Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Mikel Delgado: Mikel Answers June and July’s Questions

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Welcome to our regular “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 she 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 obtained her PhD in Psychology at UC Berkeley, where she studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships. Mikel is co-author of Jackson Galaxy’s forthcoming book, Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat, due out October 31 and available for pre-order now (this is an affiliate link*).

But before we get to the answers to your questions, we want to congratulate Mikel on completing her PhD last week – congratulations, Dr. Delgado!

Aggression between sister cats

We adopted two sister cats from a rescue a year ago. The cats are probably around 2 and have always had a very close relationship. Recently we’ve been having some incidents of redirected aggression. A stray cat in the neighborhood comes by most nights and really gets the cats worked up, particularly one of them. Both of our cats are spayed. On two separate occasions, one of our cats has become crazy with rage and attacks her sister. The fights are very aggressive and after we’ve separated them, the enraged cat will try to stalk her sister for the next 30-60 minutes. This seems to be affecting their general relationship as there is more hissing at each other, particularly from the one who gets attacked. I would appreciate any suggestions. A vet tech friend recommended the pheromones, which is how I found your post about the research on their effectiveness. (Jim)

Jim,
Redirected aggression can be problematic, because if unmanaged, it can eventually cause a huge rift between cats that can be difficult to repair. The first thing you need to do is keep the stray cat away from your windows – such as with motion-sensitive sprinklers or compressed air cans. He needs to get the (humane) message he is not welcome in your yard. If he isn’t neutered, I recommend working with a local rescue group to do some TNR (trap, neuter, return) for him!
In the meantime, I would cover the windows where your cats tend to see him – either with privacy films, or even with cardboard. The visual access needs to be taken away. If there are other windows (where he can’t be seen) that can be made more attractive with a cat tree, heated bed, or perch, try to encourage your cats to spend time away from the areas where he can be spotted.

If they do get into a tiff, an hour may not be enough to separate them; cats can stay aroused for much longer than that, and reintroducing them while they are still worked up may backfire. So I’d give them at least overnight, and reintroduce them over something pleasant, like parallel playtime or a favorite treat.

Lost cat

My 2.5year old cat has gone missing, for more than a week now, he has never been away from home for more than two days. We live on a small holding so there are other cats in the area, and being a farm there aren’t any fences, so he is not restricted to where he can go. We have informed all neighbors and various animal shelters, but no one has seen him. My question, can he just go “missing” and be okay on his own, can cats get lost? My boyfriend says he is gone and I should stop looking for him.. but I simply cannot do that!! He is a neutered male. (Karen)

Karen,
I am so sorry to hear that your kitty has been missing, and I hope that he has returned in the meantime. I would say, even if it has been a few months, don’t give up! I have a friend who found her cat after she was lost for three months!

Cats who go outside regularly don’t typically get lost (although perhaps if he was frightened enough he could have gotten confused about how to get home). The risks to cats who go outside unfortunately include death or injury, or he could have “hitched a ride” somewhere. Regardless, to find a lost cat I recommend the following:

1. Put flyers with a recent, clear photo all over your neighborhood
2. Knock on people’s doors and post on local neighborhood message boards to see if anyone has sighted him
3. If he has been sighted, call to him at dawn and dusk or set a feral trap in those areas – put some of his dirty kitty litter or some very tempting food inside the trap to tempt him back
4. Call your animal control service routinely and file a report if they offer that service

If and when you find your kitty, I would consider whether it’s time to switch to an indoor-only lifestyle. Harness training and enclosures can help your cat get some safe, controlled outdoor access without the risks. Best of luck to you in finding your boy.

Clicker training for shelter cats?

I volunteer at a shelter and there are cats that do not show well due to the stress. They either growl or snap when you try to pet them. How do I use clicker training to stop unfavorable behavior? There is a cat the meows with discontent whenever being petted. This was my technique –> I let her sniff my hand to request permission to pet her. I give a kitty treat for her to eat, pet her and click simultaneously. I repeat if she does not growl. If she does, then I stop the session and walk away. Am I using the clicker correctly to stop bad behavior? (Kate)

Kate,
The clicker is meant to be a bridge between the desired behavior (such as allowing pets) and the reinforcer – we know the clicker technique is working when the desired behavior increases. The sequence is cat presents behavior – clicker – treat. However, I think it’s important to first consider whether you are starting with the right behaviors to reinforce. For cats in shelters, it can be hard to be in a confined space where you can’t get away. Some cats might tolerate, but not enjoy, petting.
The fact that she is continuing to growl suggests that her level of anxiety or threat is high and she may not be learning much positive at all about the experience. Instead, there might be some “flooding” going on, where you force an animal to be exposed to something they find stressful. Although you are pairing it with something she might like, if her behavior isn’t changing for the better, I’d be concerned.

Contrary evidence would be if she relaxes into the petting, or shows other positive signs, such as rubbing into your hand or purring. Lacking those signs, I would take the training back a step. This could be “target training,” instead reinforcing her for touching her nose to something like a wooden spoon. This allows you to keep some distance from her, but still teach her that her behaviors can lead to rewards from humans. As she gets more comfortable around humans, you can try to pet her; but honestly, some cats do not enjoy much petting, and are much less inclined to tolerate handling in a stressful environment such as a shelter. If there’s anything that can be done, such as moving her to a larger, quieter space, or even a foster home, you might see more positive changes in her behavior. Play with an interactive toy is another great, stress-reducing way to interact with a cat who doesn’t want a lot of handling.

Male cat is “pretend” spraying

One of our four-year-old neutered male cats (they’re brothers we adopted when they were three months old) “pretends” to spray–he backs up to something, usually a cabinet door, and does the shimmy/wiggle as if he’s marking. He’s not bothering us or anything, and obviously nothing is coming out, but what’s his deal with this? His brother does it too every once in a while, but I get the idea he’s just being a copycat (however, our copycat is also weird; he has a thing for carrots–they make him crazy. Catnip does nothing for him but a give him a piece of a carrot and he rolls around on it). (Nicole)

Hi Nicole,
“Mock spraying” or “rattlesnake tail” is a fairly common sign of excitement in cats, and as far as we know, not a reason for concern. In other words, I’m not familiar with any evidence that cats who mock spray are more or less likely to really spray. Cats tend to do this behavior before meals, when their humans get home, or at other times they are happy. If he seems overly excited at those times, try a little playtime with an interactive toy to help him blow off a little steam! Otherwise, I wouldn’t be too worried.

And, I’ve never heard of a cat who loved carrots, but that is absolutely adorable! Cats never cease to surprise me!!

Cat overeats and then throws up

My male cat Simba likes to overeat and then throws up afterwards. He used to be heavy and now has gotten slender, is that normal during the summer months? My husband thinks we should take him to the vet. (Julia Simpson)

Julia,
I agree, a trip to the vet should be your FIRST stop in resolving this issue. Contrary to popular belief, vomiting in cats is not “normal” and it’s not typically a behavioral problem. There are many medical causes for vomiting in cats, such as inflammatory bowel disease, food sensitivity, hyperthyroidism, etc.
If your vet gives Simba the all clear and believes this is a behavioral problem, then I recommend introducing food puzzles and slow-feeder bowls. These can provide exercise and enrichment, while preventing cats from the scarf and barf! You can check out this website for more information on using food puzzles with cats: foodpuzzlesforcats.com (full disclosure: I co-own the website, but there’s no financial gain in it for me! Just a labor of love!).

Cat stops playing when other cats come near

Hi Mikel,
I have 5 cats all very close. My question is 1, the youngest stops playing anytime a sibling comes near. We have tried playing with alone in a room, but he will still stop when he hears the others at the door. It’s like he is embarrassed to play around them. Any suggestions??? Thank you, Sharyl.

Sharyl,
I’m glad you’ve tried playing alone with the youngster. Many cats are inhibited in play when other cats are around, and they only way you can get them to play is by confining them in a different room! If you have anyone else in the household who can keep the other cats away from the door, that might help. A lot of kitties don’t like closed doors and then the meowing, scratching and banging at the door begins!

You could also add some white noise to the room, or even talk radio at low volume. That might block enough of his siblings’ noises that he can let loose and get some play in! Worst case scenario might be putting the other cats in a separate room (if space allows) so your little one can get 5-10 minutes of play in!

There may be other aspects of the cats’ relationship you need to work on – without knowing more details, a qualified behavior consult may be able to help you add more vertical space, experiment with different toys or play styles, or even desensitize the cats to playing around each other, so that you don’t have to segregate your youngest.

Rough play between young cats

Hi Mikel,
My question is. I have (2) 3 year old female cats, both spayed. I got them within 30 days of each other at 10 & 6 weeks. They play, sleep together at times, groom each other and eat next to each other. But sometimes, when they play, it is what I call, “too rough” causing one to hiss, growl and spit with the other chasing her. How can I detour that behavior from going to far without ruining play time for them? I use distraction, I’ve rescued the one and the aggressor has been placed in a 3 minute timeout in a room by herself. I’m just not what is the most correct thing to do. Thank you, Debbie Jones

Hi Debbie,
Some “sibling rivalry” is normal, and if the cats are otherwise getting along – playing, allogrooming, and sleeping together, it sounds like the rough play is part of their routine! Sometimes one cat wants to groom the other and goes too far, or one is more in the mood for play than the other. That said, most cats who are friendly with each other can work these tiffs out on their own without your intervention.

I would recommend making sure you have plenty of resources for BOTH cats so they don’t have to fight over desirable spaces, such as perches or cat beds. Feed them in separate areas and make sure you have at least two litter boxes. These are little things that give cats CHOICES in their environment. Many cats work out differences through avoidance, and giving them lots of options can reduce conflict. Having tired, well-exercised cats is also helpful – so don’t forget the interactive play and enrichment.

In general I’m not a big fan of “timeouts” in the bathroom, and would instead focus on the “house of plenty” as described above. Distraction (such as dropping a book or magazine on the floor before things get too rough) is acceptable, but unless they are injuring each other, you are seeing other changes in their relationship, or one cat is just absolutely relentless, you may not need to intervene at all.

Is getting a second kitten always a good idea?

While I appreciate the ‘get a second kitten’ comment (being a foster home for kittens, I always like that idea) it should come with a caveat of “if you can afford it” or “if you have time” Some people get single cats for a reason and pushing hard for a second kitten can be off-putting or in some circumstances ill-advised. Connie – Tails from the Foster Kittens

Connie — I also appreciate your comment (and you are certainly not the only one who has said that to me), but I do think that we have to consider the welfare of the animals we are adopting. I feel very strongly about this! Instead of adopting a single kitten, people who want only one cat could adopt an adult cat who has already demonstrated they prefer the singleton lifestyle, rather than condemning a kitten to a life of social isolation from their peers. I worked at the San Francisco SPCA for many years, and sadly watched many a kitten go to a singleton home; if those kittens were returned to the shelter, they often came back without social skills with other cats, which then limited their adoption options! Obviously, all I can do is state my opinions; people will continue to adopt single kittens…but hopefully they can at least be aware of the risks and welfare concerns for the kitten. Thanks for all you do for foster kittens!!!

Biting cat

I have a black n white tux. She is so mean. She bites me, other people that come over, and growls like a dog to my other cats. (Connie)

Connie,
I’m sorry to hear that your cat seems so unhappy. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough information to help me understand why your cat might be biting and growling; some cats are more sensitive to handling than others, or might not get along with other cats. That said, there are always ways to help a cat like this. In my opinion, there are no “mean cats.” There are cats responding to their environment in ways that indicate stress and anxiety – such as biting and growling. You may want to talk to your vet or a behavior professional about how you can help your cat be less stressed out.

When it comes to biting humans, it’s important to respect your cat’s space, and avoid petting her roughly or until she is overstimulated. If she is afraid of people she can learn to trust more by having the humans in her life give her treats and her meals. Finally, enrichment such as vertical space and scratching posts, along with interactive play have therapeutic effects for most cats. If she is truly stressed and anxious beyond what is humane for her, I would talk to your vet about whether behavior medication could also help her out. Again, without more information, I’d say your best bet is reaching out to a behaviorist to help you out!

Tortie doesn’t know what behavior means

My “Tortie” doesn’t know what behavior means. It’s her independence or nothing, and I love it. Reminds me of myself. (William Eckardt)

William,
It sounds like you are a perfect match! I can appreciate that independent spirit!

Cat eating small twigs

Hi Mikel.
My 3 year old tabby has access to a secluded garden, he loves. But he has a habit of occasionally eating small twigs. I don’t see him doing this. But the next day he is very passive and obviously feeling bad, until the same day or the day after he gets rid of a poo with the twig in it. I’m rather concerned about this habit and it’s potential danger to his health. Any advice, so he can still be in his garden? (Ghita)

Hi Ghita!
Many kitties are attracted to various plants to chew on. It sounds like you have a lovely and safe outdoor space for your cat to spend time in, and I would hate to see that taken away from him! I would recommend a quick call to your vet, with a description or photo of the twigs, so your vet can advise you on what sort of risk this poses. It sounds like the twig is not very broken down in his feces, which suggests it might be more of a hazard that something more digestible!

Can the twigs be cleaned up, tied back, covered, or otherwise controlled to manage his access? Any other unsafe plants could be sprayed (at cat level) with bitter apple spray to reduce their appeal.

Simultaneously, since he likes to chew on plant-like matter, why not offer him some cat grass in the garden area? That might at least direct this behavior to something safe and equally satisfying.

Cat places toys in water bowl

I am a blind PRA Siamese cat. An important part of my play is to bath, drown, leave to swim, my toy mice and birds into water bowls placed in the house and if opportunity allows – into the toilet. Why am I doing this? (Bizzy)

Bizzy,
You indeed sound like a fun-loving and adorable cat. While theories about why kitties dunk their toys in their water bowls abound, we don’t have one clear answer to your question. Some people think this is because the food and water dishes are part of the cat’s “nest territory” and they might be storing them in a place that is safe. Drs. John Bradshaw and Sarah Halls’ research also tells us that the “disintegration” of prey – meaning losing feathers or other body parts (!!), falling apart, and such are part of the hunting process that keeps cats engaged. The change in texture of a toy when it gets wet could feel good to cats or let them know that the hunting process is continuing as planned and the prey item is falling apart! Keep up the good work!

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9 Comments on Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Mikel Delgado: Mikel Answers June and July’s Questions

  1. Mason
    August 11, 2017 at 10:11 pm (1 week ago)

    Hi Karen,

    About finding your cat… Not too long ago some neighbors the next street over lost of their cat and put flyers on the front doors of every house in the neighborhood. It turned out that the cat had gotten into our attic… Don’t know how but we heard it when it was meowing, and made the connection between it and the flyer that was left at our door. It turned out to be the cat and the people got it back. If they had only put flyers on telephone poles, etc. we would’ve never known who’s cat it was.

    Reply
  2. Kim Freeman
    August 7, 2017 at 1:32 pm (2 weeks ago)

    I agree with Bonnie. I do lost cat recovery full-time and advise against using kitty litter in any way (other than inside the house, of course).

    In my experience, people who swear by it are being superstitious as cats who return when litter is involved would have come back just as well to a sack of potatoes on the porch.

    Reply
  3. VagabondMoon
    August 7, 2017 at 10:04 am (2 weeks ago)

    I love this column, it is especially informative and very interesting. I like the lengthy ones, even more (hint, hint!) Thank you so much!

    Reply
  4. tehila
    August 7, 2017 at 8:02 am (2 weeks ago)

    Re: sister cats and redirected aggression;

    I had the same problem when i moved the my current apartment. I arranged for two feral cats to be trapped, neutered, and returned (TNR). Eventually my cats settled down. They still go slightly bonkers, but the aggression against each other gradually ended. Last week, one showed up and my older cat just sat and stared back at him.

    Reply
  5. Bonnie Wagner-Westbrook
    August 7, 2017 at 7:11 am (2 weeks ago)

    I would suggest that Dr. Delgado have a look at our web site when counseling people about lost cats! There is much one can do to find their cat, but the one thing they should NOT do is put out a litter box! It will draw other cats (who will claim it and your property as “theirs” and will fight your cat off it (s)he tries to come home), dogs and predators. http://www.missingpetpartnership.org

    Reply
    • tehila
      August 7, 2017 at 8:12 am (2 weeks ago)

      I just read Dr Delgado’s response. He suggested putting some used litter into a TNR trap – not putting out a litter box.

      Reply
      • Bonnie Wagner-Westbrook
        August 7, 2017 at 8:23 am (2 weeks ago)

        Tehila, it would have the same consequence. I’ve had cases where cat guardians put out the whole box, sprinkle it around the yard, or inside traps and it attracts local strays who will fight off a cat attempting to come home on his/her own. If these cats are unaltered (and sometimes even after they have been altered), they will spray the area to mark “their” new turf. I’ve heard of (legit) cases of coyotes and other predators being attracted to an area where litter is left out. Just not a good idea.

        Reply
        • tehila
          August 7, 2017 at 8:26 am (2 weeks ago)

          Bonnie, thanks for the info.

          Reply
  6. Robert Wagers
    August 7, 2017 at 1:51 am (2 weeks ago)

    No questions (for now!), but I just wanted to say how much I enjoy this advice. I volunteer with rescue cats and have learned tons!

    Reply

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