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Preventing Unwanted Behaviors in Your Cat

Find tips for teaching your cat what behavior is right and what behavior is wrong in your house.

In this article, you will find:

Stress & fear, separation anxiety
Litter box problems
Spraying, aggression, scratching

Stress & fear, separation anxiety

Preventing Unwanted Behaviors in Your Cat

Preventing troublesome behaviors requires some planning and a effort but is usually far easier than fixing them later. Let's review some of the most important factors that affect behavior, both good and bad.

Good health care and nutrition are essential—disease, pain, nutritional deficiencies, certain food ingredients, and medications can all create stress and fear that negatively affect behavior. Exercise, both physical and mental, is also important for reducing stress and promoting good emotional health. And basic training and socialization are critical for directing intelligence and curiosity in acceptable directions (see Using Positive Reinforcement to Train Your Cat).

Stress and Fear

Cats are creatures of habit. They find change stressful and even frightening and often react to it in ways we find undesirable. Moving to a new home can be upsetting, as can a change in routine. A cat might also react negatively to habitual situations or activities he finds objectionable. Too many people or pets in a household upset some cats. Confinement indoors might stress a cat who is used to going outside to wander. A cat's own physical condition can also create stress. Obesity or malnutrition, injury, surgery or other veterinary treatment, illness, and parasites can all affect a cat's emotions and behavior.

Contrary to old notions of the detached, antisocial feline, cats do form and thrive on strong emotional attachments. They appear to respond to the same stimuli that affect any social animal, including loneliness, boredom, death of a family member (human or animal), and jealousy. On the other hand, while some cats can live happily with 20 of their own kind, others prefer more solitude and react negatively to the presence of other animals.

Aggression, hiding, inappropriate elimination, excess eating or refusal to eat, obsessive self-grooming or lack of grooming, and obsessive chewing or sucking on cloth and other items can all indicate stress or fear. Your job is to help your cat behave more normally by figuring out what's bothering him. First, be sure he doesn't have a medical problem. Then, if possible, remove the stimulus. If that isn't possible, be patient and wait until your cat adjusts. In the meantime, try to minimize the effects. For instance, you might confine your cat to a room or two. If he's jealous of the dog or jockeying for position with another cat, separate them and see the suggestions for making introductions in Bringing Your New Cat Home

Cat Nip

If you have to leave your cat alone for long periods, consider leaving on a radio or television. The sound of voices soothes many animals.

If you think your cat might be lonely or bored, consider adding a second cat to your family. If that's not possible or desirable in your case, be sure you spend time playing with your cat, grooming him and otherwise interacting with him. Give him an enriched environment of toys and playthings. Spend some time training him to stimulate his mind as well as his body.

If you suspect that your cat is upset about a new pet in the house or just not happy about the number of pets, try separating your pets into smaller groups that occupy different parts of the house, temporarily or, if necessary, permanently. Sometimes simply providing more vertical cat roosts—cat trees, shelves, perches—solves the problem by allowing different cats to occupy different levels and allowing your cat to get away from the dog or toddler.

Purrfect Words

A noise phobia is an irrational fear of a particular sound (a vacuum cleaner, a ringing bell) or a type of sound (a loud boom, a high-pitched sound).

Some cats develop a fear of routine elements of life—thunder, the vacuum cleaner or other noisy appliances, and outside noises such as lawn mowers. When that fear becomes excessive and irrational, it becomes a noise phobia. Cats are very sensitive to their owner's emotions, so if you're nervous during thunderstorms, your cat probably will be, too. Learning to calm yourself will help both of you. People often inadvertently reward and encourage fearful behavior, too. If you cuddle, pet, and coo to your frightened cat, you might think you're helping him, but you're actually rewarding him for being afraid. A better response is to talk to him happily and go about your business, ignoring the noise or other stimulus that frightens him.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety, a condition in which a cat finds his owner's absence stressful, can cause undesirable behaviors. One symptom is inappropriate elimination, often on or near an object identified with the owner or near the door through which the owner usually leaves. The cat might also develop stress-induced diarrhea. Separation anxiety might cause a cat to stop eating, vomit, vocalize loudly, groom excessively until he has bald spots, and scratch and chew destructively. Typically, these behaviors appear 8 to 12 hours after the owner leaves home.


Both genetics and environment might influence an individual cat's tendency to develop separation anxiety. Kittens who are orphaned or weaned too young seem to be particularly prone to the problem. Proper socialization during kittenhood is the best prevention for separation anxiety and many other behavioral problems.

Successful treatment of separation anxiety requires time, patience, and effort. Many people make a fuss over their cats before they leave and when they return, but it's unlikely your kitty will follow a discourse on where you're going, how long you'll be gone, and how much you “wuv your snookie-wookums.” A more effective strategy is to ignore your cat while you prepare to leave and to leave quietly. When you get home, don't fuss over your cat and his terrible day without you. Just go about your business for 15 or 20 minutes, maybe talking to your cat but not fawning over him. Once his initial relief at seeing you subsides, you can sit down and cuddle him without rewarding him specifically for your return.

Toys and treats may also take your cat's mind off your absence. Keep a few nifty toys that he gets only when you're gone, and give them to him just before you walk out the door. You might also hide a few special tasty treats around the house. Another idea is to feed him his breakfast from one of the food-dispensing toys available from pet supply stores or from your own version made with a small cardboard box with the lid taped shut or an empty paper roll with the ends closed off. Poke treat-size holes in the sides, and partially fill the item with treats or your cat's breakfast kibble. As your cat bats it around, the treats will fall out of the container.

Many people also swear by herbal treatments as well as Touch and other alternative approaches to treatment for emotional and behavioral problems. In extreme cases of separation anxiety, when the cat appears to be in danger of hurting himself, your veterinarian might prescribe a short course of anti-anxiety medication.

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