How Can I Help My Cat to Understand My Vacation?

Mary's feline friend - Ms. Kitty

Mary's feline friend - Ms. Kitty

We all need a break now and then--a getaway from the routine. But cats LOVE their routines. How can we help them to understand that we'll be gone for a short time while a stranger cares for them? Mary V. writes:

I’ve never had a cat before. A lady moved from our Senior Park & left her cat behind. The cat ended up on our car & she looked skinny, so we fed her. For 6-7 months, she was only there for two meals a day with dry food available all the time (always outside). She eventually started to make up to us & came around more often. About five months ago, she came inside. She still goes out & runs the park with her other kitty friends but is always back. Some days she is in all day. The problem is, we are going on vacation for nine or ten days in July. We don’t know what to do with her. If we get someone to feed her outside here at our house, without going into the house, will she still be here & be our friend when we get back? I keep thinking she might think we are abandoning her like the other lady did. This weighs heavily on my heart. Ms. Kitty has become very close to me & I love this little girl. She is three years old. I just keep thinking about her rejecting us when we get back. HELP PLEASE! There isn’t anyone that will take her in, they have their own pets but someone will feed her.

Mary, it's clear that you care very much for Ms. Kitty. Cats certainly love the people that they're bonded to. Those people give them great comfort, but because of the way cats exist in nature's grand scheme, they derive even more comfort from their territory. Cats are intricately linked to their territory. They even develop systems of time-sharing in order to politely allow their territory to overlap with that of neighboring cats with minimal conflict. These social interactions are complex and slight ripples in the status quo can introduce a good deal of stress to a cat.

We tell you all of that to let you know how your absence will be perceived not just as your personal absence, but also as the absence of a big part of Ms. Kitty's territory - your home. Your home has become her safe zone - a place where she needn't worry about predators or other cats. A place where she's cared for. Cats don't understand or like closed doors because they limit their choices. Cats rely on being able to patrol their territory on a very specific schedule.

Our suggestion would be to have someone house sit for you while you're gone to maintain Ms. Kitty's access to your home. If not that, at least someone should open the door for her and allow her to check things out inside according to her usual schedule if possible. This visitor should be introduced to Ms. Kitty beforehand so that she knows you approve of this change. A nearby neighbor would be perfect.

If this isn't practical, and we do understand how it might not be, you could give Ms. Kitty an outdoor shelter to use as a safe space while you're gone. One can easily be made from a Rubbermaid type of container with a hole cut in one end and some bedding placed inside. The best bedding would be something that you've worn that has your scent on it. That way, Ms. Kitty will still be comforted by you even though you aren't there. It would be even better if she were introduced to this shelter inside your home for the time leading up to your departure.

It's important that you explain what's going to happen to Ms. Kitty. While she won't understand all of your words, she'll get the message. Cats are adept at deciphering our body language and facial expressions. That's how they usually communicate with each other. If you feel silly doing this, just do it when no one else is around. Show her the door and how it locks and then explain to her that you will be back. Make sure you introduce her to the person who will feed her as well. She may not give you her full attention so you may have to remind her as your departure date draws near. I know it sounds funny, but cats are as intelligent as a two year old child. She can understand. The longer you know her, the better she'll come to understand you.

When you take responsibility for someone else, especially an animal, it's important that you accept the whole of that responsibility. It sounds like you have, though we doubt the same was true of Ms. Kitty's previous human. We encourage you to make her an indoor-only or indoor-mostly cat. Cats aren't just predators, but prey for larger animals as well. There are also other dangers for them out there in the world, from diseases like FLV that they can pick up from other cats, to the imminent threat of traffic and humans who dislike cats. In the wild, most cats only live for three to five years. Indoor cats often live over 20 years with good nutrition and veterinary care.

We'd urge you to take the next step and make sure that Ms. Kitty gets to see a veterinarian at least once a year. If she hasn't been spayed, she needs that done ASAP. Most areas have groups that offer that service at low or no cost.

Thank you for loving her, Mary. You're making her life better. :)

Help, My New Cat is Afraid of Noises in My House!

We sometimes forget that our homes are unfamiliar places to a newly adopted cat. There are new sights, sounds, and smells that may overwhelm some kitties. Margaret H. writes:

I have a new adult cat named Jack who seems to be terrified of the sound my furnace makes. What can I do?

Margaret, your problem isn't uncommon, especially for new adoptions. Cats simply aren't prepared for a lot of the human things they experience in a new home. The more tentative a cat is to begin with, the more sensitive they are to unexpected sounds, sights, and smells. Sounds such as the one your furnace makes are sporadic and unpredictable, making them even more difficult to accept, but most cats will eventually come to accept them.

In most cases, it just takes time for a cat like Jack to become accustomed to the strange sound. As they hear it more and more frequently, they slowly come to realize that nothing bad happens to them after they hear it. There are a couple of things you can do to help speed along this acceptance.

First, you need to remain calm when Jack reacts to the sound. Nothing will reassure him more than your own casual acceptance of this horrifying noise. Don't even react to his reaction. Don't chase after him or even frown. If you choose to do anything, an offhanded statement of "It's okay - you're safe" will be enough. Then go back to whatever you were doing and allow Jack the time he needs to feel safe again. He has the hard work of realizing there's nothing to be afraid of. You need to allow him the time and space to do it. Just make sure you aren't adding to his stress. Give him an enclosed space in a place where he feels safe. That can be a place he retreats to and where you NEVER encroach upon him. Not even to pull him out to go to the vet. He needs to feel that he has a place where nothing can touch him, not even you. Then let him come out on his own.

If he faces the terrifying noise and chooses not to run away, or even not to run so far, reward him. One or two treats will help him to feel better about his courageous decision to face the horrifying noise. 

Given enough time, Jack will probably learn to be less afraid of your furnace, but he may never shed the fear entirely. Allow him that. I know you want him to feel safe and happy in his new home. Rest assured, even with the noises, you're home may be the safest place he's ever been. He needs time and patience in order to learn how to feel safe again.

Wishing you and Jack all of the best!

Help, My Cat's Afraid of the Vet!

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It's not uncommon for cats to dislike a trip to the veterinarian's office. In fact, it's so common that some cat caregivers give up on checkups altogether. All cats should see a veterinarian at least once a year. Senior kitties need biannual checkups. But what if your feline friend is so terrified by the vet that they go into fight or flight mode? Jen J. writes:

Tigger is a three year old male tabby. He was found on our porch when he was two months old. He is an indoor-only cat. We had him neutered & chipped. He is terrified of the vet. I’ve taken him to several vets and they can’t examine him, as he hisses, cries, growls, bites and defecates in his carrier. He’s VERY scared. Is there something I can request them to give him to calm him down enough to be examined? I’ve tried the pheromone sprays, putting his favorite blanket in the carrier, giving treats.....nothing works. He needs to see a vet about his eye health and general check-up. Any ideas?

Jen, it's important for all of us with feline friends to understand just how terrifying a general veterinarian's office can be for them. With their heightened senses of hearing and smell, they can perceive all manner of things - even other animals' illnesses and, sadly, even their deaths. Add to that a bunch of strange humans, barking dogs, blaring TVs in waiting rooms, etc. and it can be a genuine nightmare for a cat.

You've already approached this from the perspective of trying to associate good things with the vet trip. That's always the best place to start, but as you know, it doesn't always work. The vet's office is just too scary for a handful of treats to overcome. The same goes for pheromone sprays and other nerve-calming solutions. They're like an umbrella in a hurricane.

While they do work, we generally advise against the use of sedatives unless it's a last resort. You just never know how a cat's body will react to a particular sedative if they've never had it administered before. If the cat has a heart murmur or similar condition, sedatives can create more problems than they solve.

Jen, Our best advice for Tigger is not the easiest, but we feel it's the best choice for him if you can manage it. We suggest you find another veterinarian. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with the one you have, but there are now vets who cater specifically to cats. Even if they treat other species, many vets have created quiet exam rooms specifically for nervous animals. If one is available in your area, a vet who makes house calls is even better. Cats derive more comfort from their home territory than they do from treats, other friendly cats, or even us humans. Treating a cat like Tigger on his home turf could be just the thing he needs.

We wish you and Tigger all the best!

Help, My Cat is Bow-Legged!

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Whenever you notice a change in your cat, be it behavioral or physical, it's a safe bet that there's an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Claudia K. writes:

Sully is a five year old cat who I believe is healthy, however, for the past few days he has been walking bow-legged with his paws facing out. I can’t figure out why. I felt his legs and joints and nothing seems out of place. What could cause this? He has been losing weight and drinking and peeing a lot lately.

Claudia, cats can sometimes have a sudden onset of leg weakness (usually the hind legs) due to diabetes, a blood clot, epilepsy, or physical injury. Arthritis is also a possibility and some breeds are prone to hip dysplasia.

When you add in the facts that he's losing weight and drinking more than usual, the signs indicate diabetes. Diabetes is easily treatable and Sully can live a long and healthy life with the disease, but he needs to see a veterinarian ASAP.

If Sully's vet diagnoses him with the disease, your first order of business is to make sure he's on a low-carbohydrate diet. We have a post on this very subject here:

 http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/food-recommendations-for-cats-with-diabetes 

Diabetes has become a feline epidemic because of all of the high-carb foods in the marketplace these days. Many of the most popular brands of cat food, especially dry foods, are mostly carbs. Pet food manufacturers are literally getting away with murder by pushing these awful products on an unsuspecting public. The only way we can combat them is to educate ourselves on products that deliver a healthy, species-appropriate diet.

Be careful not to fall into the trap of prescription diets for diabetes. Many veterinarians prescribe them and cats seem to get better, but most of those diets are high-carb as well. Feline diabetes can actually go into remission if the cat is fed a species-appropriate diet.

You also want to make sure that Sully is getting plenty of exercise every day. At the age of five, he should have at least two thirty minute play times daily, during which he gets a vigorous workout. If you're having difficulty transitioning him to new food, it can help to have these play times right before meal times.

We wish you and Sully all the best!

How to Get Cats to Tolerate One Another

A lot of us humans live in a comfortable fantasy world when it comes to our feline friends. We think of them as children and we imagine we can just throw them together and they'll get along. This isn't usually the case. Michele S. writes:

Precious is a feral I’ve had for 11 years. Abigail and Alice are rescues I’ve had for 3 years. Mr. Snuggles is a dump that we have had for only a few months. We have had them all spayed/neutered. We have not been able to get them not to hiss, growl and stalk each other so they are in separate rooms and taken out in shifts to play and be with us. We love them all but this situation has taken over our schedule completely. The shifts begin at 6 AM and don’t end until 10 PM. How do we get all of these cats to at least tolerate each other as we are truly exhausted and have no time for us anymore. Thank you.

Michele, it sounds like you're really trying hard to make things work. Hopefully, we can help you get out of your current routine so you can spend more time enjoying your feline friends and less time managing them.

Since you're currently separating them, the best way to start the process of integrating your household is to treat them as new introductions. Yes, some bad feelings have already developed between them but the process of bringing in a newcomer can be effective in an instance such as yours. See our post on new introductions here: http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/introducing-a-new-cat . 

Resources are key as you begin the integration process. Cats will time-share limited resources and they feel most comfortable when there's plenty to go around. Make sure each has a feeding station that's not viewable from the others' stations. Make sure you have one more litter box than you have cats, so you'd need five boxes placed in different locations for four felines. Also make sure there is plenty of vertical space for the cats to share. They need to be able to get away from one another when need be.

We answered one reader's question about bullying behavior, but it goes into great depth about the interactions between cats. You may find it helpful, especially the part about different cat personalities and the valiance levels of different cats. You can find that post here: http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/cat-bully .

Michele, with some planning and perseverance, you can at least get your cats to tolerate one another. Don't expect them to become best friends overnight. There will certainly be setbacks and all hisses aren't bad. They're just a way a cat communicates that his or her perceived boundaries have been crossed. With plenty of resources, there should certainly be less hissiness, but it will take time. You also have to calm yourself in those situations and not inflate them with too much emotional intensity. At a certain point, the cats need to be allowed to work it out for themselves.

We wish you and your kitty friends all the best!