So you’ve got a problem…?
Living with cats can, and should, be a very positive experience with both human and cat benefiting from the relationship. However, occasionally we will encounter a problem or become aware of a situation in our cat’s life that is less than perfect.
Cats are adaptable creatures but sometimes a particular lifestyle or social situation will put them under pressure. Cats are ill-equipped to express their concerns openly (it doesn’t pay for a cat to wear its heart on its sleeve) and they internalise their stresses in order to avoid the risk of appearing vulnerable. This makes it a real challenge for the owner to establish that a problem exists as, when viewed at any given time, their cat looks perfectly normal. However, the clues are always there: the cat starts to sleep under the bed instead of on top of it or it goes outside less and takes ages to leave the house before doing so. Sometimes the only sign may be that the cat is just sleeping a lot more.
Changes in the pattern of behaviour and normal daily routines are the first sign of something being wrong and, if the issue remains unaddressed, the cat will reach a level of chronic stress that requires more demonstrative action. It will then behave in a way that looks, to the uneducated eye, dirty, bad, ill-tempered or downright inappropriate. To the perceptive cat owner, this will be seen for what it is: a cry for help.
This is the time to seek advice and establish the root of the problem as stress of this kind for a cat rarely goes away on its own. Problem behaviour can often wax and wane though and there is a temptation to presume, each time, that it is gone for good. If unacceptable or unexplained behaviour continues, on a daily basis or sporadically, for a couple of months then the best advice for any owner is to take a deep breath and tackle it at that point.
What constitutes problem behaviour in cats?
Your cat’s ‘problem’ behaviour will always be based on your own subjective assessment and perception of what constitutes a problem and what feels wrong. This may be something as vague as a sense that “he’s not himself” or maybe you’ve noticed your cat’s routine and patterns of behaviour have changed suddenly.
However, the majority of the behaviours that owners seek advice about have been misinterpreted by them as ‘bad behaviour’, such as house soiling or aggression. In reality, the majority of these behaviours will be perfectly normal for the species but are being performed in a location or circumstance that is unacceptable for the owner. For example, it is perfectly normal for cats, under stress or in situations of conflict, to spray urine as a form of communication. It is not, however, acceptable to an owner for the cat to spray urine on electrical equipment or curtain inside the house.
Occasionally the behaviour that is objectionable is actually something that the cat has been taught by the owner, albeit unintentionally. An example of this would be the kitten that is encouraged to play roughly with the owner’s hand. However, because it is seen as fun and while the kitten is small it is not too painful, no attempt is made to interrupt the game when the biting becomes too intense and therefore the kitten grows into a cat that doesn’t know how to inhibit behaviour during play. This cat may even end up being labelled as ‘aggressive’.
Although behaviour may relate to purely emotional issues or normal behaviour for the species, many of the same behaviours can occur as a direct result of a medical condition. Some medical conditions can cause unusual and sometimes bizarre behaviour that would not be considered normal for the species. Chronic pain or painful associations with handling may cause a cat to behave defensively, leading to displays of fear-related aggression. This may also be directed at other cats in response to an underlying sense of vulnerability due to illness. Diseases and conditions such as osteoarthritis and hyperthyroidism, for example, can be associated with aggression, and cystitis can be associated with house soiling.
Problem behaviour with a physical cause usually resolves when the condition or disease is treated successfully. If the problem relates to behaviour considered normal for the species or has occurred as a result of an emotional or psychological issue then assessment and treatment by a behaviour specialist is required. Some conditions require both medical and behavioural intervention, for example feline idiopathic cystitis.
When you do seek help it should be from your vet – do-it-yourself solutions can be found on the internet or in books but appreciating which sites are reputable and what advice is relevant can be difficult to help you with the basics. Search our behaviour section for information about the most common ‘problem’ behaviours. However, it is always advisable to go to your vet first to rule out any medical cause.
Your vet will be able to give you the best possible help if you can provide as much history as possible that relates to the problem: when and where it started, any possible triggers, how frequently it occurs and how it has progressed to its current level. If the behaviour is something that you can video then a short piece of film, even taken on your phone, may be useful to show your veterinarian exactly what you are describing.