Crime & Punishment & Cats

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When a cat feels threatened, they often urinate outside the litter box and scratch things in order to feel better. Nicole F. writes:

My cat, Ghost, pees on my dog’s bed and in front of his litter box. We have three cats and three litter boxes. He does it sometimes out of spite. He was told “no” the other day and was pushed off something and then he went over to my dog’s bed and peed. He pushes the screens out on the patio and gets out all the time no matter how many times we fix it and I don’t want my cats outside. He shredded the carpet to the point it looked like spaghetti. Aside from Ghost’s disaster qualities, he is actually a pretty cool cat. How can I stop him from peeing everywhere?

It sounds like Ghost is feeling insecure. That can be difficult when a cat is as smart as Ghost is. He's going to find a way to make himself feel better, even if that means getting outside. He will also feel better if he spreads his scent around by urinating and scratching improper areas.

It's important to remember that cats don't act out of spite, ever. They simply don't have the capacity for that. It can be easy to interpret their behaviors that way because we're so used to looking at them as if they were small humans. They aren't, so the first step is to try and imagine the situation from Ghost's point of view.  He's clearly agitated, so what's upsetting him? 

Many times, there's a less visible aggressor in a multi-cat household and Ghost may be getting bullied. He may even feel bullied by you. You should never, ever shout at or push a cat off of anything. That's physical aggression in cat terms and most cats will respond negatively to it, just as Ghost has. When you get physical with him in any way, especially when you're upset, he will see you as a predator. All he will learn from those interactions is to fear you. He will not connect your aggressive responses to his own behavior. Cats do not have a pack mentality. They look upon us as equals, not as masters to be obeyed.

It will help if you offer more positive reinforcement. Instead of chastising him when he does something you don't like, treat him when he's behaving. When he uses the litter box appropriately, offer him a small treat. When he lounges in a spot you like him in, offer him a small treat. If he does something you don't like, overwhelm him with love and gently move him away. He may not enjoy being handled in this way, but he won't see it as aggressive, especially if you do it in a happy way. Be consistent in this behavior and you'll see change.

Think about altering your own behavior toward Ghost. You obviously care about him enough to reach out to us. Just take some time to consider how you might make him feel more secure. It will take time, but he will respond to your efforts.

There are even more good ideas in this previous post about helping a shy cat feel more secure: http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/helping-your-cat-feel-secure

Best wishes to you and Ghost!

Help, My Cat is Driving Me Crazy!

 This is Buddy. 

This is Buddy. 

While many cats are just happy to have a warm lap, a good meal, and a little playtime, there are those who demand extra attention. Pam C. writes:

I am having a problem with my two year old male ginger, Buddy. It use to be cute when he would try to get me up to feed him but lately he has become destructive. Now, if I don’t get up, he will knock pictures off my wall and knock over my lamp. I’ve never had a cat like Buddy. He’s been a challenge from day one. He’s killed all my plants and he’s killed three water fountains by tipping them over. By the time I got home from work the pumps had burned out. I’m just at my wits end. I don’t what to do with him. Getting a playmate is not an option and when I do play with him he has to stalk the feathers or red dot for ten minutes so I get tired of waiting. One day he stalked for so long that he fell asleep in his tunnel. What can I do?

Pam, it would appear that Buddy is bored and he's asking for help. Right now, he's training you, not the other way around. Buddy clearly needs more stimulation in his life. While another cat friend would certainly help, there are things you can do to help Buddy. We should warn you, though - some of these things are concessions on your part. With cats, we often have to give up certain things in our lives that don't quite jive with the life of a cat.

Our first suggestion is for you to stop reacting to the things Buddy does to get your attention. When you react, you show him that his method is working. Smart cats like Buddy know what buttons to push in order to get what they want. If you allow him to continue to succeed, you're just reinforcing the behaviors you dislike. If you ignore his antics, they will eventually stop. Yes, he'll probably try something else, but you have to be strong and not react.

Second, you need to start Buddy on a daily schedule. It will help him to be able to anticipate what's coming next in his day. Feedings should only ever be at particular times of day. Play times should be once in the morning and once in the evening for at least 30 minutes. His bedtime should be consistent and should happen right after he has his evening play time and feeding time. The natural rhythm of a cat's life is hunt, eat, sleep. You can take advantage of this by playing (hunting), then feeding him, then crashing with him. Use consistent words or phrases like "time for play" "time for food" and "time for sleep" every time so he learns to anticipate the order of things. He'll probably continue to ask to eat or play early, but if you're firm with him and only do so when it's time, he'll soon learn and be comforted by the routine. We like to use the phrase "not time yet" when food time is anticipated and requested by a cat. 

Play time is an important part of this for an intelligent cat like Buddy. He needs activity and stimulation in his day. If his current toys don't stimulate him to chase as much as you'd like, try something else. I've had tremendous success with "Da Bird", but there's a bit of trial and error in finding out what kind of play each cat reacts to. The laser toy is okay, but only if he's given a food reward when he "catches" the dot. Otherwise it can be highly frustrating because there's nothing to catch and satisfy his hunting instincts.

Once you get his play routine down, a smart cat like Buddy will usually respond well to clicker training and may even adapt to wearing a harness for outdoor adventures, but let's get him settled down a bit first.

It will also help Buddy if he has some vertical space, especially near a window. A tall cat tree beside a window that faces animal or human activity, even if it's traffic, will give Buddy something to focus on when you're away.

Environmental enrichment and novelty may help as well. That's just a fancy way of saying put some boxes around for him to explore. Add some holes and use the boxes during your play times with Buddy. Rearrange or replace the boxes fairly frequently. Every time you receive a delivery, think of the box as an added bonus - a toy for Buddy. Cats need new areas to be curious about and investigate. Outside, this is easy because the world is always changing. Indoors, you need to help provide him with that stimulus.

We'd also suggest involving Buddy in the things you do day in and day out. When you come home, offer to let him smell your hands so he can see where you've been. Scents are like stories to cats and they can be very entertaining. When you pick up something at the store, offer to let Buddy investigate it before you put it away. These little moments will add up to seriously enrich Buddy's world.

We hope that these suggestions help and give you even more to think about. Try to see the world from Buddy's point of view and it's very likely that you can get along quite well with your feline roomie! 

Why Does My Cat Only Eat the Gravy?

Some cats clearly prefer the juiciest wet foods that include "gravy". And some of those cats only want to lap up the juice! Shelton D. writes:

Why does my cat love that cat food with gravy then only slurps up the gravy part?!

Shelton, this behavior is more common than you might think. Many cats show a preference for the juicy part of foods with gravy.

Since most pet cats are descended from desert-dwelling wildcats, they have very low thirst drives, so it isn't thirst. It's more likely to be a concentration of the over-the-top flavor enhancers that are added to many cat foods.

Most commercial cat foods, even wet foods, have added flavors to entice cats since their core ingredients are often substandard and would not appeal to cats if offered without enhancement. Cats can become "addicted" to these extra-salient flavors and have their sense of taste dulled by them.

This is why many cats will only eat fish products with extremely fishy flavors. Cats in the wild rarely prey on fish, and pet cats often become allergic to fish proteins, but commercial cat food manufacturers continue to add fish flavors because they're so strong that they overpower the bad or bland tastes of the other ingredients. This can be especially problematic when trying to switch a cat from junk food to more healthy fare.

If you're interested in exploring more healthy foods for your feline friend, there's a great resource over at the Natural Cat Care Blog that lists all of the commercial cat foods they've tested in order of nutritional preference.

Best wishes to you and your gravy-lover! 

Help! My Cat Runs Outside Every Time I open the Door!

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Most indoor-only cats are quite content to live their lives in comfort in our homes, but those who are transplants can sometimes be a hard sell. If they've lived outdoors and enjoyed it, they may constantly try to get back out there. Dan C. writes:

I try not to let my cat Oscar outside too often. However, when people come to the door or the grandkids go and come outside, the cat rushes out. How do I teach Oscar not to rush out every time the door opens?

Dan, door darters like Oscar can really be worrisome as we all know what can happen to them out there in the world of mean people, predators, and traffic. Some people simply try to distract their cat when the door is opened, or put them in another room. We feel very strongly that it's possible to train a cat to observe this boundary through positive reinforcement. Of course, it will be much clearer to Oscar if he's never allowed outside at all. It'll be much easier for him to understand consistent rules that everyone in the household enforces. 

It's important to understand why Oscar might want to run outside. Many indoor cats are bored with their surroundings and see a lot of cool stuff happening on the other side of the window. You can help by making Oscar's indoor environment more interesting. This doesn't have to be expensive. If you get a package in the mail, cut the box flaps off and share the box with Oscar. When you come home with groceries, leave a paper bag out for Oscar to sniff and explore. Take every opportunity to add temporary playthings to Oscar's world. Smells are like stories to cats and bringing in interesting scents from the outside world can be highly stimulating.

The next step is to make the doorway less attractive to Oscar. Please note that cats do not respond well to negative reinforcement, so punishing Oscar in any way will only communicate to him that he was right to try and get away from you and your home. Instead, you want to get a good supply of his favorite treats ready. You're going to need them.

A lot of cats rush to the doorway when their humans leave or come home because they receive generous amounts of attention then. We want to change that by moving the area where Oscar gets greeted and given his farewells. We want him to associate positive things with that new spot in place of the doorway. It can be a bed, a cat tree, a mat on the floor, or any clearly defined area. 

Begin by calling Oscar over to the spot where you'd like him to be. When he gets there, offer him a treat and pet him. Once he's wandered away again, call him back and reward him again. Do this a few times each day until he eagerly runs to the spot you've chosen when you call him there. You can even give the spot a special name so he'll understand what you want. If he isn't interested, let it go for the time being and try again later. You want this to be a fun interaction for Oscar, not a forced training session.

Now, repeat this behavior each time you leave the house and each time you come home. Oscar should soon learn that being in the right place at the right time earns him attention. It also shows him that when the door opens, being at the door earns him nothing but a set of grabby hands intent on keeping him inside.

If his behavior persists (some cats can be very stubborn about this), a deterrent can be used. Our preference is for a citrus sachet made of fresh orange peels in a mesh bag that can be hung from the doorknob. One whiff of that should have Oscar recoiling from the door without blaming any humans for the offense.

Good luck, Dan. We wish you and Oscar all the best! 

My Cat Won't Use a Scratching Post

 This is Lucy. :)

This is Lucy. :)

When cats get busy scratching nice furniture, their humans can sometimes get upset. We usually recommend placing scratching posts near every spot they like to scratch the furniture. But what if they simply don't see the post as a viable place to scratch? Deborah A. writes:

Lucy is about 10 months old. We adopted her from a local animal shelter. She was a rescue from Hurricane Harvey. She has been a joy for my husband and myself, but she will not use any cat scratcher. We have tried four. She is not interested in catnip. Any suggestions are welcome.

Deborah, it can sometimes be difficult to find a scratcher material that certain cats are attracted to. Usually, the rougher the material, the better. In the wild, most cats use trees for this activity and they like trees with heavy, convoluted bark.

We've had the best luck with sisal scratchers, but cats can sometimes become fixated on very particular materials. We had an experience with one cat who would ignore every scratcher in favor of anything made of leather because that was what she'd first experienced in her original caregiver's home.

Our advice is to think outside the box. Bring in a piece of firewood with heavy bark. You might even nail it to a wooden base. There are wooden cat posts, of course, but until you find the material that Lucy responds to, why waste your money? Try berber carpet scraps wrapped around the wood if the wood alone doesn't work. Unfortunately, it's a bit of trial and error, but often the commercially available scratcher materials don't trigger the cat's scratching instinct.

You can also use the scratcher to scratch your own nails when Lucy is around. Ham it up and show her how good it feels. She may look at you like you've lost your mind but she may also copy your actions. Yes, it might feel silly, but some cats learn best by example. We've all heard the term "copycat", right? 

Be sure to keep Lucy's nails trimmed. If she isn't using a scratching post, this can be even more important than it normally would be. Scratching serves several purposes for cats, including shedding old nail sheaths to reveal new, razor-sharp claws underneath. You've probably seen the cast-off nails around your house.

As to the catnip, it's not uncommon for cats to ignore it. An estimated 30-50% of all felines lack the gene for the positive response to catnip. If Lucy doesn't care for it, that's okay. You can have her favorite treats on hand to reward her every time she approaches or sniffs her scratcher. Positive reinforcement works as long as you're consistent with it.

We hope these tips help, Deborah. All our best wishes to you and Lucy!