..Psychological "Issues" in Kittyland...

Early Influences....Elimination Disorders....Furniture Scratching Introduction. and .Behavioral Modification Approaches

Feline Aggression (or "Holy Smoke!)



Relatively common behavioral problems in companion cats include a variety of "inappropriate" activities: Elimination , Aggressive Play (biting, scratching) , Aggression, Furniture Scratching, Fearfulness and Excessive Predatory Activity. To convert the undesirable componen(s) of each of these behaviors to a socialy acceptable form, it is helpful to appreciate the developmental aspects of normal feline socialization, beginning in kittenhood. Likewise, it is important to remember that feline behavior is as much rooted in evolution and genetics as in subsequent societal experiences including interactivity with other cats and with humans. (There is, for example considerable evidence for a strong heritable component of "friendliness" and "shyness" and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, these attributes are predominantly paternal in origin (from the "papa" cat)).

Like previous pages on this web site, this page will progress with serial additions, hopefully on a weekly or biweekly basis, 'til complete. While the information reported here is derived from a multitude of refereed veterinary behavioral resources, a recent book by Karen Overall (Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, 1997, Mosby-Year Book, Inc.) and articles by Dr. Overall in recent issues of Veterinary Medicine (2&3/98:) each contain a well-written discussions of this subject.


Lickin' Chops

Early Influences on Behavior

During the first seven or so weeks of life, the queen is the primary caregiver and teacher of her kittens. Besides nursing and stimulating bodily elimination, she shapes and hones early play and social activity, beginning at or around four weeks of age. Through example and through gentle but firm "disciplinary" action, she teaches her kittens what is acceptable (gentle) aspects of social play. Social skills may not fully mature until two to four years of age!

However, the idea that there are "sensitive" (socialization?) periods--.i.e. specific times when animals are best able (and therefore should be given the opportunity) to learn specific and appropriate responses to environmental/ social stimuli, with respect to the cat, is a nebulous concept. There appears to be a great deal of variability between individual kittens within a litter and and among litters. Moreover, it must be understood that even in animals exposed to all appropriate socialization queues, some still develop undesirable behavioral problems. Bearing in mind these limitations, the following statements are generalizations only:

  1. The behavioral problems that appear in some measure to be related to early kittenhood experiences include:
    1. Aggression (towards people and/or other cats)
    2. Fearfulness
    3. Inappropriate play activity
    4. Elimination (inappropriate urination and/or defecation)
    5. Oral/dietary indiscretions (chewing or eating inanimate objects such as fabrics, plastics)
    6. Predation
    7. To a much lesser degree than any of the preceding...Furniture Scratching
  2. Kittens separated early (~2 weeks of age) from the queen are more likely to become fearful and aggressive as well as respond abnormally to benign objects or situations. Such kittens may show some or all of the following idiosynchrocies:
    1. Display inappropriate play activity, e.g. attack, bite hard, and scratch play objects (such as people or other animals)
    2. Develop heightened predatory activity
    3. Become poor learners...it will be difficult to effect changes via common behavior-modification techniques
  3. Kittens that are abandoned or are born to queens who were abandoned will also be poor learners and demonstrate abberrant fears and aggression towards benign objects or situations.
  4. Cats that had no contact with people during the first three months of life are fearful and aggressive towards people.
  1. Early handling of kitten by several people (during the first two to seven weeks of life) results in markedly less apprehension and fearfulness; animals are more likely to approach and to tolerate unfamiliar objects throughout life
  2. The magnitude of fearfulness is in part affected by a paternal genetic factor(s), as well.


5. Scratching is an innate (instinctive) behavior but inappropriate (e.g furniture) scratching behavior can frequently be attenuated with simple human intervention during kittenhood.

6. Elimination (Urination and Defecation) behaviors are affected by maternal inputs, social heirchary, innate and acquired fears, anxiety, aggressiveness


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Normal,... Inappropriate....Subtrate Aversion...Location Aversion....Substrate Peference.....LocationPreverence

Marking.....Spray Marking.....Non-Spray Marking ....Treatment of Marking

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Go cat go...!

Basics of Normal Elimination

Kittens 5 to 6 weeks old can urinate and defecate independent of maternal stimulation. Some cats cover feces and urine...some do not. This behavior is determined both by individual preference (etiology unclear), whether marking to delineate territorial boundaries or, in core territory elimination areas, to establish or maintain dominance within a group of cats. Submissive cats within a group are more likely to cover their waste. Marking...may be of the spraying or non-spraying varieties. Spraying of urine (cat assumes a posture that directs the urine stream horizontally) is to establish an olefactory signal of an individual's presence. (Cats can distinguish specific urine odors of other individual cats..their sense of smell rivals that of the dog.). Spraying is a socially mediated behavior that, strangely, may be quite common among indiviual animals of a lower status (as well as a characteristic of the bolder, confident cat); this refers to an animal who perceives a (real or unreal) threat or inability to control his interaction with other members of the group or other neighboring group. Non-Spraying marking involves simply urinating or defecating (assuming the normal posture for these functions) in one or many "inappropriate" locations. Like spraying, non-spraying marking serves to establish one's presence but this behavior can easily be confused with other elimination issues (Substrate or Location Aversions or Preferences...to be discussed below), and may represent a greater diagnostic and treatment challenge. Aggression among cats: this is often a queue to spray or mark by both victim AND aggressor animal

In the pet cat, an artificial elimination area (the litter box) is frequently provided. It is important to recognize that there are potential elimination problems associated with the type, texture of litter (known as the "substrate") and the location, size, shape and accessibility of the litter box. Likewise, cleanliness, privacy, the presence and relationship of other cats who might share the facility....these are all factors that bear on the overall issue of...Inappropriate Elimination.

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Inappropriate elimination (urination and defecation) ranks as the most frequently presented feline behavioral problem. Sadly, failure to diagnose and to treat the underlying cause(s) frequently leads to a request for euthanasia. The following discussion will focus on inappropriate elimination that is truly behavioral...as apposed to physiological or medical. It is, however, important to understand that a thorough physical exam and laboratory work up may be necessary to rule out the latter.

This problem has been broken into 6 major categories by Dr. Overall. They are related, primarily, either to the type and location of substrate (litter) and then subcategorized by mitigating environmental/social circumstances, or solely to social conflict (or perceived conflict):

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Substrate Aversion

Cats can learn to dislike certain substrates because they associate them with undesirable consequences or they inherently dislike the texture, smell or sound (yes...sound) of the litter.


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Substrate Aversion, Substrate Preference, Location Aversion, Location Preference

Location Aversion

Move the same litter type and litter box to an acceptable (to the cat) area and observe the subsequent response(s).

  1. if the cat readily uses the litter and litter box..bingo! You have a diagnosis
  2. if in doubt, review the criteria for Substrate Aversion and for Substrate Preference.



Substrate Aversion, Substrate Preference, Location Aversion, Location Preference


Substrate Preference

Diagnosis & Treatment of Substrate Preferences ....

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Substrate Aversion, Substrate Preference, Location Aversion, Location Preference


Location Preference

Diagnosis & Treatment of Location Preference...




Substrate Aversion, Substrate Preference, Location Aversion, Location Preference



Marking....General Properties

Marking by elimination is a normal feline social activity and as such, an effective means to define and delineate once's presence and territorial claims. For most pet cats, the need to mark territority is minimal or non-existent, in comparison to the need in wild cats which must compete amongst themselves. However even in the pet cat, marking occurs and can also represent:

Hence, in the pet cat, marking can be perpetrated by a bold, aggressive/assertive animal, or by a timid, shy, anxious "victim" of its social circumstance. Moreover, any type of marking, (Spray Marking or Non-Spray Marking) may result from the same intial provocation or (perceived) unsatisfactory social condition (described further, below). The difference between these two marking behaviors is that the former contains more visual cues than the latter; though there is no reason to presume that a cat always needs or wants "to be watched". In some perverse way, non-spray marking, usually difficult to diagnose, could be viewed as one of Nature's subtle practical jokes on cat-ownerkind ( a behavior whose ..purpose, it appears, is to confuse and abuse veterinarians and cat owners)

Types of Marking

1. Spray Marking: ( the cat raises its tail upwards, and directs urine in a horizontal direction; during which endeavor, the tail "swishes" or "twitches" prominently about. The urine may land on and dribble down from a horizontal surface or if no horizontal surface is present, then urine, rather than appearing as a neat "puddle", appears as a narrow, elongated "stream").

2. Non-Spray Marking: (urination AND/ OR defection in one or more places not customarily used or ...considered inappropriate for normal elimination function)

Treatment of Marking Behavior

Odor Removal...Behavioral Modification....Pharmacological Intervention
Substrate Aversion....Substrate Preference.... Location Aversion.... Location Preference

The specific diagnosis and therapeutic approaches to substrate and location elimination disorders have already been discussed. The following recommendations pertain primarily to marking behavior; however, certain components of these may be included in the plan or plans for dealing with non-marking elimination issues.

1. It is always appropriate and essential to Remove the Odor, which can otherwise act as an elimination stimulus and frustrate the overall treatment approach.

  1. Alternatively, if treatment/removal of carpet and underlying structures is not possible, then cover the affected area with a barrier, such as heavy plastic or paint (e.g. the subflooring).
  2. Deodorize!! This can not be overemphasized. Some products available commercially include Elimin-Odor®, The Equalizer™, K.O.E.™ and Anti-IckyPoo®

2. Behavioral Modification

Timely "intervention"--that is when a cat is exhibiting premonitory behavior indicating impending inappropriate elimination such as:

  1. Change in facial expression, such as:
    Sniffing, scratching, turning around in a small area
  2. then…it is appropriate to startle (e.g. handclap, hiss) to interrupt the behavior
  3. It is essential that the startle intervention occur during or within 30-60 seconds of the elimination sequence.

    It is of NO VALUE to act anytime after this period!

    Using a bell (on a breakaway collar) may help the owner know where the cat is at any given moment and thus signal the owner that impending elimination activity may be occurring.

  4. Where marking is related to the heirchal social order within a multicat household, the following rules of thumb may be tried:

The animal that is higher ranking is isolated in a "lower quality" room, where "quality", in this context, is determined by the social attributes such as

  • Access to perches
  • Access to humans
  • Access to windows
  • "lower quality " rooms are not preferred but are physically comfortable (NOT a damp, dark, cold basement or garage).

The animal that is lower ranking (i.e. unable to assert itself--is anxious, or uncomfortable within the social order) is isolated in a higher status area.

  • The esteem of the lower ranking cat is bolstered, fear and anxiety are reduced.
  • The other cats in the household are aware that this animal is allowed access to a higher quality area.
  • The elimination behaviors during the isolation are monitored; when each cat is using an appropriate substrate, then it is released for short periods of gradually increasing duration.
  • Initially, with a bell attached (on a breakaway collar) in a limited area while the owner is present
  • If necessary, startle-interrupt inappropriate elimination or aggressive behavior (as described above)

Where intercat aggression within the multicat household is the root of the inappropriate elimination, then any or all of the following suggestions may be tried:

  • Isolate cats (if of equal status' then to neutral or low quality areas) as described earlier
  • Rewards…..put cats on leashes and allow them to see each other. Reward (treats, pet, scratch, praise) when:
    • Cat does NOT react to other cat
    • Cat reacts nicely to other cat
    • Cat looks away from other cat
    • Cat is quiet and calm
  • Countercondition/Desensitization:
    • Allow cats to see each other (crates, leashes)…at a distance where they do not react
    • Gradually, shorten the distance..over hours or days to distance that is barely tolerated until is it completely tolerated.
    • Play games with each cat in the presence of the other cat (each cat learns that pleasure comes even when the "objectionable" cat is present).

3. Pharmacological Intervention:

When the cause of spraying/marking is diagnosed early and appropriate modification in the physical and behavioral environments are quickly instituted, as described above, no additional intervention is usually required. In most instances, however, there is a need for concurrent use of drugs along with behavioral/environmental modification approaches. Drugs most frequently employed by veterinarians belong to one of four classes: 1. Benzodiazepines; 2. Butyrophenones; 3. Tricyclic Antidepressants; 4. Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors.


Feline Furniture Scratching

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Feline furniture scratching is a frequent behavioral "issue" in many households. When the problem becomes intolerable, or even before, some cat owners opt for drastic procedures, such as declawing or severing of extensor tendons that control the extension of the "claw-weapons". Declawing involves removing the toe segment, bone and soft tissue, from the joint (sort of like cutting off a finger at the joint before the tip). Tendonectomy is a somewhat less disfiguring and less painful procedure but there are potential post-operative complications. It is possible to avoid such measures in some cats, provided one understands the reasons why cats scratch and how, sometimes, modification of the behavior is possible without resorting to surgery.

Cats scratch to 1) remove the sheaths from their claws (i.e. grooming behavior) and 2) to delineate territory…(i.e.a marking behavior ...via providing olfactory (secretion from glands in pads) and visible evidence of their presence). The latter is a social display, …"an act of confidence…the cat is willing to be seen physically marking an area", according to Dr. Overall. It is important to understand that this is an innate social behavior…not a learned one. As such it can be difficult, but is not impossible, to modify.

You may say, "Why bother? Surgery is so easy and available without much hastle."

Please consider the Declaw and Tendonectomy procedures as potentially painful mutilations and therefore as last resorts for problem furniture scratching. To appreciate this, a diagramatic representation of each procedure is shown here:



.Fig. 1. Left Panel: Deep Digital Flexor Tendon, attaches to last bone of toe (the third "phalanx") and when the tendon is contracted, the claw extends from its normal retracted position (held there by an elastic ligament). In the Tendonectomy procedure, this tendon is cut ("transected"). The claw (forever to be in the retracted position) and the bone remain, but the cat is no longer able to extend the claw. Nail growth continues unabated. Right Panel: In the Declaw procedure, the last bone of the toe is amputated at the joint; bone with claw is removed in its entirety.



Modifying Furniture Scratching Behavior in Cats....

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1. DISCOURAGE SCRATCHING...Before a scratching problem develops

2. SCRATCHING POST...Teach cat to use a scratching post by directing and rewarding appropriate behavior

Alternatively, try to identify environmental scratching preferences--such as dark vs light locations, open vs secluded areas and whether horizontal vs vertical scratching substrate is more desirable. :LOCATION: It is a good idea to place scratching substrate in a prominent location (i.e. where "marking behavior is most likely).
If preferred fabric type is know, cover the post with it, This will NOT encourage generalized scratching of like-fabric in other locations! MATERIAL: Preferred scratching post substrates (materials) are fabric, hemp, sandpaper and bark/wood
This will NOT teach a cat to scratch...Remember...scratching is an innate behavior...and this approach will only encourage scratching behavior in an appropriate location. TEACH: Place cat next to the scratching post and allow to sniff/ explore. Gently, pull cat's paw over the surface and offer praise- reward (e.g. a treat).


(return to play aggression)

  1. Pull string firecrackers (from novelty stores)

  2. Balloons

  3. Upside-down cocked mouse traps (on horizontal substrates)








Feline Aggression......LOOK OUT!!!

As mentioned early in the introductory portion of this page, experiences (or lack of experiences) in early kittenhood affect adult behavior, sometimes in quite profound proportion. Exposure to humans, early weaning, and aberrant relationship with the queen mother...these can can each result in significant antisocial, and/or aggressive behaviors.

In the discussion of feline aggression, it is important to realize that there are many facets of social input, inheritance and life experience that integrate and interpolate with one another in complicated and frequently not well understood manners. Thus, aggression, which we try categorize by type and reference to etiology, is not always amenable to oversimplified descriptors, such as appears here in the discussion which follows. However, it is still helpful in dealing with this subject to think about feline aggression in simplistic, categorical terms. such as Play Aggression, Fear Aggression, and Predatory Aggression


If a kitten fails to learn to temper aggressive "playfulness" (i.e. to retract its claws or inhibit its bite during play) from the queen, it may justifiably receive more than one "unnecessary roughness" penalty by the owner/scorer/victim. Premonatory signs of play aggression are important to recognize in order to modify the occurence and the severity. These include:

  1. flattening of the ears against the head

  2. twitching of the tail

  3. unsheathing of the claws

  4. It is interesting that some of the more worrisome play-aggression postures may actually bear unnerving similarity to those described below for Fear Aggression.


Behavioral modication of unacceptable play-aggression involves "startling" the kitten early in the sequence of premonatory signals that indicate impending inappropriate rough, aggressive play. When a suitable response to such counter conditioning is achieved, then follow it with gentle petting and treats...hopefully to encourage more play activity that is appropriately gentle and subdued.


Fear...and the flight-or-flight response to it...is an ingrained and potent (over)response by our feline friends to a multitude of often benign and though occasionally dangerous situations. It is the power of fear and its response... to flee or to hide from a perceivied danger... that has, in fact, been in large part responsible for preservation of cat species in general. The run, they hide...and they survive. (It therefore follows, at least from the cats' point of view, that running or hiding "works".). It is not, therefore, so surprising to appreciate that when the flight response (to fear)...the fleeing and the running...does not provide the safe environment for which it was designed, then the secondary aspect of fear...the fight component (dubbed by this author as "Adrenaline-Dread)... is invoked. The result is fear aggression. All cats (even so-called fully "socialized", "friendly" cats) are capable of expressing such aggression, though the trigger of such behavior depends on the individual's fear sensitivity threshhold (as mentioned earlier, this is influenced by early life experiences), the availability of hiding areas and/or escape routes. So long as a cat perceives an unavoidable threat to itself, it becomes aggressive. All this can be summarized in the following two statements:

The tell-tale postures associated with fear aggression are these:

At this point, with even mild provocation, the cat will strike with both its front claws, which it will use to grasp and hold it's victim while savagely biting; concurrently there will be viscious scratching with purpose, using its rear claws. There is much vocalization (cat AND victim) during such attacks.

Treatment of Fear Aggression is not simple. It is best to eliminate the source of fear (another animal, a child, a noise). Alternatively, if this is not possible then efforts to desensitize or to counter-condition the cat's behavior so that it no longer is fearful of a given stimulus or situation is recommended. (Desentization and counter-conditioning techniques will be not be addressed here). Finally, if only for safety reasons, there is a true place for drug intervention to quash fear-associated anxiety(hopefully raise the fear sensitivity threshhold), and to augment or facilitate other efforts designed towards eliminating the undesirable, even dangerous aspects of fear-induced aggression.


Predatory Aggression:


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