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!

Teaching a Cat Good Manners

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A cat who doesn't have the benefits of a mother early on in life can often develop a few behavioral issues. Kate D. writes:

I have an eight month old neutered male cat I adopted from a local rescue about a month ago. He was bottle raised with his siblings after his mother passed a few days after having her litter.
The rescue explained that he could have some behavioral issues because he didn’t have a kitty momma to wean him properly or teach him manners.

He likes to snuggle up to my face while I’m sleeping and then he chews on my chin or nose. He also does this when I’m awake and petting him. There is zero aggression behind these bites. His body is relaxed, purring, ears forward, etc. I’ve tried to discourage this by gently pushing him away. When he bites I make a loud “ow!” noise and move away, stop petting, cuddling. But it hasn’t abated in the least, instead he seems more determined to get in my face and get a nibble.

I don’t want to ban him from the bedroom but 90% of these attacks happen at bedtime or the middle of the night. Is there anything else I can do to curb this behavior? I’ve tried playing with him before bed to tire him out (about an hour of dedicated play), but around 3 am he gets the urge to snuggle and bite.

Kate, teaching a motherless cat manners can be a long process. Mother cats basically bop their babies with their paw when they do things like this, which is fine if you're a cat, but when you're a gigantic, all-powerful human, any kind of hitting can induce fear. Cats should never be struck in any way. Even playful strikes will either convey aggression or an invitation to play rough.

Everything you were told is spot on. The only thing I would offer is to stop pushing him away. This is a sign to Rigatoni that you're inviting rough play. The only responses you can have are to indicate your distress (the higher the pitch of your "hurt" sound the better) and walk away. Leaving him alone in the room is the best option, though I realize this presents a problem when you're in bed. Still, these are things than can be reinforced throughout the day. You have to look for the warning signs of aggressive play and redirect it at all times. Every slip up when you or a family member think he's being cute, is a step backwards in his training. When you see him "stalking" your feet or sneaking up on you, simply redirect the behavior with a toy he likes.

In addition, I encourage you not to ever use your hands or feet as a toy for Rigatoni. Always direct him toward a toy that he can eagerly sink his teeth and claws into without hurting anyone.

One other thing that might help is the development of a bedtime routine. If you want to go to bed at 11PM, have a vigorous play session with Rigatoni and his favorite games around 10PM each night. Really get him going and let him exercise his hunting instincts. When he's done playing, feed him his evening meal. Then it's time for bed and Rigatoni should crash out. He may get up again during the night, but the more you repeat this schedule, the better he'll be at following it. 

Wishing you and Rigatoni all the best!

How to Avoid the Cat Belly Trap

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Cats occupy an unusual niche in nature - they are both hunter and prey. They've adapted well to both roles, but what happens when you trigger those hunting instincts? Becky S. writes:

We recently took in two semi-feral cats from the shelter, and they are awesome. The older of the two, Arlo (he is 4), loves to be petted so much. As you pet him, he throws himself down on his side or back for more love, but then he reaches for you hands as you continue to pet him, and gouges you in his effort to get you to love him more. What to do? It looks as though he is pulling your hand toward him so you will pet him more, but dang! Many hand gouges on mom and dad! I stop petting him then, but he seems confused at this. I think he confuses affection and play. How can we get him to stop “grabbing” us when we pet him?

Becky, what you're describing is what many cat lovers call the belly trap. For most cats, the exposure of their bellies is a hunting maneuver. A cat will grasp their prey in their front paws and roll over onto his or her back in order to use the rear claws to kick at the prey and kill it. So, for Arlo, it may seem that he's rolling onto his back to ask for more petting, and indeed he may be quite happy when he does so, but when you touch him in that position, your touch triggers his hunting instincts and he attacks. 

This is proper behavior for cats and not something you can change. You just need to be aware of it and avoid touching him when he rolls over like that. Some cats use this move to signal that they're becoming over-stimulated with touch and need a little break. The trick is to read his signals before they escalate. Notice his tail movement. If he's thrashing his tail back and forth, chances are he's being overstimulated and he's telling you he needs you to stop petting him for a few minutes.

Thank you for adopting! All our best wishes to you and Arlo!

Why is There Baggy Skin on My Cat's Belly?

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Cats have evolved in many ways to be fast and efficient predators. One of those highly evolved traits is very loose skin that allows cats greater flexibility and a greater ability to get away from other predators. But what about that extra skin that can be seen hanging off a cat's lower belly? Dan writes:

I have a male six month old kitty and lately I’ve notice his belly just in front of his rear legs is hanging down. When I have him lay on his back, I can feel what I’m hoping is fat but my five year old female cat doesn’t have it. I would have to describe it as looking and feeling like a fatty pouch. I hope that describes it correctly. Is this something to worry about?

Dan, it's very likely that what you're noticing is what's called a primordial pouch. Many cats have an apron of skin on their lower bellies that allows them greater flexibility when they run after prey. This skin flap actually allows their hind legs to extend further with each stride and give them greater speed. It's also theorized that it was a way for wild cats to store extra fat for times when food was scarce. Oftentimes, kittens have less of a skin "apron" than mature cats, but it does depend somewhat on the breed. It's easy to see this apron of extra skin on tigers and other large cats because of their size.

There's lots of misinformation out there about this flap of skin. Rest assured that it isn't related to gender or weight. It also has nothing to do with a cat being spayed or neutered. It's mostly related to breed.

If it feels like an unfrozen ice pack, Charlie is probably safe. If you feel harder lumps under the skin, you should probably have your veterinarian examine Charlie. Either way, you should probably mention your concern on your next vet visit.

We wish you and Charlie all the best!

Help, My Cat Has Shelter Fatigue!

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Most shelters are awful places for cats to be. They get locked in a tiny box with lots of scary sounds and bad smells that keep them from ever feeling safe. But what if a cat becomes accustomed to life in the shelter? Stephanie writes:

I adopted a cat from a local shelter at the end of July. The problem is that he spent six years there. He was dumped there with his siblings at about three months old. It was suggested that I keep him in a single room until he’s comfortable in his surroundings. There is a chair in the room that he hides under if any human is around. I moved it once and he nearly ran up the wall. I don’t know what to do. He eats well, uses the litter box and appears healthy. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Stephanie, thank you for adopting Alfie and giving him a forever home despite his fears. It's people like you who make the work we do so worthwhile!

The first thing to do is relax. If you're stressed by the situation, Alfie will certainly pick up on your feelings and react accordingly. At this point, it's best to treat Alfie as if he were a feral cat. Let him set the pace for your interaction and he'll come out of his shell gradually over time. 

We have a post on taming ferals. If you have a moment, please take a look at it here:  http://kittyhelpdesk.com/help-desk/-taming-feral-cat

There are a couple of things you can do to help him along. The first is related to the chair you mentioned. In his six years at the shelter, Alfie put up a number of defenses to protect himself. One of those was the need to retreat and hide in a safe place with close walls. He saw the area under the chair as his safe zone until you moved the chair and he realized that it wasn't safe at all. You need to give him his own little spot where, when he's there, you never interact with him. It can be a small cat cube or just a box with some holes cut in it. You might just crack a closet door so he can go in and out. But whatever you do, when he's there, you should never try to touch him or move him. He needs his safe hidey hole in order to gain the confidence to come out. Just knowing that he can retreat there can make a big difference for him.

Be careful to only use your closed hand when offering contact to Alfie. To a human, a fist means the threat of violence, but to a cat, it looks more like a paw. An open hand looks more like a paw with claws extended and is much more threatening to a cat. Add to that the fact that Alfie was very likely handled a lot at the shelter and you end up with a cat who may actually have developed a fear of grabby human hands.

One exercise that we've found to be very effective is to sit on the floor of the room where Alfie is and read quietly to him. Let him get used to your voice and your presence while you're focused on the book. Don't look at him or reach out to him, even if he initiates contact. This is how cats in the wild indicate their trustworthiness. It may take many sessions, but Alfie should eventually reach out to you. 

Stephanie, we hope you won't give up on Alfie. He has six years of confinement to overcome. It may take a long time, and he needs to take it at his own pace. He's still in a fight or flight panic mode based on his experience being confined for so long. Much like a human prisoner, the close confinement can actually become comforting.

It will always be two steps forward and one step back for Alfie until he finally overcomes his psychological hurdles. In order for you to be successful, you need to detach yourself from any particular outcome. If you're disappointed at Alfie's reaction, he will sense that. Try and be positive and take it as it comes. 

After six years in jail, he developed tools that helped him to survive. Please don't confuse survival with thriving. Yes, he survived, but he will never thrive in a cage. He can eventually thrive in your home and under your care but it will take a long time. He knows that. he's just working from the toolkit he has and that toolkit was built from fear.

One additional thing that may help is to add another, very low-key and friendly cat to the mix. A second cat can often help assuage these situations by being a buffer for the frightened feline. A kitten may have too much energy for Alfie, but a young, laid-back cat could be just the thing. It just has to be the RIGHT cat. A domineering cat certainly wouldn't do him any good right now.

I encourage you to try and be nonchalant about his situation when he's hiding. Just go about your business and try your best to be optimistic, especially when you're around him. Believe me when I say that Alfie will pick up on that. These things often require a lot of time--sometimes a year or more for significant progress, and you've already seen some good progress from Alfie already. Relax and enjoy the process. With a lot of patience and a relaxed attitude, you can work wonders with Alfie. We wish both of you all the best!