Cat Training

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! 

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. :)

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!

Should I Toilet Train My Cat?

There are lots of litter boxes on the market today, all of which are vying for the attention of cat lovers. However, when choosing a litter box, it's much more important to get the approval of the cat (see our litter box & litter recommendations here). Litter boxes with hoods and motors and tumblers may seem super cool to us humans, but they aren't always welcomed by our feline friends. And then there's the toilet. Maggie S. writes:

I’ve seen videos and reports online that say that cats can be trained to use a toilet instead of a litter box. How can I teach my cat, Baxter, to do this?

It sounds great, doesn't it, Maggie? Baxter could just perch up on the toilet seat, do his business, and be on his way without all the muss and fuss of keeping up a litter box! No sweeping up or vacuuming. No more lugging 25 pound boxes of litter home from the store. No more odor. It sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? That's because it is.

While it is possible to teach a smart cat like Baxter to use the toilet, it's not such a good idea for him in the long run. The reason? It introduces stress to an activity that's ingrained in your cat's biology. Over thousands of years, cats learned to cover their waste to keep from being detected by predators and prey. When this is forcibly changed, a large number of behavior issues can be the result. It's just not worth it for you or for your cat.

These are the key reasons not to toilet train a cat:

  1. It goes against a cat's instinct to dig and bury their waste.
  2. Litter box odors reinforce a cat's claim over their territory.
  3. As Baxter ages, he'll no longer be able to nimbly perch atop the toilet seat and is more likely to fall in.
  4. When he's boarded or kept in veterinary care, a litter box will be the only option.
  5. You can't move a toilet. The location of Baxter's litter box is critical to his elimination behaviors.
  6. If you have more than one cat, you should have one more litter box than the total number of cats. That doesn't really work with toilets.
  7. It makes it impossible for you to monitor urine output. Changes in urine output are key indicators to medical conditions like bladder stones and urinary tract infections.

So, while it seems like a great idea from the point of view of us humans, Maggie, toilet training Baxter will probably cause him great stress. It's better to focus your time with him on playing games and giving him positive reinforcement that increases your bond. You might even like to try clicker training. We wish both of you all the best!

How to Redirect Chewing Behaviors in Cats

Most cats love to rub their faces on the edges of things to deposit their scent there. It's very satisfying for them to do so. But what if that rubbing becomes chewing? Judy C. writes:

My cat, Buffy, chews metal. She has chewed off bars for adjusting a lamp and has chewed a hole in a window screen. Not sure why she does this.

Judy, what cats choose to rub on depends greatly on what items are available to them. Things that stick out, like the bars on your lamp, are prime choices because they're easy to access and the ends rub Buffy's face in just the right way to satisfy her.

Our black spokescat loves to rub her face all over a used coffee cup because she likes the feel of the edge of the cup and the smell of the coffee.

It's a short step to go from rubbing on something to chewing on it and Buffy's clearly taken that step. You need to redirect her rubbing and chewing toward something she'll like even better. Many cats respond to the prickly surfaces on toys such as these self-groomers:

All three of these have been a huge hit in our house! To get Buffy to transition, you might want to put one of these toys close to spots where she used to rub against the lamp. Cats are creatures of habit, so it may take a little bit of time to get her to move to the new groomer, but once she tries it, she'll probably like it much better than the prickly metal she's been using. Just observe her and make sure she isn't chewing bits off the groomers. The nubs are usually short enough that this isn't an issue but with a particularly chewy cat, it's a possibility.

You'll also want to discourage Buffy from using the old items, so just rub a little bit of lemon juice on them. Cats generally hate citrus and one whiff should send her running to her new toy. It also has the advantage of not having anything but natural ingredients. Never use a citrus cleaner or air freshener for this purpose as they often contain things that could actually kill cats! Just use plain old lemon juice.

You should be able to redirect Buffy's behavior, but it will take a little time. Just be patient with her and you should see results. We wish you and Buffy all the best!