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Treating Behavior Problems in Cats

ASPCA logoCats are considered perfect pets by many people because they’re relatively self-sufficient. If we provide a few basics-like a clean litter box, fresh water and access to nutritious food-they share our lives without demanding constant care. However, this same benefit can sometimes create problems when things go awry. When a cat develops a behavior problem, pet parents are often at a loss as to how to solve it.

As with dogs, many behavior problems in cats can be resolved with a change in management of your pet or your pet’s environment. For instance, litter box problems can often be dealt with by changing the presentation of the box, the litter or other factors associated with use of the box. (For a complete discussion of litter box problems and how to resolve them, please see our article on Litter Box Problems.) Problematic scratching can be fixed by providing suitable scratching surfaces for your cat (please see our article, Scratching), and overly rambunctious play can be channeled into appropriate activities (please see our articles, Cats Who Play Rough and Nighttime Activity in Cats).

However, sometimes cats develop behavior problems that pet parents can’t reduce or resolve. For instance, problems may develop between multiple cats in a household, or a cat might stop using her litter box because of a physical problem that’s no longer even bothering her, or a cat might groom herself excessively, to the point of pulling all her hair out.

When behavior problems like these develop in cats, help is available from qualified professional animal behavior experts, such as Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB or ACAAB) or board-certified veterinary behaviorists (Dip ACVB). After reviewing the specifics of your cat’s behavior problem and all the factors that influence it, a behaviorist can design a successful behavior modification plan to resolve the problem. In some cases, a behavior problem can be treated most successfully with a combination of behavior modification and behavioral medication.

Is Medication Necessary?

You might be reluctant to give your cat behavioral medication and prefer to find a solution that focuses on behavior modification or a change in your cat’s environment. However, keep in mind that some problems can be resolved more quickly-and with less distress to both you and your cat-if medication is added to the treatment plan.

The most effective approach to treating a behavior problem in a cat is behavior modification. Behavior modification plans designed by knowledgeable, qualified professionals treat a problem behavior by:

  • Changing the cat’s perception of a situation or thing
  • Changing the consequences of the cat’s behavior
  • Giving the cat an acceptable outlet for her natural behavior or an acceptable behavior to do instead of the problem behavior
  • Using a combination of these solutions

Unfortunately, behavior modification can prove difficult in some situations. For example, natural cat behavior is sometimes at odds with a cat’s environment. Many modern households have multiple cats. But cats are solitary hunters, and although they sometimes get along, it’s also normal for them to avoid each other. Because living together isn’t natural for them, it’s sometimes necessary to help cats in a single household learn to accept each other. This can be accomplished through a kind of behavior modification procedure called desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC). Sometimes, however, cats are so excited and upset by the sight and smell of each other that DSCC isn’t possible. In these cases, behavioral medication can reduce the cats’ reactivity to each other enough so that DSCC can be carried out successfully.

WebMD Veterinary Reference from the ASPCA

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