Common Kitten Behavior Problems
Like human babies, feline babies aren't born innately knowing how to be good. In fact, they're born innately knowing how to get into mischief. Your job is to curtail that misbehavior and, when it gets out of hand, redirect it into acceptable behavior. Of course, some kittens are wilder or more aggressive or harder to litterbox train or more fearful than others, and these kittens may need a little more work, training and socialization.
Inappropriate elimination of feces or urine is one of the most common complaints of kitten owners. Most often, failed attempts at litterbox training have expected too much of the kitten, with owners often assuming that kittens train themselves to use a litterbox. They don't. If they are given the opportunity to use a litterbox at the appropriate age, it may seem like they train themselves, but if not, they can train themselves equally effectively to use your carpet, a pile of laundry or any other place they grow accustomed to using as a makeshift litterbox.
Often, kittens are expected to use a litterbox that has sides that are so hard for them to climb that they opt for an easier spot. A kitten may avoid the litterbox because it's too out of the way, or because it's next to where the dog who chases him sleeps. He may also avoid it because it smells strongly of harsh chemicals or urine, because the litter is scented (most cats prefer unscented litter), because the litter is dirty or because he doesn't like the texture of the litter. Try different boxes and litters, and go back to basic litterbox training.
Occasionally, a kitten has an illness that makes getting to the box in time impossible. In these cases, your veterinarian will be the best source of advice.
If your male kitten is intact, he may begin spraying as early as 5 months of age. Occasionally, neutered males and even females also spray.
Play aggression is part of growing up for cats — to a point. Play fighting and play hunting are important practice for behaviors that adult cats would need if they were growing up in the wild, and may still need growing up in many domesticated situations. Kittens normally play with their littermates, chasing and pouncing and wrestling and biting and scratching. Without littermates, you become your kitten's sparring partner. When playing with their littermates, kittens learn how to hold back on the intensity of their biting and scratching, because when they get too rough, the other kitten either retaliates or quits playing. Kittens raised without littermates don't learn this, however, and are especially prone to overly aggressive play.
A kitten who is engaging in play aggression lashes his tail back and forth, flattens his ears and dilates his pupils. These are signs that an attack against your hand or other vulnerable part is about to follow. Unfortunately, it's tempting to let your baby kitten play fight with your hand when he's young, but this is a bad habit that you'll regret when your kitten gets bigger and stronger. The same is true of letting your kitten practice his hunting skills on your hands and feet. It's cute now, but it won't be when he gets older.
If you see your kitten readying to jump on you, try to distract him with a loud noise or a hiss from you. If he's already being too rough with you, say "Ouch!" and place him on the floor and quit playing with him for several minutes. Then use a toy instead. Don't strike him, which he can interpret as extra-rough play, encouraging him to escalate his own aggression, or which can teach him to be afraid of you or your hands.
If your kitten is treating your body parts like toys, you need to get him something more enticing to play with. Dangling toys are great for practicing hunting skills, while stuffed toys can make good sparring partners.
Although most aggressive kitten behavior is all in fun, some kittens will exhibit true aggression toward you or another kitten when they reach 6 months of age. These kittens should be treated in very much the same way as the overly exuberant playful kitten: Make a loud noise, remove him from the situation and ignore him for several minutes.
Furniture scratching is yet another normal cat behavior that emerges in kittenhood. Cats scratch vertical surfaces as a means of marking their territory with scent from their foot pads, as well as leaving a nice visual marker, which you can see on your scarred and tattered furniture. Deter kittens from scratching your furniture by placing sheets of newspaper or plastic or upside-down nubby plastic carpet runners on surfaces you do not want scratched. Select furniture fabrics, such as velvet and leather, that aren't as appealing to your cat.
Provide your cat with scratching posts — always keep one more post in your house than you have cats. Each post should be steady, made of a material such as burlap that leaves a visible mark, tall enough to allow your cat to stretch as high as he can reach, in clear view and placed near the furniture you don't want him to scratch.
Trimming your cat's nails also reduces the damage he can cause. Declawing is a personal decision but is usually not generally recommended except under unusual circumstances. The safety of a cat without claws can be severely compromised should he get out of the house. Discuss your options with your veterinarian to determine what's best for your cat.
If your kitten has a behavior problem, don't think you can't address it. Not only can your veterinarian provide advice, but for serious cases, he can also refer you to a veterinary behaviorist who is specially trained in matters of cat behavior.