June 9, 2022 — Dr. Kelly Diehl and Dr. Kristyn Vitale get catty as they discuss feline behavior. Learn about house soiling, training, scratching behavior and a whole lot more!
0:00:11.3 Kelly Diehl: Welcome to Fresh Scoop Episode 45. Naughty or Nice: Understanding Problem Behavior in Cats
I'm your host Dr. Kelly Diehl, Morris Animal Foundation, Senior Director of Science and Communication. And today we'll be talking with Dr. Kristyn Vitale. Dr. Vitale is an assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Unity College. She owned a PhD in Animal Science from Oregon State University and a Master's of Environmental Science from Miami University. Her work explores cat social behavior and the impact of training and socialization classes on cat cognition and the human-cat relationship. Dr. Vitale also is the host of The CatSci podcast. Welcome, Kristyn.
0:00:56.2 Kristyn Vitale: Thanks for having me.
0:00:57.7 KD: And I want to start by saying this is Kristyn's second appearance on our podcast. Her last appearance, which I'll put it in the show notes, is wildly popular, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about feline behavior. So again, a big thanks for coming back. I'm going to start with, before we get into your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to specializing in feline behavior?
0:01:23.9 KV: Yeah. Well, I've always been fascinated by animals, and specifically cats, and so when I was looking at what to do for my college degree, I knew that I wanted to work with animals in some way, so I started going to Kent State University for my undergraduate in Zoology and I met a professor there named Dr. Penny Bernstein and her specialization was cat behavior and the human-cat relationship. And it was just really eye-opening to me that you could make a career out of studying cat behavior, and so I just kind of went from there with it, once I saw that was an available opportunity, I just went for it.
0:02:03.1 KD: Oh, great. Well, thanks for that introduction. I actually have a cat in my lap right now, so very appropriate. We were... Before we started recording, Kristyn met one of my kitties who has now plopped himself in my lap, so you will get the feline seal of approval. Speaking of my cats, have you had cats your whole life? And how many do you have now?
0:02:27.1 KV: Oh yeah, I've always had cats growing up. I was kind of that child when a stray cat showed up outside the house I was secretly feeding it, not telling my parents until they were like, "Why is this cat always here?" So yeah, I always had cats. I currently have four, I have a female named Macy, and then three boys named Bo, Carl, and Kevin.
0:02:50.0 KD: Cool. And I think they've been the stars of some of your videos, and I'll put a link to the videos that Kristyn has posted. But as I mentioned before, I really enjoyed our podcast that we did last year on feline myth busting. Today, however, we're going to be a little bit more serious and talk about problem behaviors in cats. And to begin, what are some of the most common problems you hear when you talk to cat owners?
0:03:17.3 KV: Yeah. So, I would say that there's kind of three most common behaviors I hear people complain about, those are the cat scratching or urinating in an inappropriate location, or they're somewhere they shouldn't be, like up on the counter. So, those are kind of the three biggest things I hear people complain about.
0:03:38.3 KD: And as Kristyn mentioned, I have to also confess that I've had a lot of cats, a lot, a lot of cats over my lifetime, and one issue I personally have struggled with is furniture scratching. So, can you tell us more about why cats do this behavior and what owners can do to stop it?
0:03:56.7 KV: Yeah. So, one thing I think we should keep in mind kind of for this whole episode is that a lot of the problem behaviors that we call problem behaviors aren't necessarily problems themselves, they're really only an issue when they're directed at an inappropriate surface. So scratching is a really normal cat behavior, it's something cats need to do, and even cats that have been declawed will be seen attempting to scratch on things. So, it's really something we shouldn't be trying to stop the cat from doing, but to promote them to do other locations. And so, say, for example, I think the kind of go-to thing to do is when you see your cat scratching on the couch, you yell at them, and they stop, and you think they should know that they're not supposed to scratch on the couch. But really the issue is often the cat might not feel they have a location they want to scratch, or they don't like the surface that they've been given. And I've heard this a lot from owners in my kitten training and socialization classes that, "Oh, we have a scratching post for them, but it's in the basement, and the cat never uses it," and so to me, that's telling me, well, the scratching post is in the incorrect location. We know that cats naturally like to scratch, and they like to do that along locations that they frequent.
0:05:17.1 KV: So, if you're thinking about where your cat spends time in the home, those are the locations that they need to have a scratching post or some other scent-marking spot. And so, if you've got that post in the basement or the attic somewhere where the cat never goes, then move that to an appropriate location, if they're scratching on the couch, then maybe move it next to the couch or in the same room. And actually, one survey found that just giving the cat a scratching post in an appropriate location is often all you need to do, often the cat will just go ahead and start using that. So, of course, you can try to encourage use of it through placing catnip or silver vine or treats when they use it, but really just finding that spot, that location where the cat will use the scratching post is the best thing you can do.
0:06:10.1 KD: That's great advice. I will have to say even after having cats for a long time, we did that with our latest group of cats, because I think a lot of people we... I have to say there would be a sacrificial couch or a chair, and you just push it against the wall, and you're like, "Oh my gosh, they got started on it." This time we decided we're going to change that, and thanks to some advice I got from Kristyn when we got our new kitties, that's exactly what we did, is we watched where they scratched and put a scratching post, we have different types of scratching posts with different materials, and they do cut their... We accept them as part of our furniture now, but it has worked, and so thanks for that advice, Kristyn, that you gave me, and I'll tell everyone out there, it did work for me, but we did the same thing, we watched where the cats wanted to go and then put a post there.
0:07:05.4 KV: Yeah, that's great. And the point you made about having different kinds of scratching posts, that's also really important because not every cat will like every scratching post, and there's even been evidence showing that cats as they age change their preferences. So, kittens will also often like those horizontal scratchers that lie on the ground, and then as they get older, they might move to the vertical scratchers. So just having a variety, even just my cats will start scratching on old cardboard boxes that are lying on the ground. So, giving them surfaces and seeing what they like is the best way to figure it out.
0:07:42.4 KD: Okay. And I have another question, this is a little adjacent, but it just popped into my mind. Is there some suggestions about height, like in cats stretching, or does that not really matter?
0:07:55.2 KV: I don't know any standard for that, but I would say it would depend on your specific cat. I would have a surface that they can stretch their entire body out on, so that would be just depending on how big your own cat is, but yeah, I would have several different sizes of scratchers, and vertical as well as horizontal.
0:08:14.8 KD: Great. The next topic is, it sounds funny, but it can be serious, and you alluded to it, which is cats being where they're not supposed to, counter-surfing being one thing, and as a practicing veterinarian where I run into trouble is your old cat-dog combo, right? Where the cat would knock something off and it's funny until it's Rimadyl or some kind of medication or your medication or something that then they both get into that can be dangerous. So, tell us a little bit about that idea, called the counter-surfing, but the cat not being in a place where you want them.
0:08:55.6 KV: Right. Right. So, again, cats love to be up high, I mean, not every single cat, some cats do like to stay on the ground, but in general, we know that cats like to have vertical space and to watch. And so again, we also know that cats like to spend time in socially important rooms. So, if you're always in the kitchen, then they might want to spend time in the kitchen as well, and if the counter is the only location that's high up for them, the motivation to get on the counter is to sit with you, to be up high, to be watching what's going on. So, I think with a lot of these problem behaviors, you have to ask yourself what's the motivation for it. And if you think it's just that the cat wants to be up high, again, give them a small tower or a little perch or a ledge that they can sit in on in the kitchen and just watch what you're doing. And I've also found as a human who doesn't always get their dishes done or forgets about food on counter, that those little things can also reinforce that behavior when we don't want it to.
0:10:00.7 KV: So, if you have a dirty dish up on the counter, the cat learns, "Hey, sometimes when I jump up here, I get to lick the dirty dish, I get to lick butter that got left out." So having... Paying attention to those things as well, that you're not leaving attractive stuff out for the cat, and that again, you're also giving them a separate location that they can go and when they do go to their perch, they get treats and rewarded, but they don't get anything going up on the counter.
0:10:27.2 KD: No, that's a good point, yeah. I have a one cat that's a butter fanatic, and we had to be really careful all of a sudden, after having non-butter fanatic cats, with where we put our butter dish, even though it was covered, she'd still lick or bumped the lid. So that's really good to know, maybe providing something higher for them if we're in there. You talked about this, and I think I have to say I've succumbed to this too, which is the temptation to punish cats, and talk a little bit about punishment and cats.
0:11:04.6 KV: Yeah. So, when we talk about punishment, we're talking about trying to reduce the behavior, and so with problem behaviors that makes sense, that we would try to punish them because we want to get rid of them (the behavior). But again, as I mentioned, a lot of these behaviors aren't things we want to get rid of, we really just want to redirect them. And often when we use punishment, we're using aversive stimuli, things like yelling or spraying them with the water bottle, things that are going to scare them and try to stop them from doing that behavior. And one reason people use punishment is because it often works immediately, it gets the cat to stop doing that behavior right then, but there's a lot of problems with it overall, that it might not stop the behavior in the long run, and it might actually make it worse. So, if we go back to that counter-surfing example, you can think about it, each time you go in the kitchen, you might yell at them for being on the counter and they jump off, but what about all those times that that cat is on the counter when you're at work, when you're at the store, or when you're in the other room?
0:12:10.7 KV: And if you think about buying a Lotto ticket or something, you don't expect to win every single time, but those times you do win, those are the times that are going to keep you coming back for more. And so, with your cat, while you're at the store, they've been on that counter for an hour and a half laying in the sun, purring, having a great time until you come home and yell at them and they're like, "What did I do? I'm just sleeping here." So, it's really hard to punish behaviors like this that are happening without you being there, that are being reinforced without you being there. So again, instead of using these scary things that could actually make the behavior worse, they could connect those scary things with you as a person, "Hey, when that person comes in, they yell at me or they spray me with the bottle," so they're not connecting it necessarily with the behavior, but with the person. There's a lot of issues with using punishment, and if you're going to use it, there's a lot of things you need to do correctly in order for it to work that we just don't have time to talk about. But in general, finding a new outlet for the behavior or changing the motivation is going to be much better than attempting to punish it.
0:13:24.1 KD: Okay, that's good advice, because I think it's a temptation for people. It does get tough. I saved probably one of the most difficult problems for the last in our discussion, and I have faced it many times as a clinician, this one is personal as well, which is house soiling because my parents had a cat after years of having a cat, it was inevitable. I think that they got one that became a house soiler, and it was very hard, I give them credit to deal with it, it was frustrating. What do you tell cat owners who come to you with this really pretty common problem?
0:14:06.6 KV: Yeah. So, again, urinating, defecating, these are normal behaviors, but they become a problem when they're outside of the litter box, when they're on the bed, where they are places that they shouldn't be. And it definitely can be frustrating for the owner because they love their cat, but they don't know how to deal with it. So, the first thing I want to say, and you totally understand this, is there could be a medical reason for the behavior. So, if you have a sudden change of behavior in general, but also with house soiling, definitely take the cat to be checked out by a vet, and to be clear to see if there's an underlying health issue, if not, then you should look at the behavioral side of it. And I kind of already mentioned this with the scratching posts, but with cats as they deposit their scent in their environment, they like to kind of patrol around their environment and deposit scent almost in each room. And Jacqueline Munera, who is a cat behavior consultant for Positive Cattitudes, she talked about it like this, so if you have, let's say, four litter boxes in your basement and two litter boxes in your upstairs utility room, how many litter boxes do you have for the cat? How many would you say?
0:15:25.3 KD: I want to say six, but I think it's a trick question. [laughter]
0:15:29.2 KV: Absolutely. So, for us, we say, "Hey, that cat has six litter boxes," but for the cat, it might only be two scent spots, and I love that Jacqueline gives that example because it really shows from the human's perspective versus the cat's perspective that the cat, if they go into that one room, that's one scent spot. So, think about it from the cat's perspective, spread out those litter boxes or scent spots. Not every scent spot has to be a litter box, it can be a scratching post or a cat bed where they can roll and sleep and deposit their scent. But as a general rule of thumb, I would say that you want at least one scent spot in each room, and having those litter boxes spread out, so as the cat goes from room to room, they feel that they can pee where they would like to pee. So that's one thing, is really considering the location and number of litter boxes, and there's kind of that general rule that you want one box per cat plus one, but you might even need more than that if you have a cat with soiling issues.
0:16:36.3 KV: Another thing to consider is that scent marking can be related to stress, and so if a cat is especially stressed, they may be showing this through inappropriate urination. And there are things I think we might get to here later in this talk, but basically, you want to also consider providing enrichment or ways to de-stress the cat to see if that can help with this behavior, if there's an underlying stress issue. And then finally, I would say also just considering preferences for the boxes and litter substrate. So not every cat is going to like those enclosed litter boxes or these the self-cleaning litter boxes. What I actually use are these flat kind of rubber vats that they're huge and we just fill them litter, and our cat seemed to like that a lot because there's enough space, they're not covered, they're open. So really considering giving your cat options with different sizes of litter boxes and then different substrates. So, there's obviously clay, but if you have cats that maybe have had issues or have been declawed and might have pain, then going for a softer substrate might be better. So, you can kind of do a basic preference test with your cat, give them a few different litters, see what they like. But those are all things I would suggest trying after consulting with a vet and all of that to see if this is something that could help alter that behavior.
0:18:05.8 KD: Well, that's all great advice. And you're right, that kind of dovetails with the thing I was going to ask you next, which was we were talking about providing a good indoor environment. So, build on what you were just talking about as far as providing a good indoor environment for cats, because we tend to keep them inside.
0:18:24.8 KV: Yeah, absolutely. And I think this is something people often talk about how easy cats are as pets that we don't have to take them for walks or take them to the dog park or any of these, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're easy, they are... For many of our indoor-only cats, the only place they're ever going to be is inside of this house. And so, you really want to make sure that you're providing a stimulating environment for them. And some of these behavioral issues might stem out of not having a stimulating environment, out of boredom, or just not having an outlet for those appropriate behaviors.
0:19:00.6 KV: And so, one thing I think that every home with cats should have been food enrichment, so my cats have puzzle toys, they have these food balls that they'll push around, they have... It's called a LickiMat that you can put wet food on, and they have to kind of work to get the food out of the grooves. But all of these are allowing the cat to engage in normal cat behavior, to engage in food-getting behavior, and to also have control over their environment. If you're stuck in a cell and you have no control over anything you do, your food is just in that dish all the time, nothing changes, these are all things that are not going to promote typical cat behavior and it might lead to stress. So definitely giving your cat stuff to do through toys, food enrichment, all of that, providing scratching posts and ledges. And I'm a big proponent of getting your cat outside. Now that might not be in a free roaming state because there's issues with that, but building them a catio, building them a cat enclosure they can go out into safely, or teaching them to walk on harness and leash, these are all things that could be done with cats and can really help enrich their lives.
0:20:11.6 KD: Well, that's awesome advice. I will say again, from listening to Kristyn, and people in the last year and a half, and I am not a spring chicken folks, I've had a lot of cats, is my cats only eat using food puzzles. And they don't care, they have all different kinds of food puzzles and we put them around in different areas, and that's how they eat, and they seem to not suffer at all from it. And we've done it since they were kittens, but I think even adult cats would be fine, and I would encourage people, just go ahead and do it. We have one kind of heavy cat, and she also gorges, and I will... From a gastroenterology standpoint, I will say it slows their eating down so to these cats that have a tendency to gorge... her vomiting frequency is very low because she doesn't get the opportunity to just dump a bunch of food in with her so that... Anyway, thanks to Kristyn for giving me that advice a long time ago and it works great. Speaking of advice, what is one piece of advice you give to new cat owners to try to... And again, you've talked a little bit about it, to stem this kind of problematic behavior that can arise and from getting out to a hold.
0:21:36.0 KV: Yeah, I think the number one important thing is getting to know your new cat. And so, to a lot of pet owners, this isn't news, but every cat is different. And so, what your old cat liked might not be what your new cat likes in terms of scratching posts, in terms of litter box, any of that. And so, we actually had a study published in 2017 where we ran preference assessments with cats. So, we saw what did each cat like in terms of different kinds of food, toys, scent objects, or human interaction. And you could run something very simple at home, you could see again, just give them choices and watch their behavior, what toys do they play with most, what litter boxes do they use most?
0:22:22.3 KV: And I think that the earlier you start getting to know your cat and the earlier you get used to their behavior and body language, the sooner you can pick up that something's wrong or that something needs changed. And on top of that, I think something simple you can do for any cat is just even once a day, alter their environment a little bit. I was actually having some medical issues with one of my cats that they thought was stress-related, and my vet suggested get a wooden ladder and kind of deck it out with like toys and see-saw opener and all that, and then it's almost like a movable cat tower that each day I could move that ladder to a new room, the cat gets a new vantage point and it's just something different for them. So, I think providing novel experiences for your cat while they're indoors is something you can do just each day, spice up their life, and I think you'll be less likely to see problems arise.
0:23:18.1 KD: That's great advice. And in fact, for those of you who didn't hear our last chat, Kristyn and I talked about when you get a box, you get your Amazon box or whatever, leave it out for a while, let them like muck around in it, and that's a very simple way to just provide some entertainment for them that changes as well. And you talked a little bit about this, but what should owners do if they start to see problems? There are things that they're like, "Well, I don't want that to... I don't know how to deal with this"?
0:23:54.2 KV: So, it's always easier to change a behavior that's not well-established than one that's been happening for years and years. So, the moment you start seeing your cat scratching on that new sofa and you really don't want it, then that's when you need to start thinking about where can I move this cat tower? Should I get a new cat tower? And there are other things you can do to protect your sofa that we haven't talked about today that might fall outside of that scope. But I think that the moment you start seeing a behavioral cat, reach out to a behaviorist or someone who can help you tailor what you need to do for that specific cat, because a lot of what I've mentioned today, these are just general guidelines, but what you actually need to do for your individual cat might vary. So, reach out to someone, there's amazing people who actually do cat behavioral consulting online now, you don't even need to take the cat somewhere. So really just try to begin addressing it before it becomes established.
0:24:55.3 KD: Okay. And we can put some of those in the show notes, but Kristyn, do you have any... Or you can send them to me some ideas for folks, and I think I would reiterate, it's much harder if these get established. And on the sofa thing, we actually for the first time ever as well when we got our kittens, is we wrapped the sofas and chairs where they started to gravitate, not only did we put a scratching post, but we wrapped them in Saran wrap actually just around the bottom, and it was just enough like, "Oh, that's weird. Oh, here's a scratching post," and after a year, we were able to take... I know a year is a long time, and if people were coming over, we'd take the Saran wrap off, but eventually you take it off and we've been good, knock on wood. But yeah, there were other things I know that you can put that just they just don't enjoy, and if they have an alternative right there, they just gravitated to it.
0:25:51.2 KV: Absolutely, yeah. I didn't get a chance to talk about all of that, but there's definitely products you can get double-sided sticky tape to put on the couch. And you kind of also get rid of what I mentioned before with punishment that you're not there every time the behavior occurs so you shouldn't be the one delivering the aversive to the cat, but something like double-sided sticky tape or clean wrap, that's always there, you don't need to be watching what the cat's doing. So, the cat's going to experience, "Hey, I don't like how that feels," and move to their tower, so that's a great idea. I think that that... And it sounds like it worked really well for you.
0:26:28.5 KD: It did work really well. And again, as a person who's had cats a lot, but I think like many of us when I was growing up in the '60s and '70s, but our cats went outside. So, I think it was a whole different ball of wax. They were only inside with us sort of not a lot, even in bad weather, they would go out. And then as we migrated more and more of our kitties inside, and I certainly did as I went to vet school, and that was kind of the party line. We live in an area now, I think many people do, which are dangerous for cats outside, that we've basically created some problems for them, living all the time inside. We're almost out of time, but I wanted to ask you what's the take-home message you have for our listeners, veterinarians, owners and vet techs, all the folks that tend to listen to our podcast when it comes to dealing with cat behavior and whether you work in academia, private practice, or you're a cat owner?
0:27:30.5 KV: I think one thing to keep in mind is your cat's not trying to spite you, they're not mad at you, they're not doing this because they hate you. This is something I hear a lot from both cat owners and vets and academics, that there's kind of this bad intent behind problem behaviors, but I really encourage you to kind of separate yourself from that and think about it from the cat's point of view, why is the cat jumping up here? Why is the cat scratching here? Why might the cat feel stressed? And so, you think about it, they don't have... They can't speak to us in verbal language, they don't know English, so they are going to tell us how they feel through their behavior. And I wouldn't take it personally if your cat is peeing outside the litter box, it's just something... It's a relationship and it's something that you need to work on and figure out and reach out to professionals who can help you.
0:28:25.1 KD: Oh, great. Well, that does it for this episode of Fresh Scoop, and once again, thanks to Dr. Kristyn Vitale for joining us a second time. We'll be back with another episode next month that we hope you'll find just as informative. The science of animal health is ever-changing, and veterinarians and all of us actually need cutting-edge research information to give our patients and our personal pets the best possible care, and that's why we're here. You can find us on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts and Stitcher. And if you liked today's episode, we would sure appreciate it if you could take a moment to rate us, that will help others find our podcast. And to learn more about Morris Animal Foundation's work, go to morrisanimalfoundation.org, and there you'll see just how we bridge science and resources to advance the health of animals. And you can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I'm Dr. Kelly Diehl, and we'll talk soon.