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Pet Owner Version

Diagnosing Behavior Problems in Cats


Gary M. Landsberg

, BSc, DVM, MRCVS, DACVB, DECAWBM, North Toronto Veterinary Behaviour Specialty Clinic

Reviewed/Revised May 2018 | Modified Oct 2022

Many “health” problems faced by pet cats are associated with behavior problems or unmet expectations about behavior. Your veterinarian will first need to rule out any possible health problems that could be causing your cat's behavior to change. For example, a medical condition could be causing your cat to become aggressive or to urinate in the house. Stress can also have effects on behavior and can contribute to the development of certain diseases, for example feline interstitial cystitis.

After ruling out medical causes, your veterinarian will take a behavioral history before making any diagnosis. A behavioral history generally includes the following items: 1) the sex, breed, and age of the cat; 2) the age at onset of the condition; 3) the duration of the condition; 4) a description of the actual behavior; 5) the frequency of the problem behavior (hourly, daily, weekly, monthly); 6) the duration of a typical episode (seconds, minutes, hours); 7) any change in pattern, frequency, intensity, and duration of episodes; 8) any corrective measures tried and the response; 9) any activities that stopped the behavior (for example, the cat falls asleep); 10) the 24‑hour schedule of the cat and owner, as well as any day-to-day changes; 11) the cat’s family history (in other words, are there signs of similar problems in the cat’s parents or littermates?); 12) the cat's living conditions and environment; and 13) anything else that the owner thinks is relevant.

You and your veterinarian should consider the "ABCs" of the behavior problem. What happens before the behavior (the Antecedent)? What is the Behavior? What happens immediately afterward (the Consequences)? Because behaviors can change as cats learn and mature, your veterinarian will also consider how the problem initially started.

Modern veterinary care includes routine screening questions about specific behavior complaints (for example, failure to use the litter box, any fighting with other pets, any odd behavior) in addition to routine questions that alert your veterinarian to potential medical problems. This routine screening will identify what is “normal” for your cat. If your veterinarian does not ask about behavior problems, be sure to mention them yourself. Unfortunately, many owners do not report behavior problems to their veterinarians, and these problems are a major reason pets are given away or put to sleep.

Because behavioral diagnoses cannot be made on the basis of a one-time event, you can complete a questionnaire at each visit to clarify the pattern of your cat’s behavior. The veterinarian can then identify whether the signs (growling, hissing) create a pattern that meets specific diagnostic criteria such as fear aggression. Both you and your veterinarian must use the same definitions for the same nonspecific signs. You both must also accurately recognize and describe behaviors of concern.

Video of your cat’s behavior can help ensure that an accurate diagnosis is made. The questionnaire relies on your description and, because of this, is more subjective. However, when combined with a video, your veterinarian can use the information to diagnose and manage the problem. Your understanding and compliance are critical if your cat’s behavior disorder is to improve. Only when you recognize the behaviors leading to or associated with the problematic ones, can you avoid or prevent the problem situation from arising.

Defining the Problem

The following is a brief glossary of terms that are commonly used when discussing behavior.

An abnormal behavior is one that is dysfunctional and unusual. This is different from a behavioral complaint, which is a normal but undesirable action (such as scratching furniture).

Abnormal repetitive behaviors occur when cats do not adjust to a situation in an appropriate way, often responding with repetitive or fixed movements or actions. Abnormal repetitive behaviors include both compulsive/impulsive and stereotypic behaviors (see below).

Aggression is everything related to a threat or attack. Cats can become aggressive to people or other cats because of fear, play, predatory behavior, and perhaps to maintain social status among other cats. Examples of aggressive acts in cats include hissing, biting, chasing, and growling.

Anxiety is the anticipation of danger accompanied by signs of tension (vigilance, increased movement, and tense muscles). The focus of anxiety can be internal or external.

Compulsive behaviors are abnormal and repetitive behaviors typically done in an attempt to achieve a goal. They can start from normal behaviors (such as grooming, stalking, or chasing) and normal situations (frustration or conflict) but then progress to inappropriate situations and intensities. Stress and anxiety (which can be caused by inappropriate punishment) can worsen these disorders. Some compulsive behaviors appear to be genetic, such as wool sucking in Oriental breeds of cats. These disorders likely occur due to abnormal release of neurotransmitters ("chemical messengers") in the brain.

A cat in conflict has tendencies to perform more than one type of activity at once. For example, a cat may want to approach a person to get a treat, but may also be afraid of the person and unwilling to come too close. The motivation for the conflict, except for extreme instances associated with survival functions (for example, eating), is very hard to identify in animals. Conflict might result in aggression or displacement activity.

Displacement activity is the resolution of a conflict by performing a seemingly unrelated activity. When a cat is unable to physically or behaviorally perform an appropriate activity, it will often perform an apparently irrelevant activity. Displacement behaviors may arise from conflict or frustration or be a vacuum activity. For example, a cat that is obviously in conflict between sex and aggression or between aggression and fear can react with irrelevant activities, such as grooming, feeding, or sleeping.

Fear is a feeling of apprehension associated with the presence of an object, individual, or social situation and is part of normal behavior. Deciding whether a fear is abnormal depends on the context. For example, fire is a useful tool, and fear of being consumed by it is a normal behavior. However, if the house were not on fire, such a fear would be irrational. If this fear was constant or recurrent, it would probably be considered an abnormal behavior. Normal and abnormal fears usually vary in intensity. The intensity increases as the real or imagined closeness of the object that causes the fear increases.

Frustration arises when a cat is unable to complete a behavior due to physical or psychological obstacles. When cats are frustrated—such as a cat that cannot gain access to an outdoor cat that it sees through the window—they can exhibit redirected behavior (eg, attack of another family pet or owner), a displacement behavior, or signs associated with anxiety. Another example of goal frustration is a cat that chases a laser light toy but cannot catch it. This frustration may lead to obsessive chasing of other lights and shadows.

Most fearful reactions are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure. Phobias, however, are profound and quickly developed fearful reactions that do not diminish either with gradual exposure to the object or without exposure over time. A phobia involves sudden, all-or-nothing, profound, abnormal reactions resulting in panic. Phobias can develop quickly or over time, but once established they are characterized by immediate and intense anxiety. Fear may develop more gradually and, within an episode of fearful behavior, there may be more variation in intensity than would be seen in a phobic reaction. Once a phobic event has been experienced, any event associated with it or the memory of it is enough to generate the reaction. Even without re-exposure, phobias can remain at or exceed their former high level for years. Phobic situations are either avoided at all costs or, if unavoidable, are endured with intense anxiety or distress.

Redirected behavior is directed away from the inciting target and toward another, less appropriate target.

Stereotypic behaviors are repetitious, relatively unvaried actions that have no obvious purpose or function. They are usually derived from normal maintenance behavior such as stalking, chasing, or grooming. These behaviors are abnormal because they interfere with the normal functioning of the animal.

Vacuum activity can occur when an animal cannot perform a highly desired instinctive behavior. Examples include excessive sucking or licking. Vacuum activities have no useful purpose.

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