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Cat Behavior by Frank Utchen, DVM
General

You're asking a lot of a cat whenever you bring her into your home, and the fact that, in most cases, the situation works as well as it does says a lot about the strength of the love between cats and people. You ask your cat to relieve herself where you want her to instead of anywhere in her territory. You ask her to scratch in one place instead of marking every surface in her life. You ask her to ignore her ability to jump gracefully onto tables and countertops and adjust her naturally nocturnal schedule to your daytime one.

Most cats make the compromises. For those who don't, you need to figure out why before any problem-solving can begin. Here are some things to consider:

Medical Problems

First of all, it should be clear that some behavior problems are often really signs of illness. A cat with untreated diabetes, for example, drinks and urinates frequently, may overwhelm your efforts at keeping the box clean, and starts choosing other sites to relieve himself. A cat who suddenly starts biting may be in pain and is only lashing out to protect himself. A cat with a urinary- tract infection may find urinating painful and come to associate the pain with his litter box. Are you really surprised he's going to stop using it? All the behavior techniques in the world aren't going to cure a medical problem. You'll need your veterinarian's help for that.

Stress

Cats find change stressful and can react by altering their behavior to try to cope. Maybe a cat marks territory in a home that's just been "invaded" by a new pet or person. In a cat's mind, this behavior makes sense and is calming: Making the world smell like himself is comforting to him, if not to you. You need to calm your cat's stress in other ways, by limiting his territory for a while, for example, or putting him on medication.

Unreasonable Demands

You need to look at your own role in any behavior problem. Are you asking something of your cat that's not possible for him to give? Your cat may not want to use the litter box you give him if it's rarely clean, for example, and asking him to leave the couch alone is really not fair if he has nothing else in the house to scratch. You need to provide him with some alternatives before you can hope for good behavior.

Boredom

You've asked your cat to give up the whole world and all you're offering in return is a few hours of your presence a day and maybe a catnip mouse? Boring! Indoor cats need lots of things to keep themselves amused - lots of toys and lots of games, and lots of attention from you. If you're gone from home a great deal, another cat (or even a dog) may provide your pet with exercise, companionship, and amusement.

Remember that if all you're ever doing is trying to alter your cat's behavior by vocally or physically reprimanding him, you're probably not teaching him anything except that you're someone best avoided. Physical correction has no place in changing a cat's behavior - cats just don't understand it. And using such correction just stresses them out, leading to even more problems.

Look at what's been going on in your life. How has your cat reacted to the situation, and how have you? Keep a journal of problems to help you spot and understand trends and to remove some of the emotion involved in living with a problem pet. Realizing that your cat's behavior isn't spiteful or capricious can make the problem easier for you to live with while you work on turning the situation around.

Chatty Catty:

Some cats are chattier than others; indeed, "talkativeness" is an adored breed trait in the Siamese and other Orientals. If you've got a noisy Siamese, to a certain extent you're just going to have to live with the problem - in other words, you can't change the stripes on a tiger!

Some noisiness is inborn:

Kittens call to their moms when they want something. Some noisiness is actually trained into cats by humans. If you hop up and accommodate her every time your cat demands something - to be fed or let out or in - you've taught her that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Even in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn.

To retrain your cat, resolve not to give in to her demands. If you start out by ignoring her yowling and then give in anyway, you've taught her that all she needs to do to get her way is to make more noise, not less. Correct her for the noise - with a shot of air or water that seems to come out of nowhere - and then go about your business. She gets the point soon enough that her demanding gets her nowhere. Realize that in the short run your cat will be even more insistent. If you give in, you're sunk. So don't. This, too, shall pass.

Behaviorists have actually identified at least 22 separate sounds cats make, from "chirping" at birds, to growling at adversaries, to short meow sounds indicating "hello", to long drawn out caterwauling. Most cat owners can sense their cat's mood by the tone of their meow.

Of course, their vocalizations are just one of the many amazing differences in feline behavior from human.

People and cats are also living in completely different worlds in terms of the sense of smell. The cat's sense of smell is many times more powerful than a human's (and a dog's is more powerful still). Are you surprised now that the litter box you think is "tolerable" is offensive to your cat?

Of course, the litter box is a modern problem, and the cat's sense of smell is good for much more than deciding when it's not clean enough. Smell plays a role in the establishment of territory, in the finding of prey, and in the determination of whether "found" food is safe enough to eat. While dogs are scavengers who eat just about anything, cats are true predators: Fresh food, please, and freshly killed is even better. Ever wonder why your cat turns up her nose at canned food that's been out a while? Simple: it doesn't smell right.

If your cat is so finicky that no delicacy you serve suits her - or you've been nursing a sick cat - warm the food up to just above room temperature before serving about 85 degrees (or what we humans would call "lukewarm"). Doing so makes food smell better to a cat, and therefore that food becomes more enticing.

In addition to their noses, cats use a body part called the vomeronasal organ, at the front of the roof of the mouth, to help them process smells, especially those of a sexual variety such as the smell of a female cat in season. Whenever cats use this organ, they open their mouths a crack and "taste" the smell, a facial expression called Flehmen.

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