Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: A Cat Who Won’t Play, A Cat Who is Grieving, 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!

Cat plays by herself, but not with her guardian

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? – Abby Frank

 Hi Abby,

I’m so glad you wrote and asked about this, because I think a lot of people feel the same way in that they worry about their cats not playing interactively.  First of all, I’m so sorry for the loss of Dawn’s companion; I wonder if she is grieving over her friend.  I’m glad that she plays by herself with toys, but there’s nothing like a toy that moves to engage those predatory instincts.  In general, the more opportunities cats have to satisfy their predatory nature, the more fulfilled (and less stressed) they’ll be living in an indoor environment.  Self-play toys (like small mice or ball toys) are great to bat around, but interactive toys that you control are exciting because they move…just like prey (if you’re doing it right).  So, to answer your question, don’t stop trying!  You’ll find something that Dawn likes eventually.

You probably know that I’m a BIG fan of interactive wand toys for kitties.  My favorite is Da Bird, which is a 3’ wand with a 3’ string and a clip on the end.  It comes with a tuft of feathers (to represent a bird), but you can replace it with other lures such as rodents (cats love Da Mouse and Da Rat, which is made with deer fur), bugs (check out Neko Flies), and lizard or snake-like lures.  Manipulate the wand so that the lure moves in the manner of the prey it’s supposed to resemble; don’t just dangle the toy in front of your cat’s face.  If you’re playing with a mouse or rat lure, keep it on the ground and make it go behind furniture or around a corner.  Birds fly up in the air and flutter down.

Sometimes wand toys like Da Bird can move a little fast for some kitties who are just figuring out how to be a predator or for kitties who might be a little bit fearful.  Try a long fleece string (such as the Cat Charmer) or even a ribbon.  Or, a long peacock feather!  You can get those at craft stores and home décor stores.  There’s also a toy called the Cat Dancer, which is little cardboard pieces on the end of a bouncy wire.  Make sure to put any toys with feathers or strings away when you’re not using them for your cat’s safety.

A few other tips for you.  When cats hunt, they go through the “prey sequence”, which is staring, stalking and chasing, pouncing and grabbing, then performing a kill bite.  Staring can be VERY exciting for kitties!  So, if your cat is engaged simply by staring at the toy, that’s a start.  Or similarly, if you just get a couple of bats at the toy, that’s some interest!  Roll with it.  You may need to experiment with the type of toy or movements that you’re using.  If your kitty plays for a minute or two then sits or lays down, don’t give up – she may have just gone back to the staring phase.  You can give her a 30-second break, or keep moving the toy, or switch to a different lure, or even sprinkle catnip on it or spray the toy with catnip spray.  Just have fun experimenting – don’t give up, because a toy will click for Dawn and you’ll find one that tickles her fancy.

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Cat is grieving the loss of her companion

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. – Kathy

Hi Kathy,

It is so hard when our companions pass, isn’t it?  It sounds like both you and Baby are still grieving.  I’m very sorry for your loss, but there are some things you can do to help Baby while she recovers.  First, I would put Abby’s bed out again for Baby.  It may be comforting to smell her, just like it can be comforting for grieving humans to smell the clothing of a lost loved one.  Baby was around Abby for 10 years, so the absence of that familiar scent may be making her feel a little insecure.

Second, has Baby started to eat regularly again?  If not, I highly recommend talking to a vet – you don’t want her to lose weight or suffer from any medical issue related to not eating.  You might consider giving her a calming supplement – one that I often recommend is Zylkene, which is a hydrolyzed milk protein that calms (it doesn’t sedate).  It’s completely natural and safe, and you just sprinkle the caplet contents in her food each day.  It can help “take the edge off” a stressful situation; you don’t need a prescription for it, but you might want to ask your vet if they would recommend it for Baby.

Do try to give Baby as much attention as she wants.  I know she’s not a cuddly cat, but try sitting next to her and petting her, or get her a heated cat bed to enjoy.  If she liked sleeping next to Abby, it may be comforting to have another heat source.  And, don’t underestimate the value of play – if she’s carrying her mouse around and vocalizing, that may be a part of her “hunting” routine.  See my answer to Abby above about how to engage your kitty in play, which is a great stress-reliever for cats.  Play sessions don’t have to be incredibly active (particularly for older cats), but even just mental stimulation is good.  If Baby has a favorite treat, tempt her with that, or try to find a new treat for her to enjoy – Churu “meat tubes” are widely loved by felines.

I’ve found that relationships between cats and people can change after another family member passes away.  Some cats become more needy and seek out attention from humans, others distance themselves.  If you’re concerned about her, do check in with your vet about additional things you might be able to do for Baby.  My heart goes out to both of you.

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Cat overgrooms

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. – Karin Weale 

Hi Karin,

Awww, poor Sookie!  I’m glad you’re working with your vet to figure out if there’s a medication that might help with his over-grooming.  I mentioned Zylkene (a calming supplement) in my response to Kathy (above); you might ask your vet about that for Sookie as well.

I have somewhat limited information about what might trigger Sookie’s over-grooming, but it’s often a response to stress. And, even if the stressor is taken away or reduced, the over-grooming (an attempt to self-soothe) may become habituated by the time the stressor is no longer an issue.  If possible, try to figure out if there is a pattern to his over-grooming.  Does it happen during a particular time of day or when he’s in a specific location?  Does he do anything (body language or movement patterns) that signals that he’s about to start grooming?  If you can disrupt the pattern, that can help him form new patterns of behavior.  Engage him in a different activity (ideally before he starts in on over-grooming) like play with a wand toy, a food puzzle, or some other fun occupation.  You may have to interrupt a grooming session too, if you deem that it has gone on for a bit too long.  Make sure that if you do interrupt, it’s something enjoyable and not negative (you don’t want to cause more stress).

I’m glad that you’re taking Sookie out for walks on a leash – do you have the potential to build a catio where you live?  Even just a small catio that fits in a window could be something that Sookie would enjoy.  But catios come in all shapes and sizes, and don’t have to be expensive.  Enrichment is key for kitties, and most indoor cats don’t get enough of it.  One of my favorite books about enrichment is called Beyond Squeaky Toys, by Cinthia Alia Mitchell and Nicole Nicassio-Hiskey.  It has easy, simple, and cheap enrichment activities for both dogs and cats, and goes over all the various enrichment categories and why enrichment is so important.  I hope this helps!

Odd behavior after canine companion passed away

Dr. Koski, my cat performed the oddest behavior and would love to know what it is about. Portia is a 6 year old Maine coon rescue which we have had for 5 years. She cares nothing about the other cats in our house or our 2 dogs and I mean nothing. On Nov 11 the vet came to our house very late to euthanize our 13 yr old Mastiff, Jesse, who had bone cancer in her pelvis. Her leg was so enlarged from lymphatic fluid, from her tail clear down to her toenails. We left her on her bed that night covered by a blanket. The next morning I uncovered her so I could take her to be cremated. Portia jumped off the couch and came over and sniffed Jesse’s head, side, and hip. She then proceeded to to rub her whole body on Jesse’s leg, from tail to toe. She did that several times, then she licked and rubbed on the area where the cancer was and then she settled down and curled up behind Jesse’s back legs and stayed there until I moved Jesse to the car. As I said Portia has no use for any of our other pets, she is not mean to them, she just gives them a wide berth or she leaves the room. What would cause her to roll her body all over Jesse’s affected leg, but only after she had passed. Jesse loved all of our cats, she would nuzzle them and clean them and share her bed with them. Thanks for your thoughts. – Shelley

Hi Shelley,

I’m so sorry for your loss of Jesse, but I’m glad that you were able to let her pass at home where she was most comfortable.  A peaceful passing is one of the best gifts we can give our loved ones, I think, and it sounds like Jesse was a big part of the family (particularly since she slept with and groomed all of the cats).  Pets handle the loss of family members in various (sometimes odd) ways.  Generally speaking, when cats rub or groom something, it’s often to spread their scent to that object.  I’m wondering, since Jesse’s scent surely changed once she passed, if Portia was attempting to “reclaim” Jesse by putting her own scent back on her.  Since Jesse groomed, slept, and nuzzled all of the kitties, surely she was a big part of the “group scent”; perhaps Portia was trying to reincorporate Jesse back into the “group scent” by putting her own scent on Jesse.  And, there is some evidence that dogs (and I think cats, too) can smell cancerous growths in some cases, so Portia’s attempt at grooming and rubbing Jesse’s affected leg may have been an effort to rebuild that group scent over the disease.  Does that make sense?  This is what the biologist part of me thinks.

There’s another part of me that thinks (or wants to believe) that this was Portia’s way of saying goodbye.  Like I said, animals have many different ways of expressing grief and dealing with death.  Even if Portia wasn’t keen on hanging out much with the other animals in your home, that doesn’t mean she didn’t have some sort of positive relationship with Jesse.  Whatever it was, Portia’s actions sound sweet.  Again, I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m sending you hugs.

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10 Comments on Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: A Cat Who Won’t Play, A Cat Who is Grieving, and More

  1. dennis moran
    April 20, 2020 at 10:49 am (10 months ago)

    I had a cat that over groomed her belly also. She had stomach cancer that was found later on. Maybe the discomfort she felt was eased , when she groomed herself in that area.

  2. Tel-Aviv's feral cats
    April 18, 2020 at 10:02 am (10 months ago)

    Cats can grieve. I had two cats, and one had run away for two and a half months. My other cat didn’t show any signs that he missed her, but when she came back, he ran to her, and they sniffed each other noises for the longest time.

  3. Adrian
    December 3, 2019 at 2:22 am (1 year ago)

    This is a weird question but I was wondering what can come of behaving cat like towards your cat? By this I mean head butting her rubbing your head against her?

    I know talking with your cat is good for bonding. As well as play time, I was just wondering if this is as well. I started doing it every morning and night as I say good morning and goodnight. (Because she was doing it to me and I just thought hmmm I’ll just do it back to her)

    But yeah I was just wondering what she might be thinking when I do that?

  4. Karen
    November 30, 2019 at 2:38 pm (1 year ago)

    Hi Dr. Marci,
    I have a question on the behavior of my cat that has happened on several occasions now. He is about 3 years old and I have had him since he was a kitten. He is a social, playful well adjusted cat that is very bonded to me and he lives with two other cats that he gets along well enough with.
    About this time last year I was coming up from the backyard and into my house -as I’ve done many times before and dressed no differently than I normally do. On this particular occasion my cat looked at me like he had no idea who I was and ran off terrified (he is not normally afraid of strangers at all). He spent a few days hiding upstairs under the bed while I talked to him, gave him treats, toys etc. This is something he had never done before. He gradually returned to his normal friendly self after about a week.
    This has happened a couple of times since then- same sort of thing but he did seem to recover quicker on the last occasions. He’s never been an overly skittish cat and I can’t say what I did differently on these occasions that caused him to spook.
    I have heard something similar to this where the owners have returned from vacation only to have their cats run and hide from them but given the longer time period they were gone I can understand that situation better.
    Any thoughts on why this might be happening and what my cat is thinking?

  5. Sarah Chauncey
    November 22, 2019 at 11:27 pm (1 year ago)

    My cat loves playing fetch with puff balls (the kind with fleecey fabric and mylar). She particularly loves dunking them in her water bowl before bringing them to me. Any idea why she does this? (I now keep washcloths all over the apartment, to wring out the balls…)

  6. Carmen Scott
    November 21, 2019 at 10:29 am (1 year ago)

    The tips are awesome! I have two cats. It really helps to know what kind of behavior they have.

  7. Steven Howard
    November 20, 2019 at 10:39 pm (1 year ago)

    I have a question about the behavior of one of my cats. Donald is a five year old tuxedo we adopted as a kitten. He has always needed a lot of attention and reassurance but since his cat-friend Bear passed away earlier this spring (Bear was almost 20 and had a good long life with us) Donald has become terrified of the slightest noise and cries all day long. He usually quiets down at night or when he’s in someone’s lap but we can’t always hold him. I think he is grieving but is there a chance that he has anxiety too? What can we do if he is anxious? His vet says that he’s healthy, he just seems upset and I’m getting a little worried.

  8. teri
    November 20, 2019 at 12:01 pm (1 year ago)

    Why does my feline bites until he draws blood? Ended up in the hospital for 2 days due to an infection aftr he bit me.

    November 20, 2019 at 10:26 am (1 year ago)


  10. Janine
    November 20, 2019 at 8:39 am (1 year ago)

    Thank you for the tips on overgrooming. Miss Kiki does this too and my vet wasn’t able to figure out why. I believe it has become a habit too. She started stressing when we lost Pono and when we got Lulu, it got worse. Now I think it’s a habit too. I have figured out her grooming pattern happens mostly in the morning so I will try getting her to play with a toy instead.


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