By: Lore I. Haug, DVM, MS, Dipl. American College of Veterinary Behaviorists; Lexington Blvd Animal Hospital
Most owners understand that cats are not dogs, but many do not realize that cats still require socialization, enrichment, and appropriate outlets for normal behavior (i.e. scratching surfaces). Owners often misread their cats’ unwanted or unruly behavior as being spiteful or destructive. Instead, look at the behavior from your cat’s point of view. Having a better understanding of your cat’s motivation (and behavioral needs) will allow you to make necessary environmental changes and redirect the cat toward a more acceptable behavior.
Here are a few common behavior problems and some tips for managing them.
1) Eating/Destroying House Plants
Plant eating is a normal cat behavior. Resolving the problem involves protecting the plants while giving your cat an acceptable outlet for eating plant material. First, remove all poisonous plants (Christmas trees, day lilies, hydrangea, irises, mistletoe, poinsettia, etc.). Move the remaining house plants to areas where your cat cannot access them (i.e. hanging baskets or behind wire fencing). Then provide your cat with cat grass, which can be purchased from your local pet store. Put the pots of cat grass in multiple locations around your house so that your cat always has easy access. You can also satisfying your cat’s nibbling need by giving it fruits or vegetables.
2) Excessive Vocalization
Excessive vocalization may be an attention-seeking behavior; however, it also may indicate a medical problem, especially in elderly cats or cats that vocalize primarily at night. So be sure to have your cat evaluated by your veterinarian.
If you surrender to your cat’s vocal demands to be let outside, fed, or petted, you are teaching your cat to vocalize to get what it wants. Instead of rewarding this undesirable behavior, ignore your cat’s excessive meowing. Try engaging your cat with daily play sessions and feeding your cat from food-dispensing toys before your cat starts to meow. (For a handout on cat enrichment activities, please visit http://texasvetbehavior.com/resources/.) Environmental enrichment helps constructively occupy your cat and aid in reducing boredom. Food-dispensing toys, such as Premier’s Funkitty Egg-Cersizer (www.premier.com/View.aspx?page=cats/products/toys/funkitty/egg/description), engage your cat’s natural hunting instinct. Another simple enrichment activity is to move your cat’s food bowl to a different location in the house every day so your cat must search for it.
3) Your Cat Bites Or Scratches You During Play
Never use your hands, feet, hair or other body parts to play with your kitten. This only teaches the kitten to attack these areas as toys. Only use interactive toys (string or feathers attached to a wand, laser lights or balls) during your play sessions with your cat. Never punish or scold your cat for play biting as this may make your cat fearful of and defensive toward you. If your cat does bite you, freeze that hand while making a distracting noise with your other hand (i.e. slapping the floor, dropping a book) to startle your cat. After your cat releases your hand, get an interactive toy so you can redirect this playful biting toward an appropriate target.
4) Jumping On Counters Or Other Surfaces
Cats generally like to climb and sleep in high places. This allows them to survey the area as well as to avoid potential danger (e.g. dogs, vacuums, small children). Give your cat appropriate options for acceptable high perches (very tall cat trees, cat condos, or cat shelves). If you do not want your cat on certain surfaces, booby trap those areas with double-sided tape or motion-activated air canisters (www.amazon.com/Premier-Scat-Kit/dp/B0002IJQEQ) to deter them from jumping on those areas. Make being on the floor rewarding by providing a wide variety of enrichment toys and activities.
5) Scratching Furniture Or Other Surfaces
Scratching is another normal cat behavior, and even declawed cats still show scratching behavior. Scratching serves a marking function as well as providing the cat with stretching opportunities. Cats like to scratch on vertical and/or horizontal surfaces, so supply your cat with many different types of scratching posts, pads and trees and spread them throughout your house. Cats do have texture preferences for scratching surfaces so be sure that your posts are covered in the right material (rope, sisal, cardboard, or wood). Scratching items should be sturdy, well constructed, and tall enough for your cat to get a full body stretch. Because scratching serves a marking function, cats will scratch in socially significant areas (near resting places, food, litterpans, and areas of high traffic), so posts should be placed in these areas. If your cat is already scratching the furniture, temporarily cover the area with a sheet or plastic and place a scratching post adjacent to it. Alternatively you can place a motion sensor near the area to keep the cat away from the area entirely.