Fighting cats

If your cats get along well, they will share sleeping areas, engage in some allogrooming, and greet each other on occasion by touching noses. Well, you say, my cats aren’t very good friends but they aren’t trying to kill each other, either. What are the signs of conflict? What should we look for to avoid getting to the point “they want to kill each other”?

The 2020 survey referred to in last week’s post not only assessed affiliative behaviors, they also polled respondents on conflict behaviors. They chose seven behaviors associated with conflict. These are listed below with the frequency reported by the participants of the survey. (Elzerman AL, DePorter TL, Beck A, Collin JF. Conflict and affiliative behavior frequency between cats in multi-cat households: a survey-based study. J Feline Med Surg. 2020 Aug;22(8):705-717. doi: 10.1177/1098612X19877988)

Behavior Frequency Rank
Stare daily 7 – Most frequent
Stalking daily 6
Chasing daily 5
Running away weekly 4
Twitching Tail weekly 3
Hissing monthly to never 2
Wail/Scream monthly to never 1 – Least frequent
     

How do your Cats Get Along?


Let’s take a closer look at these conflict behaviors.

THE STARE


 

A cat will stare without blinking:

  • at prey while hunting – he is aware of where that animal is and what it is doing, otherwise he may miss out on dinner!
  • during a cat fight. Fighting cats must be able to rapidly respond if the other launches an attack.
  • to discourage another cat from accessing a resource.

 

Cat blocking other cat
Zelda looks innocent but she is keeping another cat from going through the door.

If you see one of your cats fixing an unblinking stare on another, take note of the circumstances and see what happens if you intervene. For example, if one cat is staring at another cat and is sitting in a doorway, she may be blocking the other from resources through that doorway.

Interrupt the stare by opening the door wider, throwing a treat away from the doorway, or redirecting the “door-blocker” with a toy. Does this give the other cat a chance to get through the doorway? If this is successful, you may want to look more closely at how these two cats get along.

Avoid handling the cats in this situation in case they are more aroused than they appear.

 

Stalking, Chasing and Running Away


These behaviors may be associated with:

When hunting, the cat is targeting a toy or prey. It is object play. But how do we know whether two cats are fighting or playing? After all, many of the same moves in a cat fight are seen when cats play together.

Just like a football game, play between cats has distinct rules. And, like football, tempers may flare when a player challenges the rules. What starts as play can escalate into a cat fight.

invitation to play

play sequence

Cats chasing each other

end of play

Play is over

Are these cats playing?

Social play consists of an invitation to play, the play sequence, and the end of play. The rules are:

  • Claws are not extended
  • Biting is gentle without intent to injure
  • The invitation to play is often repeated by one or the other of the cats throughout the interaction.
  • If one cat declines play (there may be some hissing and growling here), the game ends.

If you see that the “rules” are not being followed, it is time to shake a bag of treats or can of coins and redirect or separate the participants. [see Managing the Indoor Cat Fight].

Check all your cats regularly for wounds from bites and scratches.  If you notice your cats having a lot of wounds from scratches or bites and they “play” together, this may not be play. It may be conflict and it is time to observe the cats, assess their environment and social status.

Twitching Tail


A twitching tail indicates that a cat is focusing on something. The tail is for balance and changing direction – the tail often twitches before the cat pounces.

  • The twitching tail + stare > pounce: Is this play? conflict?
  • Are the rules of play being followed?
  • A map of the social groups in the house can help with deciding whether this is play or conflict.

Vocalizations – Hissing


The hiss is that snake-like sound. Cats may hiss when they are:

  • afraid
  • startled
  • frustrated
  • displeased
  • You will hear it in a cat fight, often from the cat on the defensive.

Vocalizations – Wailing/Screaming


Cats will wail or scream:

  • if they are fearful
  • if they are hurt and in pain
  • if they are fighting

You must decide from the circumstances and the body language of the cat or cats if these vocalizations are meaningful. If it is a cat fight, the combatants must be separated [managing the indoor cat fight]; if a cat is hurt, you must get the cat in a box or carrier for a trip to the vet.

Don’t wait for a fight to break out. Take a few moments to determine if your cats get along and if there is anything you can do to improve things.

  • Map social groups [Social Groups of Cats]
  • Draw a house map of resources (litter boxes, food stations, water, scratchers). Draw paths showing how cats reach these resources.
  • Move furniture if necessary to make accessing resources easier for all cats.
  • Make sure there sufficient resources for the number of cats.

Next week, we’ll take a look at describing individual cats’ personalities. How does this affect how cats get along?

Want to keep up with the world of cats?  Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

 

Subscribe

Affiliated cats
Gus and Zelda are not a bonded pair but do groom each other.

 

Have more than one cat? How do your cats get along? Are they “bonded” or affiliated?

If there is a reliable source of food, free-roaming cats will often form groups called colonies. Within the colony, there are smaller groups of 2 or more cats that prefer to spend time together. These cats are comfortable sharing resources such as food, water, latrine areas, sleeping and resting places.  Some refer to these cats as “preferred associates”; others call them bonded or affiliated. 

This post is the first in a 3 part series of “How do your cats get along?”: 1) signs of affiliation 2) signs of conflict 3) personalities in the multi-cat home.

 

 

 “Preferred associates” show affiliative behaviors.  You may find them:

  • snuggled up taking a nap
  • rubbing against each other when greeting
  • grooming each other
  • “play” fighting
  • twining their tails together

Not all cats have preferred associates. Within the cat colony may be “groups” of just one cat, who keeps to herself but shares the colony territory and resources. So, not only is there the strong bond of the preferred associates, there is also the looser affiliation of the members of the cat colony.

Multi-cat homes host ad hoc cat colonies. When I am taking a history for a veterinary exam, I usually ask guardians with more than one pet how their cats get along. The big three questions for multi-cat homes are:

  • Do your cats sleep touching each other?
  • Do they play together, with claws sheathed and taking turns?
  • Do they groom each other?

These 3 questions barely scrape the surface of how cats get along and whether or not there is potential for conflict or ongoing conflict in the home. Like human social relationships, relationships among cats can be complex.

A survey of 2492 multi-cat households published in 2020* set out to see if there was a relationship between household factors (type of house, number of litter boxes, feeding stations, scratching posts), and how often affiliative and conflict behaviors were seen.

*Elzerman AL, DePorter TL, Beck A, Collin JF. Conflict and affiliative behavior frequency between cats in multi-cat households: a survey-based study. J Feline Med Surg. 2020 Aug;22(8):705-717. doi: 10.1177/1098612X19877988.

Affiliative behaviors in cats – from most frequent to least frequent


sleeping in the same room


Cats share a sunny sleeping place.Cats don’t have to be “preferred associates” to choose a spot in the sun in the same room as a housemate cat. As long as there is plenty of space, peaceful coexistence should be possible.

 Most frequently seen affiliative behavior – multiple times a day

allogrooming


Allogrooming refers to a cat grooming another cat by licking around the head or ears. It occurs most frequently among cats that are related…BUT … it is not restricted to family groups. It can be a way for cats to redirect potential aggression. A few quick licks to the head can soothe a would-be combatant, avoiding a fight. Sometimes, you will see cats who are not particularly chummy grooming each other’s head or neck.

Frequency – several times a day

Sleeping Touching each other


Two cats share a basket

I view sleeping snuggled together something bonded cats do whereas the casual touch of cats napping next to each other indicates a weaker affiliation.

Frequency- several times a day

Touching noses


Kittens at Kndergarten
Kittens at “kitten kindergarten” session

Colony cats touch noses when returning from foraging or hunting. Each colony has its signature scent that helps the members of the colony identify each other. House cats being inside all the time may not need to engage in this identifying behavior as much as their outdoor counterparts. However, a cat who has been to the veterinary hospital may not smell quite right to his housemates and peaceful coexistence can be disrupted.

Frequency – once a day

Why isn’t play in the list of affiliative behaviors?
Play between cats incorporates more than one basic behavior. Because social play between cats is “play fighting” and can easily escalate into a fight, behaviors like chasing and stalking are often categorized as conflict behaviors.  (See cats at play: a guide to mutual social play)

There are many other things that cats do that may be “affiliative” – tail-twining and rubbing up against each other – that were not included in the study above. However, this basic list can give you an idea of whether harmony reigns in your cat kingdom. Pay attention to how your cats get along and to their body language when interacting.

Next week, we will take a look at “conflict” behaviors and how frequent the survey found them to be.

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

 

Subscribe

Cat with toy box
Gus investigates a cardboard box with cat toys. Holes cut in the box allow him to pull out the toys.

Giving your cat a chance to play is one of the essentials of a cat-friendly home. In this instance, we are not talking about the social play of affiliated cats – you know, where the cats wrestle and chase each other. This post is about allowing your cat some “hunting practice”.

Giving your cat a chance to play


Object Play


Kittens start to become more interested in playing with objects around 10-14 weeks of age, although they will certainly continue to chase and wrestle with each other. Object play helps develop problem-solving skills they can use in getting food – if they are wild, it will help them hunt. Object play also helps them hone and practice the skills they need to catch prey.

Object play is what it says it is – the cat engages in exploring and manipulating an object. Even if you are holding the “Da Bird” wand, your cat is playing with an object – “Da Bird”. Most of the play that we engage in with our cats is not social play. It is “object play”.

We humans can easily mistake fluttering our fingers and wiggling our feet as invitations to social play with our cats – don’t be fooled: our cats see our hands and feet as objects, and will attack with unsheathed claws and sharp teeth.

Giving your cat a chance to play – toys


Cats are born hunters. In the wild, they spend most of their waking hours seeking food. The object play that they engaged in as kittens helps them pounce and trap mice with their paws.

Crinkly balls, catnip mice, plastic rings – these provide opportunities for exploration and manipulation. Try to arouse your cat’s predatory nature through textures, scents and sounds.  Consider the tactile appeal of the toy – is it mouse-sized?

  • Change toys out regularly to keep kitty’s interest. 
  • “Marinate” sets of toys in plastic boxes with some catnip, silver vine or tartarian honeysuckle sawdust to stimulate your cat’s sensitive sense of smell.
  • Bells and chirping toys can get your cat’s interest.
  • Some cats like pulling toys out of boxes.

Games we can play with cats


When giving your cat a chance to play, mimic how prey moves.  Watch a video on the Internet of mice – they move in short spurts, zigzagging around. 

How to Play the Game

  • If you are using a wand toy like “DaBird”, attach a mouse toy to the clip at the end.
  • Pull it past your cat in spurts; zigzag a little.
  • Avoid flicking the mouse toward the cat – a mouse runs away from a cat!
  • Once your cat grabs the mouse, stay still.
  • He should let up after a while – that’s when the “mouse” makes a run for it and the game is on again.

Giving Your  Cat a Chance to Play – Food Games


Food puzzles elicit foraging behavior from cats. It may take your cat a while to engage in this if he is free-fed. You may want to consider meal- feeding and making puzzle time a meal.

There are many puzzles you can make or buy. Pick one that suits your cat’s personality.

Tossing treats or your cat’s dry food encourages him to use his sight, hearing, and smell to locate the food item. Be sure to include this in his daily calorie count.

If you have more than one cat playing treat toss, assign each cat a “runway”. This will avoid scuffles and ensures that everybody, from young active cats to seniors, successfully hunt down the food.

the emotions of play


Physical play is fun. Your cat enjoys her catnip mouse – it smells good and it is just the right shape and size for her to toss and dance around with. Food puzzles are more like us playing games – they are still fun but depend on some learning and memory. It is still satisfying to get the treat or pull the mouse out of the hole.

Frustration

Play should be challenging but not impossible to get the prize! If the task is too hard, cats, like people, become frustrated, give up, or may become obsessed with trying to get the unattainable prize.

A recent survey-based study looked at the use of laser light pointers for play and the occurrence of “abnormal repetitive behaviors” linked to feline compulsive disorders. The abnormal behaviors included:

  • chasing lights or shadows
  • staring “obsessively” at lights or reflections
  • spinning or tail chasing
  • fixating on a specific toy

The research team found significant links between frequency of Laser Light Play (LLP) and these behaviors. However, only half of the cat owners surveyed actually used a laser pointer to play with their cats and those that did, spent more time playing with their cats using other toys. (Kogan, L.R.; Grigg, E.K. Laser Light Pointers for Use in Companion Cat Play: Association with Guardian-Reported Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors. Animals 2021,11, 2178. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11082178)

LLP is thought to be frustrating for cats as they can’t catch the light. In my experience, the laser light is interesting initially and then cats grow bored with it – after all, they can’t catch it.

If your cat enjoys playing with a laser pointer, be sure to end the session with the satisfaction of  catching the prize – direct the light to target a favorite toy or treat.

Using a laser pointer to target a treat
The laser guides Gus to a treat at the end of the play session.

Computer games for cats and videos of mice and birds fall in the same category as LLP. The cat cannot physically catch the prey on the screen and finds this frustrating.  Some comments on these videos often remark that the cat is obsessed with the video!

Giving your cat a chance to play is important for his mental and physical welfare. Engage your cat with toys at the end of a wand or give him the whole body experience of toys he can lick, kick, manipulate and smell. Ditch the computer games and videos – let your cat have the satisfaction of using his touch, scent, vision, and hearing to catch the prize!

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

Subscribe

Sphynx cat
Some folks view Sphynx cats as Hypoallergenic cats.

Did you know that 10-20% of the world’s human population is allergic to cats (1)? Symptoms range from itchy eyes, stuffy nose, and sneezing to skin rashes and hives. More serious reactions may include asthma and difficulty breathing. Over the counter medications can relieve some but not all of the discomfort and these medications are not without side-effects. Are there other ways to manage these allergies?

This post is an update of one published about 1 year ago. I felt it was worthwhile to bring people’s attention to the subject again.

Allergies and the cat-human bond


Allergies can come between you and your cat. You are miserable around your cat when your allergies flare up.

  • You start to avoid your cat.
  • He is outlawed from the bedroom.
  • His needs, particularly consistent human interaction and interactive play, are not being met.
  • Not only are you feeling bad, but your cat can become stressed.
  • Stress can lead to medical problems such as diarrhea, and resurgence of viruses such as herpes.
  • It is not unheard of for people allergic to cats to re-home their beloved pets.

The Culprit


  • A protein called Fel d1 is the primary allergen in cats.
  • Fel d1 causes 95% of the allergy responses in adults allergic to cats. 
  • Fel d1 is produced in the cat’s salivary and sebaceous glands.
  • Your cat spreads Fel d1 through his fur as he grooms.
  • As he sheds fur and skin (dander), Fel d1 is distributed throughout your home. 
  • Breathing in dander or having contact with it can trigger an allergic reaction.

Fel d1 is light, easily airborne and can be found just about everywhere, even in pet-free homes and institutions such as schools. Usually these levels are low and do not impact people in general. Fel d1 may be spread by the clothing of people who keep cats (1).

Managing Cat Allergies


REDUCING FEL D1 IN YOUR HOME


Here are some things you can do:

  • Fur tends to “stick” more to fabrics – vacuum upholstery and carpets frequently.
  • Consider switching out carpet for hardwood or vinyl floors.
  • Use covers that you can launder on sofas and upholstered chairs.
  • HEPA air filters and HEPA vacuum filters can also help.
  • Clean regularly and frequently.

REDUCING FEL D1 ON YOUR CAT


Not all cats shed Fel D-1 at the same rate. Even an individual cat does not always shed the same amount of this protein at any given time – instead it varies throughout the year.

NO HYPOALLERGENIC CATS


Some folks think that certain breeds of cat don’t produce much Fel d1. These cats typically do not shed much. It is thought that the reduction in the amount of hair reduces the amount of Fel d1 in the environment. 

However, Fel d1 is mainly produced in the sebaceous glands in the skin and in the cat’s saliva, not in the hair. So even a “bald” Sphynx will still groom and spread dander that has sebaceous secretions containing Fel d1 (1)

BATHING YOUR CAT


Bathing your cat does reduce the amount of Fel d1 but levels return to pre-bath amounts within 2 days (2).  Of course, many cats do not tolerate being bathed.  There is a mousse shampoo designed to reduce Fel d1 – this may be better accepted by cats than a traditional soap and water bath.

“NEUTRALIZING” FEL D1


Fel d1 like most allergens, has a chemical “key” that locks into receptors on cells in our bodies. What if you “lock up” Fel d1 before it gets to us?

Chickens produce antibodies against environmental antigens that they can transfer into their eggs and give their chicks immunity against these antigens. Researchers at Nestle-Purina developed an “anti-Fel d1” antibody by exposing hens to Fel d1.  This antibody is incorporated into the dry cat food, Purina “Live Clear” .

How it works:

  1. A cat eats food containing eggs from these hens. 
  2. The “anti-Fel d1” antibody “locks up” active Fel d1 in the cat’s saliva.
  3. When the cat grooms himself, he spreads the “locked up” or neutralized Fel d1 on his fur.  He probably also spreads some of the “anti-Fel d1” antibody, which further neutralizes some of the allergen produced by the sebaceous glands of the skin.
  4. Studies show that active Fel d1 is reduced by an average of 47% after 3 weeks of feeding.

Although not a perfect solution, feeding this diet may just help reduce the allergen burden enough to make you, and consequently your cat, more comfortable.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR THOSE OF US ALLERGIC TO CATS?


HUMAN-DIRECTED THERAPIES


“Anti–Fel d 1” monoclonal antibodies are being developed that can be given by injection under the skin to humans allergic to cats. Preliminary studies showed a 60% reduction in symptoms in half of the patients. (2)

CAT-DIRECTED THERAPIES


Saiba Animal Health is developing a vaccine that triggers an immune response in the cat’s own body to develop antibodies to Fel d1. “Hypo-Cat” showed a 50% reduction in Fel d 1 levels detected in cat tear extracts, decreasing symptoms in nine allergic patients by about 30%. (2)

Other research is using CRISPR (gene-editing) technology to delete the genes responsible for producing Fel d1, with the aim of producing a truly hypo-allergenic cat. (2)

closing thoughts


The function of Fel d1 is unknown – this protein is only found in the cat family.  Some experts feel it is a pheromone (3)– a chemical used to communicate between members of the same species. 

Sphynx cat doll

 

 

This raises some questions:

What message does Fel d1 carry between cats?

Is it ethical to modify the feline genome to breed cats that don’t produce Fel d1?

How will we be changing our cats when we do this?

 

 

Happy Halloween and Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

 

 

Sources

  1. Bonnet, B., Messaoudi, K., Jacomet, F. et al. An update on molecular cat allergens: Fel d 1 and what else? Chapter 1: Fel d 1, the major cat allergen. Allergy Asthma Clin Immunol 14, 14 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13223-018-0239-8
  2. Nicole F. Brackett, Brian W. Davis, Mazhar Adli, Anna Pomés, and Martin D. Chapman.Evolutionary Biology and Gene Editing of Cat Allergen, Fel d 1.The CRISPR Journal.Apr 2022.213-223.
  3. Bienboire-Frosini, C.; Durairaj, R.; Pelosi, P.; Pageat, P. The Major Cat Allergen Fel d 1 Binds Steroid and Fatty Acid Semiochemicals: A Combined In Silico and In Vitro Study. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2020, 21, 1365. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms21041365

cat on counterAfter adopting a feral cat 3 years ago, I am still struggling with cats on the counter. Gus spent most of his wild life dumpster diving, and hunting mice and bugs for food. He certainly would have availed himself of any food a good samaritan left out for the community cats. Understandably, the kitchen counter is a cornucopia of food as far as he is concerned.

Counter-surfing cats – Why do they do it?


  • Cats are looking for food.
  • Cats are curious and keen observers of other species and their activities.
  • Cats like high places and may feel safer on the counter, out of reach of the family dog and children.

Strategies for Counter-Surfing Cats


The Foodie Cat


  • Have food on the counters only when you are preparing it.
  • If you need to leave during food prep, be sure and secure the food in a cabinet or unused oven.
  • Train your cat to a mat.

The Curious Cat


  • Offer your cat a place where she can monitor counter activities.
  • Train her to stay at that place while you are at the counter.

The Trapped Cat


  • Offer your cat a place where he can get away from the children and/or dog.
  • If he still prefers the counter, train him to stay in the place you offered.

Mat Training


Mat (aka station) training is popular with dog trainers. Ideally, when you tell your dog to go to the mat, he goes there and waits on the mat until you tell him he can leave. Mat training can be very handy because the “place” the dog must go to can move around – it is wherever the mat is.

Cats can also be mat trained.  Here is how it works.

 

the training matChoose a mat for your cat to sit on.

A cat interacts with the training mat

Encourage the cat to go to the mat by, say, throwing a treat on it.

A cat gets a treat on the mat

Reward the cat once she interacts with the mat.

Coax the cat back to the mat

If she gets off the mat before you tell her to, encourage her to return to the mat.

“Shape” the behavior by having her stay on the mat for increasingly longer periods of time.

Release the cat from the matEstablish a cue to let her know she can leave the mat.

Counter Control – Other Aids


Aversives – things cats don’t like

  • A non-toxic citrus spray on the counter (cats don’t like citrus)
  • An upside-down carpet runner (with the “spikes” facing up)

Punishment


  • Water guns are a traditional solution to deter counter-surfing cats…for these to really work you must spray the cat as she is jumping on the counter.
  • Motion-activated spray systems (SSSCAT) may discourage counter-surfing cats as long as the device works…but these devices can startle and frighten some cats.
  • See “How Does Clicker Training Your Cat Work?”

Counter-Surfing Cats – a Hard Case


Having been a feral cat, food is Gus’s major priority in life. He inevitably jumps on the counter if there is any suggestion of food preparation. He is always willing to get down from the counter when I point my finger to the floor but he returns to the countertop in a few minutes. He is undeterred by water guns, citrus sprays, and upside down carpet runners.

Gus easily mastered the idea of station training – sitting and staying on the mat is not problem until you start food preparation. He is fine as long as the treats keep coming. However, if I fall behind dispensing treats (when breading cutlets or some other involved culinary task), he returns to the counter again. I feel he cannot “dial back” his emotions enough to recall his training.

Solutions


  • If the cooking is so complicated that I can’t pay attention to Gus, I will put him in his “safe place” (the master bedroom) with his resources and some food.
  • If things are not too hectic, I will give him a lickimat with some baby food on it. This seems to keep him happy and contented for 15- 20 minutes.

Counter-surfing cats are often looking for food, a good place to monitor activity in the house, or a way to escape the family dog or a busy toddler. Decide where you want your cat to be and see if you can train her to go to a mat in this place. If all else fails, put your cat in her “safe place” while you fix meals, work on projects, or entertain guests.

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

Subscribe

Cat under the bed
Myrddin, my sister’s cat, stayed with her as she passed away.

From ancient Egypt where cats were mummified and sometimes buried with their owners, to the Salem Witch trials, cats have long been associated with death. A quick search of the Internet will turn up all sorts of superstitions linking cats with the afterlife, the sick and dying. The bond between cats and humans is more than just providing food and shelter – this bond can persist even as one or the other is dying.

Cats in nursing homes are not uncommon these days. Oscar, a cat who lived in a Rhode Island nursing home from 2005-2022, is credited with accurately predicting 100 deaths. Oscar would choose to nap with people a few hours before they died. He was the subject of the book, Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat, authored by geriatrician Dr. David Dosa.

My eldest sister was suffering from cancer and entered the hospital in the end of September this year. She was too weak for chemotherapy and chose to spend her final days in her home. During her hospital stay, her Siamese cat, Myrddin, was cared for by family nearby. He seemed somewhat shy with people when he arrived at his interim home and was gradually starting to come out from his refuge under the bed in a guest bedroom when I visited a week later.

My sister was released from the hospital a few days after my visit and asked for her cat when arriving home from the hospital. He was brought to the house and after a short acclimation period in the guest bedroom, was brought to my sister’s bedroom. I worried that he would hide but he seemed to know just what to do – he jumped up on the bed, sitting on her and kneading her stomach.

She passed away early in the morning a few days later – Myrrdin woke family staying at the house who found that my sister was no longer alive. He went back to stay lie next to her until hospice arrived.

The bond between cats and humans is more than just providing food and a warm place to sleep. We don’t know why cats like Oscar choose to nap with the dying. As for me, I am so glad my sister had the comfort of her cat at the very end of her life.

Cat scratching near stairs
A scratcher redirects this cat from scratching the stairs.

Sometimes, even after you have invested in several scratching posts, your cat will scratch somewhere you don’t want her to. What is going on?

Earlier we learned that cats scratch to maintain their claws, to stretch and to communicate with other cats by leaving a scent mark.  Scratchers need to be “deployed” where they will best satisfy these needs.

How to deal with unwanted scratching


  1. Redirect the cat to scratch on an “appropriate” surface.
  2. Respond to any scent messages.
  3. Use “aversives” to discourage “unwanted scratching”.
  4. Offer alternate marking options for your cat.
  5. Trim nails to minimize damage.

Redirecting unwanted scratching


This basically means we place a scratcher close to or at the place your cat is scratching. We will “sweeten” the deal by applying an “attractant” to the scratcher – catnip, silvervine, honeysuckle. We can also add some treats and reward kitty for using this scratching alternative.

Say your cat starts scratching your sofa. You notice a big orange cat outside the picture window where your sofa sits. Some things you may consider:

  • Put a cat tree over by the window to give your cat a vantage point and a place to mark by scratching.
  • You may want to move the sofa away from the window.
  • Reduce visual contact with the intruder – cling film on windows or prevent cats from coming into the yard to the window (fence rollers, motion-activated sprinkler)

Reply to any scent messages


You just bought a new sofa. Your cat may feel that the new sofa needs to be “broken in”.  A little scratching leaves a purrsonalized “greeting”. And then once Kitty scratches there, of course, he better “top off” that message regularly so that it is up-to-date.

Start with providing an acceptable scratching surface at or near the area of “unwanted” scratching. Use attractants as needed for your cat.

We need to let your cat know that this sofa is “safe” and “already marked”. We have a few options to achieve this.

  • Use a synthetic pheromone spray such as “Feliway” Classic or Comfort Zone Calming. These are synthetic versions of the secretions cats deposit by rubbing their cheeks against things. To avoid staining your sofa, we can spray a throw or blanket that we drape over the sofa. Initially, you will need to spray this daily.
  • Or – relocate the sofa close to an electrical outlet and use the “Feliway” Optimum diffuser. This novel blend of feline pheromones has been shown to reduce feline stress and unwanted scratching.
  • Or – you may use the blanket your cat sleeps on and drape that over the sofa. You will want to have a second blanket that he sleeps on so that you can swap them out daily at first.

“Aversives” – things most cats don’t like


  • Upside-down carpet runner: the spikes face up and are not comfortable to walk on! Place the upside-down runner where your cat may stand to scratch, say under the sofa that is getting scratched. Place a scratching post nearby on a “comfortable” surface.
  • Double-sided sticky tape (Sticky Paws is one brand). This works well on fabric and carpeted surfaces. It is applied to where your cat is scratching.
  • Aluminum foil can be wrapped around the furniture or placed on the floor.
  • Carpet runner or office chair mats (right-side up) may work if your cat is scratching at the carpets around doorways. There are also anti-scratch mats made for this purpose.
  • PLEASE avoid using things like garlic and essential oils to discourage scratching – these can be toxic to cats.

 

A Word about Punishment:

Spray bottles, SSScat spray deterrents, shock mats – these may seem effective but all run the risk of making your cat fearful and anxious. You are punishing the cat for an instinctual behavior – she is not doing anything wrong; she is just using a surface you don’t want her to.  It would be better to restrict her from the area than use punishment.

 Alternative Marking Options for your Cat


Cats scent mark using glands in their cheeks, lips and base of the tail. We think that these pheromones give cats a message of safety and security – this place is “marked”. There are self-grooming arches that cats can brush under and grooming combs that attach to wall corners, table legs and cabinet corners.  Your cat can mark these objects by rubbing her face, head and base of her tail in these areas.

In multi-cat homes, cats may scratch to establish their right-of-ways inside the home. Strategic placement of a few self-grooming stations may help reduce scratching by providing another way of marking. ( see T. DePorter and A. Elzerman, Common Feline Problem Behaviors: Destructive Scratching Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery (2019) 21, 235–243)

Minimize damage with nail trims


Train your cat to have her claws trimmed using positive reinforcement. You may need to trim claws every 4-6 weeks. Trimmed claws should not damage surfaces as much as untrimmed claws.

cats just want to have fun!


Cats will sometimes scratch to work out the “zoomies” or to get your attention. Scratching carpeted stairs often falls into this category!

If your cat enjoys scooting along stair risers:

Sisal pole at botton of stairs
Sisal pole at the bottom of stairs
  1.  Consider blocking the stairway with a tall pet gate or DIY barricade.
  2.  Turn a replacement sisal post on its side and put some ends on it heavy enough to keep it in place but low enough to give the “stair scratching experience”. Push it up against that bottom step, and let the fun begin. Don’t forget the catnip and treats!

Claws come with your cat. He will scratch to maintain his claws, stretch, and leave scent messages. To deal with unwanted scratching:

  1. direct him to an appropriate scratcher using catnip/silvervine and treats
  2. use pheromones
  3. use aversives as needed 
  4.  provide other ways to scent mark
  5.  trim his claws regularly. 

Avoid punishment – instead be a cat whisperer and try to communicate with your cat.

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

 

Subscribe

This kitty prefers her cardboard scratcher to a large cat tree.

There are scratching posts, there are cat trees with sisal rope attached to the supports, there are cardboard scratchers of all shapes and sizes – which scratching post should you choose for your cat?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question.

cats and scratching: the “purrfect” scratching post


A recent study published in Applied Animal Behavior Science video recorded 36 adult cats to identify the cats’ scratcher preferences.

  • Adult neutered male cats preferred a standing scratching post over an S-shaped one – spayed females did not show a strong preference here.
  • Scratchers with sisal rope and cardboard were used more often than those covered with sofa fabric.
  • Catnip and silver vine treated scratchers were favored over those treated with artificial pheromones.

In this study, the catnip, silver vine and artificial pheromones were hung in a sock on the scratcher. Would it make a difference if the artificial pheromone was applied directly to the scratcher, mimicking how a cat would deposit these scents?

Still another study (2019) recruited 8 week old kittens from a shelter population. The kittens:

  • Preferred cardboard S-shaped scratchers over posts with rope.
  • Adding catnip to the scratchers did not attract the kittens (this is not surprising – the catnip response does not show up in kittens until they are 3-6 months old.)

A third study, this one an internet-based survey of 4015 cats in 39 countries, found:

  • Rope was more frequently scratched than cardboard or carpet.
  • Cats scratched more often when the post was a simple upright type or a cat tree with two or more levels, at least 3 ft high.
  • Unwanted scratching decreased as the different types/styles of posts increased in the home.

This survey concluded that the “Ideal Scratching Post” would

  • have sisal rope
  • have vertical scratching surfaces
  • be more than 3 feet tall
  • have two or more levels
  • have a base of 1-3 feet

So, should you run out and purchase one of those, large multi-level cat trees? Will this take care of all your scratching issues? Let’s take a look at four different cat scratching stations in a 4 cat household.

Station 1: Multi-level Cat Tree with Sisal posts for scratching


This tall cat tree is located in the interior of the house away from doors and windows. The younger cats (6 years), Zelda and Gus, use this tower to snooze on the upper levels or to get to the tops of the kitchen cabinets. Although it does meet the recommendations for the ideal scratcher, the cats don’t scratch on this tree all that much.

Station 2: Single Post scratcher and cardboard scratcher


This very tall post (it is 41″) with sisal fabric is at the front door.  It is popular with everyone, from the 17 lb Coon cat to the small senior at 8 lb.  All four cats scratch before going out for a walk or when they sit to look out the window in the front door.  The horizontal cardboard scratchers at the front door also see consistent use.  The cats tend to use these with all 4 feet on the scratcher.

Station 3: Large cat bed with sisal scratcher


The sisal-covered base of this extra-large cat bed is tall enough for the large Maine Coon to scratch. This cat bed is located in the bedroom. It was purchased for the Maine Coon cat but has been taken over by  8 lb Athena, who sleeps in this bed or in her heated bed at the base of the scratcher. When she gets out of bed, she stretches and scratches on this scratcher. This is used infrequently by the other three cats.

Station #4: By a litter box


This is a single pole covered with sisal rope. This post sees a lot of use by all four cats.

In this household, location appears to affect how much a scratcher is used.

Cats scratch to maintain their claws, to stretch and to scent mark. Most scratchers are probably used for all three purposes. So, which scratcher should you choose? Experts recommend starting with the multi-level cat tree with sisal rope supports.  However, cats are individuals and, if your cat does not take to this type of scratcher, offer different types and styles.

The Take Away


  • Have more than one scratching station.
  • Have a variety of scratchers.
  • Move them around and see where they get used the most.
  • Watch your cat’s habits – try to pick a scratcher that you feel will be appropriate for your cat’s age, size, and level of activity.

The next post will look at first aid for unwanted scratching – what you can do when your cat scratches where you don’t want her to.

Want to keep up with the world of cats?  Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

Subscribe

cat scratching tree
Gus scratches a tree on his morning walk.

One of the topics I touch on in the first session of kitten kindergarten is providing kittens with a cat-friendly home, following the environmental requirements suggested by the International Society of Feline Medicine.

Five “Pillars” hold up a cat-friendly home.  They are:

  • multiple, separated resources (litter boxes, food, water, places to sleep)
  • opportunity for predatory play – those toy mice are good for hunting practice!
  • positive, consistent, and predictable human-cat interactions
  • a place where the cat feels safe
  • a place that respects the cat’s keen sense of smell

All cats scratch – it is normal for cats to scratch. Where does scratching fit into the cat-friendly home?

cats and scratching:why


To maintain their claws: Cats use their claws to hold mice and other prey; they also use their claws to defend themselves. Sharp claws work better for hunting and defense, so cats will often scratch on trees, logs or fence posts when outdoors to shed old claws and expose the new, sharp talons underneath.

To stretch: A scratching post provides a great place to stretch after a nap.

To communicate with other cats: As a cat scratches, glands in her feet release a pheromone. This chemical leaves a scent behind that lets other cats know who left the scratch marks and when. The scent accumulates over time and provides a reference point in the scent map the cat has of her home. She also finds her own scent and the scent of the cats from her social group comforting. We humans also find some scents soothing, like the smell of apple pie in the oven during the holidays, that gives you that “homey”, secure feeling.

Even cats who have been declawed will “scratch” on a post or pad, leaving a scent message behind.

If your cat passes the scratches and detects the scent from an unknown cat or one he doesn’t like, he will stop and take a careful sniff. He may stay away from this area so that he doesn’t encounter this unknown/unfriendly cat.  Cats in the wild avoid fighting and injury in this way.  Cats in multi-cat homes may avoid cats they don’t like in the same way.

You most likely will NOT see your cats attentively sniffing the scratchers unless there is a disturbance in the “Smell”, say from a newly acquired cat or a cat whose scent has changed due to illness.

Cat on Scratcher
This cardboard scratcher doubles as a good lookout post.

Cats and scratching: where to put scratchers


Providing your cat with places to scratch will help maintain his claws, allow him to stretch and establish an olfactory map of his home. Multiple scratching posts around your home can help satisfy his needs and discourage him from choosing your new sofa as a scratcher. Watch which scratchers are used and relocate them as needed.

Doors and Windows

Cats are aware that the doors and windows in our homes lead to the outside world. Placing a scratching post or wall mounted scratching pad in these locations allows your cat to scent mark, which can help her feel more secure, especially if you have neighborhood cats that come to the windows and doors.

If you have persistent outside visitors that are distressing your cat, consider critter spikes on your fence or a motion-activated sprinkler.

 

Near Sleeping Places

It feels great to stretch after you wake up!

Near the Litter Areas

Another place to have a scratching pad is near the litter box – this can have the added benefit of reducing some of litter being tracked everywhere.

Cats and Scratching: Security through Scent

Scratching not only allows your cat to maintain his claws and have a good stretch, it is a way for him to establish a scent map of his home.  This map not only includes his scent but the scents of other cats, if he lives in a multi-cat home.  His own scent and those of the cats in his social group are comforting and help him feel secure.  Scent marking may also promote harmony in multi-cat homes. Scratching is an important part of a cat-friendly home, promoting safety and security through scent in an environment that respects the cat’s amazing sense of smell.

For more information on cats and scratching, see Kristyn R. Vitale Shreve, Monique A.R. Udell,
“Stress, security, and scent: The influence of chemical signals on the social lives of domestic cats and implications for applied settings”, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.11.011.

Want to keep up with the world of cats? Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

Subscribe

Art by Kal Meyer

Imagine being suddenly snatched up by a giant from your favorite chair. You are lifted up into the air, your legs flailing as you try to maintain your balance. Scary, huh?

Some of the more exciting scenes in fantasy movies include the hero or heroine being snatched up and taken away. In the Wizard of Oz, a troop of flying monkeys swoop down and grab up Dorothy and her dog, Toto, taking them to the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. A giant ape carries Ann Darrow up the Empire State Building in the movie “King Kong”, as the audience shrieks and squeals.

Picking up your cat can be frightening for him. He often has little warning before he is airborne. He feels helpless and scared. But, you say, I pick my cat up all the time and he does not seem to mind.  In certain circumstances though, he might redirect his fear as aggression and  bite or scratch you, if you try to pick him up, say, to move him away from the vacuum cleaner.

Okay, so maybe you can coax him to go where you need him to by using treats or a target stick. But there still will be times when picking up your cat is necessary – for example, you may need get him out of the way of a car. What can you do?

Picking Up Your Cat Step-by-Step


The “Pick Up” behavior was a by-product of training Gus, a feral cat caught in a live trap when he was three years old.

When you picked Gus up, he often would thrash and flail in your arms, biting and scratching. He responds well to clicker training so I wondered if I could teach him to be picked up, in the same way he learned to sit and target.

We broke the behavior of being picked up into the following steps.

  1. Kneel next to him on the floor and touch him where I would if I were going to pick him up. Give the verbal cue “UP”, then, click and treat.
  2. Slide my arms around him like I was going to pick him up. Give the verbal cue “UP”, then, click and treat.
  3. The next step was to actually to start to pick him up briefly, lifting him off the ground, with the cue “UP”. Click then treat.
  4. Finally, I would pick him up off the ground for a few seconds while saying “UP”.  I would click when he was off the ground, then treat him when I placed him back on the ground.
  5. I “shaped” the behavior by picking him up and holding him longer and longer, always rewarding him afterwards.

 

Unlike most of the time we train our cats, “UP” does not require the cat to actively choose to do something. It involves a passive response. The click marks that the cat is being lifted up and will be rewarded in the near future. But, the “click” can also make your cat feel good.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, who salivated when they heard a bell, the “click” is a classically conditioned response.   Once the click has been consistently associated with food or another reward, it ultimately triggers the same pleasurable emotions as the reward.

The “Pick Up” command was so successful that I taught all my cats this. Gus still squirms sometimes when the hold is taking him somewhere he does not fancy going… but, the biting has stopped! And he is rewarded for his patience with treats or head rubs when we arrive at our destination.

Although your cat is not in control of the situation when being picked up, if he hears the cue and the click, he knows what is going to happen, and can anticipate something good which should reduce his fear and anxiety.

 

Want to keep up with the world of cats?  Subscribe to The Feline Purrspective!

 

Subscribe