Cats Behaving Badly? There’s Probably a Reason Why

Cats can have issues—they just can't say so. NJM spoke with veterinarian and behavior therapist Dr. Emily Levine about how to better understand our feline friends.

"Your pets are speaking to you. We just have to learn to listen." Dr. Emily Levine.
"Your pets are speaking to you. We just have to learn to listen." Dr. Emily Levine.
Photo by David Debalko

Dogs are easy to get. Their expressive faces and cute behaviors communicate emotion with ease. When you get home, your dog runs to you with tail wagging, and might even jump up and lick you. Clearly, he or she is happy to see you.

Cats, on the other hand, are enigmatic creatures—but that’s a big part of their charm. It’s also the reason they are often perceived as standoffish, independent or emotionally opaque. A cat who is excited to see you might, at most, rub against you and wrap its tail across your calves.

Though cats’ expressions are subtle, they can be as communicative as canines. You just might not be speaking the same language—yet.

“If you look at the cat’s body language, they’re usually telling us that they’re getting aggravated and annoyed,” says Dr. Emily Levine, a veterinarian and behavior specialist at the Animal Behavior Clinic of Animal Emergency & Referral Associates in Fairfield.

The most common issues Levine encounters in cats include house soiling, aggression between or among cats, aggression directed at people, and disruptive behaviors, such as knocking things off counters or waking up owners in the middle of the night with loud meows.

Several steps are needed to curb such behaviors. First, says Levine, you should see a veterinarian to rule out a medical condition as a cause. Next, the source of the problematic behavior is determined during an appointment with a veterinary behaviorist or a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB). These professionals can assess a cat’s temperament and reaction to various situations. Once a diagnosis has been made, a behavior specialist like Levine can work with owners to establish a treatment plan that fits the animal’s unique needs.

“A lot of indoor cats are just bored,” says Levine. “When you get a puppy, you’re told to socialize them, take them places, and play with them. But when you get a kitten, you just take it home and that’s it.”

For bored kitties, Levine recommends environmental enrichment, including foraging activities and even training sessions like you might conduct for a dog. “As long as a cat is treat motivated, you can teach them to high five, sit or come, or spin when you say spin,” she says. “There are plenty of ways to enrich cats and prevent boredom.”

According to the ASPCA, more than 3 million cats are relinquished to animal shelters every year, with behavioral problems cited as the most common reason owners decide to find another home for their pet. But with help from a veterinary behaviorist, there might be better options.

“Most people that come here obviously love their pet. They do not want to give them up, but they’re in a difficult situation,” says Levine. “They’re under a lot of stress—and we’re very sympathetic to that.”

For Levine, it’s a good day when she’s able to keep a cat with its family, ensuring it won’t end up in a shelter or be euthanized for an issue that’s treatable. To prevent problems from developing, she stresses the importance of bonding with your cat from day one, noting their likes and dislikes.

“Your pets are speaking to you,” she says. “We just have to learn to listen.”

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