SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

Understanding your cat's behaviour

Cats cannot be physically forced or manipulated to do what you want and they do not respond to punishment. Here are some tips on teaching your cat without punishment.

Never smack or swat at cats, yell at them, shake them, or rub their nose in their urine or faeces if they toilet inappropriately. This is cruel, and will only teach your cat to avoid doing this around you. In addition, your cat will become stressed and scared of you, and this will make the problem worse.


Training your cat

Regularly talking to your cat/kitten helps to establish a bond between you and good behaviour. Teach your cat to do the right thing and reward him/her for good behaviour. For example, teach the cat to use a scratching post by dragging a string up the side of the post for him/her to follow. Reward and praise the cat profusely when he/she does what you were hoping for!

Contrary to popular belief, cats can be trained to perform a variety of behaviours using treats and other positive encouragement. This can help keep your cat mentally stimulated and improve your bond with your cat. You can also teach your cat/kitten to respond to simple instructions such as “no”.

Socialising kittens

It is important to properly socialise a kitten; a socialised kitten turns into a well-adjusted, friendly cat. The most important time for socialisation of a kitten is between 3-9 weeks of age; however, it is still very helpful to socialise kittens up to 14 weeks and also older but they become less receptive as they get older so earlier exposure is strongly recommended where possible. Kittens need to be exposed to people, other animals and novel (or new and different) environments and stimuli; for example, kittens benefit from early exposure to family members, other pets, visitors, grooming, veterinary visits, travel in vehicles, using the cat carrier, vacuum cleaner and other life experiences. Visit our website for more information about socialisation. [link?]


Litter tray training

Place the cat/kitten in the tray after eating or drinking, and randomly throughout the day. Give a gentle stroke and praise the cat if he/she uses the tray, and/or give a little treat. Take care not to interrupt the cat while he/she is toileting though; wait until he/she has finished. If you see your cat preparing to toilet somewhere other than the litter tray, distract him/her and quickly take the cat to his/her tray. If the cat has started toileting outside the tray, wait until he/she has finished and then take him/her to the tray, praising the cat if he/she makes any signs of scratching in there. Do not yell, pick up the cat while he/she is toileting, or throw or push him/her into the tray; this will cause the cat to associate the litter tray with punishment and he/she will then avoid it, making inappropriate toileting more likely.

Use an enzymatic cleaner to clean up after accidents. Ammonia based cleaners do not remove the odours, and may encourage your cat/kitten to use the same place to toilet again.


Teaching your cat to use the garden to toilet

If your cat will be going outdoors, you can help to teach him/her to use the great outdoors as their toilet too. Add a few handfuls of earth to the litter to get your cat used to the smells and textures. Make it easy for your cat to start going to the toilet outside by digging up a patch of earth close to your door. Praise your cat if he/she goes to the toilet where you are encouraging them to. Later, you can provide different patches around your garden. Continue to keep a litter tray inside, too.

Undesirable behaviours

Many cat behaviours that are undesirable or problematic for us humans, are actually just normal cat behaviours (for example, inappropriate toileting is a cat marking territory with urine and faeces which is a normal cat behaviour, as is scratching). With the right understanding of these behaviours they can usually be managed or redirected so that they are not so problematic for us.

Inappropriate toileting

Inappropriate toileting is when cats soil in the house in areas other than the litter tray. This includes urinating or defaecating on horizontal surfaces (simply called inappropriate toileting) and urinating onto vertical surfaces (called spraying).

Reasons cats may soil in the house (inappropriate toileting):

  • Sometimes inappropriate toileting can be a sign of an illness, such as cystitis or bladder stones, especially if there is blood in the urine or the cat is straining or urinating more frequently. If a sudden change in toileting habits occurs, take your cat to your veterinarian immediately.
  • Stress can occur in multi-cat households or when a new cat moves in to the neighbourhood. This can lead to inappropriate toileting or one cat may be blocking access to the litter trays and/or outdoors.
  • Problems related to the cat’s litter tray:
    • The litter tray is wrongly positioned.
    • The tray is dirty; cats are very clean animals, and may not want to use the tray again after they have used it once.
    • Litter tray is too small/covered/in some other way unappealing. Cats may have specific preferences for certain trays. Offering a “cafeteria” style choice may offer a solution to identify your cat’s litter box preferences.
    • You have changed the litter type. Cats must be eased into any changes and some cats have specific preferences for the kind of litter they are happy to use. You may need to try a few different kinds to find the one they are comfortable using.
    • Senior cats and kittens may need a shallower tray to allow them to easily enter and exit.

Spraying

Spraying is the depositing of urine onto a vertical surface. This is a normal cat marking behaviour and is most often shown by non-desexed cats. However, sometimes desexed cats also spray to mark territory. The cat will direct a small amount of urine onto vertical objects such as trees or walls. Sometimes a stressed cat will start spraying indoors; this is done to try and mark his/her territory and make him/herself feel more secure. It is a normal behaviour (more common in males, although it can occur in females) but obviously one which we humans do not like!

Spraying might occur if your cat feels insecure or threatened (e.g. with the arrival of a new pet, new human or in a multi-cat household). Sometimes an increased challenge from a cat outdoors can start the problem. Cats may also urinate on door mats if your shoes have brought in the scent of a strange cat.

If spraying occurs, clean, eliminate potential causes and try to retrain your cat. Make sure that there are adequate resources for your cat (the correct number of liter trays, feeding and watering stations, hiding places, scratching posts, toys and vantage points). If the cat is spraying use of two litter boxes to form an “L” shape can help to provide them a more appropriate location. If your cat sprays due to an outside threat, such as the neighbour’s cat, you may need to board up cat flaps to reassure your cat that the house is safe. If your cat is continuing to spray, retraining might be needed; in this case the cat is initially confined to one room, preferably a warm room where they can sleep next to a source of heat, such as a radiator. The cat will hopefully feel secure in this room and so will not spray. Ideally it should be a room where the cat has not sprayed previously. Use of a Feliway spray or diffuser in the room also may help. If spraying ceases, your cat can be allowed into other rooms gradually, under supervision. See our advice on cat enrichment for more ideas. If spraying continues, speak to your veterinarian.

Persistent problems with inappropriate toileting

Occasionally a cat may persistently toilet in places other than their litter tray. It is helpful to distinguish between urinating (horizontal surfaces) and spraying or marking (vertical surfaces), as these have different causes and treatments.

The cat may choose areas where the smell of their owner is especially strong, such as on beds; this may be more common when the owner is on holiday, or if a new person moves into the house. This behaviour is normally a sign that your cat is stressed/anxious. Try alternative litter types and tray locations. Use of a Feliway spray or diffuser may also help. Ask for advice from the SPCA or your veterinarian. If you have eliminated and/or treated any physical or psychological causes of inappropriate toileting, you can try and redirect the behaviour by preventing access to the favoured but inappropriate toileting areas. Make these areas unattractive by covering with a plastic sheet or aluminum foil (cats do not like the feel of these), or by placing food there. If the cat is spraying, use of two litter boxes to form an “L” shape can help to provide them an appropriate location. Do not do these things unless you have already ruled out or treated physical or psychological causes of inappropriate toileting, as otherwise you can increase the cat’s stress and worsen the problem.

Health issues

If a cat squats repeatedly as though trying to urinate but passes only a small amount or nothing at all, this can indicate a blockage in the urinary tract and is a medical emergency. Take your cat to the veterinarian urgently, especially male cats.

Biting and scratching

Cats rarely bite or get rough out of anger; it is usually defensive aggression resulting out of fear. You need to eliminate the cause of the fear. Be patient, and do not force your cat/kitten into cuddles. Contact an animal behaviourist if the problem persists.

Kittens often bite due to sheer playfulness. This is particularly a problem in kittens which were removed from their litter too early (i.e. before 8 weeks of age). Never use your hands for playing. If your kitten gets rough, correct this the way their mother would. Freeze and utter a high pitched yelp; this will make your kitten freeze and, then once the kitten releases your hand, you can safely pull your hand away and immediately stop playing. Do not resume play for at least three minutes. Some adult cats can get over stimulated easily and get a bit rough, the same advice can be applied as for kittens.

Never punish your cat for biting or scratching; playful cats may interpret the reaction as a game and bite harder, while fearful or aggressive cats may think they are being attacked and bite harder. Bored cats may learn that such tactics are a successful way to get a reaction.

Sometimes cats give warning signs before play biting or grabbing you with their paws (sometimes with claws painfully out!). This could be a twitch of the tail, a look in their eye, ears being slightly swiveled backwards, whiskers angling forward or a change in the position of their head. These signs can be subtle but if you know what to look out for, and pay close attention, you can avoid problems. Always try to end contact before the play gets too rough or the cat bites or scratches.

Scratching furniture

Scratching is a natural behaviour that cats perform to sharpen their claws and to scent-mark. It is easy to get a cat/kitten to use a scratch post by placing the scratch pole near where they want to scratch. Use the string idea mentioned earlier, or wait until your cat/kitten is close to the post and scratch it with your nails. The sound will encourage your cat to use the post, most do not need much encouragement! Reward the cat when he/she does use the post for scratching. Double sided sticky tape can be used to help redirect your cat from surfaces you do not wish them to scratch by making it less appealing while you train them to use the scratching post.

Make sure you provide the cat with a scratching post that is taller than he/she if when standing on his/her hind legs with both hind and forelegs stretched out. Ideally provide your cats with multiple scratching posts of different levels that the cats can use to play, climb and jump on as well as scratch.

Other undesirable behaviours

Other behaviour such as chewing and digging up pot plants, or pushing objects off tables is usually caused by boredom. These kind of behaviours are more common in cats that do not get a lot of stimulation or exercise, and are easier to prevent than to correct.

You can help by playing with your cat at least twice a day, using different toys to get him/her running, leaping and pouncing so that the cat is stimulated and exercises enough to become pleasantly tired. Also leave some independent toys (such as table tennis balls) out for your cat to amuse him/herself during the day. Food toys and puzzle feeders are great ways to occupy and stimulate your cats. It can also be good to get two kittens instead of one; they will keep each other company and provide play opportunities for each other.

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