When You’ve Tried Everything – Troubleshooting Behavior Problems

The internet is an amazing place (seriously, I’m not being sarcastic!). We have huge amounts of amazing information at our fingertips. And while not all of it is high quality (or even correct), the resourceful pet guardian can find a lot of answers.

But what happens when you’ve reached the bottom of Google’s results and your cat is still peeing everywhere but in their litter box? Or your cats are still feuding? Where do you go from there?

innocent kitten
Image by Ty Swartz from Pixabay

Cats all over the country (world) are losing their homes and lives because of issues that take more than the advice of an article online. The important thing to remember is that, even if you searched online and tried every tip, there is probably still hope. Below I’ve described some of the common mistakes that people make when trying to solve behavior issues on their own. And then I’ll tell you about some people who are out there and ready to help you. Even if you’ve already tried

Mistake: Skipping the Vet

If you are dealing with any sudden behavior change or litter box issues your first step should be to schedule a vet visit. Cats are very good at hiding signs of illness and behavior change is very often the first sign. Your cat should be given a full physical and tested for urinary tract infections (if there are litter box issues). The vet may also recommend bloodwork and x-rays. 

Sometimes you may need a second vet visit or a second opinion to find the issue. A cat I worked with had multiple large bladder stones. The first x-ray didn’t show them and so the owner struggled to solve the cat’s inappropriate urination on her own. Finally she surrendered the cat. Once the shelter vet discovered the problem and removed the stones, the cat quickly returned to using her litter box and was adopted. The sad truth is that most cats surrendered for litter box avoidance aren’t given this chance.

If you don’t think you can afford a vet visit, search for low cost clinics in your area. Not every behavior problem has a medical component but you will never solve the issue on your own if it does. Waiting will likely result in higher vet bills if there is an issue. And you may be sacrificing your cat’s health or even their life.

Mistake: Going Too Fast

Don’t try to move through your plan too quickly. Each step should be completed fully with any cats involved being relaxed and confident. Cat-cat conflict and fear are two issues that are commonly rushed. It can take months or more to help a fearful cat feel safe or get two cats comfortable sharing a space.

A good rule of thumb is to look for signs of relaxation and enjoyment from your cat(s) before moving to the next step. This means that even if your cat is allowing something (like petting on the head), they may not be ready for the next step yet (not ready for full body petting or being picked up). Keep working until they are showing that they actually enjoy the experience. You’ll ultimately save time by going slower but avoiding negative reactions and setbacks.

Mistake: Not Giving it Enough Time/Expecting Too Much

Few behaviors change quickly. You can do everything right and only see small effects. It may be that you just need to stay the course. This is especially true with fear. While there may be other steps you can take to speed up the process, don’t panic if your cat’s behavior isn’t magically transformed. Some products, such as pheromone sprays (like Feliway) or calming treats, can promise a dramatic fix. And they can be useful when added to a behavior modification plan. But they aren’t magic so don’t expect problems to be instantly solved.

Your cat’s individual nature will also affect the outcome. Two cats may both be very stressed and fearful after being adopted into a new home. One may settle in within days while the other is still shy of new people after a year. If things are getting better in even small ways, count that as a win and keep going.

Of course, time doesn’t necessarily heal all. Don’t keep pushing forward blindly. If the problem is staying the same or getting worse, you need to rethink your plan or get more help.

Mistake: Punishment

Most of the ways we attempt to punish bad behavior aren’t very effective and can also lead to some unfortunate consequences. Spray bottles, shake cans, yelling, flicking, and other punishments that come directly from a person can lead to fear, aggression, and even health issues. Many studies show the detrimental effect of punishment on the behavior, health, and well-being of dogs*. While research on cats isn’t as common (yet), there’s little reason to think cats aren’t affected in similar ways.

On top of that, people generally don’t find their punishment is effective long-term. This is usually because they are inconsistent and/or are trying to punish their cat for something that the cat naturally must do and doesn’t have an outlet for. Scratching furniture is a good example; an owner might try squirting a cat with water when they see the cat start to scratch but the cat is still scratching when the owner is at work. Or the owner may put sticky tape on the couch but the cat doesn’t have an appropriate scratching post so they start scratching the curtains.

Deterrents that make a behavior unpleasant for the cat can help with solving some problems (like using sticky tape on furniture). However they must be combined with other changes like rewarding desirable behavior and providing appropriate outlets for natural behaviors.

Mistake: Using Bribes Instead of Rewards

If your going to change behavior you need motivation (for your cat, you’re already motivated!). Both seeking something good and avoiding something bad are motivating but as discussed above, punishment carries a lot of baggage and is actually really hard to do effectively. So you’ll need something rewarding**. Food is an important tool in teaching new behaviors and building positive feelings around certain activities, such as nail trims. If you’re working with a fearful cat or dealing with any situation where the cat is having a negative reaction to something you’re trying to do, food is essential. Play can also be a reward; it can be more useful in some cases than others.

There are two ways to use food (or any reward): to reward a behavior or to build a positive association with something. In both cases, order matters. This is a pretty simplified model but is generally you’re hoping for either:

Reward
Behavior -> Earns Food
Cat Thinks: That behavior is worth repeating!

Or:

Positive Association
Person/Place/Thing -> Predicts Food
Cat Thinks: That person/place/thing is good!

What you’re trying to avoid is:

Bribe or Trick
Food -> Unpleasant Thing
Cat Thinks: Run when that food comes out or avoid food at certain times

Some ways that “rewards” can backfire include using food to tempt a fearful cat to come close and then touching them before they are comfortable or using food to lure a cat into a carrier only when you are going to close it and take them to the vet. You can avoid this mistake by making sure that you don’t follow food with a negative experience (as defined by your cat).

(As with many things, there are exceptions to this rule. A food distraction in the vet clinic while your cat gets an exam can be a great tool, for example. Just be careful and watch for signs of a negative response to the food.)

Mistake: Inconsistency/Allowing Behavior Sometimes

This goes along with using punishment to prevent a behavior. If your cat can continue doing the unwanted behavior sometimes you aren’t ever going to eliminate it, even with punishment.  Cats are plenty smart enough to learn that they have to wait for the humans to leave the room before they scratch the furniture. Or even to just wait for the spray bottle to be in a different room.

Another way inconsistency prevents change is when family members aren’t on the same page about what behavior is okay. Playful aggression is a common example: one family member plays with a kitten by moving their hand under a blanket and the other family member wakes up unhappy when the kitten bites their feet through the sheets. 

Also a problem is when the behavior is “okay” sometimes but not others. Attention seeking behavior is another good example: your cat won’t understand that it’s cute when they sit on your computer when you’re checking Facebook but not okay when you are typing an important work email.

Mistake: Assuming Your Done

Behavior is always changing. You can’t “cure” a behavior and then be immune to it forever after. All behavior is driven by seeking desirable consequences, fulfilling needs, and avoid negative consequences (as viewed by the individual). If your cat’s world changes in some way, they may go back to the problem behavior unless you are paying attention, being proactive, and meeting their needs.

Finding More Help

Changing behavior can be complicated, even for experience cat owners. This isn’t even a complete list of the ways that behavior modification can go wrong. Please don’t assume that once you’ve tried everything that the internet has suggested that you are out of options.

Your vet can be another source of information. However not all vets are specialists in behavior and some actually have very little training or knowledge in that area. Another option is a veterinary behaviorist – a veterinarian with special training and education in behavior issues who can be extremely helpful. Unfortunately this is a newer field and there are not many veterinary behaviorists yet. They are generally quite expensive.

If your cat came from a rescue or shelter, try contacting them for advice. Some large organizations have staff and volunteers specifically available to help you. The downside is that they may not have specialized knowledge about changing behavior and they may have limited time to help, depending on the place. The upside is that it will likely be free.

Finally, many people aren’t aware that there are cat behavior consultants in the world (*wink wink*). Just like good dog behavior consultants or trainers, cat consultants are specifically educated on helping with the behavior problems that plague cat owners. You seek professional help in many areas of your life, why not get help when your happiness, your home, and your cat’s life are in the balance?

Don’t sacrifice your home for your cat or your cat for your home!

*This paper isn’t open-source but here’s an article about it. (jump back)

**Technically you want to follow a behavior with “reinforcement” which means a consequence that causes an individual to be more likely to repeat a behavior. So giving a reward would be reinforcing (assuming the individual likes the reward). I’ve simplified a bit here because the distinction isn’t that important in this context and learning theory can get complicated quickly. (jump back)