Kitten Start Right: Preventing Behavior Problems in Kittens
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2017
Debbie Martin, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP, LVT, VTS (Behavior)
TEAM Education in Animal Behavior, Spicewood, TX, USA

Prevention of problem behaviors is easier than treatment. Problem behaviors in cats are often associated with the stress of other cats in the house or outside the home. To decrease social tension in multi-cat households, provide core areas for each cat, increase vertical living space, and prevent exposure to outside cats. When introducing a new cat to a resident cat, it should be a gradual process.

There are pros and cons to confining the cat indoors versus allowing access to outside. The indoor environment is not as enriching or stimulating. However, the indoor environment is safer. Through management and environmental enrichment, indoor cats can be given alternative activities to allow for mental and physical stimulation.

Environmental Enrichment

Implementing routine play sessions with the owner in the morning and evening provides for routine interactions. Cats enjoy playing with toys that encourage pouncing and stalking (predatory sequence). Feather toys on the end of a pole, small stuffed toys and balls encourage exercise and positive interactions with the owners. Any type of direct play with human hands should be avoided as it can promote inappropriate play and result in potential injury to humans through accidental scratches and bites.

Cats are natural grazers and they are designed to eat small amounts of food at frequent intervals. Food puzzle toys can help to prevent obesity in cats as there is more activity involved in the feeding process and they provide great mental stimulation. Food puzzle toys also allow for exploration and discovery.

Hiding food and treats around the house in small dishes or cups promotes exploratory behavior and appeases the cat’s natural desire to search for food. Although not a toy, some cats enjoy the option of having indoor grass available.

Providing exploratory outlets through a variety of interactive toys will help to appease the cat’s curiosity.

Vertical space is important not only for management but also environmental enrichment. Vertical space creates areas for exploration and additional hiding places. Cat trees, perches, shelves, and elevated hiding places are great options for creating vertical space for cats. Tunnels, boxes, and paper bags can be used at lower levels. In the veterinary setting, a cardboard box or paper bag placed in a cage with a feline patient can allow the cat a safe place to hide in the novel environment.

Secure outdoor enclosures and fences are available to allow cats to have exposure to the outdoor environment within a confined area.

The First Veterinary Visit

By taking a few extra minutes during the first appointments, the kitten will be able to acclimate to the environment. Utilizing treats or canned kitten food during the examination and vaccination process, the kitten will likely be so distracted she does not even notice. This is also creating a positive memory for the kitten.

The goal always should be to create a positive association with the examination process that can follow the pet through the rest of his life. Rough or forceful handling methods teach fear and mistrust and often result in a difficult to handle cat. It also sets a poor example for owners to follow and could be considered malpractice.

Prevention Topics

Play Biting and Scratching

The motivation of this behavior is play and attention. It is a normal behavior of cats. They interact and explore their world with their feet and mouth. The consequence of the behavior is attention from the human. To prevent and manage this behavior, it is necessary to avoid playing with the cat with your hands, to provide appropriate toys, and schedule play time. Proactively provide the kitten with appropriate outlets for this behavior. If proactive measures are unsuccessful and the cat begins to mouth or scratch the owner, the owner should be advised to immediately stand up and look away briefly, and then ask the cat to sit and redirect the cat to an appropriate toy. Alternately, send the cat to a desired perch or resting place and reward. Avoid punishment (squirt bottles, verbal reprimands) because it creates fear and distrust and does not appease the cat’s motivation to play.

Destructive Scratching

The motivation for this behavior is it is a normal marking behavior. It is self-reinforcing and consequently, it cannot be ignored. Prevent the behavior by providing an appropriate outlet. Keep the cat’s nails trimmed. If the cat is scratching an inappropriate object, interrupt the behavior, call the cat away, reward, and redirect to an appropriate area.


Prevention is so important. Teaching the cat to tolerate restraint and handling at an early age is much easier than treating a cat that is aggressive with handling. Use tasty treats or a feather on a string as a reward to desensitize and counter condition the cat to handling. If the cat becomes frightened and aggressive, avoid punishment. Verbally reprimanding the cat may inhibit its behavior, but it does not make the situation any more pleasant for the cat, or client.

Crate Training

Most cats know that the cat carrier means, “We are going to the vet!” To prevent this negative association, use the crate at all times. Make it a comfortable resting spot for the cat. Hide treats in the kennel and feed special meals in the kennel.

Obedience Training

Cats can learn just as many tricks as dogs. Finding the right motivator can sometimes be a challenge. Small treats, a lick of tuna juice, or a feather on a string are potential rewards. Teaching the cat to come when called and to sit on cue can easily be facilitated with minimal effort.

Integrating a Kitten to a Multi-Cat Household

Integrating a new cat to a multi-cat household can be stressful for the new cat as well as the resident cats. To provide for the most harmonious integration possible, it is best to take a proactive approach and systematically provide for a gradual introduction. Although the process may seem tedious, it often can progress quickly. However, if owners decide to “just see what happens,” a negative initial introduction could result in a much longer acclimation process or even worse, an inability for the cats to cohabitate.

The kitten or new cat should be set up in one room. The room should have all necessary resources, including a litter box, scratching station, food, water, bedding, and toys. It is also a good idea to include a large multilevel cat cage. The kitten should be provided with numerous opportunities to interact and play with the owner throughout the day. For the first few days the new cat should be kept confined in a room. This will give the resident cats the opportunity to become accustomed to the new cat’s scent through a closed door. The procedure can be helped along by exchanging bedding between the animals. The scents of the cats can also be mixed by allowing the new cat to explore other parts of the house while confining the resident cats to a room. Another method to mix the scents of the cats is called artificial allomarking.

Ideally the resident cats and the new cat should become acclimated to their own individual multilevel cat cage. This will aide in the visual introductions of the cats. Alternatives to the multilevel cat cage are either a travel carrier or a harness and leash. However, all the cats must be comfortable with the confinement method or harness prior to starting the introduction process.

Start at a distance that the cats can see each other but are not dissuaded from eating their special meal (the furthest distance possible for the layout of the house is best). Each day move the cages a foot closer, until they can be next to each other while eating. Once this has been accomplished, if the resident cats are not overly interested in the new cat, the owner may consider keeping the new cat in the cat cage for supervised periods of time (if using a travel carrier, place the carrier up on a table or elevated surface) while allowing the resident cats to be loose in the room. This will help to facilitate habituation to the presence of each other. The next step would be to allow the new cat to be loose in the room and the resident cats to be confined to their cat cage. Once it has been determined that amicable interactions are occurring between the cats and they are relaxed in each other’s presence, supervised periods of time loose together can be allowed.

Pheromone products such as Feliway® may also be useful if the resident cats or the new cat are stressed during the process. The entire process may take 2–6 weeks to accomplish new introductions depending on the individual cats.


Fear Free Foundations for Kittens and Puppies

Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

D. Martin, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP, LVT, VTS (Behavior)
TEAM Education in Animal Behavior
Spicewood, TX, USA

MAIN : Nurses II : Preventing Behavior Problems in Kittens
Powered By VIN