Cat Training

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!

My Cat's Suckling Fabric

Occasionally, cats get into behavior cycles that can be difficult for them to break out of.  Fabric eating, also referred to as wool eating, is just such a behavior.  Diane C. writes:

Should I be concerned about the fuzz my cat Bailey may be ingesting when she suckles on a blanket?

Diane, the short answer is yes, you should be concerned.  Not panicked or upset, but concerned.  When a cat ingests fibers, especially longer ones, they increase the possibility of intestinal blockage.  Just as cats should never be left alone with strings, they should not be allowed to suckle on fabrics like wool or fleece.

There's lots of conjecture about the causes for this suckling behavior.  Some think it's caused by early weaning and others think it's breed related.  Some also think it's due to malnutrition.  It also seems to be a stress response in that it comforts the cat when he or she suckles.  But the truth is that we just don't know for sure, so we need to treat this behavior with a multi-pronged approach.  

The first step toward breaking the cycle is to remove the items that Bailey likes to suckle on.  Don't worry - there are plenty of comfy places for her to sleep.  She won't miss the blanket too much.  If she chooses to suckle on something else, remove it as well.  Be diligent and make sure she can't get her paws on anything that she can extract fibers from.

Second, we want to address the underlying issues.  If Bailey is on an all-dry diet, now's the time to switch her to a high-quality wet food.  You want to make sure she's getting the best, high-quality proteins, lots of moisture, and no fillers.  If in doubt, you can see our cat food recommendations here.

If Bailey is an indoor-only cat, she may be bored.  It will definitely help her in many ways to have a couple of long (30+ minutes) play times each day.  If her temperament will allow, and she doesn't already have a kitty friend, it might be a good time to consider adopting a companion.  The important thing is to get her up and active and help her to build her confidence.  If she doesn't already have lots of places to climb and/or hide, you can add cat trees or boxes to enrich her environment.  The overall goal is to increase her stimulation.

You also want to make sure she isn't being stressed out by her surroundings.  She should have safe places - places where not even humans will touch her or move her.  These can be designated areas or enclosures where Bailey retreats to.  She should have a clean, open litter box that doesn't make her feel like she's trapped in a corner when she needs to go.  She should have plenty of windows to use to survey her territory.  

If you have multiple cats, Diane, make sure each has adequate resources, with their own individual window spots, litter boxes and feeding areas that aren't in the same room.  Just like a bully, an insecure cat may suckle inappropriately if there's a perceived lack of resources.

Look at Bailey's world from her point of view and you'll be well on your way to discovering exactly what's bothering her.  We wish you both all the best!

How to Redirect Cat Clawing

Cats don't just claw things because they like it - they have to perform this task every day.  It's an important way for them to shed the outer sheaths on their claws and it's also one of the many ways they mark their territory.  But what do you do when they choose to claw something other than their scratching posts?  Catherine W. writes:

Toby loves to sharpen his claws on my beautiful rug which is thicker than usual. He has other options available to him - scratching post, jute pieces etc. I’ve tried a variety of commercial products on the rug to discourage him. Do you know of anything that would discourage him but not harm him? Thank you!

Catherine, the process of training Toby is twofold - you have to get him to associate good things with the scratching posts you want him to use while you also discourage him from clawing your rug.  With patience and consistency, you should be able to fix this little problem.

First, take a look at Toby's scratching posts from his point of view and try to figure out what it is about the rug that he likes so much better.  Are the scratching posts tall enough for him to get a full reach?  If not, you may need taller posts.  Are they stable enough that they never feel like they may topple over when he claws at them?  If not, you can work to stabilize or replace them with something more stable.  Are they in the same area as the rug he likes to claw?  If not, move them.  Many cats prefer marking high-traffic areas to make sure passers by notice that they've claimed that spot.  Are the scratching post surfaces satisfying to Toby?  If he likes the rug better, what is it about the rug that he likes?  Maybe he likes a horizontal surface.  If so, there are many inexpensive corrugated cardboard scratchers that are horizontal.  Maybe he likes the feel of the carpet, in which case he won't like rough sisal scratchers.  Many cats prefer rough surfaces, but not all of them.

Once you've sorted out alternate scratching surfaces, take the rug away and clean it thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner like this one:

 
 

You'll need to remove all of Toby's scent markings from the rug and surrounding floor.  If you have a place to store the rug for a short time, it would be best to remove it entirely so it doesn't remain a temptation.  Just like humans, cats can get into behavioral patterns that are very hard for them to change.  If you can remove the rug long enough for Toby to establish a new scratching post pattern, it will be easier for him to continue with his new pattern than it is for him to resume the old one.

If you can't remove the rug, you can try using scents to keep him away from the areas you've cleaned.  A small, cloth or mesh bag filled with orange peels can be very effective, since most cats hate citrus scents.  You want to avoid any product, commercial or homemade, that uses essential oils as these have been shown to be harmful to cats.  The peels alone should give off enough odor to keep Toby away.

Once you have scratchers that you think should be to Toby's liking, you may need to show them to him and help him to associate good feelings with using them.  It may sound silly, but sometimes it helps to show him what you intend.  Put the scratchers in a prominent area and claw them yourself when he's around.  This not only illustrates what the post is for, it also deposits your scent on them.  If you see him examining the scratcher, give him a small treat.  If he uses the scratcher, wait until he's done and then praise him profusely and give him a treat.  Reinforce his behavior with rewards and he'll soon associate positive feelings with the surfaces you want him to use.

Of course, he may backslide and use the carpet again.  If he does, don't scold him or punish him in any way.  Cats never respond well to negative reinforcement.  The only message that Toby would get from such behavior is that you're not to be trusted.  Just continue to redirect the behavior by using positive reinforcement every time he gives his attention to the scratching post.

Catherine, we feel certain that with a little detective work and consistent behavior on your part, you should have Toby scratching his posts in no time.  We wish you all the best!

Help, My Cat's a Bully!

Sometimes, multi-cat households have compatibility issues.  This can even happen when the cats are litter mates who grew up together.  Susan B. writes:

I have two cats. One is a 6 year old girl called Polly and the other is an 18 month old boy named Chilli. Both have been fixed. I adopted Chilli in Feburary and I must admit I am regretting it as he seems a bit wild but still a lovely cat. So hoping he will calm down as he grows. But the problem is he chases and attacks Polly. He allows her in the house to eat and sleep but if she attempts to move around or go near my son who is 13yrs old, Chilli appears to get jealous. Both cats are treated the same. My son even attempts to stroke them both at the same time. Both cats even sleep on my son’s bed together without problems until Polly attempts to move. Please help me.

Susan, we certainly sympathize with your situation.  Almost all of us have had incompatibility problems with our cats from time to time.  It's easy to interpret the sort of behavior that Chilli is exhibiting as bullying, but they're cats, not people.  We have to look at their behavior that way and not interpret it in terms of human behaviors.  There is no such thing as "bad" behavior in a cat.  There is only the behaviors that humans desire from them and the behaviors we dislike.

The first step toward resolving this conflict is to stop blaming Chilli.  Something in his world is causing him to react this way.  He's just as unhappy as Polly, if not more so.  It can often seem like the aggressor is the cause of the problems in a situation like this, but every relationship is a two-way street.  

Our question is always, "How were the cats introduced?"  A poor introduction of putting them together and letting them work it out on their own can certainly create conflict.  For more on introductions, see this post. 

The main key to a happy multi-cat household is for the caregiver to provide adequate resources.  By that, we mean safe places to eat, eliminate, and rest without challenge.  Cats are highly territorial, so if there is a deficiency of resources, there are bound to be conflicts.  To keep your multi-cat household settled, you'll need to make sure the cats have what they need.  You need to provide at least one more litter box than there are cats, and the litter boxes must be in different rooms.  You should also provide each cat with their own set of food and water bowls that are far enough apart that the cats can't see one another when eating.  You can also help them by adding cat trees to insure that there are plenty of prime real estate spots for each cat to claim.  Vertical spaces and window spaces are both especially important.  You'll also benefit from having several good scratching posts.

With Chilli and Polly, resources may indeed be a factor, but based on your description of them, Susan, we suspect that there's also a personality mismatch at work.  As the younger cat, Chilli has probably been more playful and may have actually gotten his feelings hurt when Polly wouldn't indulge him at playtime.  In situations like yours, the newcomer cat will often bond with the resident cat more than with the resident humans.  If Chilli was rebuffed by Polly early on, he may now be holding a grudge against her.

So how do we change this behavior?  First, let's talk about what NOT to do.  Do not, under any circumstances, punish or reprimand either cat.  All that will teach the cat is that you are not to be trusted.  He or she is simply doing what a cat does in the given situation.  There should never be any punishment.  Never.

So what DO you do?  You must realize that there is no quick fix.  Imagine having an angry divorced couple living with you under the same roof and you'll have some idea of how long it may take to get the two cats to tolerate one another.  That's right--The goal isn't to have them become besties.  It's to have them tolerate one another and live under the same roof in harmony.

First, sort out any issues with resources, as listed above.  Make sure both cats have plenty of perches in different spots in your home.  Make sure their feeding areas and litter boxes are separated.  Make sure your family doesn't try to pet both cats at one time.  Separate them and have one family member play with one while another family member plays with the other.  

It's especially important that Chilli get lots of extra playtime to help him work out some of that young cat energy.  If you notice that Chilli is asking Polly to play, that's your cue to intervene with one of Chilli's favorite toys.  Redirect his play behaviors to the humans in the family and he'll be much happier.  And don't forget that Polly needs playtime too.  She just may not ask for it so vociferously.  Don't try to play with them at the same time, but if they end up playing together harmoniously, don't discourage it.

If, after a month or so of this behavior rehab program you still see very little in the way of results, you may need to step back and ask yourself if you need to resort to the third cat approach.  Many times when there's an energy conflict between two housemates, a third cat of the proper disposition can help dispel any conflicts by bridging the needs of the other two.  

If Chilli is indeed a high-energy, high-valiance cat and Polly is a low-energy, low-valiance cat (valiance is just a fancy word for courage), adopting a new kitten younger than both who is of medium valiance can actually help the entire family of cats to get along by fulfilling key roles for both.  The ASPCA has implemented a feline personality evaluation for shelters that they call Feline-ality.  Their goal is to have shelters adopt out more animals by matching a cat's personality to the new caregiver's needs and desires.  Here's a quick video about the program that was prepared for member shelters.

If Polly and Chilli are in opposite corners of the grid, you can help them by adopting a cat with a personality evaluation from the center square.  For more on these personality types, see this page at the ASPCA web site.  We don't always agree with everything the ASPCA does, but in this case, we feel that they're right on target.

Susan, we're confident that you'll be able to help Polly and Chilli get along better.  As with all things cat, the keys will be your own patience and continued love for both cats.  Please don't blame Chilli for being a young, energetic cat.  Both cats will undoubtedly enrich your life if you just help them over this little bump in the road.  We wish you all the best!