Last month, we launched our new “Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Mikel Delgado” segment. Once a month, we’ll post a reminder for you to post your questions for Mikel. She’ll answer as many of them as he can each month, and I’ll publish her answers in a subsequent post.
Mikel is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant at Feline Minds, offering on-site consultations for cat guardians, shelters, and pet-related businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area, and remote consultations around the world. She is currently completing her PhD in Psychology at UC Berkeley, where she studies animal behavior and human-pet relationships.
Sleep deprived cat guardians
I am becoming sleep deprived! My Kat wants my attention all during the night, yowling and pushing at me. Could close door but she doesn’t like closed door. She refuses to play at bedtime to tire her out..I need my sleep! (Patricia LeBlanc)
I adopted 5 yo littermates Bo & Ellie last summer (days after saying goodbye to my 19 yo Evi). Their daddy, who’d raised them together from the age of 6 weeks with a ton of love, was being shipped overseas and they were in desperate need of a home together, so in they moved.
The problem is the habit dear BoBo has of meowing ever so loudly outside my bedroom door every morning starting around 5:30am. I’ve been sleep deprived since they moved in. Sadly I must keep my bedroom door shut because I’m allergic to cats. I adore cats, have always had cats, will always have cats, but I have to sleep in a “clean room” to prevent attacks of allergy-induced asthma. These kitties always slept on their daddy’s bed, so being shut out of the bedroom now must make them feel sad, lonely, forlorn, confused. I’d hoped they’d just get used to the new normal, but nothing’s changed in 9 months. I leave plenty of food out before I go to bed, and there’s usually some left in the morning, so it’s about attention, not food. I do give them a long play session at night to tire them out. Earplugs fall out by morning. I tried to just ignore it and stay in bed, knowing that if I got up when the meowing started then I was just cementing this bad habit — but he won’t stop meowing (I waited 90 minutes once!), and eventually I do have to get up for the day — so of course he’s learned that if he continues meowing, mama will get up. Apparently they’re 1/2 Siamese (and 1/2 Maine Coon), so that might explain some of the vocal volume. Help! I’m sooooo sleepy. Thank you! (Karin Moore)
Patricia and Karin,
Your complaints are similar enough that I’m going to address them together. Cats waking up their humans in the middle of the night is one of the most common reasons I’m called for help. Sleep deprivation takes its toll, on our well-being, and on our relationship with our cats!
This behavior is usually being maintained for a few reasons, the key ones being that the cat gets something out of it and that they aren’t sleepy when we are – and so they need a “schedule shift.” Sometimes the situation is complicated by the fact that there has been a change (such as with Karin’s kitties, where they were used to sleeping on the bed) or a housing situation or cat that doesn’t allow for the cats to be separated from humans at night.
So, to sleep through the night: the first step is to keep the cat more active throughout the day, and for some cats this means more than just a play session at bedtime. Food puzzles, bird feeders attached to a window, and vertical space can encourage more activity during the day. At least one or two daily play sessions with interactive toys will help.
Patricia, I wasn’t sure if Kat is only difficult to play with at night – so there may be a special toy that you reserve for a night time play session, OR you may want to shift your feeding schedule so she plays FIRST, then gets a meal. A lot of humans feed their cats first thing when they get home from work, and it can be difficult to get cats to play when they’ve recently had a meal – just like we don’t like to exercise with a full tummy!
Food can also get cats more on your schedule. I recommend meal feeding (or some variation thereof) so that your cat has exercise and the largest meal of the day shortly before your bedtime. That will make them more likely to settle down for the night. If you don’t want to meal feed, then perhaps pick and choose when your cat has food freely available, picking up their bowls in the early evening so they are hungry at bedtime.
Now is when things get a little gnarly. To really stop this behavior, you have to ignore it consistently. If you give in after 5, 10, or even worse, 90 minutes, then you have just rewarded persistence. Now it is true, Karin, that at some point, you have to get out of bed. Why not use clicker training and reward your cat for going to a perch when you leave the bedroom – only click when he has settled and stopped meowing. You can reward with treats or praise.
A few other things that may help you out: a piece of cardboard with double-sided carpet tape outside your bedroom door will make your cats less likely to sit there (just be careful not to step on it when you get up!). I’ve also found that a heated bed that is turned on only at night can be really helpful for getting cats to give up their human sleeping habit – turns out a lot of them just use us for body heat! 😊 Also, I’m a light sleeper, so I use an air filter for white noise, which helps me sleep, and might dull some of those annoying middle of the night meows!
Male feral cat is aggressive with other feral cats and stalks caregiver
I have a small colony of feral cats that I care for and have my own indoor cats that go outside. A male cat joined the colony early this year I had him trapped and neutered but 4 months later he has become very aggressive with the other ferals and my own cats as well – I have the feeding stations on the perimeter of my property but now he will stalk me and my cats near the front door. Is there anything that I can do short of relocating him to tone down his aggressive behavior? Thanks! ( Karen Aseltine)
Unfortunately, some cats are more territorial than others – and it is natural for cats to be wary of other cats. I think I would need a bit more information about the interactions and what type of behavior he is displaying to give you concrete advice. The fact that he “stalks” you, suggests to me that he is at least a little bit socialized. This is also complicated by the fact that your own cats spend time outside, so tactics that might keep him away from your front door (such as the motion-sensitive air cans) would also be unpleasant for your own cats.
What might help: spacing out resources so that the ferals’ feeding stations have plenty of space between them. Encourage him to get his needs met as far away from your home as possible (or even off your property). If you can set up any deterrents, in areas that your cats do not go, you might be keep him from getting to comfortable. If he is friendly enough, you might try giving him some playtime with feather wands (yes, you can try them with outdoor cats) to blow off some of his steam, especially if there are particular times of day that he tends to be more aggressive toward the other cats.
Unfortunately, when we let our own cats outside, it makes it complicated to manage what happens outdoors. You might want to consider keeping your own cats indoors part time so that you can set up deterrents to let the ferals know that your home is off limits. I would not rule out relocating, but we also know that for cats in colonies, it often takes several months and several attempts for them to accept each other, so it’s possible that time will heal some of these wounds.
Kitten suckles and kneads on everything, bites and claws
Hi my name is Cindi and we just got a kitten and i think he was weaned too early he suckles and kneads on everything including us(me my fiancé n my 9yo son) also how do i get mittens to stop bitting n clawing us it getting bad we tried the use toy instead of fingers thing and still bites us all the time thank you. (Cindi)
I feel strongly that kittens need a buddy – have you considered adopting a second kitten? This will allow your kitten to have another kitty to take out all that biting and rough play on. Cats can communicate “you’ve gone too far” much more easily with each other than we can with them. If she gets too “bitey,” it’s best to just walk away than try to correct her. Over time, she’ll learn that if she is too rough, she will lose your attention. Be sure not to force her to be held or petted at times that she would rather be playing!
Kittens are at the stage of life where they are going to be most active and they do need a lot of playtime with interactive toys – so things that keep your hands far away from the biting activity, like feather wands (these toy should be kept away from kittens when not being directly supervised), are best.
In regards to the nursing and kneading, your kitten may also benefit from some appropriate toys that let her chew and kick, like kick bag style toys. Cat grass can be another way to give cats an outlet for oral behaviors that might be related to early weaning.
All that said, I still think it would be great to adopt another kitten. Although it sounds like it would be more work, in most cases, the kittens keep each other busy and it ends up being less work for the humans. Plus your kitten has the possibility of a life-long companion of her own species!
Demanding cat won’t stop screaming
Oh if only you could get my cat to stop screaming. She wants her way…to overeat, go outside, whatever…it’s always something….mostly food. She was about double her ideal weight when I got her 4 years ago. I cut back on her food, let her roam outside when I was at home and the weight came off in about 9 months. Now the neighbor got a sport’s car with a cover and she ripped through 3 of them that I had to pay for…so now she can’t roam free outside. I try to walk her supervised every day for a bit before one of her 3 mealtimes. That is the only way to get her back indoors…she is so food driven. But she screams constantly about 2 hours before her next meal. It is driving me crazy so I try to outscream her…send her to the bedroom but she just screams in there! What can I do to get her to stop? I have NEVER had this issue with ANY of my other cats before. Thank you! (Samantha Sandy)
Cats who scream can be really annoying. Unfortunately, they are really hard to ignore so they are often reinforced for their behavior – either because the owner “talks back” or gives in to the cats demands for food or to go outside. Another reason that cats meow incessantly is because they are bored. She needs to be kept busy and occupied enough that meowing for other things doesn’t occur to her!
You didn’t mention your cat’s age, but excessive vocalization and weight loss can be related to medical issues, so if your cat hasn’t had a yearly vet check, it would be worth bringing her in and mentioning the behavior.
It’s great that you are taking her on daily walks! But I think it’s time to give her some more mental stimulation and challenges to keep her busy. Since she is SO food motivated, why not get her working some food puzzles. Cats like this should not get ANY of their food for free. Every bite must be worked for or earned – which brings me to another suggestion. Cats that are food motivated and restless are often perfect candidates for clicker training. You can use the clicker to communicate with her that you like when she is NOT meowing – and you can also train other basic behaviors, such as sitting quietly before meals, or cute parlor tricks like “sit” and “high five.” What I like about clicker training is that it gives cat parents a way to give their cat attention for good behavior instead of responding to their cats when they are being annoying. There are many great resources for clicker training available online or in your local bookstore!
Since she has transitioned to more time indoors, I would also recommend boosting other types of enrichment – such as vertical space, window perches, bird feeders to watch, and playtime with interactive toys. Try to tire her out once or twice a day to help her be more relaxed…and IGNORE the meowing. Trust me, it will be hard at first, but if she gets nothing from meowing, she will do it less.
21-year-old cat won’t play anymore
I have a 21 year old female, Chloe. Chloe doesn’t play anymore. The vet says she’s healthy. I’ve tried several kinds of toys, the feathers, a ball on a stick, catnip mice (she used to play with those.). I just can not get her to play. Is it age related? How can I give he the mental stimulaton she needs? (Rebecca)
Congrats on Chloe living to such a wonderful senior age! I adore elderly cats, and I’m glad she is healthy. When playing with senior cats, it’s important to change your mind set on what play looks like – it might not be backflips or active chasing. In this case, the goal is mental engagement. That might mean just watching the toy, it might mean occasionally pawing at the toy. More activity than that would certainly be a bonus.
To get seniors more engaged, I recommend using small, quiet toys, such as a cat dancer or feather wand – but try moving it vvvveeeerrrrrrrrryyyy slowly – and try moving the toy under a towel or piece of tissue paper – that is often irresistible!
Most senior cats love warmth and looking out the window, so a bird feeder in a sunny window with a heated bed would probably be dreamy for Chloe. You can try encouraging her to use a food puzzle for treats – if she is very food motivated you could try them for some of her meals, but with most seniors we want to encourage them to eat as much as they want, so check with your vet about whether food puzzles might work for some of her meals. Other enrichment could include cat grass, self-grooming corner combers, and the HexBug Nano cat toy, which is my favorite “automatic” cat toy as it is small and quiet.
I hope you get to enjoy plenty more time with Chloe!
Cat likes to roll in freshly scooped litter box
After I scoop the litterbox my cat Bandit likes to go roll in it. Why does he do this and is there anything that I can do to stop this behavior? (Lorraine Anderson)
Thank you for the question that made me smile. There are definitely some quirky behaviors that are hard to explain! Many cats do like to roll in dirt, this behavior not only feels good, but in the wild, it might have some protective effects, like preventing parasites or helping cats cool off. Cats may also roll to mark an area with their scent glands.
One possibility would be to harness train Bandit and take him out for a walk around the time you clean the litter box – so he can roll in some dirt rather than used kitty litter. Tactile enrichment, such as the CatIt Spa or corner groomers would give him some other ways to scratch that itch and spread his scent around. More playtime with interactive toys after cleaning the litter box might be a nice distraction for him. Finally, you could consider trying a different brand of kitty litter – although when changing litter, we always recommend doing so gradually and offering choices!
Interview of Mikel Delgado with David Feldman
Wow, everyday issues and answers, purrfect to share. I listened to an interview of Mikel Delgado with David Feldman just yesterday, full of information. (Bernadette)
Thank you for your kind words, Bernadette! David Feldman was a really nice guy, I had a lot of fun doing that interview!
Leash training a cat
Hi, I recently adopted 3 yo Peanut the cat from a rescue. We think he use to have a home but got lost or dumped at a feral colony. He is confident (tail always high in the air) and curious. He doesn’t mind being picked up tho he is very independent (not a lap cat) and sleeps at the foot of the bed. I would love to leash train him and I think he has the right personality but when I tried it once (no issues wearing the harness) he growled whenever I touched him while he was exploring (but he wasn’t pulling away). It concerned me enough that I took him back inside and he fought me (no injuries). Do you have any thoughts or suggestions on how to make this work? (Tanya)
Thank you for adopting a rescue kitty! Peanut sounds adorable. It sounds like when he’s outside he gets pretty focused on the task at hand (exploring) and doesn’t want to be disturbed. Since he doesn’t have any problem with wearing the harness (sometimes that is half the battle), I think that you could use clicker training to help Peanut understand that when he is on his lead, he should follow (and focus on) you when you call him. Target training in particular can show him that following a target will lead to rewards. These exercises need to be practiced indoors first so that he understands the task at hand – because once he is outside he is going to be distracted by all the things to check out there. But a solid base of training will help mitigate some of the effects of all that distraction!
When he is outside, avoid touching him, but instead use the target or other lure (toy or treats) to encourage him back indoors. I would pick him up only if you must. Start with very short ventures outside and keep the lead short at first so that it won’t be too difficult to lure him back in. As he gets more used to being outside, you can increase his time and range. Finally, try taking him outdoors before meals, when he’s a little hungry, so he is motivated to come back inside for food or treats.
Learning from responses to concerned cat parents’ issues
This is my first time reading your column, and I felt very educated by your responses. Thank you for giving well thought out replies to these concerned cat parents! (Jean McCormic)
Jean, thank you for reading! It’s a great place to be sharing information about cats!