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

Friendly female cat being ignored or hissed at by other cats

I have a female cat that is very mellow and friendly towards people as well as other cats. The problem is that the other two cats either ignore her (male) or the senior female will swat and/or hiss at her. It appears the senior female is jealous because when she comes to bed with me, she will then start swatting or hissing if the other female is on the bed. She will also have this behavior if the younger female is by me at other times. This behavior disturbs me and I cannot figure out why the younger cat is treated in this manner. – Rozanne Malaise

Hi Rozanne,

Thanks for writing in about your kitties. It’s difficult when cats don’t always get along, isn’t it? Fortunately, there are some things that you can do to smooth over relationships. I’m not worried about the relationship that your younger female has with the male cat, since seemingly neutral interactions (where one cat ignores the other) indicate a pretty good relationship (at least in my book) – no one is threatened or intimidated, and each cat is secure in their space with each other. Yay for peaceful coexistence! On the other hand, your senior female is exhibiting signs of insecurity – YOU are perceived as the resource that is being competed over, and your senior girl is not about to give that up to some young upstart. I’m curious – do the two females have peaceful interactions in your home at all, or do they avoid each other except when they are both around you?

I’d love for you to work on helping your senior female feel a bit more secure, and also improve the association she has with the younger female. First, make sure that there are plenty of key resources around the home, spread out as much as possible so that resource competition isn’t a factor. Make sure that the two girls are fed on opposite sides of the room (or even different rooms), and that they each have access to separate litter boxes in their own socially significant areas of the home. Napping spots, toys, perches, access to water, etc. are all resources that should be plentiful!

Next, let’s work on forming positive associations between the two girls. Is your senior female at all food-motivated? If so, great! If not, try to find a food item that she will eat – try plain cooked chicken breast, goat cheese (it’s a bit more digestible than cow’s milk products), the juice from a tuna can, a bit of shrimp, etc. Then, I encourage you to work with your cats so that they are in the same area as you. If you have something that can keep your younger cat occupied (or if she’s napping), sit near her and call your senior cat over. When she comes over, reward her with a high-value treat. You may have to start quite a distance from your younger kitty, or have her behind a gate. But that’s ok! We’re basically using counter-conditioning (pairing something “good” with something perceived as “not so good”) to reform the association your senior cat has to the younger girl. Work on bringing the two kitties closer to each other and reward the senior (or both!) for good, calm behavior. Eventually, I’d like you to be able to sit on the couch with each cat on either side of you, periodically getting treats for being nice to each other.

Good luck – I hope this helps!

Female cat is peeing around the house

I have four cats and the youngest is a two year old spayed female. The problem is that she is constantly marking various places around the house. How can I correct this behavior. I’m tired of cleaning. She is by far the most active of the four cats, constantly exploring and running around. Even with all that energy, she does not like playing with feather teasers and toys, so wearing her out is impossible. – Rolfe Smith

Hi Rolfe,

ok, let me just start by saying that cat urine is the WORST. So, I completely understand your frustration – it’s hard to remove from fabrics, and it smells terrible! That being said, there are a few things that you can do. First, make sure that you’ve taken your kitty to a veterinarian and that she’s been tested so that medical causes for her behavior can be ruled out. Bladder infections, cystitis, urinary crystals, etc. can all cause cats to stay away from the litter box.

Next, make sure that you’re doing everything you can to get the urine out of surfaces where she has urinated. Use an enzyme-based cleaner. Do not use bleach or vinegar, as sometimes these will dry and leave a scent that cats will want to cover with their own. Additionally, if you have previously used soaps or detergents on fabric or carpet, make sure they are thoroughly rinsed because even residual detergents will kill the beneficial enzymes in your cleaner and make it less effective.

Then, is your cat urinating (emptying her bladder), or spraying (to mark)? Usually (but not always), you can tell the difference by where the urine is and how it shows up. Urination for emptying the bladder usually occurs on horizontal surfaces and shows up as a large pool. Spraying us usually on a vertical surface – you’ll see a line of urine on the wall, dripping down to the floor, with a small puddle. Also, spraying frequently occurs near doors and windows, where foreign smells can enter the home or she can see cats outside.

To remedy this, it NEVER hurts to have a great litter box setup – check out these guidelines that Ingrid  posted on The Conscious Cat. If your cat is urinating near the boxes, that’s often a sign to me that there’s something she doesn’t like about the litter box! And, even if your kitty is spraying, having a great litter box nearby can help.

If your cat is spraying, you can try a few things. If it’s outdoor cats who are setting her off, try putting opaque window film on windows or doors where she can see the outdoor kitties. Then, try providing her with alternative ways to “mark” the areas she’s been spraying with urine. You can spray Feliway in these areas, or use cheek rubbings (use a soft sock to rub her cheeks to collect her friendly facial pheromones and her personal scent) to deposit her scent on places that have been sprayed. Try putting a scratcher nearby (cats leave scent marks from their paws when they scratch) or place bedding that has her scent on it in the area. Or, you can try to change the perceived use of those areas – for example, cats don’t like to eat or sleep where there is urine. Try putting a food bowl or food puzzle in one of the soiled areas, or bedding. Or have a play session there, too!

If this problem is stress-related, making sure that your kitty has good relationships with other cats/animals in the home is key. I know you said she doesn’t like feather toys, but do try a long wand toy – my favorites are Da Bird, and the Wiggly Wand by Dezi and Roo because they are both long and you can put different lures on the ends. Trust me – your cat WILL go after these, since she’s two years old and energetic! Play is a huge stress-reliever, and I can not overstate its importance for maintaining a low-stress and confident cat. I hope that this helps!

Integrating a new cat into a family of 16

I have had cats all my life, and for the past 22 years my husband and I have had up to 35 indoor/outdoor rescue cats (all fixed). So I am rather experienced with cats. Yet now, I am at the end of my wits. Three of our 4 existing tomcats don’t get along with 2 tomcats we adopted last November and will fight until blood is flowing, whenever they have a chance. (We have to rotate the 2 groups of tomcats between our house, the guest room, the garage, the sun room, and the outdoors, several times a day. That’s quite a task!) I wrote you a letter asking for help, a few weeks ago, but this letter never showed on this website. It must have landed in the abysses of cyber space.

Yet now, we have an even worse problem: One of our tenants found her cat, Gates, missing last December. She was overjoyed to find a picture of him on Facebook, posted by a local Cat Rescue Organization. She picked him up, and everything was fine and dandy, except that Gates, who had always been friendly to the very lively huge puppy, now suddenly was “mean” to him. And then, 2 days ago, the real Gates came back (after having been missing since early December, when our tenant first moved into our property). The cat she had picked up at the Cat Rescue had been a look-alike of her cat.

Even though, the two Gates (after first hissing) seemed to get along with each other, our tenant cannot keep both cats for a number of reasons. So she asked us to adopt Gates II.
We had met Gates II before and had found him an exceptionally friendly and affectionate cat, and I had spent quite some time petting him while my husband had been busy repairing the furnace of the duplex-apartment.

My husband and I are in our late 70s. We were now down to 16 cats. And we no longer adopt more cats (except when one walks in or gets dropped off). But with this cat we made an exception because we had found him such an adorable cat (and also because we wanted to be helpful to our tenant). So I picked up Gates II, last night. And now there is disaster!!!

As we had done before, when we adopted a new cat, we put the opened pet carrier with Gates II into a huge dog cage in our living room, so that he could see our other cats, while being in a safe place. Some cats came over to greet the newcomer, but Gates II remained in the pet carrier, within the dog cage.

Some time before we went to bed, we moved the pet carrier with Gates II to our guest room (which, since last November, had been the main refuge for the, then, newly adopted 2 tomcats, Ginger, and Link). Since Ginger is a very mellow cat, we left him in the guest room (on a tower of boxes), while my husband and I sat down on the futon trying to coax Gate II out of the pet carrier with a selection of cat food. Gates II finally emerged, ate some of the food, but the exchanged glances between Gates II and Ginger were anything but friendly. So we removed Ginger from the room.

This morning (while I was still asleep), my husband entered the guest room, and Link (the other cat who had considered the guest room his main refuge since last November) dashed in right behind my husband. Before my husband could make any move, Gates II attacked Link fiercely, and after my husband had managed to get Link out of the room, Gates II attacked my husband’s legs and left injuries, even though my husband was wearing jeans and long johns underneath.

When I got up, several hours later, my husband and I entered the room again (without any other cat around), and we talked to Gates II and petted him. He seemed to wish to “apologize” to my husband for the attack he had landed on him several hours earlier,. He liked being petted, and he brushed against both of us.

I eventually picked up Gates II and put him over my shoulder (careful not to get him close to my face). He seemed relaxed. Then I walked 2 steps with him and put him down softly on the little desk by the window. (This window is on the 2nd floor, and there is nothing to see from it but vehicles–no cats in sight.) The moment I had put him down, he turned around and put his long claws into my left hand, deeper than I had ever been clawed by any cat. (I, right after, applied antibiotic ointment, but where one of his claws hit a vein, my hand is swollen now and might have infection.)

I could somewhat understand that seeing Link (a huge cat) come into the room, this morning, Gates II was so upset that he attacked my husband’s legs, but shouldn’t he have simmered down after several hours being in the nice, bright room by himself, with no other cat in sight? Is there any chance that he’ll adjust and get along with the other cats of Happy Cats Ranch? (And remember, we already have trouble between 2 groups of tomcats.) We live 10 miles from town. And our cherished vet, who lives 20 miles from us, has retired 15 months ago, and is now only rarely available. The remaining 2 vet offices in town are difficult to get appointments with. Thus, if a cat gets injured, we do have quite a problem.

Can Gates II even be adopted out by the local shelter or the local Cat Rescue Organization? Even if there were no other animals around, I would not trust him with children. (Most people in our area have children and/or grandchildren. We don’t.)
I am afraid that if we return Gates II to our tenant (who will have to return him to the local Cat Rescue Organization or to the local shelter), he will end up euthanized (or he will get adopted out and hurt somebody).

Is there any chance to get this cat re-socialized and save his life? And do you have any suggestions how we can stop the outright war between our other 2 tomcat groups? (Add to this a newly dropped off tom, who is also at war with our existing “gang of three”.) As I said, we have had up to 35 cats ever since 1987 (when we got settled at our 18-acre country property, bordering federal lands), and we have never ever had such problems with cat wars (and even less with cats attacking us). HELP!!! – Lilo Huhle-Poelz

Hi Lilo –

WOW. It seems like you have a lot going on, much more than I’ll be able to address in a response for this column. But first, let’s just put things into perspective for Gates II. Consider this: he was in a shelter (and who knows what his life was like before that) for some time, presumably with all sorts of different cats, dogs, people, smells, noises, etc. that were foreign to him. Then, he got adopted by your tenant, who brought him to a new place that was also completely foreign, this time with a large puppy. Then, after a short while, he was brought to your place where he was surrounded by a lot of new kitties and people in a completely unfamiliar environment. That’s a HUGE amount of change for a cat, and I’m actually surprised that he emerged from his carrier so quickly to accept food – many cats would have waited a lot longer and only eaten when left completely alone. That says something about his personality and confidence – good things!

Yes, it is easy to understand why he attacked your husband after Link entered the room – that’s more a case of redirected aggression where Gates II was probably reacting out of fear and defensiveness (even if he did go after Link). Gates II didn’t have any sort of established territory in the home, which can cause insecurity and defensiveness to be heightened, especially when faced with an intruder (whom Gates II I’m sure recognized as the “owner” of the room through scent). It’s a little bit more difficult to understand why he clawed you when you put him down, but please do consider that he was probably already “on guard” for the reasons I listed above – he’s unsure about who/what will be coming through the door at any moment, he doesn’t have any territory to help him feel more secure (and knows he’s in someone else’s territory, based on other cats’ scent markings), and he’s being handled quite closely with people he doesn’t have a strong bond with (yet, anyway). Cats are hypersensitive to their surroundings, so where we are able to block out things like background noise, shadows, smells, etc., cats are paying attention to ALL of these things. Combine that with a cat who is in a new and unfamiliar environment (that smells abundantly of other cats) and…well…you experienced the result. It could have been just a bit of discomfort in the way he was being held, or a shadow flashing across the ceiling, that made him feel scared, resulting in him suddenly lashing out at you.

That being said, based on the limited information I have, I’m optimistic that his actions were circumstantial. Had he been more secure or more familiar with his surroundings and you, he may never have lashed out, so let’s give Gates II the benefit of the doubt for now. The more Gates II is able to get acquainted with his surroundings and “claim” them as his own (i.e., by leaving his scent through body and cheek rubbings, scratching, having his litter box in his area, etc.) the more confident he is going to be. When it comes to him interacting with other cats, some cats must be introduced very slowly, and he might be one of them. I highly recommend giving him time to adjust and slowly exposing him to the other cats with scent, then visual interactions. With each scent/visual interaction, pair with something positive (like a favorite treat) or a distraction (like a favorite toy or game) so that he can build positive associations with the other cats. You do have a lot of kitties to wrangle so it’s going to be a bit more challenging, but for a basic process, check out Jackson Galaxy’s guest post at The Conscious Cat about cat to cat introductions. This may also help you with what’s going on with your gangs of toms that aren’t getting along so well!

The longer you live with Gates II, the more you’ll learn about him, his personality, and whether he’s a mellow fellow or a bit more high-strung. Some cats just will not get along with other cats, which can be the cause of aggression. However, this does not mean that they can’t be adopted into a different situation where they might be completely happy. I’m sure that you’ll consider Gates II’s happiness in your home – he may eventually fit in, but if he’s not making any progress with getting along with others, he will probably be happier in a different home. I wish it was easier to predict how cats will adjust to a new environment, but it’s nearly impossible. Homes with a lot of potential stressors affect each cat differently, which may make it more or less difficult for cats to adjust to other feline (or canine, or human) members of the household. Fortunately, it sounds like Gates II usually has a sweet disposition, so I have high hopes for him!

Finally, it may be beneficial to hire a professional cat behavior consultant to come to your home to assess the situation and help you how to best figure out how to help with Gates II and your other tomcats. If you don’t have anyone in your area, there are many consultants who can work with clients long distance via video (which can actually work quite well in many situations). A professional will be able to take a look at the cats’ environment and resources and help you identify how to smooth out the relationships between your cats, or at least help everyone safely coexist with minimal stress. It’s so clear that you love all of your kitties and want them to have good lives – best of luck to you, your toms, and Gates II!

A note from Ingrid: Dr. Marci did not want to promote her own services in this column – she offers remote behavior consultations, and I highly recommend reaching out to her!

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