If Your Cat's Behavior Is a Problem, Do More of This

Story at-a-glance -

  • Most feline behavior, good and bad, is a response to the environment we provide for our cats
  • The two biggest behavior complaints people have about their cats are eliminating outside the litterbox, and inter-cat aggression
  • Urinating outside the box is actually a different problem from pooping outside it; in either case, your first stop should be your veterinarian’s office to check for an underlying medical condition
  • There are many ways to prevent, reduce and/or extinguish inter-cat aggression; knowing how to properly introduce a new cat to an existing cat is the first step
  • Play therapy is an invaluable tool for all cats, and especially those with behavior problems

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Today’s special Cat Week guest is Dr. Marci Koski. Dr. Marci is a feline behaviorist and has her own feline behavior consulting business, Feline Behavior Solutions.

“I’ve been working with cats for a long time,” says Dr. Marci. “I love to help cats and their people resolve behavior issues. The cats, not the people! Although it often ends up crossing over into human behavior issues.”

This is so true. Often we don’t know we’re contributing to stress in the home, but humans are a source of stress in many situations.

The Top Two Behavior Problems That Plague Cat Parents

I asked Dr. Marci to talk about some of the most common feline behavior problems she consults pet parents about.

“The most common complaints by far are litterbox issues,” she replied. “Cats are either avoiding the litterbox because there’s something about it they don’t like, or they’re eliminating elsewhere in the home for some reason. A lot of times it’s medical, so we need to rule that out first.

The other big issue is inter-cat aggression. When cats aren’t getting along in the home, it causes a lot of friction between everybody in the home. It really becomes a household problem. I try to get those cats back to being friends.

I have kind of a three-phase program when it comes to litterbox problems. The first thing I always want to do have the cat checked out by a veterinarian to make sure there are no crystals in the urine, bladder infections or anything that could be causing pain. If a cat associates pain with her litterbox, she’ll avoid using it. So a veterinary checkup should always be the first step.

Second, I look at the litterbox setup. I want to know how many litterboxes are in the home. Are they big enough? Litterbox size is a huge factor for some cats. Most commercial litterboxes are too small for many cats. I recommend something like under-the-bed storage bins or utility containers with a U-shape door cut out of them so there’s enough room for cats to get in and move around comfortably, and not feel trapped in there.

Litter type is a big factor as well. Anything scented can turn your cat off. Texture is also a big deal, whether it clumps or not. I’ve found most cats prefer unscented, fine-grained clumping litter.

Litterbox placement is important as well. A lot of times people will put the box behind a baby gate or next to the washing machine that makes lots of loud, random noises, or in areas that really aren’t a part of the cat’s territory. The cat doesn’t really have any real desire to go and use that litterbox.

Cats can easily feel vulnerable in the litterbox. They can feel anxiety about being ambushed from around a blind corner or something. It’s a matter of looking at how the litterbox fits into the cat’s territory, and also making sure it’s more like the Cadillac or Rolls Royce version of a litterbox than the Portapotty version of a litterbox.

The third step is to identify stressors in the home that may be causing insecurity or conflict in the cat’s life. Reducing stress is a huge part of correcting inappropri­ate elimination once medical issues and litterbox setup problems have been ruled out.”

Urinating Outside the Litterbox Is a Different Problem Than Pooping Outside the Box

Next I asked Dr. Marci if she feels urinating outside the litterbox is a different problem from pooping outside the box.

“They do mean different things,” she says. “Lately, I’ve had a rash of people coming to me about cats that are only pooping outside the box. This behavior requires that we take a good look at stressors inside the home. Pooping outside the litterbox only occasionally can be territorial.

But I find most of the time, pooping but not peeing outside the box has a medical component to it, which could be something as simple as constipation or diarrhea. Cats won’t just stay in the litterbox and wait things out. If they’re having digestive issues, they tend to eliminate wherever they are and whenever the urge strikes.

Any loss of control can cause pooping outside the litterbox. Urinating outside the box can be caused by stress. Territorial issues can also cause it, although in that case it’s more like marking. Inappropriate elimination and marking behavior are two different things, but it never hurts to make sure your litterbox is in tiptop shape when you’re addressing a marking issue.

Often I find with cats who are urinating outside the box that it’s almost a cry for help. I’ve found there’s a lot of insecurity in those cats. They may be stressed about another cat in the household or about the relationship they have with a human family member.”

The Power of Play Therapy and the Best Way to Play With Your Cat

“I’ve always found play therapy to be super helpful in these cases,” Dr. Marci continued. “Play reduces stress. It’s just so important for cats in the home. You know, our cats are, at heart, wild carnivorous predatory beasties. We need to recognize that. When they’re just sitting at home doing nothing all day, they get bored. Boredom leads to stress and stress leads to behavior issues, like eliminating outside the litterbox.”

In my experience, dog parents engage in play with their dogs regularly. But a lot of cat guardians assume that because kitties sleep a lot, they don’t enjoy playing. I asked Dr. Marci to talk about some of her favorite ways to engage cats, espe­cially for cat owners who’ve never really thought about playing with their kitties.

“I love this question,” says Dr. Marci. “So many times I go into homes and people say, ‘My cat doesn’t play.’ And I say, ‘Your cat does play, she just might not remember how because it’s been so long.’ I bring out my toy called Da Bird. It’s a 3-foot-long wand toy with a 3-foot-long string and feathers at the end. You can change the feathers out for a realistic looking mouse lure. You can use it like a bird or a mouse, depending on the lure. Cats just go bonkers for it.

What I recommend is two play sessions a day, and work up to 10 or 15 minutes per play session. You want to get your cat running, leaping and jumping. You want to engage your cat in the prey sequence, which is staring, stalking and chasing, pouncing and grabbing, and then performing a kill bite. That will tap into his predatory instincts and let him feel like a cat.

After a play session — I usually do play sessions in the morning and in the evening close to my bedtime — you give kitty a meal. He’s had his hunt, he’s eaten, he’ll do a little grooming, and then he’ll go to sleep. Hunt, eat, groom, sleep — it’s a very natural pattern for felines.

Self-play toys, like little balls and mice and stuff, are great, but they’re not going to engage a cat in all four steps of the prey sequence. So go with an interactive wand toy twice a day. If your cat flops down like she’s really bored after a minute or so, she’s faking. She’s faking, faking, faking.

Give her about a 30-second rest and reengage her. She has fallen back into the staring part of the prey sequence. She’s trying to figure out that lure and how to get it. Don’t let her fool you. She still wants to play. Just give her a little break, and then re-engage her with the wand.”

Keeping Things Interesting for Your Cat

I asked Dr. Marci what suggestions she has for people who say their cat has grown bored with interactive toys. I don’t know if it’s the owner deciding the cat is bored, or the cat deciding not to engage. Do some cats just need a bigger toy chest than others?

“Absolutely,” Dr. Marci answered. “Younger cats tend to get bored less easily. Cats who are young and still kittenish will play with almost anything. Older cats who’ve been around the block a few times and know how to hunt and play with their toys do tend to get bored more easily.

I recommend having a number of different lures and wand toys in your toolbox. There’s another wand toy that I really like called Neko Flies. I like their lures. They’re like little bugs. There’s one called the Kattipede that my cats just go nuts over. It’s a little centipede thing with little legs.

Laser pointers are good for wearing cats out, but there’s nothing for them to bite on at the end. They’re good for exercise. I have an 8-year-old cat who still loves the laser pointer every single day. She’s addicted. Also, you can use wand toys that are like snakes, like a long ribbon of fleece. It’s good to rotate toys occasion­ally. And you can always marinate the lures in catnip to give them a little boost.”

Why You Shouldn’t Overdo the Catnip

Speaking of catnip, I asked Dr. Marci whether it’s just hit-or-miss which kitties respond to it and which don’t.

“About 80 percent of cats are affected by catnip and about 20 percent are not,” she answered. “There are other things that can engage cats not affected by catnip. Honeysuckle spray, silver vine, and valerian root are alternatives that can trigger catnip-like responses in some kitties.

But you shouldn’t rely solely on catnip for enrichment. And you have to really watch your cat’s reaction to it. Sometimes they can get aggressive, which you don’t want. It’s just kind of a personal preference in terms of what your cat likes.”

For cats sensitive to catnip (but not aggressive), I asked Dr. Marci how often it should be used. Can you overdo it? I have clients who buy it in 50-pound bags. That’s a lot of catnip.

“I’d say once a week is plenty. I recommend giving your cat a catnip bonanza, like a handful of dried catnip thrown on the floor for her to roll around in, but then vacuum it up. If you give a catnip toy here and there, that’s great. But I think overdosing cats with catnip is not a good idea, because you’re constantly stimulating them until they develop this kind of immunity towards it, and then it doesn’t affect them at all.”

Inter-Cat Aggression

This is a good place to bridge to the second issue we’re going to discuss, which is inter-cat aggres­sion. In my house I have one cat who becomes feisty on catnip. I have to be careful because when he gets some, he intentionally seeks out his brother and ambushes him.

Needless to say, his brother doesn’t enjoy this. The ambusher isn’t really being aggressive, but Crosno, the kitty who gets ambushed, isn’t interested in engaging in the same way his brother wants to when he’s amped up on catnip. I asked Dr. Marci how she counsels owners dealing with inter-cat aggression.

“There are so many different types of aggression cats can exhibit,” she explains. “And often, their humans don’t see the trigger. They just see the outcome, which is the aggression of one cat toward another.

There’s also redirected aggression, where a cat sees something outside, for example, another cat on his turf, and has no way to express his frustration with the intruder. Then one of his housemate kitties strolls through the room and says, ‘Hey, buddy,’ and the frustrated cat goes after him. That’s redirected aggression, but we might only see the end result of it in which the frustrated cat goes after his housemate.

When cats are aggressive with each other, there can be many reasons. It could be an introduction that maybe didn’t go as slowly as it should have, or it could be redirected aggression. Any number of things can trigger an aggressive episode or relationship.”

Tips for Managing Aggression Between Kitties

“If there’s a sudden and persistent change in a cat’s behavior,” explains Dr. Marci, “it’s a good idea to get him checked out by a veterinarian. If a cat isn’t feeling well, it can cause agitation and grumpiness towards other cats. Also, illness can cause a certain smell that another cat will react to and think, ‘Hey, you’re not the cat I know.’

Another thing is to just to keep an eye on the cats and try to redirect aggressive behavior. Look at the body language of the cat prone to aggression for signs like a twitching tail, direct staring, and vocalization. You want to redirect that behavior before it escalates into actual aggression towards the other cat.

What I like to do is have something that makes noise nearby, like a glass jar filled with dried beans, so it’s not loud enough to scare the cats, but loud enough to grab their attention. You make the noise and then redirect the cats toward another activity, like a play session. That’s one way of handling it.

Another way is simply to start building positive associations between the cats. You can have simultaneous play sessions in the same room, which is fun and everybody likes that, or have them each work on a food puzzle in the same room. There’s no competition; they’re doing something fun. And, of course, you want to reward them for any positive interactions they have with each other. Give them plenty of positive reinforcement.”

Introducing a New Cat to an Existing Cat

Since it’s always best to proactively prevent tension between cats, I asked Dr. Marci for suggestions on how to introduce a new cat to the household in a way that will hopefully prevent or reduce tension down the road.

“The first thing you want to try to evaluate is whether your existing cat wants a buddy,” explains Dr. Marci, “and there’s no surefire formula to figure it out. If you decide to get another cat, try to find one that matches your existing cat’s personality in terms of energy level.

If you have an older cat, you probably don’t want to get a rambunc­tious kitten. Your older kitty will just be annoyed. Look for another mellow cat. And once you decide on a second cat, I recommend a slow introduction. First, keep them completely separated. The new cat should be in a private room outfitted with everything she needs.

The first step in introducing the kitties is through smell. You’re going to be swapping their bedding. You can also do sock rubs, where you rub the cheeks of each cat with a sock and then swap the socks. Present the sock to the other cat along with treats and praise to help build a positive association. You can also let the cats swap spaces, and be sure to put some treats in both spaces.

The goal is to associate something good with the other cat’s scent. Once you’ve started building a positive association, you can start working on visual introduc­tions. The usual way to do this is to feed the cats on a regular schedule on opposite sides of a door, and also swap sides of the door.

Next, open the door just a little bit at first, for a very brief period of time, so that your cats can get glimpses of each other while they’re eating. Again, you’re building positive associations. Increase the door opening and the amount of time it’s open until your cats are eating in full view of each other.

Once that is going well, start giving them supervised playtime together, using separate toys on two different sides of the room, so they’re not competing over the same toys. You’re also using the toys as distractions from the other cat. Now the cats are in the same room together, enjoying something in the presence of the other cat, and building a positive association with each other.

Gradually, these supervised interaction times can be shortened, and unsupervised interactions can be longer. Again, reward the heck out of the cats for any positive interactions they have with each other. Introductions can be as quick as just a couple of days, or they can take weeks, sometimes even months. Some cats are highly cat-reactive, while others can peacefully coexist or even become friends.

You never want to move faster than the pace of your slowest cat. Some people would say, ‘Oh, my cats didn’t have any reaction to the socks and the treats. No reaction.’ I’m like, ‘Hey. That’s good. They may be okay with their other cat’s scent.’ We want to stay on that just a little bit longer so that we can really build up that positive association.

You certainly don’t want to move to the next step or further along in a step if your cats are growling and hissing at each other. You need to take a step back and slow things down. No moving forward until there’s no growling or hissing. You need to build up that positive association more.

In the end, it’s worth it. It can take a lot of time and lots of patience. And it can be hard when you have to keep cats separated. But in the end, patience really does pay off, so keep at it.”

Cats React to Their Environment, and We’re in Charge of That Environment

I often wonder how much humans contribute to their cats having intensified stress reactions because we’re not reading them correctly. We’re not sensitive to what’s going on with them. I asked Dr. Marci if she thinks owners are triggering or contributing to many of the behavior problems we see in cats today.

“Cats react to their environment,” says Dr. Marci. “I wouldn’t say humans are solely to blame, but cats are definitely responding to elements of their environment. I think it’s a matter of educating people about cats’ needs.

If a cat is scratching furniture, for example, he needs to scratch something. Our job is to learn how to redirect the scratching to an appropriate surface. And it’s the same type of thing with almost anything in the cat’s environment. I think it’s just a matter of educating humans about cats’ needs as wild carnivorous predators. We’ve taken cats from the outside and put them into our homes. How do we recreate what they need in our homes?”

I agree. I think that despite our best efforts, often we unintentionally fail those little wild creatures that we’re basically holding captive in our homes. We think we’re providing everything they need, but we may not be.

I am so thankful there are people like Dr. Marci who have dedicated their careers and lives to helping people have better, safer, healthier and more emotionally satisfying interactions with their cats. I hope this interview helps cat parents understand that if they have a cat with a behavior problem, the first stop is their vet’s office to rule out a medical condition.

The next step is to contact someone like Dr. Marci. Getting the help of a trained professional can mean the difference between a very satisfying, gratifying relationship with your cat, or a frustrating situation that escalates to the point that neither you nor your kitty is happy. I think using resources like the services Dr. Marci offers, is invaluable for those of us who have cats with issues. I appreciate all Dr. Marci’s hard work in helping to make felines happier and healthier living at home with us.