cat found in swamp

For a time, I lived in the Florida Keys, about 50 miles north of Key West. Half of the island where we lived was owned by the Nature Conservancy and was a natural habitat of mangrove swamps, alligators, snakes and raccoons. There were some feral cats in the Conservancy reserve.

One summer, there was a litter of 4-5 kittens that we saw playing with their mother near the side of the road. In a few weeks, these cats had disappeared with the exception of one little female kitten, who continued to return to the side of the road. We used a Havaheart trap to bring the small kitten home. It was October so we named the orange and black kitten Pumpkin.

Throughout her life, Pumpkin was prone to bouts of bloody urine and not using the litter box. Antibiotic treatment was palliative at best; x-rays and ultrasounds did not reveal any medical causes. She was affectionate but she did not like the other cats. She seemed happiest when my son took her with him when he moved.

Cats’ health and stress…

Veterinary medicine for cats has advanced in the past few decades. If Pumpkin were alive today, she might be diagnosed with FIC, or Feline Idiopathic Cystitis. Idiopathic means that although we recognize the condition we don’t know the cause of it; cystitis refers to inflammation of the bladder.

Cats that suffer from frequent FIC episodes handle stress differently than other cats – they do not release stress hormones such as cortisol in the same way “normal” cats do.

Cats prone to FIC

  • have lower levels of cortisol in their bloodstreams compared to “normal” cats.
  • have higher levels of the “fight-or-flight” hormones.

Like interstitial cystitis in humans, stress contributes to flare-ups of FIC, making a cat sick from stress.

 Cortisol is a potent anti-inflammatory hormone – the lack of cortisol can result in increased inflammation in the body, in this case, the bladder.

Ways to Reduce your cat’s stress at home…

Cat napping on dresser
Gus takes a break on a blanket on a dresser.

Make sure each cat has a safe place – a place that is secure and secluded, a hiding place to retreat to.

Safe Place

Feeding stations for cats
Gus is much more relaxed when eating away from the other cats.

Have several feeding stations, water stations, and litter boxes spread through out the house or apartment.

House map cat resources
A simple sketch of your house can help with locating litter boxes.

Draw the paths a cat must take to get to her food, water and litter boxes in your house. Is there plenty of room for cats to pass other pets and humans?

cat with wand toy
Zelda plays with a toy mouse on a wand toy.

Good kharma with humans.

  • Greet your cat before handling him or her.
  • Have a daily routine for grooming and play.

Positive cat-human interactions

Marley marks the corner wall at the top of the stairs.

Cats communicate  by smell.

  • Use pheromone diffusers in the safe places.
  • Don’t use of strong smelling cleaners.
  • Scoop litter boxes daily.

The Colony Scent

Outside the home – what can make a cat sick from stress

Your cat may view neighborhood cats or other animals coming to the windows and into the yard as threats to his territory. Territorial threats can make your cat sick from stress. Consider…
  • A cat fence can keep other cats from entering the yard
  • Have scratching posts at doors and windows so that the resident cats can mark their territory.
  • A motion-activated sprinkler can help deter animals from coming into your yard.
There is no substitute for appropriate and timely medical care. However,  increased stress contributes to flare-ups of not only FIC,  but other conditions such as chronic diarrhea and overgrooming.

Pumpkin lived to be 17 years old. She was euthanized due to complications of chronic kidney disease. I wish I knew then what I know now – her life may have been less stressful and more comfortable.


Why do cats roll over?

There is nothing like a good roll if you are a cat.
Zelda dashes outside and makes a beeline to one of her favorite rolling spots. She flops down and wriggles back and forth over on to her back with her legs in the air. Her chosen spots have very fine dirt and her dark brown coat changes to a sandy color when she is done.

Zelda’s housemates also indulge in rolling these spots with the fine powdery dirt. It does not matter to Gus that he is wearing his harness – that gets coated with a fine layer of dust too!

cat rolling over with toy




Rolling requires that a cat feels safe and secure, after all, the full body roll exposes the vulnerable belly.

When do cats roll over?

  • when playing with toys, especially those catnip toys
  • greeting friendly cats and humans
  • when inviting another cat, human, or dog to play
  • female cats in heat roll over in front of prospective mates
  • female cats also roll vigorously after mating
  • cats roll when they are feeling good and find a good spot!

Other thoughts on why cats roll over

  • Some folks think that cats of a lower social rank roll in front of higher ranking cats. It would seem risky to expose your belly to a cat who may not respond in a friendly way. Why not just try the tail up signal – at least, you would be on your feet ready to run if the other cat is aggressive.
  • Another idea is that cats are spreading scent on the ground from glands in their skin. You would think if this were the case, cats would be sniffing the ground carefully before or after they roll. I have not seen my cats do this.

The feline purrspective…

If your cat flops down in front of you and rolls over on his back, it is a friendly greeting. He may be feeling playful and is up for a few rounds of laser tag or a session with that wand toy with the feathers at the end. He is feeling good, and feels safe and secure.
Greet him and allow him to sniff your hand, before giving him a head rub and perhaps, some playtime.

Although it may seem that he is begging you to rub his belly, most cats are just letting you know that they feel playful, safe and secure. Your cat may view rubbing his tummy as aggressive and respond with teeth and claws!  Of course, there are cats who seem to enjoy a belly rub. Make sure that you know the cat before putting your hand into the “bear trap”.

Your cat’s tail helps him balance when he is running, jumping and doing the high wire walk on the fence railing. Your cat’s tail can also tell you a lot about his mood. Is it gently swishing side to side? Flicking back and forth rapidly? Puffed up with the fur standing on end?

With some cats the tail is always in motion, unless they are asleep. Gentle swishing side to side may indicate your cat is attentive and focused on something. The tail starts flicking back and forth rapidly when your cat has sighted prey or is getting ready to pounce, on a mouse, toy or another cat. This may not be the best time to snuggle!

Of course, when the tail is puffed up like a Halloween cat, owner beware! It may be that your cat or kitten was startled by something, is fearful or ready to go on the warpath! Take care when handling her.

cat with tail up

You may see a cat hold his tail up, almost vertical.  Sometimes there may be a little hook at the end or the tail might droop over his back toward his head.

Why my cat holds his tail up…

This posture, called “tail up”, may just indicate that a cat is confident and happy. However, “tail up” also gives cats a way of signaling each other that they are friendly and don’t want to fight. Cats being solitary hunters want to avoid fighting and injury. If they are injured, they will have difficulty hunting and may starve.

Using “Tail Up”to Communicate

  • When a cat approaches another cat with his tail up, he is signaling the second cat that he has friendly intentions. Let’s say that the other cat holds his tail up in response. If the two cats are members of the same social group, they may then proceed to touch noses or rub up against each other.
  • If the second cat does not respond with a “tail up,” the interaction may end.
  • Cats often approach humans with a tail up. Community cats will acknowledge their human care takers with “tail up” at feeding time. Owned cats acknowledge their owners as part of their social group with a “tail up”, often followed by a head rub.
  • The “tail up” signal may also indicate some social ranking in the cat colony – a cat holds his tail up when approaching another cat with a higher social standing.
Researchers presented neutered male feral cats with a silhouette of a cat with its tail up and another silhouette of a cat with its tail down. They found that the cats were quicker to approach the tail up silhouette and were more likely to respond with a “tail up” signal. The cats tended to adopt a more aggressive posture when approaching the tail down silhouette. [The social function of tail up in the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) S. Cafazzoa,∗, E. Natoli]

Where does tail up come from?

We will probably never know exactly how the tail up signal originated. We do know that kittens approach their mother with their tails up and often rub against her chin, perhaps soliciting food. Kittens will also approach other adult cats with their tails up, discouraging an unfriendly response. Kittens most likely learn the tail up signal from their mothers.

Lions with tail up

That other social cat…

Interestingly enough, tail up is also a greeting behavior shown by the other social cat, the lion. Both domestic cats and lions form social groups clustered around a core of related females. The lion and domestic cat both belong to the family felidae but are members of different genera -the lion belongs to the Panthera, the cats that roar; our cats belong the genus Felis, the cats that purr.  Most likely, the  “tail up” signal evolved separately in each species in response to similar social pressures.

The domestic cat forms social groups when there is plenty of food available.  Over the centuries, cats have developed the “tail up” signal to let other cats know that they are friendly and do not wish to fight.

Aggression Between Cats After a Vet Visit

Zelda, my 5 year old Maine coon cat, went into the vet clinic on a Tuesday to have her teeth cleaned and to finish her lion cut that I started the day before. Zelda did well with anesthesia, teeth cleaning and lion cut. Upon returning home, Zelda stayed in the master bedroom for a few more hours for her anesthesia to wear off.

In the past, there has been some aggression between cats after one of the cats comes back from his or her veterinary visit.  In particular, Gus, my former street cat, has been aggressive towards the other cats when they come home from the hospital.  So, I made sure that the Feliway multi-cat pheromone diffuser was plugged in and bagged up the blanket Gus sleeps on for Zelda to use in her carrier on the way home.

In spite of all my precautions, Gus was agitated and aggressive not only with Zelda, but also with the older cats, Marley and Athena, when I let Zelda out of the bedroom for dinner. Not only did he strike at the other cats when they got too close, he went out of his way to strike at them if they were out of reach.

Cat in his safe place
Gus is in his chair in his safe place, the back office.

The aggression between cats continued into Wednesday and I found myself starting to lose my patience with Gus, who was the instigator. So time for some “tough love” – Gus was asked to go to his safe place. The door was closed and he spent the afternoon in the back office with some treats and his snuffle mat.

His attitude was much better when he was released at dinner time. The next morning, Thursday,  Zelda greeted him with a quick lick that he was not overly enthused about but he accepted.

What is the take-away here?

The smell of the vet clinic is disturbing to Gus – he associates it with unpleasant experiences. I also think he finds it confusing and frightening when his housemates smell like the hospital – he is not sure who they really are and this makes him anxious and afraid. 

The safe place smells familiar and is quiet. It conveys a feeling of calm and safety and this helped Gus change his emotional state. By the time dinner came around, Zelda’s “hospital” smell had faded a bit more and the dinner routine helped reassure Gus. He remained calm and did not go out of his way to swat the other cats.

Going to the safe place is not a like the time-out used with human children. The time-out spot for children is a spot with minimal stimulation and away from other people. The idea is to remove the child from whatever was reinforcing the undesired behavior and have him/her calm down, link his or her behavior to the wrongdoing, and change it. 

Your cat will not link misbehavior with being isolated (human toddlers have trouble with this also). The safe place is not a punishment – it has all your cat’s resources (litter boxes and toys) and allows you to remove him from whatever is stimulating the “bad” behavior, in this case, the aggression between cats. The safe place should convey a feeling of calm to your cat and change his emotional state, from one of possible arousal and fear to one of calm and security. Once your cat feels calm and secure again, you will be able to interact with him and communicate with him – he should be able to respond to any training he has had.  In this case, if reintroduction is not successful after some “quiet time”, you may need to try a more gradual reintroduction.  See Introducing Cats: A Short Guide

Easter Egg


Happy Easter from The Feline Purrspective! Click on the egg for cats playing an Easter game!