In previous blog posts we touched on litter box avoidance and feline enrichment ideas. In this post we will discuss some of the things that can cause stress for cats in a household which can then lead to behavior issues (urine marking, aggression, hiding, etc.). While cats are generally easy to keep as house pets, it is crucial that stress is kept to a minimum and physical and psychological needs are met.
Energetic children, dogs that like to chase or bark, frequent arguing, loud voices or music, etc. can cause cats to become stressed or anxious in their home. Conflict with other cats in the household or inadequate “safe” spots can also cause a lot of stress. Outside cats coming into the yard can cause territorial stress for indoor cats causing them to mark inappropriately. Lack of adequate outlets for play and the hunting drive can cause frustration, boredom and acting out. Simply having a bunch of toys laying around is often not enough, especially for younger, more energetic cats and kittens. Moving, remodeling, visitors and new family members can also cause anxiety and behavior problems.
When behavior problems occur it is crucial to determine the cause. If the cause of the problem is not addressed things will likely get worse. If the cause cannot be completely eliminated, there are often things that can be done to make it more manageable for the cat, which in turn can help to resolve the behavior issues that are occurring.
If a cat is getting chased or ambushed on a regular basis (by toddlers, rambunctious older children, dogs, other cats in the household) they tend to have either a fight or flight response. Some cats will become scared and withdrawn and take to hiding and avoiding socialization. Others will try to protect themselves by lashing out aggressively. When cats are upset to the point of aggression, they often will redirect their aggression to whomever or whatever is closest, rather than the original source of the stress.
Adding elevated pathways throughout the home for safe cat travel (cat towers, shelves and cat “boardwalks” place up high) can make a fearful cat feel much more confident and safe. Having a “safe” way to get across a room can make a world of difference to the cat. It is crucial though that these things are placed so the cat can easily get from one to the next so the cat has a “walkway” across the room up high. Cat towers are great, but if there is no way to escape safely in the form of adjacent walkways, the cat can feel trapped on the tower without an escape route. A lack of “escape” can heighten the desire to lash out in self defense.
Cats need to have safe places in their home where they know they cannot be bothered. This may be a finished basement (or regular basement with a cat friendly, comfortable area) where children or dogs are not allowed to go without supervision. This could also be a dedicated closet area or room that is rigged to open enough for the cat to get in and out, but not the dog or toddler. If the issue is between other cats in the household, plenty of cat beds, tents, towers and other “safe” places (especially elevated spaces) can be helpful so each cat has plenty of choices of “escape”. Calming pheromone diffusers (Feliway) placed in strategic spots can help to give a general sense of calm and can be helpful in multi cat households.
In most cases, the help of a feline behaviorist that comes to your home to help evaluate the issue and it’s cause can be invaluable. Someone from the outside looking in can often see things that those living with the problem cannot as clearly see. Frustration and a lack of understanding of the reasons for cat behavior can make it difficult to see what is going on from the cat’s point of view. Many times “fixes” that are tried without this insight can actually make the problem worse and cause increased stress and frustration for the cat. The longer a problem goes on, the harder it can be to remedy. Starting off with professional assistance can often help immensely in addressing the cause of the problem(s) leading to a quicker and more satisfactory resolution.
Always remember, your cat wants nothing more than to feel safe, secure and happy in your home. If they are acting out, they are desperately trying to communicate their stress and deal with it in the only ways that they know. Living with cats requires understanding of their needs and helping them to deal with things that are causing stress and anxiety in their surroundings. We owe that to them.