Cat Behavior

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!

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!

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!