Causes And Diagnosis Of Cat's Bad Behavior
What makes a pet misbehave?
Behavior problems can be due to medical or behavioral causes, or both. A clinical history, physical examination, and diagnostic testing will determine if there are underlying medical conditions contributing to the problem. Although there may be a single cause for a behavior problem it is often the combined effect of the environment and learning on the cat's mental and physical health that determines behavior.
For example, the cat that is fearful of children, may begin to become more reactive, irritable, and aggressive as diseases such as dental problems or arthritis make it more uncomfortable, painful or less mobile.
Another example is the cat that had been exposed to other cats roaming across its territory, but only began to mark when it developed an overactive thyroid at 10 years of age. Correcting the thyroid problem as well as behavior modification techniques resolved the problem.
What are some behavioral causes of behavior problems?
Any change in the environment may contribute to the emergence of behavior problems. For example, schedule changes, a new member of the household (baby, spouse), moving, loss of a family member or pet, or the addition of a new pet can have a dramatic impact on behavior. Any medical or degenerative changes associated with aging may cause the cat to be even more sensitive to these environmental changes.
Learning (e.g. reinforcement, punishment) also plays a role in most behavior problems. When a cat's actions result in unpleasant consequences (discomfort, lack of attention) i.e. punishment, the chances of repeating the behavior will decrease. If the behavior is followed by pleasant consequences such as obtaining food, attention, or affection (rewards), the behavior is likely to be repeated. These consequences could occur unintentionally as when the cat gets into the garbage and finds some appealing leftovers, or could be administered by the owners, as when a reward is given following a behavior. It can be difficult to determine what might be reinforcing a behavior, but reinforcement maintains behavior problems.
What tests can be done to determine a behavioral cause?
A good history is one of the most important means of determining the cause of a behavioral problem. This involves an in depth analysis of the cat's medical and behavioral past including any training, as well as the circumstances surrounding the problem itself. Daily interactions with the cat and any changes in schedule need to be explored. Often the event that precipitated the behavioral change may be different from that which maintains it.
Based on the behavioral problem, the pet's age, and a physical examination, the veterinarian first determines if there are any medical causes or contributing factors. Diagnosis of a behavioral cause can only be made after all medical factors have been ruled out.
What medical conditions can cause or contribute to behavior problems?
A decline in the cat's hearing, sight or other senses, organ dysfunction (e.g. liver or kidney disease), hormonal diseases, diseases affecting the nervous system, diseases of the urinary tract (infections, tumors or stones), any disease or condition that might lead to pain or discomfort, and those that affect the pets mobility can all cause or contribute to behavior problems.
a) Any condition that leads to an increase in pain or discomfort can lead to increased irritability, increased anxiety or fear of being handled or approached, and ultimately an increased aggressiveness. If these aggressive displays are successful at removing the "threat" (and they usually are) the behavior is reinforced. Medical conditions that affect the ears, anal sacs, teeth and gums, bones, joints, or back (disks) are some of the more common causes of pain and discomfort. If the cat's mobility is affected, it may become increasingly aggressive, choosing to threaten and bite, rather than retreat. A decrease in mobility could also affect urination and defecation by reducing the cat's desire or ability to utilize its elimination area.
b) Sensory dysfunction: Cats with diminished sight or hearing may have a decreased ability to detect or identify the stimuli, and might begin to respond differently to commands, sounds or sights. Sensory decline is more likely to be seen as cat's age.
c) Diseases of the internal organs, such as the kidneys or liver, can cause a number of behavior changes, primarily due to the toxic metabolites that accumulate in the bloodstream. Organ decline and dysfunction is more common in the older cat. Any medical conditions that cause an increased frequency of urination or decreased urine control, such as kidney disease, bladder infections, bladder stones, or neurological damage might lead to an increase in house-soiling. Similarly, those problems that affect the frequency of bowel movements or bowel control, such as colitis or constipation might lead to house-soiling with stools.
d) Diseases of the brain and spinal cord can lead to a number of behavior and personality changes. Conditions such as epilepsy, brain tumors, infections, immune and degenerative diseases can all directly affect a cat's nervous system and therefore its behavior. In the older cat aging changes can have a direct effect on the brain, leading to cognitive dysfunction and senility.
e) The endocrine (hormone) system also plays a critical role in behavior. Over-activity or under-activity of any of the endocrine organs can lead to a number of behavior problems. The thyroid and parathyroid glands (in the neck), the pituitary gland (in the brain), the adrenal gland (by the kidneys), the pancreas, and the reproductive organs can all be affected by conditions or tumors that lead to an increase or decrease in hormone production. Endocrine disorders are more likely to arise as the cat ages.
f) The aging process is associated with progressive and irreversible changes of the body systems. Although these changes are often considered individually, the elderly cat is seldom afflicted with a single disease, but rather varying degrees of organ disease and dysfunction. Cognitive decline and senility have also been recognized in older cats.
What tests need to be done to determine if my pet's behavior problem is due to a medical condition?
Clinical history and physical examination
The assessment begins with a clinical history and physical examination. Laboratory tests may be needed. A more comprehensive examination such as a neurological examination or sensory testing may be required. For some of these tests your cat may need to be referred to a specialist.
Medical, surgical, dietary or pharmacologic treatment
Before beginning behavior therapy, any medical problem that has been diagnosed should be treated. A change in diet or a drug trial may be an important aspect of differentiating a medical from a behavioral cause (as a food trial or steroid trial might be used to rule out an underlying allergic cause). Surgery may also be indicated such as when a tumor is diagnosed or when castration is indicated to reduce male sexually influenced behaviors. For long standing behavior problems your veterinarian may commence medical and behavioral treatment.
Predatory Behavior In Cats
With the exception of lions, most members of the cat family are solitary hunters that hunt alone and primarily at night. The cat's earliest association with human beings, about 11,000 BC, was probably uninvited but tolerated because of its usefulness in rodent control. Predatory aggression in domestic cats today continues to provide a valued service. Predatory behavior in cats is both instinctive and learned.
Hunting techniques are practiced by most normal kittens in the form of play. For example, kittens born as barn cats learn to hunt by observing their mother and perfect their skills by trial and error. Some housecats without prior experience instinctively react to prey animals that accidentally cross their path. Not all cats, however, are "born hunters."
Presentation of Prey to Owners
Owners may be horrified when their cat presents them with a half-eaten mouse, chipmunk, squirrel, or bird, or worse, a wounded one. Prey presentation is neither a gift nor the cat's token of gratitude for hospitality and care. Rather, this may be redirected maternal behavior, causing a cat to return to its "den" with prey for its young. The queen will normally bring dead prey, even regurgitating halfdigested food, to her newborn litter. As the kittens grow, she will return with live prey to provide real teaching tools for her kittens' education.
Bringing their prey home may be a remnant of ancestral behavior. A cat's instinct may be to carry its prey to a sheltered area but not to consume it. Some cat owners proclaim that it is cruel to restrict a cat's natural instinct to hunt. Yet the same owners may be disturbed by their pet's success in capturing the birds that gather at the birdfeeder or fountain in their own back yard.
Preventing Predatory Behavior
The only practical way to resolve undesirable predatory behavior in cats is to prevent it. The instinct to hunt, particularly once a cat has become an experienced hunter, can be so strong that it lasts a lifetime. As long as a cat has the opportunity to hunt, it will hunt. Cats permitted to roam outdoors will express instinctive predatory behavior. Hunting may be part of a cat's outdoor activities, regardless of how well it is fed at home. Indeed, some outdoor cats prefer to hunt their own food and are finicky eaters at home.
It may help to attach bells to a breakaway collar (in addition to important identification tags). Though many cats learn to stalk their prey without ringing a single bell, multiple bells can help warn unsuspecting targets.
If you allow your cat to roam, you can prevent it from entering your home with its prey. You can install a magnetic cat door with triggering magnet collar or a cat door that allows the cat to exit at will but requires your presence to permit its reentry. This allows you to regulate unwelcome guests. Remember, though, that your pet can be injured in its attempts to capture prey and is susceptible to the health risks associated with roaming outdoors.
Territorial Behavior in Cats
Most species of wild cats live in relative solitude. Although there is reason to believe that the domestic cat is more social than many of its "wild" relatives and often forms affiliations with other cats, the territorial instinct is alive and well in the domestic feline. A cat's territorial nature is very much a reflection of its social behavior. Pet cats that are permitted to roam freely outdoors generally spend little time with other cats. For the most part, cats prefer to share their territory, indoors or out, with a select few or no other cats. The more densely populated the area, the greater the tension between individuals, regardless of gender or reproductive status. This applies to outdoor cats and to cats in multi-cat households.
The territory of outdoor cats may be shared by many individuals passing through at different times of day. Cats confined as housepets occupy a restricted home range as compared with the area they might otherwise claim outdoors. Cats usually adapt well to being kept indoors, particularly if they have been confined from a young age. Some kittens that have never been outdoors, however, can be quite persistent in their attempts to escape. Cats adopted as adults, even as adult strays, often thrive as housepets. Clearly, there is much individual variation in the territorial nature of domestic cats.