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Read your cat’s behaviour

A shift in your cat’s behaviour could be an indicator of underlying illness like a tooth problem or an injury

Cats are experts at keeping their troubles under wraps, hence shifts in behaviour can act as a big clue. Photo: Pixabay

By Dr Nameeta Nadkarni

LAST PUBLISHED 30.11.2023  |  01:00 PM IST

Catbury, my eight-year-old cat, isn’t very cuddly even normally, but something seemed off when she suddenly got super touchy about her back recently. When I tried giving her a little scratch, she straight-up hissed at me. That’s when I knew something was wrong. Turned out she had fleas: their bites were the reason for her grumpy behaviour.

Cats are experts at keeping their troubles under wraps, making shifts in behaviour a big clue that they may be suffering from some sort of illness. Just like Catbury’s hypersensitivity to touch, known as hyperaesthesia, it can signal more than just fleas. It might also be a red flag for issues like a tooth problem, an injury, or painful joints. Decoding these subtle signs can be the key to catching and treating problems early on.

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Aggression and unprovoked hissing in cats may manifest as a behavioural concern rooted in fear or territorial instincts, but they can also serve as an indicator of underlying illness. Pain, in particular, can incite aggressive behaviour. If your feline companion starts hissing during previously tolerated activities or while being handled, it may signify a medical issue rather than a behavioural quirk. On the other end of the spectrum, certain cats, when unwell or experiencing discomfort, adopt a strategy of concealment. My previous cat, Mischief, would hide under the bed when he wasn’t well. Thus, a sudden shift towards reclusive behaviour should also be regarded as a potential cause for concern.

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Behavioural issues related to the litter box are often glaringly obvious in cats. Many cat owners mistakenly attribute instances of urination or defecation outside the litter box to spite, but this isn’t always the case. Intact male cats may engage in such behaviour as a form of territory marking. Alternatively, cats suffering from a urinary tract infection or digestive upset may also exhibit this tendency. Other reasons for this behaviour include aversion to the litter material, limited accessibility to the box, perception of inadequate privacy, and in households with multiple cats, an insufficient number of litter boxes .

Scratching, a completely natural feline habit, often faces disapproval from cat parents due to the potential furniture damage it entails. Mere nail trimming isn’t always the ideal solution, as it can be stressful for some cats. Cats scratch to shed their outer claws and reveal sharper ones underneath, and they prefer tall, stable surfaces for this ritual. To redirect them from choosing a sofa or a chair, provide alternatives like a stable scratching post.

The sudden onset of compulsive behaviours can also be indicative of underlying issues. A case in point is Angel, a four-year-old cat who began excessively grooming herself following the adoption of a younger cat into the family. This compulsive behaviour resulted in bald patches. It often arises as a coping mechanism for stress. In such situations, positive reinforcement, behavioural training, and occasionally medication may be necessary to address and alleviate the underlying anxieties. Compulsive behaviours that manifest abruptly may signify deeper emotional or psychological challenges.

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Mao, an 11-year-old feline, is leaving his parent a bit concerned lately. He seems disoriented and has cranked up the meowing. Now, while cats are known to excessively vocalise when they want food or are in heat, in older cats, it could be a red flag for something more profound. It might be a sign of feline cognitive dysfunction (FCD), akin to Alzheimer’s in humans. Shockingly, over 55% of cats aged 11-15 and 80% of those aged 16-20 may grapple with FCD. This condition plays havoc with memory, learning ability, awareness, and sensory perceptions like sight and hearing.

So, what’s the takeaway for pet parents? Deciphering feline behaviour is crucial for identifying potential health issues. From litter box preferences to compulsive behaviours, these actions serve as indicators of a cat’s well-being. Address these issues promptly, and ensure lifelong well-being.

Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai