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

Ask-the-Cat-Behaviorist-Marci-Koski

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.

Cat seems suddenly frightened of his human

My Fluffy tuxedo suddenly seems frightened of me. Not all the time, but many times that you wouldn’t expect. He also seems frightened of other noises such as the neighbors starting their motorcycle outside, of course, and Fluffy is inside. Interesting that the planes flying over on final approach to the nearby airport do not frighten him. When I frighten him, he crouches down and moves away with his tail low. When noises frighten him he takes off and runs upstairs usually (and this creates a stampede as the others take off after him).

The only significant event that I can think of was the loss Stardust, his life-long friend of 13 years. Stardust was with us since Fluffy was a kitten. I also have a few others in my household, but there haven’t been any other changes.

Fluffy will still lay on my lap, and he still comes up to me, but there are times like when I’m inviting him into the bedroom that he cringes and runs away.

I don’t like that he is frightened and would like to change whatever behaviors I’m doing to cause it or change things so that he isn’t being frightened all the time. Hoping you can have an answer. – Nelda

Hi Nelda – I’m sorry that Fluffy seems to be more frightened of you lately – it’s always concerning when we see our kitties acting differently. I do have a few questions for you to think about. First, did his behavior change suddenly, with the fearful response to both you and certain noises happening at the same time? Or did the fearfulness towards you and noises start at different times? Did the fearfulness start shortly after you lost Stardust? Was Fluffy always somewhat skittish or fearful and it’s just gotten worse, or was he ever bold and outgoing? If his behavior changed suddenly and he seems different from how he used to be, it never hurts to get him checked over by a veterinarian to ensure that there’s not a medical reason for his change in behavior. Cats are good at hiding pain, but that can take a toll eventually and cause changes in behavior, so it’s best to be on the safe side.

Next, have you noticed any patterns or circumstances that seem to occur when he acts fearful towards you – e.g., something you are doing (a particular activity, or making a certain noise), specific time of day, location in the home, etc.? If possible, keep a journal and note each time this behavior happens, and what occurred just before (including when, where, etc.). This will help you identify potential triggers of his fearful behavior.

If you can identify a trigger, you can choose to either avoid the trigger altogether, or work on reducing Fluffy’s fear of the trigger with counter-conditioning and desensitization. Generally speaking, counter-conditioning involves creating a positive association with something that the cat doesn’t particularly like (most commonly done using treats that the cat loves) and desensitization involves gradually increasing the exposure of the trigger to the cat. So, you start with small levels of whatever Fluffy is afraid of, and give treats to Fluffy to help him learn to tolerate the trigger. You don’t have to use treats; if Fluffy isn’t food-motivated, you can also try brushing, petting, sweet-talk, or even a toy – whatever Fluffy enjoys can be used in counter-conditioning.

You can use counter-conditioning and desensitization to help reduce Fluffy’s fear of the motorcycle sounds coming from next door. Download a few sound effects that sound like the neighbor’s motorcycle from any number of mp3 websites. You might try starting out by playing the sounds at a low volume (i.e., from your phone) and giving Fluffy a treat (or whatever he enjoys – petting, etc.) when the sound plays and he doesn’t run away. Gradually increase the sound of the noise (through entertainment system or stereo speakers) in subsequent sessions, being aware of his fear level – you want him to be able to eat his treat; if he leaves the treat and runs away, the sound has gotten too loud too quickly. Always try to end sessions on a good note; if Fluffy is comfortable enough to eat a treat, that’s good, but try not to get to the point where he gets so agitated that he doesn’t eat the treat. You want to create a positive association, so ending on a good note is important!

If you can’t figure out exactly what is causing Fluffy’s fearfulness of you, you can still work with him to reduce his fear. First, you’ll want to identify something that you can use as a reward for any “brave” behavior that Fluffy exhibits. If he likes treats, you could shake the treat bag when you invite him to the bedroom and reward him with a treat or two. If his desire for treats outweighs his fear, you’ve found a good way to use positive reinforcement to reward brave behavior! Use positive reinforcement when he sits with you, comes when called, approaches you, and other times he takes the initiative to interact with you.

Finally, if Fluffy seems to lack confidence in general, try stepping up the number of play sessions he gets. I recommend two play sessions every day using an interactive wand toy (Da Bird is my favorite). Giving a cat the opportunity to act like the fearsome predator he is will increase his confidence and help him not feel so susceptible to being considered prey (motorcycles sound like the roar of a bigger, predatory cat that could eat a smaller cat, don’t you think?).

I hope this helps – it will take time and patience to ease fear, but if you work consistently to determine what is causing Fluffy’s fear and then use counter-conditioning and desensitization to improve Fluffy’s tolerance of the trigger, you’ll be in good shape.

Cat afraid of partner

Hello and thanks for the excellent advice I have read so far. My 11-year-old tortie female, Bella, was adopted from a shelter with her brother two years ago. Both cats settled really well, affectionate with me and my partner. She had serious health problems last year, suspected liver disease, lots of tests, but got better spontaneously and now healthy and lively again. A few weeks ago when she was running round the house during a play session she rushed round a corner and bumped into my partner. She ran into the garden and he went after her to soothe and reassure her. She ran away to hide. No physical damage was done but since that time she cannot be in the same space as him, runs off immediately she sees him. She has taken to living in one room, my bedroom/study, coming out only to use her litter tray which is in another room upstairs. She is eating well, plays with me and is her usual affectionate self, but has such a restricted life. She used to enjoy the garden and the whole house. Any ideas for how to get her to come out of her chosen safe space and see my partner as a friendly person again please. Thanks – – Jenny Garber

Hi Jenny – oh, poor Bella! It sounds like the scare she got from your partner was really upsetting to her. And unfortunately, it likely wasn’t just the initial surprise she got when she came around the corner, but your partner going after Bella to soothe and reassure her was probably interpreted completely differently by her! When cats are upset or frightened, it’s best to leave them alone – it can be even more scary for the thing that scared them to further approach. It’s what a predator would do, and remember that smaller cats evolved as prey in the wild!

I’m glad that Bella is eating well, using the litterbox, playing, and is being affectionate with you. But I agree that it’s not good for her to be restricted to one room, even if it’s self-imposed. I’d recommend trying to get her comfortable in one room of your home at a time. She’s happy in the bedroom/study, so pick another room that’s easy for her to get to and concentrate your efforts there. Let’s suppose that’s the living room. Do you have any vertical spaces set up for her? Cats feel safer when they have tall perching locations from which to view their territory, so a cat tree and well-placed cat shelves (or any place a cat can jump to) can offer your kitty some refuge locations. Also consider adding a few “intentional” hiding spots, such as a cat cave or cubby, or a tunnel toy – being “invisible” can also help cats feel more confident in new places. Can you coax Bella out of her room and into the living room (or hallway to start) with a wand toy during a play session? Or maybe lure her into the new space with some treats? Use positive reinforcement to encourage her bravery – even if it’s only coming two feet into the hallway, that’s cause for a reward!

After Bella has gained some confidence in her new area, then you’ll want to use counter-conditioning and desensitization to “reintroduce” her to your partner (see my response to Nelda, above). At first, you might have Bella sit with you on the living room couch, and have your partner just make some noise from the other room, then give Bella a treat (or whatever will serve as a reward). Then, he can peek around the corner…reward. Next step, he comes into the living room, just a step…reward. Then he comes closer…reward. Then he tosses Bella some treats from a distance, then he comes closer with more treats…you see the direction this is going, yes? This is an exposure gradient, and it will take several sessions to work through, depending on how sensitive Bella is. You may have to go very slowly, but that’s ok! Always try to end on a good note, with Bella enjoying whatever reward you’re using.

Finally, try adding some ways that Bella can scent-mark other parts of the home. This includes scratching surfaces and bedding, so make sure that there are plenty of those items in whatever room you’re trying to help Bella acclimate to. Feliway spray may also help those areas of the home feel more familiar too. Best of luck to you and your partner – Bella is lucky to have such caring people in her life!

Cat avoids carpet

I have a tortie named Chloe whose story I shared here about 2-3 years ago. Recently, Chloe has developed a behavior I can’t make sense of and hope maybe you can.

Recently Chloe was introduced to a part of cat life she’d never known before having lived all her life in Colorado at 6200′. Now that we are in KY, she became a favorite home for fleas, and she didn’t like it. The fleas are pretty much gone, but remaining is a very strange behavior I don’t understand. Chloe absolutely hates to be on the carpet. She was never like this before. She walks around on the kitchen linoleum fine, but she despises the carpet. She will run across it as quickly as possible and immediate leap onto the closest furniture she can get to. I began noticing this, so one day I picked her up from the bed and placed her back on the floor. Immediately she was back on the bed.

I’ve never seen a cat do this before and although she’s not hurting anything with her behavior, I still think it’s weird and wonder what has caused it. If you have some suggestions to offer me, I would love to hear them. Thank you. – Karen Gage

Hi Karen – Thanks for writing in about Chloe! When exactly did you notice her starting to avoid the carpet? Was it just after you moved to Kentucky, or was it after the flea episode? Also, what kind of carpet is it? Does she hate ALL types of carpet, or is it just one kind? Will she also avoid area rugs? Does this happen throughout your home, or only in certain rooms?

There are a number of potential things that Chloe may not like about the carpet. My first thought is that perhaps she got a claw snagged on the carpet at some point and that when she was finally able to remove it there was some pain associated with the carpet. If you were not around to witness this incident (and help her out), her behavior might have appeared to come out of nowhere since you were unaware of what happened. Alternatively, there might be something else about the carpet that she doesn’t like, perhaps the smell. Is the carpet new, or were there other animals that could have left a smell after they moved away? Or, did you use a flea treatment on the carpet that left a lingering odor? Alternatively, if the carpet (or carpet treatment) has a yucky residue that is getting on Chloe’s feet that also smells like the carpet, Chloe may be trying to avoid the carpet so that she doesn’t taste it when she cleans her paws.

Finally, could it be possible that it’s not the carpet that she dislikes, it’s perhaps being vulnerable in certain locations in your home? I don’t know if you have other cats or pets in the home, but consider that being on the floor in the middle of a room may make her feel vulnerable. For example, if she was once ambushed by another cat who came out from under the bed (either in play or to attack) Chloe may not want to make herself susceptible to potential predators by being on the floor. So, in this case, it might not have anything to do with the carpet, but about her spatial vulnerability and potential ambush locations.

As long as her dislike of your carpet isn’t negatively impacting her life (or yours), I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I would just make sure that the carpet is clean and free of odors and residue, and that her nails are trimmed so that they can’t get stuck in the carpet fibers. If you want to try to encourage her to venture on to the carpet more frequently, try luring her with treats on the carpet (or better yet, in a food puzzle on the carpet), or by using an interactive wand toy during play sessions. Coax her onto the carpet with her favorite prey lure and reward her with a play session and a treat!

Cat hides 100%  of the time

Dear Marci, I have an inside feral cat who is loving to me and some other cats; however, she hides, 100% of the time. First, it was behind the refrigerator, and would not come out to use the litter box. I blocked that off. Now, she is underneath a bedroom dresser, but will come out to use the litter box so long as it is near her for quick access. Question: how can I gradually ease Sindia (“Cindy”) out of hiding? I also purchased a large crate that I put in the family room area and that was ok, except she got out, and found a new place to hide, which is under the dresser. I can hold her, she’s affectionate and loves other cats. But skittish. She also has a very bad itchy skin problem for which I am treating her now by testing special food diet. Any thoughts/suggestions are appreciated. – Yvonne

Hi Yvonne – Thanks for writing about Sindia. It sounds like she could use some confidence-building to have a more enriched life beyond spending her days under the dresser! I’m happy that she is affectionate with you and enjoys other cats. Will she come out from under the dresser for you? I would work on figuring out what draws her out from under her hiding spaces. If she is slow to approach, spend some time in her room simply reading aloud. This will help her learn more about you, and give her plenty of time to observe you NOT trying to interact with her. You can also bring treats with you, or food, and set it down on the floor next to you when you read. Help her learn to associate you with good things, including food.

Next, does she play? It sounds like Sindia is currently in “prey mode” – fearful, hiding, meeting basic survival needs. We want to try to teach Sindia to be in “predator mode” – confident, relaxed, and owning her space. One of the best ways to teach Sindia to be a predator and to build confidence is through play! Interactive wand toys can be a lot of fun, but they can be scary at first. You might start with just a long string – drag it in front of her hiding spots to see if you can elicit a paw to come out and make a grab for the string (always put it away when not using it though, just to be safe). You can also try using a long peacock feather, and even spritz catnip spray on it! Once she gets used to interacting with those types of toys, use a wand toy with feathers, a mouse, or wiggly worm lure on it. See if you can coax her out from under the dresser, and play in her room with her. Reward any progress with sweet-talk, petting (if she’ll let you), praise, and treats!

Next, give Sindia opportunities to feel safe in her environment by providing vertical space (cat trees and shelves for perching) and intentional hiding spaces. You might try draping a blanket or a towel over the large kennel you have so that it’s a nice cave for her to hang out in. The more places Sindia has from which to safely observe her environment, the more confident she will be. You can use toys, catnip, and treats to coax her to using these new places, but also always remember to give her choices. It’s good that you’ve blocked off certain places, like behind the refrigerator, but always make sure that she has a choice of where she can go to feel safe. So, you’ll never want to lock her in the kennel without the ability to get out on her own. If you block off the dresser, make sure you put a box, bag (without handles), or a cat cave or tunnel in the same area that she can retreat to. When a cat doesn’t have any control over her choices, that can cause stress and depression; a cat who can make choices has more control over her environment, and grows her confidence. So try to engage her in coming out to you with rewards, play, and new safe spaces (high and low) to explore. Positive reinforcement for her bravery will help her take new steps!

And yes, figuring out what’s going on with her dry, itchy skin is important as well. I know that if I were itchy all the time I would probably want to hide, be still, and not want to interact much with anyone! Once she’s feeling better, that may go a long way towards wanting to venture out. If you have a veterinary allergist in your area, they might be worth checking out. Best of luck to you and Sindia!

Do you have a question for Marci?
Leave it in a comment, and she’ll answer it next month!

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