Behavioral Concerns

We get many calls at OAR from people who are frustrated by behavioral issues in their cats. This sometimes leads to pet owners relinquishing their pets to shelters. In an effort to help keep cats in their homes and out of overcrowded shelters, we have offered some tips on how to address common cat issues.

Peeing Outside the Litterbox
If your cat has reliably used the litterbox and suddenly stopped, there is probably a good reason for it. The first thing to rule out with litterbox issues is medical concerns. Peeing outside the litterbox is the primary symptom of urinary tract infections - so your first step should be to take your cat to the vet to be checked for any medical problems.

Know the difference between peeing and marking territory! If the cat is spraying, or marking territory, it's typically a mating behavior. Make sure your cat is fixed - this typically clears up that behavior. Cats should be fixed before they reach sexual maturity (4-6 months old) to avoid this behavior arising in the first place.

If the cat does not have a urinary tract problem and is already spayed/neutered, think about any changes you might have made in their environment to upset their balance. Have you added a new pet or human to the home? Have you changed the type of litter they're using, or moved their litterboxes? Have you changed their diet? Small changes in a cat's environment or routine can upset them, and this is one way they might clue you in to their disapproval!

Here are some tips to help your cat re-learn to use the box:

  • The rule of thumb for litterboxes is to make sure you have as many litterboxes as you have cats, plus one. So if you have 3 cats, you should have 4 litterboxes. Don't have enough? Try adding more, and see if that helps.
  • Your cat might just be tidy! Try cleaning the litterbox more often than you are. Just like people, cats don't want to use a dirty bathroom! With multiple cats, scoop the boxes twice a day.
  • If you use scoopable litter, make sure you dump the litter and clean the boxes out regularly. Repeatedly adding new litter on top of old may mask odors for you, but not your cat!
  • Remember that plastic holds smells - think about tupperware that you've had onions in! If your boxes are old, it might be time to buy a few new ones.
  • Make sure that the litterboxes are in a quiet, safe place for the cat. If the cat is disturbed by your kids, loud noises, foot traffic, or other animals while they're using the boxes, they'll choose a different spot in the house (where they feel safe!) to relieve themselves. If the cat is peeing in the same spot (outside the box) every time, try placing a box in that spot.
  • If you can, put litterboxes on each level of the home.
  • The cat may dislike the feel or smell of the litter you're using. Try a new litter. If you're using scented, try unscented; if you're using clay, try a paper- or pine-based litter. But remember, especially if you have mutliple cats, to leave all the old options in place, too - you don't want to disrupt any other cats' litterbox habits! Try the new litter in just one box, and have boxes with the old litter readily available in the usual places.
  • Don't line all the litterboxes up in a row - if one seems dirty to your cat, the ones next to it might seem dirty as well. Try new places for your boxes (but remember to keep some in the old places, too!).
  • Many cats don't like covered litterboxes. If that's the cat's only option, try offering them a non-covered box.
  • Your cat may be reacting to the presence of another cat that's hanging out outside. If a new cat has been coming around and upsetting your cat, try closing curtains/blinds so your cat doesn't get upset.
  • Make sure to thorougly clean spots where any cats have peed - other cats will interpret the smell as a good place to pee. If it's carpeted, make sure you soak the spot enough to get the pad and floor below cleaned.

If none of these have worked for you, you may have to re-train your cat to use the box. Confine the cat in a small room (like a bathroom), or in a large-sized dog kennel for several weeks. With few places other than the box to go, the cat should re-learn the appropriate behavior.

Scratching Furniture

Some owners, in an effort to save their furniture, will quickly jump to declawing as the only way to keep your cat from inappropriately scratching around the home. But remember that, in addition to being costly, declawing can also be painful for cats, and many believe this surgery leads to unwanted behaviors like biting or peeing outside the litterbox. Also, even if your cat is an indoor cat, many indoor cats accidentally get outside - without their claws, they are robbed of their primary means of defending themselves against predators. If you can avoid putting your cat in this vulnerable position, please do! Consider some of these options to stop cats from scratching:

  •  Make sure you've offered your cats alternative places to scratch. A scratching post (on its own, or part of a cat tree) is a good alternative. Many scratching posts are not high enough for cats, though - if you watch them when they scratch on the couch or a wall, they like to stretch their paws up high to claw. So make sure your scratching post is as high as the that! If the posts in the stores are too expensive or not the right size, try making one yourself out of wood and sisal rope. And place it near the sofa or spot they like to scratch on!
  • Teach the cat to use the scratching post. Rub their paws on the post - this will leave their scent, and remind them it's a good place to scratch. Or, try rubbing cat nip on the post to lure them in.
  •  Clip their nails yourself - just like you do your own. Kitty nail clippers are inexpensive and can be purchased in most stores that carry pet-related products. If you get them used to having their nails trimmed as kittens, they'll typically relent as adults!
  • Make the spot they like to scratch on less enticing. You can try covering the spot with a blanket; spray the area with anti-scratching products like Boundary or Nature's Miracle; or cover the area with a material they don't like the feeling of, like aluminum foil or double-sided tape. Also, thoroughly clean the spot with a product that removes animal scents - when they scratch, they leave behind their scent and it attracts them (and other cats) back to the same spot. If you pair this with alternative scratching areas, they should acclimate to the new (and appropriate!) scratching spot.
  • Try putting Soft Paws on their claws - a plastic cap that gets glued onto the claw itself. They're replaced as the cat grows, but prevent any damage to furniture (or humans!) when they claw. 

If you have any other behavioral issues, contact us - we might be able to help! And remember that cats who are relinquished to shelters for behavioral issues are often very difficult to adopt out. If you can keep them in your home, that's the safest place for them to be.