Cats are social animals, not always the solitary creatures as once thought, and the lack of appropriate socialization from 3-16 weeks of age may contribute to the development of some abnormal behaviors. Boredom and stress can also be contributors. Genetics may play a role in basic personality type and some compulsions.
What is abnormal?
Some examples include:
- Pica (eating nonfood items)
- Wool sucking or fabric chewing
- Unusual fears, anxieties, phobias
- Obsessive-compulsive disorders
The cause of pica behavior is unknown, but most often it is a type of compulsive behavioral problem. However, sometimes it might be a sign that there is an underlying medical condition such as anemia, liver disease, thiamine deficiency or other abnormality. A thorough examination by your veterinarian will help determine if pica is due to a medical condition.
Hard to believe, but cats may eat:
- Rubber bands
- Electric cords
- Needles and thread or yarn
- Cat litter
Fabric sucking (or chewing) often spontaneously appears. Wool is a particular favorite with the Oriental and Siamese breeds. Some cats will suck on the wool in a manner that is similar to early suckling seen as a kitten. Other cats will chew on and ingest the wool. This can cause digestive problems and sometimes gut blockage. Stress, boredom, genetics, changes in the surroundings, as well as early weaning/hand raising may predispose cats to these behaviors. This type of behavior is most common in indoor cats.
Environmental enrichment, reducing stress in your cat’s life and keeping all the targeted items out of your cat’s reach may help reduce this behavior. However, without providing other outlets for your cat’s boredom or stress, other compulsive behaviors may occur. These include excessive licking, grooming or chewing of the hair and skin, relentless pacing, and repetitive meowing (vocalizing). A thorough physical examination by your veterinarian will eliminate possible medical causes for these behaviors.
Medical problems can include:
- Skin disease (licking, overgrooming)
- Parasites such as fleas (licking, overgrooming)
- Chronic pain (hyperesthesia or sensitive skin, overgrooming, pacing, vocalizing)
- Central nervous system diseases (pacing, abnormal vocalization).
- Deafness (vocalization)
- Senility (cognitive disorder-many signs)
- Thyroid disease (hyperactive, overgrooming, vocalizing)
If your veterinarian has ruled out a medical cause for your cat’s obsessive behavior, you can decrease your cat’s stress by eliminating unpredictable events as much as possible.
- Feed him at the same time every day
- Clean the litter box at a regular time, and daily
- Provide predictable playtime
- Increase fun activities for your cat by giving him new toys and rotating the availability of the toys
- Provide opportunities for climbing, exploring, and hiding with perches and cat trees
- Have your cat “hunt” for small food treats in puzzle boxes or under furniture
- Provide your cat with the opportunity to watch birds and wildlife outdoors, or to watch a video specifically made for cats
- You may also offer greens by planting an approved “kitty grass garden.”
- Begin a behavior modification program with the help of your veterinary health team. This includes ignoring the abnormal behavior and rewarding good behavior as much as possible. However, do not punish your cat for his abnormal behavior! This may increase his stress, worsen the behavior, and lead to fear and aggression. Instead, help your cat substitute a normal behavior, such as getting him to play with a favorite toy.
Some cats may develop fears, anxieties and phobias. Fear is a feeling of uneasiness or apprehension and is a normal response to frightful things. However, some cats develop abnormal fear reactions to other animals, people, new situations, places, noises, or objects. Anxiety is the uneasy anticipation of “future danger.” Many cats become anxious at the sight of the cat carrier. Phobias are extreme, exaggerated fear reactions that may develop very quickly and are difficult to treat. Common phobias are to noises and places. Fearful cats may become aggressive, stay still, or run away. They might try to hide, appear smaller, or freeze in place. Their ears may be back or flattened. The pads of the feet may sweat, and the heart will race. Some cats will show signs of aggression with bristled hairs, hissing, growling, swatting, and dilated pupils.
A thorough examination by your veterinarian will eliminate any underlying medical problems. Identifying the source of the fear is the first step. Many fear behaviors are learned and with very slow, low level exposure to the stimulus (object, person, noise, situation) the fear behavior may improve. Your veterinarian can help you begin the behavior modification program. Treatment with medications may be necessary during times when the fear-producing stimulus cannot be avoided.
We know that the early socialization of kittens (age 3-16 weeks) is extremely important for the development of a normal adult cat. Socialization of kittens, especially during the sensitive period from age 3-9 weeks, by frequent, pleasant exposure to different situations that involve adult humans, children, other animals, and new environments significantly helps to decrease the risk of developing a variety of abnormal behaviors in the cat’s adult life. Reducing stress and boredom in your cat’s life will also help prevent the development of these abnormal behaviors.
If an abnormal behavior starts up, it is extremely important as a first step to have your cat examined by a veterinarian to determine if the abnormal behavior is secondary to an underlying medical condition. As listed above in the bulleted list, for those cases where medical conditions produce the behavior changes, unless the underlying cause is identified and treated, the behavior abnormalities will not be managed effectively. That is why all cats with behavior problems should receive a professional assessment so the treatment plan will be properly designed to reflect the absence or presence of these underlying problems.