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The H.I.S.S. Test

Identifying Causes of Cat Behavior Problems

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Identifying causes of cat behavior problems can be difficult. Each cat is an individual, and what prompts a behavior in one may not be an issue in other kitties. There also may be a combination of factors that influence your cat to "act out."

Veterinarians and behavior specialists must look at a wide range of factors to narrow down what's going on and figure out solutions. I like to use the H.I.S.S. acronym to categorize all the different issues that might be involved. H.I.S.S. stands for health, instinct, stress, and symptoms, signs and solutions. 

H=Health

Health and behavior go hand-in-paw, and it can be difficult to separate the two. Anytime a cat's behavior changes suddenly, checking for a health issue should be at the top of the list.

For example, a top behavior complaint involves missing the litter box. But diabetes and kidney failure can make a cat need to urinate more often. Urinary tract pain caused by inflammation (cystitis) is another common cause of urinating outside the box. Arthritis that keeps the cat from climbing stairs to reach the box could also prompt potty problems. Once a health issue has been diagnosed and treated by the veterinarian, the behavior problem goes away.

I=Instinct

Cats are not little humans in furry suits. They evolved with specific behaviors hardwired into their brains that allow them to survive. Many of the behaviors people complain about have nothing to do with kitty being "bad" or acting in a vindictive manner. Instead, the cat behaves as he's pre-programmed to do, and no amount of "re-training" will change this natural, normal behavior.

For instance, cats claw to mark territory, and because it's a health issue that keeps their nails sharp and muscles toned. Cats climb on furniture to seek out high lookouts and safe places to rest, just as their predator ancestors might do. And kitties prefer clean toilets and dislike "going" after other cats, and may snub the litter box if it's not kept clean. Rather than behavior "problems" these are normal behaviors that may be re-directed or resolved simply by understanding the issue.

S=Stress

Just as in people, stress can prompt all sorts of health and emotional issues that result in changes of behavior. Do you bite your nails or tap your fingers when nervous? Stress can cause cats to act erratically, too, and the worst stress comes from too much togetherness between cats.

For instance, a cat might turn a normal behavior like self-grooming into a compulsion when stressed, because the licking helps calm him down. Because cats use scent to calm themselves, a stressed-out cat often urinates around the house, or increases scratch-behavior. Fearful cats hide or become aggressive. And when a cat cannot reach that stray cat outside the window, he may instead redirect his aggression toward an inside cat-buddy, or even the owner.

S=Symtoms, Signs & Solutions

Technically, only people have "symptoms" which mean we can tell the doctor how we feel. Because pets can't speak to us, we must rely on "signs" of illness, as well as veterinary tests. Behavior changes, how long they've been going on, and the cat's environment all point to clues.

Once all the clues have been gathered, solutions can be offered. Many times these solutions include combinations of things to treat or relieve health problems, understand and accomodate instinct, and relieve stress. Only then can the H.I.S.S. Test turn behavior problems into purrs.

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