Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: July 3, 2023 by Crystal Uys
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!
Aggression after vet visit
I have 4 cats; 3 female (2 are litter mates, 3 years old, and the other is about 9) and one male cat, Sandy, who is 8. Sandy has always been the “man of the house”, the dominant one out of all of them. 3 weeks ago, I took Sandy to the vet to get groomed (he tends to get nasty so the vet’s office can handle him better). He has a lot of Maine coon in him so his hair was extremely long and he received a lion cut so granted, he did look a lot different. So when I got home with him, I let him out of the crate and of course everyone was hissing at him…I was not surprised because he smelled like the vet (which they all HATE) and he looked different so perhaps they did not recognize him. I decided to separate everyone; putting the females in a separate area and keeping Sandy separate overnight to give him time to clean himself etc. The next day, I reunited everyone and there was still a bit of hissing going on but not bad…they were smelling each other and getting reacquainted so it seemed like everything was ok although Callie who is normally very docile and scared of her own shadow was very upset by him. I went outside for about an hour and when I came in to my horror, I found Sandy laying in his bed bleeding from several places…bad…blood soaked his bed etc. and Callie was blown up like a balloon looking like devil cat, I swear! She had become EXTREMELY aggressive toward him and still is 3 weeks later. I kept them separate for many days, trying little at a time with supervision to have them together but Callie would always stalk him and now he is so paranoid around the house that it breaks my heart. All of his old habits have changed and he doesn’t even act like the same cat these days…he used to strut around like the big man on campus but now he is always cowering or sitting up high so he can see Callie coming. The really confusing part is that Callie was the most docile cat before all of this and it surprises me how terrible she is toward him. I can understand a few days of this after coming from the vet but at 3 weeks now I’m very concerned. I would really appreciate any advice that you may have. Thanks so much! – Karen Morgan
Oh, I’m so sorry that you’re having to manage these two kitties who used to get along well together. This is not altogether an uncommon occurrence – cat goes to vet, comes back smelling weird, cats at home act like they’ve never met him before. This is “feline non-recognition,” and it happens just as you described. Cats rely heavily on scent to tell who is friend from foe (this might be as much, or more, important than visual recognition) and if someone comes into their territory smelling foreign, it’s bad news for the “newcomer”.
At this point, keeping the two cats separate and working on a SLOW reintroduction is necessary. The altercation that Callie had with Sandy served to create a negative association between cats. While we are unable to determine how the fight started, I can tell you that Callie was (and continues) to probably act out of fear and territorial insecurity – NOT a desire to just kick Sandy’s butt. After all, to her, a new cat came in and is now competing for her resources! She must defend what is hers. And Sandy, who used to be confident, is now like “what the heck is going on?” He’s now fearful of Callie and also facing some territorial insecurity.
The first thing I want you to work on is rebuilding a “group scent”. When kitties live together there’s usually one cat who serves as an “allogroomer”, and she goes around and grooms all of the other kitties so that they all start to smell the same. You are going to have to be the allogroomer for your kitties, so take a soft-bristled brush (one that will be good at absorbing scent, not one that will simply remove fur) and brush each cat on their cheeks and forehead. Sticking to the head will grab those friendly facial pheromones. This should be a pleasurable experience, and you don’t want to force the brushing, since that will create a negative association with scent. Try giving the kitties treats while you brush each individually, or petting them or scratching their cheeks/neck while brushing. If the cat doesn’t want to be brushed, leave it behind with some treats to create that positive association and try again later. You’ll then have a brush with everyone’s scent on it – keep brushing the kitties with it so that everyone shares a common scent.
You should be swapping Callie and Sandy around to different rooms so that they can get exercise, social interactions with humans and the other cats (provided that they get along with each other), and enrichment in other parts of the home. You’ll want to continue with a slow introduction, using a covered baby gate to use as a barrier between the cats while feeding them on opposite sides of the gate during mealtimes. You’ll gradually increase visual exposure by pulling back the blanket covering the gate while they’re eating – as long as they’re eating and not growling or hissing, that’s great! Try to end these sessions on a good note, and short but sweet is just fine. Once the kitties can eat in full view of each other without any hesitation or negative response, you’ll want to have supervised interactions sessions in another room. Have the cats in opposite corners, and distract each of them with toys, food puzzles, etc. – whatever it takes to keep the cats distracted from each other while they’re having a good time. These sessions should also end on a good note – keep them short at first, then longer. The cats will see each other, and eventually be allowed to sniff each other, but do separate them at the first sign that someone is uncomfortable or becoming aggressive. Keep a sight blocker (flattened cardboard box or the lid of a storage bin) handy so that you can put it between the cats if there is any direct staring or (hopefully not) an altercation.
For more about the slow introduction process, please read this article about Cat-to-Cat Introductions by Jackson Galaxy via The Conscious Cat.
Cat pees on the bed
Hi, I have a two year old male who has been neutered. He has been peeing in my bed with me in it. I just took him to the vet and he does not have any medical problems. I am not home very much since I have three jobs, but I try to love on him and his sister as much as I can when I am home. I want my cats to sleep with me. Please help me. – Shelly Brooks
Hi Shelly –
If it’s one thing that can come damage the relationship between a cat and his person, it’s peeing on the bed. And actually, that’s exactly the opposite of what cats are trying to do with this behavior! When cats urinate on bedding, it’s a strong message. Your bed is acutely associated with your scent, and it’s thought that when cats urinate on bedding they are trying to inter-mingle scents in an effort to self-soothe. Please rest assured knowing that your kitty is not doing this out of revenge or spite or to be a jerk – cats just don’t think this way! Your cat is likely trying to tell you that 1) something is wrong and he doesn’t feel well, 2) he’s stressed or anxious about something, or 3) he’s stressed or anxious about the relationship he has with you.
None of those are great, but they can be resolved, and here’s what you can do. First, please get your cat checked out by a vet to make sure he doesn’t have any kind of urinary or bladder issue that is causing him pain or discomfort. It’s always best to be able to rule out medical issues! Second, you can reduce stress and bond with your kitty, which will address items 2 and 3 above. The best way to do this is through interactive play! I know that you’re very busy with three jobs, but please try to make time for this. Because your cat (cats, if both are the same age) is only two, he NEEDS physical exercise and an opportunity to express his feline instincts. And this means hunting! Even though you “love on” the kitties as much as possible when home, there is no substitute for play sessions. Please purchase an interactive wand toy such as Da Bird or Dezi and Roo’s fishing pole wand toy and some various lures to attach to it and simulate a pretend hunt. Take your kitty through the prey sequence: staring, stalking and chasing, pouncing and grabbing, and then performing a kill bite. He will go back and forth between these stages, and if you think he’s done after a couple of minutes, think again! He’s just gone back to the staring phase – give him a 30 second rest or change the lure. Lures that are most effective resemble prey items: birds, rodents (Da Rat is awesome), snakes/lizards, and bugs. Give him at least one 15-20 minute play session per day (two if you can fit them in), and try to do individual play sessions so that one cat doesn’t always plays while the other watches (this will also reduce competition for the toy and avoid confrontational behavior). You will see positive changes in your cat soon!
Be sure to also provide enrichment activities for your cats while you’re gone. This can include providing food puzzles so that they can forage, battery-operated toys that turn off automatically, or perhaps a catio that can allow them to safely experience the sights, sounds, scents, and smells of the outdoors safely. The book Beyond Squeaky Toys has some great ideas for both cat and dog enrichment activities, so take a look at that. Have a good time playing with your kitties, as this should be fun for everyone!
“Love” Bites that hurt
I have a 7yr old male cat I’ve had since he was 6 mos old, he’s always liked to lick my hair and also do “love bites” I can’t seem to detour him (he seems bewildered I don’t like this) I’ll hold my hand up for him to lick or block him, he’s not being mean but has hurt me and I can’t trust him around my face, HOW in the world do I stop this behavior???? Thank You – Julie
Ahhh, love bites! On one side we are tickled pink that our kitties love us so much that they just can’t stop themselves, but on the other side, OUCH! And we certainly don’t want to get bitten to the point of blood being drawn, especially on the face (well, anywhere, really.) Cat bites that draw blood are easily infected, so any time you get bit, definitely keep an eye on it – if the redness doesn’t disappear quickly (or grows in area) see a doctor right away. Love bites should be more gentle though, and they don’t generally break the skin, so I’m wondering if he’s got some petting sensitivity (or some other form of aggression) instead?
First things first, though. When you hold your hand up for him to lick or to block him, you may be unintentionally reinforcing the licking/biting behavior by actually offering up a piece of you to use. If you allow him to lick (or nibble) your hand, you’re teaching him that licking/nibbling behavior is ok. In this respect, it’s probably good to eliminate the gray area – you might want to teach him that there are no times or places on your body where licking/nibbling is ok, especially if you can’t trust him to be gentle. How do you do this? It can take a little bit of time, but you’re going to want to 1) find something that you can redirect him to when he starts trying to lick you, and 2) reward him for that behavior. Ask yourself when and where he usually tries to lick/nibble you – if you’re on the couch watching TV, it might be more appropriate for you to redirect him by tossing a small toy to another part of the couch or the room, engaging him with play using a wand toy, or by giving him a snack in a food puzzle (if it’s a quiet, calm activity that he prefers). Those are generally self-rewarding activities, but you can also try moving him to another position and petting him, and then give him a small treat reward if he stops trying to lick or nibble. Alternatively, if it’s bedtime and he tries to snuggle and lick you while you’re going to sleep, try putting a small pillow between your face and your cat (this will serve as a block), and then giving him a small treat to lure him to a different position (which will also be its own reward). Rewards don’t always have to be treats, either – you can use petting, sweet-talk, play…anything your cat enjoys! And, if he does sneak in some licking or nibbling, do your best to pull yourself away from that behavior and ignore it (while offering an alternative activity) – when mama cat gets annoyed with kittens treating her too roughly, mama cat walks away and the kittens learn that the behavior gets them no attention so they eventually stop the behavior. Be like mama cat.
Let’s talk about love nips and biting for a quick sec. As I said before, love nips shouldn’t be rough enough to break the skin, but even love nips can be dangerous if your cat is nipping you in the wrong place. If his bites are causing injury, determine when these are happening – is it when you’re petting him, just sitting there not doing anything, or is he pacing around and trying to get your attention? Watch his body language closely – if you are petting him and then he turns around and bites, you may be missing his more subtle cues telling you that he’s had enough. Ears turning back, cessation of purring, body weight shifting away from you, tail-twitching, and looking back at your hand are indications that maybe you should stop petting. And that’s fine – many cats prefer short strokes when petting (not a full body swoop) for limited duration. Just pay attention – stop your activity or redirect, depending on what your kitty doing. Being proactive is the way to go when behaviors have the potential to turn negative!
Cat bites cheek
Dear Dr. Marci:
Our Ami is an adorable almost-six-year-old furry ball of wonder who is quite the character, but each morning when I greet him with hugs, he will reach for my face with his paw (cute, right?), give my cheek a sweet little lick (kiss) and then, will try to nip at my cheek. Once, he actually bit me and drew blood. Is this a sign of affection or aggression? I love him to death, but I can’t allow him to bite. What should I do? – Sharon
Awww – it sounds like you and Ami have a sweet relationship! Morning rituals can be something both cats and humans enjoy. But we definitely don’t want these rituals to become dangerous for either party!
First see my response above to Julie about her cat who licks and gives her love-bites. This may help your situation, but I also have another thought that you might want to consider.
Because I can’t *see* what your cat is doing (along with his body language), I can’t determine whether his behavior is affection or aggression. Reaching for your face with a paw and licking sounds cute and may be affection, but it could also be a sign that maybe Ami is not as into the morning ritual as you are. The sequence of actions you described could be read a couple of different ways, so hear me out. Many cats do not like to be hugged (and some do; Ami may be one of them) – being held firmly and close to a human without a choice to get away can cause fear or irritation. The paw up to your face may be his first effort to say “hey, now – let’s just take it easy, ok?” (i.e., talk to the paw!) and then, if that is ignored, the lick to the cheek may be saying “so, this makes me kind of nervous and I just wanted to let you know that” (lip-licking and yawning can be a sign of stress). It may also be a reminder to you that his teeth are right there, and that if the hug continues, he may use them. And finally, if his messages aren’t getting through, he may use his teeth as a last resort, resulting in a nip.
That being said, I want you to re-evaluate how Ami might be experiencing the morning ritual. I love the idea of a morning ritual, so maybe you could change it so that you are both happy and safe. What about, instead of picking him up to hug him, approaching him and giving him some head pets (focusing on the cheeks, forehead, and chin), then giving him a favorite treat? If you’re sitting down, see if he wants to come sit on your lap, or lay down next to you. I hope that you can find a way to enjoy a morning routine that starts the day on the right paw for both of you!
Neutered male cat is mounting female companion
I have asked this question a couple of times but, have not received an answer. First time more than a year ago. Unless it takes that long. My male, 5 year old KACEY, is constantly licking my 7 year old female KIERAN. He also jumps on her and bites the back of her neck! She squeals, I yell, he jumps off. I recently bought a CALMING COLLAR for him but, hasn’t made a huge difference. They are SPAYED and NEUTERED. Is this normal ‘female – male’ behavior? What can I do to make him stop?!? Please help! Thank you! =^..^= – Elisha Abrellb
Thanks for describing the actions of Kacey towards Kieran. First off, do the cats get along well together, other than when Kacey goes after Kieran? Licking generally means that there’s a friendly relationship, although since he does it constantly, I’m wondering if there’s a bit of stress or anxiety by Kacey that he self-soothes by licking Kieran. Usually over-grooming is done to one’s self in the presence of stress or anxiety. Are there bald spots on Kieran, and can Kacey be directed away from Kieran with a toy or treat? If the licking isn’t causing a problem or impacting the quality of life for either cat, you might just want to keep an eye on it and try to redirect when you notice excessive licking by Kacey.
There are a couple of reasons why Kacey may be attacking Kieran that you might want to investigate. First, inter-cat aggression may be caused by a health status change in either cat; not feeling well can cause grumpiness (on the part of Kacey), or result in a different smell (on the part of Kieran). So, a vet check-up is always a good idea. However, based on your description of the attack (i.e., biting the back of her neck), I’d guess that there’s some sexual aggression occurring. This is another thing to talk with your vet about. Even though Kacey has been neutered, you might want his testosterone levels checked – sometimes a testicle wasn’t found (e.g., it hadn’t descended at the time of surgery) or some tissue may have been missed, which continued to produce testosterone. Alternatively, sometimes male cats are “super-masculinized” in a process that happens in utero whereby testosterone can work to activate certain regions of the fetus’ brain, which then result in male-typical behaviors in the adult (even in cats that have been neutered).
In either of these cases (incomplete neutering or super-masculinization), talk with your vet. You can get Kacey’s testosterone level checked to see if the neutering was complete, and if so, you may want to ask your vet about the male pheromone, adrostenone. There is some evidence that applying this pheromone to a female cat’s rump will make her smell more like a male cat, thus causing Kacey to have a response something like, “oh, pardon me sir, I didn’t realize that you weren’t female, as I had previously assumed. I’ll be on my way.” Your vet will be able to provide you with more information about the pheromone, and whether it might be an appropriate remedy to try.
Otherwise, please try to distract and redirect Kacey when you see that he’s about to go after Kieran. Offer up a play session with a wand toy so that he can relieve any stress or pent-up energy that needs to be released, or give him some treats in a food puzzle. The sooner you can redirect him to a fun, stress-relieving activity, the better!
Giving equal attention to two cats, and helping outside stray cats
Good morning, Dr. Marci Koski, I have 2 problems. The first one is my own 2 kids. My 8 yr old Ms. Mida, I want to try to play with her without Sir Tiger who is 3 yrs old for when I am playing with Ms. Mida he comes and wants the attention. I give both the most attention that I can give them. Sir Tiger loves to play but when I am playing with both at the same time I think Tiger doesn’t like it.
My second problem is that I have 2 strays that I feed. I had someone make me 2 shelters for the winter they made it with 2 open sides for one in the other for them to go out if they need to be. I had plenty of hay in them to keep them warm but they wouldn’t go in it I took the hay out recently and they still wont go in them is there something I am overlooking. Thank you. – Darlene
Thanks for writing about your cats, and the stray cats you care for. I hope I can give you a couple of ideas!
First, it can be very good to separate cats during play times since one cat will inevitably get the short end of the stick, so to speak. One cat will dominate the play session and the other will hang back, or trying to share one toy can even cause a scuffle over resource competition. Can you put Sir Tiger in another room while you play with Ms. Mida? Try giving Sir Tiger a good play session first (since he’s younger and more assertive with the toys), then give him a meal or a favorite snack in another room (close the door once he’s eating). This will help him settle into the hunt-eat-groom-sleep cycle and then you can play with Ms. Mida while Sir Tiger is occupied with food in the other room. Alternatively, you can give him a battery-operated toy to play with in the other room, or a food puzzle to keep him occupied – have him associate being alone in the other room with something good, so that he learns that fun things happen when he’s in there with the door closed. Give it a try!
Second, it’s great that you’re caring for the strays that have come to rely on you for food. It’s good that the shelters have both an entrance and exit in case the cats need to escape from a predator. Make sure that the entrance/exit is no more than 6-8 inches wide so that the predators stay out! Also, you’ll want to use STRAW instead of hay in the shelter – hay gets moldy, but straw will withstand the elements and stay dry. Placement of the shelter is probably the most important thing, though. You’ll want to make sure that it is not in an exposed location (like the middle of your yard) – instead, tuck in next to something where it can be more protected from the elements, and go un-noticed by predators or other cats. Use neutral colors, and keep it up off the ground by a few inches (you can put bricks or wood underneath the shelter). If you want to get some more pointers, check out The Conscious Cat’s article Winter Weather Tips to Help Community Cats.
Poorly socialized kitten bites
Hi – I have a 6 month old kitten called Lucky and would like some advice. Previously I had Felix for 18 years and he was very loving. Lucky however is quite aggressive. He came from a farm and I was told he was 8 weeks old, but my vet thinks he was 6 weeks or less. It was obvious from the beginning that he had never been handled and was initially terrified of people. He is much better now and no longer afraid of us. The problem is that he keeps biting, some of it quite savage. He does not purr, will not sit on our knees and we cannot stroke him as his little paw comes up ready to swipe at us. I had him neutered, but this has made no difference and I plugged in a Feliway, which has made him a bit more relaxed, and enabled us to get an old stroke in until the biting starts. I have been giving him treats out of my hand to try and have more contact and in his way I think he is happy, we have loads of toys and a cat tree and he plays all day. So what I would like to ask is how can we make him more loving and approachable. – Sally Collingwood
Hi Sally – this is a great question! It sounds like you’ve done a lot of good things – getting him neutered, using treats to build positive associations with you, and providing him with a lot of toys and opportunities to play. That is great – the fact that he’s no longer afraid of you is a huge accomplishment, so be proud at how far you have all come.
But you do have some challenges. Based on Lucky’s history, it seems like he may have missed out on being handled by humans during his critical socialization period, which happens between the ages of 2 and 7 weeks old. So it’s understandable that he was fearful and still doesn’t fully trust people. However, he is still fairly young and with patience and persistence, it is likely that he will make progress with his level of trust and allow you to pet him and interact more easily. Also, he is still a kitten, and kittens are often rambunctious and difficult to slow down when they are awake! Cats frequently mellow with age 😊
While Lucky’s basic personality is not likely to change much, there are things that he can still learn, as I mentioned above. He may never be a cuddly cat who enjoys being picked up and snuggled (for example). I have four cats and NONE of them like to be held, and only two of them will come and sit on my lap for petting. It is up to us to accept our cats as they are – each is different (just like people) and we have to respect their limits. Giving them choices and respecting those choices will help them build trust with us, and as the relationship develops, you’ll learn how each cat expresses their love for you (sometimes in subtle ways).
Here’s what you can work on now. Keep playing with him, but use a long wand toy (my favorite is Da Bird) – that will keep him active and away from your hands. The more you can distance yourself physically during play time, the less likely he will be to bite you when he wants play. When it comes to petting, take advantage of those sleepy times after meals (wear him out with a play session – the hunt – then give him is meal, then wait for him to groom, then get sleepy). If he is near you, let him sniff your hand, then give him a treat and let him make the next move. If he is really nervous about being petted, you can always use a long soft paintbrush to stroke his forehead and cheeks (most cats enjoy these areas being touched, so concentrate on those areas first) and give him treats as rewards. Don’t try to touch him when he’s actually sleeping because that might startle him and will result in fun for no one! Present him with toys and treats that you know he enjoys, and let him come to you for interactions. Less is sometimes more with shy and fearful kitties, so even if you are only able to pet him once or twice (keep strokes short and again, concentrate on the head) before the session ends, that will be progress. Try to always end on a good note – short and sweet builds positive associations and trust!
I’m happy that Lucky has patient and loving guardians – give him time and he will make progress.
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.