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Recognition of Behaviour Problems in Cats

Pet Tales
by Barry Burtis D.V.M.

Feline behaviour problems go deeper than scratched hands, shredded furniture and bitten fingers. Dr. Ilona Rodan, one of the co-chairs of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) panel that developed feline behaviour guidelines for that group, says such problems are the leading cause of death in pet cats. This happens when owners, unable to cope with their cat's issues, end up having them euthanized.

Unfortunately, cat owners often fail to report, or feel their veterinarian would not be interested in hearing about behavioural issues, when they take their pet for a checkup. In an attempt to reverse this trend, the AAFP encourages cat owners to be on the lookout for behaviour problems in their pet and report them if noticed. Only in this way can early detection and prevention be accomplished.

Here is a list of questions for cat owners to ask themselves in order to screen for behaviour problems in their favourite feline.

1) Does our cat ever urinate or defecate outside the litter box?

2) Does our cat spray? (Spraying occurs when a cat backs up to a vertical surface,       
kneads his or her feet and flicks the tail tip up while projecting urine.)
3) Does our cat show signs of aggression to people, including  hissing, biting or   
scratching? To any specific family members? To strangers?

4) Does our cat exhibit any fearful behaviours that concern us?

5) Does our cat show any destructive behaviours  such as scratching or chewing
objects in the house?

6) Does our cat have any problematic interactions with other cats or pets in the
7) Has there been any change in our cat's behaviour or disposition?
8) Do we need any other information regarding our cat's behaviour?

If owners keep these points in mind as a way of assessing their cat's attitude and behaviour it would be very helpful. If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, it should be discussed with your veterinarian. A review of these issues before any regular check-up or examination by a veterinarian should always be considered. There are many different treatment approaches that may be recommended, depending on the nature of the problem. Often this will involve first making sure that no physical problem is responsible for the behaviour. A detailed history will need to be taken by the veterinarian from the owner. Very often this may include the owner providing a diagram of the places in the house where the problem is occurring. Frequently, it is very beneficial if an owner can make a video record of the behaviour when it is happening in their home. As with the diagnosis of any problem, the more details and data that can collected and assessed, the more likely the correct diagnosis will be made and the more likely successful treatment or management can be achieved.  

It is also important to remember that just as with other areas of veterinary medicine there are veterinarians who are board certified specialists in animal behaviour. Occasionally an owner may be referred to such a specialist for help with their cat.