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Understanding Your Cat and Solving Behavioral Problems

Many people find cats to be as inscrutable as the Sphinx; along with an independent nature and an abundance of personality, their sense of mystery is one of the feline’s best-loved characteristics. However, cats aren’t as unfathomable as they would like you to think. With persistence and keen observation, you can figure out some of your cat’s trickiest behaviors and “decode” the secret feline language.

Once you understand why your cat is doing what he or she is doing, it becomes a lot easier to deal with, and hopefully you can change your cat’s behavior for the better.  Listed below are several problems that cat owners everywhere have dealt with, explanations as to why they occur, and some advice on solving them:

Aggressiveness in Cats
Cats that show aggression can do so for many different reasons. For example, young kittens play aggressively as “practice” for defending themselves or learning to hunt. Sometimes, elderly cats tend to be aggressive toward young children and other cats when they want to be alone or are intimidated. Cats can also show aggression to other animals in the house that they normally get along with, often for no apparent reason.

Correcting Kitten Aggression
If your kitten pounces on you and bites at odd times or can’t seem to play without unsheathing his or her claws, first of all, don’t use your hands and feet as “play” objects. Instead, dangle a toy on a string, or toss a small ball across the floor, so that your pet understands that he or she can take out his or her energy and enthusiasm on objects, but not people. If your kitten won’t take no for an answer, stop playing with your kitten until he or she settles down. Reward good behavior with treats and affection.

Correcting Elderly Cat Aggression
Elderly cats sometimes become somewhat anti-social, compared to their younger, cuddly counterparts, and can react with anger and fear when their quiet time is disturbed. To combat this behavior, make sure your older pets have “safe rooms” where they can retreat when the noise and energy of the rest of your home gets to be too much. Set up a comfortable window seat or pet bed in a quiet study or office where your cat can run to when he or she feels cornered or overwhelmed, and show your pet lots of love when he or she is out and about in the rest of the house.

Correcting Pet-to-Pet Aggression
If your pets normally get along, but once in a while just seem to snap at each other, it is important to stop the fights as quickly as possible. Don’t get involved, since you’re likely to get scratched or bitten, but instead whistle loudly, rattle a can full of pebbles, or spray them with water (like from a small plant squirt-bottle). Separate your pets when they show aggression, feed them in separate rooms, and try to slowly reintroduce them to each other. If they still show aggression, speak to your vet, but don’t punish them as they will redirect their anger and fear back at you.

Constant “Talking”
There are many different breeds that vocalize – sometimes loudly – on a regular basis, as a way of communicating with their owners. Other times, a cat’s meow, chirrup, or yowl, can mean something completely different than, “Hi, how was your day?” or “Feed me now!”

Excessive talking can mean that your pet is ill, wants attention, has the urge to go outside and meet a mate, or is even in mourning. If your pet suddenly begins to meow or cry loudly for no apparent reason, and acts as if he or she is in pain, your pet may be ill and should be taken to the vet immediately. If you’ve recently lost another pet or a member of your household, your pet could just be vocalizing his or her grief. If however, yowling at the window is accompanied by slinking on the belly (with females) or sometimes even marking territory (with males) the best solution is to have your pet spayed or neutered.

If your pet meows loudly, is fixed, isn’t grieving, and doesn’t seem to be hurt or sick, then he or she may just want your attention. Don’t immediately go to your cat and pick him or her up as soon as your cat begins to howl, but wait until he or she is quiet to show your affection. Be sure to schedule regular playtimes with your cat, and if the loud caterwauling doesn’t stop, try a deterrent, such as the loud noises listed in the section above. With positive reinforcement, and plenty of patience, your house will soon return to its former yowl-free peace.

Scratching Issues
One of the most common reasons that people give away their cats is destructive scratching. Unfortunately, this is also one of the most easily-remedied behavior problems. If your pet is ruining your furniture, the most important step to take is to provide your pet with a scratching post or pad. If your cat enjoys catnip, entice him or her into utilizing the post by sprinkling it around the base.

If your cat has a scratching post and still persists in using the arm of the couch, use deterrents such as loud noises or squirts of water, as well as positive reinforcement, such as treats and affection, when your cat quits scratching. If the problem continues, you can buy nail caps at most pet stores to cover your pet’s claws and save the furniture. You can also try sticky, double-sided tape on the arm of the couch. Your pet won’t appreciate the feel of the tape on his or her paws, and will soon turn to a much easier target – the scratching post.

“Missing” the Litter Box
Cats can urinate or defecate outside of the litter box for a variety of reasons, including illness, unhappiness, or transition problems. If your cat is missing the litter box, watch him or her closely for signs of illness. Cats will commonly go outside of their normal area when they have urinary tract infections, as they begin to associate the litter box with pain. If your cat has an infection, you may also notice other signs, such as your cat drinking more water than usual or straining to urinate. Feline urinary tract diseases can be dangerous if left undiagnosed, so if you suspect your pet has one, take him or her to the vet.

If your pet doesn’t seem to be in pain, or receives a clean bill of health from the veterinarian, consider whether any changes have been made in your household recently. Have you moved? Begun working more hours? Is there a new baby in the house? Cats can be very sensitive to change, so talk to your veterinarian about ways to make transitions easier on your cat.

In addition, elderly cats and kittens sometimes have difficulty getting into litter boxes, so if your pet is very old or very young, consider purchasing a box with lower sides for easier access.

Trouble with Re-Homing
Cats often change families for a variety of different reasons, and can sometimes have difficulty settling into a new home. These difficulties can show themselves in many ways, from aggression, to fear. If you adopt a re-homed cat into your household, there are several ways that you can make this tough transition easier on everyone.

The most important step in welcoming a re-homed cat into your household is to keep your pet indoors until it feels comfortable in the new environment. If your new pet escapes, the chances that it might attempt to travel back to its old home are very high, even if its former residence is several miles, or even states, away.

Second, make sure that your new cat has a room to itself for a while, with all the necessities, including a comfortable bed, food, water, a litter box, and a few toys. It might take a few days, depending on his or her personality, but your new cat will eventually feel comfortable enough to come out and explore the rest of your house. Be patient and show plenty of affection (treats don’t hurt either) and your re-homed cat will soon feel like a permanent part of your family.

Cats sometimes seem mysterious and aloof, but once you know the reasons behind their actions, it’s easier to work with them to correct their bad behaviors. Understanding why your cat does what he or she does will not only make it easier to live with your cat and his or her quirks, it will ultimately allow you to be a better pet owner – and friend – to your cat.

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