For five years, Toby and Ivy, sibling Sphynx cats, lived happily together—until the day their owner returned home to find their relationship had inexplicably turned ugly.
“I left them sleeping together at the sliding door a few hours before. I usually see them as soon as I come home. But that day I didn’t,” recalls Diane Hutchison, of Agawam, Mass. She found Ivy cowering under the bed. “Something had happened while I was away, but I had no idea what,” she says.
When she went to bed that night, Toby joined her as usual. But when Ivy tried to claim her normal sleeping spot, “Toby went straight after her,” says Hutchison. “You know the horrible screeching and wailing you hear when there’s a catfight outside? Well, that was happening under the covers.”
For more than a month, the cats remained on the outs. “The situation finally brought me to tears,” says Hutchison. “I thought I was going to have to give one cat up. Or one was going to have to live upstairs and the other downstairs.”
Hutchinson wondered if the medication Toby took for a heart murmur was causing his aggressive behavior. She found a path to feline harmony in the office of Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
“Medical issues can masquerade as behavioral changes, and behavioral issues can fool people into thinking it’s a medical problem,” says Dodman, the veterinary equivalent of a human psychiatrist.
Dodman specializes in unwanted behaviors that may require medication as well as medical problems that may have behavioral symptoms. Working with him on Toby’s case was Nicole Cottam, VG03, the behavior and research coordinator at Tufts’ Foster Hospital for Small Animals. As an applied animal behaviorist, Cottam, who earned a master’s degree in animals and public policy at Tufts, is like a psychologist in human-medicine terms: qualified to provide counsel on pets’ emotional issues, but unable to write prescriptions.
When the Fur Flies
Feline aggression—whether directed at another cat or the owner—is the second most common cat behavior problem treated at Tufts. Still, it’s not normal.
“Cats are not programmed to behave aggressively, because as solitary hunters, they have to maintain their own health to survive,” says Elizabeth Colleran, V90, VG96, the president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. “Cats’ main defense mechanism is to leave, to just get out of the way. Aggression is their last resort.”
When aggression is directed at a human, it usually indicates a cat is being mishandled in some way. “If a 16-year-old cat bites you after you touch his back or hips, he’s saying, ‘Don’t touch me there. I have arthritis, and it hurts,’ ” says Colleran.
Combativeness between cats may stem from incompatible temperaments, territorial struggles or too many animals in too little space. But even cats that have gotten along famously may experience an abrupt falling out after a separation, such as after a visit to the vet, or when one cat is startled and attacks the other.
That’s what the Tufts animal behaviorists suspected had happened with Toby. “We see a lot of cases where cats get into a fight while the owner is away,” says Cottam. “One cat sees something out the window that freaks him out, and since he can’t get to the thing that has frightened him, he turns around and beats up his cat buddy.”
To reconcile the feuding felines, Dodman designed a gradual reintroduction program keyed to positive experiences. He instructed Hutchison to install hook-and-eyelet latches on doors in her home so she could reacquaint Toby and Ivy at mealtime, feeding them in adjacent rooms so they could see and smell each other through the cracked doorway.
As the cats appeared to grow more comfortable with each other, Hutchison would move their food bowls closer to the door. Once the growling and hissing subsided, Hutchison let them in the same room; she swaddled Toby, the aggressor, in her lap while petting Ivy to soothe her. Once it seemed safe to release Toby around Ivy, Hutchison spent time supervising both pets, distracting them with treats or toys. Then she started leaving them alone, first for just 20 minutes and then for increasingly longer periods.
After three months, Toby and Ivy were finally back to being pals. It’s been 15 months since the fur first flew.
A Little Detective Work
Despite the proven success of feline behavior treatment, cats still lag far behind dogs in receiving appropriate care for such issues. Of the 600 behavior cases treated at Tufts each year, just one in 10 involves a cat. Dodman suspects this may be because many cat owners ascribe to a common misconception: their animals cannot be trained.
“Cats are smaller and quieter than dogs,” he adds. “They aren’t going to tear holes in the walls the way a dog with separation anxiety will. Your neighbors won’t complain about noise like they would with barking.”
However, cat owners should be aware that ignoring behavioral changes can endanger their animals’ health.
“Cats are creatures of habit,” says Colleran, who also holds a master’s degree in animals and public policy from Tufts. “So whenever there is an abrupt change in behavior, even if it’s subtle, the first thing I think of is, ‘OK, what kind of health problem is going on here?’ ”
Veterinarians initially screen a misbehaving cat for kidney issues, bladder problems, diabetes and signs of pain. “We will take blood samples if we suspect hyperthyroidism,” a possible cause of aggression, night yowling and compulsive grooming, says Dodman.
Once all potential medical causes of the aberrant behavior have been eliminated, vets look to the cat’s home for clues.
“We ask clients about the people in the cat’s environment, other pets, where resources such as food and litter boxes are located and where the cat came from,” says Colleran. “Cats are happy to have a social life with people and with other cats, but they don’t need it. What they do need is to feel unthreatened. Their sense of safety depends on having adequate places to eat, to rest, to hide and from which to view their surroundings. They look at the world in a whole different way from the way we—or even dogs—do,” she says.
“Owners don’t influence what a cat does as much as they do with dogs,” Dodman notes. “The majority of cat behavior problems are actually normal cat behaviors that are inappropriate from an owner’s perspective. These cats are not so much in need of a shrink as in need of someone to straighten out their environment so it works for all involved.”
Consider the number-one feline behavior problem: inappropriate urination.
“People talk about a cat that’s urinating outside the litter box as, ‘Oh, she’s mad and getting back at me,’ ” says Colleran. “But it’s never about revenge.”
Finding the Causes
A full examination is necessary to determine the cause of inappropriate urination. A lapse in litter box training can be caused by a urinary tract infection or other conditions that can quickly develop into a life-threatening urinary blockage.
Other illnesses can cause a cat to drink more water than usual, meaning it can’t always make it to a litter box in time. And as a cat ages, Colleran says, the litter box may be in a spot “that’s too inconvenient or painful to reach, or the box’s walls are too high for arthritic joints.”
Treating the underlying medical condition usually resolves litter box issues.
When illness is ruled out and the problem persists, veterinarians look for other explanations, such as stress-induced urine marking. Unneutered male cats often engage in this type of territorial marking during mating season, and so fixing the cat usually fixes the problem.
In other cases, cats may boycott the litter box when something about it is not to their liking—whether it’s too dirty, filled with the wrong kind of litter, covered or recently moved to a less-private area of the home.
Social conflict can also cause cats to abandon their litter training. After one of Colleran’s clients adopted two cats, one consistently urinated outside the litter box. “I went to the house to see where the cats lived,” she says. “One litter box was covered, and the other was shoved into a tiny little bathroom with one access point. Well, this one poor cat had been adopted with a bit of a bully. She was afraid to use the covered litter box because she couldn’t see where he was, and the bully cat guarded the entrance to the room with the other box. The client got an uncovered litter box and put it in an open, easily accessible spot. And the problem was over.”
Other Hairy Issues
When a cat is torn between fight or flight, it may channel that emotional tension into a seemingly unrelated behavior. For example, “there’s a whole subset of cats that lick themselves so much that they lose fur,” says Cottam.
After first ruling out dermatological problems, Dodman treats obsessive grooming with Prozac to reduce the cat’s anxiety. He and Cottam also work with owners to identify stressors in the household.
Pica, a medical disorder in which cats develop an appetite for nonfood substances, such as wool or other fabrics, is another common compulsive disorder. “It appears to have a genetic component as it’s seen predominately in Oriental breeds, such as Siamese and Burmese cats,” notes Dodman.
That was Stephanie Billingham’s experience. Over the years, the South Easton, Mass., psychologist has sought help at Tufts for several Siamese cats with expensive tastes.
“I first saw Dr. Dodman after meeting with multiple vets because Sebastian, one of my two Siamese cats, was eating anything I hung up to dry. He’d gnaw nylons, running gear, even towels,” says Billingham. Dodman diagnosed Sebastian with an eating disorder, which he treated by putting the cat on a high-fiber diet to sate his cravings.
The same problem occurred when Billingham’s Siamese kitten, Gabriel, developed a taste for cashmere. Gabriel, now 13, used to climb into dresser drawers to munch on Billingham’s cashmere sweaters and once even gnawed a hole in a dress while she was wearing it. When the cat was hospitalized after his digestive tract became blocked by the clothing fibers, Dodman diagnosed Gabriel with anxiety related to construction work being done in the home. The noxious nibbling was successfully treated with Prozac.
Televised Bad Behavior
Cesar Millan’s show about misbehaving mutts, The Dog Whisperer, has aired on the National Geographic Channel for seven years, turning the trainer into a multimedia and dog-product franchise. Animal Planet’s competing program, It’s Me or the Dog—featuring positive-reinforcement training tips for getting pets out of the family doghouse—has been airing almost as long.
However, it wasn’t until this past summer that Animal Planet launched My Cat from Hell. In the pilot, Jackson Galaxy, a musician by night and a cat behaviorist by day, brings his guitar case full of cat toys and knowledge to the aid of couples whose relationships are strained by dysfunctional cats.
It’s certainly time for such a culture shift, says Colleran, of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. She opened her two cat-only veterinary clinics in California and Oregon because she felt cats were an underserved population in small animal medicine.
“When you consider that behavioral issues are the top reason that healthy cats are surrendered to animal shelters, helping owners understand and live with their cats better is an absolutely crucial part of saving feline lives,” she says.
To owners, retraining a cat may seem intimidating, but the rewards are well worth it, says Hutchison, the owner of the once-pugilistic Toby.
“I felt discouraged by having to do all this work,” Hutchison says of the behavior-rehab program for Toby. “But Tufts held my hand the whole way, and the effort really paid off. Toby and Ivy are lying together on the couch right now, and they’re just fine.”
Managing Your Own “Cat from Hell”
Don’t go it alone. Regardless of what type of behavior problem your cat has, always consult your veterinarian to ensure that the cause is not a medical one. Many feline diseases first present themselves as behavioral problems.
Do get an expert opinion. The Cummings School’s VetFax service enables your veterinarian to seek consultation on a puzzling case. You also can use the school’s PetFax service to request a report describing potential causes and a treatment plan to bring to your veterinarian. For more information, call 508-887-4640.
Do take a video. Technology makes it cheap and easy to capture problem behavior and share it with your veterinarian. A picture can be worth a thousand words.
Don’t give up. Fortunately, treating a behavior problem is often easier than the detective work needed to determine the cause. And your cat will thank you for it!
For more tips on common feline behavior problems—including plant eating and couch shredding—visit the Tufts Behavior Clinic.
This story first appeared appeared in the Fall 2011 Tufts Veterinary Medicine magazine.
Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.