Is your cat’s behaviour


In Canada, where more than 100,000 cats are surrendered to rescue shelters annually, an estimated 28% are given up because of behavioural problems. This amounts to tens of thousands of felines each year.

Every clinical animal behaviourist, veterinarian and humane society I speak with is deeply perturbed by this statistic, not just because of the significant welfare issue that it symbolizes, but also because many behavioural problems are in fact quite manageable, and even preventable.

This raises the question — why do so many cat owners abandon or surrender their problem cats to shelters instead of addressing their pets’ behaviour issues?

Having worked with rescue organizations for more than 25 years, various explanations come to mind. First of all, as many research studies attest, cats are generally undervalued as a companion animal and not afforded the same level of care and commitment as their canine counterparts. So, when cats start to be problems, they are more likely to be either relinquished or abandoned as strays.

Secondly, some methods purported to improve cat behaviour are either ineffective or make the cat’s behaviour worse. While the Internet provides many credible sources of information for owners in need of help, there is also a wealth of misinformation out there. Determining the difference between science-based, effective information versus unhelpful twaddle can be a challenge!

However, for most guardians, a lack of awareness of both causes and treatments is a widespread reason why owners give up too soon. Cats are often regarded as being an independent, untrainable species whose behaviour is unalterable. The contrary is actually true, however. Cat behaviour problems can be successfully and permanently modified using a variety of approaches. And, successful treatment often starts with a visit to the veterinary clinic.

When a cat’s behaviour deteriorates occasionally there can be an underlying medical component. In fact, behavioural changes are often the first signs that owners notice to indicate that their cats may be sick.

Issues related to pain, injury and disease are often to blame. So, when speaking to your veterinarian about a behavioural change, they will likely conduct a basic physical examination, blood tests and urinalysis (testing the cat’s urine for signs of disease).

Be prepared to answer lots of questions about your cat. How old are they? When did the problem start? How long has it been going on for? What changes have occurred concurrently with the behavioural change? Have you recently acquired a new pet? Changed its diet? Moved home?

This information will help your veterinarian to understand what might be causing the changes. And, if they have a specialist they like to work with, you might then be referred to a clinical behaviourist. Here are some of the most common behaviour problems in cats, and what your veterinarian might be looking for.

Cats that pee and poop on clothing, floors and furniture instead of outdoors or in the litter box cause owners a great deal of frustration. According to one U.S. study of 1,286 cats entering shelters, 43% of cats surrendered with behaviour problems were admitted for this very reason.

In some instances, problems arise because the cat doesn’t like the location of its litter box, especially if it is positioned in an area where she is frequently disturbed. Or, perhaps the tray isn’t cleaned regularly enough, or the cat can’t always access the toileting area as needed. Some cats are simply fussy about the type of litter in a litter tray, most preferring deep, sandy, unscented litters.

But, in many cases, pain and disease is a reason why cats fail to use their litter trays. The conditions that your veterinarian may test for include urinary tract and bladder infections, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, renal failure, incontinence, hormonal abnormalities and arthritis. These conditions can cause a variety of symptoms, including painful urination, which the cat learns to associate with being inside the litter tray, or an urgency to eliminate, meaning that the cat can’t get to the litter tray soon enough. Both scenarios can lead to your cat having accidents elsewhere. To determine what is going on, your veterinarian may want to run blood tests, check your cat’s urine and, in some instances, scans and imaging may also be necessary.

Aggression shown by cats toward family members, and sometimes toward other cats, is another common relationship buster, with 30% of owners surrendering “problem cats” citing this as a primary concern. Cat scratches and bites are highly prone to infection, and when the cat resides with children or individuals with compromised immune systems, many cats quickly find themselves abandoned.

Stressors in the home can provoke even the most placid cats into being aggressive. But, when the cat seems easily provoked, or when its personality changes suddenly for the worse, then the veterinarian will often want to investigate.

There can be a number of medical reasons that can cause cats to be particularly anxious, fearful or reactive (and subsequently aggressive). Hepatic encephalopathy (arising secondarily to liver disease), parasites (which can lead to conditions such as feline ischemic encephalopathy), lead poisoning, hyperthyroidism, epilepsy, FELV/FIV and rabies are causes that your veterinarian may consider after a thorough workup.

Meowing is a completely normal feline behaviour, but some owners are disturbed when their cats’ vocalizations become loud or prolonged, and especially when they disturb the owner from sleep! Some cats are naturally very chatty, but when the nature of their dialogue changes significantly, then the veterinarian will again want to explore possible underlying medical reasons for this.

The most common reasons for excessive vocalization in cats, particularly elderly felines, include hyperthyroidism, cardiovascular conditions (particularly hypertension) and age-related cognitive decline.

While some physical tests performed in the clinic can help to identify endocrine and cardiovascular disease, age-related cognitive decline is harder to assess. Most likely, the veterinarian or a behaviourist will arrive at this diagnosis after questioning the owner in detail regarding the cat’s behavioural changes across a variety of situations.

The good news for cat owners is that most of the medical problems that can underlie house soiling, aggression and excessive vocalization are manageable. As with most health problems, the swifter the intervention, the better the prognosis.

Even though medications may lead to improvements in a cat’s behaviour (and physical health, too), other modalities are often also required to achieve the best results. Adapting your cat’s environment so that it feels safe, comfortable and calm, knowing how to read a cat’s emotions and needs through its body language and being able to handle a cat using low-stress techniques are also key to successful management.

Your veterinarian and clinical behaviourist will gladly help you deal with your concerns and give your cat the best chance of improvement.

Rebecca Ledger, BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, FSB, is a clinical animal behaviourist and animal welfare scientist, based in Vancouver, BC. She helps cats and dogs with behavioural problems on veterinary referral across BC.;

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