Nip Problem Kitty Behaviors in the Bud with These Simple Tips

Behavior Problem in Cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Kittenhood spans from birth to one year of age; during this time key aspects of development that impact your kitten's aggressive tendencies, litterbox habits, scratching behaviors and more take place.
  • A kitten can quickly learn to use a litterbox, but she can also quickly learn to use your carpet or laundry basket for her potty needs; the key is to place her litterbox (containing her preferred litter) in an easy-to-access location where she feels safe, and keep it very clean.
  • You can circumvent excessive play aggression by "hissing" or yelling "ouch" when she crosses the line, then stopping the play session for several minutes.
  • When bringing home a new kitten, offer burlap, cardboard and carpeted scratching surfaces, placed vertically and horizontally, to see which your kitten prefers; keep the scratchers in areas your cat frequents and enjoys and trim her nails frequently.
  • If you're up to it, one of the best ways to avoid many common behavioral problems in kittens is to adopt twokittens at the same time so they can support each other physically, emotionally and socially.

By Dr. Becker

Adopting a kitten can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. It can also be one of the most challenging. Kittenhood spans from birth to one year of age, with the first six weeks of life being particularly impacting to her development.

Prior to eight weeks of age, a kitten should still be with her mother and littermates. She requires close contact to help regulate her body temperature, will still be nursing and is developing vision and leg coordination (kittens that are separated from their mothers at this young age must be bottle-fed every two hours).

From four to eight weeks, the weaning process occurs and kittens begin to eat solid food. They also develop more complex motor skills, allowing them to run, jump and play.

At about two to four months of age, a kitten will have nearly three times more energy than an adult cat.1 This is also the age that many shelters allow kittens to be placed for adoption... pairing often-unsuspecting owners with little fur-balls of energy.

Not long after, at about four to six months of age, kittens reach adolescence and sexual maturity, which can lead to territorial spraying or unexpected litters if you're not careful.2 It's quite possible to circumvent these, and other kitten behavior problems with a bit of careful planning, however...

How to Litterbox Train Your Kitten

Unlike dogs who can require patience and time to housetrain, cats can be litterbox trained in an instant -- as long as they have access to an acceptable litterbox. There's typically no 'training' to it; it's instinct. However, you can run into problems if you've placed the litterbox in the wrong area, or use a type of litter your kitten would rather avoid.

Just as a kitten can quickly learn to use a litterbox, she can quickly learn to use your carpet or laundry basket for her potty needs. The key is to place the litterbox in an easy-to-access location where your kitten feels safe. Avoid placing it near a busy entrance or in an area where dogs or small children have access to it.

Be sure the litterbox is easily accessible to your kitten (the sides should not be so high that she cannot climb in), free from strong scents, and clean. If your kitten seems to dislike one type of litter, try one with a different texture until you find one that she likes.

You can also experiment with adding a cover to the litterbox to determine which your kitten prefers. When you bring your new kitten home, show her where the litterbox is immediately, and she should take it from there.

One important note... if you already have a cat at home, it's best to add another litterbox. It's a good idea to have one more litterbox than your number of cats, so a two-cat household would have three litterboxes. And always keep the litterboxes clean... no one likes a dirty potty.

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How to Handle Play Aggression

Nearly half of cat owners list aggression as the primary behavior problem in their cat.3 Often, this is the result of improper handling of play aggression when the kitten is young. Play aggression is fairly typical behavior in kittens and young cats.

Hiding under furniture and jumping out to attack your foot or ankle, pouncing on your legs under the bedcovers and even wrestling with and biting your hand are all par for the course for a young cat. Normally, your kitten would get out such play aggressions with his littermates, during which he would learn when his 'play' had gone too far.

If a kitten gets too rough with his littermates, they will bite back or stop playing, teaching him that there are limits. Intense play aggression with uninhibited scratching and biting is usually seen in kittens and young cats taken early from their mothers, under-stimulated kitties, and cats without appropriate play outlets.

You can help to avoid over-aggressive play in your kitten by taking the role of his littermates; when he is about to pounce on you, hiss at him or loudly say "ouch" – then stop playing for a few minutes. If you are consistent with this, your kitten will learn the limits of play.

That being said, it's important to provide your pet with plenty of outlets for his energy as well. Providing him with a variety of toys and interaction will help him get the stimulation and activity he craves in a positive manner.

Ensuring your kitten gets ample aerobic exercise will also help balance his energy levels, often times reducing the intensity of over-aggressive play.

Teaching Your Kitten Where to Scratch

Scratching is an instinctual feline behavior. Cats do it to mark their territory with scent in their footpads as well as visually. They also scratch as a way to relieve stress, to stretch and to shed the older layers of their nails. Scratching feels good to your cat, too, which is why it's important to give her access to a variety of scratching surfaces.

When bringing home a new kitten, plan ahead. Try burlap, cardboard and carpeted scratching surfaces, placed vertically and horizontally, to see which your kitten prefers. Keep the scratchers in areas your cat frequents and enjoys, and be sure you have enough scratching areas for the number of cats in your home (like litter boxes, it's a good idea to have one more scratcher than you have cats).

Initially, you can apply catnip or attach a feather toy to make the scratching area especially attractive to your cat, and praise her when she responds to it. At the same time, discourage your cat from scratching on inappropriate surfaces by attaching foil, double-sided tape, plastic sheeting, carpet runners (with the bumpy side up) or inflated balloons to furniture or other surfaces you don't want scratched.

If you're covering surfaces you need to use frequently, like furniture, you can attach the foil, tape or plastic to pieces of cardboard and easily move them in and out of position. There are also herbal spray deterrents available that are designed to replace your pet's paw pad scent markers on furniture or other surfaces with an odor that will discourage her from returning to that spot.

Keeping kitty's nails trimmed short from the get go will also deter unwanted scratching behaviors. It's important your kitten has positive experiences with nail trims (nothing scary or painful), so ask your vet to show you how to trim her nails, or watch my video on how to do this procedure.

Understanding Teething in Kittens

Most of your kitten's permanent teeth (with the exception of four molars) will be in place by about six months of age. So if you adopt an older kitten, you probably won't have to worry much about teething. Younger kittens, however, may be irritable due to sore gums as their teeth come in.

Kittens begin to get their deciduous teeth (also known as 'milk teeth' or 'baby teeth') at about two weeks of age, a process that continues for several weeks. At about 11 weeks of age, their deciduous teeth will begin to fall out and be replaced by permanent teeth (adult cats have 30 total permanent teeth).

While your kitten is teething, his teeth and mouth will be sore, so be mindful of this. Offer soft foods and avoid playing vigorously with a toy in his mouth. You can also skip brushing your kitten's teeth during this time and even consider buying special teething rings designed for kittens. If you notice a baby tooth has remained in your kitten's mouth even though a permanent tooth has come in to replace it, see your veterinarian to determine if it should be extracted. This can cause overcrowding of teeth, as well as pain. It's also a good idea to have your veterinarian check your kitten's teeth at about six to eight months of age to be sure his permanent teeth have come in correctly.4

What to Do if Your Kitten Is Spraying

Both male and female cats spray, and this usually begins when your kitten has reached the age of sexual maturity. This may be anywhere from four months of age to just over a year. Most often, a cat sprays as a way of marking territory, although it can also be a sign of stress (due to changes in your household routine, for example, or the addition or loss of a pet, or aggression among cats). Marking behavior is testosterone-enhanced, so non-neutered males have the greatest motivation to mark.

However, females can also spray, especially when in heat, most commonly from the squatting position. Neutering and spaying will eliminate 90-95 percent of urine-marking behaviors in cats, and since spraying is also often an indication of reproductive maturity, spaying or neutering at this time will prevent an unwanted litter. Cats have an entirely different hormone cycle than dogs, and thankfully the endocrine disruption that occurs in dogs as a result of this procedure tends not to occur in cats.

Tip: Adopt a Pair of Kittens

One of the best ways to avoid many common behavioral problems in kittens is to simply adopt two kittens at once. Because kittens crave stimulation and interaction, adopting two means you have instant playmates to occupy each other's time. Remember all of that play aggression? Two kittens can 'battle' it out together, instead of using your hand, and teach each other acceptable limits. Even on an emotional and social level, kittens raised with one of their littermates (or another similarly aged kitten) tend to be better socialized and happier than those who are isolated from other kittens at an early age.5

Only you can determine if having multiple pets is right for you, but it is definitely worth carefully considering if you're intent on adopting a kitten. This also holds true if you have an older cat at home, who may not appreciate the energy of a young cat; adopting a pair of kittens may spare your older cat a lot of frustration. As PAWS Chicago noted, you needn't worry that your kittens will only bond with each other instead of you. Instead, in many cases, two kittens are far better than one:6

"Humans, even loving, caring humans, are not an adequate substitute for a cat in lieu of one of its own kind. Even if the owner is fortunate enough to be home quite a bit, the amount of attention a lone kitten will demand is likely to occupy all of the owner's waking hours at home. A pair of kittens will definitely still want to interact with the owner, but can keep each other occupied while the owner is doing such necessary tasks as working, paying bills, having telephone conversations, gardening, laundry, etc. Most cats, regardless of their age, are highly sociable and are truly happier living with other cat companions. This in turn makes them better pets, which results in happier owners."