8 Common Cat Problems and How to Solve Them

Keep the peace between you and your feline friend with these solutions to common cat problems.

From the WebMD Archives

We love our feline friends when they rub against our legs, knead our laps, or look us in the eye and purr. Yet sometimes we may not like everything about our four-footed friends. Not when they streak through the house at 3 a.m. or reject a perfectly clean litter box.

The good news is that just about every common cat problem can be managed with a little help. That's why WebMD turned to the pet pros to get their solutions for some of the most common kitty conundrums.

8 Common Cat Problems and Their Solutions

Litter box issues. This is "numero uno by far" of problems people report with their cats, says Linda P. Case, MS, author of The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition, and Health. And no wonder. It can be extremely frustrating when your kitty decides that the litter box is off-limits. But there's usually a reason cats avoid their box, and fortunately there's a lot you can do to address the issue.

  • Talk to your vet first. Bladder stones, urinary tract diseases, and crystals in the urine are all reasons your cat might start avoiding the litter box. To rule these and other health issues out, be sure to have your cat checked by your veterinarian.
  • Have at least one litter box per cat. If your kitty has to stand in line before she can relieve herself, she may decide to take her bathroom break elsewhere. Try test-driving a few kinds of litter and litter boxes. Some cats prefer covered boxes, some don't, and some cats prefer one litter over another.
  • Always keep the litter box clean -- even clumping litter has to be changed regularly. A rule of thumb: Clean the box at least once daily, twice if there's more than one cat in the house.

Scratching. It may seem like kitty is scratching your couch and curtains to annoy you, but she's really doing it to work off energy, to play, to mark her territory, even to get rid of frayed bits of claw. Good news: "Scratching is easy to prevent," Case tells WebMD. So you don't have to settle for raggedy furniture or stop kitty from expressing her natural behavior. To prevent scratching damage:

  • Buy one or more scratching posts for your cat, then dab a bit of catnip on the posts to entice your feline friend to use them.
  • Trim your kitty's claws. It may seem daunting, but trimming is easier than you think. Get a quick tutorial from your veterinarian, who can probably do the deed in 10 seconds -- a skill that can be learned.
  • Turn your cat into a fashion plate with colorful claw caps (also called nail caps). These small, vinyl sleeves fit over kitty's claws, preventing them from doing damage when they scratch.

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Cat aggression. A cat may become aggressive for all kinds of reasons, including illness, overcrowding, lack of socialization, maternal protection, even simple play. To help you deal with aggression between cats:

  • Discuss your cat’s aggression with your vet. Pain and sickness can put anyone in a bad mood, so you'll want to rule out any physical causes for kitty's bad temper before you do anything else.
  • Unfixed male cats are more prone to aggression than other cats, and it only takes one intact male to affect the behavior of all the other cats in your house. The solution is simple: spay or neuter your feline friends.
  • If your furry household is often in a snit, it could be because there aren’t enough resources to go around. Keep the peace by making sure there are enough litter boxes, food and water bowls, toys, beds and perches, then spread them through the house to reduce congestion.
  • You never want to hit an aggressive cat -- it may just lead to more aggression -- but you do need to stop a cat fight in progress. To do that, squirt the cats with water, make a loud noise, or toss something soft at them. Never try pulling fighting cats apart.
  • If you or your vet cannot figure out why kitty is being antagonistic, talk to a veterinary behaviorist, who may be able to help you get to the source of your cat's aggression.

Too much nighttime activity. Until their domestication cats were nocturnal by nature, so it's easy to see why too much nighttime action is a common complaint of many new pet parents. To help the kitty who doesn't understand that nighttime is for sleeping -- not for playing with your nose -- try these tips.

  • First, make sure your cat has no medical problems. An agitated, active feline could be one that's in pain, so talk to your vet if you think there might be something wrong.
  • If kitty is just rambunctious at night, you can help tire and relax her with a good play session before bedtime.
  • Make sure kitty's environment is enriched so there is plenty to do during the day, making your cat more inclined to sleep at night. You might create a cat enclosure; offer your cat a variety of toys; mount bird or squirrel feeders near a window out which kitty can see; or leave out items for your cat to explore, such as boxes, bags, and packing paper.
  • If your feline friend is the social sort, get him his own kitty companion to pal around with.
  • Because cats tend to sleep after a big meal, feed your cat her main meal at night. You can also entertain her at the food bowl by purchasing a timed feeder, one that pops open at preset times. Your cat is entertained by watching her bowl and waiting for her snack at 3 a.m., while you're in blissful dreamland.

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Play-induced biting and scratching. Cats and kittens love playing. Through each swat, pounce, and kick they are enhancing physical coordination and honing social skills. Yet sometimes felines can get too frisky with their people playmates, leaving behind bites or scratches that can get infected. Fortunately, you can still play with your cat -- and not need stitches later. To minimize kitty's rough play:

  • Provide your cat with lots of enrichment: toys, perches, and outdoor enclosures, as well as paper bags and boxes to explore. You may even think about getting your cat a kitty companion.
  • Play with your cat for at least 10 minutes twice a day. Use dangly toys, balls, catnip toys, wadded up paper -- the sky's the limit.
  • Don't encourage your cat to play with your hands or feet. Kittens who grow up playing with and nibbling on fingertips often grow up to be powerful cats who play bite -- hard!
  • Don't punish your cat for play bites and scratches -- it's easy for kitty to interpret a slap as rough play, or to become afraid of you.

Foiling fleas. If your kitty is chewing, scratching, or licking often, if she's losing hair, or has irritated skin, she may have fleas, the most common external parasite troubling pets.

It only takes one flea hitching a ride inside to start an invasion, but fortunately you can tackle fleas easily. Talk to your vet about flea control options, then be sure to treat all the cats in you house: If one has fleas, they probably all do. And because some flea control medications for dogs can be fatal to cats, be sure you use only drugs made specifically for cats.

Tackling tapeworms. While fleas are the most common external parasite on your cat, tapeworms are the most common pest inside kitty. That's because where there's fleas there's almost always tapeworms, since cats usually get tapeworms by swallowing a flea. The end result eventually appears at kitty's end: Look at your cat's feces or around their anus, if you see tiny wiggly white worms, or something that looks like dried grains of rice, your kitty has tapeworms.

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Tapeworms aren't dangerous, but they can lead to weight loss, tummy pain, and other problems in your cat if left untreated. While garlic has been a popular home remedy for foiling tapeworms and fleas, there's no proof it works -- and it's very hard to get kitty to eat it! Stick to the to tried-and-true tapeworm treatments offered by your vet.

Yowling of a cat in heat. When a female cat is in heat, she'll often become very affectionate and vocal, meowing and yowling as she attempts to alert a potential mate of her fertile status. Likewise, a male cat may become talkative when he's hearing or smelling a female cat in heat. This yowling and other mating behaviors may repeat themselves every 18-24 days throughout a cat's eight month breeding season.

You already know the most foolproof way of coping with a cat in heat (or one responding to a cat in heat): Get your feline friends spayed or neutered! A female cat can become pregnant when she's as young as 16 weeks, but fortunately she can be spayed at 8 weeks old.

If your cat is meowing a lot and your kitty is spayed or neutered, it's a safe bet to assume something is wrong: Perhaps fleas are biting, the litter box is dirty, or the water bowl is empty. Unless you know kitty is just trying to be a mooch, never ignore these vocal pleas -- and never punish them, which results only in making kitty afraid and doesn't address the real reason he or she is meowing.

There's probably isn't a single issue you'll have with your cat that your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist hasn't seen -- and helped to overcome. You don't have to live with frustration and you don't have to give up your cuddly companion when things go awry. Armed with a little help from the pros and a bit of patience, you and your cat companion can live together in perfect harmony.

WebMD Pet Health Feature Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on 6/, 010

Sources

SOURCES:

Linda P. Case, MS, adjunct assistant professor, University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine; author, The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition, and Health; co-author, Canine and Feline Nutrition.

Carlson, D., Griffin, J., and Carlson, L. Cat Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook, Howell Book House, 1995.

Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN, professor of medicine and nutrition, the Acree Endowed Chair of Small Animal Research,College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Tennessee.

ASCPA: “Destructive Scratching.” “Are You Allergic to Your Pet?” “Shedding," “Aggression Between Cats in Your Household," “Cats Who Play Rough,” “Litter Box Problems," “Fleas," “Worms," "Meowing and Yowling," "Nighttime Activity in Cats."

Humane Society of the United States: "Destructive Scratching,” “Aggression Between Family Cats,” “Preventing Litter Box Problems,” “What You Can Do If You Are Having Trouble Affording Veterinary Care,”"Cat Care Basics," "Coping with Kitten Season."

PetPlace: “How to Tell If Your Cat Is Sick.”

Mobile SPCA: "Nocturnal Activity."

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