Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: New Cat and Dog Introductions, How Much Exercise Should Cats Have, 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.

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

Introducing boyfriend’s dog to resident cats

I have two wonderful cats who for the most part co-habit very well together. They have an older sister and younger brother type relationship. What I want to help them with is being introduced to my boyfriend’s 18-month old pit bull/pointer mix puppy. How can I help them get over their fear of the barking dog and help them feel safe when the dog is over? Currently, I have them enjoy secure private time in my bedroom during a visit. Of course, they have everything they need during their private time (food, water, litter box and a comfy bed and blankies). Thank you so much. – Jill Herbert

 Hi Jill,

I’m so glad that your kitties have a good relationship with each other.  Introducing a new animal to the home (whether it’s another cat, puppy/dog, etc.) can be a challenge, but it all comes down to counter-conditioning and desensitization.  This means that you’ll pair good things with increasing levels of exposure to the thing that the cats are scared of.  First, you’ll want to figure out what you’ll be using as the “good things” that you’ll pair with puppy exposure.  This could be treats, affection, brushing, a toy – whatever your cats like (and it could be different for each cat).  If there’s a particular treat that they REALLY like (like rotisserie chicken breast, for example), we call that a “jackpot treat” and you’ll reserve the jackpot for times that they may be more challenged, like when they move to the next level on the exposure gradient.

Ok, so let’s talk about the exposure gradient.  This refers to the increasing amount of puppiness that your cats will be exposed to.  At one end of the gradient is no exposure, and at the other end of the gradient is the puppy romping around in the same room as your kitties.  The puppy doesn’t have to be present in order to work on desensitization.  You can first work with sounds and smells of the puppy while he isn’t there.  Try downloading audio files of a puppy barking (something that sounds similar to your boyfriend’s puppy), and play them at a level that doesn’t cause fear in your cats.  Give them treats while they listen to the noise; as long as they are eating their treats, they are comfortable.  Increase the volume slowly, keeping an eye on the cats’ body language.  If they stop eating the treats (or enjoying their “good thing”), lower the volume until the cats can eat/enjoy again.  Stop the session there, and resume at that point (or a little quieter) at the next session.

With smells, bring a dog bed or blanket over that the dog has slept on; put some treats on it, and encourage the kitties to explore the new object.  Give them rewards as they approach the new scent.

After the cats are comfortable with the scent/sounds of the puppy, you’ll want to give them the opportunity to safely observe the pup while he’s in your home.  Put a baby gate in the hallway and leave your bedroom door open so that the cats can come out and watch from a distance where the puppy can’t get to them – stay with them and reward when they venture out.  Then, when they are comfortable watching at the gate, have the pup on a harness/leash and take the gate down so that the cats can come closer, giving them rewards the entire way.  Make sure you have plenty of vertical space for the cats to use so that they can get off the ground and out of the puppy’s way when they are in the same room – this will help them feel safer and allow them observe from a secure vantage point.  I hope this helps and that your kitties will soon have a new friend!

Cat urinates on wall behind the litter box

Hi Dr. Marci, I have a question about a cat who sprays inside and sometimes at the wall behind her litter box. She is spayed and has done this since she was a young kitten, she is about a year old now. She was raised with the rest of her litter and there were other cats around that she always played with and seemed comfortable with.  She now lives with only one other cat that was not part of her litter but that she has bonded with – they play and sleep together and groom each other.

We tried Cat Attract litter, and Feliway spray around the box which seemed to help some and we switched to high sided boxes -but she still seems to get it up over the top.

She’s very active and playful and affectionate but even after a vigorous play session she will go over and sometimes pee just in front of or behind the box. The boxes are kept clean, we have tried different boxes and different locations without success. Do you think she is somehow insecure about her litter box? What would possibly motivate her to continue to do this? Do you have any suggestions on what we could try to just get her to keep it inside the box? Also, she does have plenty of scratchers, beds and cat trees that she can call her own without having to share.  Thank you! – Karen 

Hi Karen,

It sounds like you’re giving her plenty of playtime and enrichment, as well as other ways to leave her scent with scratchers, bedding, and cat trees.  And, I’m glad that she’s bonded with the other cat in your home; it doesn’t sound like that’s the issue.  I know you said she’s been spraying since she was a young kitten, but I’m wondering if it’s not spraying; she might actually be what I call a “high peer”, or do what I also call “elevator butt”.  Some cats urinate while standing up, and others move their rear end up as they pee, which can result in a stream of urine that goes up the side of the litterbox and sometimes over the edge.  What I recommend for this situation is using a high-sided utility tub instead of a typical high-sided litterbox.  Utility tubs are less expensive than litterboxes, and you can cut a U-shaped door in one side so that the cats can go in and out of the box without having to jump over the tall sides (you’ll also want to leave the top of the box off).  The sides of these tubs are high enough so that they should contain any urine streams, whether she is simply urinating high, or is in fact spraying.

A couple of questions for you – does she only urinate behind or next to the litterbox, or does she urinate in other parts of the home?  If it’s only behind or next to the litterbox, this may be due to the “over-shooting” issue, or it could be a litterbox dissatisfaction issue.  If it’s in other parts of the home, it could be the result of territorial insecurity, litterbox dissatisfaction, and/or something else.  Have you taken your cat to see the vet about this?  She may have crystals in her urine (or some other medical issue), which come and go with pH, and she may avoid urinating in her box due to pain when the crystals are present (i.e., she associates the box with pain).

So, give the utility tubs a try, and make sure your litterbox setup is up to snuff – have a minimum of three litterboxes in your home, at least one on each level, not all in the same spot.  Use unscented clumping litter, no more than 2-3 inches deep.  Litterboxes should be at least 1.5 times the length of the largest cat in the home (without the tail; utility tubs usually meet this requirement).  Also, if she’s leaving urine in other parts of the home (particularly if she’s simply emptying a full bladder and not necessarily spraying), try putting a litterbox where she has been going.  Sometimes a litterbox in a socially significant part of the cats’ territory can help increase territorial security.

And just a quick note about Feliway – I don’t recommend putting it near litterboxes, especially if there’s a litterbox dissatisfaction issue and not spraying.  Feliway can help with “familiarity”, which is fine when cats are spraying in a location within the home (put Feliway in those locations).  But for litterbox usage, Feliway is not likely to help right near the litterbox since you WANT your cat to leave her scent there.

Finally, you may want to reach out to a certified cat behavior consultant (like me!) to help you with this issue.  It’s hard to say for sure what’s going on in your home based on the limited information I have, but a behavior consultant will be able to figure out why this is happening, and provide you with further recommendations.  I hope this helps!

A note from Ingrid: Ruby is a vertical pee’er – she starts out squatting, but then wiggles her butt as she finished peeing. I had never seen that in a female cat before! When I first adopted her, urine went over the edge of just about any litter box I tried – until I found the NVR Miss. It’s the highest litterbox on the market, and it’s solved our problem. While utility tubs work just as well, if esthetics are a consideration, which they definitely were for me, the NVR Miss may be your answer, too.

How long should new cat be separated from resident cats?

Hello, I have a stray cat and we adopted her from a shelter brought her home we have 2 cats we have had for years but the new cat hisses and stares we have the new cat separated but how long do we have her separated?  We are wondering if this is going to work out. – Jackie Evans

Hi Jackie,

Cat introductions can be very stressful and can take a while.  Usually it takes several days or a couple of weeks, but it’s not unusual for introductions to take longer – several weeks, and even months.  There’s no guarantee that two cats (or more) will ever be friends, but with time, we can usually get cats to peacefully coexist (but there are exceptions).  The amount of time this will take is dependent upon the cats and how you manage their interactions.  In short, you want to give them opportunities to build up positive associations (with food, play, and anything else the cats like) while ending interactions before they get potentially aggressive.  Patience is a key ingredient.

How did you initially introduce the cats?  If your new cat has not been in the home long, you may want to work on building up positive associations with the cats’ scents first by doing scent-swapping by switching bedding and pairing them with treats (or whatever the cats enjoy, like petting and sweet-talk).  Creating a “group scent” that includes all three 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 swap which cats are allowed to roam in the house; if the new cat is separated in her own bedroom, let her out while the others are confined in another room so that she can become familiar with the rest of the home and find comfortable perches and escape routes.  Additionally, active play sessions (using an interactive wand toy) are VERY important.  This can help reduce overall stress and relieve excess energy.

Another thing you may want to do is install baby gates across the bedroom door where the new cat is separated.  You might have to buy two baby gates and stack them on top of each other so that the cats can’t climb or jump over them.  Initially, cover the bottom gate with a towel or blanket, 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.”  After that, supervised interaction sessions are the next step where you’ll have the cats in the same room, but use toys, food puzzles, or meals to distract the cats from each other.  Over time these sessions will get longer, and the cats will need fewer distractions and less supervision.

I encourage you to read Jackson Galaxy’s guest post on The Conscious Cat’s site, Cat to Cat Introductions.  You’ll be able to formulate a good introduction plan for your kitties.  Additionally, a certified cat behavior consultant (such as myself) can walk you through the process and help you overcome challenges when they come up.  Again, sometimes it can take weeks or months for an introduction to be successful, but hang in there.  Patience, persistence, and ending interactions on a good note are the keys to your success!

How to get a formerly abused cat to trust, remove mats

Hello Dr. Marci, We have a ‘relatively’ new rescue; she’s 8 months old and we’ve had her for 4 months. She was abused at 4 weeks – used as a baseball, and broke her leg which healed not well….. I’m slowly trying to get her to let me hold her for more than a few minutes. Apart from all of that, she has mats under her arms and legs. Any suggestions as to how to remove them? She’s pretty good, (not so good) about nail clippings. I’m sure they (the mats) have to be pulling on her skin. Thanks, from all of us. – Bridget

Hi Bridget,

First, thank you so much for rescuing and loving this kitten.  I really do commend you for your empathy, compassion, and patience to build trust with this little soul who was so horribly abused.  I’m so glad that there are good people out there who come to the aid of animals in need.

I can imagine that the mats underneath her arms and legs are not very comfortable.  If they are bad, I’d recommend taking her to a groomer who has a good reputation for working with cats.  I know that sometimes groomers will even come to your home, i.e., mobile grooming services.  Or, if your kitty is going to the vet to check on her healing progress, you might ask them to trim the mats as well.

For long-term maintenance, I encourage you to work on counter-conditioning and desensitizing your kitty to grooming equipment such as clippers, combs, and scissors (make sure to purchase scissors that are safe to use on pets, with blunt ends).  Have you heard of Fear Free Pets?  Please go to https://fearfreehappyhomes.com/ which is geared towards pet guardians who want to be able to help their pets experience home husbandry, veterinary visits, and other activities with minimal fear, anxiety, or stress.  You can work with your cat to help her enjoy short grooming sessions (like brushing or coming out areas before they get matted, or clipping out small mats) and nail trims.  Start by simply showing her the equipment you’ll be using by putting favorite treats near the tools, and rewarding her when she investigates.  Next, try touching her briefly with the tools, and rewarding.  Increase the level of interaction she gets with the tools to where you’re actually using them, while either distracting her with a favorite treat or rewarding her patience with something else she enjoys (petting, treats, sweet-talk, etc.).  Keep sessions short and sweet – end them before she exhibits stress, and let her make the decision when sessions end.  You don’t have to clip all the mats at once, and by keeping sessions short and ending on a good note, she’ll be less likely to have a bad experience and refuse future grooming sessions.  Best of luck to you and your kitty!

How much exercise should a cat have?

How much exercise (hours?) should a cat have in a day? – Sharon 

What a great question, Sharon!  The answer, of course, will depend on several things including your cat’s age and health condition.  Younger cats generally need more physical exercise than older cats; however, I know many adult and senior kitties who need at least a couple of active play sessions per day.

In terms of general guidelines, I like to see cats have two 15-minute play sessions daily using a wand toy.  This is to give them an outlet for their natural predatory behavior, and wand toys are the only type of toy that can take them through the entire prey sequence (staring, stalking/chasing, pouncing/grabbing, then performing a kill bite).  When cats live outdoors, they spend about 30% of their time looking for food and hunting prey, so even two play sessions per day are not reflective of what cats are naturally “programmed” to do.  So, if you can provide more play session that’s always good!  Younger cats (older kittens and young adults) may require more than two play sessions per day, particularly if they are exhibiting play or predatory aggression towards humans or other animals in the home (e.g., silently stalking then ambushing people as they walk by, etc.).  Play sessions for younger cats can be very active – lots of running, jumping, leaping, and wrestling-type behavior.  And, there are some breeds (like Bengals) who need a LOT of exercise on a daily basis – a running wheel can help very active cats burn off some of that excess energy that they have.

Play sessions for older kitties might look very different, and they may not want as much physical play every day, but it’s still good to try engage them at least once per day with a wand toy for 10-15 minutes.  They are still predators, after all!  They may not run or jump, but even staring and batting at a wand toy lure can be exciting and fulfilling for older kitties.

It’s important to note that as cats age (or if a cat is injured or recovering from an injury or illness), they may be more fragile and less mobile.  Remember to take it easy with these cats so that they don’t over-exert themselves, which could result in injury or slower recovery time from illness or injury.

Finally, all cats need mental exercise and enrichment!  Hunting wild prey provides both physical and mental stimulation. Particularly for older cats, as they become less physical don’t forget about their mental well-being.  Providing cats with vertical space to explore, food puzzles, clicker-training, and other enrichment opportunities will keep cats from getting bored and help them stay emotionally and mentally healthy. 

 New cat is possessive of part of the house

I have a 14 year old female cat, Patty, whom I have had since she was 8 weeks old. She has lived with two other cats until they both passed away in their 20s. About 6 weeks ago I adopted another cat from my local shelter, Granny who is 12 years old. They are both of a sweet and easy going nature. The now eat in the kitchen together and can pass each other in the hallways or other places with no reaction. My problem is this. I live in a townhouse. One day I came home and Patty had peed outside the litter box in the laundry room. She was sitting at the bottom of the stair leading to the dining room and den and was plaintively mewing. Granny was at the top of the stars growling and hissing. Patty was terrified as she has never had this happen to her in her life. When Patty is in the living room now, Granny will sit at the top of the stairs and stare at Patty. I break this up and everything is okay again. How can I rebuild Patty’s confidence to come up the stairs when Granny is there and how can I make it so that Granny is not possessive of that spot? Once I resolve this issue I am sure they will be fine together. – Mary Duque

Hi Mary, thanks for writing.  Cat relationships can be very complicated, so I’m glad you’re looking to resolve this issue before things get worse.  I’m happy that they can eat together and generally get along, but it sounds like Granny might be feeling a little bit insecure about her territory, hence the need to intimidate Patty by blocking her at the top of the stairs.  A lot of people think that this is one cat being “dominant” or “alpha”, but I don’t think that cats really frame relationships like that; it’s more about being secure about their territory and resources.  When they perceive that those things are being threatened, that’s when they can start acting more protective of their stuff (hence, Granny saying “hey, girlie, this is MY space up here and you can just stay down there”).

I’m not sure I’m interpreting your email correctly, but it sounds like the litterbox is upstairs (being guarded by Granny), which was why Patty urinated in the laundry room and was also mewing to get upstairs so that she could use the litterbox, yes?  This all points to resource competition, so I highly recommend that you increase the number of litterbox locations in your home.  I’d ensure that you have at least three litterboxes, and make sure there’s at least one on each floor of your home.  If Patty urinated in the laundry room as an alternative, perhaps a litterbox would work well there (although many cats prefer other locations, because washers and dryers can make random scary noises).  Also, you may want to separate their feeding stations by putting them across the kitchen from each other.  Resource competition may not be completely obvious, but make sure you have multiples of toys, water bowls, perching and napping spots, beds, and anything else your cats enjoy using.

To help both Granny and Patty feel more secure, give them ways to leave their scent behind, especially at pinch-points (like at the top of the staircase).  Cardboard scratchers and scratching posts allow cats to leave scent behind from their paw pads.  Soft bedding also holds scent, or you may want to put some corner cheek groomers on the corners of walls or furniture where the cats like rubbing as they pass by.

And make sure you’re playing with both kitties (in separate sessions so that they don’t compete over the wand toy) – this will reduce stress, build Patty’s confidence, and keep your cats happy!  Best of luck to you and your girls. 

Cat marks spots where other cat has been

Hi Dr. Marci, I have two cats that don’t like each other. Little Weasel will ignore Charles as long as Charles stays away, but Charles likes to mark places where Little Weasel lays or has sat. That could be on a bed, the stove, sofa, chair and other assorted places. Getting tired of cleaning up after Charles who is a spayed female and so is Little Weasel. I have tried the Feliway plug-in diffusers for two months with no positive results.  I have tried calming aid treats and now will try Hemp oil. Any suggestions besides saying goodbye to one of the cats? I really, really don’t want to do that. Any advice would be awesome. – Rolfe Smith

Hi Rolfe,

I’m very sorry for the position you find yourself in; it’s one that I come across frequently.  Having to decide whether or not to rehome a kitty is very difficult.  House-soiling is particularly frustrating and can be a vicious cycle, since a cat who leaves a urine mark will want to re-mark if she continues to smell her urine there.  My heart goes out to you!

I highly recommend that you reach out to a certified behavior consultant (such as myself, but there are many out there) for specific recommendations tailored to your home environment.  Based solely on what you’ve described, it sounds like the inter-cat relationship needs to be improved, but other sources of stress may be compounding the house-soiling issue.  I don’t think that Feliway, calming treats, and hemp oil (do you mean CBD oil?) are going to do the trick (and honestly, we have no studies on cats that I’m aware of that show CBD products are safe for cats long-term, nor are any of those products regulated for purity, strength, concentration, efficiency, etc. so I would stay away from them until we have more information about their effect on cats).

What have you tried beyond those supplements?  First, you’ll want to make sure you’re using a good enzyme cleaner to remove urine stains – my preferred cleaner is Anti-Icky Poo (which you can get on Amazon).  Also, you’ll want to make sure that the litterbox setup is on point – even if your cat is spraying, it never hurts to have a great litterbox setup!  One highly common stressor – which can contribute to spraying and house-soiling – is litterbox dissatisfaction, so take a look at my article that lists recommendations for the purrfect litterbox setup.  It’s unclear to me whether your cat is spraying vs. eliminating due to a litterbox dissatisfaction issue, but either way, a good litterbox setup will always help.

Next, provide alternative ways for Charles to leave her scent without using urine.  Cardboard scratchers, scratching posts, corner cheek groomers, providing catnip occasionally to roll around in, and bedding are all “scent soakers” that allow cats to leave their scent signature behind to create territorial security.  Place these objects in areas that she has soiled previously, and reward her when she uses them – rewards can be praise, petting, brushing, treats, sweet talk – anything that she likes.  Never punish her for her behavior, as this is usually ineffective (cats don’t understand what they’re being punished for), and it can actually result in more stress and more house-soiling.

And as always, play is absolutely necessary to help with stress reduction and confidence building.  Play with both Charlie and Little Weasel separately each day using an interactive wand toy so that they can get some physical exercise (see the responses to the above questions for details about play sessions).  You’d be surprised by how much daily play sessions can improve a situation!

I hope this helps – please do talk with a cat behavior consultant if you continue to run into problems.  There are many things you can try before you make the decision to rehome a cat, and having someone in the corner to guide you, provide support, and cheer you on can really help.

4 Comments on Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: New Cat and Dog Introductions, How Much Exercise Should Cats Have, and More

  1. lucy
    July 14, 2019 at 1:33 pm (1 day ago)

    Dr. Marcy. I read a letter from Karen to you about feral Cats. in the wild. i do to feed feral cats 3 days a week too. . i try to help them , with health.i try the A.C. Vinegar.I think it help some, they look better and healthier. but now if they smell a little A.C.Vinegar they do not eat the food. You mention about brewers Yeast tablets or powdered. is there any just for Cats or where can i get it reasonable as you
    mention? . it may help them with fleas? or at least better health for them. Is there any just for Cats? or the same for people and them? Dr. Marci. i thank you for your precious time. and my feral kitties will thank you too.!!!

    your help is appreciated.

    Reply
  2. Lucia
    July 11, 2019 at 1:37 pm (4 days ago)

    Hi Dr. Marci! Thank you for taking the time to help us! My cat Lily is 10 months old and she doesn’t cover her pee or poop :/ she will make a hole a do her business, but afterwards she’ll “scratch” the side of the litterbox very briefly. Today, for example, she also scratched the leg of a table next to the litter box (???). She’s not declawed, she’s neutered and healthy. I checked her paws and joints and everything is fine! We use normal, clumping litter.
    Another weird thing she does is that after she’s done eating, many times she will also scratch at the floor or at the sides of wherever she’s eating. I wish she put that much effort into covering her stuff, I guess she’s grossed out xD
    I hope you can help us because it’s not so nice to see/smell it hahaha. I’m also not proud to admit that I’ve tried to demonstrate a few times, but she’s not interested in paying attention.
    Thank you again!

    Reply
  3. Katie
    July 10, 2019 at 6:50 pm (5 days ago)

    One suggestion concerning the puppy being introduced to the 2 resident cats–make sure that you and your boyfriend are taking the puppy to training classes. Dogs (and puppies) are much better around cats when the dog is trained to listen. My sister had 3 cats when they adopted a Westie. Westies are terriers and terriers tend to chase other animals. My sister and her husband have never had a problem with the dog following his natural instinct because he was trained to listen to commands–such as leave the cats alone. Having control over the dog will make the transition so much better for you, the dog, and the cats. With exercise, training, and consistency, it won’t take long before the dog fits in with the rest of the family. Also, it is NOT funny for the puppy to harass the cats. Nor is it okay for the puppy to do this. If you don’t want problems, then control the puppy.

    Reply
  4. Janine
    July 10, 2019 at 7:30 am (6 days ago)

    Miss Lulu is a high peer too and I was really baffled when I first saw this. I had no idea girl cats peed like that. I ended up with pee on the wall and floor and was stressing about what to do. I heard about using a utility tub, but everyone I looked at was too big for the area where I keep the litter boxes. I ended up buying two extra large covered boxes and my husband cut the top off the lid (I always heard cats really didn’t like covered boxes and didn’t want to spook the two older cats that I have). It is high to contain the pee and the only messes I have dealt with were the the few times where she decided to pee with her rear facing the lower front where they enter the box.

    Reply

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