Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Mikel Delgado: Problems with New Cat Introductions, Cat No Longer Wants to be a Lap Cat, and More

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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 time, 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 newest book, Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat.

Cat no longer wants to be in lap

Mikel, my cat’s behavior has changed. She is now 10 years old. When she got around 5, she stopped wanting to get in my lap. I have lived with this but I really wish I could get her to accept my lap again. She also hates to be picked up and squirms until I put her back down. Is there any way I can train her to be OK with being picked up & held on my lap? – Linda Shockley

Linda, you could certainly “train” your cat to sit in your lap…by giving her treats anytime she, of her own volition, approaches your lap. Does that mean she will like it? Not necessarily. It’s hard to say, without more information, why your cat changed her mind about being held or sitting on a lap. You could try enticing her into your lap with a soft, fuzzy blanket, or even a heated pad, and that might make it more attractive to her.

Many cats do not like being picked up. We see this with fuller-figured (i.e., overweight) cats, who often feel uncomfortable when they are picked up. It can also be an indicator of conditions such as arthritis, although we would typically expect this in cats who were older than five.

The problem is that often WE want to hold or pick up a cat, even when THEY don’t. What does NOT make them like it more? Forcing it on them. Research has shown that interactions with our cats are more positive when we let them initiate and call the shots. So, if you don’t HAVE to pick up your cat (say for an emergency or vet visit) don’t pick her up. She is telling you she doesn’t like being picked up. If you have difficulty getting her to the vet, I recommend training her to get into her carrier and be sure to make her cat carrier a cozy, safe space.

Can you think of anything that changed when your cat turned 5 and she stopped getting into your lap? A new pet or other family member? You using a new perfume? Any major changes in the household can be enough to trigger a change in behavior.

Sometimes we must appreciate our cats as they are. Perhaps while you sit on the couch, she likes to sit near you, or on a kitty condo nearby. Usually cats like to be in the same room with their humans; and sometimes, that is their way of showing us they care!

Cat defecates outside the box

Hi Mikel, I have a 13 year old spayed feral female; she poops outside the box (and I clean every time I go into the rooms where boxes are), on a rug, wherever…can’t figure it out…why? Basically she’s healthy (have her on dry RC fiber food due to constipation); other two cats don’t go outside box; plus she and her brother seem to have very delicate digestion, chronic mucus/coughing. I think it’s inherent, but the litter situation is baffling. Thanks! – Kat

Hi Kat, defecation outside the box is VERY often associated with a medical cause (you mentioned constipation, and delicate digestion…so that tells me what I need to know). Usually addressing the medical cause will help the problem. So, you need to find out if your cat’s feces are normal (are they like a tootsie roll, or more like hard nuggets?) How often does your cat have a bowel movement? Does she seem to struggle to evacuate her bowels? Sometimes an internal medicine specialist is best for assessing digestive health. At her age, she may also be prone to degenerative joint disease, which can keep some cats from pooping in the box.

If you have cleared her of any medical causes, you may have to start fresh with a new style of litter box and a new type of litter. Some kitties have developed negative associations with the old box, so changing the litter box ONCE she feels completely better can help. There are many other reasons that cats may avoid the box (litter preferences, cleanliness, location, etc., but when I hear the word constipation and “pooping wherever” – I always want to see a more thorough medical workup on that cat before assuming this is a behavior problem!

Cats get stressed when visitors come

Hi Mikel, I have two cats, but one of them has what seems like stress/anxiety when relatives come and stay with me and my mom for several days. He knows when change is coming because my mom vacuums (which terrifies him and he will hide for up to the entire day) and is moving all over the house cleaning. The last time my grandparents came he hid the entire day before. When some of my relatives have come over they try to discipline him by hitting him on the head when they think he is misbehaving and the result is that he goes in my mom’s room and pees on her bed or her dirty clothes. Do I just need to keep my cats downstairs when guests are here? Do I need to have my mom start feeding them regularly so they bond with her more and possibly stop peeing on her stuff? I have tried to tell people how to interact with my nervous cat and they never listen to me, and every time he ends up peeing on my mom’s stuff. How can I help my cat get through visits/stays from other people (considering I can’t seem to get the people to modify their behavior towards him)? Thank you! – Anna

Hi Anna,

Wow, I am really glad you reached out to help your kitty, and I hope you can also help your family understand why the way they are treating your cat is not okay! I’m a little confused about why your family is hitting your cat on the head and what “misbehaving” they are trying to correct. Physical punishment is NEVER appropriate with our pets – there are so many other, safer and more humane ways to address behavior concerns.

First of all, you need to accept that your cat may never love having guests. There are plenty of cats out there in the world who are afraid of strangers. This can be due to genetics, or a lack of socialization when young, or bad experiences with unfamiliar humans. Because your kitty gets so stressed out, why not take some of the pressure off? Before the vacuum even comes out, put him in your bedroom, with everything he needs – food, water, a scratching post, bed, some toys, and his litter box. Close the door, and let him be oblivious to the scary things that are happening in the rest of the home. He might get a little frustrated being confined, but it’s better than him being terrified and peeing on your mom’s stuff, and it’s only temporary. Also be sure to give him some comfortable hiding options, such as a carrier with a cat bed inside, a cat condo with a cubby, or other “cave-like” cat beds. We know that cats need places to hide when they are afraid, for their own well-being.

It would be great if your mom could use treats or interactive play to build more of a relationship with your cat. In fact, interactive play is a great way to help scared cats feel more confident. You can try bringing one cat-savvy relative at a time into your room to visit your kitty, if they have treats and are willing to let him approach them if he wants.

Over time, he may become comfortable enough that you can try cracking the door to your bedroom open and letting him decide if he wants to venture out. A cat should never be forced out of hiding, or forced to interact with humans they are afraid of – that only serves to make them more afraid in the future. Let him call the shots at his pace, and he may become more comfortable (or he might just be perfectly happy staying in your room).

Resident cat does not get along with new special needs cat

Hi Mikel, I have been a cat enthusiast for a long time. I have a unique and particularly tough situation and I am hoping for advice. For four years my husband and I have owned one cat. We have owned her since she was a kitten and she has always been a terrific cat. A little mischievous at times and food-dependent but we have adjusted to any issue she had. She always gets along with other cats if she travels to other places, but if another cat came to our small apartment she would be upset by this, but it was always short term so we did not have an opportunity to see how it played out. She would hiss, but that was basically the end of it.
We recently just moved to a new house and because there was more territory to go around, we adopted a second cat. This cat is also 4 years old and is a special needs cat. She has lived her entire life at the shelter and pretty much always kept to herself. She has a neuro disorder of unknown causes (likely trauma) that affects her coordination and her gait. We have had her for about a month and she has had a couple minor seizures triggered by stress and is managed using holistic methods. Our other cat hissed around her for the first couple of days, but ultimately realized the new cat was not a threat. The new cat spends most of her time in the laundry room where her food and litter box are also. We kept the door shut for the first couple of weeks, and then started to leave it open while we were home. Our other cat leaves the new cat alone as long as she remains in that room. But now that our new cat is starting to come out of the room, our other cat will consistently target her and jump on her. It does not seem to be violent and is mainly play, but she does jump on her back and bite her neck. If the new cat was not a special needs cat I would not be concerned and I would hope that she would defend herself, but the new cat is completely submissive and pretty much plays dead whenever our other cat does this. Also, I worry that the stress will induce her seizures. When our other cat does these things I make sure to say “NO” and she is completely aware that I do not want her to do these things, but still if our other cat sees the new cat come out of her room unless she is laying with us in another room she will target her. I partially want to just continue to leave the door open while we are not home in hopes that our other cat becomes very used to the new cat, but I also worry about our other cat targeting the new cat while we are not home and possibly triggering a seizure as well as bullying her back into her room. I think if we could be there all of the time eventually this would end, but without us being home during the day I fear the lack of consistency will keep it happening. I want our new cat to feel comfortable roaming our home and being with us, but our other cat seems to be a bit of a bully 🙁 Advice? – Lauren

Hi Lauren, thank you for bringing a special needs kitty into your home! From my shelter days, I know there’s nothing that makes shelter workers happier than placing a tough-to-place kitty. That said, you may need to enlist some professional help to make this situation work.

You knew going into this that your resident cat was not thrilled about new cats in her space, and it sounds like the new kitty didn’t have a lot of feline friendships at the shelter. Although it may seem like your resident cat is a bully, she is behaving in a way that is instinctive to her; there is an intruder in her territory – one who has some obvious weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which your cat may perceive from her gait and coordination issues. Many animals do not seem to feel comfortable around cats with obvious physical issues – whether that is because they don’t have the same body language and signals, or that they indicate a weakness that would also make them vulnerable (e.g., predators in the area), then it may make more sense to try to drive that cat away.

I can recommend a few things: one is giving your resident cat a lot more exercise, mental stimulation and play. Make sure you have plenty of resources distributed throughout the home. You may want to split up the home in some different ways so that the new kitty can get comfortable in other areas without having to interact with your resident cat. I would also talk to your veterinarian about whether holistic methods are sufficient to control her seizures and what the risks of stressors would be. You bring that up as a concern several times, but it would be good to have a professional opinion as to how worried you should be.

I also don’t recommend correcting your cat for the behavior you don’t like; if you can prevent these situations with more management and slowing down the introduction, while boosting the new kitty’s confidence and building positive associations between the two, that will be much more effective. A stern “NO” isn’t effective because it just erodes your relationship with your resident cat. A “NO” might tell your cat you are unhappy, but it isn’t telling them what you want them to do instead. If pouncing and chasing the new kitty is more motivating and rewarding than anything else you are offering (which right now, you aren’t offering her anything else at all), then she won’t have much reason to change her behavior.

If the behavior on the part of your resident cat is truly playful, then it is possible that these two can eventually come together just fine. Even though a month feels like eternity to us, for cats, that is sometimes not enough time to accept a new feline into their life. You might want to considering hiring a consultant who can better walk you through a slow introduction!

Introducing a young cat to a senior cat

Hi there Mikel, I was wondering how do I introduce my 13 year old cat Blade to a much younger 3 year old cat called Smooch? The younger one has seen my cat through a screen door and she hates him. Blade has seen her a number of times, has gone to run at her once or twice, but doesn’t seem too keen on her, I have them separated at the moment, but would like them to get along so I don’t have to do this. Blade has been an only cat for a few years, would this affect him? Thanks! – Ange

Hi Ange, there are lots of things that might affect whether two cats get along – and even if you would like them to get along, that may not always be enough. Being an only cat for a long time can be a factor, but sometimes cats just don’t like each other (even if they liked other cats in the past). If someone picked a roommate for you at random, what are the chances you would like them?

There are several excellent guides to introducing cats available out there, so I’m not going to re-hash them, but you can see a few here and here.

Introducing cats through a screen door is a good step but it isn’t always enough – you have to give them a reason to like each other. So, for example, feed your cats their absolute FAVORITE food when you are bringing them on either side of the screen door. They should ONLY get this food when they are together, so they make the association that the other cat’s presence = delicious treat. Use interactive toys to get both cats playing on either side of the gate so that they show relaxed body language in each other’s presence. Keep sessions short and try to end on a high note – the biggest mistake I see people make is trying to push introduction sessions until something bad happens. Try not to do that! Quit while you are ahead.

Some cats may need behavior meds to have a successful introduction. Cat introduction cases are each so unique that I do recommend working with a behavior consultant if the basics aren’t working. Sometimes recommendations have to be tailored to the cats, the humans, and also the set-up of the home (for example, where are the best rooms/locations to introduce the cats? How should resources be set up, etc.). I hope that Blade and Smooch are making progress!

Husband wants to declaw 11-year-old cat

We are moving and buying all new furniture. Husband is declawing an 11 yr old cat so it will not ruin furniture. Cat also is vicious and bites! I’m worried it will become more volatile and attack me with biting (considering pain with declaw and new home). I am pregnant. Cat has sent 2 people to the hospital in the past, including me. Are there any other options? – Lolo

Hello Lolo, there are MANY other options besides declawing a cat. Declawing a cat is an incredibly painful surgery that we now have evidence (from a 2017 study) causes chronic pain, and is associated with increased aggressive behavior and litter box avoidance. Not only that, but declawing deprives cats of natural feline behaviors (such as scratching) and the ability to stretch their back muscles. I could go on. I feel very passionate about this topic – declawing should never be an option! So what ARE your options?

1. Get your cat several appropriate scratching posts with a material she likes. Reward her with praise, food and attention when she scratches them. The posts must be tall, sturdy and in locations where your cat will want to use them – usually in highly used areas, near human furniture (such as couches and beds) and near where your cat eats and rests. Some cats actually prefer horizontal or angled scratching, so it’s good to know what your cat likes to scratch.
2. Stop scratching in areas you do not want with humane but annoying deterrents such as Sticky Paws or by draping furniture with loose sheets. This is a temporarily training measure while you encourage her to use the scratching posts you provide for her.
3. Cats bite and scratch for a reason, they are not vicious. You really need to contact a veterinary behaviorist or other appropriately qualified and certified cat behavior consultant to address the biting and scratching behavior. Your cat may even need some type of medication to work with her behavior.

I hope that you and your husband seek professional help in this situation and do not declaw the cat. I am certain that declawing this cat will not make her life better, and will not fix the aggression problems.

Resident cat doesn’t get along with new cat after five months

Hi Mikel, my wife and I have a huge problem, and don’t know what to do anymore. We have three cats, 2 males and a female. All came from the shelter. The problem is with our female, we think she might have been abused in the past. When we brought home our youngest, she instantly disliked him. We did the separate room for the kitten for about a month, slowly introducing him to everyone. Our Tom liked him immediately and assumed an older brother told right away. Our dog got used to him quickly too, but our female never got used to him. She even put out his eye. So we swapped it. Hammish(the kitten) lives with the rest of us, and freyja(the female) lives in the room upstairs. We bring her down constantly, and switch one into the kennel we have set up to try and get them used to each other. We do monitored “playtime” with them but freyja will either ignore him, or wait till his back is turned and attack. We tried the bully solution but that seems to not help. We purchased a thunder jacket for her, and that stops her from attacking, but it also stops her from doing anything. It’s been like this for about five months and there is no improvement. We don’t know what to do. We don’t want to take freyja back to the shelter because then she would never be adopted, but she can’t live by herself forever. Can you please help us? –
Andrew

Andrew, for these types of situations, I would strongly recommend working with a veterinary behaviorist, or a consultant who can come to your home. If I understand you correctly, Freyja injured the kitten’s eye? An injury is not a good indicator for success between cats, and so you may need to consider some heavy-handed options.

1. It is possible that your cats may never be integrated. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to rehome Freyja. You could manage this situation for as long as is needed; keeping the cats in different parts of the home. People do sometimes have to do this – and it often helps if you can set up barriers in your home that can be moved around so that the cats can swap space and it’s not always static – think multiple stacked baby gates or adding a few screen doors at different places in the home.
2. You might need to consider appropriate behavioral medications. This should be done with a veterinarian, ideally a veterinary behaviorist. Often people don’t want to put their cats on medication, but by the time they get to the point you are at, the cats have had so many negative experiences with one another that there really aren’t many other options. We know that stress and anxiety can hinder learning, and it may make it hard for your cats to even learn positive experiences with one another.
3. Rehoming: why Freyja? She was in your home first, and it sounds like Hammish would be easier to rehome. You might even be able to “keep him in the family” and place him with a friend or relative.

Best of luck to you, these situations can be extremely frustrating and difficult to live through. I wish there was a magic wand, but there isn’t. I would highly recommend you reach out to a behavior professional for more help.

Cat became aggressive during moving preparations

Hi Mikel, I need some help. I have a 2yo cat she’s perfect I love her so much! Since yesterday she s been acting out. We are in the process of moving so we put some boxes under our dinner table. Yesterday my boyfriend went through them in when he was putting one back he didn’t see my cat was under the table and he must’ve squeezed her by accident so she started hissing and meowing really loudly. I went to help her and she calmed down. But now even with all the boxes removed she keeps hissing and getting angry every time my boyfriend tries to go in the kitchen, and she starting to do it with me too. She’s never been like this she’s a good cat and even when this happens she comes back to normal when we leave…please help me, I love her so much! She’s my first cat I don’t want to lose her. Thank you so much for your time. – Jeanne

Your cat was startled or possibly hurt a little bit when the box incident happened, and now she is associating that with your boyfriend. Rather than describe her as angry, I hope you can see that she is afraid. This scary thing happened to her once, he was there – even though it was an accident, in her mind, it could happen again, so she’s saying she feels uncomfortable with him getting too close right now.

Her response could be exacerbated by the fact you are moving – an incredibly stressful time for humans and cats alike. It may not take much to tip that scale right now!
She will probably calm down in a few days – if not, please get in touch with your vet. If she is still a bit wary of your boyfriend, have him take over the good stuff in her life, like feeding, playtime with interactive toys, and offering treats! Over time, she will realize he means no harm, and in fact, good stuff happens when he’s around.
I hope she’s going better!

Cat won’t let owner clean off stool, is afraid of loud noises

My cat she’s the love of my life until yesterday she has poop on her fur where her bum is and won’t let me touch her back there I don’t want to take her the vet or the groomers please if you have any other suggestions be my guest. – Penney

I have female cat who’s really afraid of speeding cars and ambulances and fire trucks and she afraid of shaking out a garbage bag and she’s really afraid of thunder and especially lightning and she’s also afraid of me raising my voice at her. – Penney

Hi Penney, well I hope a little poop on your cat’s butt didn’t stop her from being the love of your life! If she just had a little dingle-berry, hopefully she got it out of her fur on her own. If not, I would say, sometimes you just have to get professional help (or at least the help of a friend who can help you clean her off). A veterinarian can also help you determine if she needs to be groomed more regularly or is having problems with her bowel movements so that this scenario doesn’t happen again.

The second issue you brought up is your cat’s fear. There are different reasons cats are fearful; it can be genetics, socialization, or negative experiences in the past. If she is mostly afraid of loud noises outside your home, add white noise to your environment – a fan, an air filter, or classical music at a low volume can all be effective at keeping those outside noises from being as scary.

My question for you is why are you raising your voice at her? It sounds like there might be other behavior issues or training issues that you might want to address with a consultant so you don’t have to raise your voice!

For other things she is afraid of inside the home, you can help her overcome her fear by gradually, and very slowly exposing her to things that make her fearful, as long as you do so very carefully and by pairing these exposures with something that she really likes. For example, if she really loves tuna, you could give her some tuna, and then just gently touch a plastic bag, making sure that she’s not so scared that she runs away. Repeat several times until she could not care less. Next step is tuna plus picking up the garbage bag. Increase the noise the plastic bag makes gradually, until she is eating tuna while you shake out that bag. Eventually, she might even come running when she hears the plastic bag because she thinks it means you will give her delicious food!

Do you have a question for Mikel?
Leave it in a comment, and she’ll answer
as many of your questions as she can next month!

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On this site, you will find expert advice from a seasoned cat consultant. The Conscious Cat features articles on cat health, cat nutrition, cat behavior, cat lifestyle, pet loss, and, of course, pictures of cats. We'll bring you product and book reviews, as well as news from around the cat world.

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Conscious Cat Sunday: Love Wins

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“Love Wins” has become a common phrase over the last few years. The phrase went viral on June 26, 2015, when the Supreme Court of the United States found bans on marriage equality to be unconstitutional, and that the fundamental right to marriage is a fundamental right for all.

To me, it extends even further, standing for equality regardless of our race, religion, gender or sexual preferences. Love is central to almost all religions and spiritual traditions, and if there’s a better rule to live by than “love thy neighbor,” I’m not sure what it would be. Continue reading…

Mews and Nips: Koko, the Gorilla Who Loved Cats

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Koko, the gorilla famous for her ability to communicate using American Sign Language, passed away in her sleep at the age of 46 Tuesday morning. Koko became an icon for interspecies communication. She also loved cats. She actually asked for a cat for Christmas in 1983, and was terribly unhappy when she was given a stuffed animal. For her next birthday, researchers allowed her to choose a kitten. Sadly, “All Ball,” as Koko named the kitten, was killed in a tragic accident six months later. Koko went on to care for many kittens throughout her life. For more about Koko, visit Popular Science.

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It’s always sad when a friend’s cat dies. My heart hurts for what I know they’re about to go through as they mourn their loss. We’ve all been there, and even though everyone grieves in their own unique way, we all know how hard it is. And when the cat is one of those “soul cats,” the feline version of a soul mate, the pain of loss can be overwhelming. Earlier this week, my dear friend Kate Benjamin, the founder of Hauspanther, lost her soul cat Ando. Continue reading…

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This post is sponsored by Tail It

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The makers of Tail It feel that given the technology available to use today, it’s totally unnecessary to lose anything, including your pets. To that end, they’ve developed a tiny GPS tracker with 2G, 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi connectivity that gives accurate position worldwide when you need it. Continue reading…

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Since then, his photos have been seen by millions. He has been featured in hundreds of publications, articles, and galleries. Andrew was the photographer for the book Shop Cats of New York, which was released in November 2016. Andrew used to be terribly allergic to cats, but now lives with girlfriend Hannah Shaw, aka The Kitten Lady, their three cats, and a constantly rotating cast of foster kittens outside of Washington, D.C. Continue reading…

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This post is sponsored by Assisi Animal Health

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Shade was a very quiet cat, and he had bad breath. Stephanie tried brushing his teeth in hopes it would help. His breath smelled better for a week or two, but the effect didn’t last. He also didn’t take to brushing very well. She tried dental treats, but he didn’t eat them. Shade also got a prebiotic powder to help with some intestinal issues. Continue reading…

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