Taking the mystery out of cat behavior


Quick!  Your cat has suddenly stopped using her litter box and has taken her business to your kitchen stovetop.  What do you do?

A.    Put a cozy cat bed on the back porch, make her an outside-only cat, and reclaim your sanity.
B.     Buy more litter boxes and place them around the house with different kinds of litter.
C.     Call your vet and complain that your cat has gone totally bonkers.
D.    Unplug the stove, order takeout, and live with it; you’ve reached an age to resign yourself to being a crazy cat person.

“Cats — especially female cats — tend to be fastidious and set in their ways.  So if a female cat is not using her box and is making a mess, she’s got a strong reason,” says Dr. Theresa Cornwell, who owns the exclusively-feline Cat Care Professionals Veterinary Clinic in Lake Oswego, OR. 

Deciphering cat behavior and finding a solution can be challenging.  And without professional guidance we can actually make things worse.  “There are things you can try — a new box, different litter, a different location or more boxes — that are hit or miss” says Cornwell.  “They MIGHT work, but you might also upset the cat’s environment.  So the idea is to get on it quickly and use someone with knowledge of feline behavior specific to your situation.”

The answer to the pop quiz, then, is “C.” Veterinarians like Dr. Cornwell would much rather you call to complain about your bonkers cat than live with unpleasant behaviors. And the sooner you call, the better.  “Healthy cats don’t throw up all over the place,” she says, “and they don’t refuse to use the litter box.”  The doctor says people too commonly think their cat is soiling the house out of anger or spite.  “It makes us really sad to think of cats that get euthanized for behaviors that could have been altered,” she says.

Even without such a tragic outcome, unsolved behavior problems can seriously diminish the quality of life for the cat and everyone in the household.  Believe it or not, a cat who’s using your stove as a toilet may be as unhappy about it as you are.

In getting to the root of the problem, a veterinarian is likely to first look for an underlying medical issue like kidney disease, bladder stones or arthritis, according to Dr. Christopher Pachel, veterinary behaviorist and owner of Animal Behavior Clinic in Southeast Portland.  “So we’re screening for those things first,” he says.  “The next is a marking problem, which is all about social communication and has nothing to do with full bladder or full bowels.  The third one is house soiling — simply choosing a location other than the one we’ve chosen for them.”  It’s good news if the doctor rules out medical issues, but there’s still detective work needed to figure out the motive behind your cat’s behavior.

“If they’ve been terrorized by another cat and have learned that peeing on the stovetop is always safe, well, that’s hard to argue with,” says Dr. Pachel.  There’s almost always a solution, and in a case like this it might be providing a safe, ambush-free bathroom space for the tormented cat.

Litter box issues are the most common behavior complaints, followed by scratching, biting, and shredding furniture.  According to Dr. Cornwell, though, veterinarians don’t hear about these issues as often as they should.  “Our whole profession is scrambling to find out what to do because cats are getting fewer veterinary visits and less overall medical attention than they were a few years ago.”  

The reasons aren’t completely clear.  People may be trying to minimize veterinary expenses, or they get rid of the cat or move her outside when behavior problems arise.  Many people may not know how much help is available. 

“Ten years ago I couldn’t have helped as much as I can now,” says Cornwell.  Clients’ ability to capture video of the cat’s behavior is a helpful recent development that allows vets to analyze the behavior as it actually happens. Also, behavioral sciences have advanced substantially in recent years.  “Now we know so much more in the profession.  We’re trying to work on more ways to get people to the right help when they need it.  People need to know that the medical stuff has to be checked first.  And then the behavior stuff might take some trial and error.”  Dr. Pachel agrees.  The trial and error stage doesn’t have to be long, and it’s likely to be manageable if addressed early, before the behavior becomes too habitual.  Given what veterinarians now know, “We can almost always find that point of getting to the solution,” says Pachel, which — for cats and their people — can bring welcome peace.