Does Your Cat Need a New Home?

Try these solutions to 6 common problems before you make that decision.

Medically Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on March 31, 2011
8 min read

You love your cat, but you just can’t take it anymore. The litter box issues are driving you up the wall. Or maybe it’s the fights between your grand old cat and the feisty new kitten.

Before you throw up your hands and swear you’re sending Snowflake to a shelter, you might try hearing what Snowflake has to say -- in a manner of speaking. “Stop and listen to what your pets are telling you,” says Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD, CAAB, a certified applied animal behaviorist.

Too often we just aren’t paying attention to our pets, Moon-Fanelli says. Empathy is key, so put yourself in puss’s boots.

To help you do that, WebMD consulted with experts on cat behavior and health about some of the most commonly cited reasons for giving up a cat. Their tips for understanding kitty (and discarding some of your own misconceptions) may help you to live happily ever after together.

When people want to give their cat away, they usually say they want to find the cat “a good home.” Why can’t your house be that good home? With a little guidance, it probably can be, says Linda P. Case, MS, author of Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends. It’s rare that behavior or other issues with your cat can’t be resolved.

Start with two key steps:

  • Talk to your veterinarian before assuming the problems can’t be fixed. Something as easy to treat as a urinary tract infection can be behind a host of problem cat behaviors, such as yowling, marking, or refusing to use a litter box. “A large study showed that people who relinquish their cats tend to have not seen a veterinarian or other professional in the last year to address their problem,” Case tells WebMD. So before assuming an issue is unfixable, talk to the people who really know.
  • Consult a veterinary specialist about behavior problems. Not every cat complication has a physical cause, of course, and that’s where a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (ACVB) or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) can help. These professionals “can discuss, evaluate, and advise you in person, by telephone, or email,” says Moon-Fanelli. They can offer insight into why your cat is doing what he’s doing and how you can change his behavior. Ask your vet for a referral.

Here are solid solutions to problems that you may not have thought were fixable.

Inter-cat aggression. Do you like every new person you meet? Neither does your cat! Bring a new cat into a household with established felines and everyone usually becomes purring pals -- but sometimes things don’t go so smoothly and fights break out. Cats instinctually have a social order where one cat is dominant, so some degree of fighting is normal when first introducing a new cat. This usually resolves quickly once the new order is established. Cats can also become aggressive for reasons such as illness.

To help you get a handle on cat aggression:

Talk with your vet first. If one of your cats has recently become aggressive, the cause could be a serious illness. Get your cat examined by the vet before taking any other action.

Let cats get acquainted slowly. When introducing established cats to a new cat or kitten, don’t hurry. Let them meet by smell and sound first. After a week, they can be visually introduced, and after that, let them spend time together. And introduce the newbie to each established cat individually.

Reduce resource competition. Litter boxes, food bowls, water, kitty perches -- cats will fight over all of these if there aren’t enough to go around. Reduce kitty traffic jams at these hot spots by having several food and water bowls in different locations, multiple perches, and at least two litter boxes -- or one for each cat, if you can manage it.

Consult a behavior specialist. If illness and resources aren’t the issue, it’s time to call a veterinary behaviorist or CAAB, who can help you get to the behavioral root of your cat’s aggression.

Don’t punish an aggressive cat. Don’t fight aggression with aggression; the result is often more aggression -- and fear. To stop a cat fight, squirt the cats with water, clap your hands or make another loud noise, or throw something soft, like a wadded up sock, at them. Never try to pull fighting cats apart.

Soiling outside the cat litter box. Along with aggression, this is the main reason people relinquish their cats, according to experts. But it’s also a problem that can be resolved. ”The majority of problems are precipitated by bad litter box hygiene, or there aren’t enough boxes, or they’re just not in the right place,” says Case.

To attack litter box issues:

Get to the vet. If your cat eliminates outside the box regularly, she may have a medical problem. The vet can check her for medical conditions such as a urinary tract infection, kidney stones, feline interstitial cystitis, or crystals in the urine.

Give kitty a litter box of her own. To avoid litter box bottlenecks, be sure you’ve got enough boxes. Then it’s up to you to keep them clean. “One issue I hear about a lot is that people think if they’re using clumping litter, they never have to change it, but they do,” says Case. Let your nose be your guide when deciding when to dump all the old litter and start fresh, or aim for once a month.

Scratching and other behavior issues. Cat’s naturally scratch. And vocalize sometimes. And play a little rough. “People need to view their pets as living, sentient creatures that have their own typical behaviors,” says Moon-Fanelli. “They’re cats, not us.” That doesn’t mean that you need to stand by and let them take these behaviors to extremes.

To help you find a balance between your cat’s normal behaviors and your desire for nice furniture:

Learn what’s normal. The best way is to talk to the pros -- vets, CAABs, or veterinary behaviorists. Online research can also help, but stick to reputable sites and acknowledge that not everything has a quick fix. “Pet behavior is as complicated as human behavior and there are as many reasons for behavior ‘problems,’” Moon-Fanelli tells WebMD.

Find help for out-of-bounds behavior. With behavior issues such as scratching, for example, “there’s a gradient as to why a cat might be doing this,” Moon-Fanelli says. Understand why, with the help of a specialist, can often help you understand how to address the issue.

Make accommodations. For a cat that likes to scratch, provide scratching posts, trim his claws, or invest in claw caps (also called nail caps) to keep him from damaging furniture.

Cat allergies. Many people have cat allergies, but before you presume you do, visit an allergist. Once you know it’s your cat that is triggering the symptoms, try these solutions:

Make your bedroom a cat-free sanctuary. Reserve your bedroom for humans and look for special bedding designed to be less permeable to allergens like pet dander.

Take allergy medication. There are both over-the-counter and prescription medications to help you successfully manage allergy symptoms. Over time, allergy shots may also help reduce cat allergy symptoms.

Minimize dander. Vacuum, dust, and sweep as necessary to reduce the buildup of pet dander. Minimize heavy drapes, upholstered furniture, and carpet in your house -- places dander loves to dig in and hide.

Wash up. You can significantly reduce your exposure to pet dander by washing your hands and face often.

Baby on the way. Mention pregnancy and cats in the same breath and someone is bound to bring up toxoplasmosis. Fortunately, this serious infection -- which can be contracted via uncooked or undercooked meat, garden soil, or infected cats -- is rare in the United States. Still, to minimize your chance of getting it:

• Avoid changing cat litter while pregnant. Let someone else do it.

• If you must change cat litter while pregnant, wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly afterward.

• Keep your cat inside the house and don’t handle stray or adopted cats.

• Don’t feed your cat raw or undercooked meats.

• Wear gloves when gardening.

• Wear gloves when handling uncooked meat.

If you’re worried about preparing kitty for baby’s arrival, try these tips for warming her up to the idea:

Encourage visiting babies. Before your baby is born, encourage friends to bring their little ones by, so kitty can get used to infants. Of course, keep an eye on all interactions.

Introduce baby sounds. Play recordings of infant vocalizations to get kitty used to baby gurgling and crying.

Introduce baby smells. Sprinkle baby powder, lotion, or oil on your skin and hands, so kitty has a chance to get used to the scents.

After your baby arrives, make one-on-one time with your pet. It’s good for kitty and probably will be soothing for you, too.

Moving. Pets are part of your family, and relocation doesn’t need to be a reason to give up a family member, even if you’re being forced to downsize. Keep in mind:

There are plenty of pet-friendly apartments. The web sites of the ASPCA and Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) offer more than a dozen resources for finding pet-friendly apartments. Also ask around about them.

If cost is an issue, you can get help for health care expenses. Shelters and local chapters of the Humane Society often offer subsidized pet care, and veterinary schools frequently provide discounted care to the public. You can also talk to your vet, who may be happy to arrange a monthly payment schedule for your cat’s health care bills. “Research,” encourages Case. “There’s more help than you realize.”

No cat should be left behind. Abandoning pets is not only irresponsible; it’s illegal. Many people think that cats can fend for themselves outdoors because they were once wild, but most abandoned pets don’t survive -- due to starvation, abuse, or car accidents. There are alternatives to abandonment.

“It’s rare that there are problems that can’t be resolved,” says Moon-Fanelli. Yet once in a while, things don’t work out. “Nothing is wrong with the cat, and nothing is wrong with the owner,” she says. “Somehow, it’s just a bad match and a ‘divorce’ is necessary.” If you and your cat truly have irreconcilable differences, or issues such as financial strain are making it too difficult right now, talk to friends and family. Someone you know might adopt or temporarily foster your cat, or know of someone else who can.

Before you go this route, though, make sure you’ve tried other solutions. “We want to put our pets in a box, mend a problem with one quick fix, and then give up if it doesn’t work,” says Moon-Fanelli. “But when people understand why their animal is having a problem, they tend to become more forgiving and understanding, and willing to work on the problem.”

“Don’t despair,” Case adds. “These problems are relatively common, and they’re usually solvable.”