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Good Cat, Bad Cat

Behavior modification for your favorite feline. Getting the purr-fect cat by positive reinforcement.

Cats make great pets. Some cats are easier to train than others. Some will push the limits of ones sanity. The cat is very independent. Most cats don't make any particular effort to win your approval—they'll often wait for you to come to them rather than run around trying to catch your eye. The cat is easy going but can be difficult to train.  If you and your cat don't see eye to eye over a certain kind of behavior, you might have a hard time getting him to do things your way. However, don't give up hope—it's not completely impossible to modify your cat's behavior.  We need to work with our pets so they learn what is expected. Good and bad behaviors are learned.

A suggestion:  try to deal with one behavioral problem at a time. Too many "dos" and "don'ts" will only confuse your cat and frustrate your training attempts. Start with the most potentially hazardous problems first. Cultivate good manners in your cat.  This means finding the middle ground—in other words, what you can live with—and sticking to it. Be consistent.

We, as owners, get so preoccupied with our to do list. We get distracted and don't always address pet issues as they come up. We whirl through our busy work day perhaps thinking or hoping to get to it later. Later usually doesn't come until it's too late. Our frustration with the cats behavior pushes us to angry decisions. We discipline the cat long after the act has been done. The cat just doesn't make the connection.

Cats are predictable creatures, and biting and scratching are cause and effect behaviors. Biting and scratching behaviors in cats are often originally caused by our own human failings. The best rule of thumb is a common sense one: Never encourage any behavior you don't want to see later on, and always discourage any behavior you never want to see again.

Kittens learn biting and scratching as an important part of their development.  Play is an instinctive behavior.  Playful  biting of hands or feet can occur simply because your cat is bored, and is looking for a play object. Give him 15 minutes of active play with an interactive toy. You can make him happier and healthier by encouraging play. You have the responsibility of being his playmate.  Cat toys are fine as long as they're safe, but your cat also needs you to play with him. Play is a kind of "social glue."

One of the first rules for human companions is "do not teach your cat that hands are toys." If you ignore this advice, those tiny claws and teeth will soon grow into razor-sharp "meat hooks," and you'll bear the scars.vYou're walking down the hallway in your home, minding your own business, when suddenly your cat flings himself at your ankle, sinking in his teeth and claws, then dashes away. Who taught him the trick? Many kittens learn to use human limbs as toys, climbers, and scratching posts. Many owners are surprised to learn that they are the ones who taught their young cats these bad habits.

Never think you can get around the first rule by wearing protective gloves. There should always be some sort of appropriate cat toy between your limbs and your cat's teeth and claws. A tiny kitten may look cute climbing your pant leg or batting at your thumb, but you'll be singing a different tune when he repeats those behaviors as a full-grown cat.  When it comes to behavior problems, most cat owners don't think in terms of prevention.

The litter box:  Cats have the instinctive behavior of digging in loose materials and burying their urine and feces. As long as the litter box is the place that appeals to the cat most, that's where he'll consistently eliminate.   Of all cat behavior problems, this is the one owners complain about the most -- and with good reason. Besides the mess and damage, inappropriate elimination is unsanitary and creates an unpleasant smell in the home.  Many cats adapt to the litter box with few problems. But it's still something they have to learn, and they often need help to get the lesson right.

Litter boxes and litter should be clean, easy to find, and numerous enough. Many cats dislike using a box that another cat has recently used (even if that other cat is himself), so the rule of thumb is: The number of litter boxes in the house should equal the number of cats in the house plus one. Keep it simple. Deodorizing litters, antibacterial litters, high-tech litters are aimed at the creatures that buy the litter, not necessarily the ones that use it.

Once a cat starts eliminating outside of the litter box, do not assume he'll learn to use the box on his own. Cats habitually return to the same places to eliminate, a habit that's re-enforced by the lingering odor of urine or feces. Deny your cat access to places where he's eliminated outside the litter box. Physical barriers work well, but if that's not possible, try covering the spots with tinfoil or double-sided tape. This provides a barrier to the odor and a texture the cat won't want to walk on. If possible, consider placing a litter box directly on top of the inappropriate spot, and then gradually move the box an inch or so every few days, until it's where you want it to be.

Be your cat's personal trainer. When your cat first comes home, keep him in one room with a litter box. Once he's using that box consistently, give him the run of more rooms. Usually, this is enough to lock in the habit. However, a cat who doesn't completely get the hang of the litter box—or backslides and starts eliminating in other places—needs some additional training. Keep an eye on him, and return him to his private quarters after an hour or two. The next time you see him use the litter box, let him out again. The idea is, he only gets free run of the house when he uses the litter box. This strategy can train (or retrain) a cat to use the litter box in as little as two or three weeks—but longer isn't uncommon.   Sometimes, there is something about the location of the litter box the cat objects to. Maybe it's too far out of the way (down in a basement or up in an attic, for example) or too hard to get into or out of (especially for small kittens or elderly cats). Sometimes, air fresheners or other odors in the room will keep the cat away. Pine and citrus, for example, are pleasing smells to us but may be offensive to cats. Also, loud noises, such as a nearby stereo, may disturb your cat when he's doing his business.

A cat who suddenly begins eliminating in inappropriate places could be announcing that he doesn't feel well. You'll never make any progress on getting him to use the litter box consistently if there is  a physical cause for the unwanted behavior, get him to the vet.

Scratching: This is instinctive behavior for which many cats are declawed, lose their homes, or are even put to sleep each year. A better strategy is shaping the scratching behavior toward an acceptable object, such as a properly constructed scratching post.

The most successful, long-lasting, humane, and commonsense way to discipline a cat is positive reinforcement.  Praising and petting the cat when he uses the post and offering minor corrections (not punishments) when he's caught in the act of scratching elsewhere will help modify the behavior. Remove him from the unwanted item and take him to his scratching post.

Finicky Eaters: another feline trait. It's a learned behavior and not inborn. Cats will happily eat the same food twice a day for their entire lives, provided it's nutritionally complete and tastes good enough.

Don't teach him the habit. A lot of finicky eaters are taught to be finicky by their owners. Thinking the cat will get bored, owners stock up on a variety of foods.  If a cat walks away from a particular brand or flavor and the owner immediately opens another can, box, or bag, the cat quickly learns that finicky pays.

When to call the Vet: If a previously good eater suddenly becomes finicky your cat may have a physical problem and need veterinary care. Any cat who quits eating completely or has a loss of appetite accompanied by other symptoms of illness should be seen by the veterinarian right away.

Dealing With Cats That Knock Things Down
Most of the time, cats send things crashing to the floor in the course of vigorous play; a wild run up the front hall culminates in a ricocheting leap from floor to couch to end table, sending the intervening lamp crashing to the floor in the process. "Toying" with prey is a common behavior in feline hunters. When your cat nudges a small, stationary object with his paw, he's practicing the same behavior. Your cat's instincts tell his that paperweight or knickknack could turn out to be a mouse.  A bored cat will find his own ways to amuse himself and shoving things off high places to watch them drop is often one of them. Ample appropriate toys, climbing and hiding places to call his own. can provide him with better options.  Take temptation out of his way.  Anything that won't survive a trip from whatever surface it's on to the floor should be put somewhere else or surrounded by a cat-proof barrier.   Save yourself frustration. Remove anything breakable from the areas your kitty likes to visit.   Result:   No broken items to clean up.

Dealing With Cats That Eat Nonfoods
Every kitten has tried to eat kitty litter—and many have succeeded. Far from being a behavior problem, this is part of a cat's natural curiosity, and one of the ways a growing kitten explores his world and learns about what counts as food—and what doesn't. Other cats, however, will get a yen for strange items that don't really qualify as food, some of which may even be unsafe.  Keep temptation out of his way.   It's a good idea to consult your vet if your cat has swallowed a potentially dangerous item like a rubber band.

Dealing With Cats That Scratch Furniture
Every kind of cat has an instinctive need to scratch. Declawing does not stop scratching behavior, although it tends to reduce the amount of damage the cat can do. Your goal, then, is not to stop your cat from scratching—that can't be done—but rather to limit his scratching to the places you choose. Give him a good scratching post—or two, or three.  It should be tall enough for an adult cat to reach up and get a good stretch. It has to be sturdy enough that a 10- to 15-pound cat repeatedly pulling on it near the top won't bring it toppling over on his head. 

Put it in plain sight. Remember the last time you were looking for a particular address and none of the houses were clearly marked? You probably muttered to yourself, "Why don't they mark these things so people can see them?" Your cat's scratching damage is how he marks his territory—his address, so to speak.

Take temptation out of the way. Try to structure your cat's environment so that the scratching post is the most accessible and attractive thing to scratch on. If you're committed to a lifetime of having cats, it's probably better to outfit your home in a cat friendly manner.

Employ the spray bottle or squirt gun to correct occasional scratching in undesirable locations. Use positive reinforcement techniques to encourage your cat to use the scratching post exclusively: Dangle some toys from the top and encourage him to climb the post or bat at them; scrabble your fingertips on the fabric of the post to get his to start scratching there;  physically remove him from scratching in an inappropriate spot and place his paws in scratching position where you want him to go.

Pause for claws. Trim your cat's nails regularly to reduce his ability to inflict serious scratching damage. Practice makes perfect. You don't have to remove much nail - just the sharp tip. A weekly manicure should go a long way to reducing the sharpness of the claws. If you cut too much of the nail, it could bleed. This not only makes a mess but will teach your cat that nail trimming is painful and to be avoided at all costs.

Dealing With Skittish Cats
Shy cats can be all but invisible. Shy cats may spend most of their time out of sight. A cat that spends most of his time under the bed isn't having a good time -- and may not be getting enough food, water, or exercise.  Pay attention to the amount of food & water he is eating and make sure to check the litter box for deposits.

Try a little tenderness. Give a shy cat attention but on his own terms. Talk to him in his hiding place—perhaps even feed him if he doesn't come out to eat. Give him space, but reassure him with your words, tone of voice, and actions, and let him know you mean him no harm. Be patient. Making progress on socializing a shy cat can take weeks or months.

Don't force the issue. Let a shy cat build his confidence on his own timetable. If you try to drag him out of his safe spot and force attention on him, you may actually make him more shy—or risk being bitten or scratched. There is no law that says your cat must greet your visitors or play with the neighbor children. If he wants to be a recluse on social occasions, let him.

Dealing With Cats That Spray

Urine spraying is a specific—and not uncommon—cat behavior.

This type of behavior most often appears in unneutered young adult male cats, although any cat can display it. Alter early. Typically, male cats who are neutered before they reach full maturity (usually by the age of six or seven months) are much less likely to begin spraying. Once an intact male cat starts spraying, the habit will be hard to break—even after he's neutered. Do not count on successfully correcting urine spraying if the cat is not neutered.

Lessen the stress. Spraying is sometimes a cat's way of saying there is  too much going on. If you suspect spraying may be stress related, eliminate or reduce the sources of stress, if possible. Help him cope by making sure he gets enough attention and exercise. And be certain he has places to retreat to in your home where he can get away from it all, such as a high shelf with a comfortable blanket, a cat tree, or other piece of cat furniture.

Check it out. Except in the case of an unneutered young adult cat, if your cat suddenly begins spraying, it could be a sign of a urinary tract disease or other health problem. Spraying that starts with a physical problem can't be corrected until the physical problem is put right.

If your cat sprays even once, contact your vet. This isn't a behavior you want to continue, and if there is a physical reason—or it's time for a male kitten to be neutered—you want to get it taken care of before the behavior becomes a permanent habit.

While cats can make wonderful companions, they can also be a real headache. If your cat has an annoying habit that is driving you up the wall, hopefully you learn how to handle it.  By having cats in our home, it's important to be flexible and realistic in our expectations.   Punishment often has a reverse effect on cats.   Cats do not accept hierarchy from people. You are not their master, just a roommate.    You cannot monitor their behavior 24 hours a day. So take it easy on yourself and on your four legged family member. Adjust - Adjust - Adjust...

Indoor Cats vs. Outdoor Cats

Like many cat lovers, you may have thought about letting your cat go outside. A lot of cat owners feel guilty about keeping their cat inside, and worry that they are depriving their cat of natural instincts or fresh air and sunshine. 

If you do decide to let your cat outside,  protect your kitty from other cats. Keep him on a leash or secured in a cage or other confined space where he can’t get out (and other cats can’t get in). Make sure an adult supervises your kitty’s outdoor time to ensure strays cannot come into contact with him. Take him to the veterinarian at least once every year for lifesaving vaccines, as well as parasite screening and treatment.

Other Outdoor Safety Concerns:   Cars; Animal Cruelty (some people have been known to shoot cats with BB guns or arrows, while some cats end up being trapped, abused and killed in the name of “sport” or “for fun.”).  Cats are commonly attacked by animals.   Injuries from animal attacks are very serious and often fatal.

Toxins and poisons: Outside cats also face danger from coming into contact with toxins, such as antifreeze, that are often ingested because they have a pleasant taste. Cats may also end up accidentally exposed to rodent poisons when they hunt and eat rodents that have recently ingested poison bait.

Trees: Trees can be a source of some danger for cats who climb to a place where they are afraid or unable to climb down. In some cases, they may be up in a tree for days until they become so severely dehydrated and weak that they fall and suffer severe, serious or fatal injuries.  Everything that goes up, doesn't necessarily come down.

References & Resources: Natural Instincts of Cats; Animal Planet, Understanding Cat Behavior; Cat Pregnancy Report - Prepare Yourself for that Kitten; Kress, Steve (2008). Audubon Living: Cats. Audubon Magazine, November-December; About Cats.com.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Angela Lauterbach February 08, 2012 at 12:47 AM
We taught our cars to sit before they can have treats.
Shirley Taggart February 08, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Hi Angela - You have very lucky cats. Have there been any behavior issues you have had success with and if so what did you do? Thanks Shirley

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