to correcting them is actually understanding where your cat is coming from. First, we will show you how to read your cat's body language. Whether your cat is crouched or her ears are pulled back, we will tell you what that body language means. We will also tell you how to read your cat's various meows. We will also analyze your cat's play and what it could mean about her behavior. Finally, we will show you how to encourage good behavior in your cat.
  • Cat-Training BasicsNow that you understand cat behavior, we will show you how you can mold and change it. In this section, we will show the basics of training a cat. We will show you how to reinforce good behaviors in your cat and how to discourage negative habits. We will also point out that there are some behaviors that you will not be able stop, and how you will be able to curb them.
  • Dealing With Cats That Bite and ScratchIf you are petting your cat and are constantly worried that she will turn around and scratch you, you have a behavior problem. Many people just accept that their cat is "unpredictable" or "temperamental," but you do not have to live with this behavior. We will show you how to break your cat of this habit as well as offer some reasons why your cat might scratch. Though it can be painful and upsetting, your cat may think she is just playing with you.
  • Dealing With Cats That Are Finicky EatersFinickiness is a trait that is often associated with cats. Though some owners may prefer cats for the detached aloofness, some pet owners might run out of patience with their picky-eating cat. In this section, we will offer some suggestions to make your cat a more accepting eater. The first rule of advice is not foster this behavior in your cat. You should not offer your cat endless alternatives if she turns up her nose at the meal you prepared.
  • Dealing With Cats That Knock Things DownCats instinctively like to explore and climb on high places. However, while your cat is investigating the top shelf of your bookcase, she might send your grandmother's vase crashing down to the floor. While it is impossible to keep track of cat's whereabouts all the time, you can discourage your cat from knocking over you belongings.
  • Dealing With Cats That Have Litter Box AccidentsCats that have difficulty using her litter box can be create a mess and damage to your home. In this section, we will offer some tips to help you get your cat to use the litter box properly. First, more litter boxes might be the solution to your problem, especially if you have more than one cat. Also, using simple, basic litter might suit your cat more than the fancy deodorizing litters. Finally, we will show you how to teach a cat to stick to her litter box instead of that plant in the corner.
  • Dealing With Cats That Eat NonfoodsMuch like dogs, cats will probably try to eat any piece of litter they find lying on the floor of your home. Not only is eating off the floor unsanitary, foreign objects could get stuck in your cat's throat and present a choking hazard. In this section, we will offer some reasons why your cat might engage in this activity. We will also show you some tips to get your cat to stop eating the various bits of junk she finds on her travels throughout your home.
  • Dealing With Cats That Scratch FurnitureCats may have an instinctive need to scratch and exercise their claws, but that doesn't mean you should allow you cat to trash your new favorite couch. While you can always declaw your cat, surgically removing the claws, this may not be an option if you have an outdoor cat. A scratching post or a cat toy might focus your cat's need to scratch on to an acceptable alternative. Finally, if your cat refuses to stop scratching, we will show you some disciplinary actions you can take.
  • Dealing With Skittish CatsIf you have ever visited a friend with a skittish or shy cat, you might not even be able to tell they have a cat aside from the litter box. On some level, cats are just naturally reclusive animals that do most of their roaming at night. However, to get your cat out from under the bed, you might only need to show your cat a little more love and tenderness. In this section, we will explore this method and other strategies for dealing with skittish cats.
  • Dealing With Cats That SprayCats usually begin spraying when they are kittens, but, if you don't break them of this habit, they can continue the behavior for the rest of their lives. Of course, a failsafe strategy for this problem is to get your cat neutered, but this might not be the most desirable option for some pet owners. We will show you some easier strategies for getting your cat to stick to the litter box.
  • Dealing With Cats That Suck WoolA cat that sucks wool might sound like a bizarre problem, but it is actually quite common. Any cat owner who has had a sweater destroyed by their cat would mostly likely want to know how to stop this behavior. In this section, we will describe some simple home remedies to break your cat of this habit.

Understanding Cat Behavior

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. A cat's posture, even the movements of the tail, can give you a clue as to what she is thinking.

Before you can tackle behavior problems, you need to know a little bit about cat behavior and what your cat is trying to tell you.

There are so many fascinating ways that cats communicate with each other. Some of their methods are so subtle that we humans are not sensitive enough to understand what they are saying. Cats often use mild and controlled signs of body language. A minor flick of the tail or the slightest movement of the ears send messages that are worth a thousand words to another cat.


But since their body language is so restrained, we often find it difficult to comprehend, so we end up making mistakes trying to interpret their messages. It's easier for us to discern what cats are saying when they use their voices. Their range of sounds -- from a gentle purr to a seething hiss -- let us know if a cat is happy or angry. Once we learn to make sense of the body language and the vocalizations of cats, we are one step closer to understanding cat behavior.

Nature or Nurture?

In the study of behavior, experts talk about nature versus nurture, meaning which behaviors are inbred (or instinct) and which are learned. It's an argument that will probably never be completely settled. Most experts agree, however, that animals like cats and dogs have both kinds of behavior; they just disagree on which ones are which -- and which kind is more important.

An example of an instinctual behavior would be what happens when you run your hand down the cat's back, from his head to his tail. That response of sticking his backside up in the air is hardwired into his nervous system. A learned behavior is something like your cat running into the kitchen whenever he hears the can opener. That is, if you've ever fed him anything out of a can.

Reflex actions. Classical animal behavior talks about reflexes and has its own nature versus nurture debate. Unconditioned reflexes are those the body seems to produce on its own. For example, if you kick your leg up when the doctor taps your knee with a rubber hammer. A conditioned reflex is a learned response. Most of us have heard of Pavlov's dog, who was trained to know that food was coming whenever he heard a bell ring. After awhile, Doc Pavlov could ring the bell and his dog would start salivating -- even if there was no food present.

The great debate resolved. Actually, even Pavlov had to admit that his conditioned dog didn't have a completely learned response. If there wasn't an instinctive response of salivating in the presence of food to begin with, Pavlov could never have trained the dog to do it when he heard the bell. What Pavlov really proved was that animals are born with a set of instinctive, natural behaviors, and they learn how to apply and adapt them as needed.

What it all means for your cat. In order to train your cat, you need to understand his behavior. You'll never get him to do anything that's totally outside of his natural behaviors, but you can teach him how to adapt those behaviors so that both of you live happily ever after.

The best example is the litter box: Cats have the instinctive behavior of digging in loose materials and burying their urine and feces. As long as the litter box is the place that appeals to the cat most, that's where he'll consistently eliminate. However, he may be more intrigued by soil in your potted palm, the loose, fluffy pile of your carpeting, or the nice, soft pile of socks left in a corner of the utility room. As long as the behavior is shaped toward the litter box, you've got no problem.

Speaking Feline

Obviously, cats don't have a spoken language like we do. But they do have a voice, and they make sounds that have different meanings. This is their means of communication. "Speaking feline" not only means understanding cats' vocalizations but also understanding the more complex language of cats -- body language.

Cat "speech." Cats make a variety of sounds that have been given colorful and descriptive names. Their purpose can range from expressing contentment to a call for help, from solicitation of food or companionship to a bloodcurdling expression of stark terror.

The classic cat sound (or vocalization) is the meow. Newborn kittens will meow with surprising volume. These vocalizations are probably to indicate hunger or cold and to help the mother cat locate them. As the cat gets older, the meow is still used largely to solicit or attract attention (for example, if your cat wants to signal you that he feels it's time for dinner).

An angry, frightened, or aggressive cat may hiss, which is a clear warning that whoever or whatever is approaching should come no closer. Hissing is often accompanied by a yowl, a throaty warning sound that rises and falls. An extremely frightened or angry cat will scream -- a sound that needs no further explanation.

Calling or yodeling is that mournful, slightly spooky sound your cat makes (usually in the middle of the night) while wandering around the house. New cat owners (and even some veteran ones) sometimes mistake this normal vocalization for pain, confusion, or loneliness, assuming that their cat is in distress. Female cats in heat (estrus) yodel to signal their readiness to mate. The tomcat calls to the female to advertise his availability in a loud voice called caterwauling. This call also serves the purpose of warning rival males of his amorous intentions.

Three sounds are unique to cats. The chortle, a happy greeting sound, sounds a lot like a quick, high-pitched chuckle. There's also that strange chirping or chattering noise cats make that's usually reserved for when they see birds outside the window. This is the elusive wacka-wacka, a term coined by famed cat cartoonist B. Kliban. Finally, the purr is, of course, the most sublime of all feline sounds. It's also one of the most hotly debated.

While a supremely contented cat will purr loudly, so will an extremely nervous or stressed one. This leads some researchers to think cats do it to reassure themselves. It's not even completely clear how cats purr. Most of the wild members of the cat family purr, but the household variety of cat is about the only one that can make the sound on both the exhale and the inhale.

Read my hips. The lithe, often silent movements of a cat actually speak volumes. Every inch of your cat, from the nose to the tip of the tail, communicates something.

We can think of the cat's state of mind as being more inward, more outward, or somewhere in between. A cat that is being defensive is more inward and will usually only attack if pursued. On the other hand, a cat that is ready to launch an offensive attack is more outward.

The ears are a good marker of the how inward or outward a cat is feeling: The farther back the ears are laid, the more inward the cat's state of mind. This also means a curious or friendly cat will have his ears pricked (forward and erect), since those are both outward states of mind.

Wide-open eyes are an outward sign. Other body and vocal signals will tell you if it's a good kind of outward, meaning that a happy or playful cat will have wide-open eyes but so will a terrified cat. Relaxed, open eyes reflect a more neutral internal state; relaxed, narrowed eyes usually means the cat's submissive, but it could also indicate a contented cat.

The size of the cat's pupils also offer a clue to his feelings: Dilated pupils may indicate fear while constricted pupils suggest aggressive feelings. A direct stare is an outward sign, meaning, "Back off, buster!"

Even the position of a cat's mouth says something about his feelings. The more open the mouth, usually the more outward the cat's state of mind. Again, this can be rage (lips drawn back, tense) or play (lips not drawn back, relaxed). Of course, if a cat also opens his mouth wide to hiss, spit, and show sharp teeth, it is definitely an indication of anger.

©2006 Publicatioins International, Ltd. An open mouth can indicate aggression, anger or even rage.

A cat's tail serves many purposes, with one of them being an indicator of what a cat is saying. An erect tail is an outward sign, usually part of a friendly greeting or a "follow-me" message -- watch a mother cat leading her kittens, or check out your cat the next time he tries to lure you toward where the cat food is stored. A lashing tail shows agitation, which may mean anger, excitement, or anticipation, especially just before pouncing in play or hunting. A bristled tail indicates fear, while a relaxed, gently swishing tail suggests contentment.

Body orientation is another indicator of inward or outward behavior. A straight-on approach is friendly, confident, or aggressive. When a cat makes himself bigger, by standing taller over another cat, climbing higher, or "puffing up" his hair, it's usually a display of dominance or aggression or an outright threat.

This strategy is played out in the familiar "Halloween cat" posture (sometimes called spidering or arching), where the cat turns sideways, arches his back, puffs up his hair, and hisses. This posture combines defensive elements (such as turning sideways) with clear threats (such as making himself look larger). On the other hand, when a cat makes himself smaller, by scrunching down, rolling to his side, or leaning away, he's trying to show that he's not a threat.

Aggression and Play

When a cat becomes destructive, the owner is often shocked to hear the professional advice: Get a second cat. The owner's understandable concern is that two cats will do twice as much damage, and the destructive cat will now have another cat to shred. Fortunately, the former is rarely true, mostly because the cat's energy is focused on another cat.

This also seems to make the latter a valid fear. There must be a period of introduction, and some hissing and minor scuffles are normal. However, many multiple-cat owners witness normal vigorous feline play and are convinced the cats still aren't getting along.

Play we must. Play is an instinctive behavior. All mammals -- including cats, dogs, and people -- play. While play is more frequent and energetic in younger animals, adults play as well. In fact, play persists throughout an animal's lifetime.

We must...but why? For decades, animal behaviorists have argued that play -- like all instinctive behaviors -- must have some deeper reason behind it. Citing the theory of natural selection, they say that if play behavior was completely frivolous, it would be a waste of time and energy and would have been eradicated over time. Clearly, these researchers need to get out and have fun more often.

Play may well serve as practice for important adult behaviors, which is why so much of it looks like aggression. So when one cat hunkers down, twitches his backside, lashes his tail, and then pounces on his feline roommate, landing full on the unsuspecting victim's back and seizing his neck in his jaws, it's definitely play; the real-life use of that sequence of behavior is stalking and killing prey. But researchers are finally, grudgingly admitting that play could have another purpose, one which humans have known about for time immemorial: It's fun!

How do I know when it's for real? Feline play is often no-holds-barred: noisy running, hot pursuit, pouncing, stalking, slamming bodies, wrestling, biting, the works. But in terms of vocalization, it's relatively quiet. An out-and-out catfight would include all the same behaviors as a fun bout of play but with lots of loud hissing, yowling, screaming, and flying fur. Play uses the same behaviors as aggression, but they are inhibited: There are smacks to the head but with claws retracted; bites but with relaxed jaws and exaggerated movements.

Other hallmarks of play include frequent changes in who's the aggressor -- who's on top in the wrestling match, who's chasing whom, or whose body language is more inward or outward -- and the play face (a relaxed, open jaw and wide-open eyes). If you doubt that humans use the play face just watch a bunch of schoolchildren heading out the door for recess!

Bring out the best. Now that you can recognize play behavior in your cat, you can make him happier and healthier by encouraging it. If there's only one cat in the home, you have the responsibility of being his playmate.

Cat toys are fine as long as they're safe, but your cat also needs you to play with him. Chasing, stalking, and pouncing games are at the top of the feline hit parade. Cats see moving edges better than stationary ones, so toys that wiggle, bounce, roll, or bob are particularly intriguing.

Even in multiple-cat households, the humans need to play with the cats. Play is a kind of "social glue," and the more your cats recognize humans as potential playmates, the better socialized to people they will be.

Just because you understand cat behavior doesn't mean you have to put up with it. There are steps you can take curb your cat's bad habits. In the next section, we will cover the basics of cat training.

Cat-Training Basics

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. You will not be able to get your cat to act like a person, but you can improve her behavior in smaller ways.

The cat is a very independent animal, and many cat owners will tell you that it is this independence that makes the cat such a comfortable companion around the house. Cats are not as demanding of attention as dogs. And, unlike dogs, most cats don't make any particular effort to win your approval -- they'll often wait for you to come to them rather than run around trying to catch your eye.

All this means that the cat is a very easy going creature who is polite and self-possessed. But it also means that it can be difficult to train a cat. If you and your cat don't see eye to eye over a certain kind of behavior, you might have a hard time getting him to do things your way. However, don't give up hope -- it's not completely impossible to modify your cat's behavior.


Getting a Cat to Change His Ways

Can a cat be trained? Surprisingly, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" -- but it has to be done on feline terms. Everything in this article up to this point is background information, designed to help you see the world from your cat's perspective, which is an important key to training. You can train a cat to jump through hoops or roll over on command. However, a more valuable training goal is teaching him to stay within the boundaries of acceptable behavior in society.

Emily Post for cats. It's probably best to make your training goal to cultivate good manners in your cat. Manners can be defined as performing normal and natural cat behaviors in the places, at the times, and in the way that satisfies both human and feline needs. This means finding the middle ground -- in other words, what you can live with -- and sticking to it.

Avoid bad habits. When it comes to behavior problems, most cat owners don't think in terms of prevention -- and more's the pity. It may be cute when your 12-week-old kitten plays with your bare hand, but six months later when the now ten-pound beast sinks his full set of predator's teeth into your wrist, he's really only doing what he was taught to do.

So, the best rule of thumb to follow is a common sense one: Never encourage any behavior you don't want to see later on, and always discourage any behavior you never want to see again.

Shape your cat's behavior. It's important to realize that certain cat behaviors can't be discouraged completely; they can only be shaped into a form that is socially acceptable in your household. This is also known as behavior modification.

A good example is scratching. This is an instinctive behavior for which many cats are declawed, lose their homes, or are even put to sleep each year. A better strategy is shaping the scratching behavior toward an acceptable object, such as a properly constructed scratching post, while simultaneously making other choices unpleasant or difficult.

The most successful, long-lasting, humane, and commonsense way to discipline a cat is positive reinforcement. The opposite method, negative reinforcement, punishes the animal for exhibiting a particular behavior in any way other than what the owner or trainer wants.

In the example of scratching furniture, this would mean following the cat around the house 24 hours a day and correcting him every time he lays claw to upholstery. Since scratching is instinctive and can't be stopped, this method is doomed to failure anyway. Praising and petting the cat when he uses the post and offering minor corrections (not punishments) when he's caught in the act of scratching elsewhere will help modify the behavior.

Remedying behavior problems can't be done by "cookbook" means. Every individual cat is unique, which means every individual cat's behavior is unique. Most likely, you'll have to adapt remedies to fit your own cat's personality and the circumstances in your home. You're now armed with the basic tools you need to accomplish that. We'll begin looking at some specific remedies in the next page with cats that bite and scratch.

Dealing With Cats That Bite and Scratch

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. A cat that scratches spontaneously or without provocation could be the sign of a disorder or disease.

You're walking down the hallway in your home, minding your own business, when suddenly your cat flings herself at your ankle, sinking in her teeth and claws, then dashes away. Is it an aggressive attack? An expression of jealousy? Possibly, but it might be neither.

A cat who bites or scratches when in pain, frightened, or being forced to do something she doesn't want to do doesn't have a behavior problem; she's acting like a normal cat. Problem biting and scratching is usually either a learned habit or miscommunication, both of which can be corrected over time.


Sometimes, however, sudden unprovoked biting or scratching can be the result of a nervous system disorder or a serious disease. (Note: Any bite or scratch you get from a cat who does not have a current rabies vaccination should prompt a call to your own doctor; always assume cats have not had rabies shots unless they have a current rabies tag or registration.)

Who taught her the trick? Many kittens learn to use human limbs as toys, climbers, and scratching posts. Many owners are surprised to learn that they are the ones who taught their young cats these bad habits.

Here are some rules to follow:

  • Never allow or encourage a kitten or cat to play with your bare hand or foot.
  • Never think you can get around the first rule by wearing protective gloves. There should always be some sort of appropriate cat toy between your limbs and your cat's teeth and claws. A tiny kitten may look cute climbing your pant leg or batting at your thumb, but you'll be singing a different tune when she repeats those behaviors as a full-grown cat.

Defensive biting and scratching. Teeth and nails are a cat's primary weapons. If other warnings don't work, cats will bite and scratch to protect themselves. Pay attention to your cat's vocal and body language; she'll usually let you know when she's on the brink of defensive biting or scratching. You don't have to show a cat who's boss by forcing the issue once she's warned you. The best approach is to back off whatever it is she doesn't like or use a safe method of restraint, if it's something that must be done. Likewise, look for warning signals when a cat is aggressive with other cats. If your cat is warning another cat that she's ready to bite or scratch, do not try to touch or restrain either of them. The cats have their attention focused on each other, and the "fight or flight" response is in full readiness. Your touch can actually trigger a fight. Instead, try to distract both cats by stamping your foot, clapping your hands, and shouting "No!" in a sharp, loud tone.

Unprovoked aggression. Sudden, unprovoked, and vicious attacks are especially scary. This is not just a cat swatting at your ankles and perhaps causing a little scratch or running your hose. This is send-someone-to-the-emergency-room kind of stuff.

Sometimes, serious biting and scratching is the result of miscommunication: Something startles the cat, and she has the impression that the person or pet nearest her is responsible. Other times, however, there really is something physically wrong with the cat that causes her to actually attack without cause or warning.

If your cat's bites and swats rarely break the skin, they're probably "inhibited" play bites and scratches. A cat who launches a serious attack (with multiple or deep bites, for example) should be carefully examined by a veterinarian.

When to Call the Vet

If your cat is launching serious attacks, especially without warning or provocation, get her in for a thorough veterinary exam as soon as possible. Cats often know when there's something going wrong with them but can't put it into words. The aggression might be a reaction to pain, a hormonal change, or the sign of a problem with her nervous system.

While cats are known for being finicky, that does mean you have to tolerate this behavior. Learn how to teach your cat to eat the food you put in front of her in the next section.

Dealing With Cats That Are Finicky Eaters

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Indulging in your cat's finicky eating habits will only make them worse.

Finickiness is one of the most famous of all feline traits. According to many behaviorists, however, it's a learned behavior and not an inborn one. Cats will happily eat the same food twice a day for their entire lives, provided it's nutritionally complete and tastes good enough.

Don't teach her the habit. Surprisingly, a lot of feline finickiness is taught to cats by their owners. Thinking the cat will get bored with a single flavor or brand, owners stock up on a variety of foods, trying different ones with each meal to determine a pet's favorites. If a cat walks away from a particular brand or flavor and the owner immediately opens another can, box, or bag, the cat quickly learns that finickiness pays.


If you feel you must vary the flavors in your cat's diet, adopt the old-fashioned approach of, "Eat what's put in front of you. If you don't like it, you don't have to eat it -- but that's all there's going to be until the next meal." Unless a cat eats absolutely nothing for a couple of meals running, there's no danger to her health if she has a few lean meals now and then.

Try the 20-minutes-and-up method. If you find yourself opening six cans at every meal and following your cat around the house, trying to coax her to have a nibble, you've got a serious finickiness problem going. At the next meal, put down a food you know the cat has eaten before. Wait 20 minutes, and then pick up the food and do not give any other food, snacks, or treats until the next meal. Repeat the process at that meal and every subsequent meal.

Be prepared for an all-out tantrum by your cat -- loud meowing, attempts to steal food, being an incredible pest, the works. Be strong and don't cheat to try to appease her. This method has a remarkable success rate. Many owners see improvement after three days, although some cats may persevere for several weeks.

When to Call the Vet

If a previously good eater suddenly becomes finicky or finickiness persists despite the 20-minutes-and-up method, your cat may have a physical problem and need veterinary care. Any cat who quits eating completely or has a loss of appetite accompanied by other symptoms of illness should be seen by the veterinarian right away.

Another annoying habit that can drive you up the wall is when your cat is constantly knocking your belongings off of tables or shelves. In the next section, we help you teach your cat to respect your property.

Dealing With Cats That Knock Things Down

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. If you cat is always knocking your books  on the floor, another cat might keep her occupied.

Most of the time, cats send things crashing to the floor in the course of vigorous play; a wild run up the front hall culminates in a ricocheting leap from floor to couch to end table, sending the intervening lamp crashing to the floor in the process. Sometimes, though, a cat will deliberately nudge an item over the edge of a shelf or table, then gleefully dash away from the resulting chaos and infuriated humans.

Is it nature or nurture? "Toying" with prey is a common behavior in feline hunters. When your cat nudges a small, stationary object with her paw, she's practicing the same behavior. Your cat's instincts tell her that paperweight or knickknack could turn out to be a mouse. Her poking paw would send it scurrying, giving her a good game (and possibly a good lunch).


However, once a cat learns that knocking something to the floor will bring humans on the double-quick, she may actually do it on purpose to get your attention, particularly if she feels that a meal is long overdue.

Give her something else to do. A bored cat will find her own ways to amuse herself and shoving things off high places to watch them drop is often one of them. Ample appropriate toys, climbing and hiding places to call her own, and a playmate -- preferably another cat -- can provide her with better options.

Take temptation out of her way. Low shelves, countertops, or tables lined with knickknacks, collectibles, or small easel-backed picture frames are an invitation to disaster in a home with cats. Anything that won't survive a trip from whatever surface it's on to the floor should be put somewhere else or surrounded by a cat-proof barrier, such as putting porcelain figurines in a glass-front case rather than on open shelves.

When to Call the Vet

This type of behavior usually doesn't require any veterinary attention. However, keep an eye on your cat to make sure she doesn't knock anything down on top of herself.

A cat who is having litter box accidents can be both frustration and messy. Learn how to curb this behavior in the next section.

Dealing With Cats That Have Litter Box Accidents

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Multiple litter boxes might be the solution for a cat that is having trouble eliminating.

Of all cat behavior problems, these are the ones owners complain about the most -- and with good reason. Besides the mess and damage, inappropriate elimination is unsanitary and creates an unpleasant (and often malodorous) atmosphere in the home.

Cats have an instinct to dig in loose materials and bury their urine and feces, and many of them adapt this instinct to the litter box with few problems. But it's still something they have to learn, and they often need help to get the lesson right.


Boxes, boxes everywhere. Litter boxes and litter should be the first things you buy when you decide to get a cat. Get them set up before the cat sets a single paw in your home. Make sure they are clean, easy to find, and numerous enough.

Many cats dislike using a box that another cat has recently used (even if that other cat is herself), so the rule of thumb is: The number of litter boxes in the house should equal the number of cats in the house plus one. Thus, if you have two cats, you should have at least three litter boxes; even households with just one cat should have at least two boxes.

Keep it simple. Deodorizing litters, antibacterial litters, high-tech litters -- all of these gimmicks used to sell various kinds of cat box fillers are aimed at the creatures that buy the litter, not necessarily the ones that use it. There's nothing wrong with using a litter that makes your job of tending to the litter box a little easier or a little less unpleasant, but some cats may be put off by the additives, perfumes, and chemical deodorizers used in some of these products. And that means they'll choose to do their business elsewhere. A plain cat box clumping litter (unscented) usually works fine.

Stop the madness. Once a cat starts eliminating outside of the litter box, do not assume she'll learn to use the box on her own. Cats habitually return to the same places to eliminate, a habit that's re-inforced by the lingering odor of urine or feces. Since a cat's sense of smell is far superior to ours, cleaning up a litter box accident so that you can no longer detect the odor may not be enough to deter the cat from doing it again.

Enzyme-based pet odor neutralizers actually break down the chemical structure of urine and feces residue so that your cat can no longer smell it. Pet supply stores usually carry at least one or two brands.

Block the favorite spots. Deny your cat access to places where she's eliminated outside the litter box. Physical barriers work well, but if that's not possible, try covering the spots with tinfoil or double-sided tape. This provides a barrier to the odor and a texture the cat won't want to walk on. If possible, consider placing a litter box directly on top of the inappropriate spot, and then gradually move the box an inch or so every few days, until it's where you want it to be.

Be your cat's personal trainer. When your cat first comes home, keep her in one room with a litter box. Once she's using that box consistently, give her the run of more rooms. Usually, this is enough to lock in the habit. However, a cat who doesn't completely get the hang of the litter box -- or backslides and starts eliminating in other places -- needs some additional training.

The best method is to use a large portable dog kennel. Set the cat up in the kennel with litter and water and give her meals in there, too. When you see her use the litter box, let her out for a recess.

Keep an eye on her, and return her to her private quarters after an hour or two. The next time you see her use the litter box, let her out again. The idea is, she only gets free run of the house when she uses the litter box. This strategy can train (or retrain) a cat to use the litter box in as little as two or three weeks -- but longer isn't uncommon, either.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. A litter box in every room could help your cat feel more comfortable.

What's the cause? A cat who suddenly begins eliminating in inappropriate places could be announcing that she doesn't feel well. You'll never make any progress on getting her to use the litter box consistently if there's a physical cause for the unwanted behavior, so get her to the vet as soon as possible.

Location, location, location. Sometimes, there's something about the location of the litter box the cat objects to. Maybe it's too far out of the way (down in a basement or up in an attic, for example) or too hard to get into or out of (especially for small kittens or elderly cats). Sometimes, air fresheners or other odors in the room will keep the cat away. Pine and citrus, for example, are pleasing smells to us but may be offensive to cats. Also, loud noises, such as a nearby stereo, may disturb your cat when she's doing her business.

When to Call the Vet

Before you try to treat inappropriate elimination as a behavior problem, take your cat to the vet for a thorough exam. If your vet rules out a physical cause, you know it's probably a straight behavior problem. However, even if there is a physical problem and your vet treats it successfully, your cat still has developed the habit of eliminating someplace other than litter box; you'll still need to follow the steps for correcting the behavior problem.

A cat that eats objects around the house can be more serious that the destruction of your rubber bands or candy wrappers, she could be at risk for choking. We will learn how to keep your cat focused on the food you put out for her in the next section.

Dealing With Cats That Eat Nonfoods

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. A cat that is eating objects around the house might not be getting enough food.

Every kitten has tried to eat kitty litter -- and many have succeeded. Far from being a behavior problem, this is part of a cat's natural curiosity, and one of the ways a growing kitten explores her world and learns about what counts as food -- and what doesn't. Other cats, however, will get a yen for strange items that don't really qualify as food, some of which may even be unsafe.

Keep temptation out of her way. Rubber bands, paper clips, twist ties, bits of foil, and cellophane wrappers are some of the everyday things that cats love to explore with their mouths. Whether swallowed accidentally or on purpose, these otherwise harmless items can cause potentially deadly blockages in the cat's digestive system. Cat owners should be careful to keep tiny, easily swallowed items safely in drawers.


Is she telling you something? Pica is occasionally a signal that a cat isn't getting enough to eat -- or enough of the right nutrients. It can also sometimes be a sign that something is out of balance in the cat's body. Other times, the cat gets into the habit of eating odd things out of boredom -- in which case, more play or a playmate often takes care of the problem.

When to Call the Vet

It's always a good idea to consult your vet if your cat develops a craving for a nonfood or if you know she's swallowed a potentially dangerous item like a rubber band.

Probably the most common behavior problem that cat owners have is that their pet is constantly scratching their furniture. In the next section, we will give you some tips to keep your cat's claws to herself.

Dealing With Cats That Scratch Furniture

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Providing your cat with cat toys will offer her a distraction from shredding your furniture.

Every kind of cat, from lions and cheetahs to Siamese and alley cats, have an instinctive need to scratch. Scratching behavior serves three functions: marking territory, keeping the cat's claws in proper condition, and stretching the muscles and ligaments in the toes and feet.

Declawing (the surgical removal of the first joint of the cat's toes, which includes both the nail and the cells from which new nails grow) does not stop scratching behavior, although it tends to reduce the amount of damage the cat can do. Your goal, then, is not to stop your cat from scratching -- that can't be done -- but rather to limit her scratching to the places you choose.


Give her a good scratching post -- or two, or three. Remember the three reasons for scratching, and get a post that meets all those needs. It should be tall enough for an adult cat to reach up and get a good stretch. It has to be sturdy enough that a 10- to 15-pound cat repeatedly pulling on it near the top won't bring it toppling over on her head.

This would be a quick way to train her not to scratch on the post! The post should be covered with a nubby, coarsely woven fabric that shows scratching damage, such as sisal cloth. Cats are attracted to textured surfaces as scratching zones, and the coarse weave lets them hook in and get a good stretch. Being able to see the results of their handiwork reinforces the territory marking part of scratching. These are the absolute basic requirements for a proper scratching post.

Put it in plain sight. Remember the last time you were looking for a particular address and none of the houses were clearly marked? You probably muttered to yourself, "Why don't they mark these things so people can see them?" Your cat's scratching damage is how she marks her territory -- her address, so to speak.

If the scratching post can't be seen from cat height (about six or seven inches off the ground) and from many angles in the room, your cat is more likely to ignore it and make her statement on your couch or carpet.

Take temptation out of the way. Try to structure your cat's environment so that the scratching post is the most accessible and attractive thing to scratch on. If you're committed to a lifetime of having cats, it's probably better to outfit your home with washable area rugs and hardwood floors than wall-to-wall deep-pile carpeting in every room. Likewise, furniture upholstered with textured weaves and wicker are almost certain to sustain scratching damage; if you know you'll always have cats, pick another decorating scheme.

Of course, there is an old-fashioned, tried-and-true way to keep cats from scratching expensive draperies, furniture, and carpeting: Put those pieces in one room, shut the door, and allow the cat to roam only in the other rooms.

Pause for claws. Trim your cat's nails regularly to reduce her ability to inflict serious scratching damage. If you're squeamish or your cat is particularly uncooperative, you can have your vet or groomer do it for you.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Trimming your cat's nails could be a way to stop her from excessive scratching.

Hide the damage. If your cat has already done some scratching damage, block it from her view. This means putting stereo speakers on high shelves, covering afflicted pieces of furniture with a sheet, or removing items behind closed doors. The good thing about scratching damage in inappropriate places is your cat has identified the locations she thinks are best for scratching. Once you cover or remove the damaged items, put a proper scratching post next to it or in its place.

Make some corrections, but accentuate the positive. Employ the spray bottle or squirt gun to correct occasional scratching in undesirable locations. Use positive reinforcement techniques to encourage your cat to use the scratching post exclusively: Dangle some toys from the top and encourage her to climb the post or bat at them; scrabble your fingertips on the fabric of the post to get her to start scratching there; physically remove her from scratching in an in- appropriate spot and place her paws in scratching position where you want her to go. In all cases, lavish her with praise and petting for doing the right thing.

When to Call the Vet

Scratching behavior rarely has a physical cause. However, your vet can help you determine a course of treatment or refer you to a competent behaviorist.

If you have a cat that immediately darts under the bed whenever you walk into the room, you might be wondering you got a pet in the first place. Move on to the next section to learn how to deal with shy or skittish cats.

Dealing With Skittish Cats

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Skittish or shy cats may just need a little love and attention.

More than just the fabled feline aloofness, shy cats can be all but invisible, running and hiding even from their owners. At some time during the day, virtually every cat wants to be alone and will find a secluded place to crawl into. But shy ones and "scaredy-cats" may spend most of their time out of sight. A cat that spends most of her time under the bed isn't having a good time -- and may not be getting enough food, water, or exercise.

Why are some cats so shy? Some breeds are more reserved than others, and some cats, usually those who have not been socialized to humans, tend to be people-shy. In certain cases, the cat may be frightened of certain types of people -- children or men, for example.


They only come out at night. Cats are naturally nocturnal animals. If your cat rarely comes out during the day, don't assume she's not prowling around the house at night. Since cats can have very quiet footfalls when they want to, you may not hear her -- and you won't see her because you're asleep. By the way, just because you find her in the same hiding place in the morning that you left her in the night before also doesn't mean she spent the whole night there!

To try to help a shy cat feel more secure, try waiting until nightfall. Turn off all the lights and pull the shades. Then, wait and see if your scaredy-cat is more willing to venture out.

Try a little tenderness. Give a shy cat attention but on her own terms. Talk to her in her hiding place -- perhaps even feed her there if she doesn't come out to eat. Give her space, but reassure her with your words, tone of voice, and actions, and let her know you mean her no harm. Be patient. Making progress on socializing a shy cat can take weeks or months.

Make it worth her while. Treats, soft talk, and petting can help coax a nervous cat into society. If you find something she particularly likes -- a specific food, a rub behind the ear, grooming with the slicker brush -- reserve it to give her only on occasions of social interaction.

Don't force the issue. Let a shy cat build her confidence on her own timetable. If you try to drag her out of her safe spot and force attention on her, you may actually make her more shy -- or risk being bitten or scratched. There's no law that says your cat must greet your visitors or play with the neighbor children. If she wants to be a recluse on social occasions, let her.

When to Call the Vet

If a previously friendly cat starts acting antisocial or hides a lot, she could be signaling the onset of illness. Notify your vet right away.

A cat that is spraying can be nuisance. Learn how to handle this problem in the next section.

Dealing With Cats That Spray

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Spraying is more common in younger, male cats.

A lot of the practical correction of this problem is covered in the section on litter box accidents in this article. However, since urine spraying is a specific -- and not uncommon -- cat behavior, it also warrants its own detailed entry here.

This type of behavior most often appears in unneutered young adult male cats, although any cat can display it. Spraying behavior is exhibited when the cat backs up to a vertical surface with his tail erect and squirts urine. He may tread with his hind feet, and there's a telltale jiggling of the tail. Cats will sometimes exhibit this behavior without spraying any urine. The main purpose of urine spraying seems to be marking territory.


Alter early. Typically, male cats who are neutered before they reach full maturity (usually by the age of six or seven months) are much less likely to begin spraying. Once an intact male cat starts spraying, the habit will be hard to break -- even after he's neutered. Do not count on successfully correcting urine spraying if the cat is not neutered.

Lessen the stress. Spraying is sometimes a cat's way of saying there's too much going on. A common cause of stress-induced spraying is multiple-cat households. It's not necessarily that the cat doesn't like living with other cats, it may just be that he feels the territory isn't big enough to accommodate everybody's "personal space."

If you suspect spraying may be stress related, eliminate or reduce the sources of stress, if possible. Help him cope by making sure he gets enough attention and exercise. And be certain he has places to retreat to in your home where he can get away from it all, such as a high shelf with a comfortable blanket, a cat tree, or other piece of cat furniture.

Check it out. Except in the case of an unneutered young adult cat, if your cat suddenly begins spraying, it could be a sign of a urinary tract disease or other health problem. Spraying that starts with a physical problem can't be corrected until the physical problem is put right.

When to Call the Vet

If your cat sprays even once, contact your vet. This isn't a behavior you want to continue, and if there's a physical reason -- or it's time for a male kitten to be neutered -- you want to get it taken care of before the behavior becomes a permanent habit.

Our final behavior problem is cats that suck wool. While this is not the most typical behavior, anyone who has had a sweater ruined will want to know how to break this habit. We will show you how in the next section.

Dealing With Cats That Suck Wool

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. A cat that sucks on wool sweaters may just need more dietary fiber.

There's nothing quite so incongruous as seeing a big old former street cat sitting on top of a pink sweater, blissfully kneading with her front paws and sucking away like a tiny kitten. Although called wool sucking, cats who display this type of behavior may go after other kinds of fabrics as well. At the very least, they can snag it, slobber on it, and shed hair all over it. But wool suckers are also prone to chewing and can destroy items such as expensive clothes, blankets, and comforters faster and more efficiently than moths or small children.

It's not completely clear why cats do it, although some behaviorists suspect it's more common in cats who were weaned too young. Certain breeds, most notably Siamese, are more prone to wool sucking, so it probably has a strong genetic factor.


If your cat is a wool sucker, don't despair; there are several guidelines you can follow in order to guard your garments from destruction.

Take temptation out of her way. It may be cute to see your cat all cuddled up in your sweater drawer, but if she turns out to be a wool sucker, you may end up having to replace your wardrobe. Get into the habit of putting clothing, blankets, towels, and other textiles away in securely closing drawers, closets, and cabinets.

Either way, it's fiber. Sometimes, a cat's desire to suck and chew fabric fibers can be curbed by giving her more dietary fiber. A crunchy dry food is higher in fiber than canned food and may provide the oral stimulation that a wool sucker craves. If your wool-sucking cat shows an interest, you can also try tearing up a leaf or two of lettuce for her to munch on instead of your cardigan.

The old switcheroo. When you see your cat heading for your favorite wool sweater, replace the sweater with a chew toy or a wool-covered toy. Providing your cat with plenty of toys to chew on may prevent her from going for your expensive garments.

Age before beauty. As a preventative measure, before you get another pet, consider the cat's age. Since there might be a connection between early weaning and wool sucking, you may want to consider adopting kittens who are at least ten weeks old and have been with their mothers the whole time. Although weaning often occurs around six to seven weeks of age, a ten-week-old kitten is sure to have made the transition completely.

When to Call the Vet

Wool sucking usually doesn't require any veterinary attention. However, keep an eye on your cat to make sure she doesn't swallow any loose strings; this can cause intestinal problems, which require immediate attention.

While cats can make wonderful companions, they can also be a real headache. If your cat has an annoying habit that is driving you up the wall, hopefully you now know how to handle it.

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