Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: Cat Terrified of Noise, Cat Dunking Toys in Water Bowl, 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 bites until he draws blood

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

Hi Teri – Oh no! Cat bites are no joke, and can become infected very easily.  I’m so sorry that you had to spend two days in the hospital, but am glad that you got help for your injury.  Now, let’s talk about why your cat might be biting.

I don’t have very much information to go on, so I’ll talk about some of the most common reasons why cats might bite.  First, how old is your cat?  Young kittens may bite hard because they still haven’t learned how hard is too hard; playing with their siblings can teach them, but if they didn’t spend much time with their siblings, they may not have learned about bite inhibition.  Further, depending on how your cat was socialized, he may have been raised by people who used their hands to play with him.  Unfortunately, this teaches the cat that hands are totally acceptable as a play object, which may include biting.  So, if you currently do so, please do not play with your cat using your hands!  Use a long wand toy instead, so that your hands (and other body parts) stay far away from your kitty when he plays.

If your cat “ambushes” you and bites you while you’re walking or not paying attention, he may be trying to play – this is sometimes called predatory or play aggression.  I HIGHLY recommend playing with your kitty at least once a day for 15 minutes using a good wand toy so that you can take him through the prey sequence (staring, stalking and chasing, pouncing and grabbing, then performing a kill bite) so that he gets his instinctual predatory needs met.  This way, he’ll learn that he can prey on toys and he won’t need to prey on you!

Another reason cats bite is because they are responding to something they don’t like.  If your cat is scared of something, they might bite if they feel backed into a corner or as a defensive mechanism.  If you are doing something that your cat doesn’t like, your cat may bite you when he gets highly agitated.  You didn’t say under what circumstances your cat bit you, but many cats bite when they are being petted – you might be petting him in a place he doesn’t like to be touched, or for too long.  Be on the lookout for subtle body language changes that indicate he is done being petted – his ears might turn back a little, his tail might start to twitch, he might look back at your hand, or his body position might shift away from you.  If you see any of these things, stop what you are doing and let him be.

Finally, biting can be an indication that your cat might be in pain or not feeling well.  If he has a specific place on his body that might be hurting, touching it could cause him to bite.  If he is not feeling well, that could cause grumpiness and a lower tolerance for interactions or handling…causing a bite.  So, you might want to get him checked out by a veterinarian if you haven’t already.

I hope this helps – there are many reasons why cats might bite hard, so take a look at the circumstances under which he bites, try to identify his triggers, and learn to recognize any indications he might be giving that a bite could be coming.  If you need help with cat aggression, you might also consider contacting a cat behavior consultant (such as myself) who can assist you in figuring out what is going on, and how to prevent further injuries from happening.

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Cat terrified of noise since companion died

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. — Steven Howard

Hi Steven – I’m so sorry for the loss of Bear; it sounds like he was a good friend to Donald.  From your description, Donald may still be grieving; cats are sensitive creatures and not having Bear around as a companion is a big change for him.  I’m glad that he finds comfort when he’s with people, but I’d like to see him happier when he’s not in someone’s lap!

What does Donald enjoy?  I’m a BIG fan of having dedicated playtime with kitties (especially with wand toys and going through the prey sequence – see my response to Teri above), because this can both relieve stress and build confidence (among other benefits).  Having daily play sessions may help Donald be a little more confident to ease his fear of noises.  Further, a cat who plays is not focused on being lonely, bored, or frustrated.  Try having play sessions with Donald a couple of times a day (at the same time each day), followed by a meal or treat to initiate the hunt-eat-groom-sleep cycle.  Other enrichment activities may help him too – if he and Bear spent a lot of time together, without Bear, Donald might be looking for things to do.  Food puzzles with treats and/or kibble, window beds that overlook bird or squirrel feeders, and various toys (that are rotated to keep them novel) can help!

If you find that Donald is quite nervous in response to noises, you might try a white noise machine, leaving a radio on at a low volume, keeping the TV on (find a channel that shows birds or nature – YouTube has many channels just for cats!), or even playing music made just for cats or iCalmCat – these both claim to help calm kitties).

Another thing you might consider looking into is a calming supplement – my favorite one is Zylkene, which is natural (it’s simply a hydrolized milk protein), safe, and effective.  Just sprinkle the 75 mg capsule contents into his wet food once a day.  It is NOT a sedative, and may help him feel more comfortable. Solliquin is another trusted calming supplement – it comes in a chewy treat.  If neither of those help and you’re not able to engage Donald in play or other activities, please talk with your vet about medication.  He may need medication to help him through this difficult time and to help him to adjust to a new routine without Bear.

Please give Donald some pets from me – I know it’s really hard to lose a good kitty friend!

Pretty Litter

Cat loves to dunk toys in her water bowl

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…) –– Sarah Chauncey

Hi Sarah –

You are not the first person to have this question, and many people have observed their cats dropping or dunking their toys in their water bowls!  When figuring out the reason for this, we’ll take a look at your cat’s basic predatory nature.  When kitties play with their toys, they interact with them as though they are prey.  Cats will often bring their toys back to their food and water bowls because that’s the designating eating spot.  In the wild, cats will often cache their kills in a particular location to come back to later, so that’s one reason why cats might bring their toys to their food bowls and leave them there.

In your case, however, your cat is dunking the puff balls in water and bringing them to you, which is a little bit different. Some cats may use water to weaken or disable their prey during the hunting process, which may be one reason your cat dunks her toys.  Then, once her “prey” is dead, she brings them to you, just as a mother cat would do when she’s teaching her kittens how to hunt.  During the process of teaching her kittens to hunt, mother cats will first bring dead prey, then injured prey, then captured (and very much alive) prey to her offspring to hunt and consume for themselves.  So, maybe your kitty is trying to teach you how to hunt by bringing you these dunked toys!

Finally, some cats really enjoy playing with water.  Dunking a toy in water and then fishing it out might just be fun!  And perhaps your kitty simply wants to share the fun with you by bringing the toy to you…which is just too adorable!

Cat doesn’t seem to recognize guardian

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? — Karen

Hi Karen – I’m so sorry that this has happened with you and your kitty on a few different occasions; I’m sure it’s quite upsetting for both of you.  Has each incident started when you came inside from the backyard?  Were you working in the backyard, by any chance?  I’m wondering if you brought in a foreign smell from the yard (or other location) that your cat reacted to.  Cats are super dependent on their sense of smell to determine who is part of their family – cats have 200 million scent receptors, compared to only 5 million scent receptors of humans, so it’s fair to say that cats have a far superior sense of smell relative to people!  If you smelled different to your cat, it may have thrown him off, and you could have “appeared” to be a stranger in his eyes (or nose, as the case may be).  This same thing sometimes happens between cats, say when one cat spends the night at a veterinarian and then comes home smelling completely different. The cat who stayed at home sometimes doesn’t recognize the cat because of this new smell, and sometimes they even have to be reintroduced.

If this is what is happening, you might try keeping a sweater or sweatshirt that has your scent on it (and even your cats’ scents on it, if possible) inside by the door that you use when you come in from the backyard.  When you come in, take off the jacket you were wearing, and put the “home” sweater on; make sure you also wash your hands and take off your shoes.  Do these things before you interact with your cat.  This might help to avoid future “non-recognition” episodes in the future.

It’s a bit unusual that your cat would have such a strong reaction to you (even with an unfamiliar scent), but your cat might be particularly sensitive for whatever reason.  One of my four cats (Oliver) is highly sensitive to smell – he definitely doesn’t like the scent of my daily moisturizer (which I can’t smell at all); when it’s on my hands, he will back away and squint at me then run away as if I’ve offended him terribly!  It doesn’t take him long to warm back up to me though.  So, try to determine what he might be reacting to – it could be something that you touched in the backyard, but it could be something else, too (perfumes, soaps, and even moisturizers).

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Is it okay to behave cat-like toward your cat?

Hi! 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 and 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? — Adrian

Hi Adrian – What you’re describing is called “head-bunting”, and for cats, it’s a way to distribute their scent to you and express affection.  Cats have scent glands on their cheeks and forehead, and rubbing their heads on various objects and animals is a way to spread their scent.  Sometimes it’s to leave their mark to claim things, kind of like a “this is mine” Post-It note.  When cats bunt people and other animals, it’s to help intermingle scents and to bring that other animal or person into their “scent family”, since the rubbing helps everyone smell similar.  Scent is SO important for kitties in determining who is part of their family – just see my response to Karen’s situation, above.  Head-bunting, in addition to spreading scent, is also like a hug – it’s a very affectionate gesture, so please be honored that your cat enjoys bunting you!

When returning this gesture, make sure that your cat is comfortable with your head movements.  I would wait for her bunt first, then return the move, if she is comfortable.  If you have to “pursue” her with your head, I’d probably try petting her with my hand instead of my head.  But it sounds like you have a really nice daily ritual with your kitty – as long as she’s enjoying it, keep it up!  It’s a great way to show affection to each other and maintain a solid bond.

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3 Comments on Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: Cat Terrified of Noise, Cat Dunking Toys in Water Bowl, and More

  1. Steven Howard
    December 24, 2019 at 2:28 am (4 weeks ago)

    Thank you Dr Koski. Donald plays a bit but mostly just wants to cuddle. He’s calmer right now because he seems to love the lights on the Christmas tree. Both of our younger cats love the lights.

    Reply
  2. Shannon
    December 18, 2019 at 3:50 pm (1 month ago)

    Our new rescue kitten has started to suckle. That’s not terrible – except that he suckles on his tail. I’m afraid his tail going to to get irritated. What can we do?

    Reply
  3. Ann
    December 18, 2019 at 11:56 am (1 month ago)

    One of our cats (spayed female) sprays on everything. The kitties are rescued litter mates (sisters) and are in the house 100% of the time. Both healthy with no underlying condition. Any suggestions?

    Reply

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