When Physical Problems Turn Into Behavior Problems

Jul 3, 2014 · Updated May 23, 2015 · ·
  1. Anne
    Over the years, we've seen practically every possible behavioral issue in the Cat Behavior forum. Some of these behaviors can stem from stress, others from environmental aspects or a misunderstanding on the owner's part of the nature of felines. Still, in many cases, the root of the problem is physical problems that have behavioral manifestations. Once the reaction becomes a habit, even though the physical cause is no longer the source, the unwanted behavior remains.

    Possible Medical Causes of Litterbox Problems

    Many inappropriate elimination problems start with a urinary tract infection or constipation. When Tiger tries to use the litter box, it hurts. In his mind, it must be the box’s fault so the best thing for him to do is to avoid the “Evil Box”. When that plan fails and the carpet makes things hurt too, he continues to hunt for a comfortable substitute for his litter box.

    Urinary tract issues can be particularly persistent and recurrent. More often than not, if a cat begins to pee outside the box, he or she has developed a form of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder or FLUTD. What you have on your hands is a medical problem. You need to make an appointment with your vet ASAP.

    In the case of a male cat that is straining to urinate, generating only small amounts of urine at a time, you could be on the verge of a medical emergency. A blockage is developing right in front of your eyes, and in addition to the pain and discomfort, this could be a life-threatening situation within a matter of hours. Call your vet immediately.

    Do not attempt to correct the behavioral problem before you have the “all clear” from the vet. A sick kitty has no control over its elimination pattern. Anything other than quietly cleaning up after your cat is pointless. Even reprimanding the cat would do nothing but add to its stress, potentially complicating both the medical and behavioral problems.

    So Tiger is home from the vet and on his last day of medicine. All should go back to normal, right? Maybe not. Tiger has not only gotten used to alternatives to the litterbox but he’s formed a deep and sometimes lasting distrust of it. After all, it hurt him once and he’s not going to fall for that trick again!

    There are ways to help re-train a cat and convince him or her to use the litterbox again. They often involve thorough cleaning, as well as completely “resetting” the litterbox setup. A new litterbox may be needed to disassociate the pain from using the box.

    Litterbox issues can be difficult to handle. If you need help, read this: How To Solve Litterbox Problems In Cats: The Ultimate Guide. Still feeling lost? Post about your specific situation here. We can try and help with advice.

    Possible Medical Causes of Feline Aggression

    When Kitty bites or scratches during a nice petting session, it’s a good idea to have her checked at the vet. It could be an allergy problem or mites that make her skin sensitive to touch. Some cats are just more sensitive, and the vet may not be able to change that, but in many cases, a flea treatment or solving an allergy problem can help.

    If you touch a cat where it hurts, you’re likely to get hurt yourself. Many cats will lash out and bite or scratch aggressively if you touch a sore spot. This could happen while grooming, petting or just picking up a cat. The pain could be on the outside, a subcutaneous abscess or something more serious inside your cat.

    Aggressive behavior in general, whether directed at humans, dogs, or other cats, can be a sign of a physical problem. Pain-induced aggression is a very real thing. If your otherwise calm and playful kitty suddenly becomes “nasty”, she could be in pain. The cause may be an abscessed tooth, an ear ache, or other ailment, not necessarily related to being touched. It could also be a neurological condition, affecting the cat’s perception of its surroundings and making it lash out. When unexpected or unusual aggression starts, head to the vet for a checkup. More about feline aggression towards people and how to deal with it.

    Again, do not try to address the issue using behavioral measures before you get the “all clear” from the vet. You won’t be able to change the cat’s behavior and you could be neglecting a medical problem which needs immediate attention.

    To Sum Up

    When your cat’s behavior changes, assume the cause is physical. Your cat could be hiding more than usual, vocalizing (or becoming more quiet than usual), avoiding or seeking contact, or displaying actual behavioral issues as detailed in this article.

    In any of these cases, make an appointment with the vet to check out any possible illnesses or infections. Even if the new behavior is "problem behavior", don’t bother with spray bottles of water, yelling, or any other disciplinary measures. It will just add to the cat’s stress levels and will exacerbate the problems.

    Behavioral issues can only be addressed after all physical issues have been resolved and your cat is healthy again. Of course, even then, discipline rarely works, so take the time to learn how to handle the problems and visit our cat behavior forum for more advice.


    Have you faced a cat behavior problem that turned out to have a medical reason? Share your experience in a comment below. And please, share this article with your friends so we can help cats everywhere get the care they need.

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  1. Malek
    very nice, the problem we face here in the UAE is that there is a lack of experienced vets that are ready to think outside of the box and actually figuring out the problem, especially when it is hidden, they charge phenomenal fees with little results.
    1. tarasgirl06
      We have those matters in US as well. I try to learn all I can from my cats -- they are actually very eloquent if we know how to interpret their communications -- and give them the best quality food, environment, and caring.
  2. tarasgirl06
    Thank you for yet another excellent article. May all read and take it to heart. It is not the CAT's fault, and ruling out a health issue is always the preferred first step.