feline behavior

The well adjusted cat: feline behavior advice from an expert

The well adjusted cat feline behavior advice

Last Friday, I attended a day long workshop hosted by Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, DACVB titled The Well Adjusted Cat: Secrets to Understanding Feline Behavior. Dr. Dodman founded the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in 1986.

The workshop covered the gamut of feline behavior challenges from aggression to fears and anxiety, litter box behavior and furniture scratching, and medical problems that present as behavior issues.

I was particularly interested in the section on feline fear-based conditions, since Allegra is a bit of a fraidy-cat, who, even after more than a year of living with me, is still afraid of any loud and unusual noises outside the house.

I learned that fearfulness in cats is caused by a combination of nature and nurture. Genetics can play a part, with oriental breeds being more prone to fearful behavior. The most sensitive and critical learning period occurs between the age of 2 and 7 weeks, and much harm can be done during this period. According to Dr. Dodman, “kittens that are artificially separated from their mothers much earlier than normal develop a variety of behavioral, emotional and physical abnormalities. They become unusually fearful and aggressive towards other cats and people, show large amounts of random undirected locomotor activity, and learn less well.”

Dr. Dodman recommends treating fears with controlled exposure and counter-conditioning. For example, if a cat is afraid of strangers, try to habituate them to strangers by having the stranger give them treats. For inanimate fears such as thunderstorm anxiety or phobia, provide a safe environment where the cat can feel safe. He also recommends anxiolytic medications or an anxiolytic supplement such as Anxitane.

Feline litter box issues, not surprisingly, took up a large portion of the seminar. Inappropriate urination is the number one issue (along with intercat aggression) he sees at his behavior clinic. As with all other behavioral problems, Dr. Dodman first recommends that the cat owner get a thorough physical work up to rule out any medical issues. Barring any medical problems, the solution for many litter box problems is to provide an appropriate litter box for the cat. Common owner errors include having too few boxes, in the wrong location, with the wrong type of litter. Frequently, the box is too shallow or too deep. Many cats won’t like covered boxes, and liners or litter mats can cause additional problems. A box that is too dirty can be as much of a problem as a box that is too clean.

Then next section covered feline compulsive behavior such as wool sucking, pica, psychogenic alopecia (a displaced excessive grooming behavior) and feline hyperesthesia. Treatment for these conditions will vary for each problem, ranging from addressing the underlying stressors to behavioral and medical treatment. Environmental enrichment and counter-conditioning can help with some of these issues, while others may need medication. Dr. Dodman has had good results with fluoxetine (Prozac) or similar drugs in many of these cases.

The last section of the seminar covered behavioral problems that have medical causes. According to Dr. Dodman, medical underpinnings should always be suspected for a behavior problem, but especially when there is a sudden change in behavior, when the behavior is bizarre or extreme, or when an elderly cat is showing sudden behavior changes. Causes can range from hyperthyroidism to brain tumors and seizures.

One particularly dramatic example was the case of Noah, an adult, formerly normal cat, who began a low growl/moan when his owners were cleaning up their deck one evening. When the owners went into the house to check on Noah, he launched himself at the owner and ripped her clothes and flesh to shreds. The owner ended up leaving the house and leaving Noah alone that night. When she returned the next day, Noah had calmed down some, but was still riled. A month or so later, this happened again, and the owner took Noah to Dr. Dodman’s practice. He was put on anxiolytic medication. He did somewhat better, but weeks later, the owner still couldn’t get near him. Noah was hospitalized and treated with anticonvulsants, and has had no further incidents since. The conclusion was that his rage behavior was caused by a seizure.

Dr. Dodman also addressed feline cognitive dysfunction, a condition very similar to Alzheimer’s in humans. It is typically seen in cats 12 years and older, and is caused by physical changes in the brain. It can be treated with L-Deprenyl, a drug first used in dogs. Dr. Dodman has also had some success with supplements such as CO-Q10 and Acetyl L-Carnitine.

One big takeaway from the workshop for me was that many feline behaviors that we may consider problems are really just normal cat behaviors, and they only become a problem when we ask these creatures, that, as Jean Burden said, are still “only a whisker away from the wilds,” to share our living space. I believe that it’s up to us as cat owners to provide an environment that honors cats’ natural behaviors and still allows them to be cats. By respecting their unique needs, we only enhance the bond between cat and human.

Photo: morguefile.com

You may also enjoy reading:

Feline behavior modification tips

Keeping your single indoor cat happy

Feline behavior modification tips

Guest post by Lorie A. Huston, DVM

The first step in correcting feline behavior problems is to recognize why your cat is exhibiting the behavior and to recognize normal cat behaviors. Feline behavior modification can be used to correct what we, as cat owners, see as behavior problems. In many cases, we are actually directing the cat toward another outlet for the behavior. In other cases, we will be trying to reduce the amount of stress experienced by the cat and reduce “abnormal” or undesirable behaviors that occur as a result of that stress.

Make Your Cat Feel Safe with Perches and Hiding Places to Modify Feline Behavior

Cats like to rest on elevated perches where they feel safe from predation and can survey the area surrounding them. Providing adequate numbers of perches for all cats in a household is extremely important. Cat condos can be used and even the back rests of furniture are often claimed by cats as perches. One of my cats likes the top of the refrigerator.

Cats also need hiding places where they feel secure. These should be places where the cat can retreat if he feels threatened or frightened or even if he just wants to be alone for a while. Cat beds, cardboard boxes, and medium to large carriers or crates (left open so the cat can enter and exit freely) are all suitable hiding places. Cats will also frequently hide under beds and furniture as well. In multi-cat households, there should be adequate numbers of hiding places available for all cats. Cats may prefer not to share their hiding spots.

Providing Scratching Areas and Entertainment for Your Cat is Part of a Feline Behavior Modification Program

Scratching posts should be provided to allow cats to sharpen claws and stretch muscles. These are normal cat behaviors and if you do not provide a place for your cat to do so, he will choose his own spot. Some cats prefer upright scratching posts while others prefer flat surfaces. Cat owners may need to experiment to find out which their cat prefers.

Toys are also helpful. These can be used to simulate a cat’s normal prey behavior. Experimentation may be necessary to determine which type of toy an individual cat prefers. Some cats prefer toys with feathers, some prefer toys which can be pulled along the ground and other prefer things like laser pointers which can simulate the movement of an insect. Toys also provide a great way for cat owners to interact with their cats and can provide much-needed exercise. (Obesity is also a major problem in cats, but that’s a different subject.)

Provide Adequate Resources for All Cats to Decrease Competition and Alter Behavior

In multi-cat households, several food and water stations may need to be provided so there is no competition for these resources between cats. As an example, I have one cat which will lie near the food dish and growl at the other cats when they come around to eat. By providing additional food and water dishes in other areas of the house, the other cats can get their food and water without having to get to the dish being guarded. Food and water dishes should also be located away from litter boxes.

Proper Litter Box Management is Essential to Correcting Behavior Problems

Litter boxes and the proper management of them is also extremely important.

  • In a multi-cat household, there need to be adequate numbers of boxes provided. The rule of thumb is to provide one box for each cat plus one. (For two cats, three litter boxes. For three cats, four litter boxes. And so on).
  • Litter boxes should be big enough to allow the cat to occupy the box comfortably and turn around in the box. Most cats prefer larger litter boxes to smaller ones. For young kittens and older cats that have mobility issues, a litter box with shorter sides may be necessary.
  • Litter boxes should be located in low-traffic areas of the house which the cat or cats have easy access to and it is important that cats not be interrupted or frightened when using the box. A common mistake is putting the litter box near a washing machine that may be noisy enough to scare the cat away from the box.
  • Keeping litter boxes clean is essential. Some cats will not use a litter box that is soiled.
  • Hoods on litter boxes can also be problematic. Hoods can trap odors in the box and make the box unpleasant for a cat.
  • Type of cat litter is also important for some cats. Cats may show a preference for one type of litter over another. In general, scoopable litters tend to be preferred over non-scoopable and are convenient for cat owners when it comes to cleaning as well. Scented litters should be avoided. Most cats do not find strong scents attractive. In cases where inappropriate urination or defecation is occurring (i.e. outside of the litter box), providing a number of different litters with different textures and watching to see which the cat prefers can help the cat owner choose the best litter for their individual cat.

Changes in Environment or Routine May Affect Feline Behavior

Changes which cause stress for cats include:

  • new family members (such as a new child or a new roommate),
  • new pets in the household (other cats, dogs, other types of pets),
  • the loss of an existing pet or other household member,
  • rearrangement of furniture,
  • construction in or around the house, and
  • changes in an owner’s schedule (for instance, being away from home more often or less often than previously or working a different shift than previously).

Even simple things like having company for dinner can be stressful for some cats. If you know there are going to be stressors taking place in your cat’s life, it is a good idea to provide an area where the cat can retreat by himself. This area should have food, water and litter boxes available. If noise is anticipated, leaving a television or radio playing in the background can be helpful. You should also attempt to spend extra quality time with the cat playing, petting or cuddling with him.

What Your Indoor Cat Sees Outside Can Cause Behavior Problems

While some indoor cats appear to enjoy watching birds, squirrels and other animals outside, some cats object to seeing these animals near their home. This is especially true if they are seeing stray cats near the house. In this case, keeping window blinds and doors closed can help block the view of these animals. Steps can also be taken to discourage stray and wild animals from approaching the house. Placing bird feeders away from the house, instead of near windows, can help. Motion sensors can be placed to scare off intruders also.

Use Feliway to Decrease Feline Stress and Alter Cat Behavior

Feliway is a pheromone product which can be used in the household to reduce stress and provide a calming effect on cats also. I use it in my house and notice a big difference in my cats’ behaviors with it. I would consider using it in any household which houses more than one cat, any household with cats that are experiencing behaviors characteristic of stress (nervousness, fear, irritability, fighting) or in any situation where stress is likely to be induced (moving to a new house, new family member, construction/renovation, etc.)

Lorie Huston is a veterinarian in Rhode Island, where she cares for the dogs and cats in the local community.  She is also a successful freelance writer. At home, Lorie is the proud pet parent of six cats: Lilly, Midge, Rusty, Dillon, Rhette and Merlin (shown with Lorie). All six cats were rescued and adopted by Lorie after being injured, sick and/or abandoned.

Photo by Shari Weinsheimer, Public Domain Pictures

You may also enjoy reading:

Cat scratching solutions

Keeping your single cat happy

Why do cats do that?

Why Do cats Do That?

I’m always tempted to answer this question with “because they can” – after all, they’re cats, and most cats think, or rather know, that they rule the world.  However, there are “real” answers to some of these questions, and here’s a sampling.

Why do cats knead with their paws?

We’ve all seen them do it.  It’s also known as “making biscuits.”  The most common explanation is that it reminds them of when they were kittens and pawed at their mother’s teats to stimulate milk secretion.  It’s why cats seem to be so content, and almost go into a trance, when they knead – kneading takes them back to one of their earliest happy memories.  Most cats purr while they knead, and some will even drool.

Why do cats like to weave through and rub up against their human’s legs?

Most people think they do this to show affection, although perhaps, if that’s what it is, cats should find a better way to show that they care than by trying to trip the human who fills their food bowl.  What they’re actually doing is marking you with their scent.  Cats have scent glands on the side of their face and on the tip of their tail.  These glands produce pheromones, and by rubbing up against your legs multiple times, they’re mingling their scent with yours.  You now belong to them, as it should be.

Why do cats inevitably find the one person in a room who doesn’t like cats?

Unless your cat is the most gregarious and social cat on the planet, he’ll be a little uncomfortable walking into a room full of strangers who are all cooing or staring at him, so he’ll zero in on the one person who is completely ignoring his presence, perceiving that person as less intimidating.

What makes a cat purr?

Scientists are not sure about the exact mechanism behind purring, but the most common explanation is that the cat’s brain sends a signal to the laryngeal muscles to vibrate.  At the same time, the cat is inhaling and exhaling, and the stream of air is causing the vocal chords to vibrate.  Even though most people assume that cats purr when they’re happy and content, purring can also be a sign of stress, such as during a visit to the veterinarian, or after an injury.  The purr is thought to comfort the cat in these situations.

Why do cats race around the house like crazy without warning?

Even though they live in our homes and eat from a bowl, cats are natural hunters, and they’re designed for the speed of the hunt, especially when they’re young.  In an environment where there’s nothing much to hunt, chasing imaginary prey through the house may be a way for them to release pent up energy.

What do your cats do that you’ve always wondered about?

National Answer Your Cat’s Question Day

When I first saw that tomorrow is National Answer Your Cat’s Question Day, I chuckled, and thought it was a joke.  But sure enough, the folks at PetCentric have designated January 22 as a “holiday of feline understanding.”

And the premise is actually a wonderful idea.  According to PetCentric, “the proper way to participate in National Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day is to be aware of your cat on a more conscious level, and notice when your cat is trying to ask you something. Your job is to stop what you’re doing and try to figure out what your cat is asking, and do your best to answer the question.”  You can read the rest of PetCentric’s description of the holiday here.

How many times are we mystified by something our feline companions do?  How many times do we wish that they could speak human, or we could be better at understanding feline?   Cats’ behavior may not make sense to us, but it always makes purrfect sense to them.  The more we try to understand why they do the things they do,  the better our relationship will be for both cat and human.  

And part of understanding our cats is to take the time to listen to them.  Cats express themselves in a variety of ways, through body language, vocalization (you’ll be familiar with this aspect especially if you are owned by a tortoiseshell cat!), and habits.  In order to truly understand them, we have to try and think like a cat. 

PetCentric offers a number of examples of cat’s questions, from the cat’s point of view, along with the human’s answer and the cat’s rebuttal (you knew there’d be a rebuttal, didn’t you?), such as:

“Cat’s Question: Why do you bring strangers into our home? Person’s Answer: They’re my friends. And they love cats. There’s no need to hide when they come over. Cat’s Rebuttal: Oh yeah? I didn’t invite them over! They scare me. They always want to pick me up. If they’d just leave me alone and let me sneak up and investigate them, I could decide if they are my friends too, and then I might be ok with them petting me.”

For more cat Q&A, click here.

What are some of the questions your cats will be asking you, and what will your answers be?

You may also enjoy:

How to keep your indoor cat happy

Safe toys for your cat

Keeping your single cat happy

Allegra was never supposed to be an only cat.  When I adopted the then 7-month-old kitten last April, the plan was for Amber, who was 12 at the time, to show her the ropes, and for the two of them to become playmates and best friends.

Less than five weeks after Allegra’s arrival, Amber passed away after a sudden, brief illness. I was devastated, and in addition to coping with my grief, which took up almost all the energy I had, I now had a sweet, but rambunctious, slightly juvenile delinquent kitten on my hands.

I knew if I wanted Allegra to be happy, and address some of her behavioral challenges at the same time (she chewed on everything from picture frames to books to the edges of my bedroom dresser, and she was slightly play aggressive), I needed to keep her entertained.  Ideally, I should have gotten her a companion of similar temperament, but I wasn’t emotionally ready for that yet (and I’m still not quite ready).  So it was up to me to keep her active, stimulated and challenged.

All my cats always have been, and always will be, indoor cats.  I thought my home was kitty paradise already.  There are lots of windows with views of trees, birds and squirrels.  There are window perches in two bedrooms for the cats’ viewing pleasure and for naps in the sun.  There are cat toys everywhere.

But it was kitty paradise for older cats, not for a young, energetic kitten.  So I worked on what behaviorists call environmental enrichment.  I created hiding spaces for Allegra.  Cardboard boxes work just fine, as do grocery bags with the handles cut off.  Cat igloos and crinkly tunnels are fun, too.  I bought extra scratching posts.  I added vertical space.  There are numerous ways to do this:  cat trees, cat condos, shelves or window perches.  I got puzzle toys for her; they’re a great way to keep a young cat entertained.  I set up treasure hunts to keep her busy, hiding treats throughout the house and letting her find them.

All of this environmental enrichment was designed to keep Allegra entertained when I couldn’t play with her, but it was never meant to be a substitute for regular playtime.  I use a lot of interactive, fishing pole type toys to play with her.  These toys are designed to imitate prey behavior and they help wake the hunting instinct in cats.  Tossing balls or other small toys for her sends her racing through the house.  I haven’t managed to teach her to retrieve, although cats can learn how to do this.  I have a laser pointer toy, but rarely use it.  Even though Allegra goes nuts chasing after the red dot, it’s a very unsatisfactory way to play for her.  Cats’ play mimics hunting behavior, and it’s no fun for them if they can never catch their prey.

With young cats like Allegra, burning off excess energy is important.  We established regular play sessions of 10-15 minute each, at least twice a day, sometimes more frequently.  Playing before meals, or just before bedtime, works best.  Once we had these regular play sessions in place, a lot of Allegra’s behavior issues disappeared because she was no longer bored.

Eventually we’ll add another cat to our family.  For now, Allegra is very happy to be the only cat in her environmentally enriched home.

New from Moderncat Studio: The Scratch Tower

Every once in a while I come across a product that is so cool, I just have to share it with you – and this Scratch Tower by Moderncat Studio is one of them. 

***Moderncat is giving away a Scratch Tower to one lucky winner in the month of June – look below for details!***

Guest post by Kate Benjamin

Last week I showed you the new Wave door-hanging cardboard scratcher from Moderncat Studio, and this week we have another exciting new design to share with you: The Scratch Tower. Also designed in collaboration with the team at Juggernaut Design, The Scratch Tower is a huge hit at my house. We’ve been testing prototypes for months and this thing is definitley a cat magnet.

The Scratch Tower is a freestanding cardboard scratcher, unlike any other scratcher on the market. Just like Wave, The Scratch Tower is held together with compression instead of adhesives, so you can easily replace and recycle the cardboard when it becomes worn. This also allows you to change the configuration of the cardboard pieces to create an endless number of geometric, sculptural designs. You can try different configurations until you find just the right design that suits both you and your cat. And if one area of the cardboard gets worn out, simply rearrange the pieces so kitty can keep on scratching, although the cardboard we used is extremely durable and mine hasn’t shown signs of wear yet, even with repeated scratching.

There are two styles of cardboard pieces to choose from: Trio and Triangle, plus you get to choose either red or black for the ball on top.

Here are just a few of the designs you can make by rearranging the cardboard:

The sturdy base is made of Arreis sustainable design, 100% recycled fiberboard with a high-gloss white laminate on top and four non-skid feet on the bottom to help protect floors from scratching and to provide stability on hard surfaces.

The Scratch Tower measures 11″ by 11″ by 19.5″ tall and the cardboard scratching portion is 6″ by 6″ by 14″. All parts are fabricated in Phoenix, Arizona and hand assembled at the studio. Each Scratch Tower comes fully assembled and ships via USPS to addresses in the US. International shipping is available. The Scratch Tower is available in the Moderncat Studio Etsy shop for $95 US. Replacement cardboard will be available for $30.

Moderncat is giving away one of these fabulous Scratch Towers to one lucky winner!  Enter the giveaway during the month of June by clicking here.

Kate Benjamin is the founder and editor of Moderncat, a resource for cat owners with a modern style. She seeks out the newest products for living with cats in a modern home. She tries to identify not only products that fit a modern aesthetic, but also items that are truly innovative and that make living with cats a more enjoyable experience. Moderncat combines product reviews with other useful information for cat owners in a clear and concise format.

Adventures in Veterinary Medicine – Beast

I worked in various veterinary clinics for over twelve years, and during those years, I met some pretty amazing cats and dogs.  The memories of some of these animals, as well as the lessons they taught, have stuck with me over the years, and I thought it was time to share some of their stories.  I’m calling the series “Adventures in Veterinary Medicine,” because for me, that’s what my journey in this wonderful profession was – a never-ending adventure.  No two days were ever alike, just like no two animals were ever the same.   In this first installment in our Adventures in Veterinary Medicine series, meet Beast.

Beast was a big bruiser of a cat.  He was a brown and white tabby with a huge head, giant paws – and caution stickers all over his veterinary record.  Most veterinary clinics won’t actually write “beware of cat” or “killer cat” in their records.  Instead, they use a sticker system to indicate whether an animal may be challenging to work with, aggressive, fearful, a biter – you get the idea.  Beast’s chart had the highest number of stickers I’d seen in any of our charts.

Beasts owners traveled quite a bit, and since Beast had some urinary tract issues, they were not comfortable leaving him at home with a pet sitter, so they boarded him at the clinic with us.  Beast hated being confined in a cage.  But even more than being in a cage, he hated it when anyone so much as approached his cage, and he made his displeasure known by hissing, growling and throwing himself at the cage’s door.  It made taking care of him challenging, to say the least, but we did the best we could, and usually, we’d let our most experienced technicians, our “cat wranglers,” deal with him.  But on weekends, whoever  had kennel duty had to find a way to clean out Beast’s cage, give him fresh food and water, and change his litterbox.  At the time, I worked a lot of weekends as a kennel attendant, so the odds were good that I would have to deal with Beast at some point. 

I had been trained in safe and proper feline restraint techniques – techniques that made handling safe for both the cat being handled, and for the person handling the cat.  But I’d never had to work with a fractious cat without another person to help me.  Rather than using the restraint techniques I had been taught, I decided to try a different approach.  I completely ignored Beast’s posturing, hissing and growling while I took care of the other animals in the kennel.  Whenever I passed his cage, I quietly talked to him, but never acknowledged his aggressive behavior.   When I had taken care of everyone else, I walked back to Beast’s cage and just stood and quietly talked to him or a while.  And much to my delight, he calmed down, and just sat at the front of the cage watching me with a puzzled expression on his face.  Why wasn’t I afraid of him?  Why didn’t I cower in fear like all the other people he’d so successfully scared off?  Eventually I slowly unlatched the door to his cage and opened it slightly.  Beast didn’t react.  No hissing, growling, or lunging.  What I felt coming from him, more than anything, was curiosity.  I slowly opened the cage door wider, talking to him all the while.  He stood up.  I remained calm, trying very hard not to flinch.  What happened next is not something I could have predicted in my wildest dreams.  This big cat who had terrorized our entire staff, put his paws on my shoulders and buried his face in the crook of my neck and started a rumbling purr.  He rubbed his face against mine, never once letting go of his “hug” around my shoulders.  

I was eventually able to pick him up and move him to an empty cage while I cleaned his cage and gave him fresh food, water and a clean litterbox.  I was able to put him back in his cage without any fuss.  He kept rubbing up against the front of the cage even after I had closed the door, purring all the while.  The Beast had been tamed. 

He was never this calm with any of the other staff members after this experience, but he also wasn’t as aggressive anymore. I often wondered what changed for him that day.  Was it that someone didn’t expect him to be aggressive, so he didn’t act aggressive?  Had he just finally reached a point where he was so starved for human affection after a few days at the clinic that he realized how counterproductive his behavior was?  

Things aren’t always what they seem.  A fractious, aggressive cat may simply be starved for attention.  A big, intimidating tom with a name that is meant to inspire fear may be a great big teddy bear.  The lesson for me in this story was to trust my instincts.  It may not have been the smartest choice on a rational level, but it felt like the right thing to do.  Intuition never lies.