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Abnormal Cat Behavior


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. Medical problems can cause other strange behaviors.

What Are Abnormal Cat Behaviors?

There is a wide variety in what is normal for cats, and many things come down to personality. Still, some things are always abnormal, and they include:

  • Pica, or eating nonfood items
  • Wool sucking or fabric chewing
  • Unusual fears, anxieties, or phobias
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders

Pica in Cats

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 something else. A thorough examination by your veterinarian will help determine if pica is due to a medical condition.

It can be hard to believe, but cats may eat:

Fabric sucking (or chewing) often spontaneously appears in cats. 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 in kittens. 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, and early weaning or hand raising may predispose cats to this. 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 causes of pica in cats 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 (senility-many signs)
  • Thyroid disease (hyperactive, overgrooming, vocalizing)

If your veterinarian has ruled out a medical cause for your cat’s pica, you can decrease your cat’s stress by eliminating unpredictable events as much as possible. For example:

  • Feed him at the same time every day
  • Clean the litter box at a regular time, and do it 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 toys 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.

Anxiety and Phobias in Cats

Some cats may develop fears, anxieties, and phobias that lead to abnormal behavior. 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.” For instance, many cats become anxious at the sight of the cat carrier. They are afraid of the future danger that a ride in the carrier might mean.

Phobias are extreme, exaggerated fear reactions that may develop very quickly and are difficult to treat. Common phobias in cats 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, or situation) the fear behavior may improve. This is called desensitization. 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.

Avoiding the Development of Abnormal Behavior in Cats

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 it is secondary to an underlying medical condition. 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.

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