What is Your Cat Trying to Tell You?

By Katie McHenry

Every year in the United States, millions of animals enter shelters or are abandoned on the streets when their guardians relinquish them for various reasons, including behavioral issues. Sadly, SPCA of Northern Virginia receives numerous calls and emails each year from guardians looking to surrender their cats. According to the ASPCA, 70 percent of cats will be euthanized due to shelter overcrowding. For a country as wealthy as the United States, this is hard to comprehend, and in most cases, not necessary. In this issue, we are highlighting some of the most common feline behavioral issues and how to address them.

What Your Cat Needs

What many cat guardians don’t understand is that most  behavioral issues can be addressed. While some habits will take longer to break, others can be fixed overnight. The key to understanding the cause of behavioral issues is addressing the cat’s needs. While it might seem obvious, sometimes people forget their companion animals are not humans. One theory suggests cats began domesticating themselves about 9,000 years ago, but the fact remains they are still animals with strong instincts originating in the wild.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that adopting a cat is a lifelong commitment, unless there is a genuinely unfixable  issue that makes the cat incompatible with a guardian’s home environment. Sometimes, rehoming a cat is the right decision, and in these cases, although shelters or rescue organizations may be able to provide assistance, it’s the guardian’s responsibility to find their cat a new home rather than passing on this responsibility to someone else. Thankfully, cat behaviorists, such as Animal Planet’s Jackson Galaxy of My Cat from Hell, are helping to raise awareness about animal behavioral issues and various ways to address them. Following are some common issues we can help you with.

Litter Box Issues

According to Cats International, the number one reason for a cat’s refusal to use a litter box is that it’s dirty. Guardians must remember to scoop the litter box at least once daily (twice a day is strongly recommended and necessary if you have multiple cats). Additionally, the standard rule for litter boxes is one per cat plus one, especially if you live in a multi-level home. If you have two cats and two litter boxes, and one of the cats refuses to use the litter box, try adding one extra to see if that solves the problem.

Sometimes, a cat will object to the type of litter being used. If you’re currently using a scented litter and find that your cat refuses to use the litter box, try an unscented kind. Additionally, a declawed cat might begin avoiding the litter box due to chronic pain from severing nerve endings (just one of many reasons SPCA NOVA staunchly opposes declawing). If that’s the case, try a non-clay type of litter, such as a wheat or paper-based kind. Another potential reason for litter box avoidance could be the litter box location: if the litter box is in a high-traffic or noisy area, such as the laundry room, a cat might feel uncomfortable “doing their business” there. Generally, cats prefer quiet and privacy when using the litter box, so if your cat isn’t using theirs,
try moving the location.

Additionally, in nature, cats spray urine to mark their territory, and this behavior can exist even in indoor-only cats. First, make sure your cat is spayed/neutered to lessen your cat’s desire to mark their territory to attract a mate or scare off a rival. Ideally, this is done before they fully mature around five months of age, or as soon as you have taken in an unaltered stray cat. Cats might also decide to mark their territory in the event that a new animal, especially another cat, enters the home, and indoor-only cats might still spray if they see a cat outside through a window. Spraying behaviors can be reduced with pheromones, such as Feliway, or by preventing your cat from seeing the intruder outside (closing the blinds, turning on the outside sprinkler to keep the other cat away, etc.).

Finally, urinating outside the litter box could indicate a serious health issue, such as crystals in the urine or a urinary tract infection. In this instance, your cat should see a vet immediately to determine the underlying cause and treat it with medication and/or diet.

Scratching Appropriately

First and foremost, there is never a need to declaw your cat. Declawing is a painful, potentially crippling mutilation akin to amputating a human’s fingertips at the first joint. A set of cat nail clippers costs as little as $10, or, if you’re not comfortable trimming your cat’s nails, you can either take them to the groomer or have a mobile groomer come to you!

It’s important to know that scratching is a natural behavior that shouldn’t be discouraged. Instead, it should be appropriately redirected, and cats should be praised for scratching in a desired location. Keep in mind, when training animals, rewarding good behavior – positive reinforcement – is more effective than attempting to punish “bad” behavior. Simply put, punishment doesn’t work because your cat won’t understand why you are punishing them.

If your cat is scratching your furniture, make sure you have the right type of scratching surface to offer as a distraction. In nature, cats scratch trees, so a safe bet is a cardboard-based corrugated scratcher. Additionally, some cats prefer to reach up vertically as they scratch – scratching provides a chance to stretch as well as mark their territory – so consider a three- or four-sided corrugated box scratcher.

You can also use catnip to entice your cat to use a scratcher, or use a double-sided sticky tape to cover surfaces you don’t want your cat to scratch, such as Sticky Paws that you can find at PetSmart and Petco. Now, if your cat is scratching you, that could be a sign of something else: play aggression.

Play Aggression

A young, rambunctious cat needs an outlet for all their energy: if they don’t receive the stimulation they need, they might take out that pent-up energy on you! Play aggression comes in the form of biting hands, attacking feet and ankles, and otherwise leaving bites and scratches on various parts of your body.

The best way to handle play aggression is to make sure your cat has plenty of interactive toys, such as a Da Bird pole, which has a feather attached to a string at the end of a long pole to simulate avian movement, or a Go Cat Catch Teaser Wand, which is a pole with a flexible wire and mouse toy that mimics a rodent’s movements. It’s important that you play with your cat every day! Doing so ensures they receive the exercise and stimulation they crave.

One of SPCA’s cats, Biscuit, suffered from“play aggression” when he first arrived at his foster mom’s house. He attacked her feet every morning when she got out of bed, tried to jump into the shower with her, bit and scratched her hands when she tried to pet him, and generally made her home life miserable for the first few weeks. SPCA realized these were classic signs of “play aggression” and knew the remedy was that Biscuit needed a feline buddy. However, the catch was that Biscuit is FIV positive, and SPCA wasn’t sure how he’d respond to another cat. So while we waited for the right match to come along, we turned to Companion Animal Behavior for help.

The behaviorist ensured that the foster mom began using the correct interactive toys to keep Biscuit stimulated and work off his energy. She also agreed that Biscuit needed a feline buddy. Luckily, not long after Biscuit’s foster mom began using Companion Animal Behavior’s techniques, SPCA took in another FIV positive cat named Ozzy. It was amazing how quickly Biscuit and Ozzy bonded, becoming best buddies in no time. Between ensuring Biscuit received the proper exercise and introducing him to a play buddy, Biscuit’s issues virtually disappeared overnight!

New Baby Concerns

Some couples choose to give away their cats when they’re expecting a new baby, but the truth is that it’s not necessary. Pregnant women are told to avoid scooping cat litter for fear of toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by a parasite (Toxoplasma gondii) which can be found in the feces of a cat who has ingested it, usually by eating a rodent or bird carrying the parasite. However, toxoplasmosis is more difficult to catch than one  might believe, and if your cat is indoor-only, it’s even less likely they are a Toxoplasma gondii carrier.

The parasite becomes infectious in cat stools only between one and three days after being eliminated from the cat’s system. So in order to avoid infection, you can wear gloves while scooping, ask your partner to scoop the litter, thoroughly wash your hands after scooping and, most importantly, scoop the litter box at least once a day!

To prepare for the baby’s arrival, set up baby furniture as soon as possible and allow your cat to explore before making the furniture off-limits, about a month ahead of the due date. You can also play audio files of a crying baby to accustom your cat to the noise they will hear in the near future, and apply baby powder or baby lotion to your hands before petting or  playing with your cat so that they get used to these new scents.

Once the baby has arrived, take a used blanket or article of clothing and allow your cat to inspect it by scent in a quiet place. To keep your cat off the baby furniture, you can use a double-sided tape like Sticky Paws, and consider keeping the door to the nursery closed when the baby is sleeping (assuming you have a baby monitor in the room).

Don’t Give Up

Despite what some people might think, cats don’t bite out of anger or claw your furniture because they’re mad at you; they are animals whose behavior is based on instinct. For the vast majority of feline behavioral issues, there is an answer – it’s just a matter of understanding your cat’s behavior and finding the right solution.

So please don’t give up too quickly or decide that giving up your cat is the right choice. Sadly, there are not enough homes for all the cats who need them. Taking your cat to a shelter could mean your cat will be euthanized when all that’s needed is for you to understand what your cat is trying to tell you.

You can find additional feline behavioral resources at various online resources, and SPCA NOVA lists a few resources at www.spcanova.org/health/felinehealth.php. Additionally, if you’re considering giving up your cat for a behavior-related issue, please contact us at information@spcanova.org to see if we can offer suggestions for resolving the issue.

Lyra enjoys her condo with sisal scratching posts. Cats don’t scratch out of anger or malice. It’s a natural behavior that should be encouraged in appropriate locations.
Goldie and Scout play together, providing both with exercise and appropriate stimulation.
Biscuit and Ozzy hang out together. Biscuit was pretty aggressive with his foster mom when she first took him in. The solution included directed play time and adding Ozzy to her household as a play companion.
Nala is learning to adjust to her new human brother.