Feline Behavior Guidelines

by Steve Dale

More cats die because of behavior problems than cancers, kidney failure, and diabetes. For example, a lapse in litter box etiquette might sever the human/animal bond, and mean the cat is dumped at a shelter. In an effort to prevent these behavior problems from occurring in the first place, the American Association of Feline Practitioners has published Feline Behavior Guidelines. “A part of the goal is to encourage veterinarians to elicit clients to talk about their cat’s behaviors,” says the primary co-author, Dr. Ilona Rodan, of Madison, WI. “Most veterinarians have never received education on behavioral medicine, and may not have the most recent knowledge at their fingertips. Panelists [who wrote the guidelines] worked to develop common answers to most feline behavior problems.”

There’s no doubt that litter box aversion is the most common problem of all. And it’s often preventable. “Simply, a matter of allotting an appropriate numbers of boxes for the number of cats in the home can make all the difference,” says Rodan. “Another important issue is to differentiate between squat urinating and spraying since the resolution for each issue is so different.” The guidelines, which are based on the latest research, point out that cats who dig less than four seconds prior to eliminating are essentially telling their people they don’t care for the litter, the box, or both. “Often times the cats are telling us what they’re thinking, but it’s a matter of first understanding what normal is and second of reading what they’re trying to say,” says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall of Philadelphia.

While the guidelines recommend cats stay indoors for safety, the truth is that most indoor cats in America are hopelessly bored, and with no outlet for their energies like their drive to seek out prey, they get into trouble. Other cats do seem happy just to languish on a sofa, be petted, and eat. But these are the ones that keep eating! With nothing else to do, many cats are overweight, with current estimates at around a third to about half of all indoor cats in the U.S. “There’s no question that providing an enriched environment is beneficial to physical and mental health and can prevent many behavior problems from occurring,” Overall says. Sometimes medication is helpful to assist serious behavior problems. However, the Guidelines offer a reminder that while the meds may take off the edge to make learning possible, appropriate behavior remains the necessity.

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