Cat Training

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! 

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!