9 Common Cat Behavior Problems
By Monica Weymouth
Cats are notoriously mysterious creatures. While a dog aims to please, our feline friends have a more curious agenda.
We love that cats play by their own rules, but it would be nice to understand some of their less endearing behaviors. Why are they suddenly boycotting the litter box? Why is the new couch so irresistible? Why is your glass of water a gourmet delicacy? Here, the experts explain common kitty behavior problems—and how to fix (most of) them.
Going Outside the Litter Box
Unlike puppies, kittens are easy to house train—show them the litter, and you’re pretty much done. That said, problems can arise down the line. Once you consult with your veterinarian to rule out any underlying health problems, it’s time to take a good look at your litter. How clean is it? Clean enough to meet a cat’s exacting standards?
“Cats hate dirty toilets, just like we do,” says Amy Shojai, author and certified animal behavior consultant. “Keep it clean by scooping at least daily, and follow the one-plus-one rule for litter boxes: one box per cat, plus one.”
You also want to make sure the litter is in a nice, private place—again, human bathroom preferences apply here—and that the box is roomy enough. Shojai cautions that most commercial litter boxes are on the small side, and suggests using larger plastic storage bins if kitty is going next to the box.
Still not having any success? Try switching up the litter—your go-to brand could be irritating your cat, or simply not meeting his expectations.
Napping on Clean Laundry
There’s nothing more irresistible to a cat than a nice pile of clean, warm laundry. You can try introducing additional fluffy cat beds to your home, but at the end of the day, this is a battle you likely won’t win. Cats are creatures of comfort, and fresh laundry is the epitome of comfort. “It could be worse—dogs love dirty laundry and carrying it around,” reasons Shojai. “Management of the space is probably the easiest way to prevent laundry interlopers. I'm a big fan of baby gates to shut off areas of the house and control access.”
Scratching at Furniture
A new sofa can be a source of anxiety for those with a feline roommate. Textured, tall, and stable furniture is the perfect scratching destination for cats, so the trick is to mimic it and provide more attractive scratching options.
“Choose a couple of cat scratching posts that are tall enough and on a platform that prevents them from moving,” advises Debbie Winkler, a certified animal behavior consultant. “Cats also like to scratch horizontally, so provide both horizontal and vertical opportunities and be sure they are tall and long enough for the cat to really stretch and scratch.” When kitty uses the post, provide a reward.
Covering the couch edges with a throw blanket can also be helpful. If all else fails, you can ask your veterinarian to place rubber/silicone-based covers over your cat’s nails. This will allow your cat to continue to go through the motions of scratching, without damaging the furniture. (The product lasts from two weeks to one month.)
Snacking on Houseplants
While not as tempting as a fish tank, your houseplants still have snacking potential—in the wild, even carnivorous cats have the occasional side salad. Always choose plants that are non-toxic to cats, and then plan a line of defense. (Take a look at ASPCA’s toxic and non-toxic plants list.) Shojai recommends adding pinecones to the planters (cats don’t like the texture) or using double-sided tape that makes rooting through plants less enjoyable. Or, provide some designated cat plants—a pot of easily accessible catnip or wheatgrass will likely spare your ferns.
Jumping on Counters and Tables
You know where those paws have been, and you don’t want them near your food. Unfortunately, cats like to explore, so if your table or counter is their only chance to get a bird’s-eye view of the room, they’ll take it. If possible, Winkler recommends providing a space that is counter height, near a window and has a smooth surface for rolling around in the sun—essentially, the ideal cat lookout point. You can also place clear vinyl carpet runners on the table when not in use—the nubby underside is not comfortable to walk, nap, or land on, so your cat will find better accommodations.
Nibbling on Fingers
It’s cute at first, but kitten finger-nibbling can eventually be painful—and remember, kittens (and their teeth) get bigger.
“One of the best teachers is another cat,” says Shojai. “Mom-cat and siblings are quick to teach kittens that biting hurts. When a kitten has no playmate, they're much more likely to turn your ankles and hands into attack-targets, so it's often a good idea to adopt kittens in pairs.”
Shojai also recommends learning to speak cat—let out a hiss or a sharp “eek” to communicate that the behavior hurts. And always have plenty of legal chew toys on hand.
Morning Wake-Up Calls
A hungry cat is an impatient cat, and that can be a problem on Saturday morning. Winkler’s solution takes some dedication, but if this annoying habit is your cat’s calling card, you know it’s well worth it.
Start by setting an alarm clock a few minutes before your cat usually awakens you, and offer him a small amount of wet food when it sounds. Every couple days, set the alarm a few minutes later, until it goes off at the time you’d like to get up. “Gradually, the cat will learn that the sound of the alarm predicts the food, and instead of the cat awakening you, the clock will be the cue that food is forthcoming,” explains Winkler.
You can also invest in an automatic cat feeder to help alleviate this problem.
Drinking from Your Water Glass
If you share a home with a cat, you’re likely wary of any unattended glass of water. Not only do cats enjoy splashing their paws in water, but like us, they prefer their drink to be as fresh as possible. The best way to keep your own glass clean is to make kitty’s water even cleaner. “I have three water fountains available at all times now—fountains circulate and oxygenate the water, making it taste better, and cats are attracted to the movement,” says Shojai. “You can also provide a bowl of water at convenient spots throughout the house.”
If your cat has suddenly become very vocal, a visit to your veterinarian is in order. But if no health problems are present, your excessively chatty cat probably just wants to spend some quality time with his favorite human. When you’re home, Winkler recommends having your cat chase a lure for five minutes every couple of hours. Once playtime is over, feed him a teaspoon of wet food—cats groom after eating, and tend to snooze after grooming. He’s expended energy, you get some peace and quiet, and everyone wins.