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

ask-the-cat-behaviorist

Welcome to our regular “Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Mikel Delgado” segment. Once a 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 newest book, Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat.

Cat walks out of the litter box when he urinates

Hi Mikel! Love your posts! Thank you for what you are doing to help cat guardians!

I have a 5 yo male orange tabby who was orphaned at 2 days old, bottle fed (by me), and neutered at 2 months. He had PU surgery at around 6 months due to being sucked on by his litter mates. So I am pretty certain urination caused him pain for the first part of his life. He eats wet food only, sees the vet regularly, and has only had 2 UTIs in the past 5 years.

Here’s what I need help with, and no cat behavior expert has been able to help me with this one yet… He poops in the litter box just fine, but he walks out of the litter box while he urinates. So, he gets in the box, digs his little hole in the litter, starts urinating, and then slowly walks out while he urinates. So he leaves a large stream of urine outside the litter box. I clean the (open top, not enclosed) litter boxes 3 times a day, deep clean them and add new (unscented) litter every other week, and buy new boxes every year. The boxes are very large and in prominent, socially-relevant areas of the house (not hidden away). I really don’t think it’s an aversion to the litter box, but rather a behavior caused by former pain when urinating. I would love to clicker-train him to pee in the box, but he starts walking out as soon as he starts urinating. Any ideas on how to help him urinate inside the box and not walk out? Thanks so much! – Samantha Bell DiGenova

Hi Samantha! It’s lovely to hear from you – I love YOUR work! And well, I can honestly say I have never encountered THIS problem before, and I enjoy a new challenge (usually!). I agree with you that there is a strong learned component to this behavior, and whether or not it can be changed without stressing him is unknown!

There are a few different approaches you could take (and you may have already tried some of them) – the first that comes to mind would be to do the opposite of what we usually tell people to do, and try a smaller, higher sided litter box that he could not walk out of quite so easily. Depending on your current set-up, you could add a piece of plastic to the box he currently has, to act like a shield and gradually decreasing the amount of space he has available to him when he eliminates. Basically, anything that would stall the walking without you having to intervene WHILE he is eliminating might allow him to stay in place long enough that you could use clicker training or other praise to reinforce staying in the box. If he is agile enough, it might also be good to raise the sides of the box so he has to either hop or climb out of the box.

We want this change to be something “encouraged” by the environment, and not by force or physical intervention. But it sounds like in addition to being a very well-established habit, it is just too easy for him to walk out while he’s in the act. If we can slow that down just a smidge, it might help him stay in place while he’s peeing. Good luck and let me know how it!

Cat bites when he wants attention

Hi Mikel, I have a 2 year old tabby that I adopted from a shelter 10 months ago. He’s always been a lap cat. He just jumps on your chest or lap, head butts you then curls up. It doesn’t matter where I am, it can be on the toilet and he jumps on me. He’s never been an aggressive cat except for petting aggression at times but recently he’s taken on the habit of biting me when he wants to be pet, if he’s comfortable laying on me and I move, or if he wants attention – at least that’s how I interpret his behavior. I have tried getting up and leaving him alone or just telling him NO. He usually runs to his food bowl to eat when I do this. The other thing he does is that after her eats he come backs, stares at me and then gingerly nibbles on me as if he knows he’s not supposed to do it but he’s being cute and will get his way. The other peculiar thing is that he won’t do it to my boyfriend or son. He only does it to me. I feel like I have a spoiled brat that just wants his way no matter what. Do you have any insight into why he does this? and how can I get him to stop? – Lilly

Hi Lilly, lots of kitties get into the habit of nipping – usually because they learn that it gets them something! Whether it’s more petting or attention, it only takes a few times for cats to learn how to get what they want. It’s possible that your kitty gets a bigger or better response from you than your son or boyfriend, or perhaps he just feels more relaxed or confident with you than he does with them.

To remedy this type of behavior, I recommend a combination of boredom-busting and training for good behaviors. First – the boredom-busting: make sure he has plenty of other things to keep him busy in the environment, with bird feeders to watch, things to climb, food puzzles and other problem-solving opportunities, as well as regular interactive play with toys. The more tired and occupied he is, the less likely he is going to be to be dependent on you for his every need, and demand things from you.
Which brings me to training – by training (such as with a clicker) and paying attention and rewarding your cat when they do behaviors you like, you increase the frequency of those behaviors in the future. If he wants attention or treats, the way to do it is by doing a behavior YOU like, such as sitting pretty, rolling over, or going to his mat.

When he nibbles on you, stand up slowly and let him fall off your lap, and walk away; or sit on your hands. Try not to have a big reaction to the biting – even a “NO” is attention to some cats. You will have to be consistent and give it some time to change these behaviors, but in combination with the increased activity and the training, you should see improvement soon.

Having a very affectionate cat is great, but it’s important for you cat to have a sense of “independence” so they are not quite so reliant on humans to provide EVERYTHING for them. We love the neediness, but we also want our cats to have a life of their own which will help reduce some of those excessively demanding behaviors!

Cat is eating fabric

I have a 7 month old kitten and she is eating fabric and getting on counters my main concern is how do I get her to stop eating fabric. – Kim Patton

Kim, I would recommend a visit to your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues; some cats appear to be fabric eaters – other cats like to ingest non-food items such as paper, plastic, strings, etc. Regardless of what she is eating, your cat has a condition called pica. Pica is considered a compulsive disorder, but to be honest, it is not very well understood and there is no known cure. Pica requires a lot of management – anything that she likes to chew on that is not safe for her to ingest needs to be kept out of reach. This might mean hanging up your clothing, having secure hampers and lots of secure storage bins! Ingestion of fabrics (or other non-food items) can be very dangerous and often requires costly surgery.

In addition to pica-proofing, I advise you to amp up her activity and enrichment. If pica has any relation to anxiety, as has been hypothesized, the best thing to do is keep her well-exercised and tired out. Exercise is nature’s anti-anxiety medication!

You should also provide your cat with other chewing options – such as cat grass, dehydrated meat treats, or large kibbles that may give her some oral satisfaction. That may help decrease the need to chew on fabric.

Some cats with pica are put on anti-anxiety medication. I would recommend a discussion with your vet or a veterinary behaviorist about whether that might be helpful if other modifications do not help. Good luck with this, pica is definitely a challenge!

Cat attacks for no reason

So I have been wondering a few things about my cat, she is about 2 years old and not fixed, she really only likes me and is kind to me she seems to scratch or “attack” others really for no reason. I was wondering why she does that as well as why she seems to only be nice to me never attacks me always lays on me and comes to me when I call her name she honestly is a sweetheart with a mean side, the only time she ever gives me a warning meow is when she is on my lap and I get up to move and she gets really upset, she does not attack me but she will act like she will and will touch me but does not have her claws out, but with others if she is sitting near them and they get up to leave and it messes with where she is laying or if she is on them and they get up to move she attacks them and hisses. What is causing that behavior as well as the one I mentioned in the beginning of this. – Claire

Claire, thanks for asking about your “moody” kitty. Even though it seems like your cat is doing things for “no reason,” there is a reason. Cats often display aggressive behaviors when they feel threatened – that doesn’t mean that the person approach intends harm, but that may be how their approach is being interpreted by your cat.
I would really need a lot more information about her behavior, as well as what the other humans do before she swats and strikes out. Based on what you described, she is friendly toward other people because she will sometimes sit on their laps.

To work with this behavior, I recommend lots of playtime and mental stimulation to keep her tired and more relaxed. If anyone rough-houses or uses their hands for play, the time to stop is NOW. I have seen rough-housing lead to irritable and defensive behavior in cats. Your cat may need more 3-dimensional territory (such as shelving or cat trees) to allow her to be around humans, without always being so close to them. A behavior consultant can also help you develop some trust-building exercises with the people she appears to be conflicted about. A consultant can also help you utilize training to get her off of your lap without the outbursts.

Finally, for many reasons, please get your kitty spayed ASAP! Those fluctuating hormones can affect behavior, and there are plenty of kittens in the world already in need of a home!

Cat gets upset when feral cat comes to patio

I have a 11 yr. old cat that I got from stray cats that were in a box at a home depot store. I guess his mother was feral, but I have had her since she was 5 weeks old. Mother no longer wanted to feed the babies. She behaves well and is very attached to me although does not liked to be picked up or lay on me. Lately there has been a feral cat coming to the patio and front of house my cat gets extremely upset hisses and then tries to bite me. Not sure what I can do. – Beverly Hanson

Beverly, a lot of cats get upset when other cats show up outside a door or window (think about how we feel when someone unexpectedly trespasses on our property! Cats have similar feelings about it). I recommend using humane deterrents to keep the intruding kitty away from your patio and windows – I personally use a motion sensitive sprinkler to dampen my neighbor kitty’s enthusiasm for my backyard (which definitely upsets my two cats!). Depending on the layout of your yard, you can also try beefing up your fence, motion-sensitive air canisters, or sonic repellents.

If your cat is still upset, you can use privacy film on windows to block the view of outside cats without blocking all the light. These typically only need to be placed at “cat height” or wherever your cat has a view of the outdoors.

If the outside cat is not spayed or neutered, you should get help to trap, neuter, and return (TNR) the cat to the same general area. This can reduce the desire to spray and get into fights, both of which may upset your indoor cat further if they are happening.

Finally, if your cat gets upset by the outside cat, it is best to not try to pet or handle her until she seems completely calm. Many people get bitten trying to console their cat – but when a cat is feeling threatened or agitated, that is the last thing the cat wants! Let her calm down on her own, and try engaging in an interactive toy rather than cuddling or petting.

Difficult introduction when combining cat households

Hi! My boyfriend and I started living together a couple weeks ago. He has a female cat, 2 years old; she’s really athletic and extroverted. I have another female cat, 1 year old, really shy and tiny.

We’ve been doing all the things that experts recommend for introducing two cats. The two of them already met, but they never get along, his cat always chased mine and they have to be separated all times. Now they’re really quiet in the apartment; they are separated but at least the older cat hasn’t tried to chase the other cat. After two weeks of living together we join them using a harness on the older cat. They looked at each other at all times, really tense but not aggressive.

We keep trying with the harness but the younger cat doesn’t let her guard down. Sometimes she groans at the older cat (but she’s never tried to attack her though…). My question is: when will we know when the two cats are ready to be together? We are terrified of gather the two cats because we’re still afraid that they hurt each other, but we have to try eventually, otherwise we’ll never know. So…when do you recommend to do the first gather without harness? What are the signs in order to know “they’re ready”? Thanks. – Fran

Hi Fran! To cats, a few weeks is still very early in the timeline. For some cats, it can take weeks or months to adjust to one another. I can’t tell from your description what else you are doing besides placing the cats in a room together (with or without harnesses). Are you making sure they have good experiences they can associate with one another via treats and play? Are you keeping their sessions brief and ending on a positive note? Or are you waiting until someone gets upset and then separating them? If you’re doing the latter, start by keeping their interactions short and try to end before someone hisses or growls or tries to chase.

Typically we expect cats to be somewhat relaxed and distractible before moving forward in for an introduction. Cats that are highly vigilant, growling/hissing, fearful, refusing to eat treats or play are likely too stressed out to move to the next step of the introduction. If your cats are not making any progress in this regard, you may need to speak with your veterinarian about whether some form of medication might be indicated. I’d also work with a qualified behavior consultant about what your next steps should be to get these cats together.

Cat bites back of neck of other cat

My 4 year old male Kacey bites the back of the neck of my 6 year old female Kieran. She yelps seemingly in pain. I yell at him to stop. He knows I don’t want him to do it. WHY does he do this? How do I get him to stop? Thank you! =^..^=  – Elisha Abrell

Elisha, your response depends a lot on what the cats’ relationship is the rest of the time. Do they sleep together, groom each other, play together, and otherwise seem at ease with one another? Or do they only tolerate each other or actively avoid each other (except when Kacey is biting Kieran)? If their relationship is mostly positive, and Kieran isn’t withdrawn or otherwise fearful of Kacey – I would not worry too much about it. In fact, you could be increasing the frequency of the behavior by giving Kacey attention when he jumps on Kieran (even though you think the yelling is “punishment” – the behavior continues – suggesting that it isn’t doing anything to change his behavior!

He may be doing it to assert himself, to chase Kieran away so he can get access to a resource, or just because he is bored and would like to play. You can provide your cats with more resources (toys, perches, vertical space) so they don’t have to compete, and give him more interactive play to help him be more relaxed and less annoying to Kieran. You can also use clicker training to give Kacey clear instruction from you about what he CAN do to get attention, and then ignore his undesirable behavior. That will tell you a lot about whether your attention is motivating his behavior. A webcam can also help you determine if he does this when you are gone, or only when you are home.

Problem with cats who are “part time” roommates

Hey Mikel, I’m currently in college and take my cat back for breaks with me. At home there are 2 cats and my sister has another with her at college. The two at home are very close, and my sister’s cat get along with the other two. My cat is the smallest but she will randomly jump on the other cats, and chases one of them through the house. He’s scared of her and tries to hide, but she will look for him until she finds him. During longer breaks they get along after a while but I’m not sure how to avoid the aggressive periods. They’re all scared of her and have stopped being aggressive to her at all. She doesn’t scratch or bite at them either. She’ll only play with my sister’s cat, not with the other two. I don’t think chasing the one around is playing, but if he acts like he’ll run she’ll chase him. I’ve been physically separating them but it doesn’t seem to work. Do you have any tips? – Elise

Elise, you have a tricky situation, because cats don’t really do well as “part time” roommates. Cats typically need several weeks (or even longer) to get to know each other; a newcomer has to persist in a friendly way again and again to convince the existing cats that they pose no threat. Every time your cats start to make friends, they are separated again. Unfortunately, the next time you come home, it’s like starting over again! Now some cats are just very adaptable to situations like this, but it sounds like not every relationship between the cats in your situation is going great.

There are many sources online on how to introduce cats to each other, in fact Conscious Cat has posted a few times about this! https://consciouscat.net/2011/08/15/cat-to-cat-introductions/

So take things back a step when you go home with your cat. Keep in mind that she is an intruder as far as your parents’ cats are concerned. Consider following some of the introduction techniques for the first few days and keep the cats separated when they can’t be supervised. Make sure that your cat has had plenty of play and a snack before bringing her in with the other cats so she will be less motivated to chase them around. The living area needs lots of vertical space to allow the cats to share the territory without having to be too close. There’s no perfect solution to a situation like this, but I think it will help a lot!

Cat talks in his sleep

My 11 year old feral rescue cat has started talking in his sleep. He uses the mrrp-type voice he uses to my other cat, rather than the meow he uses with me. It is not a problem. I’m just curious if anyone else has had this experience. – Michaelene Pendleton

Michaelene, how interesting! My cats will do a lot of twitching and the occasional “mrrp” in their sleep (oh, and one of my cats snores), but I’ve never worked with a cat who full on talked in his sleep. I’ll be curious what the readers have to say about this one! Some kitties do have sleep disorders, in which case, I’d say, let your vet know just to be safe. But it sounds like a pretty cute behavior!

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

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