Often I meet families who are overwhelmed with their cat’s behavior problems. They feel they have tried everything and wonder if there is hope for their situation. One of the main things I bring, as a professional, is an ability to see the details and understand how these big problems can develop. This is a story about one such family and how I helped them. I haven’t included every detail but my goal is that their story gives you hope for your own situation.
Meet the Family
This family had a lot on their plates. Two dedicated adults wanted to do what was best for their cats but felt in over their heads and at a loss. One had a busy work schedule; the other had health issues that limited their energy and mobility.
The feline family (5 in total) included a range of personalities. The senior female didn’t like any of the others and was comfortable chasing them and getting into scuffles when her boundaries were pushed. Two middle boys were spending their days outside and then coming in to spray in multiple locations and bully the others. An adolescent was scared of everything and often the target of that bullying. Finally, an older kitten rounded out the family. The only one that wasn’t peeing outside the box or getting into fights, this youngster was annoying his humans with constant rough play.
Four of the five cats were regularly peeing outside the box. They were also having conflicts with each other; while there hadn’t been injuries, fur had flown. The owners had tried adding litter boxes, pheromone diffusers, calming collars, and, with the guidance of their vet, multiple behavioral medications. At this point, however, the cats refused to take their medications and nothing else had helped.
When the problem went even further and poop was discovered behind the TV stand, the owners contacted me in the hopes of finally solving this problem.
Break it Down
On the surface, this seems like a massive issue. There are cats inappropriately urinating, cats spraying (those are different things), and cats fighting. Not to mention, a naughty kitten running around!
Digging a little deeper, some clues appeared. There were six litter boxes in this home, enough to meet the often quoted “number of cats + 1” rule but 5 boxes were lined up in one room together. (The sixth was small and used by the kitten who spent his time away from the others.)
These cats were loved dearly and given attention and cuddles consistently. However, they had little in the way of interactive play or enrichment beyond a few small toys laying around.
Then there was the indoor/outdoor factor. At least one study has found that outdoor access is correlated with fighting between cats in the home (Levine 2005). This is because cats are confronted with strange scents and other animals when outside, causing stress about their safety and security at home. An insecure or stressed cat is more likely to have conflicts with other pets and to display litter box issues.
On closer inspection, these issues aren’t all different problems but a sign of one big one. The cats were struggling to share the house and live peacefully together. Like so many cat homes, it came down to spreading out resources and adding play.
First up, separate those litter boxes. Rather than trying to add more, I advise the boxes be moved to different areas of the house. Some upstairs, some down, and at least one in the room where the cats preferred to lounge.
Next, these cats needed more positive ways to use their energy. Interactive play is best done multiple times a day but, with 5 cats and other limitations, this family was only able to add a few play sessions for each cat, each week. Importantly though, they also started introducing food puzzles to provide an easy play and enrichment. Miss Cranky Senior was the first to dive into the puzzles, choosing them over her regular bowl!
The indoor/outdoor cats presented a slight challenge. Transitioning an indoor/outdoor cat to indoors only can take time and effort. With the tension in the house, I decided to proceed carefully. One of the two typically spent more time inside already and had fewer issues with the others. It was decided that he would stay inside full time starting immediately. The other spent almost all of his time outside at this point and seemed to only come in to spray and get into fights. For the first part of solving this family’s problems, that cat was restricted from coming into the main house. He had access to the garage or was brought inside to a separate room overnight when the weather was bad. While it isn’t my goal to make a pet cat live fully outdoors, this wasn’t really a change for that cat and was a temporary measure while the other cats resolved some of their issues.
Some Change is Easy
Progress was made almost overnight. The amount of pee outside the box decreased substantial as soon as the boxes were separated. The pooping stopped completely. Scuffles decreased, too, and some of the cats were able to start sharing spaces that they had previously had conflict over.
Everything wasn’t instantly rainbows and sunshine. There were still issues and one cat was still not integrated into the household. But the success of a few modifications gave the owners hope that they could get all the way to a clean and peaceful home. And it gave them confidence to tackle other changes.
Next up, I guided them in making other adjustments to their home to increase vertical space (like cat trees or shelves) and blocking areas where one cat frequently cornered another. I also recommended ways to encourage appropriate marking (non-pee based, such as rubbing and scratching) so the cats could communicate with one another in a natural way. Finally, we began re-introducing the outdoor cat into the household with lots of supervision and management.
Small Things Make Big Differences
Even when the situation seems complicated and overwhelming, the basics still apply. Cats need plenty of resources (litter boxes, food and water, perches, hiding places) spread out around the home. They need to use their minds and bodies. They need to be guided into appropriate behavior with supervision and management, rather than being left to work things out for themselves. Whatever your situation, starting with the basics can make a major difference.
If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.