Miscellaneous Normal but Unacceptable Cat Behaviors
This is a fairly commonly observed behavior in castrated male cats, and even when the chosen object is their own leg, most owners find it mildly amusing. Soft objects - cloth, slippers - are usually the objects of choice. Mounting is also occasionally seen in spayed female cats. Intact animals rarely engage in non-sexual mounting. Cats that fight are more likely to mount, although they do not mount their rivals. Some cats appear to engage in the behavior to attract their owner’s attention, and simply leaving the room when the cat engages in the behavior may extinguish it quite quickly. Other cats pursue the behavior to almost obsessive lengths, mounting for 30 minutes or more at a time, and rearranging objects in the home. If this appears to be the case, treating with fluoxetine or amitriptyline may reduce the intensity and frequency of the behavior, or extinguish it entirely. If mounting appears suddenly in an older cat, it may indicate a medical problem such as bladder cancer.
Cat’s scratch not only to keep their claws sharp and clean, but also to mark their territory with secretions from the interdigital glands, and visual signals. If the cat is only scratching one or two spots it is generally only doing so for the former purpose, but if numerous locations are being targeted, particularly those near doors and windows, the cat is probably marking. At least 60% of cats, according to one study, whose owners did not consider them to have behavior problems, scratched the furniture! Most cats scratch near their sleeping area. Free-ranging cats scratch more when other cats are in the vicinity.
Owners may seek to control the behavior by declawing their cat. Besides the associated pain of this procedure for the cat, it renders the animal defenseless in encounters with other cats, and condemns it to a life indoors, which can in turn produce stress, anxiety and unwanted behaviors.
Cats whose owners have clipped and filed their claws from early kitten hood are unlikely to scratch. Other cats will happily use a scratching post, but have to be taught its purpose. The cat should be directed towards the post and rewarded with food or praise for using it. Make scratching motions with the cat’s paws, praising and rewarding while doing so. Application of catnip can make the designated post more attractive. Applying Feliway to inappropriate locations may be helpful.
Cats will often reject posts if they do not mimic their particular scratching preference profile. By observing what the cat is scratching, we can get clues as to what will be attractive for a particular cat. Most cats prefer vertical surfaces, but some will only scratch horizontal ones - especially the carpet. Some prefer carpeting, others canvas, and yet others plain wood or pieces of log with bark still on them.
The cat should be distracted from inappropriate scratching, preferably as soon as it has been initiated. Verbal reprimands or sudden noises, or spraying with a water gun should be sufficient to stop the behavior, but not so intense as to terrify the cat. The owner should be discouraged from trimming the cat’s claws right after it is seen scratching inappropriately, or it may regard the clipping as a form of punishment. When the owner is not home to monitor the cat’s inappropriate scratching the cat should be confined where it can cause no damage. If a particular area is a cause of conflict with the owner, booby traps may convince the cat to leave it alone.
I’ve not had that much success with the nail covers, such as Soft Paws. Some cats and owners develop allergic reactions to the glue used to attach these plastic sheaths. They also need replacing every 6-12 weeks, which is a fiddly business. Some cats tolerate them well, and the owners enjoy applying them in a variety of color combinations. If all else fails, onychectomy (declawing) is preferable to euthanasia.
Feline eating disorders, pica and plant eating:
Overeating and anorexia can both have behavioral components. Serotonin and endogenous opioids are both important in the regulation of appetite. In its feral state the cat spends a good part of its waking hours hunting for food. Its conquests are not large, and the energy derived from them rarely exceeds greatly that involved in catching them. The cat maintains a mean, lean fighting trim weight. Domestication, and particularly the sedentary life of the obligate indoor cat, produces a problem. The nuggets of premium cat food are high in energy, and a little goes a long way, even in the case of some weight-reducing diets. Cats get bored, and when they are bored, they tend to eat, the same as we do. A vicious cycle has been born. One way to combat obesity is to make cats work for their food. This can be either passive or active on our part. Placing food in tubes, or hollow toys or bones (stuffed Kongs) and making the cat work to get it out would be one way to achieve this. Another would be to use pińata type food containers the cat has to roll around to get its ration. Simply hiding bits of food around the house, particularly in areas the cat must expend some energy to reach might also help satisfy hunting instincts and gain some exercise. For an even more interactive protocol we can train the cat, making him perform desired behaviors for his food, sing for his supper as it were. This latter approach has all sorts of benefits, building the bond with the cat and training some useful behaviors and tricks that can be amusing or practical.
Anorexia may simply result if the cat does not care for the taste of the food, and spiking it with certain drugs can definitely have that effect. It can also signal that the cat is stressed, either psychologically or due to illness. In Europe, it appears to be totally acceptable to describe animals as depressed whereas on this side of the Atlantic it is considered anthropomorphic. I have seen several cats for which this is the only description that fits the behavior. For many this has resulted from the loss of a life-long feline partner, sometimes a human companion may be “mourned”.
Stash presented as an emaciated 17 year old, diagnosed as hyperthyroid by the owner’s vet for which he was being treated with methimazole. The vet was in New York though, while the owners had relocated to Massachusetts, and I never saw blood work to confirm the diagnosis. The owners were also concerned that Stash probably had renal disease per their vet; his litter brother had died 8 months earlier of renal cancer. It was Stash’s behavior since then that had brought them to me. He had kept them up night after night, crying and pawing at them, leaping on their chests if they dared to sleep. They were all suffering from these nightly ravages, although Stash passed his days in a semi-comatose state. Stash wasn’t eating either. Given his age, his signs could have been interpreted as senile cognitive dysfunction, but the timing was striking. All had appeared suddenly right after the brother died, not gradually as is more often the case with CD. On examination Stash was a sorry sight, his black coat was moth eaten and staring, and he was less than friendly when approached. His thyroid did not seem to be enlarged, and their was nothing remarkable on examination, except the owners told me I was the first vet to be allowed the intimacy of an examination since he had gone into decline. Having determined that they weren’t interested in an extensive physical work-up, we discussed the options for making whatever remained of Stash’s life happier and more comfortable. Stash appeared to me to be depressed, and his owners concurred. As a result we put him on 2mg fluoxetine (Prozac) once a day. It wasn’t easy at first. Stash didn’t like the taste of the medication - it was hard to get it in him, and scared his owner by foaming at the mouth - which I assured her is what cats do if they don't like the taste of something. He also became more anorexic, which may happen in the first week or two on fluoxetine, but wasn’t at all desirable in his case. However, when they stopped the fluoxetine for two days his worsening behavior convinced them to continue. Gradually, Stash’s depression lifted, and he was becoming happy. Another glitch arose, when he developed frank blood in his stool. Although this is a side effect of methimazole, the veterinarian stopped both drugs. The owner’s rebelled and resumed fluoxetine, because they couldn’t deal with the return of his depression. Later, the vet decided to resume methimazole, and the bleeding returned. It was discontinued, and Stash continued to do well. The anorexia resolved gradually over about 4-6 weeks, and he began to eat again and show an interest in life. I continued to receive reports on Stash for two years after I first saw him. He became a sleek and happy cat, accompanying his owners on visits to the Cape, where he enjoyed jaunts beside the seaside on his newly acquired harness and leash. He also weathered a return to New York without a problem. His owner commented that, “Prozac allowed Stash to step back and look at his life, and realise he had it good.” Last I heard, thyroid and kidney problems were not being considered.
Cat-owner interaction problems:
Owner expectations of cats can be a problem. As in Stash’s case over dependence on the owner can be a problem. Some cats follow their owner everywhere, seem unable to amuse themselves and frequently become excessively vocal. Others become bratty only when the owner ignores them for some other activity, such as talking on the phone. Behavior modification to foster independence can be helpful, and sometimes hypervocalization (excessive meowing) is reduced with antidepressants (TCAs, SSRIs) or anxiolytics (buspirone), depending upon its cause.
Other cats do live up to the hype and are just too aloof for their owners. Some owners accept this, for those that can’t a frequently reported side effect of buspirone is that it increases affection, and this may be exploited.
Thoughts on drugs:
Certainly drugs can be very helpful in treating behavioral problems in cats. In some cases treatment can be tapered off after a short treatment period, while in others, particularly compulsive disorders, treatment generally has to be given for life. A possible downside to drug treatment is getting the drug into the cat, and Stash’s case underlined this. Some of the drugs we use come as capsules and others are tablets, they almost all taste bitter and most cats reject them if given the option. Fluoxetine is available as a liquid, but it is peppermint flavored for children and most cats do not care for it.
For soluble drugs dissolving them in the water from a can of tuna fish, and then storing the solution in a syringe and giving the appropriate daily dose usually works well. Most cats will accept this with minimal fuss, other drugs can be compounded, or placed in gel caps for easier dosing, but many cats have abruptly terminated their own treatment by just disappearing whenever their owner’s try to medicate them.
It has been said of behavioral medicine that diagnosing the problem is easy, but that treatment is frequently a challenge. It is tempting to view abnormal behaviors as purely psychological, and attempt to treat them with behavior modification and possibly psychoactive medication. In many cases, a clear-cut medical problem may be at the root of the abnormal behavior, and behavioral signs should be factored in with any apparent physiological abnormalities when looking for a diagnosis. Given that, for animals as well as humans, neuropharmacological imbalance may account for many unacceptable behaviors, it may be equally tempting to view most behavior problems as manifestations of systemic disease.