Ask the Cat Behaviorist: Mikel Delgado Answers Questions About Cats Who Wake Up their Guardians, Aggressive Cats, Cats Who Bury Their Food, 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 forthcoming book, Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat.

Cat buries her food dish after eating

Hi! Multi-cat household and one of our four kitties relentless buries her food dish when she is done eating. She will bury anything nearby (toys, blanket edges, etc.) into the dish, making a big mess. And this is not like a few paw swipes at it and she moves on – she will go on for a while at different angles and bury, bury, bury. Even when we try to stop her (redirect her attention or shake the spray bottle), she continues or stops only momentarily and goes back to it like she is in some kind of OCD brain lock.

Why would a cat do this? The other cats have learned this behavior from her now and will take a few swipes to bury their dishes too, though with much less fervor.

She is a 10 year old calico who was found as a kitten with her litter on a farm with no momma cat and we adopted both her and her sister. They are both very sweet and this one is especially cuddly.

Could it be some kind of protection thing from an unsafe kittenhood? (Nicole Hatton)

Nicole,
Such an interesting question! This is one of those cat behaviors that we don’t have a solid agreed-upon reason for. There are a few different theories about why cats do this – some think the cat is saving their food for later, others think they are hiding a scent that might attract predators or other animals. Whatever it is, this is probably a behavior that helped cats survive throughout their evolutionary history, even if it doesn’t serve much of a function now (and as you have described, can be messy and annoying!).

Anytime I have a cat who is “obsessed” with something, I think about how we can give that cat other things to do – and of course my favorite things would be to add more interactive play – particularly before her meals, to see if that helps her settle afterward. You could try feeding several smaller meals per day so there are no leftovers for her to bury. I’d also recommend trying food puzzles with her! There are many options available that can work with both wet and dry food. See foodpuzzlesforcats.com for ways to get started!

Cat attacks tip of his tail

My cat keeps attacking the tip of his tail (Elaine Hughes)

Elaine,
Tail-attacking can have a few different presentations. In some cases, it’s just a very young playful cat who needs more interactive play and enrichment to keep him busy. But with some cats, it can be quite serious. The cat might seem obsessed with or upset by his tail – you might even hear some growling. Some cats will even start to injure their tail. This tail obsession can be caused by pain or a condition called feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS) – a condition that unfortunately is not well understood. We think it’s a neurological condition, but often it is a diagnosis of exclusion – meaning other things are ruled out, and what we are left with is FHS. I would start with a vet visit to see if any other causes can be ruled out. The treatment for FHS often includes medication, but other stress-reducing interventions, such as increased exercise and enrichment, and providing your cat with as much routine as possible, can help.

Cat stopped using the litter box

One of my furbabies has suddenly stopped using the litter box and I don’t know why (Tracy Bayne)

Tracy,
There are several reasons that cats can stop using the litter box, so I’d need a lot more information to offer you a useful modification plan. The first step would be making sure your cat gets a clean bill of health from your veterinarian, especially if they are older and more prone to illnesses such as diabetes or kidney disease which can impact litter box behavior.

The second thing I would recommend is taking a long, hard look at the litter box and make sure it suits your cat’s needs, not just yours. Do you have enough boxes for the number of cats you have? Are they large and open and not all clustered in one location in your house? Is there a box on every floor of your home and are they easy for your cat to access? Do you use a soft, clumping, unscented litter? Do you clean them regularly?

The third step is making sure your cat is living a relatively stress-free, enriched life. Play, routine and other forms of environmental stimulation are important to cats. If there is tension in any cat relationships (or with anyone else in the home) – you’ll want to resolve that – possibly with an experienced and qualified cat behavior consultant.

Cat with PICA

I had a cat with PICA. Of course back then we didn’t know anything about it. But she liked fibers and buttons. She would pull blankets and rugs apart to eat. One time I took some clothes to a consignment store and was called to pick up the damaged things. It turns out as she hid in her favorite sleeping spot in the closet, she was chewing on the bottoms of my clothes. She pulled strings out, ate beading and buttons. Luckily she never had any blockages. (Janine)

Janine,
Thank you for sharing your experience. It points out the importance of knowing your cat’s favorite spots and habits! Many people don’t realize that their cat chews on non-food items until they become sick and have an x-ray! I’m so glad your cat never had a blockage!

Hyperthyroid cat won’t eat

My cat is hyperthyroidism and recently high blood pressure when I try all the pres, freeze dried whipped, mouse high end foods she won’t eat them. She loves her fancy feast. Teega is 6lbs a tiny 14 yr old feral runt.. can anybody talk to her. Thanks LISA

Hi Lisa,
I don’t “talk to cats” in the sense I am not an animal communicator. I believe in taking a behaviorally-based approach to behavior issues. That said, I’m not sure that Teega has a behavior issue. It sounds like you need to work with your veterinarian to make sure her treatment is working for her. Perhaps an appetite stimulant would help; what many people think is just “snubbing” food can be signs of nausea or digestive upset that can be managed with medications. When cats are older and have medical issues, I also think you should feed them…pretty much whatever brand of cat food they like, as long as your vet says it is okay!

Demanding, destructive, aggressive cat

My cat is bad with me, my husband and our home. He demands affection (he rubs against us, a lot), but when we pet him he bites eventually. We tried to teach him to stay away from places (like the table) using water on a spray bottle, but he broke the bottle, two of them! We tried to use the tape method to keep him away from stuff, but then again, played with the tape and ignored it. If we try to keep him away from places like the bed or a window, he quickly goes back to THAT place and looks at us, like challenging us.

He bites randomly, scratches drawing blood, I’ve had bruises from his bites. He also tries to destroy everything, he makes glasses fall, scratches the sofa and curtains (they are ruined now), the bed, my plushies, but he also has some toys: a scratching post, catnip figure, balls, a thing with balls that move; his cat litter is the best quality I could find where I live, gets cleaned every day, the house also is very clean, he has two beds, a fountain with running water, and the best quality food I can afford. But for the sake of me, I can’t get him to be calm. He suddenly runs around the entire apartment, with his eyes dilated, his claws at its maximum, I just want him to be at peace with us, and play with us, and not bite all the time. He’s around 10 months old, he’s adopted and we have around 3 months with him. Will this stop? Should I do something different?

We also started to get him into his cage to eat or do stuff that provoke him. Please, help! (Elia)

Hi Elia,
It sounds like you have a teenager! Just like the human kind, teenage cats are notorious for their button-pushing, high energy, attention seeking behaviors. I see this often in my consulting practice! Sometimes the best solution is a kitty companion of a similar temperament, but that isn’t possible for everyone. But in most cases, rather than being “twice the work” – it ends up being much less work than dealing with a singleton who is bored!

What your kitty likely needs is more exercise and mental simulation. I would start with two or three intense play session a day, where you use different interactive toys to get him stalking, running, chasing and pouncing! Try toys like a feather wand, cat dancer, or any other toy with a string or wire that YOU move like prey to get him engaged. After play, try a meal or snack to help him calm down. He might also benefit from food puzzles to get him working for his food! Also, it’s important not to use your hands as toys, because that sends mixed messages to your cat – sometimes hands are for gentle things, and sometimes they are for biting and scratching. So no rough housing please!

You didn’t mention any vertical space in your home, but you need multiple cat condos or shelves, and they should be placed in areas where they serve a purpose, such as giving him a view of a bird feeder or the outside world. Regarding the petting, with young cats, they can go from relaxed to wound up in a flash, and even when they are soliciting attention, they may suddenly reach a threshold for petting tolerance and bite. The best way to prevent this type of biting is to again, tire him out with as much exercise as you can provide, and then be careful to limit the petting. Always stop before he gets irritated, so he is left wanting more, not less attention. If you watch carefully, you may notice some subtle signals that he is getting overstimulated – such as ear movements or muscle tightening. Those are your cues that it’s time to stop petting – NOW!

When he broke your spray bottle, he was sending you a message: this type of punishment is useless! I spend a lot of time convincing my clients that the spray bottle isn’t going to get them what they want. Some cats don’t mind the water, but what often happens is that it just breaks the bond between you and your cat and potentially makes your cat even more wary of you.

Instead, I like to focus on clicker training and positive reinforcement to tell him what behaviors you DO LIKE, instead of focusing on “NO!” and “get down from there.” A “NO!” isn’t helpful, because it doesn’t tell your cat what to do instead…but if you clicker train him to sit, or go to a mat, or roll over, you are telling him what you like, and what will get him the rewards he wants, such as attention.

For counter surfing, you can use a better type of “remote punishment” – meaning the punishment is not associated with you. Double sided carpet tape can be sturdier than commercial products designed to deter cats. The motion-sensitive air cans are also effective for keeping cats off counters.

High energy kitten causes trouble

KITTEN TROUBLE!!!! I found a stray kitten on our doorstep about four months ago and he won’t stop being just downright naughty. He flings dirt out of pots so we spray this cat deterrent thing and he doesn’t care much. He attacks our other three cats (I know we shouldn’t have that many but we do have a large house) so we play with him and play with him but it’s never enough and it’s causing a lot of stress so we had to go to squirt bottle. He knocks everything over and he’s obsessed with going into any open door such as cabinets and the front door. He wakes up my father who works hard nights with his meowing and stampeding across the halls like a bat outta hell. He’s not afraid of anything but car rides and he’s causing lots of stress. So what should we do? I understand he has a lot of energy but I don’t want to throw him back out on the street. Please help. I bet it isn’t the easiest life for him either. (Leah Bonetti)

Leah,
Thank you for taking in a homeless kitten!! (see my response above to Elia about having a teenager!). He does sound a little bored (which may have more to do with his personality than what you’re providing – some cats just NEED way more play and stimulation than others).

Just like with Elia’s kitty, I would recommend focusing on positive reinforcement, and remote punishment for the naughty behaviors. For the dirt-digging, cover the dirt with large rocks to take away that temptation. Childproof your cabinets to prevent him from opening them.

As far as his relations with your other cats, he might need an age-appropriate playmate, playtime with you, or some solo time to prevent him from driving your other cats nuts. Try to bring him together with the other cats when he’s had playtime, followed by a hefty meal, to help him settle down and be more calm.

The kitten might also benefit from food puzzles and automatic toys. He needs plenty to keep him busy. I’m not usually a huge fan of the automatic toys, and they certainly can’t replace interactive play with you, but they can supplement it. The Hexbug Nano is my favorite, but there are plenty of options out there these days.

Finally, consider how you can add some vertical space and other enrichment, such as a bird feeder that attaches to a window, to entice him to look out the window and get some mental stimulation while learning to sit back and relax a little!

Also, I don’t think four cats is too many 😊! It all depends on what you can provide for them, and how well they get along!

Cat wakes guardians up at night

Every night around 1 am and again at 5 am our cat comes into the bedroom and knocks things down and scratches at the furniture, keeping us awake. She’s done this once in a while ever since we adopted her, but it’s been about a month now that she’s been doing it every single night. We spray her with water which makes her run away but she comes right back a minute later. We have an automatic feeder that now has been set to feed her at 1 and 5 am, but she eats and then comes right back to doing it. (It didn’t start out feeding her at those times so I know it’s not positive reinforcement causing the problem.) We also play with her at least 30 minutes every evening (we play until she’s tired) with a fishing pole toy. We can’t shut her out of the bedroom because it’s where we keep her litterbox, and if we put the litterbox somewhere else and close the door she’ll scratch at the door all night which our downstairs neighbors can hear and they already hate us. I’m honestly out of ideas and am desperate for a solution. I’m so tired of losing sleep. Please help! (Caroline)

Caroline,
Your complaint is a common one, in fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve answered it in a previous column! I’ve already commented this time around on how I feel about the water bottle. I’m not a fan.

Cats wake their humans up during the night because they get something out of it!! Solving this problem usually requires a two-pronged approach: changing the cats routine so they are up more during the day and sleeping more at night, and then changing YOUR behavior so your cat does not get attention for her middle of the night antics.

To get your cat on your schedule requires more mental stimulation and activity during the day. The fishing pole toy in the evening is good – but you have to consider the rest of the day when she is probably asleep (no doubt exhausted from her nighttime antics!). Try food puzzles to get her working for ALL of her food. Vertical space near a window will allow her to people- or bird-watch during the day. If you’re not feeding your kitty on a schedule, I recommend switching to scheduled feeding, or at least withdrawing some of her food in the later part of the day, so you can put down a final meal at your bed time. I know you mentioned that even with the automatic feeder she is still waking you up, but the goal is to get her to settle at night. Another great way to get cats to settle is a heated cat bed that you only turn on at night.

Now comes the tough part. We know that more than food is motivating this. That means the attention you give her – even if to you it seems “negative” – is reinforcing the behavior. You have to completely ignore her nighttime behavior. COMPLETELY. If you break down after 2 hours or 2 days, you will have taught her that if she tries long and hard enough she will break you down (and yes, she will probably try even harder to get you up before she gives up).

I’m not opposed to giving her a room of her own at night for a few weeks to break the habit. If that is what it takes to stop you from waking up and responding to her nighttime activity, then that is a much better short-term solution that can lead to long-term behavior change. A piece of cardboard with double-sided carpet tape attached to the door as well as on the floor by the door is one way to stop cats from scratching on the door.

Sleep is really important to me so I completely empathize with your situation. Unfortunately, this is one behavior problem that requires as much human behavior change as kitty behavior change! The good news, is that if you stick with the program, she will stop keeping you awake!

7 Comments on Ask the Cat Behaviorist: Mikel Delgado Answers Questions About Cats Who Wake Up their Guardians, Aggressive Cats, Cats Who Bury Their Food, and More

  1. Wendy
    December 30, 2017 at 3:09 am (2 months ago)

    Hi,
    Our main cat (Squeaky) is 1 1/2 years old. We have had her since she was three weeks (she was orphaned). She is quiet and shy, loving and intelligent and very attached to us.

    We found the second cat (half starved) (Twiggy) at 5 months old. She is now 10 months old. She is very sociable, and sweet, intelligent and can be a bit over active.

    The two cats play together wonderfully outside. I think the older cat has learned from the younger one, as this is her first real relationship with another cat. She is playing a lot more since the younger cat came into our lives.

    But as it is winter, they are both inside more. Squeaky looks a bit miserable when the younger one has the run of the house. The ‘playing’ inside seems on the edge of aggression with Squeaky hissing and growling at Twiggy. it feels very tense.

    They are separated at night in separate rooms. Litter pans, water and food bowls are in separate rooms. Outside they continue to be friends, both taking pleasure in walking with us and playing together.

    We don’t want a stressful household, and Twiggy really wants to be inside, cuddling a lot and having a real home which she deserves. Right now there is a rare opportunity to give her away to another family.

    We are hesitating about giving her away because the two cats do get along outside so well, it seems good for them both to have each other. We also love them both. I use rescue remedy and will try feli-way if we decide to keep her.

    Also to mention: the ‘play’ inside is sometimes ok, but can get a little rough. Both cats take turns running after each other or pouncing on each other and then chasing each other. But Squeaky (the older one) is the only one who growls and spits during this ‘play’. When she does that loudly Twiggy will back off and walk away. Last night for the first time, they both napped comfortably for about 2 hours in very close proximity, only separated by a thin fabric cat tunnel.

    Any suggestions? We want the best for both cats. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Maggie
    November 17, 2017 at 8:23 am (3 months ago)

    Good common sense advise. I hope more people do creative and kind problem solving. Too many cats are surrendered to animal shelters for litter box and behavior issues.

    Reply
  3. Sandra J Morabito
    November 15, 2017 at 4:20 pm (3 months ago)

    I have a question. I brought home a stray from Barbados in 2010. At that time, she was about one year old and weighed 7lbs. Now, she weights 12lbs and is currently on Urinary SO for crystals. She was on Blue Buffalo. Kyra begs for food all day. When she finishes eating, she is right there, begging for more. Is this behavior due to her being an outside cat and fending for herself? When we adopted her, she looked healthy. Thank you! Sandra J Morabito

    Reply
  4. Lolita
    November 15, 2017 at 8:46 am (3 months ago)

    We adopted our kitty a year ago from a shelter. He’s now 4. I can’t get him to stop biting me. I’ve done clocker training – he’s very bright and does 8 tricks including jumping through a hoop! He has food puzzles and window seats. I even take him for walks in a cat stroller.

    Last week I was cooking and not really paying much attention to him. I noticed that he rolled over a couple of times (one of his clicker tricks), praised him and continued cooking. He then yowled and did a full attack on my leg, biting me, bruising and drawing blood and leaving claw marks!

    I’m wondering how to address this behavior so as to discourage and not reinforce it. I’m tired of constantly glancing over my shoulder.

    Reply
  5. Ann Seeber
    November 15, 2017 at 7:01 am (3 months ago)

    Our 7-yr-old big male ds has been diagnosed with asthma. I have to give him some liquid bronchiodilator Rx every 8 hours. He’s becoming fearful that any time I give him attention, it’s time for his next dose. I’m afraid this is breaking our bond, and he’s my “velcro cat” , he yearns to be sociable but I’ve always seen it was hard for him. I rescued him from the local humane society and doubt he got enough early socialization. How can I help him?

    Reply
    • Cheri Collins
      November 18, 2017 at 7:19 pm (3 months ago)

      I have a cat with asthma, too. You don’t want to stress him, Ann. I get compounded medications for my cat, soft chews. Liver flavored.
      I put the dose, a half chew, onto a little plate with treats he likes, and he’s happy to gobble it all up. Get the liquid med compounded into a liquid which is a flavor he likes — they can do chicken, fish, liver. Then mix the liquid into a little of the food he likes a lot. My cat with hyperthyroidism gets her liquid med mixed in a little Sheba soft chicken. Ask your vet if you can reduce the med schedule to twice / day. That’s usually often enough for humans with asthma. You want to change the form of the medication and the way you give it.

      Reply
  6. Patricia Porazynski
    November 15, 2017 at 1:05 am (3 months ago)

    I have 2 cats and 1 dog. I think our tortie is like a middle child. She wants to hog the dogs water bowl, his wag bag (bed) and they generally all vie for attention at the same time. The dog isn’t confrontational so he backs up. Please advise.. I think she just feels pushed out..

    Reply

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