Important Steps for Solving Your Cat’s Behavior Problem

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Cats are smart. They’re also exceptional at communication. Where cat parents often fail in avoiding or correcting behavior problems is that they misinterpret or discount what is being communicated. Many cat parents label unwanted behaviors as misbehaviors that must be stopped or punished. Behaviors are repeated because they work. The result of the behavior might not be pleasing to human family members, but it makes sense to the cat. That’s a central fact frequently overlooked. Attention isn’t paid to why the behavior is being displayed, but rather, the focus is on the external appearance/outcome of the behavior. When the cat eliminates on the bedroom carpet it certainly upsets cat parents, but it most likely works for the cat because he might feel safer there. After being ambushed by a companion cat whenever he tries to get to the litter box, he may determine the bedroom keeps him out of harm’s way. The human family members look at the behavior as being bad, and the cat looks at the behavior as being critical for safety.

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Animals repeat behaviors that work for them, regardless of whether you agree with the behaviors or not. The key to solving the problem? Change your point of view. Look at it from the cat’s angle. What does the cat achieve from the behavior and how can you set things up for success? Maybe it means you need to increase the number and locations of litter boxes or work on a behavior plan to help companion cats get along better. It may require you to reevaluate the location and number of other resources in the environment and make modifications that better meet the needs of the number and personalities of the cats in your home. Whatever the specific problem is, look at what the cat gets out of the behavior.

Four Important Steps for Correcting Your Cat’s Unwanted Behavior

Avoid getting caught up in wrong assumptions regarding a cat’s motivation.  Don’t label a cat because of a behavior instead of realizing it’s a natural behavior or a reaction to a particular circumstance. Focus on how cats communicate, what they need, and why they display behaviors. Don’t fall into the trap of labeling a cat as bad, spiteful, stupid, mean, or untrainable.

Look at what a cat is doing and the circumstances surrounding the behavior:

  1. What behavior is being displayed?
  2. What are the circumstances?
  3. What is the cat getting out of the behavior?
  4. How can you change the outcome or provide a better alternative?

When you look at the conditions surrounding a behavior it sets you up to identify possible antecedents. Identify those and then change the conditions. If the cat bites you every time you pick him up, for example, instead of labeling the cat as mean and punishing him for biting, look at the possible trigger.

  • Was your approach incorrect?
  • Had the cat clearly indicated no interaction was wanted?
  • Did you startle him?

To create a better outcome, create a better set-up. Also, pay attention to what the cat communicates as you hold him.

  • Is he possibly in pain?
  • Did you ignore signs indicating he was approaching his tolerance limit?
  • Did you continue to hold him even after he communicated that he wanted to be released?
  • Did he feel the only way to get you to release him was to bite you?

Perhaps you didn’t give your cat any choice about whether interaction was wanted, and/or when he wanted it to end. Choice is important.

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Don’t Punish Your Cat

Many people reprimand the cat for misbehavior. Instead of focusing on what the cat needs and how to help him succeed, some cat parents, out of frustration, choose punishment. Imagine the stress the cat endures when he’s punished for a behavior that’s normal and essential in daily life. Punishment does nothing to teach the cat anything other than to be afraid of the cat parent. For example, the cat stops using the litter box and starts urinating on the carpet in the dining room. The cat parent who punishes (rubbing the cat’s nose in the mess, hitting, yelling, time-out, or forcing the cat into the litter box), has only succeeded in elevating the cat’s fear and stress to an unhealthy level. What if the cat was eliminating outside of the box because he was in pain due to a medical problem and associated the box with his pain? Because he will now associate punishment with the need to eliminate, he is not only in pain from the medical condition, but scared and uncertain about where to pee or poop. For the cat parent, the intended message was that the location choice for elimination was wrong, but the actual message the cat received was that urination is bad and will result in punishment and fear. Since the elimination need will arise again, fear may drive him to retain urine as long as. He may also seek a more remote and hidden place for elimination to avoid punishment. Either option causes even more worry to an already stressed-out cat.

Punishment only temporarily stops a behavior – it doesn’t stop the need for the behavior. Your job is to determine the why behind the behavior to resolve it effectively with love and compassion. If you view what your cat does as a misbehavior, you won’t be a successful problem solver.

Visit the Veterinarian

You may be confident a problem is strictly behavioral but there’s a good chance a change in your cat’s normal behavior could have a medical cause. Have your cat examined by the veterinarian. This needs to be the very first step to rule out any underlying medical reason for the unwanted behavior.

After your cat has been examined by the veterinarian, you can begin to tackle this from a behavioral position. I wrote the book, Think Like a Cat, because I had seen so many people interpret behavior problems from the wrong perspective. Cat parents were labeling unwanted behaviors as intentional misbehaviors. As a result, their attempts at solutions were ineffective and only added stress to the entire household. The best techniques are based on what cats need and to create an environment that allows them to engage in natural behavior. Look at all behavior from a think like a cat aspect for effective and compassionate problem-solving.


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