Feline Behavior Series

Paul D. Pion DVM, DipACVIM (Cardiology) and Gina Spadafori

An Introduction to Cat Behavior

Cats are among the easiest of animals to live with as pets, which in part accounts for their massive and ever-growing appeal. Cats are naturally quiet, clean, affectionate, and largely self-sufficient, capable of adapting to any kind of dwelling, any definition of family.

But when things go wrong... they go very, very wrong from the human point of view. A cat with a behavior problem such as aggression can be a source of strife and even heartbreak in your family, with the cat the eventual loser. Other cats can ruin your belongings - covering them with the hard-to-remove stench of urine, clawing them into tatters, chewing them into bits. Your furniture isn't safe, nor are your houseplants, nor are your own hands, for some cats seem quite deranged at times, purring one minute and biting the next.

To some cat- lovers, these behaviors can seem unpredictable, unfathomable, and even spiteful, when, in fact, they're nothing of the sort. What cat-lovers call "bad" behavior often makes complete sense to a cat, who's just doing what comes naturally to him, coping with boredom, illness, stress, or change in the way cats have always done. What cat lovers call "problems" are natural behaviors to cats, as much a part of their genetic makeup as super-keen hearing or whisper-soft paws.

To solve problem behavior, you must understand problem behavior.Unfortunately, too many cat lovers don't even try to understand, reacting instead in the way that makes sense to the human animal - in anger that can start with physical punishment (which never works on a cat) and can end with a one- way trip to the shelter.

For your cat's sake and for your own, we offer alternatives to spare you both the confusion, anger, and resentment that feline behavior problems cause and to restore contentment and trust in your home - to help you reclaim the loving relationship you both deserve.

In this chapter, we help you understand what's causing your cat's unwanted behavior and show you how to set up a program to turn the situation into something you both can live with. Your cat's not perfect, and neither are you, and that's something to keep in mind as you work with behavior problems. Problems often take time to develop, and they also take time to fix. The process takes patience and a certain degree of accommodation on your part. But most cat behavior problems can be worked out to both your satisfaction. Don't give up. Read on.


The first step in solving any behavior problem is to make sure that it's not a medical problem. We can't stress this fact enough. The signs of illness in cats can be very subtle - see Chapter 9 for more information - and are often disguised as behavior problems. Talk to your veterinarian before attempting to change your pet's behavior, because your efforts will likely fail if you're working with a sick cat. This advice is doubly true if your cat's behavior change is sudden - he's likely sick, especially if you can't pinpoint any other environmental changes as a reason for the behavior change, such as a new person or pet in the home.

Your veterinarian can also guide you with your plans for changing a healthy cat's errant behavior - or refer you to a behavior specialist who can. Behavior is one of the fastest-growing areas of knowledge in veterinary medicine, a result of the profession's realization that behavior problems end up killing more animals than do diseases. This new emphasis has increased the use of drug therapy to help with behavior problems, including use of some of the same antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications used in human medicine. These medications aren't miracles, but they can give your cat a fresh start as you work to cure behavior problems.

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