Ask the Cat Behaviorist: Cats Bringing Toys into Bedroom, Cat Wants to Play at 4 AM, New Cats Not Warming Up to Humans, and More

Ask-the-Cat-Behaviorist-Marci-Koski

Dr. Marci Koski is a certified Feline Behavior and Training Professional who received specialized and advanced certificates in Feline Training and Behavior from the Animal Behavior Institute. While Marci has been passionate about all animals and their welfare, cats have always had a special place in her heart. In fact, Marci can’t remember a time when she’s been without at least one cat in her life. She currently relies on her five-member support staff  to maintain the feline duties of her household.

Marci’s own company, Feline Behavior Solutions, focuses on keeping cats in homes, and from being abandoned to streets or shelters as the result of treatable behavior issues. Marci believes that the number of cats who are abandoned and/or euthanized in shelters can be greatly reduced if guardians better understand what drives their cats to certain behaviors, and learn how to work with their cats to encourage appropriate behaviors instead of unwanted ones.

Cats bring toys into bedroom

Three of our four cats bring their toys into our bedroom every night and during the day. We pick them all up and hang them from the cat superhighway. The toys hang in the brackets and the youngest two will work to get them down and carry them into our room. A lot of times they meow. We hang them all back up. But we’re wondering if we should do something else? If they are bringing us presents are we giving them mixed signals hanging them all back up? We always say thank you and get excited when they bring them. We just weren’t sure what else we can do to say thanks? – – Jennette

Hi Jennette – it sounds like you’re doing an excellent job by giving your kitties a fun, ritualized enrichment activity! It’s not likely that you’re giving them mixed signals by putting the presents back up; more likely, they enjoy the game since they keep doing it over and over every day. That’s the result of positive reinforcement – when cats do something with an enjoyable outcome, the behavior is likely to be repeated. The enjoyment for your cats comes from the fun of getting the toy down, bringing it to a socially significant part of their territory, and receiving praise from you. Who wouldn’t love that game?

A couple of questions to keep the activity fun – do you rotate the toys that are hung from the superhighway? Do you change the locations of where the toys are hung? Do you engage the cats with play after they bring you toys? Cats really do thrive on routine, which is what I find so special about this daily activity. However, cats also really like novelty, which will keep them from getting bored with the same toys and “prey” locations. So do try to switch things up every few days.

Because your cats’ behavior is similar to what cats may do when they hunt, catch, and kill prey, you might consider giving them a treat or a small meal when they bring you their “kill”. This can be a really nice conclusion to a play session (unless they aren’t fully exercised, then try using an interactive wand toy to really get them to stalk and catch their prey!). Since you’re doing this in the evening, your cats are more likely to fall into the hunt-groom-eat-sleep routine and have a good night’s sleep. Keep up the great work – your cats are fortunate to be able to play such a fun game with their guardians!

Normally sweet cat bites

Five-year-old kitty’s love bites! OUCH! I have a 5-year-old kitty who is super sweet. She loves to nuzzle and give head rubs. But after a couple minutes of that, she will follow it with a quick bite. She does this to me, my family, and my older cat as well. When it comes to the older cat (13), the 5 yr old will not just give a little nip, she actually goes full-on “Vampire” and then it starts a fight between them.

I have tried interrupting/walking away from her cuddle sessions, when they get a little too long, in hopes that she would learn to stop before getting to the biting part. I have also tried letting out a little “yelp” hoping she would get the point, but nothing seems to quite deter her from the biting.

She’s not an aggressive cat at all (like no random attacks, nothing like that), although she does sometimes act a bit like a hyperactive child. We just have issues with the weird little “affectionate” bites. – Mittens’ Mom

Hi Mittens’ Mom – Thanks for your question; we definitely don’t want this behavior to get in the way of the happy relationship you have with your kitty! In my experience, any kind of “love bite” that hurts (or can be described as “full-on vampire”) is generally not a love bite. Does this only happen during petting and snuggling sessions? It sounds like she may be getting over-stimulated with all of the nuzzling and petting. What I recommend is keeping a very close eye on her body language. Cats usually give off signs (sometimes subtle) that they’re ready to stop receiving pets. This can include ears turning back, a shift in body position away from you, the tip of the tail starting to twitch, pupils dilating, and the cessation of purring. If you notice any of these things happening, stop petting. It’s ok to sit there and if she wants to continue sitting on or next to you, that’s fine – just don’t engage. And, feel free to reward calm behavior! If you are able to have a petting session that doesn’t end in a nip, you can give your kitty a small treat or praise, or even a play session if she wants one (which can also help burn off some of that extra energy that may have built up during the petting session that may otherwise end in a nip). Your best bet, if your cat does bite, is to get up and walk away (like you’ve been doing) every single time. She will learn that that action results in no attention from you! Punishment (in any form, including yelling or scolding) does not work with cats, and can increase fear and aggression towards humans.

You also mentioned that sometimes your kitty acts like a hyperactive child. Are you giving her daily play sessions with an interactive wand toy? Ingrid has a great article on her website called “The Importance of Playtime for Cats”. I highly recommend giving your younger cat at least one 15-minute play session every day with a wand toy like Da Bird. This can help reduce pent-up energy and may even decrease her desire to go after your older cat. Be sure to keep an eye on both of your cats’ body language when they are grooming each other so that you can interrupt a grooming session before it erupts into a fight. Any sign of fear from your older cat or aggression from the younger cat (including growling or hissing) is a clear indicator that they should be distracted and separated from each other. I hope this helps!

Cat wants to play at 4 AM

How do we make our 1-year-old cat stop wanting us to play with him at 4 am? – Maria

Hi Maria – Excellent question! This seems to be a common issue that comes up particularly with younger kitties. A one-year-old cat is still going to be fairly active and has a large energy reserve that must be tapped before he will sleep through the night without wanting attention from you.

First, and most importantly, you must not give in to his demand for play in the middle of the night. I know this is difficult. I’m not sure what he does (e.g., jump on your bed, attack your feet, or bang against your door if he is outside of your bedroom), but if you ignore him for 30 minutes and then give in and play with him (or give him a toy, etc.), you’ve just taught him that he can be obnoxious for 30 minutes and he’ll get what he wants. Cats know how to train us humans really well to do what they want! So, if he starts to become active at night, you may need to put him in another room in the home (do so very neutrally, as any attention could be interpreted as a reward) where you can’t hear him. Make sure the room has food, water, bedding, a litterbox, and self-play toys. With this action, you are letting him know that his behavior results in no attention from you.

At the same time, you’ll need to shift your cat’s internal clock a bit. Cats actually aren’t nocturnal; they are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active during dawn and dusk. This is because their prey are most active at these times – it’s light enough out to forage but also be somewhat less visible to predators. Cats have picked up on this and know when their prey are out and available for hunting! So, I recommend that you give your cat at least two play sessions (work-outs, really) each day, in the morning and evening, just prior to a meal. This is especially important in the evening. Get a good wand toy (like Da Bird) and get your cat running and jumping for 15-20 minutes (or until he gets tired). Then, what do cats do after they hunt? They eat, hence the meal. After eating, they will groom, then sleep. The closer you do the play session to your bedtime, the longer your kitty will sleep into the night.

It can take some time for your cat’s clock to reset, and if you need to give more than two play sessions per day to relieve your cat of excess energy, that’s ok. Be persistent and your work will pay off!

6-year-old Bengal won’t accept new cat

I have four cats, the oldest is a 6-year-old Bengal female. My daughter moved back home with her two cats which we keep separated from mine because her oldest cat, a 9-year-old female, does not get along well with my cats. Her younger cat, a 1-year-old Bengal female, was interacting fairly well with my cats when we would let them out on supervised visits. Then suddenly my oldest girl would immediately attack my daughter’s young female. I’m not sure what caused this change but she will sit outside her bedroom door just hoping to get a chance to get her. My girl has always been really sweet and accepting of other cats. Do you think they are just incompatible or is there hope of getting them used to each other? — Kim

Hi Kim – I know that having cats in the family who are not getting along can be frustrating, sad, and stressful for everyone. While things may have been going well for some time, something happened that caused your older Bengal and your daughter’s younger Bengal to not get along. This could have been some sort of altercation over a resource, or someone made a move the other was uncomfortable with, or something else entirely (resulting in redirected aggression).

How did you initially introduce the cats, and how long ago was that? You may want to work on a reintroduction between these two girls, or at least step back a bit in their interactions so that you have time to build up positive associations between the cats. If your daughter’s cats have not been in the home long, you may want to work on building up positive associations with the cats’ scents, doing scent-swapping with treats (or whatever the cats enjoy, like petting and sweet-talk). Creating a “group scent” that includes all cats in the home is also a good idea. You can use a soft-bristled brush to gently stroke the cheeks and forehead of each cat daily (giving each cat a treat before and after) so that all cats start to smell similar. You’ll also want to let the younger girl out of the bedroom every day (in the absence of the older Bengal) so that she can become very familiar in the rest of the home and find comfortable perches and escape routes. Additionally, active play sessions for Bengals is VERY important. This can help reduce overall stress and relieve excess energy. Please see my responses to both Mittens’ Mom and Maria (above) for more information about playtime.

Another thing you may want to do is install baby gates across the bedroom door where the younger Bengal is separated. Because Bengals are smart and active, you might have to buy two baby gates and stack them on top of each other so that neither can climb or jump over them. Initially, cover the bottom gate with a towel, but then gradually move the towel back so that there is more visibility. This is traditionally done during feeding times (again, to create positive associations and a distraction), but if you do this during other times of the day, the cats will be able to get used to seeing each other and learn more about how the other moves, etc. You can reward positive or neutral interactions through the gate, too, to reinforce the notion that “hey, good things happen when this other cat is around.”

I encourage you to read Jackson Galaxy’s guest post on Ingrid’s site, an article called “Cat to Cat Introductions”. You’ll be able to formulate a good reintroduction plan for your kitties. Sometimes it takes weeks (or even months) to acclimate cats to each other, but please do be persistent. They’ve shown that they can get along together previously, and that’s a good sign. Good luck!

Unable to get cat into carrier to take her to the vet

Hello! About 6 years ago I adopted Pebbles, who I had been fostering. It took me a really long time, and I can’t recall exactly how long, for her to trust me. She would hiss and swat at me whenever I tried to come near but little by little she came around to the point where I could trim her nails, but only in one room. If I tried to approach her to pick her up when she was in any other room in the house other than the bathroom, she would run away. I can pet her but she always knows when I am trying to pick her up and unfortunately because of this I have missed a lot of vet appointments because I cannot even trick her now to get her somewhere where she can easily be gotten to to put her in a carrier. I have 4 other cats, and one year ago had 5. When she passed, Pebbles actually became more outgoing. I have 3 other foster cats who are in separate rooms and don’t interact with my cats but that is something that has been a constant since I adopted Pebbles as she was once in her own room. Several days ago she started hiding under things, the bed, the chair in the living room. I think she had some kind of fight with another cat. I have never witnessed a fight, there is some occasional stalking and ambushing but never anything remotely serious. If she is reachable in her hiding spot she will let me pet her but if I try to pull her out she runs away. She is eating and using the box, as when she realizes no one is around she will slink out only for as much time as that takes, then hide again, usually in a different spot. As she will be 9 around the end of February, I know she needs to see the vet, but wondering what you thought of this behavior. She used to come running when she heard the treat bag or knew it was brushing time, but not now. Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thank you. – Kristine

Hi Kristine – I’m so glad that you are trying to get Pebbles to the vet; any change in behavior should be reason enough alone for a vet-visit, and increased desire to hide may be an indicator of pain or not feeling well. I’m happy that you initially made such good progress with Pebbles to build her trust in you. Right now, I’m just wondering what has changed for her to start hiding and not interacting as much with you. You’ll want to rule out a medical issue (as you said), and your thoughts about a fight with another one of your 4 cats is valid, but there may also be some challenges with the foster kitties as well (e.g., if Pebbles can smell them on you, that may reduce her territorial security).

Does she currently have a “safe room” that you can hang out with her in, or that she can go to feel safe and comfortable? It sounds like she was fairly secure in the bathroom, but that’s not a great place to build a feeling of territorial ownership – there is limited perching and hiding opportunities, fewer items to absorb scent, and likely less potential for enrichment. If she has a preferred room, try to put out intentional hiding spots – cubbies, boxes, bags, and perching locations – anything that can provide her with a safe spot to hide and that will soak up her scent. Make sure there are plenty of scratchers there, as well as her litterbox. Hang out in that room as much as possible with her, and just read or do other quiet activities – let her come out and get to know you again. Make sure that you and your clothes do not carry the scent of your foster cats. This can help build back that trust she once had, especially if you come bearing treats or yummy food, a favorite toy, or just a kind word.

In the meantime, you’ll also want her to get to know and love her cat carrier. You can use the carrier as one of those intentional hiding spots – put treats in there, some bedding that smells like her, and try to reward her for any interest or exploration towards the carrier (treats, praise, etc.). This can take some time. Ingrid recently wrote an article called “How to Make the Cat Carrier Attractive to Your Cat”, which gives excellent advice for reducing fear of cat carriers. I know you need to get Pebbles to a vet sooner than later so you may need to be opportunistic about getting her into a carrier for the time being. But it will be best to have some answers, and the advice of a veterinarian to help you address any physical ailments. If that is an issue, I hope that Pebbles starts feeling better soon, and that her behavior gets back to her normal quickly! I’m sending you best wishes right……meow.

Two new cats are not warming up to humans

My 18 y/o loving, lap kitty passed away and we opened our home to 2 new rescue cats who are our only fur-kids. They came from shelters to a Catfé then to us so they already knew each other. While they are fine with each other they are not yet warmed up to us, although one has been sitting briefly on my husband’s lap. I am so starved for kitty affection and miss my old girl terribly. Am I putting off the cats somehow with my intense longing for them to love me? I pick them up once a day and hold them for about 10 seconds. I play with them, feed them 1 of 2 meals each day, give them treats and otherwise wait for them to come to me. One lies between my legs when I’m asleep. That’s it. Are there ways to help the process along? It’s only been a month & a half but I miss cat cuddles so much idk what to do! – Mary

Hi Mary – Thanks so much for your message. My condolences to you and your husband for the loss of your kitty – that is so hard. With the loss of a beloved family member comes grief (for both humans and animals), and the need to fill a space that was left empty in our hearts. I’m so happy that you were able to open your home (and heart) to two new kitties who I’m sure are very lucky to have found their way to you and your husband!

That these cats are sitting on your husband’s lap and sleeping between your legs is a promising sign. Sometimes it can take weeks for cats to settle into a new environment – these kitties have been through at least three moves (to the shelter, to the Catfe, then to your house), which can be VERY stressful. Given all of the recent upheaval in their lives, I’m not surprised that they haven’t quite warmed up to you and your husband yet – this will take time. And that’s ok – it sounds like you’re very patient, which is a cat-friendly attitude to have 😊

You know how cats will enter a room full of people and then go to the person who is either allergic to cats or who isn’t particularly fond of cats? That’s because those people appear less threatening. Those people generally don’t look at the cat or otherwise engage with them – this makes cats feel more comfortable and less intimidated – they have the choice whether to interact with that person or not. Direct eye contact can be threatening, and putting them in undesirable positions can create negative associations. I would recommend that you do not pick up the cats unless they want that – any struggle or attempt to get away should be respected. They are still in the trust-building period, so let them just watch you and your husband, and (like you said) wait for them to come to you. Reward any positive interactions with a treat, praise, or anything you find they like, and you’ll find that they will be more likely to repeat that type of interaction and increase their level of trust in you.

Finally, and this is the most difficult thing, you’ll need to manage your expectations for these two new kitties. They may never be lap-cats, or particularly snuggly, or like being picked up. Only one of my four kitties will let me pick him up for any length of time, and only one is a lap-cat. And that’s ok! I know you miss your other cat, but she was a special kitty who will always have a special place in your heart. I encourage you to let these new cats show you their unique qualities so that they can each find new places in your heart, alongside your other cat, not replacing her. And who knows? With enough time, you may find that you opened your home to the two most snuggly lap cats you’ve ever met. I’ve got my fingers crossed for you!

Do you have a question for Marci?
Leave it in a comment, and she’ll answer it next month!

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4 Comments on Ask the Cat Behaviorist: Cats Bringing Toys into Bedroom, Cat Wants to Play at 4 AM, New Cats Not Warming Up to Humans, and More

  1. Karen
    February 13, 2019 at 4:29 pm (1 week ago)

    I have a cat obsessed with his mouse wand toy. He’s begun to make me feel like his playtime servant. He used to greet me when I came home, but now he’ll just run to his toy and start meowing. If I stand up, he’ll start meowing to play. Nag, nag, nag. I try putting it away but he’ll just go to where we normally use it and meow. I play with him once in the morning and once in the evening. How can I get him to stop being so fixated on it? Thanks

    Reply
  2. Christiane Grando
    February 13, 2019 at 2:07 pm (1 week ago)

    I adopted a 4 year old kitty who had one previous owner (who sadly passed away). She is settling in well and is an only kitty, but she bites! They are “love bites”, but my previous cat did not do this and while I am watching her cues, it’s tough to know when she will chomp. Any advice on how to handle this?

    Reply
  3. World Of Animals, Inc.
    January 23, 2019 at 2:00 pm (4 weeks ago)

    Thanks, for sharing your answers to these questions. We always wanted to know why our cat brings toys into the bedroom in the middle of the night. Plus it’s hard to ignore a one-year-old kitty, but looks like you have to do your best so they learn as they grow. Have a wonderful day. We really enjoyed this post

    Reply
  4. Darlene Ninko
    January 23, 2019 at 1:42 pm (4 weeks ago)

    My comment is to Mary who yearns for kitty love. I have a calico tortie who was found by a neighbor at 8 weeks old in our parking lot. She was the sweetest of kittens. The older she gets the less that is true. She was never a cuddler and won’t be. She wants me to pet her but on the floor. On her blankie. I can pick her up for moments. Never longer. She never gets on furniture or my bed. Never has. Just very independent. Sadly I get little “love” but I have a great pal. Hope her kitties settle into her home soon so she can see who they are. Tillie Rose is a brat at 10 Yrs. My brat

    Reply

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