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Step One: Determine The Roots Of Your Cat’s Behavioral Problems

April 6, 2013

This is part of a multi-step series on how to change unwanted cat behaviors. Click here to learn more.

Think back to how you reacted the last time your cat did something you disliked.

Photo courtesy mr_fox.

Odds are, especially if you caught him in the act, you shouted, shooed him away, or even removed him from the situation gently and gave him a kiss. To us, those responses make sense – you’re trying to forcefully or gently tell your cat that he’s doing something you don’t want him to do.

The problem? Those reactions won’t change his behavior. In fact, they may enforce the behavior.

Many cat owners need to have a change in thinking (myself included!). We need to come up with a game plan so we know how to appropriately respond to our cat when he’s engaging in unwanted behavior. In order to have a game plan, we first need to get to the root of the behavior to find out why our cat thinks it’s something worthy of his time.

This step is absolutely essential. I think sometimes we view our cats’ motives as we would our own – like thinking that our cat is mad at us when he scratches our favorite chair – but that’s not the case. There can be many factors behind a behavior. Here are some:

Medical Problems

Sometimes a behavior can be attributed to a serious health issue. A sudden change in personality or behavior could be a sign of a potential medical problem, especially if there’s no clear catalyst (like your friend’s kids visiting and scaring your cat). Document the behavioral changes and take your cat in to your vet for a check-up.

Medical issues can change behavior over time, too. From Tree House Humane Society’s website:

Photo courtesy supafly.

“Keep in mind that even behavior problems that reveal themselves more slowly also can be the result of a medical issue. For example, your older cat may become less tolerant of the other cats in your household because of a serious health concern, such as kidney disease. Your older cat may not want to appear weak in front of your other cats, so instead of playing and cuddling as she once did, your older cat becomes aggressive toward her feline roommates.

Additionally, behavior issues also can become medical problems. A cat who is fearful of another cat in the household may be too afraid to come out to eat and drink or may not feel safe going into the litter box. Not eating or drinking enough, or holding her bladder for long periods of time, can quickly become a medical problem.”

I know recommending a trip to your vet is certainly easier said than done. But the fact of the matter is your cat’s unwanted behavior could be triggered by a health issue, and there’s no definite way to find out other than speaking to your vet.

Once you’ve ruled out medical conditions, you can look into these three other factors, and come up with appropriate solutions to help change your cat’s undesired behaviors.


Sometimes we get frustrated with our cats simply because they’re behaving like – you guessed it – cats.

Often a cat’s basic instincts are the root of an undesired behavior. For example, a cat who attacks your feet while you sleep isn’t doing it because she’s mad at you, rather she’s doing it because it’s her nature to hunt and play.

Similarly, sometimes our preferences don’t mesh with our cats’ instincts and preferences. We may place our cats’ food and water dishes or litter boxes in locations that best suit our needs, but those locations may make our cats feel too exposed or unsafe, which may lead to undesired behaviors like going to the bathroom outside of the box.


Photo courtesy Malingering.

Cats are incredibly territorial creatures, and it’s this strong sense of being in control of their space that can also be the root of some behavior problems.

It’s very important for our cats to have their own space and feel safe. Consequently, if something within their territory changes and they dislike it, they may act out in response.

Territorial changes, like moving your cat’s bed or buying new furniture, can stress some cats out. Plus other differences, like unusual loud noises (construction, someone walking down stairs loudly, kitchen noises, loud music), can also scare  your cat and make him feel unsafe.

Additions to your home, like new family members including other cats, dogs, and even people, can also be upsetting to a cat.

Sometimes instincts and territorial feelings mix to create undesired behaviors. For example, if your cat sees another cat outside, she may begin spraying in your home as an attempt to protect and mark what’s hers.


Lastly, we can’t forget that each of our cats has his or her own personality. Like us, their personality may be a result of several factors including life experience and genetic makeup.

Photo courtesy fermicat.

Some cats are naturally in-your-face cats who love being near people, and others are more reserved and appreciate their own space.

Some cats have very alpha or dominant personalities, which may be result in hissing or swatting at another cat to keep him in line. It’s important to acknowledge that sometimes an unwanted behavior (like swatting at other cats) is simply your cat’s personality.

But don’t give up hope! There are many things you can do to try to change your cat’s behavior. Stay tuned over the next few days to find out what you can do to help discourage unwanted behaviors and encourage others.

Introduction: Unwanted Cat Behaviors? Here Are The Steps You Can Take

Step Two: Provide Options & Remove Problems (4/10)

Step Three: Ignoring & Encouraging Behaviors (4/14)

Bonus: More Solutions for Demanding Cats (4/18)

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