Behavior Resources

Although CLICK doesn't offer behavior consultations, we want you to know that there IS help for you and your cat if you need it (see below). But here's some general advice to get you on the right track toward a peaceful household.

Medical or Behavioral?

First, it's never a bad idea to take your cat to the veterinarian to rule out underlying health issues that may be contributing to behavior problems. For instance, litterbox issues can occur because of bladder health problems, a urinary tract infection, arthritis or metabolic diseases such as diabetes. Excessive vocalization or aggressive behavior is sometimes seen with thyroid disease. Aggression can also be related to pain. If you've gotten a clean bill of health for your cat, then you'll need to start behavior modification. Some basic principles of learning and behavior modification are described here.

Animals Do What Works

All animals (including humans!) are more likely to do behaviors that are rewarding in some way, and less likely to do those that have an aversive or even a neutral result. So when your cat is doing something you don't want him to do, think about WHY he is doing it-what is reinforcing that behavior? If Kitty is jumping on the kitchen counters, what's his reward? Is he getting access to food, a chance to look out a window, or getting attention from you (remember, even yelling is attention!)? Admittedly, sometimes the reinforcer is not so obvious. Regardless, instead of thinking, "how do I get my cat to STOP doing something," think about what you'd like him to do instead, and figure out how to set up the environment to encourage the appropriate behavior and reinforce him for it. For the counter surfing example above, consider a combination of management (clearing the counters of food, closing the blinds, or perhaps even blocking off access to the kitchen) AND providing a similar reinforcer for an alternate, appropriate behavior. For instance, set up a cat tree or shelf near the kitchen and encourage your cat to go there instead by using toys and treats. So now, it's harder for Kitty to get on the counters and if he does, there's nothing good there anymore anyway. But it's easy for him to get on the cat tree -- and lo and behold - there's almost always a treat or toy waiting for him there, and maybe even a great window view!

Practice Your ABCs

First, think about what the BEHAVIOR is that you want to modify (jumping on the counters). Then think, what is the ANTECEDENT (the cue, or the environmental setup) that incites or allows for this behavior to occur (the availability of the counter; a window view or food on the counter)? And what is the CONSEQUENCE for the cat when she performs this behavior (she gets to look out the window, access to food, attention from you)? If the consequence is rewarding, it is more likely to occur in the future. If it is neutral or aversive, it is less likely to occur in the future. (Please note, using aversives [or what many think of as "punishment"] is a tricky thing and can have a lot of negative fallout, so we don't generally recommend that.)

Be Sure Your Cat's Needs are Being Met

Most behavior problems arise at least in part because the cat's needs are not all being met. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) describes Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment:

  1. Provide a safe place
  2. Provide multiple and separated key environmental resources: food, water, toileting areas, scratching areas, play areas, and resting or sleeping areas
  3. Provide opportunity for play and predatory behavior
  4. Provide positive, consistent and predictable human-cat social interaction
  5. Provide an environment that respects the importance of the cat's sense of smell

Take a cat's-eye look at your household environment and try to determine what's missing from it that could be causing or worsening the behavior problem you're dealing with. What is your cat trying to tell you? Our cats are our beloved pets, but remember, they are animals first and foremost, and they're trying to communicate with you in the best way they know how.

Helpful Links

Northern Colorado Cat Behavior Help

Veterinary Behavior Consultations of Colorado

Amelia Wieber, Caring Behavior (Fort Collins, CO)

Dumb Friends League Behavior Help Line (Free and it doesn't matter if you didn't adopt your cat from there.)

Online Cat Behavior Info

Pam Johnson-Bennett, Cat Behavior Associates

Dumb Friends League Pet Behavior Handouts

Humane Society of Boulder Valley Online Behavior Library

Best Friends Animal Society Cat Resources

The Ohio State University's Indoor Pet Initiative (Cats)

Dr. Sophia Yin's animal behavior website

Cats' Environmental Needs (and other behavior and care info from the American Association of Feline Practitioners)