Here’s how to discourage and redirect three of the most common behavior problems in cats.
There’s a lot to be said for cats. They’re affectionate but rarely suffer from separation anxiety. They don’t need to be “housetrained” in the traditional sense – if you provide litter boxes that meet their preferences, they’ll use them. And while cats may be aloof with visitors, it’s rare for them to threaten or confront people the way dogs can.
But despite their best qualities, cats have their own behavioral issues, and you need practical plans to address them.
1. Get the jump on her behavior
One of the more annoying habits cats have is jumping on elevated surfaces such as kitchen counters and tables, or shelves containing breakables.
A cat jumps for a variety of reasons:
• She’s trying to get away from something (a dog, another cat, or a toddler who is harassing her).
• She’s searching for – and finding – food or objects to play with.
• She enjoys being able to see what’s going on from a high perch.
It’s important to know what’s motivating your cat’s jumping behavior, because how you resolve the problem will depend on what she’s trying to accomplish.
If your cat wants to access high places because she is trying to get away from something, then the solution is to help her overcome her fear or remove the source of harassment. And because cats are so predisposed to vertical perches as an escape mechanism, it’s just a good idea to provide them with their own elevated areas, such as a cat condo.
If your cat is not getting on well with other family animals, you may need to separate them temporarily, and reintroduce them. Social conflict is the most common reason for cats escaping to high places. (Noise phobias usually send cats hiding under something rather than seeking out an elevated and exposed position.) Reintroductions require a careful implementation of counter-conditioning and desensitization techniques, a process you may need an animal behaviorist to help you with.
The joys of counter surfing
If your cat has discovered that counter and table surfing results in tasty bits of food, or really cool playthings such as pens or spoons, then his behavior has big reinforcement value! To address it, ensure your cat has easy access to engaging toys within her reach. Some cats are big fans of gravity, and seem to enjoy seeing things fall and hit the floor. Provide your cat with her own elevated play areas, such as a kitty climbing pole that includes perches covered with cat toys she can easily bat to the floor.
Sometimes cats seek out high places because it allows them to better monitor their surroundings, or gives them a different vantage point to peer through windows and see what’s going on outside. A strategically placed climbing pole with perches can help your cat keep her job as family sentinel without using your counters, tables or shelves. Your cat is much more likely to utilize alternative options if you simultaneously make “off limits” places less appealing.
• Keep surfaces clear of food as well as any items that can act as toys.
• Use motion detectors that make a startling sound or release a spray of compressed air when triggered by your cat’s presence.
• Make surfaces uncomfortable for your cat by covering them with plastic carpet runners, pointy sides up, or commercially available mats made for this purpose.
2. Is she shredding your furniture?
Cats claw things primarily to mark objects. This is accomplished not only with visual marks, but also secretions from the scent glands in the pads of their feet. Scratching is also a part of play, and a way to stretch muscles and help the cat rid her nails of worn outer sheaths. Scratching surfaces is normal and natural for cats, so rather than trying to stop the behavior, decide how to manage and redirect it.
The most important strategy is to provide acceptable scratching surfaces that are as appealing (it not more so) than the ones you want her to avoid. Consider the texture, height, location and stability of what your cat is now scratching and create similar alternatives. You will need to provide multiple objects for scratching, so that one is nearby when your cat’s urge to scratch strikes.
Once you’ve done this, make the off-limit surfaces (most commonly upholstered furniture) unaccessible. If that’s not possible, make them unappealing by placing double-sided tape on the surfaces the cat is scratching at, using the same motion detectors described above, or placing “pointy mats” around the furniture.
Regularly trimming your cat’s nails or attaching soft caps on the claws will limit any serious damage to your furnishings. Your veterinarian or a groomer experienced with cats can teach you how to cut her nails and apply the caps.
3. Play biting and scratching
Kittens are notorious for hit-and-run attacks on moving feet, hands and legs, but older playful cats can still enjoy ambushing people. Despite the playful intent, biting and scratching during play can cause injury, so it’s important to create appropriate play habits.
The most effective strategies for preventing play-motivated biting and scratching are to never be physically rough with your cat during play, never use your hands or feet as play objects, and end playtime if she becomes overly excited.
Appropriate toy selection is also vital. Provide toys that stimulate predatory behavior, which is the basis for nonsocial play. Use toys attached to flexible rods that can mimic the twitching motions of mice or birds, enticing your cat to stalk and pounce. Tossing small, soft balls will encourage batting and chasing, and some cats will even fetch and return them to you.
If your cat’s jumping, scratching and biting persist despite your best efforts, it’s time to seek professional help from an animal behaviorist. Usually, though, patience and persistence will pay off.