NOVA Online
NOVA menu (see bottom of page for text links)

Animal Hospital menu (see bottom of page for text links)

Ask The Behaviorist
Cats: Dr. John Wright answering questions
Please be aware that the following suggestions are
general advice and are not intended to be a
substitute for taking your pet to a veterinarian.
Posted February 6, 1998 | next set


I have a four-year old, orchiectomized Siamese. He has been declawed (prior to my ownership) and is an indoor cat with neuroses. Problem one, because he sheds badly I started brushing him regularly with a soft wire brush however, the only time I can get him to cooperate is when he is being fed his supper. Now he will not eat supper (breakfast is no problem) unless he is brushed or I'm in the room with him (he follows me around the house until I finally give in). I've been told that the brushing mimics the mother cats licking which stimulates the eating reflex. How do I get him out of this habit? Problem two, athough he is castrated he has begun to display some odd behaviour which I'm interpreting as sexual (granted, my knowledge of feline sex is somewhat limited). He will lay down on the couch and grab my arm with his forepaws while pushing against me with his hind paws. During this he vocalizes, his pupils become dilated and he becomes agitated. Is this something to worry about (the budget for a feline psychologist has already been expended). Thank you for your response.

Scott Thurmond
Rochester, NY

Response from Dr. Wright:

Your question deals with eating that has been conditioned to brushing, and clasping; also, clawing in a highly arousing context or situation. The first thing you should try is to brush the cat less & less over the weeks. By continuing to brush the cat less and less over time (say 10 strokes the first 2 days, 9 strokes the next two days, etc), the cat should get used to initiating eating with fewer & fewer strokes, then with just a "hand" stroke or two on the head, until just standing next to him should be sufficient. It may be that a few or several days are required between reductions in stroking - your cat will let you know how quickly he will accept this systematic desensitization procedure.

The reduction in clasping is different. Because he does this in a highly aroused condition (or in a very emotional state) it is sometimes better to displace the aggression (playful aggression more than likely) than to punish the cat. Frequently, physical punishment makes the problem worse (the clasping & clawing intensify). Thus, when it appears the cat is about to get into this behavior, try to toss a toy (you choose) away from you to elicit the chase response, or offer a sock with a knot in it in place of your arm, & move the sock (or a string - anything he will chase) to displace the clawing onto something more acceptable. Good Luck.


Mr. Freckles seems to have developed a habitual case of alopecia, removing his "diaper" (i.e. much of the fur on his lower abdomen, hind legs and the lower 3 inches of his tail) during the late winter or early spring, then letting it grow back in the summer. This has happened twice since I adopted him from the local shelter and appears to be happening again. If there is a psychological problem, I'm not sure what it might be except loneliness or cabin fever. I have been taking him outside for 10 minutes or so in the morning and am planning on finding him a companion soon, but I have difficulty with letting him out in the mornings and fetching him back in so I can go to work. What I am looking for is some advice on behavioral approaches to:
  1. controlling the fur-biting & removal
  2. getting him to come when I call him (shaking the bag of treats doesn't help that much since I have been unable to get him to actually take food from my fingers)

Any tips would be welcome.

John G. McDonald
Amherst, MA

Response from Dr. Wright:

You ask about behavioral procedures for what sounds like excessive licking, resulting in a loss of fur, especially during the winter & spring. The first thing to check on is whether the vet can find a physical cause (dry skin, skin allergy, etc). If that is ruled out, it may be an attention getting behavior (doubtful), a response to boredom (doubtful), or an obsessive/compulsive disorder (with an uncertain cause). If the first case is correct, not paying attention to the cat during the licking episodes should decrease the licking (look for progress from week to week, not day to day - you may actually get an increase in the licking at first, then it should drop off). If its actually a response to boredom, getting a second cat should resolve the problem (but what if it's not due to boredom!), or holding more frequent play sessions with him throughout the day. Some people have even had success with "video tapes for cats," but it's nothing one should count on. The most likely diagnosis is that "for whatever reason," the cat has derived pleasure from licking (whether it be related to turning on the pleasure centers of the brain, or the interpretation of lots of licking per se being rewarding).

Interrupting the activity by whatever humane means you can (calling him, eliciting playing just BEFORE the licking starts, tossing treats even though he hasn't seemed too responsive to this in the past, or even replacing some of the licking (grooming) with your petting him, might serve to reduce the unwanted behavior from week to week. If these behavioral means don't reduce how often he does it, you may have to ask your veterinarian to prescribe something you can give him orally that either reduces the cat's anxiety, or blocks the brains pleasure center from making licking feel so good. Good luck!


My daughter has three cats. They have lived together for a year. A month ago a new baby was introduced into the household. The cats (all neutered, one female, two males) have shared a litter box with no problems. Recently, however, the youngest male has begun defecating on the floor outside the litter box once or twice a week, even after the box has just been cleaned. The litter used has not been changed. What may be the cause of his behavior and how can she change it?

(name witheld by request)

Response from Dr. Wright:

This question deals with a male cat who has begun to defecate twice/wk outside the litterbox, and the owner believes the "inappropriate elimination" may be connected to the new baby (Human) in the house. Typically, a successful program of returning the cat to the litterbox takes several weeks, and one knows if the things the owner is changing "work" if the number of mistakes decrease from week to week. In this case, because there have only been two mistakes a week, it may be difficult to tell if the treatment program is effective (after a week, for example), or if he just wouldn't have had a mistake in that week anyway. Imagine actually wishing that the cat was defecating 7 times or more a week initially so we could tell if the treatment program was working from week to week!

Nonetheless, it may be that the cat is missing the box because his daily "ritual" has been interrupted by his humans' random activity through the house, at all periods of time, day & night, and the cat just can't deal with the disruption - its safer to "go" outside the box, than to climb in and risk being interrupted by someone rushing by. Similar to this, if the cat likes privacy, is the soiled area, even though right next to the litter box, somehow more private for the cat (away from the goings-on of people rushing by - perhaps around the corner)? If so, perhaps finding another less well-travelled location for the box may be something to try. It may be that just the opposite is the problem - the box is TOO private; some cats like to see if people (or other cats) are coming and will choose to "go" as long as they can see the coast is clear. If this is the case, place the box in a location that allows a cat standing in the box to see entranceways (imagine you're the cat & see if YOU can see someone in time to make the decision to "go"or jump out of the box & hide)! Your cat will let you know if these easy suggestions work, but give each possibility at least a week to influence the cat's return to the box. Good luck.


We got our three cats de-clawed and then ten days later we left for a three-week trip. We had a reliable person scooping litter and feeding and watering the cats while we were gone. When we got home, two of the cats were fine but the third was still limping and its fur was unkempt. The vet checked her paws and found nothing wrong. He put her on baby aspirin for a week with no improvement. He then gave her a dose of a very strong painkiller, but she still limped. In the past few weeks we have given her love and attention and her fur is now well kept again, and she still limps, although not quite as bad. The vet said that he thinks it is psychological. Is it because we left for such a long period of time right after a traumatic experience (de-clawing) and we weren't there to reassure her during the full time of the recovery?

Linda Ash
Columbus, OH

Response from Dr. Wright:

This question deals with a cat who was declawed & on return home, found her owners gone, not to return home for 3 weeks. She developed a poor coat & limped about the house, even after the owners returned - aspirin & a stronger pain reliever hasn't reduced the limp, although the coat has returned to normal following alot of love from the owner. Her 2 "siblings" were declawed at the same time, a caretaker came in daily to care for the cats, and the female cat was the only one to develop the problematic symptoms. Is the limp "psychological"and is there anything the owner can do to stop limping?

The overall response to the owner's leaving might have been sufficient to cause a breakdown in the cat's normal grooming behavior. However, there is no evidence the cat didn't groom in the owner's absence, and started grooming again once the cat & owner returned to their normal routine. Fortunately, the cat's coat has improved & the owner should continue to rebuild the personal relationship she has with her cat. The limping may still be a physical or physiological problem if the cat's coat improved when the owner returned - the stress of the operation and owner's leaving may have reduced grooming & made the coat look unkempt - now that the cat has returned to a normal routine and she'd not as "stressed-out" the coat has returned to normal (perhaps due to increased grooming). Why has the limping not returned to normal walking? It probably should have if it was a response to the same disruption that caused the cat's coat to look unkempt. The limping may still be more of a physical problem that a psychological or behavioral one. There are, of course, other possible explanations for the poor coat and the limping, other than "due to stress;" I would recommend to Carolyn that she explore those other possibilities with her vet.


Two cats, brothers, orange neutered toms, very active, live with two very large older cats, one male, one female. The female is very aggressive toward the younger orange toms. I have kept them separated for 12 weeks and only allowed short visits—extending the time each week. I am up to a couple of hours. Things are getting better and the two active males don't seem very interested in laying around with the older cats so they are starting to lose their inquisitiveness which Lessens Gracie's aggressiveness, but do you have any suggestions on speeding up this process?

(name witheld by request)

Response from Dr. Wright:

Your question deals with two adolescent male cats (neutered) one of whom has not been received kindly by his older female sibling (Gracie), who lives in the same household along with an older male cat (a 4th cat). The owner, Peggy, has been correctly using a systematic desensitization procedure to get the younger male cat and Gracie to be more friendly (or at least less nasty) to one another. The procedure involves giving the cats short, followed by longer & longer visits with one another & has resulted in less aggression & more lying around & not having much to do with one another. How to speed up the process?

  1. Don't get impatient - let the cats go at their own rate. Never force one cat to get closer to the other cat than at a distance they're comfortable with. If you hear hissing, you've moved too fast.

  2. Try adding something like a treat (or other tasty morsel, a play item) that each cat enjoys, so he/she associates getting the treat with the presence of the other cat. If Gracie begins to see the young male come into the room, which predicts she'll be given a treat, she'll be more likely to want to see her younger brother rather than to hiss at him.

  3. Try to provide the opportunity for vertical spacing between the cats in addition to horizontal spacing. It may be important for Gracie to be higher than her younger brother (as in, lying on a bookshelf or the back of your couch) as well as just farther away across the room. She'll let you know what she's comfortable doing.

Some older cats take months before they'll tolerate another cat in the household, but these options for desensitizing Gracie to her brother may hasten the process by weeks. Good luck.


Don't Blame Your Pet | Ask the Behaviorists | Name that Animal
Resources | Transcript | Animal Hospital Home

Editor's Picks | Previous Sites | Join Us/E-mail | TV/Web Schedule
About NOVA | Teachers | Site Map | Shop | Jobs | Search | To print
PBS Online | NOVA Online | WGBH

© | Updated November 2000