Cat Behavior Problems

Portrait of tabby cat biting and scratching owners hand
Cats can have aggression problems and bite and scratch their owners. Westend61 / Getty Images

Like humans, cats experience fear, pleasure, hunger, anxiety and many other emotions that may affect their behavior. Some common behaviors are seen as problems and affect the quality of life of both us and our cats, but thankfully, many of these undesirable behaviors can be corrected.

Vocalization Behavior Problems in Cats

You’ve just finally fallen asleep, when suddenly you hear your cat howling and crying at the top of their lungs outside your bedroom door.

This behavior may be completely normal for your cat but it can also be a sign of senility in older cats. Some breeds of cats, like Siamese, are naturally more vocal than others and will just meow loudly for your attention at night. Cats, as a species, are nocturnal so they will be more active at night when you want to sleep. If your cat is not of an age where you feel senility could be playing a part in these late night vocalizations, they may just need something to keep them busy while you sleep, or get more exercise during the day so they are less active at night. If you feel senility is the main reason for the vocalizing, discuss supplements, medications, pheromones, special diets and other things that are designed to help cats with this problem with your vet.

If your cat meows and howls during the day it could be a sign of pain. Cats that are crying while eliminating in the litter box are usually crying out in discomfort or pain from trying to urinate or defecate.

Other obvious signs of pain, such as cat fights or pinched tails in doors, are also reasons for these vocalizations. If you suspect your cat is in pain you should seek veterinary care for your cat immediately.

Meowing, crying or howling during the day could also simply be done as attention seeking behavior, especially if your cat wants food, to go outside or to be pet.

The response you give your cat (i.e. giving in to their request for a treat) will train your cat to continue to make these vocalizations in order to get what they want.

If you hear changes in your cat’s voice, it could be because they have been crying for a prolonged period of time, they have had some sort of irritation to their throat (i.e. after surgery when a tube has been placed down their throat) or they are sick. Some illnesses, such as having lungworms or asthma, may also cause your cat to sound differently. If you suspect your cat is ill, seek veterinary care.

Scratching Behavior Problems in Cats

Cats scratch to mark their territory. If your cat is scratching things that you would prefer that they not scratch, then you can help redirect them by providing scratching posts and other toys they can dig their claws into. Try enticing your cat to use a scratching post by sprinkling catnip on it and placing it in front of the things you don’t want them to scratch. Some cats like certain fabrics and materials more than others, so be sure to try scratching posts that are covered in various textures like carpeting, rope and corrugated cardboard if your cat doesn’t take to the post you initially provide.

Aside from scratching posts, pheromones and nail caps can be used on an on-going basis to help if your cat insists on scratching your furniture. Nail caps are small plastic nail coverings that are glued over your cat’s nails to protect your furniture. Pheromones come in sprays, wipes, and diffusers to help calm your cat and discourage any scratching behavior that is due to any type of stress or anxiety.

Declawing, which is actually an amputation, is a controversial subject, but is also sometimes performed to prevent scratching furniture. This surgery should be researched thoroughly and discussed with your vet prior to deciding to have the non-reversible procedure performed.

Chewing Behavior Problems in Cats

Cats are not known to be chewers like dogs can be, but some will still do quite a bit of damage with their teeth.

Chewing behavior in cats can be due to boredom, teething in kittens, playing, aggression, a nutritional deficiency, having been weaned too young or simply because they like the texture or taste of the item. Make sure you are feeding a nutritionally complete food with the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) seal on the container, your cat does not have any dental concerns and they are not chewing something because they are trying to take their aggression out on it. Products geared towards decreasing stress and anxiety, such as pheromones and supplements, may help decrease aggressive behaviors, as does preventing your indoor cat from seeing any cats that may be outside.

If your cat is bored, provide them with safe toys to play with. If they still try to chew on things they shouldn’t, try bitter sprays to deter them or covering small and dangerous items like electrical cords with plastic housing.

Urinary Behavior Problems in Cats

Cats can have a variety of urinary issues. Infections, inflammation, stones, stress, tumors and other factors can cause cats to urinate outside their box, spray or be unable to urinate. If a cat is ever straining or unable to urinate, they need immediate veterinary care. If a medical reason has already been ruled out as the reason for your cat’s urinary problems, then it is oftentimes a behavioral problem that still needs to be addressed.

Special litter, diets, pheromones, supplements and medications can all help with urinary behavioral problems in your cat. Other things that may be causing your cat to urinate outside their box can include dirty litter boxes, too few litter boxes (you should have more litter boxes than you do cats), litter that is too deep, scented or disliked by your cat, covered litter boxes, litter boxes that allow a cat to see another cat in a different litter box, problems between cats or other pets, household changes (i.e. construction, family members leaving, new family members, etc.) and outside cats and other stressors in and around the house that your cat can see, hear or sense.

Aggression Behavior Problems in Cats

Cats may become aggressive towards pets and people and it is a major behavioral problem. The aggression can be due to stress and anxiety or from a medical problem that causes pain or hormonal changes in a cat. After ruling out medical problems with your vet, you can start to address aggressive behavior by observing your cat for any triggers that cause them to be aggressive. Seeing cats outside through windows, not liking other pets in the household, food aggression, as well as stress and anxiety can all cause your cat to attack another pet or even people in your home.

If you can get rid of the trigger, then of course this is the easiest way to stop the aggressive behavior. But more often than not your cat has to live with the trigger. Pheromones, supplements, medications, special diets and giving your cat other things to focus their energy on, like exercise inducing toys, may help stop the unwanted behavior. Blocking your cat’s view of stressors, such as closing window curtains if there are outdoor cats harassing your cat or setting up dividers between food bowls and litter boxes, may be simple solutions as well.

Obsessive-Compulsive Licking Behavior Problems in Cats

Chronic licking behavior problems in cats typically stem from pain or stress and anxiety. Cats that are in pain tend to lick an area on their body until it is hairless and raw–and it isn’t always at the area that is painful on their body. Stressed or anxious cats often lick their bellies until they have no fur or obsessively over groom other parts of their body. If your cat isn't in pain, supplements, special diets and pheromones may all help with stress in cats and decrease or eliminate this licking behavior problem if it is a result of it.