Cats can be sweet and cuddly purring balls of fluff. It’s lovely when they curl up in your lap or wind between your legs. But sometimes, cats do things that aren’t so perfect. They might scratch the furniture, refuse to use the litter box, or race around the house in the middle of the night.
But the good news is that there are plenty of ways you can address behavior issues with your feline friend.
In most cases, start by talking to your vet. “Cats are excellent at hiding signs of illness, and changes in behavior are usually the best way to know that a cat is sick or distressed,” says Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, a shelter veterinary behaviorist at SPCA of Texas.
“Changes in behavior should always be investigated first by the veterinarian in order to prevent unnecessary suffering.”
Litter Box Issues
It can be frustrating when your cat decides to skip the litter box and instead find some other place in the house to use as a bathroom. There’s usually a reason that cats don’t use their litter box.
“Please remember that cats are never house-soiling out of spite, nor are they ‘bad’ cats,” says Samantha Bell, a cat behavior expert for Best Friends Animal Society. “Cats are fastidious creatures. When they opt to not use their litter box, it’s their way of communicating to us that there’s a problem in their lives. And it’s our responsibility to figure out what that problem is and to help them.”
Talk to your vet. Urinary tract infections, kidney and thyroid disease, diabetes, and digestive problems could cause issues that affect bathroom habits. They may need to go more often, or it can hurt when they relieve themselves. Check with your vet first to rule out any medical causes.
Keep it clean. Cats are very neat and sometimes avoid using a spot that is very soiled or smelly. Scoop the litter as often as you can, emptying it completely at least every 2 weeks. Clean the box with a mild soap, then refill it with fresh litter. Add litter each day after scooping to keep the box at a depth of about 3 inches so your cat can dig and cover up when they go.
Have enough boxes. Supply one litter box for each cat, plus one extra. If your cat has to wait to use a box, they may just go somewhere else. Likewise, having too many cats use one box may make it harder to keep clean.
Put it in the right place. Place the litter box far from your cat’s food and water in a spot where your cat spends time, but not in a high-traffic area. “Don’t hide the litter box in a corner where the cat can't see someone or something coming,” Bell says. “Cats can feel trapped if they don’t see an avenue of escape.”
Think twice about changes. Cats develop preferences for certain types of litter and litter boxes, as well as their location. If you never had a lid before, don’t add one. Don't change litter brands if your cat has been happy. Figure out where your cat likes to have the litter box in the house, and don’t move it.
Bell suggests an uncovered litter box with preferably unscented litter. “Covered boxes trap the smell, making the odor much more intense for cats when they try to use the box,” she says. “Also, cats’ sense of smell is many times stronger than ours, so even a tiny bit of scent can be overpowering for them and cause litter box avoidance.” If you want to change your litter brand, gradually add some to the original box until you’ve eventually replaced the old litter with the new.
Scratching is a natural cat behavior. They do it to stretch, remove ragged bits of claw, work off excitement or stress, or to mark objects with their scent. They like to scratch on tall, sturdy places where they can really sink in their nails. To keep them from choosing a table leg or the side of the couch, give them better options with scratching posts.
Some cats prefer posts covered with sisal rope, and some like corrugated cardboard. Whatever you choose, it’s important that your posts are sturdy. “No matter how much weight a cat puts behind their scratch, that scratcher needs to remain sturdily in place,” Bell says. “This is why many cats scratch on the sofa – because it stays in place when they scratch on it.” Also, make sure your posts are tall. Cats often stretch their back muscles when they scratch, so make sure the posts are high enough for this.
Place your posts where your cat typically likes to scratch. Rub a little catnip on them, which should make your cat curious about them. Play with a fishing pole cat toy, flicking it around the post to encourage your cat to explore.
Finish by making their favorite scratching spots less interesting. Cover furniture with a sheet or two-sided tape to make the surface slick and harder to use.
A cat can be aggressive for many reasons, including pain or illness, fear, stress, or overstimulation.
If your cat is lashing out, check in with your vet first, particularly if the aggression is a new behavior. The cause can be medical, so your vet will first look for a health issue.
A cat may lash out at the closest human or cat when they are scared or overstimulated, such as when they hear a loud noise or see something outside that they can’t get to, like another cat. If you can, avoid situations that can be too much for your cat. For example, close the blinds if neighborhood strays or dogs are walking by outside.
Play-Induced Biting and Scratching
A milder form of aggression can be part of play. Cats love to play, and sometimes playing can be rough. “Cats need to bite, scratch, and attack or wrestle,” says Bell. “If you give them an appropriate outlet for these behaviors, like interactive playtime with a wand toy, they will feel satisfied. But if you don’t provide them with appropriate outlets, then they may bite, scratch, or attack the closest moving object, which could be you or another cat.”
Don’t encourage cats or kittens to play with your hands or feet. When they “catch” those dangling objects, they can bite. It’s safer to swat and pounce on a wand toy, which stays far away from your hands and body.
Cats are also very trainable. If you feel that your cat is playing too roughly, calmly stop playing with them. If they are playing nicely, reward them by continuing the fun or giving them a treat. “Positive reinforcement really works with cats!” Bell says.
Too Much Nighttime Activity
By nature, cats are most active at dusk and dawn, but many cats also like to play, eat, or sit on your head in the middle of the night when you’d rather be sleeping.
Cats wake up their people at night because they get something positive out of it, like attention. To solve this problem, change your cat’s routine so they are awake during the day and sleep more at night, and don’t pay attention to them at night.
“A lengthy wand-toy play session in the evening, followed by a meal of wet food shortly before your bedtime, will help them sleep more through the night,” suggests Bell. “The later you feed them something high in protein, the longer they will stay full and sleepy.”
Other tips to cut down on nighttime antics:
- Offer a food puzzle overnight to keep them full and busy. Try dry kibble in a toilet paper roll with the ends folded and holes cut out.
- Check with your vet to be sure you’re feeding enough food every day, so they aren’t waking up due to hunger.
- Play some soft music or a radio station overnight.
- Try a heated cat bed that you only turn on at night.
- Completely ignore their nighttime behavior. Any attention – even if it seems negative – still reinforces their behavior. “If you break down after 2 hours or 2 days, you will have taught them that if they try long and hard enough, they will break you down,” says Bell. And yes, they will probably try even harder to get you up next time.”
If your cat is scratching, licking, or chewing, that could be a sign of fleas. Those tiny pests can cause many problems for cats. Part their fur and look for black flea dirt and red skin with small scabs.
“Cats are such excellent groomers that they can have fleas and the pet owner will never know it,” says Tynes. “Common signs of fleas include thinning hair, excessive scratching, and in some cases, little crusty bumps around their head and neck or above their tail.”
Flea allergy dermatitis is a very common problem in cats who are allergic to flea bites, says Kathy Baker, DVM, a veterinarian in Smyrna, GA. “They can become very itchy and overgroom and scratch themselves to the point of removing fur and damaging skin to the point of developing a bacterial skin infection.”
Fleas can transmit diseases, but there are effective preventives and treatments available. Treat every pet in the house to really get rid of the pests.
Fleas and tapeworms can go hand in hand. Fleas eat tapeworm eggs, and if a cat swallows an infected flea while grooming, then they can develop tapeworms.
You’ll usually see tiny flecks – about the size of a grain of rice or cucumber seed – in your cat’s fur, in their poop, or on their bedding.
Tapeworms aren’t usually dangerous, but they can trigger vomiting, diarrhea, or other stomach issues and can lead to weight loss. There is a specific dewormer that can tackle tapeworms. Ask your vet if you suspect your cat has them.
“If a cat vomits a couple of times a year, I might not be too concerned,” says Tyne. “But cats that vomit regularly (for example monthly or more often) should be taken to a veterinarian for an examination.”
Figuring out the reason for vomiting can be tricky, as there’s a long list of things that can make a cat throw up. Some of the common reasons include overeating, parasites, food sensitivities, swallowed objects, food allergies, and disease. Your vet can help you figure out the cause. It may be as simple as feeding smaller meals or using food puzzles so your cat doesn’t eat too much too fast.
Yowling and Meowing
Female cats can be quite vocal when they are in heat. Likewise, male cats can yowl back to show they’re interested. If your cat is yowling for mating reasons, the most obvious solution is to spay or neuter your pet.
But yowling can also be due to pain or disease, says veterinarian Lisa Tanner, DVM, in Alpharetta, GA. It can be hunger, loneliness, or dementia. “And some cats just like to talk,” Tanner says. She suggests talking to your vet, but also adding playtime and enriching their environment to stimulate brain activity.
Older cats may also start to become more vocal.
“Sometimes their hearing or vision may be failing, making them anxious and more likely to pace the home, vocalizing as if they are calling for their owner,” Tyne says. “These cats may be confused or suffering from pain or discomfort due to other bodily ailments such as arthritis. Like vomiting, it’s not something that should be ignored. It may be indicative of a treatable condition.”
Photo Credit: Cathy Scola / Getty Images
Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, shelter veterinary behaviorist, SPCA of Texas, Dallas.
Samantha Bell, cat behavior expert, Best Friends Animal Society, Los Angeles.
Kathy Baker, DVM, veterinarian, Smyrna, GA.
Lisa Tanner, DVM, veterinarian, Alpharetta, GA.
Best Friends Animal Society: “Preventing Undesirable Cat Behavior,” “Kitten Plays Too Rough.”
The Humane Society of the United States: “How to stop destructive cat scratching.”
American Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals: “Litter Box Problems,” “Aggression in Cats,” “Destructive Scratching.”
Cornell University: “Feline Behavior Problems: House Soiling,” “Feline Behavior Problems: Aggression.”
Animal Humane Society: “Cat keeping you awake? How to manage night activity.”