Every cat owner can suddenly find himself faced with undesirable cat behaviour, such as house soiling, scratching, miaowing at night or spraying on the curtains.
It’s quite normal for your cat to sometimes behave in a way that leaves you scratching your head.
And even though things usually don’t get completely out of hand, they can still affect family life, your home’s interior, not to mention your relationship and daily state of mind.
Do not underestimate how stressful undesirable behaviour in cats can be, not only for the owner and his environment, but also for the cat!
That’s why I made it my business to uncover all the secrets about behavioural problems in cats, so that no one has to put up with them forever, or at least so that you understand why your cat does what she does and what you can do to improve matters.
After 10 years of working as a behavioural therapist for cats I have come across and analysed many situations, circumstances and owners. And what I did notice is that most behavioural problems or unwanted behaviour are not really behavioural problems at all.
Most of the time, it’s nothing more than normal cat behaviour owners have an issue with because it doesn’t meet their expectations, upsets their daily routine or affects their carefully chosen furniture. Believe me, I truly understand where you, as owner, are coming from.
This online training course is designed to give you the insights you need to change unwanted behaviour and to hand you the tools to address the problem yourself.
In my daily practice, I believe in offering people practical, affordable and realistic solutions that take all parties into account.
As a behavioural therapist for cats, it’s only natural that I strive to provide cats with the best possible environment but that also includes taking your time, motivation and budget into consideration.
Know that solving or improving undesirable behaviour in cats does not always work overnight (though sometimes it does). Often you’ll need to try a number of things to find out what your cat responds to best.
As cats are individuals, they all react differently, based on their level of self-confidence, acquired behaviour and preferences. If you think the first round is all a bit overwhelming, feel free to move on to the less fun solutions of the second or third phase.
What behaviour do we want to change?
1. Happy cat – happy owner (Right above)
2. Happy cat – unhappy owner (Left above)
3. Unhappy cat – happy owner (Right below)
4. Unhappy cat – Unhappy owner (Left below)
Your cat is displaying behaviour that is perfectly normal and fits into your cat’s normal behavioural repertoire. However, you, as owner, consider it undesirable, so the problem is actually yours. Your cat doesn’t have any issues with it. Some recognisable examples are spraying in the house, peeing beside the litter box, scratching your sofa, bringing prey inside and miaowing at night.
Behaviour can be considered unpleasant at certain times, in particular places or by certain people. This varies from owner to owner and will depend on an individual owner’s view, his relationship with his cat, his personal situation, expectations pattern, daily routine, budget, motivation, etc.
Even within families, this expectation pattern can vary, causing internal struggles and putting pressure on relationships when pets exhibit unwanted behaviour.
How the owner looks at behaviour is often a snapshot and that snapshot can change over time. As soon as something changes in the owner’s life or expectations, his or her opinion of their cat’s behaviour can change from wanted to unwanted in a heartbeat or vice versa.
Examples include the arrival of a new partner who doesn’t like your cat miaowing at night, a new sofa your cat is no longer allowed to use as a means to release stress, the arrival of a baby making it unacceptable for your cat to pee on soft blankets once in a while, etc.
How you, as owner, feel about your cat’s behaviour is separate from the fact whether your cat actually has a welfare problem and experiences emotions that are problematic for her.
Some cats display behaviour that merits changing, such as anxious behaviour or stress between cats, humans have no issue with. Understanding basic cat behaviour and knowing what constitutes normal cat behaviour will go a long way.
It only stands to reason that we want to change undesirable behaviour and stimulate, support and reward desired behaviour, provided it is also in line with your cat’s needs.
There are many things that can affect the way owners feel about a given behaviour.
It is important to think about this for a moment because this is where the basic approach to the problem starts: understanding why YOU think it is a problem.
Please don’t feel there is anything wrong with discussing the issue (everything is okay!), because that is not the case.
But it can help you to understand why it may be a problem in your situation and not for someone else. I’m only mentioning it to help you understand, not to make you feel guilty.
As part of my degree, I studied a very interesting topic as part of the module ‘psychology’ called ‘cognitive dissonance’. It still fascinates me because I often recognise it in owners.
Cognitive dissonance means people’s evolutionary tendency to align reality with their vision and ideas of the world or vice versa.
In sum, if a situation does not meet our expectation we have a tendency to change it.
That leaves us with two options: either we change the situation, or, if we can’t, we change our view of it. In other words, we are well able to change our opinion of a certain situation when we want to.
We humans are able to tell ourselves that something we didn’t consider okay before is fine or vice versa, depending on our view of the situation.
It’s something I also notice during my clinics when I’m asked to sort out a behavioural problem. I duly give the owner tips and advice but what happens? At the end of the consultation, the owner says that the issue is not that problematic after all and that everything is OK. Why is that?
Is it because the problem doesn’t outweigh what needs to be done to resolve it? Possibly, but none the less fascinating all the same. Does it ring a bell??
What could possibly influence your view of undesirable behaviour and the appropriate solutions?
Daily routine and work
Are you a busy person with a demanding job and many responsibilities? If so, that can have a major impact on how you experience the management of your cat.
Perhaps you don’t really have the time to regularly groom her and feel under pressure. “I don’t have time for this!” or “Even my cat needs me!”
You’re trying to stay on top of everything and your cat’s behaviour drives you to distraction at times.
If you could free up a little bit more time for yourself and for the things you enjoy, energise you and make you happy, then the impact of your cat’s behaviour on your state of mind might also be different.
What about your motivation? How motivated are you to change your cat’s behaviour?
Perhaps the problem is a recent one and you’re only at the start of the process or maybe you’ve already tried ‘everything’, discussed the problem with different people and, in the meantime, concocted a whole story in your own mind as to why your cat is behaving the way she is.
No matter what stage of the process you find yourself in, it’s time to rewind and start from scratch!
What are your priorities? Do you put your cat first and are you determined to do anything to make her happy? That is not a given, for people do have other priorities, which is perfectly fine, just be honest with yourself.
There are owners who consider hygiene important and do not want their cat jumping or walking on the kitchen table, even though she badly needs high open surfaces.
Some owners confine their cats to a small room at night to prevent them setting off the alarm (with motion sensor), putting safety first.
Other owners want their homes to look like something from a magazine and confine their cat’s stuff to one room or area so as not to upset the decor or so that they don’t have to look at a used litter tray. And I do get that, most cat stuff is not aesthetically pleasing (designers, are you listening!?).
For that same reason owners don’t want to put litter trays in the house and expect their cat to do her business outside. But that means that their cat has to poo in her hunting area, which is unnatural for cats.
Some owners even lock up their cat in the hallway at night so that she can’t scratch the sofa.
And then of course there are the opinions of children, parents or in-laws that make us forbid our cats to do certain things, because we (secretly) crave their approval.
What is your budget to support your cat in her natural needs? This has nothing to do with your income but with what you are willing to invest. You don’t have to well-off to own a cat because she will be just as happy with home, garden and kitchen stuff!
Your relationship with your cat
People keep cats for different reasons. A cat can be like a child, a faithful housemate, a mouse catcher or, sometimes, simply part of the furniture. That’s all very well, but the way you look at your cat will have an impact on how you deal with unwanted behaviour and what you are willing to tolerate from your cat.
In a normal situation, all behaviour – whether body language, physical posture or actions – comes as second nature, follows a normal pattern, is displayed in the usual locations, at normal times your cat would always display that behaviour.
Behaviour only becomes abnormal if it changes in intensity, frequency or is suddenly displayed in different locations.
So spraying a few times a week in the garden or by the back door is perfectly normal. It only becomes abnormal when your cat starts spraying in the living room and/or several times a day.
Peeing in the litter box is perfectly normal while peeing on the bed is not okay and may point to a medical or stress-related issue.
And it differs from cat to cat which is why we have to look at what has changed and what this particular cat is doing ‘differently’. A cat that attacks daily and now only once every 2 weeks is making wonderful progress.
But if you have a cat that never attacked before and now suddenly becomes aggressive, you should take her to the vet immediately and find out where this behaviour is coming from, because now you do have a problem.
To keep things simple, you can assume that any behavioural problem or problem behaviour always starts as normal behaviour, from the point of view of the cat as a species that is.
It features somewhere in the portfolio of normal behaviour.
It is only when the frequency (the number of times a day or week), the intensity (light, moderate, extreme), the time or the location deviate from what is normal that we start looking at this behaviour as problematic.
This is about the number of times a given behaviour occurs within a certain period of time.
For example, spraying once a week is perfectly normal and is part of a cat’s normal behavioural pattern.
Some cats never spray; others will spray 5 times a week, so when either starts spraying once a week you can take it that something is amiss. In sum, always start from what is normal behaviour for your cat and see how her newly acquired behaviour deviates from the behaviour she used to display before.
This is about the energy your cat releases while displaying a given behaviour.
For example, a cat may give you a cute little nibble during play, but when she actually draws blood, it becomes a different matter.
A cat normally spends 10 % of her time grooming her coat. In cases of extreme stress or pain, your cat may take less care of her coat or start licking it excessively, causing bald spots to the point of injuring herself. So grooming her coat is normal if she does so with her regular intensity and at her normal frequency.
When does the behaviour occur? An accident outside the litter box when you are on a day off wouldn’t be all that unusual as your presence is interfering with your cat’s daily routine, but it shouldn’t happen when you’re at home with your cat all the time.
As cats are crepuscular creatures it is normal for cats to be more active at night and during twilight hours and to sleep more during the day which explains why she may want more communication and attention while we’re asleep.
Where the cat displays a given behaviour is also important. Is it happening inside? Outside? In safe places? In unsafe places?
Spraying in her hunting area (see Guide p 56), for example, is a perfectly normal way of communicating with herself (where should I be wary next time?) and with other cats so that they can find or, conversely, avoid one another.
Spraying in her core area is abnormal and indicates that something is seriously wrong. She has started to feel unsafe in a place where she was able to completely relax before.
In the Guide and via the Cat Wheel, we already took an in-depth look at all the possible influences on your cat’s behaviour.
Now, all these influences can also have an effect on whether or not your cat exhibits or is more likely to exhibit undesirable or abnormal behaviour.
Confident cats have a different way of showing that they are out of form than shy cats. A confident cat will spray or attack more easily, while a timid cat is more likely to hide and avoid conflict.
The socialisation process has a major impact on whether or not an adult cat will perceive the world as threatening.
A cat that is well socialised with her environment tends to get less stressed by unfamiliar or new things.
The composition of your social group has an influence on possible house soiling problems, spraying and aggression between cats.
Cats’ individual preferences and habits can affect their environmental needs and, the extent to which these are met or not, can lead to undesirable behaviour.
As there is no black and white rule and no solution that applies to all cats, it is especially important to know what is normal for your cat, so that you can quickly notice anything that is abnormal.
Now that you know that everything starts with you having an insight into your cat’s behaviour, understanding why your cat does something is half the therapy!
Aside from changing abnormal cat behaviour, we also need to look at things that could influence the development of abnormal behaviour later on.
Often the frequency, location or intensity of normal behaviour will change as your cat realises that her normal behaviour no longer works or keeps her safe.
When we adopt a cat, we promise to keep her safe from physical and emotional discomfort so we owe it to her to change abnormal behaviour.
Even if you, as owner, think that there is nothing amiss at all, it is essential to optimise behavioural patterns and situations, even if there is no notable behavioural problem.
I often hear: “I put my cat’s food and drink next to one another and she doesn’t mind”. Of course she doesn’t! She doesn’t really have a choice, does she?
Or “A second litter box? Isn’t that a bit excessive? No, it’s not excessive; that’s how it should be.
We want to change anyhing that doesn’t feature in the upper right corner of our graph: it’s about giving owners new insights and about changing your cat’s behaviour with positive techniques that have a lasting effect.
As a behavioural therapist I visit the homes of people who want to change their cat’s behaviour.
I start by collecting a host of information via an extensive questionnaire.
You can find my personal questionnaires in your course downloads.
TIP – Also professionals are welcome to use my questionnaires, but I always say: ‘Put your own stamp on them’. I need 10 minutes to analyse them but that’s because I drew them up myself. You may find certain questions superfluous or want to add other questions even.
– Double-check the information I received
– Chart the situation
– Go through the causes and influences of the problem situation
– Discuss any practical changes the owner can make
– Compile a shopping list
Then I put everything together in a report there and then and also give the owner my personal handouts. Why immediately? Just because everything is still fresh in my mind then and because it allows you, as owner, to get down to work straightaway. In doing so, I can help people fast and efficiently.
During behavioural therapy, you, as owner, gain an insight into your cat’s behaviour, into the ‘why’ of everything.
Next, we discuss an intervention in your cat’s environment and how your own behaviour can be instrumental in changing your cat’s behaviour.
After 10 years of writing therapy plans, I noticed a pattern in the reports I wrote for my clients. Approximately 80 % of the content of my reports was very similar.
Why is that? It’s because when cats get stressed you get to see a certain outcome. One cat may spray, the other one may pee around the house, in multi-cat households cats may start attacking one another, other cats become anxious or scared, or start miaowing at night.
But the root cause – and all the various influences – is the same most of the time.
Based on that recurring pattern I have created my own generic therapy plan: the Cat Matrix®.
This model is based on an analysis of my 200 most recent therapy plans. As I mentioned before, consider it a broad-spectrum antibiotic for behavioural problems in cats.
The idea behind the Cat Matrix® is to harmonise the behaviour of your cats, to keep cats out of shelters, to strengthen the relationship between cat and owner and to improve the welfare of cats on a large scale.
The vision of the Cat Matrix® is to empower cat lovers and professionals to change and prevent undesirable behaviour in cats by making a large collection of data and insights about cat behaviour available, using a simple model with a practical and logical structure and step-by-step plans.
How do we achieve this? By working in a structured, systematic and pragmatic manner!
In each step of the model I explain why a particular step is important and what the insights behind it are. And to help you put this theory into practice, every step comes with practical tools and tips.
This allows you to consider your current situation every step of the way and what you can do to change it.
Make a list of what you are actually going to change in your home!
And when your plan is complete, hang it up in the toilet, over your bed, or in another prominent place so that every day you are reminded of the next step to take.
You can download the Cat Matrix® poster via your course material.