Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: Cat Traumatized by Vet Visits, Stressed Blind Cat, Food Puzzles and More

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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!

Introduction of new kitten upset resident cats

We have 3 cats. Two (female and male) are approximately the same age, rescued 3 months apart and introduced very slowly using Jackson Galaxy’s methods. These cats never sleep together or groom each other, but they have no issue bring near each other or sharing space. A third male kitten was rescued and introduced when the established cats were 2 years old. A longer introduction process took place and the cats all share space.

The female (now four) has become extremely agitated by the behavior of the younger male (2). He stalks her, chases her, stares at her. She growls, runs (which I believe he looks at as playing) and then hides from him. He will find her and then wait for her to come out. I feel that she has become extremely nervous when she comes down the stairs, or enters a room, never knowing if he’s there. We have never witnessed him tussle with her. We’re not sure what the issue is but we just want her to feel comfortable in her space and him to leave her alone. He has not issue with the male (4y).

We have more than enough space in our home, multiple cat trees, toys, food resources spread out and attention provided to all. We have used pheromone diffusers as well but haven’t seen any difference in the behavior. Any suggestions would be welcome. — Stacy Mead

Hi Stacy – Thanks for writing; this is not an uncommon issue when young kitties grow up.  Between the ages of 2 and 4 cats go through social maturation, so there may be some changes in the relationships between cats.  Even though your female cat has been with the younger male for two years now, everyone is getting older and their needs may be shifting.

One of the best things you can do is provide everyone with active play sessions, each separately, for different reasons.  The younger male appears to be very connected with his predatory side, and he is using your female cat as prey.  Unfortunately, she is now feeling like prey, so the more she runs and hides, the more those actions will reinforce your male cat’s view of her as “prey”.  Therefore, I highly recommend play sessions that will “scratch that predatory itch” for your younger male, and play sessions that will help your female cat embrace her inner predator.  The more she learns to act like a predator, the less she will respond like prey!

A good wand toy will help you give both (or all three) of your cats the best play session and work-out.  My favorite toy is Da Bird – the one with the 3-foot long handle, with a 3-foot long string and feathers attached at the end.  I also recommend getting a few lures to be able to switch out at the end of the string – choose lures that represent different prey types, like rodents, snakes or lizards, and insects.  When you play with each cat (do so separately so that no one hogs the toy or gets intimidated by another cat), make sure they go through the prey sequence: staring, stalking and chasing, pouncing and grabbing, and performing a kill bite.  If your cat stops playing after a couple of minutes, it’s likely that the play session is not over – he’s just gone back to the staring phase!  Keep moving the toy and re-engage him.  If he stops again, give him a 30-second break, or change out the lure, or sprinkle it with a little bit of catnip.  You should try to play with each cat for 15 minutes twice a day, ideally before meals (to initiate the hunt-eat-groom-sleep sequence).

Additionally, if you notice your younger male staring at your female, please try to step in at that point.  Again, that’s the beginning of the prey sequence – so the sooner you break that up, the less of a chance he’ll follow through with stalking and chasing.  And don’t forget – if he’s staring, it means that he has a need that must be fulfilled; don’t just block his view from the female cat, but redirect him to a wand toy and give him a short play session to “scratch that itch.”  I hope this helps!

Cat traumatized by vet visits

Our ten year old cat made three visits to three different vets in a period of three weeks. During that time she had four enemas, x-rays and an ultrasound. Her desire for food and water remains low and she continues to avoid us. Her personality is totally changed. We think all those trips to the vet have traumatized her. If so, how long will it take to get her spirit back? — Bob & Sandy

Hi Bob and Sandy – Oh goodness, it sounds like your kitty went through quite a stressful period of time!  It’s no wonder she’s stressed – if she’s had digestive issues, it’s no wonder that she doesn’t have a strong desire for food or water.  Poor little girl!

First things first, she does need to eat and drink.  If necessary, talk with your veterinarian about an appetite stimulant.  Next, does she like wet food?  If so, you might try wet food that is a bit stinkier (fish flavors), watered down a little so that it’s a porridge texture.  Use warm water so that it’s just a few degrees warmer than room temperature – that helps release the aroma, too.  You can also use low-sodium chicken broth to get more fluid into her if she likes that.  And, have you tried a water fountain in your home?  Sometimes just the sound of running water can encourage cats to drink.

Please give her some time to feel better and recover from that stressful time.  Give her lots of pets and calm attention, if she wants it.  You might also consider a calming supplement like Zylkene or Solliquin; they are both all-natural, safe, and have been proven effective.  This might help take the edge off of things in the short-term.  And, don’t forget about offering her toys; a little catnip or silver vine might be a good way to relieve stress, and having a favorite wand toy (or a new one!) might entice her to engage with you as well.

I hope your kitty is back to her usual self soon – I know this is concerning, but do talk with your vet if her appetite doesn’t return or if she loses weight.  Hang in there!

Cat attacked husband

Hi Dr. Koski, this is to update you on Soprano “the cat from hell”, who had attacked my husband and me badly (leaving permanent scars), when adopted last April. 

We have moved to our summer residence, on July 3rd, and I am happy to report that Soprano is now 95% re-socialized. He resides in the cat room with 10 other cats at night (and we haven’t heard any complaints from them), he fairly gets along with our “gang of 4 (tomcats)” outside (who spend the night in a camping trailer we bought for them). He still has a feud with 2 tomcats we adopted last fall (at our wildfire evacuation place), but it is now more the 2 tomcats’ fault. And whenever he puts his claws into our legs now, it is more symbolically and without drawing blood. He still has some issues with some of our cats and particularly the neighbor’s cats and kittens, who, more or less, live and dine at our place, as Soprano’s humor is not shared by any of the other cats. Soprano occasionally chases and fights with Silvester (one of “the gang of 4”), but a water spray bottle usually solves the problem. And yesterday, Soprano was chased by a 4-month-old kitten, who claimed that Soprano had looked at him the wrong way and threatened to tell his mom (a small but ferocious cat). We also keep getting complaints from our 5 pet chickens, who report that Soprano is teasing them and bothering them when they want to get into their coop to lay an egg. Other than that, Soprano can be considered re-socialized, and his huge dog cage has been folded up and put away about 7 weeks ago.  — Lilo Huhle-Poelzl 

Hi Lilo –  Thanks so much for the update!  It sounds like Soprano has come a long way since you last wrote in, and with so many cats in the picture, that’s really a challenge!  I’m so glad that Soprano is doing well, minor scuffles with Silvester and your chickens aside.  Congratulations on your hard work and success!

I did just want to make a quick note about the spray bottle.  While a quick squirt might be a viable “short-term” option in that it’s effective in the moment, I recommend against using them because they can result in some pretty negative consequences in the long-term.  And this pretty much goes with any kind of punishment, whether it’s yelling or making a startling noise, or anything else.  First, after a while, the cat who is on the receiving end will start to associate the unpleasant punishment with you, which can result in fear and even aggression (which you’ve worked so hard to overcome!).  Next, your cat will simply learn to do the behavior when you’re not around.  And also, if you’re using the squirt bottle to break up cats, the cats don’t know why they’re being sprayed – it just adds to the chaos of the moment, and builds a negative association between the two cats (and you want relationships to get better, I’m assuming).  Instead of spraying with water, put a pillow between the cats, or better yet, try to step in earlier and divert one cat with a wand toy or something else that will grab his attention and redirect him to a better, more fun activity.  Make sense?

Keep up the great work – you’ve come a long way!  😊

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Blind cat pacing

Hi Dr. Marci, I have a three year old blind cat, Rupert, who is a complex character with a serious pacing problem. I am going to give as much info as I can in case I’ve missed something that you can see. 

He’s not completely blind but whatever vision he has is limited. For the first 2 years of his life he was a very social cat. Lots of people in and out of our flat who he was friendly and confident with. He’s very into routine and as long as I stuck broadly to that we were all good. This all changed about 10 months ago seemingly after I sent him to a family members house whilst I had a holiday (this wasn’t his first time away from home). Since then he’s been largely petrified of anybody new coming to the house and even skittish when it’s people he knows or there’s more than one person in the room. 

He has always paced now and again. I used to notice it if I was out for longer periods than the usual work day or hadn’t played enough – fair enough he needed to burn off energy. We play a lot compared to other cat owners I know. 

A few months ago he started having violent seizures. He had one every 24 hours for a week until the vet finally agreed with my opinion that he was epileptic and prescribed medication. We are on low dose phenobarbital and have only had one break through seizure since. He doesn’t love the medication but takes it without fuss. 

Recently I moved our small flat to a 3 bed house which needs work – so lots of people coming and going. He has been scared at times and cautious but given this huge change in his life not too bad. We have been here around 2 months. Over that time his pacing however has reached the point of insanity, particularly in the evening after I come home from work. Sometimes he doesn’t stop for hours – round and round in a large loop circle like a caged lion. I’ve tried food, play, cuddles….anything I can think of to stop it or distract. I’ve tried ignoring it because I read that that attention could act as a reward, doesn’t help. I am so worried that he’s desperately unhappy or something is wrong and I don’t know what to try. At times in the past when pacing was due to energy he would always want to play. Now he barges past as if i am not there like a zombie – like its a compulsion. 

Zyklene doesn’t work. Feliway doesn’t work. He’s had a lot of recently blood tests due to the epilepsy and nothing wrong. I appreciate we’ve just moved, but things are getting worse not better. 

Any insight over what could be wrong and what to do?! Thank you, — Mikyla

 Hi Mikyla –

Oh, my heart goes out to Rupert and you!  It sounds like he’s had A LOT of change in his life recently, and new environments can be stressful enough, let alone for a blind kitty who has a greater challenge with becoming familiar in his own home.  On top of that there are a lot of people coming and going, bringing in all kinds of scents with them that are also unfamiliar.

I’m assuming he’s neutered, yes?  It’s interesting that you said he paces in the evening; I’m wondering if he smells other cats outside, perhaps cats who aren’t neutered and who are spraying.  Have you seen cats outside of your home?  Cats are crepuscular (not nocturnal), meaning that they are most active at dawn and dusk, so if there are other cats roaming around they may be more frequent in the evening.  If you do see cats outside, is there a way you can discourage them from coming into your yard?  Motion-activated water sprinklers are usually pretty effective in this regard, so you might want to keep an eye out and see who is coming around to visit!

It sounds like you’ve done many of the things I would suggest to reduce stress and serve as a distraction during the pacing sessions.  Play, food, and cuddles are all good things.  If he is food-motivated, have you tried food puzzles?  Does he have a food treat that he absolutely LOVES, like chicken breast, Churu meat tubes, goat cheese, etc.?  You might be able to distract him by putting a favorite treat in a more challenging food puzzle (see the next question/answer for suggestions).

Another thing you might consider is limiting his access to certain parts of the home.  I’d love for him to get really comfortable in 2-3 rooms of your house (since it is new), and keep him away from people coming and going to limit the unfamiliar elements he is exposed to.  Would that be a possibility?  Make sure that he has plenty of soft surfaces to act as “scent-soakers” to absorb his own scent and help him feel more at ease.  Scratching pads, litter boxes, bedding, and cat trees with blankets can all help do the job.

Aside from that, it may be time to talk with your veterinarian about an anti-anxiety medication.  Zylkene is usually fairly effective, but if you’re not seeing results from that, you may need a prescription medication.  Because Rupert is on medication for his epilepsy, you’ll want your vet’s advice about the best way to go with that.

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Food puzzles

Hi Dr. Marci – I have 3 feral kittens I’m trying to tame. Can you tell me specifically which Trixie and Catit puzzles you like. I went to the food puzzles website and there is lot there. Any additional suggestions would be much appreciated. – — Pamela Tomlinson

 

Hi Pamela – Oooooh, I love this question!!! Food puzzles are one of my favorite things to give cats because they are fun for the cats, are great enrichment, and help kitties from eating too much food.  Hands-down, my favorite commercial food puzzle is the Trixie 5-in-1 Activity Center.  I love this because it is large (so more than one cat can work on it at the same time), and you can make it either easy or difficult depending on where you put the treats/kibble.  I highly recommend it!  There are other Trixie food puzzles out there too, but they are more or less challenging depending on your cat’s skill level, so you have to get one that is right for your kitty.  You don’t want one that’s too easy, nor do you want one that’s too hard – that’s why I love the 5-in-1 Activity Center.  Catit also has a newer “board”-type food puzzle that you can get on their website – it’s called the Catit Play Treat Puzzle, and it also has different places for food.  I haven’t seen it in action yet though; my guess is that it’s similar to the Trixie 5-in-1.

Why I usually recommend starting with is easy food puzzles that you can make using things you already have at home. Muffin tins are good to start with, as are ice cube trays; with these, cats get the idea that they have to use their paws to manipulate the food out of the compartment.  If you need a bit more of a challenge, try putting small toys on top of the food in the muffin tin; the toys then have to be moved out of the way to get to the food.  You can also use toilet paper tubes and make them progressively more difficult to get food out of.  Start with just the empty tube with food inside.  Then, block off one or both ends with a little bit of paper towel.  You can seal the ends and poke holes in the side of the tube so that food falls out as it’s rolled.  Or, you can pinch one or both ends of the tube closed with binder clips so it’s even harder to roll.  You can also tape several tubes together to make a “pyramid” where the cat has to poke her paw inside to get the treats out.  Making your own food puzzles is really fun and easy, and we know that cats love fun and easy!

I hope this helps – there is a lot of food puzzle information out there, but try to use things that you can change the difficulty level of yourself.  Increasing the challenge is always fun, so keep things fresh and novel by switching food puzzles frequently, too.  Best of luck with your kittens!

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4 Comments on Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: Cat Traumatized by Vet Visits, Stressed Blind Cat, Food Puzzles and More

  1. Michelle
    October 10, 2019 at 10:39 pm (1 month ago)

    Hi! Wonderful that you are able to help so many kitties and their humans.
    Just wondering about Rupert and if he has had any radiographs or scans done of his brain/head? Curious with his epilepsy and increase pacing. And I may have missed why he is blind. Wishing him and his family the best.

    Reply
  2. Karin Weale
    October 9, 2019 at 7:23 pm (1 month ago)

    Hi- thank you for offering this service. My cat, Sookie, 9 year old male, over-grooms. He has half of his belly bare from washing. He’s been to the vet repeatedly for the past several years and this is not deemed a physical problem. The vet put him on Prozac which has presented some side effects that we don’t like, plus his over grooming has worsened and now the two inside thighs are bare in addition to his belly. We are returning to the vet this Friday because Prozac is not the answer. We keep our cats inside. I always thought this cat was not an indoor cat, however my spouse felt differently. We have begun taking him out on a leash. He loves it. But we don’t have time to keep him out as long as he wants to be out. We had other cats when he came into our home. He was always the aggressor and was not liked by the others. As time has passed so did our older cats. Now he is alone and we do not believe another cat would work out with him. We’d like to help him but are running out of ideas and hope for him. Your thoughts would be valued. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Kathy
    October 9, 2019 at 3:12 pm (1 month ago)

    Need a little help with my 11 year old girl Baby who is grieving over the recent death of her companion Abby from a liver tumor. Baby doesn’t like cuddles like Abby did but when I turn the lights off in my studio apartment Baby walks around meowing and carrying a catnip mouse that she never was willing to share. She is also refusing to eat more than a few bites of food a day. Abby and Baby had lived together over 10 years and were almost inseparable. When Abby first got Sick Baby started grooming her. I put Abby’s bed away in hopes that not smelling her scent would help but I really don’t know what to do for her since she won’t let me even pet her. Any ideas on how to help her with the grieving process while I am still grieving myself.

    Reply
  4. Abby Frank
    October 9, 2019 at 10:18 am (1 month ago)

    We adopted Dawn, our 4 year old sweetie, about a year ago. She came with another cat who, unfortunately, passed away 5 weeks after the adoption. Dawn loves all her toys and plays by herself. She never responded to the wand toys (and I’ve tried various lures with no luck). She comes to me for petting times often, but I feel guilty because I can’t get her to play with me. Shall I stop trying?

    Reply

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