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Problem Behaviors in Cats
Note: Please see the Table of Contents
FAQ for a complete list of topics.
Originally written 1991 & updated through 1997 by Cindy Tittle Moore.
Maintained by the Fanciers website as of July 1999.
You cannot discipline cats as you would dogs. Dogs form social
hierarchies that you can take advantage of by placing yourself at the
top. Cats form social groups only by necessity and the arrangement is
based on respecting territory, not by respecting the "top dog". Many
mistakes made with cats are due to thinking that they will react like
Do not ever hit a cat or use any sort of physical punishment.
You will only teach your cat to fear you.
It is always best to train your cat away from undesireable behavior as
soon as possible, as young as possible. You will have the most
success training your cat when it is young on what is acceptable to
scratch and what is not. Never tolerate it when it is "cute" since it
will not always remain so.
- You can train your cat not to perform inappropriate behavior by
training your cat to perform other behavior alternative to or
incompatible with the inappropriate behavior.
- Since cats hate to be surprised, you can use waterbottles,
clapping, hissing, and other sudden noises (such as snapping,
"No!") to stop unwanted behavior. However, be aware that these
tactics will not work when you are not present. In addition,
immediacy is key: even seconds late may render it ineffective.
You must do it as soon as the cat starts the behavior.
- The face-push has been described by various readers. This
consists of pushing the palm of your hand into the cat's face.
This is best used when discouraging something like biting. Don't
hit the cat, simply push its face back gently. You might
accompany it with a "no!"
- Making certain behaviors impossible is another tactic. Think
"childproofing": keep food in containers; keep breakable and/or
dangerous objects out of reach; make sure heavy objects, e.g.
bookshelves, are stable. Look for childproofing gadgets and hints
and think how you can apply them to preventing cat problems. Even
when the analogy isn't perfect, physically preventing problems is
still a good guide. E.g., defrosting meat? Put it in the
(unheated) stove, not out on the counter.
Cats are frequently fascinated with houseplants. However, you may not
appreciate the attention, which can range from chewing on the plant
leaves to digging or peeing in the plant soil.
For chewing, try spraying Bitter Apple or Bitter Orange (there
are formulations specifically for use on plants) on the leaves.
Dusting cayenne pepper on them may also help. You may wish to grow
some grass or catnip for them as an alternative; plants do provide
them with needed nutrients (the absence of which may be causing their
For digging or urinating, cover the dirt with aluminum foil or gravel.
If the plant needs it, add some vinegar to the soil to counteract the
ammonia in the urine.
Cats can become jealous upon the arrival of a new baby. Reassure the
cat that you still love it by paying it plenty of attention. In the
exhaustion and turmoil of a new baby, the cat is often neglected, and
this will add to its resentment.
There is a myth that cats will kill babies. The superstition is that
they'll "steal" the baby's breath; the latter day explanation is that
they will lie on babies and suffocate them. While cats may like the
baby's warmth and may curl up next to it, it will not often lie on the
baby and in any case will move when the baby begins to flail its arms
Most cats are trustworthy around babies after getting over any
jealousy, especially if it is trained not to use people as toys;
however babies should never be left unsupervised around
Some cats start spraying in the house. You will want to first rule
out any medical causes, such as FUS or cystitis. Sometimes it is
useful to distinguish between spraying (which winds up on walls) and
urinating (which is generally on the floor). Spraying is more often
a behavior problem and urination is more often a medical problem. It
is best to check with a vet first. If the problem is medical, then
you will need to simply clean up the odor after the problem is
treated, otherwise you will need to try some of the behavior
modification outlined below (and you'll still need to clean up the
You must remove the odor from items that the cat sprayed on to prevent
the cat from using the same spot again later. The ammonia smell tells
the cat that this is an elimination spot, so never use ammonia to try
and "remove" the odor! See (Removing Urine Odor).
Cats sometimes spray to mark their territory so sometimes an area for
your cat that other animals cannot go to will help. Keeping the
litterbox immaculate will help in other cases.
Sometimes cats pick small throw rugs with non-skid backing to urinate
on. This is caused by an odor from the backing that somehow tells
the cat to urinate there (probably an ammonia-like smell).
Cat-repellent sprays or washing the rug may help; you might just
have to get rid of that rug.
For persistent spraying after the above steps, try the procedure
outlined in (Housetraining).
For unwanted scratching, provide an approved scratching post or other
item. Issue firm "no!"s on unapproved items. You may wish to spray
Bitter Apple or Bitter Orange (available at most pet stores) on items
that they are particularly stubborn about. Praise them and give a cat
treat when they use the approved scratching material. Demonstrate how
to use the post by (yes) going up to it and scratching it like your
cat would. They will come over to investigate your scent and then
leave their own.
Pepper (black, white, or cayenne) can be applied to furniture and
plants to discourage scratching. This does not deter all cats. You
can also cover areas with double-sided tape (sticky on both sides) to
discourage unwanted scratching. (Always be sure to provide an
alternative scratching item.)
In general, cats will either use a post a lot or never use it. The
deciding factor can be the material that the post is made out of. It
has to be fairly smooth (cats usually don't like plush carpet) and
shouldn't be a material that their nails get stuck in. Once that
happens, they may not use the post anymore. Natural fiber rope
wrapped tightly around the post appeals to many cats. Some cats like
plain wood; a two-by-four made available may work well. Other cats
prefer the kind of "scratching posts" that are horizontal rather than
You may wish to keep your cat off of the furniture or off of a
piece of furniture. Or to keep them off the counters and or tables.
Because of a cat's ability to climb and jump, this isn't always a
practical thing to do -- but you can somtimes train them to stay off very
specifiic pieces of furniture or locations by covering it with aluminium
foil. In most cases, a month of leaving the foil on when you leave the
house will be effective.
It is possible for cats to stop using the litter box or to have
trouble learning in the first place.
Do NOT ever try to discourage a cat's mistakes by rubbing its nose
in it. It never worked for dogs and most certainly will not work for
cats. In fact, you wind up reminding the cat of where a good place to
Potential CAUSES for failure to use litterbox:
- MEDICAL PROBLEMS:
- diarrhea (many causes)
- small intestinal- soft to watery
- colitis (inflamed colon)- mucus in stool, blood, straining
- urinary bladder inflammation
- Bacterial infections
- calculi (bladder stones)
(excessive water volume consumed and urine voided: upper water
intake for cats is 1oz/lb; most cats drink considerably less
- diabetes insipidus
- diabetes mellitus
- kidney disease
- liver disease
- adrenal gland disease
- pyometra (pus in the uterus)
- hypercalcemia (high blood calcium)
- TERRITORIAL MARKING
- intact female in heat
- intact male spraying
- marking of peripheral walls particularly near windows may be
from presence of outdoor cats
- may be triggered by over-crowding of indoor cats
- previously neutered cat has a bit of testicular or ovarian
tissue remaining, possibly resulting in a low level of hormone
which could trigger marking
- neutered male with sexual experience exposed to female in heat
- LITTER BOX PROBLEMS
- overcrowding: too many cats using same box
- failure to change littter frequently enough -- some cats won't
use a dirty box
- failure to provide constant access to litterbox
- change in type of litter used
- change in location of litterbox
- unfamiliar, frightening, or loud objects near box: dishwasher,
- food and water too close to litterbox
- objectionable chemical used to wash or disinfect litterbox
- location preference: your cat may want the box in a different
- texture preference: your cat doesn't like the feel of the
- failure to cover litter: learned process from parents
- use of litterbox is instinctive
- cats that don't cover litter may be more prone to
- your cat may be indicating texture preference problem
- PSYCHOLOGICAL STRESS
(most common manifestation is inappropriate urination)
- addition or subtraction of other pets in household
- visitors, company, parties, redecorating, construction, or any
type of commotion
- a move to a new environment
- change in routine or schedule: a new job or working hours
- their return from boarding or hospitilization
- interaction problem with other pets or cats
- cats are asocial rather than antisocial; in the wild each
has a territory and period of contact with others in the
group (and only one male per group)
- a closed environment will create a greater degree of
interaction than some cats prefer. The more cats in a
household, the greater the degree of interaction
- CHEMICAL ATTRACTION OF PREVIOUS "ACCIDENTS:"
- likely to produce repeated visitations to the same spot
- may induce urination by other members of a multi-cat household
- you may have moved to a residence previously occupied with
other dogs and/or cats
- Rule out medical problems FIRST
- complete history and physical
- stool/GI workup for diarrhea (if needed)
- urinalysis for inappropriate urination to rule out an
- workup for polydipsia/polyuria
- important to check all cats of a multi-cat household
- last cat seen misbehaving may be responding to chemical
attraction and not be an instigator
- more than one cat could have problem
- treat/correct medical problems first. Behavioral problems can
only be diagnosed in a healthy cat
- Territorial marking
- neuter all cats (check history of neutered cats; retained
testicle in male or signs of heat in female)
- prevent other cats from coming around outside of house, close
windows, blinds, and doors
- prevent overcrowding in multi-cat households
- Litter box problems
- provide a box for each cat
- change litter daily
- provide constant access to a box
- go back to previously used brand of litter and/or discontinue
- move box to where it was previously used
- eliminate new or frightening noise near litterbox
- move food and water away from litterbox
- if cat is only going in one spot, put the litterbox at the
exact location and gradually move it back to where you want it
at the rate of one foot per day
- if there are several places, try putting dishes of cat food in
those areas to discourage further elimination there
- experiment with different textures of litter (cats prefer
- use a covered litterbox for cats that stand in box but
eliminate outside of it
- Psychological Stress
- eliminate if possible
- try to provide each cat at home with its own "space"
- use favorite resting areas to determine
- provide separate litterboxes near each space if possible
- cubicles, boxes, shelves, crates are effective for this
- tranquilizers sometimes work well in multicat situations
- Chemical attraction
- dispose of all soiled fabric or throw rugs if possible
- 50% vinegar or commercial products may be used
- steam cleaning may help
- repellants may help
- do not replace carpeting until problem entirely solved or it
may start all over again on your new carpeting
(In portable kennel with litterbox, (with appropriate corrections)
to stop further inappropriate behavior while medical and/or other
problems are being treated.)
- particularly beneficial for transient stress induced problem
- may allow acclimation to stress situation where source of
stress cannot be eliminated
- choose an area that can be a permanent location of litterbox
- keep cat confined to this area 4-6 weeks when not under
your direct visual supervision (if your cat attempts
elimination outside of kennel when you are watching,
squirt with water pistol as soon as elimination posture is
attempted and put cat back in kennel)
- if cat is using box regularly for 4 to 6 weeks when not
under your gradually give access to larger and larger
areas of your home, one room or hallway at a time
- allow 1 week of good behavior in the new area before
adding the new room
- never increase access area until you are 100% certain
cat's use of litterbox is 100%
- if accident occurs, re-evaluate this material to make
sure litterbox problem or something else didn't
- begin confinement over again and double intervals for
- For inappropriate urination problems in which all else fails and
the alternative is euthanasia, hormone therapy may be attempted.
- only for neutered cats
only 50% effective
- side effects may include increased appetite (common),
depression or lethargy (less common). Long term use might
have side effects such as: mammary enlargement, adrenocrotical
suppression, and diabetes mellitus.
- usually requires lifelong maintenance on regular intermittent basis
- very dangerous drug; use borders malpractice -- should be
reserved for cats who will be put to sleep if problem is not
- weight gains predisposing to obesity
- mammary gland development
- feminization of males
- may induce latent diabetes
- dosage is initiated daily for 7 day trial; if effective, then
dosage is tapered to least effective amount given every other
day every one to two weeks
- relapses may be expected when drug is discontinued
The best way to discourage running to the door is never to let the cat
succeed! After a history of unsuccessful attempts, the cat will stop
trying. After even one success, the cat will try hard and for a long
Tip: don't arrive at the door with three bags of groceries in hand and
expect you'll be able to keep the cat in. Instead, put down all but
one bag and use that bag to block the floor level when you come in.
After you're in, bring in the rest. In general, spend the time to be
in control whenever the outside door is opened. Kids will need to
learn how to keep the cat in too. A waterbottle may help with
persistent cats. It will pay off later when the cat stops trying to
To turn a formerly outdoor cat into an indoor one (or to discourage a
persistent one, you might try this, recommended by the San Francisco
SPCA: Enlist the help of a friend to hide outside the door with a
hose and spray attachment and have her or him spray the cat when you
let it out. This may take several applications, over several days.
Some cats are remarkably persistent, and never seem to give up.
If possible, use tension rods instead of drilled into the wall rods.
The tension rods will simply fall down on top of the cat if it tries
to climb them. Otherwise, take the drapes off the hooks and thread
them back up with thread just barely strong enough to hold them up.
When the cat climbs up, the drapes will fall down on it (be sure that
the hooks aren't around to potentially injure the cat). After the
drapes have remained up for some time, re-hook them. These methods
have the advantage of working whether you're home or not.
Vertical blinds can work very well; cats cannot climb up them, cannot
shred them, cannot shed on them, cannot be bent the way horizontal
blinds. It is furthermore easy for cats to push them aside to look
outside. Vertical blinds are usually vertical strips of plastic, but
they can also come covered with different fabrics to match your decor.
These kinds are still pretty indestructible.
Put something distasteful on the cord to discourage chewing.
Substances to try: tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper, Bitter Apple/Orange,
nail-biting nailpolish, orange/lemon peel. If you cannot find a
substance that will repel your cat, you may wish to use gaffer's tape
to secure exposed cords. Gaffer's tape comes in a variety of colors
and you will probably be able to find something relatively
inconspicuous. (Duct tape can also be used, but it's pretty messy and
hard to clean up if you're moving out of an apartment. Consider
permanent wiring if you own your place: installment behind walls, etc.
This will work on other chewed items, as well, although you will need
to check the compatibility of the chewed item with the substance you
put on it.
Give a sharp, plantative yowl, like the sound a hurt cat will make.
Pull your hand back (or if that would score furrows down your hand,
let it go completely limp), turn your back on it, and ignore it for a
few minutes. People are divided on the issue of whether to allow hand
attacks at all or to allow limited hand attacks. You can train the
cat to do either with the same method. For the former, always wail
when attacked and then offer a toy to play with instead; for the
latter, wail whenever the claws come out, but allow attack of the hand
up to that point. Be aware that a cat trained not to use a person as
a toy at all will be more trustworthy around a new baby (see A New
Baby). You may try hissing at a cat that persistently attacks you.
The best way to prevent this problem is to get a garbage container
with a firm lid. Do NOT start with container that's trivial to get
into, then gradually move to harder and harder containers: this just
trains the cat to get into the harder container. A hospital type of
container that opens the lid with a foot pedal is effective and
convenient. Another is the kind with metal handles that swing up to
close the lid. The important thing is the lid is tight and secure.
Another way to prevent this is to store the garbage can out of reach,
such as in the cabinet under the sink or in a pantry where the door is
kept closed. If the cat can open the cabinet door, get a childproof
latch for it.
If the problem is one of tipping the container over, several bricks in
the bottom of the container may help stabilize it. Once the cat is
convinced it can't be knocked over, you can remove the weight.
It's not a good idea to let your cat on your kitchen counters or
tabletops. There are several ways to prevent this. Leave a
collection of poorly balanced kitchen utensils or empty (or with a few
pennies inside) aluminum cans on the counter near the edge, so the cat
will knock them off if it jumps up. Cats hate surprises and loud
noises. Leave some ordinary dishwashing liquid on the counters, or
some masking tape (or two-sided carpet tape) arranged gummy side up.
Don't leave things on the counter that will attract the cat (like raw
These same techniques will work for other surfaces like dressers,
Cats are notorious for waking their owners up at oh-dark-thirty.
If you wish to stop this, there are several steps to take.
The cat may simply be hungry and demanding its food. By feeding it
when it wakes you up at an ungodly hour, you are simply reinforcing
its behavior. If this is why it's waking you up, you can handle this
either by filling the bowl just before you go to sleep so it will not
be empty in the morning, or by ignoring the cat's wakeups and feeding
it at the exact same time convenient to you every morning. The cat
will adjust fairly quickly to the second.
If it is trying to play, there are again several tactics you can try.
If you make a practice of tiring it out with play just before bedtime,
you can reduce its calls for play at dawn. What works in some cases
is to hiss gently at the cat. You can also try shutting it out of the
bedroom. If it pounds on the door, put it in a bathroom until you
In persistent cases, try the vacuum cleaner, eater of noisy kitties.
Go to bed, leaving him out in the hall. Position the vacuum cleaner
next to the door, inside it. Plug the vacuum in, and arrange things so
you can switch the vacuum on from your bed (eg, wire a switch into an
extension cord). Wait for the scratching and wailing at the door.
Turn the vacuum cleaner on. If cat comes back, turn it on again.
The cat will eventually decide to stop bothering you in the morning.
Five ways to prevent cats from playing with toilet paper:
- Hang the roll so that the paper hangs down between the roll and
the wall rather than over the top of the roll.
- If the cat knows how to roll it either way, then you can get a
cover that rests on top of the toilet paper and this will work.
You can make your own by taking the cardboard core from an empty
roll and slitting it lengthwise and fitting it over the roll.
- You can balance a small paper cup full of water on top of the roll.
- Instead of a cup of water, try an aluminum can with pennies.
- If you are unwilling or unable to use the cover, then close the
door to the bathroom.
Some cats like to tip the water dish and empty it all over the kitchen
floor. You can try placing it on a small rug. There are large
"untippable" (pyramid-shaped) dishes available at the pet store. If
the cat then paddles the water out, you may just want to put the dish
in the bathtub. Cats should always have a source of fresh water
(except for pre-op surgery or prior to a car ride), so removing it
while you are not at home is an unsatisfactory solution. If the cat
is indoor/outdoor, you may want to put the water dish outside.
Some cats may develop the annoying and expensive habit of ripping up
carpet. There are several possible reasons behind this, listed below.
In all circumstances, be sure that there is plenty of items that the
cat can scratch.
- Other "approved" scratching posts may be made of carpet, confusing
your cat. Switch to scratching materials that do NOT use carpet.
Common alternatives include sisal rope, corrugated cardboard, or
carpet turned wrong-way out. Retrain your cat onto these items.
- Some cats rip at doorways that are closed, trying to get through.
You can put down plastic carpet covering, securing it with nails
if necessary, through the doorway so that it sticks out on both
- A particular spot may be favored, for no apparent reason. There
may be some odor at that spot. Try cleaning it thoroughly with an
enzyme-based cleaner like Nature's Miracle and then spraying a
touch of Bitter Apple or the equivalent on the spot.
Cats love closets, since they're dark hidey holes full of fun stuff.
But you may not want your cat to swing on your good silk clothing
or rearrange your shoes. Conversely, you might want your cat to be
able to get into the closet and keep larger pets out.
If you have a swing-and-shut door, you might try a cat door to allow
the cat access. A child-barrier that lets the cat jump over but not
the dog is another possibility. Or a chain (like the chain some front
doors have) might work.
A solution with closets that have double sliding doors is to drill a
hole through the area of overlap, with the doors positioned closed or
partially opened as you wish. Then you can use a nail or a peg in the
hole to keep the doors in position.
Outside cats, especially those not your own, can present you with
difficult problems. Cats are not regarded the way dogs are under law:
there is usually nothing that says you have the "right" to keep cats out of
your yard, for example (whereas dogs can be required to be kept
confined or on leash, for example). There are historical and
practical reasons for this -- but there are still practical steps you
can take to resolve several problems. The following is written
primarily for people who want to stop other cats (i.e., not their own)
from being a nuisance on their property.
As a cat owner, you should consider ways to minimize your cat
annoying your neighbors. You could keep your cat inside, supervise
your cat when outside, bring it inside at night, etc. All cats allowed
to roam outside should, of course, be neutered.
Mating cats can make an unbelievable amount of noise under your
window. If these cats are feral, check with your local animal clinic
about trapping and neutering these cats. Many will do them at little
or no cost, depending on how many cats you're willing to bring in for
the procedure. Eliminating the breeding stock in feral cats as much
as possible will also help reduce the stray population in your area
over time, and reduce similar problems like cat fights and spraying.
If the cats involved are owned by your neighbors, you might
try a non-confrontational approach -- let them know what their
cat has been doing and suggest that perhaps neutering their
cat might help solve some of these problems. A politely worded
note can be left on their door if you wish to avoid direct confrontation.
You might eventually call Animal Control in your area for help, but
first let them know you are having problems with their cat.
Between digging and eating in your plants, cats can do considerable
damage to a garden. There are a number of ways to keep cats from
digging in, chewing on, or eliminating in your garden.
Some people have successfully used the "diversionary" tactic by
planting catnip in another corner of the garden entirely, confining
the destruction to one spot.
If you have not yet started your garden, put chicken wire down and
plant between the wire. Cats dislike walking on the chicken wire and
most plants (unless they grow too big) do just fine growing between
Other people have reported success with different sprays, gels, and
products specifically formulated to keep animals out of your yard.
Check your local pet store.
Lemon peels, soap slivers (use biodegradeable soap) dipped in cayenne
pepper and other organic materials have also been reportedly successful.
Cats hate water: surprising them with a squirt gun (or turning your
sprinklers on) can discourage specific cats from returning.
One reader reported success in putting up cast-iron cut-out cats
with marble eyes in strategic places in her yard. The decorative cats
were apparently real enough to cats that they kept clear of her yard.
Try looking around hardware stores or gardening stores for these.
Lifesize cat statues might work as well.
Sometimes there is a problem with a particular cat that fights with
other cats. If it is feral, try to make arrangements to neuter it, if
possible. If it belongs to a neighbor, try to discuss the matter with
your neighbor, and avoid being "threatening." When approached
reasonably, most people can be reasonable in turn. Sometimes your
neighbor just doesn't know his cat is bothering you.
If the cat actually follows your cat through the pet door, you might
try an electronic pet door to keep it out (see Pet Doors).
Locate your birdfeeder in an area where the ground is clear, affording
cats no cover. At the same time, try to locate it under something,
like a tree, to provide refuge from attack by other birds.
To reduce the problem of birds on the ground (after dropped seeds)
getting picked up by cats, use suet feeders instead of seed feeders.
Cats are very good at scaling fences. But if you have a yard that is
otherwised fenced in, you can try keeping your cat from going over the
fence by attaching corrugated fiberglass to the top of it. There is
then no purchase for the cat to pull itself up. It is even possible
to find different colors of fiberglass to keep it inconspicuous.
Keep in mind, though, that many cats are clever climbers and high
jumpers and may circumvent anything short of a yard totally enclosed
and roofed over with chicken wire.
You can try making an overhang on the top of the fence, if your cat
cannot jump directly to the top of it. Use large bookshelf type angle
brackets and drape netting or screening on it, to create an unstable
There are some "invisible fence" products for cats, where the perimeter
of the yard is marked with a wire that will activate an electric collar on the
the cat. Do not use these without supervision, and ideally they should be
used in conjunction with a visible fence that the cat can use as a visual
reminder of its constraints. This seems to work well with some cats and
not at all with others.
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