Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We love dogs and cats equally, and reserve treats for questions about your turtle, guinea pig, bird, snake, fish, or other beast.
Dear Beast Mode,
When my husband and I moved in together four years ago, he brought his 3-year-old cat with him. She has always been a model citizen. She stayed off the counters and tables, used her litter box and scratching posts, and mostly wasn’t a jerk. Just recently, though, she’s started pushing boundaries. She tries to take food out of our hands while we are eating (she’ll get in our laps and then make a grab for silverware), and she’s gotten on the countertops to get to plates she wants to lick. She licks my face and my 7-year-old’s while we are sleeping, meows at us, and has tried to stand on my head in the middle of the night. We can’t think of anything new in her life that would lead to these changes. We got a puppy 2½ years ago, but they are fine together; my son has always been here with us; no other life disruptions have occurred. She’s just kind of a jerk suddenly. Should we be concerned something more is going on with her?
—Too Much Cattitude
Dear Too Much Cattitude,
Dogs and cats may give the appearance of having humanlike emotional complexities and obfuscations, but a sudden change in a pet’s behavior often means that something is amiss, physically. “Start with a vet check,” certified animal behaviorist Mikel Delgado tells me. Your cat has always had the opportunity to act out because, well, she’s a cat. That she’s picked this random moment to try a slew of new personality traits could suggest that she isn’t totally in control of them.
“Some of these behaviors are food- and hunger-driven, and that always makes me worried about medical issues that might change the cat’s appetite,” Delgado says. Hyperthyroidism, for example, is an ailment that can make a cat both ravenous and manic: “You’ll see the cat get ramped up. Suddenly they’re a pain in the butt, and they start meowing at night. They’re more active—they’re running around.” Getting a proper diagnosis should be at the top of your to-do list, followed by whatever treatments your veterinarian prescribes.
Now, let’s say your cat comes back with a clean bill of health. The vet drew blood and ran all the tests, and everything looks totally fine. The only explanation could be that she has decided to become, as you put it, “kind of a jerk.” Well, sort of. Not to sound like a jerk, but you may have helped make her a jerk.
“If the medical results are clear, then I would say that this is a cat that needs more stimulation,” Delgado says. “My approach to this would be more exercise, food puzzles, and clicker training so the cat can learn how to get rewards for good behavior instead of bad.”
It sounds like you have a lot going on at home, but always make sure one of you can carve out some time to play with the cat each day. Because much of the cat’s misbehavior is centered around eating, a food puzzle could make a big difference. This will both slow down feeding and increase her mental stimulation. Delgado recommends syncing up her mealtime with your own. That way “the cat won’t bother you for food while you’re trying to eat your human food.” As for clicker training, there are lots of books on the subject, and you can always reach out to a professional behaviorist for hands-on training help.
Lastly, make sure you aren’t encouraging this bad behavior. That doesn’t mean holding up motivational marathon signs or singing pep rally cheers as she climbs the kitchen island. (But if you are doing this, please stop.) “Cats who get up on counters, usually there’s a human response,” Delgado says. “They run over, put the cat on the ground, and the cat gets right back up. Licking the plate is already rewarding, and then you’re adding the human attention, so it’s like double rewarding.” Any sudden reaction to a cat’s behavior can work to enforce it, so try to stay calm and measured.
There’s a lot to consider, but please make an appointment with your veterinarian before jumping to any conclusions. Cats aren’t humans: If they’re acting like jerks, there’s usually a reason behind it.