Discovering What Cats Have Been Hiding

Convinced they could improve the quality of life for both cats and cat owners if feline behavior was better understood, a handful of veterinarians, under the auspices of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), decided nearly three years ago to pay more attention to what cats did and why. This ultimately resulted in a 42-page report, a first of its kind for felines, compiled by a panel of experts using information presented in approximately 300 articles and numerous books on feline behavior. The AAFP Feline Behavior Guidelines aims to make behavior assessment a routine part of feline health care.

Behavior is more important to the health of cats than many realize. Research shows negative behaviors from destroying furniture to urinating outside the cat box, are the most common reasons cats are euthanized. 1 Studies also reveal that most pets that have been surrendered to shelters have been evaluated by a veterinarian at least once during the previous year. 1

“These studies show us there is a gap between what we are actually doing and what we can accomplish with more attention to behavior, for both the clients and the cats,” said Ilona Rodan, DVM, Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP), Feline Practice. Dr. Rodan was a panel co-chair along with board-certified behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall. The panel included two other certified behaviorists and four other certified feline practitioners.

“There is a huge need for this information,” Dr. Rodan added. “Before I became involved with behavior, I was frustrated because I didn’t feel like I was helping the clients or pets as well as I could,” says Rodan, a practicing veterinarian since 1987 and former president of the AAFP. “So I added questions regarding behavior to the history of how the pet behaved, and it was immediately clear this was a very useful tool in helping identify a problem, whether it was with the pet or with the way the pet was perceived.”

The guidelines outline normal behaviors in cats from birth through old age and address an array of behaviors that can indicate physical or psychological problems. The mission of the guidelines is two-fold: Help veterinarians and cat owners identify behaviors that signal an underlying medical condition and educate owners and practitioners about ways to reduce or eliminate objectionable feline behavior.

Abnormal behavior, from changes in eating and drinking habits to pain-induced biting or aggression, can be an early warning sign for a range of ailments. Teaching practitioners and pet owners to become aware of even subtle changes in the way cats act can lead to earlier intervention and better clinical outcomes.

Obtaining a good history, including questions about behavior, is essential in identifying both physical and psychological problems.

At the same time, understanding and, whenever possible, reducing or eliminating objectionable behavior is the most effective way to diminish the number of felines that are abandoned or euthanized each year.

Rodan believes most feline behavioral problems can be eliminated or redirected through proper owner education, providing the issue is addressed early enough in the pet’s life. Scratching, for example – while objectionable to most pet owners – is a normal behavior in cats. Hence, destruction associated with cats’ scratching furniture can be prevented by gently picking up your cat, taking them to the scratching post and rewarding the animal each time they use the post.

Other behaviors, including inappropriate urination, can reflect stress or anxiety which can likewise be addressed, assuming the owner is aware of the underlying cause of the stress.

“There are a lot of issues we can resolve if we understand what is normal behavior,” Rodan says. She hopes the feline behavior guidelines will be widely disseminated to veterinarians and pet owners nationwide.

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  1. AAFP Behavior Guidelines, 2004.

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