Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: February 9, 2023 by Crystal Uys
Welcome to our regular “Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Mikel Delgado” segment. Once, or every other month, we’ll post a reminder for you to post your questions for Mikel. She’ll answer as many of them as she can each time, and I’ll publish her answers in a subsequent post.
Mikel is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant at Feline Minds, offering on-site consultations for cat guardians, shelters, and pet-related businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area, and remote consultations around the world. She obtained her PhD in Psychology at UC Berkeley, where she studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships. Mikel is co-author of Jackson Galaxy’s forthcoming book, Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat, due out October 31and available for pre-order now (this is an affiliate link*).
A follow up to questions about what to do when a cat goes missing
Before I get to the new questions, I thought I should follow up on my post on what to do if you lose your cat. I did get a few emails from folks who have some AMAZING websites with advice on finding lost cats – including some using technology such as wildlife cams and bionic hearing devices! These sites include www.LostCatFinder.com and www.missingpetpartnership.org ,run respectively by Kim and Bonnie who both left comments in my last column. I agree 100% with both of them that there are many things above and beyond what I mentioned that folks can do to help their cats return (just look at their websites for a plethora of ideas).
The hottest issue of contention seems to be whether one should leave used kitty litter outside as a lure for the lost cat. Here was the thread of responses (I tried to put them in the order they were left).
I would suggest that Dr. Delgado have a look at our web site when counseling people about lost cats! There is much one can do to find their cat, but the one thing they should NOT do is put out a litter box! It will draw other cats (who will claim it and your property as “theirs” and will fight your cat off it (s)he tries to come home), dogs and predators. – Bonnie Wagner-Westbrook
I just read Dr Delgado’s response. She suggested putting some used litter into a TNR trap – not putting out a litter box.
(At this point, I should probably also note that I NEVER recommend leaving traps unsupervised!!! So much to say in one column, so little time! – Mikel)
Tehila, it would have the same consequence. I’ve had cases where cat guardians put out the whole box, sprinkle it around the yard, or inside traps and it attracts local strays who will fight off a cat attempting to come home on his/her own. If these cats are unaltered (and sometimes even after they have been altered), they will spray the area to mark “their” new turf. I’ve heard of (legit) cases of coyotes and other predators being attracted to an area where litter is left out. Just not a good idea. – Bonnie Wagner-Westbrook
I am happy to defer to the experts in this regard – but the logic behind the argument still leaves me with some questions! As I scientist, my main gripe is that we have so little understanding of how cats navigate in the first place. But if the main argument against placing used litter in the trap is that it will attract other animals (including predators), I would like to know why placing delicious food in the trap wouldn’t do the same thing? And lacking lures, how do you get a cat to go in a trap?
In regards to “turf marking” by cats, a lot of research (see Karen Overall and John Bradshaw’s books) shows that cats don’t use urine as a “keep out” message, so much as an “I was here” message. It’s also considered a passive signal to deter aggression, and cats don’t avoid areas that other cats have marked in. In fact, they spend MORE time investigating those areas, and a lot of cats will “overmark” the urine spray of other cats. Of course, this doesn’t mean a terrified, lost cat is going to be out and about pee-sniffing, but it’s important to understand how and what urine-marking communicates between cats. A recent study showed that although cats prefer a clump-less litterbox, previous urine odor of another cat was not a deterrent.
I agree with Bonnie. I do lost cat recovery full-time and advise against using kitty litter in any way (other than inside the house, of course).
In my experience, people who swear by it are being superstitious as cats who return when litter is involved would have come back just as well to a sack of potatoes on the porch. – Kim Freeman
Now this argument makes more sense to me! I think it gets back to the question of not knowing WHY cats come back. We tend to throw every possible solution at the problem and hope that at least one thing helps the cat return or go into the trap! I have had several friends, neighbors and clients use the litter without problems, but of course they also did other things to help get their cat back! That said, I’ve also seen several cases where the human ended up going to the cat (by setting traps where the cat has been spotted) rather than the cat coming home – which brings us back to your awesome methods using wildlife cams and other technology!
About finding your cat… Not too long ago some neighbors the next street over lost their cat and put flyers on the front doors of every house in the neighborhood. It turned out that the cat had gotten into our attic… Don’t know how but we heard it when it was meowing, and made the connection between it and the flyer that was left at our door. It turned out to be the cat and the people got it back. If they had only put flyers on telephone poles, etc. we would’ve never known who’s cat it was.
This is an excellent point. The more contact you can make with people (online neighborhood message boards, face to face, flyers under every door) the better!!!
Re: sister cats and redirected aggression;
I had the same problem when I moved the my current apartment. I arranged for two feral cats to be trapped, neutered, and returned (TNR). Eventually my cats settled down. They still go slightly bonkers, but the aggression against each other gradually ended. Last week, one showed up and my older cat just sat and stared back at him. – Tehila
Tehila, thank you for sharing your experience. I wish all kitties would have this reaction! For tips on keeping cats out of your yard, see my last column, or this recent one posted on Conscious Cat.
Cat with a serious case of pica
I work at a shelter and was approached by a cat owner who has a cat with a serious case of Pica. She owns two older cats, a 12 yo male and a 7 1/2 yo female -both are declawed. She then adopted a stray female kitten that was very playful and got along ok with her other two cats. After she was spayed and unfortunately also declawed, she began to notice her chewing behavior began.
It started with the curtain cords- she tucked those away then she moved on to shoes/couches/dressers, toys and just about any other item that she could.
Her vet felt there were no medical issues and it was just a lack of stimulation and suggested that she adopt another kitten. So she adopted another 8 month old kitten. They did and still do play together but the chewing behavior continued.
After discovering her chewing on the windowsills she confined both kittens to a room to reduce the damage to her apartment. She has tried all kinds of allowable chew toys, sprayed areas that were off limits with anti-chew spray (which did not work)- physically blocked off areas, increased her interactive play time with her, tried Feliway plug-ins, different types of food puzzles, kitty grass, outdoor bird feeders etc – you name it she has tried it.
She currently has her cat on Prozac at 5 mg and is working on clicker training – The Prozac has helped a little but the chewing continues. She is not particular when it comes to her chewing and her owner is worried she is going to swallow something that is going to harm her eventually. This concern alone makes it all the more difficult to enrich her environment and she’s fallen into a catch 22 situation.
Any thoughts on where she could go from here to change or stop this endless need to chew? – Karen
Depending on how long the cat has been on Prozac, she may not have been benefiting from the therapeutic effects yet (Prozac typically takes several weeks to “kick in”) – so she can check in with her vet about how much improvement she should be seeing by now.
Pica can be tricky, because in many cases, life-long management is necessary. There’s still a lot we don’t know about why some cats are prone to it (there is a genetic component in many cases), but the assumption is that increased stimulation and enrichment is helpful. The Indoor Pet Initiative, led by Dr. Tony Buffington, has good resources for making sure that cats have everything they need to be happy indoors. In cases of persistent pica like this one, I would recommend that she work with an experienced consultant or veterinary behaviorist who can do a home visit and assess the environment, looking for stressors that might not be so obvious (perhaps sounds or smells?).
I would also want more information on whether the kitten chews on food items in the owner’s presence, the owner’s absence, or both. That can tell us a little about her motivation – is it anxiety, is the chewing being reinforced by attention, etc. The clicker training is certainly a good approach to rewarding behaviors we like, not the ones we don’t like!
Recent research found a relationship between digestive upset and chewing on non-food items, so it’s possible that there is still an undiagnosed medical issue. We also know from a new study, that sadly, declawing is every bit as terrible as many of us feared, in regards to leading to long-term pain and behavior issues.
I have a screaming Tortie and Dr. Kris told me to ask you. We have had her for 4 years. She was a rescue that my brother adopted for my mom and we adopted her from Mom. She is a talker sometimes and can be really sweet but I am afraid we will be kicked out of our apartment. We live in a 1st floor 2 bedroom 2 bathroom and she has her run of the place. She is only not allowed in our 2 closets. She refuses to drink from her water bowl unless someone comes with her in hopes that we will turn the faucet on. She does not like me watching her drink but I tell her mommy is not leaving until you start drinking. She won’t play with her toys. We got her a pink scratching post where you need to find the ball and it has cute hanging bells and she would rather watch us play with it. She does love looking out the patio window watching the people walk by and the kids playing soccer on the tennis courts. But she is so needy and won’t play with her toys, only eats cat food, and wants to be with us 24-7. I won’t even apply for a helper dog for my MS because she will be so jealous if her mommy has another baby. We won’t even adopt another cat because we cannot afford 2 kitties. Her screaming is horrible. I don’t know whether that is a Tortie thing or not. She does love having both a mommy and a daddy. What do I do? I am about to pull out my hair. – Debbie Ramsey
In situations like yours, I always wonder how much WE are contributing to the cat’s behavior. I had a case where one of my cats was having difficulty using a food puzzle on her own. Guess who stepped in to help? ME. Guess who could use the food puzzle just fine when mommy went out of town? My cat who was having difficulty! Turns out I was just “enabling” her and she was perfectly willing to have me do all the work for her when I was around.
Reading your email, it seems like you are concerned about a few things:
1. excessive meowing
2. it sounds like she likes drinking out of the faucet
3. she won’t play with her toys
4. you would like to get another dog but think she would be jealous
I’ll do my best to address each of these things!
1. Cats who meow usually meow for one of a few reasons: something is wrong (I’m going to assume this is not the case) they are bored (possible, some cats get bored very easily!), or she has learned that meowing gets her attention from humans. See my previous column for advice on “screaming cats.” If you talk back when she talks to you, she may have learned that meowing is great fun!
2. For cats who like drinking out of faucets, a pet fountain can be great. You can also try a DIY project or a motion sensitive faucet that will turn any sink into a cat fountain.
3. If you are having difficulty getting your cat to play, it may be because of the toys, or because of how you are playing! The scratching posts with the hanging toys may be attractive to kittens, but that type of toy loses appeal for adult cats.I don’t know what other kinds of toys you have for your girl, but I recommend having a variety of interactive toys that resemble prey. Some of my favorites include the Cat Dancer, Da Bird, the Cat Catcher, and Neko Flies. These are all designed to mimic the movements of prey and I have found that most cats respond very well to these toys. Be sure to put them away when you aren’t supervising, as toys with string and wire are not safe to leave out with cats!
As to HOW to play, I recommend moving in ways that mimic the prey animals and that use what we know about cat hunting behavior. Cats are attracted to movement away from them (like a mouse trying to get away) and rustling sounds. Alter your movements, so that sometimes you move verrrrrrry slowly, then add in some quick bursts to see what she responds to best and when. Remember that cats are stalk and rush hunters, so sometimes they like the slow movements best (the ones that humans usually find boring!), and the actual pouncing part might be a very small part of your play sequence, depending on your cat’s activity level.
Don’t make the play too hard (let her touch the toy from time to time so she gets the tactile stimulation), or too easy (don’t poke, pet or otherwise put the toy right in your cat’s face – no mouse or bird would do that!). And be sure to rotate toys – a previous study showed that cats got bored of the same toy before they got bored of playing!
4. I would not assume your cat will be jealous of a new family member – for many “busy” kitties, more members of the family = more things to keep them stimulated! If you choose your new dog wisely, make sure he or she is well -trained, and do a slow introduction, there’s no reason you can’t expand your family! I’ve seen many households where cats and dogs get along fantastically.
I hope this helps!
I love this column, it is especially informative and very interesting. I like the lengthy ones, even more (hint, hint!) Thank you so much! – VagabondMoon,
Thank you so much for the kind words! I’ll do my best to keep my answers in-depth when I can!
No questions (for now!), but I just wanted to say how much I enjoy this advice. I volunteer with rescue cats and have learned tons! – Robert Wagers
Thanks Robert! Rescue cat volunteers are quality people 😉
*FTC Disclosure: The Conscious Cat is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to products on Amazon and affiliated sites. This means that if you decide to purchase through any of our links, we get a small commission. We only spread the word about products and services we’ve either used or would use ourselves.
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.
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