Needs of Domestic cats

What do cats need to be healthy and happy? Whether you are a new cat owner or someone who has owned a number of cats, this is a question that needs some careful thought.

Your cat is not human; he/she is a different species. After all, if you were going to have a tiger as part of your household, you would need to learn something about how tigers live in the wild to set up an appropriate habitat. Zoos have found that providing an environment that allows animals to engage in behavior typical of their species reduces mental and physical health problems.

This post was originally published on 7/4/2021.  It has been rewritten and updated with new references on 2/17/24.

What do cats need – Healthy Feline Environments


Let’s start with ourselves. Many philosophers and psychologists have come up with answers to what humans need for a happy and fulfilled life. One of the simpler models is that proposed by the psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943 (Reference 1).

Needs and motivation


Maslow postulated that people are motivated by five types of needs (Reference 1):

  1. Physical needs (food, water)
  2. Safety
  3. Love/belonging
  4. esteem
  5. self-fulfillment (be all that you can be)

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

As an individual satisfies needs in one of these categories, he is motivated to tackle the next level.

  1. What motivates behavior at the most basic level is the need to survive. We need to eat and drink to stay alive.
  2. Having satisfied these needs, the next step is to ensure that we will continue to have food and water. We need shelter and a job.
  3. Once fed and secure, we can address the need to be part of society – to belong to a group.
  4. The next level of needs is esteem: we need to value ourselves and feel that other people value us.
  5. We are now at the top of the pyramid. We can work on reaching self-imposed goals: maybe become a writer or artist, nurture extended family, or climb mountains.

There is flexibility in this hierarchy- some needs are met at the same time; for some individuals, reaching your full potential may be more important than the esteem of others.

Let’s apply this thinking to cats. We’ll start with the wild cats – those secretive, un-owned cats that populate neighborhoods and barns.

what do cats need? wild cats


  • A wild cat’s needs begin with having prey to eat.
  • Once fed, he will find a safe place where he can sleep, eat and retreat from danger – like a den.
  • He must establish his territory where he can hunt regularly and have access to food.
  • A well-fed wildcat who hunts successfully has good prospects for mating. 
  • As far as Nature is concerned, the wildcat has reached his or her full potential once he or she has ensured that there will be another generation to hunt and mate, continuing the species.What does a wildcat need?

 

When food is plentiful, some cats will group together in colonies near the food source. The colony forms around breeding females with some unrelated male cats in the colony that help with kitten care and protection. A colony fulfills safety and belonging for a wild cat.

what do cats need? Domestic cats


Things are a bit different for the cat who lives with humans. Hunting and establishing a territory have become separate from getting enough food; our house cats are spayed and neutered, so do not have a drive to mate and reproduce. We can construct a hierarchy showing what do cats need for the cats that live with us.

the 5 pillars of a healthy feline environment


The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) list five things that make a healthy environment for a cat (Reference 2).

  1. A safe place
  2. Multiple and separated key environmental resources
  3. Opportunity for play and predatory behavior
  4. Positive, consistent and predictable human-cat social interaction
  5. An environment that respects the cat’s sense of smell and other senses

 

We can assemble these needs into a pyramid diagram:

  • At the bottom of the pyramid are the needs for survival: food, water, and litter boxes.
  • The next level ensures that these essential resources are available to each cat to use safely, without fear of competition or interference from other cats, pets or humans. The cat owner should provide multiple and separated feeding, watering stations and litter boxes.
  • One of the AAFP requirements is an environment that respects the cat’s sense of smell and other senses.  Such an environment is the cat’s territory. Cats will mark walls and furniture in the home with facial pheromones and scratching posts with pheromones released when scratching. Your cat belongs to his territory.

Thinking about cats as aloof and independent would most likely consider the cat’s needs are met at this point.

Needs of Domestic cats

 

 

the cat-human bond


Our cats share basic physiological needs with their wild relatives. But the domestic cat has chosen a different path and has some different needs because of his bond with his human caregiver. The two final levels of the pyramid are 4) positive and predictable human interaction and 5) the opportunity for predatory play.

  • Human Interaction: To truly feel safe and secure in her territory, a housecat needs to know how the humans in the house will behave: when will she be fed? Will they approach quietly and greet her? Will they swoop down on her and pick her up when she least expects it and hold her dangling in the air?
  • Predatory Play: The need to hunt defines who your cat is – this is what he was born to do.  We need to provide our cats with an opportunity to hunt – whether it is fishing kibble out of a food puzzle or chasing a stuffed mouse at the end of a wand toy.

These last two needs bring us to the heart of the cat-human bond.

Positive and predictable interactions  allow us to communicate with our cats; predatory play helps us recognize the cat’s nature as a born hunter and allows us to share this essential part of his life.

We are one of the “5 Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment”.

In return for helping our cats satisfy their needs, we humans enjoy the pleasure of our cats’ company, better heart health and reduced stress and anxiety. 

references

  1. Taylor S, St Denis K, Collins S, et al. 2022 ISFM/AAFP Cat Friendly Veterinary Environment Guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2022;24(11):1133-1163. doi:10.1177/1098612X221128763

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

 

Subscribe

A safe place for a cat when visitors come. This cat can CHOOSE to go higher or to another room if he wants to avoid strangers.

The doorbell rings and your cat runs and hides under the bed. You answer the door and your friend comes in. After some small talk, she says “By the way, how is Fluffy?” You explain that Fluffy is fine and is hiding – she just isn’t a very friendly cat.

The cat afraid of strangers may freeze or feel she has to protect herself with her claws and teeth during her veterinary exam.  Medication and training help but these will work better if your cat has some ongoing positive or at least neutral experiences with strangers.

Socialization for the cat afraid of strangers


Kittens handled gently and appropriately by a variety of humans when they are 2-7 weeks old (the sensitive period) quickly learn to accept people and enjoy being with them.

That is fine and good you say, but my cat is older now and I don’t have a time machine. It is true that we can’t have the same impact on an older cat as a kitten.  However,  we can still provide the older cat positive, predictable experiences with humans in and outside the cat’s household.

Ways to Socialize the cat afraid of strangers


Safe Places
Consider having some high perches or maybe a cat tree in your living room. Cats are curious folk and want to satisfy their curiosity if they can do it safely. A high perch or cat tree allows a cat to CHOOSE to interact or not.

CAT guidelines – Rules for Humans!
If a cat anticipates that a human will treat her in a positive and predictable way, she will be more likely to interact with that person. The CAT human-cat interaction guidelines  developed at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, aim to make cats more comfortable when interacting with us and are easy follow.

Point out these guidelines to guests and ask that they follow them. The video version may be more appealing to children. After a few experiences of visitors seemingly ignoring your cat, she may start to show up when strangers come over.

Desensitizing Your Cat to the Sound of the Doorbell
Doorbells can be noisy and startling.  After all, doorbells are designed to alert us to deliveries or the arrival of visitors.

  • Record the doorbell sound on your phone.
  • Lure your cat to her high perch or cat tree in the livingroom.
  • Play the doorbell sound at a very low volume and offer her a high value treat.
  • Lure her down with target stick or treat. Repeat.

Gradually increase the volume of the doorbell sound over time. The doorbell will still be an unexpected noise but now has a positive association with it. You can also use the doorbell sound to cue your cat to go to her safe place (very useful if you have a door-dashing cat).

The Calm Before The Storm

For big holiday gatherings, you may also want to consider giving the cat afraid of strangers a supplement such as Zylkene or Anxitane a few days before the big event. These non-prescription supplements can make your kitty feel calmer when lots of unfamiliar humans are around.

Regular veterinary care is an essential part of a long and pain-free life for your cat. Regular visits can head off problems and spread veterinary costs out over time. Desensitizing your cat to strangers can help reduce his fear and anxiety at the vet clinic, making it easier to take him to the vet.

If you have concerns about how your cat is handled at the veterinary practice, consider taking your cat to a Cat Friendly practice, where staff is trained in feline handling techniques.

This is the final post in the “Better Vet Visits for Your Cat” series. I hope you try some of the techniques suggested in these posts. Remember to break things up in simple steps that your cat can understand and master. And, always try to see things from the “feline purrspective”.

 

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

Subscribe

 

The big eyes and round heads of kittens may elicit a caregiving response in humans.

It is often said that cats are not fully domesticated. There is that streak of wildness in them – they can be aloof and take care of themselves. We don’t control the breeding or hunting habits of the cats that live in the shadows of our neighborhoods and cities.

To some, this offers an opportunity to study the process of domestication. Some of the easy to see hallmarks of domesticated animals are the changes in their faces and shapes of their heads. In selective breeding of foxes, rounder heads, white pigmentation, and droopy ears became apparent after 10 generations of allowing less aggressive animals to mate [“Changes in Cat Facial Morphology are Related to Interaction with Humans”, Hattoi et al, Animals 2022, 12, 3493].

 Domestic cats have short noses and rounder eyes


These changes in face and head make the animals look more juvenile. The noted ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, defined these traits (the round face and big eyes) as the “baby schema”. The “baby face” of human infants is said to stimulate the premotor cortex and activate the basic emotion of CARE in human adults.  Likewise, animals with round heads and big eyes are “cuter” and more appealing to humans.
A research group in Japan [Hattoi et al. see above] compared the facial structure of 1) feral mixed breed cats, 2) owned domestic mixed breed cats, and 3) owned domestic purebred cats with the facial structure of 4) the African Wildcat, the ancestor of our domestic cats. They hypothesized that cats that interact with people would show changes in their faces, and this could be a marker of the process of domestication.

The team mapped facial dimensions to find a measure of the “baby schema” they could use. Since the size of the cat’s eye is dependent on brightness, the researchers chose the nose length and the angle of the eyes to compare the faces of the 4 categories of cats.

Measurement of Nose length in catsThe nose length (B) was reported relative to facial size, the distance between the inside corners of the eyes (A). Eye angles measured the slant of the eyes, from the inside corner to the outside corner.

 

Analysis of 3295 photos revealed:

  •  Domestic cats have short noses  and rounder eyes.
  • African wildcats and feral mixed breed cats have longer noses and slanted eyes when compared with domestic cats.
  • The study also found that people preferred cats with shorter noses – they were “cuter” than cats with longer noses.
  Nose Length(B/A) Angle of Eyes
African Wildcats 1.34 25.61
Mixed Breed Feral Cats 1.32 25.10
Owned Mixed Breed Cats 1.23 25.31
Owned Purebred Cats 1.14 22.77

Humans prefer cats with shorter noses and eyes that are not so slanted.  These features may elicit caregiving behavior in humans.  Domestic cats have short noses and rounder eyes; this suggests that domestication or interaction with humans has changed the facial structure of domestic cats.

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 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.

Marley looks at the whiteboard with the daily routines for the pet sitter.

The alarm goes off. You tap the OFF button, then stretch and sit up. Another work day. You get up, feed your cats, and grab a quick cup of coffee and bowl of cereal. You breeze through a shower, get dressed and leave for work.

Or you may be packing lunches and making sure the kids are dressed and fed for school.  You are on automatic pilot, going through the motions efficiently. You have done this many times before – you have a morning routine.

A routine is a set of things that you regularly do to get something done. Routines bring order to our day and save us time because we get more proficient at the steps through repetition. They reduce the effort we expend on doing things because they don’t require conscious thought – you can cruise through on autopilot.

Routines help cats: routines reduce stress


Routines help cats much in the same way routines help us – they bring order to a cat’s day and the security of knowing what is going to happen.  In this way, routines help to reduce stress and anxiety.  They are familiar and soothing.

A wild cat colony has routines.  The colony may sleep through the day waking in the late afternoon to get ready to hunt at dusk, when prey such as mice become active. Then follows a sequence of hunting every few hours as their stomachs empty and they are able to eat again, winding down at dawn. Between feedings, the group will snooze, groom each other or sometimes  play with kittens or other adult cats.  (See Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, “Cat Behavior: Social Organization, Communication and Development”, I. Rochlitz (ed.), The Welfare of Cats, 1–22. 2007 Springer)

Our domestic cats are synced to our routines: waking with us, anticipating being fed, watching us go to work, and waiting for us to return home. Obviously, we want to feed the kitties around the same time every day. However food, water and clean litter boxes are not your cat’s only requirements. Cats also need consistent, regular human interaction and opportunities for predatory play. Environmental Needs of Cats

Human interaction and playtime


These are best incorporated into a daily routine, say playtime after dinner or as part of a “bedtime” routine. Routines help cats and owners – the routine makes it easier for you to ensure your cat gets regular interaction (once established, you can cruise through on autopilot); your cat benefits from the fun and enrichment of interaction and playtime.

His little cat brain does not have to worry about what will happen next. This reduces his stress and anxiety, and gives him a sense of control – he know what’s going to happen.  Maintaining his routine can be particularly helpful to your cat in times of stress – playing with a familiar toy not only distracts your cat, it is also soothing.

Make Sure to Maintain Routines


  • when traveling with your cat (as best you can)
  • when entertaining house guests
  • when introducing new pets
  • when you are away, ask pet sitters to follow your cat’s daily routine

Routines help cats from becoming bored


A routine provides a venue to establish some “good” habits and learn new things. Accepting medication can become a habit – cats will learn quickly to accept “dummy” pills in treats if they do this regularly.

Mix up the routine from time to time – change is part of living. For example, in the medicating routine, you may wish to introduce and practice other ways of offering a pill to your cat – say with a pet piller or offering a “dummy pill” in a squeeze up treat.

 

Example of an evening routine


  • medication time (real or practice with treats)
  • treat toss or playing with interactive toys (predatory play)
  • food puzzles (foraging/hunting)
  • brushing teeth

Consider including a training session in your cat’s daily routine. Take some time and make a list of what you want to teach your cat then pick a new skill each week to do. You will be more likely to get it done if it is part of the routine!

Routines not only bring order to our day, our routines help cats by giving them a sense of control and security, reducing stress and anxiety. Take a few minutes to set up a daily routine for your cat – have him learn new things, enjoy some grooming, play time, or food puzzles!

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

 

Subscribe

Aggression between Cats
Two cats engage in a spat while waiting to be fed.

In spite of our best efforts, things can go wrong and our cats confront each other aggressively. You may have adopted a new cat and he escapes the room you are keeping him in while introducing him to your resident cats. Something may startle the cats, say an outdoor cat comes to the window and one cat attacks a housemate in a bout of redirected aggression. Separation is the immediate solution to these unplanned events.

Indoor Cat Fights vs outdoors


There is nothing as dramatic as a cat fight. Two cats face off, fur standing on end, yowling and spitting. Often, one cat may slowly move away, all the time presenting his side to the other cat (to look larger); his back may be arched. Depending on the motive for the standoff, the remaining cat may just stand his ground and allow the other to leave or he may pounce, and the two cats grapple each other, biting, clawing, kicking, and the “cat ball” rolls away until it stops and both cats take a breather.

Unlike cat fights outdoors, the indoor cat fight can be more aggressive and more likely that either a person or a cat gets injured as things are in such close quarters. There may not be the ritual posturing and howling of a territorial cat fight outdoors. There may not be the opportunity for one of the cats to get away and there is not the extinction in fighting that can happen once one cat leaves the other’s territory.

How do we “break up” the indoor cat fight?


  1. Move calmly and deliberately – avoid fast or jerky movements
  2. Close doors to the area the fight is happening.
  3. Distract the cats momentarily so that you can block them from seeing each other.
  4. Herd the cats away from each other.
  5. Lure the cats into separate areas (rooms) – put a door between them!
  6. When all is calm, evaluate cats and people for injury. Seek medical attention if necessary.

Resist the temptation to scruff both cats and pull them away from each other. You will most likely get scratched, and, worse, get bit. Not only may you require medical treatment, your bond with your cat or cats will suffer.

Scruffing does not calm an adult cat and can actually injure him. Many people have been bit while scruffing a cat – the kitten reflex is long gone.

breaking up the indoor cat fight


  • cardboard barrier to separate cats
    A broom can be handy to gently separate fighting cats. It you anticipate aggressive encounters, attach some cardboard to the broom.

    Distractions:  If a bag of cat treats is at hand, shake it. Try scattering treats on the off-chance it may distract them.  Try pulling a toy on a wand or shining a laser pointer on the floor between the two cats.  Avoid using really loud noises to distract the cats on the off-chance you may frighten them.  Adding fear to already heightened emotions can make the fight worse.

  • Block visual contact: Try to slide some sort of barrier between the combatants. This may be a broom, piece of cardboard, or a sofa cushion.
  • Herding/Luring: Once out of sight of each other, try to direct them away from each other by tossing treats in opposite directions. If food is unsuccessful, “herd” one cat (preferably the more aggressive cat) with your barrier gently away from the other toward a place where you can separate the cats by a closed door.

A towel or blanket can be used as a barrier, albeit a flimsy one. If you can keep some tension on the edges and target the aggressive cat, this may be enough time for the other cat to get away, for example, and climb a cat tree.  You can also try and cover the aggressive cat with the towel. Be aware that fighting cats are tense and coiled like springs – they move extremely fast and may just outrun your well-aimed towel.

Be careful not to succumb to the emotion of the moment – hitting either cat with a broom, cardboard, or cushion will not be effective.

if you have help


DO ask your “helpers” to speak in quiet, “happy” voices.  Have someone try to divert the cats’ attention with a wand toy or laser pointer.  Be ready to slide your barrier in to block visual contact as soon as the cats are momentarily distracted.

DO have your “helpers” open the door to a room where you can herd one of the cats to. If there are additional materials for barriers (cardboard, broom, sofa pillows), have them herd one cat into a room while you work with the other or vice versa.

Other tools in the indoor cat fight


Spray bottles with water – these may stop some cats in their tracks but be warned there are cats that will keep going even if you soak them down. The spray also means you will need to get close to the cats and may be a casualty of redirected aggression.

Noise makers – Cans with pennies can be effective to distract the cats. Avoid the use of really loud noises such as air horns – in close quarters, these will be really loud, adding fear to already heightened emotions.

Rattling the food container elicits a positive emotion.  If you can distract the cats and separate them, you can try and  lure them with treats into separate areas.

be proactive!


Materials to separate fighiting cats
A basket holds a towel, jar of treats, and a spray bottle of water. There is a cardboard barrier behind the basket.

If you are introducing cats or trying to correct redirected aggression due to, say, outdoor cats, have some “emergency” stations set up in areas close to where aggressive encounters may occur. Stock each ER station with:

  • A piece of sturdy cardboard  – you can make a “paddle” by attaching it to a pole. This will keep you out of the line of fire as you try to herd a cat.
  • A thick, large towel
  • A jar of treats and a can of pennies
  • A spray bottle of water

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

 

Subscribe

T is for think about where you are touching the cat.

“Touch not the cat bot a glove” : so goes the motto of the Macpherson clan in Scotland. “Bot” means without; the cat referred to is the Scottish Wildcat. The motto warns that you must be careful handling a wildcat when his claws are not sheathed or “gloved”.

The Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) still lives in Scotland today, a wild, reclusive cat whose numbers are dwindling.

After 10,000 years of living with humans, our domestic cats may have markers of domestication in their genome but they still share a lot with their wild ancestors and cousins. They still have sharp claws and teeth and need to be handled respectfully.

Dr. Lauren Finka, working with colleagues at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, came up with a simple set of Human-Cat Interaction Guidelines.  These guidelines aim to make cats more  comfortable when they are interacting with us.

These practical guidelines for interacting with cats follow the acronym CAT (easy to remember). Here they are!

 

is for choice and control. Cats are not only predators, they are also prey for larger animals such as coyotes. To survive, they need to be in control of their environment.

Give your cat choice and control –
Allow your cat to CHOOSE whether or not to interact with you.

  • If you can, get on the cat’s level, offer your hand, and allow him to approach you.
  • If the cat wants to be touched, she will rub against your hand. If she doesn’t lean into your hand, don’t pet her.
  • Allow the cat to move away from you if he chooses; don’t follow him if he leaves.
  • Allow the cat to control how much you stroke her. When stroking her, pause every 3–5 sec to see if she wants to continue – does she rub against you to ask for more? If not, let her take a break.

is for attention. Pay attention to what your cat is trying to tell you – watch her body language.

 

 

These signals indicate that your cat is done interacting with you.

 

  • Gus turns to face me and pulls back on his paw during a nail trim – he needs a break!

    She turns her head or moves away from you.

  • His ears become flattened or rotate backwards.
  • She shakes her head.
  • The fur on his back “ripples”.
  • She licks her nose.
  • He becomes still, and stops purring or rubbing against you.
  • She sharply turns her head to face you or your hand.
  • He suddenly starts grooming himself but only for a few seconds at a time.
  • Her tail starts switching back and forth rapidly; usually the tail is horizontal or on the ground.

 

is for think about where you are touching the cat.

  • A friendly cat prefers to be touched at the base of his ears, around his cheeks, and under his chin.
  • AVOID the base of her tail and tummy.
  • If you touch the cat’s back, flank, legs, or tail–watch his body language (see above) to see if he is comfortable with this. Follow the CAT guidelines when interacting with cats for a safer, more enjoyable encounter!

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

Subscribe

 

About a week ago, we had invited family members to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Appetizers had been set out to snack on prior to the main meal. There was a cheese and cracker plate, with an open box of crackers on it, where folks could serve themselves, taking a cracker and a slice of cheese.

As we were eating dinner, I happened to look over to the counter with the cheese plate. Gus had gotten up on the counter, and was helping himself to a cracker. He very carefully selected a single cracker with his mouth without disturbing the other crackers, the plate or the box. He then carefully backed away to nibble on his prize.

What struck me was that he only took one cracker, he did not paw at the box or knock it on the floor. Had he been watching us? Can cats learn from us?

Trial and Error Learning


A cat presented with a treat ball containing treats for the first time will examine and smell the ball thoroughly, then perhaps nudge it with her nose while continuing to smell the ball. If some treats come out, the cat may then try nudging the ball again or try pawing at it. With each trial, the cat will refine her method of obtaining treats.

Social Learning – Can cats learn from us?


Cats can also learn by watching other cats do things – kittens watch their mother attentively as she manipulates prey and chooses things to eat. Their later success as hunters and the food preferences they develop reflects this instruction.

For the cat, other species are worth watching too – for example, humans, dogs and raccoons may give some invaluable lessons in manipulating doors to reach food or desirable places.

A cat will learn to use a microchip feeder or food puzzle faster if a patient owner sits by with treats and demonstrates the feeder or puzzle operation, speeding up the trial and error process.

“Do As I Do”


“Do As I Do” is a fairly new training method for dogs developed by Claudia Fugazza at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. In the “Do As I Do” method, an owner will demonstrate a behavior to her dog and then ask him to repeat it.

Can a cat “Do As I Do”?


In 2019, Dr. Fugazza decided to test this kind social learning in a cat. Her subject was an 11-year-old female cat, called Ebisu. Ebisu lived with her owner, Fumi Higaki, in Ichinomia, Japan. Fumi Higaki is a professional dog trainer, experienced in the “Do As I Do” method for training dogs.

Training Ebisu was a two-step process:

  1. First, Ebisu learned that the “Do It!” command meant that she should copy what her owner had done. The owner used three behaviors that Ebisu already knew to train the “Do It” command. For example, the owner would twirl around, then give Ebisu the “Do it!” command and also give Ebisu the verbal cure to twirl around.
  2. Next, the owner demonstrated three other behaviors that Ebisu was familiar with and gave her the “Do It!” command without the verbal cues. Once Ebisu successfully imitated her owner, she was ready to learn some new behaviors by copying her owner.

Ebisu successfully learned two new behaviors through imitating her owner:

  1. Sliding a lid on a container to open it – Ebisu succeeded on the first try!
  2. Placing her forearms on a book.

At this point, Ebisu was judged ready to be tested and two new behaviors were assessed in 18 test trials:

  1. Placing her paw on a box
  2. Rubbing her face on a box

During these trials, Ebisu mimicked her owner 80% of the time.  Fumi would put her hand on the box (or rub her face on the box).  She would then tell Ebisu to “Do It!”, and Ebisu would put her paw on the box (or rub her face on the box).

So what do we learn from this?

  • Cats are able to mimic the actions of a human.
  • They are able to adapt human actions to their own bodies – for example, the human touches a box with her hand and the cat touches the box with a front paw.

So, it is worthwhile for us to demonstrate the operation of food puzzles, automatic feeders, cat doors…to help our cats learn how to use these devices.  It should speed up the learning process!

Back to “cracker snatcher” Gus…can cats learn from us?


I really don’t know if Gus learned to pick out a single cracker by watching people but it’s fun to think that he did. And, not having opposable thumbs, he was not able to pick out the cracker with a paw but instead extracted it with his mouth, adapting the action so that he could perform it successfully!

Here is Gus with the box of crackers. Enjoy the video!

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

 

Subscribe

Cat using food puzzle

At the veterinary clinic where I work, I often hear people say when I ask about their cat’s activity and play, “she sleeps most of the time and meows a lot at night. She doesn’t play – she’s an older cat”. How much of these behaviors is due to “normal” aging? How much is due to other medical conditions or a declining brain?

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in cats or cat dementia refers to the decline in mental abilities associated with aging.

Cat dementia results from damage to the brain.  As your cat ages, the the numbers of molecules called  free radicals are no longer balanced out by the antioxidants in his body. These free radicals are reactive and cross the blood-brain barrier, damaging cells in the brain.

Changes in blood flow to the brain can also cause damage by starving the neurons of oxygen.  High blood pressure, heart disease, anemia – are all conditions that alter the flow of blood to the brain.

How can we tell if our cats are undergoing mental decline? Is there anything we can do about it?

VISHDAAL – behavior changes


Changes in behavior can indicate if your cat’s mental state has declined. The acronym VISHDAAL summarizes the behavior changes we need to monitor in our senior cats, from the most prevalent (vocalizing) to least frequent (changes in learning and memory).

V = vocalization
I = changes in interaction with us and other pets
S = changes in sleep-wake cycle
H = house soiling
D = disorientation
A = changes in activity
A = anxiety
L = learning and memory

How do we sort out behavior changes due to disease and those due to declining mental capacity?

Changes in behavior signal the onset of cognitive decline but they may also arise from other health issues:

  • Cats with untreated high blood pressure or hyperthyroidism may meow at night (vocalizing).
  • Cats with untreated hyperthyroidism may be restless and beg us for food (changes in interactions and sleep).
  • Kidney disease can be accompanied by increased thirst and urination which may result in house soiling (house soiling)
  • Cats with osteoarthritis may have difficulty accessing the litter box (house soiling).

behavior changes: disease vs Dementia


Regular veterinary exams and diagnostics can identify medical conditions such as high blood pressure, hyperthyroidism, and osteoarthritis.  If behavioral changes persist after treating these other medical conditions, your cat may have CDS or cat dementia. 

Cat dementia is a “diagnosis of exclusion” – it is the diagnosis that remains after all the other possible diagnoses have been eliminated. Cat dementia will usually have a slow onset and behavioral symptoms will gradually get worse.

Cognitive Dysfunction (CDS) cannot be cured but management can reduce the symptoms and improve the Quality of Life for both you and your cat.

managing cat dementia


  • environmental enrichment/modification
  • dietary supplements
  • therapeutic diets
  • medication

Environmental enrichment/modification


In the early stages of cat dementia, enrichment increases mental stimulation, leading to the growth and survival of neurons, preserving the thinking processes.  Enrichment should be tailored to the individual cat.  For example, some cats prefer high places; others are “ground dwellers”.  Arthritic cats will not have the range of motion of healthier cats but will still enjoy play that does not require lots of jumping.

Ways to enrich your cat’s environment:

  • play – interactive play and toys
  • scent enrichment – catnip, silvervine
  • food puzzles
  • motion – climbing (cat trees) and exploring (cardboard boxes)
  • supervised outdoor access

As CDS progresses…

Environmental changes become stressful and confusing. Cats with severe cat dementia need an environment that does not change much – daily routines and feeding schedules must be maintained. Litter boxes and feeding stations need to stay in the same place.

A cat with severe CDS may benefit from a “room of his own”, with easy access to his resources. Changes that need to be made must be done slowly. If you need to move a litter box or feeding station, do it gradually over a number of days so the cat can still find it.

Environmental modifications

Modifications to the environment of the cat with dementia should take into account the behavior that she is exhibiting.

  • Cats that constantly beg for food may benefit from a timed feeder at night or treat balls. 
  • Cats with house soiling tendencies may need more litter boxes and ones that are easily accessed, with a lower entry for example. 
  • Cats that become disoriented and confused may benefit from a night light and radio playing soft music.

Dietary Supplements


Dietary supplements in general seek to restore the balance between the activity of antioxidants in the body and the  production of free radicals.  Antioxidants give up electrons to the free radical, effectively “neutralizing” it so that it is no longer reactive. So, these supplements usually contain antioxidants.

SAMe: (S-adenosyl-methionine)  aids in the production of glutathione, an antioxidant. When elderly cats were supplemented with SAMe, there was improvement in cognitive tests. SAMe is best used pro-actively – it is most effective in cats in the early stages of cat dementia.

Proprietary supplements containing vitamins, resveratrol (antioxidant), and fish oils are on the market but there is no clinical data testing cats for these at this time.

other supplements


Melatonin: hormone in the body that is thought to promote sleep. It also has antioxidant properties. Melatonin declines with age.

Pheromones (Feliway), Zylkene, Anxitane (L-theanine) may help reduce anxiety in cats that are disoriented and may promote sleep.

Therapeutic diets


Therapeutic diets containing antioxidants and fish oils have been shown to help cat dementia. 

  • Feline Mature adult Hill’s Pet Nutrition
  • Purina Pro Plan Age 7+
  • Hills prescription diet j/d with fish oil for osteroarthritis

Diets that reduce anxiety may also help with cat dementia

  • RC Calm diets
  • Hill’s urinary support

Medications


Selegiline: licensed to treat dementia in dogs. Like the dietary suplements, it aims to reduce the production of free radicals.  Selegiline stimulates the production of enzymes that eliminate free radicals.

Anxiolytics: Prozac, gabapentin and clonazepam are used to treat dementia by reducing anxiety.

boxes as enrichment for cats
Boxes can be source of enrichment for senior cats.

If you feel there has been a significant change in your cat’s behaviors, keep a journal or log and make sure to mention it at her next senior exam. Start the conversation with your vet about cat dementia and how to manage it!

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

Subscribe