Solving Your Cat's Behavior Problems
By Pam Johnson
To be a feline behavior consultant takes guts. Not because of anything cats might do, but because you inevitably become jokingly referred to as the "kitty shrink." Whenever I'm at a party or with a group of people and someone asks me what I do for a living, I know it won't be long before the word will spread around the room. "You're a feline WHAT?" is usually someone's first response. Then I spend much of the evening explaining that, "No, I don't teach cats to sit, stay, fetch, or roll over, but rather, I work with both cats and owners to solve behavior problems."
These days there are many animal behaviorists available to help owners. When I started learning about cats, though, many people had never considered calling in an animal behaviorist to help solve problems.
I became a cat lover quite by accident when I adopted two homeless kittens. I didn't know much about cats then but it didn't take long for the love affair to bloom. I became fascinated by cats and how intelligent they seemed. Since I had only grown up having dogs I was intrigued by the different ways cats communicate and what they required from humans. I wanted to know everything. After reading as many books as I could get my hands on, I started observing different cats and their owners (my friends were very patient with me). I wanted to learn how problems arise and how they're solved. I also spent countless hours at veterinarians' clinics (they were equally as patient) observing cats and the variety of problems they encounter. I then knew that the true answers couldn't come from anyone other than the cats themselves. I went straight to the source and began to let the cats teach me. By then I had a good background in feline nutrition, grooming, health, and general care, but I wanted to know what goes on behind those beautiful eyes.
One of the first things I learned about cats is that very few people are lukewarm about them. There are those who passionately love cats and feel they're highly intelligent, graceful, sensitive and beautiful creatures. Then there are the people who feel cats are nothing but aloof, untrainable, furniture-destroying, hair-shedding, furball-vomiting snobs. And, if you're daring enough, try getting a group of dog lovers and cat lovers together. All you have to do to set off an evening of heated discussion is ask which makes the better pet, a dog or a cat. Dog owners will argue that cats don't "do" anything. Well, those of us who have spent any amount of time with a cat know just ridiculous that old argument is. Gats just make everything they do look so effortless.
I think that, as owners, we take our intelligent and intriguing cats for granted. Cats make life so convenient for us by being very clean, quiet and graceful. They don't need to be walked, are able to handle long periods alone, and they don't disturb the neighbors with their barking. Because cats do make life so easy for us we sometimes overlook their needs. When a cat behaves in an undesirable way, we all too often assume he's being spiteful, stubborn, or willfully destructive.
This book is to help you figure out what your little companion is trying to communicate. Hopefully you'll find the solutions so you can bridge the distance that's come between the two of you because of the problem. Begin by viewing that furry little feline as your own private teacher. Although he may not speak in words, he's definitely telling you something.
As I'm sure you're already aware, this book is not intended to be a replacement for veterinary care. Always seek your vet's advice first, even if you're sure the problem is behavioral. Your vet may uncover a medical condition that's causing the undesirable behavior. Don't hesitate to contact your vet with questions; he or she is there to help you keep your cat healthy and happy.
In an effort to be fair, I've alternated referring to cats as males and females throughout this book. I don't want to imply favoritism because I do love both male and female cats equally. And, because I feel that a cat is a very important member of the family, you'll never find me referring to any feline as an "it."
Because I'm unable to make a house call to you personally, I hope that within these pages you find the tools you need to be your own feline behavior consultant. You already have the most important qualification of all - your love for your cat.
Understanding Behavior Modification
The secret to living in harmony with a cat is understanding that her so-called undesirable behavior is actually her best way of communicating to you that something's wrong. Since a cat can't sit you down for a heart-to-heart chat about why she's upset, the next best thing is to get your attention. If you give up the notion that your cat's being spiteful and manipulative and start looking at what she's trying to communicate, you stand a very good chance of solving the problem. Very often when I make a house call to do a behavior session it's really to serve as the interpreter between cat and owner. I listen to the owner describe the problem, then I ask lots of questions. I look around to get a good sense of the cat's environment. Finally, I spend time with the cat. After I've had some individual time with the kitty, I ask the owner to come in so I can watch how they relate. All this information allows me to put the pieces of the puzzle together to help the owner solve the reason for the behavior problem and use modification techniques to rebuild the bond between them.
We need to be more sensitive to our cats' needs because we ask so much of them in terms of being obedient, loving companions. All too often we're the reason our cat may have to suffer through behavior problems. For example: We love how convenient it is that our cat uses a litter box so we never have to run home in time to walk her the way our dog-owning friends do; in return, our responsibility is to keep the litter box clean. When we don't fulfill our responsibility, the cat may start using a different area of the house. Another example: It's a normal behavior in a cat to scratch and visually mark objects with her claws. She's not being destructive - she's just being a cat! Our responsibility is to provide an adequate scratching post. Too often we neglect this and then spend so much time getting mad at the cat for scratching the furniture. With just a little more understanding about what a cat needs and why those needs exist, you can achieve the relationship you've always wanted with her. Although you view your cat as a member of the family, don't humanize her so much that you neglect those feline needs.
Any behavior problem can be the result of an underlying medical condition, so please have your cat checked by the veterinarian first. Don't assume it's a behavior problem until the vet has given your cat an exam. I can't tell you how many times owners have called me to complain about their cat not using the litter box. After insisting they go to the vet before I'll agree to see her, it turns out she has cystitis. There are many other times I've been called about a formerly loving cat turning aggressive. Whenever the owner picks her up she hisses and tries to bite. Many times the vet discovers a painful abscess (usually the result of a cat fight) is the cause of the aggression because it hurts the cat to be touched. So please, don't skip this very important first step. See your vet.
When I do a consultation I try to limit it to one or two sessions (unless it's an aggression problem or other specific situation that requires a slower approach in short intervals). I have two reasons for trying to limit how many sessions I do with one cat. First, I realize that by the time owners contact me, they've probably already spent more money than they planned to (whether on replacing urine-soaked carpets, buying endless brands of litter, scratching posts, numerous vet visits, etc.). The other reason is that I want the owners to implement the behavior modification techniques so they'll become more perceptive to their cat's moods and/or needs. The best way to rebuild the cat/owner bond is to have them do the work together. Phone contact is always encouraged in order to track the owner's progress and provide support.
Behavior modification takes time so don't get discouraged if resuits don't happen overnight. You're retraining the cat's mind and breaking those old negative thought patterns. For the success to be long-term you have to give your cat time. If you're consistent, patient and positive, it will work.
When training a dog, you use her natural desire to please the more dominant "pack leader" (in this case, you). With my dog Annabelle, all I have to do is look at her with a stern expression, and she immediately knows her behavior is unacceptable. With the cat (who isn't a pack animal) this method doesn't work. Your cat won't be affected by that stern expression. And resorting to punishment doesn't work; it will only be perceived as a threat to her safety. If you've been spanking your cat, yelling at her, rubbing her nose in her accidents, exiling her in isolation, or using any other such methods, please stop now. It doesn't work, it never has, it never will. The biggest mistake you make when you hit a cat is that you'll only be training her to be afraid of you.
She won't be able to differentiate between the hand coming toward her for petting or for hitting. She'll assume the worst and either cringe, run or become defensive. When you bring a cat over to a spot on the carpet where she had an accident and you rub her nose in it you create a worse situation. She won't associate that with your telling her it's bad to urinate in that spot. Instead, she'll think it's bad to urinate at all. She'll seek other places, or worse, hold it until you're not around. She may also become afraid to use her litter box. Your only hope is to figure out why she's doing these things and then reduce her anxiety so she'll respond to the various behavior modification techniques described in this book.
This is the only way to go. All the techniques you'll read about in the following chapters are based on positive reinforcement. Instead of filling the cat's life with a bunch of "nos," you're going to structure it so she gets what she needs but in the way you prefer. For example: If your cat is scratching on the furniture, provide her with a scratching post she'll want to use. Encourage her to use the post through playtime and praise. If you don't want a cat to do something just give her a better option. Keep that little thought in mind and you won't go wrong. Cats are smart; they'll let you know when you've done it right.
In this book I stress praise as an important tool in training. The tone of your voice can have quite an impact on your cat. For instance, during grooming or medicating, a soothing tone throughout the process followed by much praise can make the procedure anywhere from bearable to absolutely enjoyable.
Positive reinforcement can be used in correcting any behavior problem (in combination with modification techniques) from aggression and hyperactivity to depression and lethargy. It works because it helps to relieve the stress a cat inevitably feels during a behavior crisis-Positive reinforcement:
- reduces stress
- builds self-confidence
- accelerates training success
- strengthens owner/cat bond
- encourages companion cats to get along
- adds more joy in a cat's life
Remote Control Training
This is the only negative form of training I use. The reason I call it remote control is that your cat won't directly connect the correction with you, her loving owner. An example of remote control training is coating electrical wires with pepper sauce or bitter orange so that the cat won't chew on them. Another example is lining empty soda cans (put a few pennies in them and tape over the opening) along the kitchen counter to train the cat not to jump up. She'll soon learn that whenever she jumps up there she knocks over these noisy, scary objects. In time she'll know to avoid those negative places (even after the cans are no longer there), but she won't know you had anything to do with it. Humans are a sneaky bunch.
Remote control training is very useful when it comes to setting boundaries. The trick is to make certain your cat doesn't associate it with you. And always combine it with that good old positive reinforcement whenever she does the right thing.
No cat is going to be perfectly behaved all of the time. People aren't, so how can we expect it from cats?
If you're dealing with a kitten, a cat that's been in a former home, or one that's undergone some form of stress, be patient with her.