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Cat Training and Behavior: Ask the Veterinarian

Veterinarian Will Draper, DVM, answers your questions about cat behavior and how to train your cat.

Question:
I love the thought of walking my cat. Can a cat be leash-trained?
Answer:

Yes. I have seen cats become leash-trained. However, it does take time and work and is certainly not the norm.

Question:
How can I teach my cat not to scratch my furniture?
Answer:

Cats need to scratch things to sharpen their nails. So you should give your cat other scratching options, such as a scratching post or a scratching mat.

Question:
I bought my cat some very expensive canned food as a treat. He sniffed it and then pretended he was burying it in his litter box. Why the insulting behavior?
Answer:

Cats will bury their food if they don't like it. They will also do this to "save it for later", mimicking the behavior of their wild, big-cat cousins, who will bury the carcasses of their prey to eat at a later time.

Question:
My neighbor’s cat uses the toilet instead of a litter box! How can I get my cat to do that?
Answer:

It will take a lot of time, training, and patience. You can buy a kit to help make this happen. It certainly is not easy, and most cats don’t take to it. But, maybe yours will!

Question:
How can I stop my cat from growling and hissing at my guests when they come to visit?
Answer:

There are so many reasons that cats will hiss at guests. It could be the guest's scent, their voice, any number of things. If there is a particular friend (or friends) you want your cat to become more accustomed to, the best thing to do is see that they spend more time around your cat so they can get used to each other.

Question:
Our cat shreds paper. It's funny, except when he's shredding all the toilet paper.
Answer:

Well, you can keep the bathroom doors closed. If that isn't an option -- if the litter box is in the bathroom, for instance -- try to catch him in the act. Then spray him with a water bottle. It’s also a good idea to give him other scratching options, like a scratching post or a scratching mat.

Question:
It seems like my cat is always hungry. She has tripped me to get to her food bowl -- even when she's just eaten. How can I get control of her eating habits?
Answer:

First, you need to make sure there is not some medical issue. Cats with polyphagia, or an increased appetite, can have medical issues like intestinal parasites, diabetes, or hyperthyroidism. So a visit to the vet should be the first step. If all checks out, you'll need to control the amount of food and the frequency with which your cat eats until she understands the rules.

Question:
Our new cat loves digging in -- and tasting -- the house plants. How can I stop him? My plants are suffering!
Answer:

Try putting mothballs in the soil. Cats don't care for mothballs.

Question:
When we go to bed our cats like to sleep on the dining room table. How can we put a stop to this?
Answer:

Try putting aluminum foil on the table where they are sleeping. Cats don't like the feel or sound of aluminum foil.

Question:
Our cats like to play around and make noise after we go to bed at night. What can we do? Can we tire them out during the day so they’ll stop keeping us up at night?
Answer:

Cats are nocturnal by nature. So this is not unusual, especially for younger cats. They usually outgrow this behavior. The best you can do is keep them separated at night, if possible.

Question:
How can I stop my cat from urinating and defecating outside her litter box?
Answer:

First, make sure there is no medical issue causing this behavior. Cats will do this as a way of letting you know they don't feel well. It is also important to make sure you have multiple litter boxes. The general rule is to have one more litter box than the number of cats you have.

Question:
Are there certain cat breeds that should be avoided with kids in the house?
Answer:

I can't think of any breeds that are bad for kids. But breeds like the Maine Coon, Burmese, Manx (stubbin), and the American Shorthair are all considered to be great with kids.

Question:
Every time I buy a new bed for my dog, my older male cat pees in the middle of it. How can I get him to stop?
Answer:

Try keeping the bed in a place that your dog has access to, but not your cat. Not easy to do, I know.

Question:
My cat brings me dead animal parts. A friend says they’re kitty gifts. Is there a way to discourage my cat from bringing me tails, heads, wings, and such, without hurting her feelings?
Answer:

Cats are hunters by nature. Unfortunately, all you could really do is keep your cat indoors to avoid this.

Question:
Our senior cat has no patience for our dog. He sometimes attacks the dog for no apparent reason. What can we do?
Answer:

Honestly, the only thing you can do is keep them separated as best you can.

Question:
How can I get my male cat to stop spraying all over the house?
Answer:

If he's not neutered, get him neutered first. There are also plug-in aerosol products you can buy that will spray pheromones in the home. These can sometimes help to stop that behavior.

Question:
If I leave cat food out, one of my cats will eat it until he throws up. I would put the food away, but our other cat is thin, and picky, and grazes all day long. How can I stop one cat from overeating without starving the other?
Answer:

You will have to feed them separately, and keep the cat that overeats away from his thin housemate's bowl

Question:
I love watching birds on my bird feeder. But my cat won't let them feed. How can I train her not to scare them away?
Answer:

That would be hard to do. Cats are hunters by nature and they like to go after birds. I suggest you keep her confined indoors while the birds feed.

Question:
My cat will hide under the bed or the dresser for hours. Is this normal?
Answer:

As long as he's not hurting himself, is eating, and acting normal otherwise, it is not something I'd worry about.

Question:
My male cat has been neutered. But he still gets into fights with other neighborhood cats. He keeps getting abscesses from fighting. Will he outgrow this? What can I do to stop the fights?
Answer:

You will need to make him an indoor cat, since it would be very difficult to control the outdoor environment, meaning the other neighborhood cats.

Question:
My cat is really mean to all other animals. How can I train her to get along with them instead?
Answer:

I wish I could say that you can, but it's unlikely. Your cat may be the type who needs to be an "only pet."

Question:
Can you teach a cat to stay in your yard? Do those “cat safe” fences really work?
Answer:

The cat nets and fences can work. It is about the only way you can "teach" a cat to stay in the yard. I'd inquire with an associate at your local pet store, or do an online search to find the best product for your cat and your home.

Question:
My cat spends a lot of time grooming himself. Can a cat groom itself too much?
Answer:

Some cats will over-groom, which is a condition called psychogenic alopecia. These cats will lick and lick until they are bald, usually on their belly, hind legs, or sides. If this is not the case with your cat, I’d not be concerned.

Question:
A stray cat had kittens under our deck. I want to take them to the vet and get them new homes before they become feral. How soon can they be weaned?
Answer:

Kittens are usually weaned between 3 and 4 weeks of age.

Question:
My husband wants to declaw our cat because she scratches the kids. Is there any other option? That seems so mean.
Answer:

There are plastic claw covers that you can glue over your cat's claws to help decrease the damage cats can cause with scratching. However, you'll need to replace the covers every 2 to 3 months.

Question:
We have a new kitten that is a ball of energy. We love his antics, except when he grabs us around the ankles. What can we do that won't dampen his spirits, but will save our ankles?
Answer:

Get toys for him to play with. And use tools -- like string on the end of a stick -- to play with him and wear him out. Keeping him occupied with other activities should help save your ankles.

Question:
When my cat has a catnip toy, he treats it like his kitten. He spends a long time with it and will even start drooling. Is too much catnip dangerous?
Answer:

No. Catnip is very safe for cats.

Question:
My boyfriend’s Siamese cat “talks” a lot. My boyfriend finds it amusing, but it's driving me crazy. I can even hear the cat when I’m on the phone with him. What can I do? Could having another cat in the home help quiet him down?
Answer:

Siamese cats are a very vocal breed. Another cat may only make him more vocal. I hope your relationship survives the Siamese! They are great cats, otherwise. Give him a chance!

Question:
Why do my cat’s pupils get really large when I play with him -- specifically when we're playing with feathers?
Answer:

Cat’s pupils get larger when they get excited, anxious, angry, or frightened (fight or flight response). In your case, I'd guess it’s excitement from play.

Question:
When my cat is looking out the window she chatters her teeth and makes funny little meows. What could the cause be?
Answer:

She probably sees a bird, squirrel, chipmunk, or some other "prey" close by. This is a natural hunter response.

Question:
My older cat no longer takes care of himself like he used to. I’ve had to trim tangled knots from his fur recently. Is this normal for older cats or should he see the vet?
Answer:

He should definitely see the vet as soon as possible. Cats that no longer groom themselves are usually suffering from some sort of illness. Older cats will also stop grooming themselves, and this can be a sign of senility. Your vet can best help you determine what the issue is.

Question:
How are cats on TV trained to do tricks? My cats don’t do any tricks.
Answer:

With a LOT of work.

Thank you for joining us for WebMD Ask the Veterinarian. Be sure to check in on Thursday, Feb. 16, at 1 p.m. ET, when the topic will be "Dog Training and Behavior." Sign up if you'd like an email reminder the day before the event.

WebMD Ask the Specialist Transcript

Reviewed by William Draper, DVM on January 11, 2012

The opinions expressed in this section are of the Specialist and the Specialist alone. They do not reflect the opinions of WebMD and they have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician or any member of the WebMD editorial staff for accuracy, balance or objectivity. WebMD is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on WebMD. 

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