Changing Your Cat’s Behavior
Many people believe that cats are too independent or apathetic to respond to people’s attempts to modify their behavior. But the failures people have experienced when attempting to alter their cat’s behavior are not the fault of the cat. Rather, they are misunderstandings between humans and felines. The motivations behind cat behavior are complicated and deep-seated, but with creative thinking, flexibility, and patience, you can correct unwanted behavior in your feline companions.
There are often multiple reasons for some behaviors, like litter box problems or aggression among cats. Discovering the reasons for the undesired behavior and finding solutions to the problem may take weeks or months. But don’t worry; most problems can be solved!
Medical problems and behavior
Oftentimes, your cat’s behavior problems are her way of communicating to you that she is experiencing a serious health issue. Any sudden change in your cat’s behavior that does not resolve itself quickly after an obvious cause (like last week’s visit by your sister and her brood of unruly kids) should be considered a potential medical problem, and your cat should be checked by your veterinarian. For example, sudden, unexplained aggression toward people may not be a behavior issue; it may be a serious neurological problem.
Keep in mind that even behavior problems that reveal themselves more slowly also can be the result of a medical issue. For example, your older cat may become less tolerant of the other cats in your household because of a serious health concern, such as kidney disease. Your older cat may not want to appear weak in front of your other cats, so instead of playing and cuddling as she once did, your older cat becomes aggressive towards her feline roommates.
Additionally, behavior issues also can become medical problems. A cat who is fearful of another cat in the household may be too afraid to come out to eat and drink or may not feel safe going into the litter box. Not eating or drinking enough, or holding her bladder for long periods of time, can quickly become a medical problem. Once you take your cat to a veterinarian and can rule out a medical condition, you can begin working with your cat to eliminate undesired behaviors. Here are some tips to get you started.
Four Easy Rules of Cat Training
1. Understanding the behavior
A cat’s basic instincts for safety or play often are at the root of common behavior problems. For example, the need for safety when using the litter box is often at odds with where we would like to keep the litter box. The instinct to hunt and play hunt often is the motivation behind your cat attacking your legs while you sleep. And the fear of potential predators or the instinct to protect her territory from other cats may trigger an indoor cat to spray near the door after sensing another cat outside.
Every cat has a different personality which may have been defined by life experience, genetic makeup, or a combination of the two. Some cats are constantly on your lap and demanding your attention, some are content simply being near you, and some are fearful of people. There are also alpha female cats whose job it is to keep other cats in line, and who sometimes hiss, yell, or swat at their feline roommates. All of the aforementioned are examples of normal cat personalities. What you might consider a behavior problem may simply be the personality of your cat.
Territory and changes
Cats are territorial animals. They spend a great deal of time marking and defining the space that belongs to them, and most cats are not comfortable with change to, or within, their territory. If something new and possibly frightening comes into your cat’s territory, such as a new feline roommate or a construction project, your cat may perceive the territory as unsafe and retreat to a spot under the bed or couch. This is a common response to change.
2. Offer another option
Now that you know why your cat is behaving in a certain way, you can begin working to change that behavior. You can manage your cat’s natural instincts and her impact on your home by providing acceptable options to meet your cat’s needs. If your cat is attacking your legs while you sleep, try engaging her in a long play session before you go to bed, so she receives the play-hunting session she needs, and is tired enough to sleep through the night. Or you might consider adding another cat to your household, so the two cats can tire each other out during the day, leaving you able to sleep at night. If your cat reacts negatively to change, you can help her by introducing change more slowly to reduce the cat’s stress levels. For information on how to correct problems with improper elimination, please see Litter Box 101. For information on how to deter your cat from scratching furniture, please see Why Cats Need Their Claws.
3. Remove the cause of the problem
Punishing your cat will only teach her to fear you. Also, punishing your cat can exacerbate problems and can make an anxious cat even more anxious. The easiest way to manage a behavior problem is to eliminate whatever is causing the problem. If your cat licks or chews plastic bags from the grocery store, be sure to keep them in a place where the cat cannot reach them. If you have a cat who chews on cords, you should keep cords hidden, or coat them with liquid dish soap to discourage chewing.
4. Ignore unwanted behavior and encourage desired behavior
It’s easy to react to unwanted behavior by yelling or chasing your cat away from the couch she is scratching or the plant she is chewing. But, this reaction actually can be just the attention your cat is seeking, and by yelling or chasing, you have just unknowingly encouraged the behavior you are trying so hard to deter. Instead of reacting to the scratching or biting, ignore the behavior completely. When your cat receives no response from you, she will eventually move on to a more interesting activity (like napping or eating). You also can encourage good behavior. When your cat uses the scratching post or lies near a cat companion she previously disliked, be sure to give her treats or pets or engage her in play. By associating food, affection, and play with good behavior, you are ensuring that your cat will repeat the desired behavior. Consistently ignoring unwanted behavior while encouraging desired behavior will bring about long-term change in your cat!
Timeouts and how to use them
Timeouts are very useful for managing a variety of feline behavior issues, including play aggression and intercat aggression. Timeouts are used to eliminate the reward for an unwanted behavior (such as the reaction from a fearful cat or your own reaction of yelling and chasing, which your cat could perceive as great fun) and to give the cat time to forget about the activity in which she was participating. The cat will spend 20 minutes to 30 minutes in a room by herself, without the opportunity to continue the behavior. The key to correctly using timeouts is to corral or place the cat into the quiet timeout room, while giving the cat minimal attention. Do not chase the cat to give her a timeout. Chasing the cat may turn out to be even more fun for the cat than the original behavior, so you may inadvertently encourage the unwanted behavior. Do not play, pet, or talk to the cat when putting her in timeout. This attention could be viewed as a reward. After 20 minutes in the timeout room, release the cat. If she goes right back to the unwanted behavior, promptly return the cat the timeout room. Consistent use of timeouts will help eliminate many types of behaviors.
Tree House’s Behavior Hotline
Every year, Tree House behavior counselors receive thousands of calls from all across the country. Due to the number of calls we receive, and the intensive counseling often involved, it is not always possible to solve complex problems such as litter box issues and intercat aggression with one phone call. If you would like to work with our counselors to permanently solve your cat’s problems, please contact us today: Call 773-784-5488 ext. 300 and leave a detailed message describing the behavior problem. One of our counselors will be in touch shortly for an assessment call. This counselor will gather information about your situation to help determine whether your problem can be discussed in a shorter counseling session or whether you will need more intensive counseling. At this time the counselor will, at the very least, help you begin to solve your problem. In a couple of days, you will receive another call to discuss your problem in-depth. Our counselors will then be available for guidance over the next several months as you put your plan into action.