Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: November 1, 2022 by Crystal Uys

Ask-the-Cat-Behaviorist-Marci-Koski

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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 Marci?
Leave it in a comment, and she’ll answer it next month!

Cat acts like guard dog

My oldest tomcat will turn 12 years soon. At about 1 year of life he suffered a psychological trauma (because of jealousy someone wanted to kill him). Since then he acts like a guard pit bull: as soon as anyone (woman or man) enters my apartment, he attacks – he growls, hisses a bit, then attacks. If the new person is willing and strong-willed enough and makes 4-5-6 visits, he accepts the person and does not attack that much. But if the person stays overnight (as a friend did) he will step over the person then lick their face and that’s it, no more attacking. He is a doll with other cats. He is the alpha male so he will slap a new cat then lick the newcomer and that’s it… He might hiss, but I think this is normal. Would there be any solution to improve this behavior, also keeping in mind that he is not young anymore? – – Valeria

Hi Valeria – thanks for writing about your kitty. Human-directed aggression can be a complex issue, but based on your description, it sounds as if your cat may be attacking strangers who come to your home out of fear. After all, this new person has come into his territory, bringing in unfamiliar scents and sounds…if your cat is scared of people because of his past trauma, that could really invoke panic and cause your cat to lash out in a sort of “defensive aggressive” manner. Think “fight or flight”; most cats choose flight, but if your cat feels like there’s nowhere to go (even though there may physically be places to hide or which to flee), fight might be his only perceived option.

There are two things to consider. First, you want to keep your visitors safe from attacks; second, you want to help your cat be more comfortable when unfamiliar people arrive. Regarding the first issue – the safety of your guests – would it be possible to put your kitty in a bedroom (which would have food, water, litterbox, scratching post, bedding, and a favorite toy or two in it so that he actually enjoys being there) before your guests arrive? This is not a long-term solution, but I’ll get to that in a moment. It may help to bring out a favorite toy (or food puzzle with a delicious favorite treat) and put it in his room when visitors arrive (or before); in fact, these favorite items ONLY come out when visitors arrive. The best way to avoid confrontation is to take away the opportunity for it to happen, at least at first. I would also have some sort of barrier near the door (like a flattened cardboard box or the top of a plastic storage box) so that if someone comes over unexpectedly, it can be used as a stationary block to prevent an attack simply by placing it in front of your visitor.

The next thing to consider is reshaping his association with visitors so that they aren’t associated with fear, but good things instead. You’re already starting to do this when you put him in his room and give him a favorite toy or treat to enjoy only when guests arrive (or shortly before). It will take time to reshape his association because he’s spent 12 years living with fear of strangers, so change will not happen overnight! But what you will do is use counter-conditioning (pairing something good with something that he considers bad, or fear-invoking) and desensitization (gradually increasing his exposure to a trigger) to increase his tolerance to visitors and even enjoy their presence.

We start to do this by defining an exposure gradient. At first, your kitty may be confined to the bedroom with a favorite toy/treat. The next step might be to put a gate on the bedroom door so that he can hear (and potentially see) the visitor but still be inside his bedroom with good things. The next step might be to let him out of the bedroom but only out into the hallway where he can completely view the visitor through a barrier (while the guest ignores him by not looking directly at him and talking with you, and at the same time casually tossing him a favorite treat from a distance). The next step might be to have the visitor come closer to the barrier while tossing the treats, then interact with him through the barrier (treats), then remove the barrier, treat treat treat, etc. See where this is going? You may also need to desensitize him to the sounds of knocking on the door or the doorbell ringing using treats, petting, praise, or anything else your kitty enjoys.

This process will take time – perhaps weeks or even months. If you have a couple of friends who are willing to come over periodically and work with you so that visits happen more frequently, that would be beneficial! Good luck; I hope this helps.

Cat bites when overstimulated

My new kitty is a nipper. Sometimes they are over-stimulation bites, but usually not. And when they are, she does not give the common “tail-swish” cue. She just stops purring and suddenly nips. More commonly, she “attacks” to get my attention. She will walk up, eyeball my leg for a few seconds, then pounce, then jump back. Repeat ’til I get up to see what she wants. But sometimes instead of pouncing, she’ll just face-rub my leg. Sometimes she’ll get into bed with me, but instead of cuddling or settling in, she’ll stare at my hands and arms for a few seconds, then pounce, then jump back. In that mode, she gets progressively more forceful until I shove her away firmly. She sits a few feet away for several minutes, then returns with a better attitude. She has never come close to breaking the skin, but she will grab, hold, and tug. That smarts. I have never encouraged her to view my hands or arms as toys. I’ve had other cats that I *did* raise that way, and none became bitey. – – Norrin Radd

Hi Norrin – how old is your new kitty? It sounds like she wants to plaaaaaayyyy! She’s trying to get your attention in ways that will get you to engage with her; pouncing at a leg or arm then jumping back is kind of like “tag – you’re it!”. This is generally not an attack from anger – you’d see her body language change (ears back, tail swishing, etc.) and hear her hissing and growling before these attacks. If she’s doing this silently and bouncing back waiting for you to reciprocate, it’s mostly likely what we call play aggression.

Are you playing with her during the day? I highly recommend getting her on a play and feeding schedule where you are engaging her in a “hunting” play session with suitable prey (a wand toy with various prey-like lures on it) before her meals so that she gets into that natural “hunt-eat-groom-sleep” cycle. Use a long wand toy (like Da Bird, or the fishing rod wand from Dezi and Roo) to give her a prey item – anything that resembles a bird, rodent, bug, or reptile (including snakes!) will work great. Take her through the prey sequence – staring, stalking and chasing, pouncing and grabbing, and performing a kill bite – and after a 15-minute play session, give her a meal or a snack (to get the hunt-eat-groom-sleep cycle going). For younger kitties, I recommend at least 2-3 play sessions per day, at least 15 minutes each. Cats can become bored, so switching lures can help! And don’t forget – they will go back and forth in the prey sequence, including going back to staring. So if you think your cat is done after just a couple of minutes, think again! Give her a 30-second break, or change the lure, or spray it with catnip spray, etc.

The important thing is to have fun with your new kitty, and make sure she gets the opportunity to be the purrocious predator she naturally is. The more you are able to give her appropriate prey items to hunt, the less she will try to engage you as a potential prey item!

Helping an overweight cat keep her hindquarters clean

I have a cat who will be 8 yrs old she a little girl spayed but she put on some weight so when she uses the bathroom she doesn’t clean herself that good so she wipes herself on towels that I leave on the bed for her. Once a day or so I wash her behind and use some powder stuff that the vet gave me. My question do you know if they make powder so i can put on her behind after I wash her butt? – – Darlene

Hi Darlene – First of all, stick to the powder product that your vet gave you; many products made for humans are not appropriate for animals (and can potentially be toxic). Also, please talk with your veterinarian about how to help your kitty girl lose weight. Cats who are too overweight to groom themselves properly are often uncomfortable, or there could be some other medical reason she is not grooming herself. Your vet may talk with you about a diet, but play is also important. Please see my response to Norrin above about play – you may try having only a short play session with your girl once per day to start (depending on her initial activity level), then increase the play time as she becomes more accustomed to them. Finally, if your kitty has long fur, you may wish to periodically have a groomer give her a sanitary trim so that the fur on her hindquarters stays cleaner after she poops. I wish you and your kitty all the best!

Cat pees next to the litterbox

My cat is 7 years old and often pees on the floor next to the box, even when the box is first cleaned. How do I stop it? – – Dora Reed

Hi Dora – there are many reasons why your kitty may be urinating next to her litterbox, and cleanliness is only one aspect. But do continue cleaning her box out 1-2 times per day; that will help.

First, please do have your cat examined by a veterinarian to rule out any medical reasons why your cat may be avoiding the litterbox. If she has a bladder infection, crystals in her urine, or other urinary issue, she may be starting to associate urinating in the litterbox with pain (hence urinating outside of the box). While you’re waiting for the veterinarian to give you the all-clear (fingers crossed that your kitty is completely healthy), the next thing you’ll want to do is take a good look at your litterbox setup. Here are some common things I recommend for kitties to change their litterboxes from “cat-box porta-potty of gloom” to “can’t pass up using this wonderful bathroom”:

• Do you have enough litterboxes in the home? Even if you only have one cat, you should have at least 2 boxes; some kitties don’t like to pee and poop in the same box. The number of boxes you have should be the number of cats you have plus one.
• Remove hoods from litterboxes – they trap unpleasant scents and block your cat’s ability to see her surroundings, which may make her feel unsafe (see last point below).
• Use unscented clumping litter – cats have an incredible sense of smell, and those scented litters can make them feel like they are trapped in an elevator with someone who is wearing way too much cologne.
• Is your litterbox big enough? Most commercial litterboxes are too small. The box should be at least 1.5 times the length of your cat’s body. Use shallow storage containers (works for most cats) or a large high-sided utility tub with a U-shaped door cut out of the side if you have a “high-peeing” cat or one who scatters litter all over the place.
• Location, location, location! Put your cat’s box somewhere in his socially-significant area – NOT in a distant closet or bathroom or basement (some place your cat wouldn’t otherwise go). Yes, this means that you might have a litterbox in your living room. Try to avoid putting the box where there are potential ambush points (your cat is a predator, but also prey – they need to feel safe when in the box) and give your cat a view of her surroundings (avoid placing the box near blind corners they can’t see around, under shelves, etc.). Also, place boxes in different rooms – two boxes right next to each other is perceived as one box.

This should get you started – if you continue to have problems, you may need to work with a professional cat behavior consultant to help identify and mitigate stressors in the home or other reasons why your kitty is avoiding the litterbox. Good luck!

Cat is obsessed with wand toy string

My 8 year old male kitty is obsessed with any wand toy, but it’s not the toy itself that he wants, it is the string or wire that it is attached to that he wants. He grabs it in his mouth and chews. He won’t let go until he breaks it (takes maybe 60 seconds to chew through a braided cord). I have to physically remove the cord/wire from his mouth because he won’t let go of it. I’m concerned that he will damage his mouth with the wires, especially if he were to break one. I never leave the toys around; they are kept in a closet on a high shelf. He repeatedly goes to closet door and cries until I take out wand toy and play with him. He’s so fast that it’s a challenge not to let him “catch” it and then start chewing on the string/wire. He’s not very interested in any other type of toys. Any suggestions? – – JoAnne

Hi JoAnne – that is puzzling! We definitely want to make sure that he is safe, and that he doesn’t get injured by chewing on wire or swallowing cords, so it’s good that you keep them out of his reach when they are not in use. And, we still want him to have fun playing! You said that he’s not very interested in any other type of toy – if there is another type of toy that he enjoys, could you make it more attractive by spraying it with catnip spray or honeysuckle spray? Alternatively, can you make the “lure” part of the wand toy be more the focus of the toy by doing the same thing – marinating the lure in catnip or spritzing it with catnip/honeysuckle?

Also, what type of wand toys are you using? If they are the kind with a fleece or highly visible cord, maybe try something else. Thinner strings (such as the one on Da Bird) or even invisible line (like Dezi and Roo’s wand) may take the emphasis from the cord and refocus his attention on the lure. Further, the longer the wand and string, the faster it will move (it has a wider range of motion, too), and the harder it will be to actually catch the string part. I love wand toys because they are the only type of toy that can fulfill each step in the prey sequence (see my response to Norrin, above), so I don’t want to discourage their use. Try using lures that have string-like qualities so that he focuses on the lure instead of the wand’s string. There are “wiggly worm” lures that look like fuzzy snakes that you can clip on to a standard wand toy (again, such as Da Bird), and Dezi and Roo make a few lures that have stringy tendrils on them that are made with heavy paper or fibers. Check those out and see if your cat would like any of those.

And, if he REALLY loves string toys, there’s no harm in letting him play with them as long as you are supervising! The Cat Charmer (which is a long strip of rainbow fleece that comes off of a shorter plastic wand) could be really fun for him, even if he does chew it. As long as he’s not ingesting the fleece and enjoying himself, it’s ok to indulge him.

Readers, do you have additional ideas JoAnne might try? This sounds like a time for creative solutions! 😊

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