Behavioral Problems in Cats (or Kittens)
Pediatric behavior problems refer to undesirable behaviors exhibited by kittens between birth and puberty. It is important to address this as early as possible, because behaviors acquired during this age range may be difficult to change later. Preventative measures to avoid such behaviors are essential, as kittens are very vulnerable to physiological and environmental influences.
The most common problems are related to play, fearfulness, defensive aggression, and elimination (i.e., urinating and defecating in the house, also known as house-soiling). While there are no breeds known to be especially inclined to certain behavioral issues, there may be some genetic factors, as it is believed that parental influence may increase the odds of fearfulness in kittens.
Symptoms and Types
Issues involving play may include increased roughness, such as fully extended claws and increased biting. Fear and defensive behavioral problems may include hiding, fleeing, and aggression. These behaviors are characterized by hissing, flattening the ears, and dilated pupils. Elimination problems refer to a problem with litter-box use, including house-soiling, urinating or defecating in the house, or in other unsuitable areas.
While many behavior problems in kittens are species-typical, there are some causes that can worsen behavioral issues, many of them related to treatment by people, or to the kitten’s general environment. One cause for over aggressiveness, such as attacking people, may be an absence of other outlets for play. For example, an orphaned, hand-reared kitten that has had no other cats to play with will lack the social skills it would have learned though pretend aggression play with its litter mates. Rough play may also be inadvertently encouraged due to the kitten being teased by people. Likewise, fear and defensive behavior problems may be the result of rough handling by people, often related to correction techniques (e.g., if a person spanks, shocks, yells at, hits, or chases the kitten).
Diagnosis is often largely based on a historical examination of the patient’s past behavior, because a physical examination is generally normal and will reveal nothing out of the ordinary. Some behaviors may be examined by testing your kitten’s reactions to various stimuli. One test may include a urine analysis, as extremely frightened kittens may have elevated levels of glucose and other specific substances in their urine. If a serious issue with the nervous system is suspected, further diagnostic tests will be necessary.
Any behavioral problems in kittens aside from those that might stem from a serious neurological problem (which is unlikely) can be treated at home. Medication should not be necessary, except in rare cases of extreme anxiety. Specific measures that should be undertaken depend on the behavior exhibited by your kitten.
If aggressive play directed towards people is an issue, the most effective treatment is to acquire an additional kitten for your kitten to play with. Do not hit, kick, or snap the kitten on the nose, as this often elicits more aggressive behavior. Trimming the claws can help reduce damage to people and objects. If your kitten is exhibiting aggressive behavior toward other cats in the household, it might help to take a more proactive role with your kitten. Daily interactive play, using stimulating toys or objects that move, is advised. Toys on strings can entice the kitten to play peacefully.
If your kitten is exhibiting fearful and defensive behaviors, it should be exposed to people gradually, and generally kept in a calm environment. Most importantly, let your kitten make the advances -- avoid scaring it by attempting to hold it if it does not want to be held, or continuing to hold it if it is uncomfortable. If fearful or defensive behaviors are a result of early trauma, the stimulus responsible for eliciting the fearful behavior should be identified.
Modification of handling techniques, such as punishment methods, is imperative. Your veterinarian can recommend behavior modification techniques that will not harm the kitten, or cause further psychological damage.
Living and Management
Make any necessary environmental changes, as recommended by your veterinarian. A healthy diet is also a good plan for ensuring normal development and behavior.
A check-in with your veterinarian to report improvement, or lack thereof, can be conducted over the phone, or during subsequent visits.
Behavioral problems can be prevented. Kittens should be exposed to positive experiences with people when they are between the ages of three to seven weeks, and owners with children should prohibit roughhousing with kittens. Avoid punishing your kitten, as this can lead to fear, anxiety, and defensive aggressive behavior. Consult your veterinarian for proper training and handling techniques for young cats if you are in doubt.