(Yes, your cat)
Does your cat scratch the furniture? Jump up on the kitchen counter when you’re cooking or when guests are over? Urinate on the carpet?
That can be changed! Despite the misconception, cats of any age can be taught to alter problematic behavior. But to accomplish this, the cat owner must work out why the cat is engaging in a particular behavior, then help it learn an alternative behavior that is acceptable to both person and cat.
Common problems and solutions…
PROBLEM: FURNITURE SCRATCHING
For a cat, scratching can be a form of exercise and a way to remove dead outer nail sheaths from the claw. But mainly it’s a way to claim ownership of territory via the scratch marks—and the accompanying scent left behind by scent glands in the cat’s paws. It’s the cat equivalent of scrawling “Kilroy was here” on a wall.
Cats are particularly likely to scratch couches, easy chairs and beds because these are places where the scent of the humans of the household is strongest. To a cat, a strong human scent on a piece of furniture is like that human saying, “I own this.” When a cat scratches it, the cat is saying, “No, you don’t—it’s mine.” Or a cat might scratch curtains or windowsills to let the people or animals it sees outside the house know that the space inside the home is the cat’s.
What to do: Put double-sided sticky tape on the furniture that you want to stop the cat from scratching—cats don’t like the feel of it. Use enough tape to cover the area your cat likes to scratch. Also, place an acceptable scratching option, such as a scratching post, right next to each piece of furniture that the cat likes to scratch. Position each as close to the scratched spot as possible. This new scratching option will be in the same “scent zone” as the furniture, so scratching it will satisfy the cat’s need to smell its own scent in this area. You can remove the tape when the cat has consistently abandoned the furniture for the scratching post.
PROBLEM: URINATING/DEFECATING OUTSIDE THE LITTER BOX
Cats do this to mark their territory when they feel this territory is threatened. Start by considering where the cat is urinating/defecating. Common patterns…
Urinating/defecating near windows and exterior doors. There’s a good chance that the cat sees or smells something outside the house that it considers a threat—possibly another cat.
What to do: Place a litter box near each door or window where this occurs. If this means litter boxes are in locations that you consider unacceptable, such as by the front door, you can very slowly slide these boxes toward more acceptable spots. But don’t start to do this until the cat has used the litter box consistently (no peeing outside the litter box) for at least a few weeks. Cats generally accept repositioning the box as long as the litter box is not moved more than one foot each day.
Urinating/defecating on or near the possessions of a new member of the household…or urinating/defecating in a spot outside the litter box shortly after someone new has joined the household.
What to do: Encourage the cat to form positive associations with this new person. (For information on how to introduce your cat to a new animal in the house, go to my website JacksonGalaxy.com and search “New Animal in the House.”) Have this person feed the cat…play with the cat…and give the cat new cat toys. Move the cat’s food dish to a spot where this person’s scent is strong. If the cat’s peeing issues started when a new baby joined the family—a common trigger for this problem—feed the cat right next to the baby’s crib.
Exception: Urinating or defecating outside the litter box may stem from a health problem such as a urinary tract infection. Take the cat to see a vet if it makes pained noises when peeing/defecating…if there is blood in its urine or feces…or if the cat has a history of urinary or bowel-related health issues.
PROBLEM: INTERFERING WITH FOOD PREP OR MEALTIME
Some cats like to be close to the action when their owners are preparing or consuming food.
What to do: Cover the tops of place mats with double-sided sticky tape. Position these place mats where the cat tends to jump up on countertops and tables.
Also purchase a “clicker”—a handheld training device sold in pet stores. Teach the cat to associate its clicking sound with receiving its favorite treat. Click the clicker and very quickly provide a treat. Do this again and again for as long as the activity holds your cat’s interest. Repeat this every day until you can tell that the cat anticipates a treat when it hears the clicking sound. (This might take a few days or several weeks of practice, depending on the cat.)
Next, teach your cat to sit. While the cat is standing, move a treat slowly back over its head. Sometimes the cat has to lean so far back to watch the treat that its backside will hit the ground, leaving the cat seated. Immediately click the clicker, and give the cat the treat when this occurs. Important: If there’s a delay of more than two seconds between the cat’s action and receiving its treat, it is unlikely that the two things will become linked in the cat’s mind and the training will be ineffective. Repeat this until your cat reliably sits down when it sees that you’re holding a cat treat.
Finally, teach the cat to sit in a specific, elevated spot in the kitchen where it can see what you’re doing but is not in your way or overly close to your food. This might be a cat tree positioned in the corner of the room or on a stool. Use a treat to tempt the cat to this location, and sound the clicker and provide a treat as soon as it sits there. When the cat reliably sits in this location when in the kitchen, you can slowly phase out the clicker and remove the taped place mats.
Helpful: Attempt treat-based cat training only before mealtimes when the cat is hungry. Use extremely small treats during training so that your cat doesn’t fill up too quickly. Choose soft treats, not crunchy ones, which take longer for cats to eat.