Top 10 Challenges

Helpful BEHAVIOR Links

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.

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. 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. Experts also recommend learning to speak cat—let out a hiss or a sharp “eek” to communicate that the behavior hurts. And always have plenty of chew toys on hand. Best to not use your hands as toys ever.  Wand toys are good substitutes and work well for playing with energetic kitties.



Litter Box Problems

At least 10% of all cats develop elimination problems. Some stop using the box altogether. Some only use their boxes for urination or defecation but not for both. Still others eliminate both in and out of their boxes. Elimination problems can develop as a result of conflict between multiple cats in a home, as a result of a dislike for the litter-box type or the litter itself, as a result of a past medical condition, or as a result of the cat deciding she doesn’t like the location or placement of the litter box.



Urine Marking

Urine marking isn’t a litter box problem—it’s a communication problem.  Urine marking is a form of indirect communication used by cats. Animal species who live in social groups in which the members depend on each other for survival have sophisticated interpersonal communication. Particularly animals who can cause significant harm to each other—like dogs—have developed a social mechanism for preventing conflict through interpersonal ranking. They are prepared to assume either a leadership or deference position, and they can read another animal’s body language to interpret his intentions and react accordingly. But cats have a somewhat unique social structure in that they do not hunt, eat or sleep in groups like dogs. Given the opportunity, cats go off on their own when they mature and claim certain areas or territories for themselves.



Destructive Scratching

Cats like to scratch. They scratch during play. They scratch while stretching. They scratch to mark territory or as a threatening signal other cats. And because cats’ claws need regular sharpening, cats scratch on things to remove frayed, worn outer claws and expose new, sharper claws. All this scratching can cause a lot of damage to furniture, drapes and carpeting!



Aggression Between Cats

(in your household)

There are several reasons that cats might not get along. The most common is undersocialization—a lack of pleasant experiences with other cats early in life. If your cat grew up as the only cat, with little or no contact with other felines, he may react strongly when he’s finally introduced to another cat because he’s afraid of the unknown, he lacks feline social skills, and he dislikes the disruption to his routine and environment.



Aggression in Cats

To understand aggressive behavior problems in cats and how they can be classified in different ways. A good way to understand why your cat is aggressive is to think about the function or purpose of the aggression. If you consider all the reasons why cats behave aggressively, you can determine what motivates your cat to do so and identify what he/she might gain from the behavior.



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.


Meowing and Yowling

The cat’s meow is her way of communicating with people. Cats meow for many reasons—to say hello, to ask for things, and to tell us when something’s wrong. Meowing is an interesting vocalization in that adult cats don’t actually meow at each other, just at people. Kittens meow to let their mother know they’re cold or hungry, but once they get a bit older, cats no longer meow to other cats. But they continue to meow to people throughout their lives, probably because meowing gets people to do what they want. Cats also yowl—a sound similar to the meow but more drawn out and melodic. Unlike meowing, adult cats do yowl at one another, specifically during breeding season.



Older Cats with Behavior Issues

As they age, cats often suffer a decline in functioning, including their cognitive functioning. It’s estimated that cognitive decline—referred to as feline cognitive dysfunction, or FCD—affects more than 55% of cats aged 11 to 15 years and more than 80% of cats aged 16 to 20 years. Memory, ability to learn, awareness, and sight and hearing perception can all deteriorate in cats affected with FCD. This deterioration can cause disturbances in sleeping patterns, disorientation or reduced activity. It can make cats forget previously learned habits they once knew well, such as the location of the litter box or their food bowls. It can increase their anxiety and tendency to react aggressively. It can also change their social relationships with you and with other pets in your home. Understanding the changes your cat is undergoing can help you compassionately and effectively deal with behavior problems that may arise in her senior years.



Jumping on Countertops & 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.


Snacking on House Plants

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.


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.”