By Paul Ciampanelli
Humans first domesticated cats more than 5,000 years ago, but cats still haven’t adapted to civilized, indoor life in every way. Most cat owners are familiar with a handful of bad cat habits that can be difficult to break, like clawing at furniture, not using litter boxes correctly and more. Fortunately, no cat behavior problem is hopeless. Read on to learn how to deal with the most common bad cat habits.
Q: How can I keep my cat from clawing my furniture?
A: First, it’s important to understand that scratching serves several important functions for cats. Scratching is a natural behavior that cats use to exercise their muscles, maintain their claws and mark their scent. Still, that probably won’t make you any happier if your cat shreds your couch, drapes or other furnishings. Your cat has to scratch, though. Your task isn’t to stop it from scratching, but to give it appropriate outlets for its scratching while deterring it from destroying the furniture and other inappropriate targets.
Your first line of defense is to obtain a scratching post or some other similar, appropriate scratching surface for your cat to use. These can take the form of relatively expensive, attractive pieces of
furniture themselves, or simple cardboard surfaces that will cost you only a few bucks. Your cat may take to its new scratching surface naturally, but if not, you can gently drag its paws over the surface to show it the point, or even use your own hands and nails to demonstrate. Meanwhile, keep your cat’s claws trimmed to reduce the damage it does to your furniture while it learns to use the scratching post. Always be patient while your cat learns a new behavior.
Q: How can I keep my cat from going outside the box?
A: There are many reasons why a cat may not use its litter box correctly, and it’s important to consider each one. There may be something wrong with the box itself that is keeping your cat away. First, make sure you’re meeting your obligation to remove waste from the box at least once per day, and keep the area clean and tidy. Cats don’t like to use dirty litter boxes, and if you shirk your duty, your cat will find other places to go to the bathroom. If the box is clean, make sure it is located in a place that is easy to access, but that also provides a modicum of privacy. If you have other pets, make sure they’re not chasing your cat away when it tries to use the box. Any source of stress associated with the litter box can cause your cat to avoid it.
If you can rule out environmental and behavioral factors that could be causing your cat to go outside the box, then the source of the problem may be a medical one. If no other explanation seems likely, it’s time to visit the veterinarian. Describe the behavior to your vet so he or she can rule out or diagnose any medical problem that might be causing your cat’s distress
Q: How can I keep my cat from going on the counter?
A: Cats are natural climbers, and it’s normal for them to jump to high places in their homes. Cats like to be up high because it allows them to survey and explore their environments. It’s instinctual behavior, but it can be a nuisance when your cat insists on walking around areas you want to keep clean and sanitary, like your kitchen counters.
As with scratching behavior, it’s important to understand that you can’t stop your cat’s need to climb, so instead you must provide alternative outlets for your cat to indulge its instincts. There are many kinds of cat “trees” and cat-climbing furniture available commercially. They can be as simple or as complicated as you like, with varying price tags to match. If you’re a DIY type, you can
even build your own cat tree. Another, simpler option is to invest in cat window shelves. These offer your cat not only a high spot to perch, but also a comfortable way to relax and look out the window — a favorite feline pastime.
Q: How can I keep my cat from biting while playing?
A: Cats like to play, especially young cats and kittens. Playing and play-fighting are an important part of a cat’s development. Because play behavior usually simulates hunting skills for cats, it often takes the form of a pretend attack. That’s why some play sessions may result in your cat attacking your hand or some other place on your body. Cats may also bite if the cat has had enough petting, or some temperamental cats may bite for no obvious reason.
Biting should be discouraged. Sometimes you may be tempted to “wrestle” with your cat or kitten, allowing it to bite or claw at your hand, because it doesn’t hurt you very much and it’s fun for both of you. However, doing this reinforces the idea that
biting is OK, and your cat may later end up biting other people, or biting you when you don’t think it’s playtime. You don’t want your cat to grow up thinking that hands are toys. Whenever your cat bites, disengage immediately. If you’ve been playing, stop the play and walk away. This tells your cat that biting is a bad move, and doing it will stop the fun time. You may also wish to gently but firmly say no, or clap your hands to signal that your cat made a mistake. Don’t shout or scare your cat.
Q: In what other ways can I stop bad cat behavior?
A: Remember that you can’t train a cat the same way or as easily as you would train a dog. Cats are more sensitive and easily frightened, so although your cat can learn that a firm no or other audio cue means to stop what it’s doing, you should never shout at your cat or punish it. More than likely, you’ll only frighten and confuse the cat, and it won’t learn any lesson other than to be afraid of you.
Instead of punishment, use positive reinforcement to encourage your cat to repeat good behavior. Instead of shouting when your cat does the wrong things, offer praise and treats when it does the right things. Offer rewards immediately when your cat earns one, to reinforce the association between the behavior and the reward.
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