By: Jody Smith | Reviewed by Dr. Clayton Greenway, B.Sc., DVM | Aug 8, 2017
Does your cat have some bad habits, such as destroying the furniture or meowing at all hours of the night? Have you tried the usual “cat deterrents” such as messy essential oils, sprinkling cayenne pepper or outright yelling at your cat to no avail? Don’t despair: a combination of accommodating your cat’s natural instincts and changing the environment can help with common cat behavior problems and restore peace in your household.
Confrontations with your cat will never end well. Even when you win, the negative feelings generated can come back to bite you even if your cat doesn’t. The problem with punishment is that unless you get the timing exactly right (during the unwanted behavior), your cat will associate the punishment with you. This is almost impossible to get right, so most of the time, punishment is a lost cause. You may have some success with clapping your hands loudly the instant you catch them doing something wrong, but unless you manage to catch them 90% of the time, the association will still be weak.
Has your cat suddenly started eliminating or urinating outside of the litterbox after years of being tidy and fastidious? They could be experiencing pain while relieving themselves, and avoiding the litter box as a result. Cat logic: it hurts to pee here, so I’m going to pee somewhere else! Make sure what you’re dealing with is not bladders stones, crystals in the urine or a UTI. Your vet can handle these.
Perhaps your cat is letting you know that the litter box needs a cleaning, or if you have more than one cat sharing a box, maybe it’s time to think about individual boxes. Somebody could be feeling crowded and wanting some personal space.
Sometimes cats are drawn to mark certain objects with their scent by spraying: the bed, shoes, and laundry are common targets. Wash these items with an enzyme cleaner and remove your cat’s access to these items.
There are a few possible reasons for this behavior. She may be sharpening her claws, playing or working off some excess energy. Just buying the first scratching post you see at the store is unlikely to solve this problem.
Start with spraying the scratched areas thoroughly with an enzyme cleaner to remove the scent that encourages your cat to keep scratching the area. Once dry, take steps to protect the area from your cat. A spray of cat deterrent or a little bit of sticky paper is unlikely to do the trick. For a piece of furniture, consider covering it entirely in a throw blanket or moving it to a room your cat cannot get into. For carpeted stairs, clear packing tape regularly reapplied to the edges can help.
Keep your cat’s claws trimmed. If you’re hesitant to trim them yourself, you can ask your vet.
Provide a stable scratching post covered in a texture you know your cat will enjoy, in an area of the house they prefer, and with enough height for them to fully stretch while scratching. Entice them with catnip and praise to reinforce the new behavior of using the post.
Is your cat being aggressive? Is this a new behavior? Here again, check for any physical causes. If you get a clean bill of health from the vet, think about other possibilities.
Aggression can result for a number of different reasons. Maybe your cat is sick, or feeling crowded by other pets in the house. Perhaps your mama cat feels like she must protect her kittens from real or imagined dangers.
An unneutered male can get pretty aggressive. The solution here is simple: get him fixed.
Make sure your cat’s needs are being met. If you have multiple pets, make sure everyone has enough space, enough food, comfortable sleeping spots.
To break up a cat attack, use a spray bottle to squirt them both with, or make a loud sudden noise. Don’t get physically involved.
Is your cat keeping you up all night? If you can tire your cat out before bedtime this might help. Often, your cat is just plain bored and looking for stimulation. Providing them with an enriched environment and taking time to play with them before bedtime can go a long way to curbing this behavior. It might sound strange, but cats are reassured by routine. Playing with them at the same time each evening (perhaps after dinner) will help soothe a demanding cat.
A timed feeder will also help to keep your cat’s attention on the food bowl and away from you during the night. Many couples report that their cats will only bother one of them to be fed in the morning, and leave the heavier sleeper alone because they know their efforts won’t work. Once your cat figures out that the food comes from the feeder and not you, they will stop bothering you for food.
This is almost always caused by how the cat was raised as a kitten. Kittens need to be taught that human hands are not playthings, but older cats can also learn this as well. When playing with your cat, use a toy as an intermediary: wiggle a stick, not your finger, under a crinkle mat, or dangle a feather toy from a string rather than holding it. When your cat bites, scratches or attacks you, playtime is immediately over. Withdrawing attention will teach your cat the rules for keeping the fun going longer.
Is your cat noisier than usual?
If she’s in heat, there are only two ways of stopping the noise. One is another cat, and the other is a trip for spaying at the vet’s office.
Other reasons for a cat to be complaining a lot include problems/unmet needs such as flea bites, empty food/water bowls or dirty litter boxes.
Elderly cats may begin to cry at night as they become confused and their senses decline. Other cats may yowl to express loneliness or anxiety. They often respond well to a Feliway diffuser which you plug into an electrical socket and it has a pheromone that it heats up and aerosolizes in your home. It has a calming effect on cats. If the behavior is well ingrained and they don’t respond to this, your vet may suggest a trial of anti-anxiety medication.
Everyone will have their own suggestions: citrus peels on the soil, cayenne pepper, or bitter apple sprays from the pet store. The real bitter truth is, many cats will barely take notice of these so-called deterrents and happily continue to chew on your plants or dig through the soil. The only effective solutions are to put appealing plants out of reach, to select plants that are unappealing to chew on, and to cover the exposed soil if they like to dig. Your mileage may vary, but plants with leathery leaves such as mother in law’s tongue, succulents or cacti are the least likely to attract your cat’s attention.
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