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When You’ve Tried Everything: Troubleshooting Cat Behavior Problems

Feline Engineering

by Jessica Char, Cat Behavior Expert, Feline Engineering

What happens when you’ve reached the bottom of Google’s search results and your cat is still peeing everywhere but in her litter box? Or your cats are still feuding? Where do you go from there? 

Cats all over the country (and world) are losing their homes and lives because of issues that require more than advice from an online article. The important thing to remember is that, even if you searched online and tried every tip, more than likely, there is still hope. Below I’ve described just a few of the common mistakes that people make when trying to solve behavior issues on their own. And then I’ll tell you about some people who are out there and ready to help you, even if you’ve already tried “everything.”

Mistake: Skipping the Vet
If you are dealing with any sudden behavior change, especially around the litter box, your first step should be to schedule a vet visit. Cats are very good at hiding signs of illness, and behavior change is very often the first sign. Even if the behavior change hasn’t been quick, a vet should rule out underlying concerns.

Mistake: Not Meeting Natural Needs
Feeling engineeringAre you trying to stop a behavior that your cat MUST do? Scratching is an example where we often work very hard to stop it where we don’t want it but fail to provide an appropriate place where the cat is allowed to do it. Make sure you are meeting all of your cat’s needs, including a scratching area, a suitable litter box, interactive play, raised resting spots, and social interaction. If you’re not providing a way for your cat to meet his needs, he will continue doing the “wrong” thing.

Mistake: Going Too Fast
Don’t try to move through your plan too quickly. Each step should be completed fully, with the cats relaxed and confident. Conflict between cats and fear are two issues that are commonly rushed. It can take months or more to help a fearful cat feel safe, or to get two cats comfortable sharing a space.

A good rule of thumb is to look for signs of relaxation or enjoyment, and/or active socializing, from your cat(s) before moving to the next step. This means that even if your cat is tolerating something (like petting on the head), she may not be ready for the next step yet (such as full-body petting or being picked up). Keep working until they show signs that they actually enjoy the experience. You’ll ultimately save time by going slower and avoiding negative reactions.

Mistake: Not Giving It Enough Time or Expecting Magic
Few behaviors change quickly; you can do everything right and see only small effects. This is especially true with fear. While there may be other steps you can take to speed up the process, don’t panic if your cat’s behavior isn’t magically transformed. Stay the course. Some tools, such as pheromone products (like Feliway) or calming treats, could be valuable, but they aren’t likely to solve problems instantly or by themselves, regardless of the Internet’s claims.

Of course, time doesn’t necessarily heal all. Don’t keep pushing forward blindly. If the problem is staying the same or getting worse, you need to rethink your plan or get more help. Keeping a journal of your cat’s behavior can help you track what’s really happening.

Mistake: Relying on Punishment
Most of the ways we attempt to punish bad behavior aren’t very effective and can also lead to some unfortunate consequences. Spray bottles, shake cans, yelling, flicking, and other punishments that come directly from a person can lead to fear, aggression, and even health issues.

Feline EngineeringOn top of that, owners generally don’t find that a punishment is effective long-term because they are inconsistent and/or are trying to punish a cat for something that the cat naturally must do and doesn’t have an outlet for. Cats can quickly learn that they should do the behavior only when you aren’t in the room to punish them!

Deterrents that make a behavior unpleasant for the cat can help with solving some problems (like using sticky tape to prevent scratching on furniture) but only when combined with other changes like rewarding desirable behavior and providing appropriate outlets for natural behaviors.

Mistake: Assuming You’re Done
Behavior is always changing. You can’t “cure” a behavior and then be immune to it forever after. All behavior is driven by fulfilling needs, seeking desirable consequences, and avoiding negative consequences. If your cat’s world changes in some way, he may go back to the problem behavior unless you are paying attention, being proactive, and meeting his needs.

Finding More Help
Changing a cat’s behavior can be complicated, even for experienced owners. This isn’t even close to a complete list of the ways that behavior modification can go wrong. Please don’t assume that you’re out of options after you’ve tried everything the Internet (including this article!) has suggested.

Your vet is one source of information. However, not all vets are specialists in behavior, and some actually have very little training or knowledge in that area. Another option is a veterinary behaviorist–a veterinarian with special training and education in behavior issues. Unfortunately, since this is a newer field, there are not many veterinary behaviorists yet, and they are generally quite expensive.

If your cat came from a rescue or shelter, you might try contacting them for advice. Some large organizations have staff and volunteers available specifically to help you. The downside is that they may not have specialized knowledge about changing behavior, and they may have limited time to help.

Finally, many people aren’t aware that there are cat behavior consultants in the world. Just like good dog behavior consultants or trainers, cat consultants are educated on the behavior problems that plague cat owners. You seek professional help in many areas of your life–why not get help when your happiness, your home, and your cat’s life are in the balance?


About the Author:

Jessica Char photoJessica Char is an experienced cat behavior consultant. She started her career supporting owners and adopters at a large private animal shelter in California. In order to help more cat owners, Jessica launched her business, Feline Engineering (www.FelineEngineering.com), to provide personalized, one-on-one support for cat owners dealing with behavior problems. She offers consults nationwide.

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