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.

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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.

 

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Sometimes when your cat behaves “badly”, you are able to address what triggers the misbehavior and life goes back to “normal”: you add a new litter box and the house-soiling stops; you start taking your “bully” cat for walks on a leash and everyone settles back down again. Problem solved!

Other times, you feel you’ve taken care of what triggers the misbehavior but your cat continues to, say, pee in the bathtub. And in still other instances, you can’t eliminate the stressors triggering the behavior, and the behavior persists. For example, you just don’t have the finances to get a bigger house but you don’t want to re-home any of the cats.

Anxiety and misbehavior in your cat


When your cat is stressed, he can become anxious and fearful. Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and helps the cat respond to perceived danger.  One way your cat may let you know she is anxious and fearful, is by “misbehaving”.  She may avoid her litter box and or hide and strike out at you when you try to pick her up.

Your vet might recommend a behavior modification plan and an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medication to deal with the anxiety and misbehavior in your cat.  Behavior modification aims to give the cat a way to cope with the stress that is giving rise to the “misbehavior”.   Anxiolytics reduce your cat’s anxiety and put him in a positive emotional state, making him more receptive to behavior modification.

Fluoxetine: Rx for anxiety


Let’s take a look at Fluoxetine, a medication that is frequently prescribed by veterinarians to treat anxiety.

In human circles, fluoxetine is more commonly known by the brand name Prozac.  It is a “selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor” (SSRI).
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that carries “messages” between neurons. Neurotransmitters are typically reabsorbed in the neuron once the “messaging” is done but SSRI’s keep serotonin from being reabsorbed, resulting in more serotonin being available to carry messages between neurons. Serotonin is thought to regulate mood, digestion, and sleep among other metabolic processes (see SSRIs mayoclinic.org).

Your cat should be calmer and less anxious when taking fluoxetine.

House-soiling and aggression toward people are two of the more common behavioral problems in cats. Let’s take a quick look at two cases where  fluoxetine and behavior modification helped manage feline anxiety and misbehavior.

Susie, a 13 year old female cat


Problem Behavior: House-soiling in variety of locations with chronic diarrhea

When Susie was 11 years old, her feline house-mate passed away and her owner adopted a younger cat. Susie began pooping outside the box. After most of a year, the owner felt the cats got along OK but house-soiling and diarrhea continued. The owner found Susie “aloof” and difficult to handle. Susie was surrendered to a veterinary clinic when she was 13 years old.

A Plan for Susie

Medical plan: treat the diarrhea

Behavioral plan:

  • Desensitize Susie to interacting with people
  • Gradually introduce Susie to the other cats in the clinic

Susie’s Timeline:

  • Susie is surrendered to the vet clinic in  mid-May 2021. She is fearful and reluctant to interact with people and other cats and is placed in a “room of her own”.
  • In early July, Susie begins taking a steroid medication and also starts fluoxetine. The diarrhea starts to resolve in the next few weeks.
  • By early September, Susie is becoming less fearful and is interested in coming out of her room. She starts to accept being handled by the clinic staff.  She is not pooping outside the litter box as much.
  • In November, Susie starts having supervised visitations with staff and other cats outside her room.
  • By next March, Susie is able to be out unsupervised in the clinic during working hours.  House-soiling is better – she poops right next to the litter box and not in random locations.

Susie had a long history of house-soiling. Treatment of her medical problem and reducing her anxiety has improved her quality of life. She remains on a low dose of fluoxetine which helps her cope with the stress of interacting with strange people and cats that come to the vet clinic.

Gus, 3 year old male feral cat


Problem Behavior: Aggression toward people

Gus was an intact male cat that was trapped in a live trap. He is positive for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus and was not eligible to be released after being neutered.

Behavior modification plan for Gus:

  • Desensitization to people
  • Clicker training for appropriate social behaviors toward people

Gus’s Timeline:

  • Early March 2019: Gus is trapped with a live trap
  • March 5: Gus is neutered. Gus is fearful, fighting and biting when handled.
  • Late March: Gus starts taking fluoxetine, to reduce anxiety and misbehavior.  He takes the daily fluoxetine tablet in a treat. At first the drug makes him sleepy but this passes in a few weeks and he is exposed to a variety of people.
  • Clicker and leash training begin in early June.  He learns simple commands to sit, follow a target on a stick, wear a harness and allow humans to pick him up.
  • Gus is adopted in early August. Owner continues clicker training and outdoor walks.
  • Gus is weaned off fluoxetine by the end of November, after 7 months of drug therapy. He tolerates people and no longer tries to bite them.

Anxiolytics combined with behavior modification can help you deal with anxiety and misbehavior in your cat.  In some cases, a cat can be weaned off the medication while in others, continuing to give a low dose helps when the stressors causing the misbehavior cannot be eliminated.

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cat gets harness and treat
Gus enjoys a treat while being harnessed

Training your cat to a harness and leash can come in handy even if you don’t plan to take him adventuring.

Training your cat to a harness and leash: Benefits


  • Enrichment for your cat
  • Extra security if you are traveling
  • Useful for introducing your cat to other animals

ENRICHMENT: With one of the broadest hearing ranges of any land mammal, a keen and discriminating sense of smell, and vision that tracks fast moving prey, the great outdoors is stimulating for a cat. Even if your kitty has a catio, leash time is special time, allowing him or her a chance to investigate new places and to spend time with you.

SECURITY WHILE TRAVELING: If you are traveling, having a leash and harness on your cat gives you some extra security during flight layovers, customs checks, or taking a break when driving. You can have an “extra hand” while changing soiled pads in the carrier or allowing your cat to stretch her legs.

INTRODUCING OTHER ANIMALS:  Once you have passed the scent swapping stage and feel the animals are ready for the next step, you can have the them “meet” with a barrier in between. Having your cat on leash and harness can give you more control over encouraging calm behavior around the new arrival. If your cat wants to “rush” the barrier, gentle pressure on the leash can slow this down and avoid a hostile encounter. The leash can help us model the appropriate behavior of a slow, non-aggressive approach to the newcomer.

Training your cat to a harness and leash


I often hear that “my cats acts as if she were paralyzed when I put a harness on her – she just flops downs and won’t move”. There are a number of videos on the internet of cats being dragged along by the leash while laying down.

A Better Way


  1. cat on leash
    Zelda walking indoors on her leash.

    Like any new item, introduce the harness and leash separately. Pick a highly valued treat and train when your cat is likely to want to eat.

  2. Let your cat sniff the harness and offer him a treat.
  3. Reward him for letting the harness sit on his back or for putting his paws through the arm holes.
  4. Secure the harness, reward and remove.
  5. Allow your cat to become accustomed to the harness being on for increasingly longer periods of time. Distract him with treats and toys. If he knows how to target, use the targeting stick to encourage him to move forward while wearing the harness.
  6. Once comfortable with the harness, add the leash. Work with kitty inside at first, with the leash attached but not being held. It is a good idea to have your cat get used to dragging the leash behind so if you drop it mistakenly, the dragging leash won’t frighten her. You can use treats, a target stick or a toy on a wand to encourage her to move forward.
  7. Pick up the leash and go for a walk! Start indoors and do some laps around the house.

Walking outdoors


Walking outside may not be for all cats. Cats who have spent most of their lives indoors may find the great outdoors overwhelming and frightening. It may never be their “cup of tea”.

To give this the best chance of success, start slowly. If you are just going to the backyard, start with brief trips outside in a carrier that is covered (have her harnessed and leashed). Leave the door open and let your cat smell and hear the outside. Let her come out on her own, if she wants to. Gradually work up to allowing her to meander around the yard with you at her side.

If you are planning on venturing further, it is wise to have a “mobile safe place” – a stroller or backpack. Introduce these items gradually but let your cat guide you – I have had cats that jumped right into the stroller and quickly learned that the stroller meant shade and safety.

Walking a cat vs walking a dog.


  • Cats do not have the stamina of dogs. Cats have evolved to move stealthily and quietly, with short intense bursts of activity: running and pouncing. They do not have the stiff-legged gait of horses and dogs, who can walk and trot for long periods of time – cats will get tired and will need some way of being transported.
  • Cats will want to run and hide when danger presents itself. The backpack or stroller will keep your cat safe and comfortable when on a walk.
  • Is your cat walking you? Walking your cat is often you going where she wants to go. If you feel you need to direct her path, target training can help.

An essential skill for the “adventure” cat is recall – train your cat to come when called. This can be invaluable if the worst happens and he somehow gets away. He most likely will hide and not respond at first – give him some time to calm down and let his training kick in. Keep calling him or giving him his recall cue.

 

Training your cat to a harness and leash can come in handy when traveling or introducing new pets. It also can strengthen your bond with your cat as you both enjoy the flowers in the garden together!

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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: Make a loud noise – shout, clap your hands – to get the cats’ attention. If a bag of cat treats is at hand, shake it. Try scattering treats on the off-chance it may distract them.

  • 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 clap their hands together or rattle pots and pans. 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 can distract some cats 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 startle the cats. Avoid the use of air horns – in close quarters, these will be really loud. You don’t want the cats to associate a traumatic event with each other.

Rattling the food container elicits a positive emotion – if you scatter treats, some cats may be distracted enough to chase and eat treats. Then you can 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

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Kittens a kndergarten session

It’s fun to watch a litter of kittens chasing and pouncing on each other. Are you thinking of  bringing some of that cuteness and energy to live at your house?

Kittens that have been handled in a positive way by a variety of people during their sensitive period (2-7 weeks) are tolerant of people and usually make good pets.  However, socialization continues past the 7 week mark.

Kittens older than 7 weeks in a wild cat colony would be spending time with their litter mates, mother, other female cats (babysitters) and maybe some indulgent males. They will be learning the body language of older cats and how to communicate with them.

When we adopt a kitten at 8-10 weeks, we interrupt the socialization process. There is some evidence that kittens who stay with their mothers and siblings until 12 weeks of age are more friendly with other cats and humans.

Rescue organizations already struggling to maintain facilities will incur more costs keeping kittens later. Is there a way to continue socializing kittens once they have joined their adopting household?

Resident Animals


Socializing kittens can continue if kittens join a household with well-socialized older cats and other pets, e.g. dogs. A word of caution here: It can be risky to introduce small kittens to adult cats and dogs.a kitten meets a well-behaved dog

Kittens practice fighting postures such as the arch and sidestep when they play with littermates.  As kittens reach 12 weeks or so, the arch and sidestep are seen less frequently – possibly the kittens are starting to identify these postures as aggressive, as part of a cat fight.  An older cat who has little experience with kittens, may interpret this activity as aggressive and react defensively, possibly injuring the kitten.

If you are in this situation, slow, gradual introduction is best until you know how the cats or dog are going to behave.

  • A barrier between the kitten(s) and older cat(s) or dog for the early visitations is a must. 
  • A helper is also essential.

Cats: You may want to consider using carriers or harness and leash when you reach supervised visitations (IF the cats are COMFORTABLE in their carriers and are COMFORTABLE with harness/leash).

Dogs: When you reach supervised visitations, make sure your dog has a comfortable harness to wear, is leash-trained, and is reliable with “down”, “stay”, “leave it” and a pay attention cue. If he gets too excited, you must be able to lead him out of the visitation area.

socializing kittens: making good memories


Kitten kindergarten is a program aimed at socializing kittens 8-12 weeks old. Kitten kindergarten tries to continue the socialization that began earlier during the sensitive period by offering exposure to a variety of humans and well-behaved adult cats and dogs. We hope to leave our kittens with some good memories that they can draw on later in life when confronted with human and animal visitors to their household.

Kitten kindergartens – Where? 

  • in the spring
  • veterinary clinics 
  • rescue organizations
  • typically runs weekly for 4 weeks

Who can come?

  • kittens 8-12 weeks of age
  • kittens older than 12 weeks may not be as accepting of interaction with other cats
  • the information and training still applies to older cats
  • if your cat is older, it may be worth seeing if you can attend virtually or without a cat.

Pre-Requisites for kindergarten

  • at least one FVRCP vaccine 5-7 days prior to the first class
  • dewormed
  • a negative FeLV/FIV test

The syllabus in kitten kindergarten can vary depending on who is offering the course, whether it is a veterinary clinic or rescue group. It typically will address cat handling, cat care (grooming, nail trims), and basic training, including harness and carrier training.

The goal of kitten kindergarten is not just socializing kittens – owner education is a big part of this program. Make sure to take advantage of the expertise of the class moderators and ask questions!

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Cat using food puzzleWhy slide a block aside to uncover food when there is food freely available in a bowl nearby? Psychologists call the behavior “contrafreeloading” – it refers to animals (and people) preferring to work for food when there is freely available food.

This behavior sounds counter-intuitive – after all, you would expect an animal to choose the option that requires the least effort. But psychologists and behaviorists propose that contrafreeloading is a manifestation of the SEEKING system – one of the seven basic emotional systems proposed by Jaak Panksepp, the father of “affective neuroscience”.  Affective neuroscience studies how the brain produces emotional responses.

The SEEKING system is thought to be the strongest of the primary emotional systems. It’s what gets animals out looking for food, looking for a mate, looking for other resources.

When the SEEKING system is activated

  • the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel pleasure.
  • It is the rewarding feeling you get when you are looking for something and find it.
  • Once you’ve found the object of your desire, the brain shuts off the dopamine and other emotions are activated.

So the action of SEEKING can be more enjoyable than finding what you’re looking for. Think about those travel advertisements that tell you that “getting there is half the fun”!

Dogs, mice, rats, birds, monkeys and even humans have been found to engage in “contrafreeloading”.

cats eating from a food puzzle: contrafreeloading?


A recent study by Mikel Delgado and colleagues enrolled 20 domestic cats to observe this behavior. They investigated the behavior of cats eating from a food puzzle versus eating food from a tray.  Cats eating from a food puzzle have to manipulate the puzzle to get the food out.

The cats were first trained to the puzzle by having increasing amounts of their food in the puzzle and decreasing freely available food on a tray.

  • At first, only 25% of their food was in the puzzle.
  • Once they started to eat some food from the puzzle, the amount in the puzzle was increased to 50%, then to 75%.
  • Three cats refused to eat any food from the puzzle and were dismissed from the study.
  • Cats were exposed to the equipment for 4-12 days before testing.

Cats underwent 2-4 trials a day, no less than 2 hours apart. The puzzle and the food tray were placed next to each other, and were the same distance from the cat. The cat’s daily food ration was divided equally between trials. In each trial, the food was divided up equally between the puzzle and the food bowl.

Cats are freeloaders!


Half of the cats ate less than 10% of their food from the puzzle. All of the cats ate most of their food from the tray – no cats were strong “contrafreeloaders”. Eight cats were definitely “freeloaders” – the rest seemed willing to do some contrafreeloading. Although a number of cats approached and sniffed the puzzle first, all the cats ate from the tray first. 

Cats seem to be one of the few species that does not seem to be inclined to work for their food in a captive environment. But cats have been known to STOP EATING to hunt prey – that certainly involves working for food!

why are cats freeloaders?


Cats eating from a food puzzle are engaging in “foraging” behavior.

Cats are solitary predators

  • They must conserve their energy for the energy burst needed when hunting
  • They are not above scavenging a free meal
  • Maybe it makes sense to a cat to eat some of the “free food” first before putting energy into foraging?

Is hunting more “fun”?

  • Is the SEEKING system stronger for cats when they hunt compared to when they forage? 
  • Do their brains release more dopamine when they are stalking, pouncing and chasing?
  • Do their brains release less dopamine when they are foraging?

cats eating from a food puzzle


Does this mean you should not bother offering your cat food puzzles for enrichment? No – food puzzles help reduce boredom and engage cats mentally.  Indoor cats in particular may benefit from using food puzzles.

training your cat to use a food puzzle


  1. Start by offering 25% of the meal in the food puzzle and 75%  in a bowl or tray. 
  2. When your cat is eating some of the food in the puzzle, increase the amount of food in the puzzle to 50% and decrease the amount in the bowl to 50%.
  3. Increase the amount of food in the puzzle to 75%; decrease the amount in the bowl to 25%
  4. When your cat is eating most of his meal in the puzzle, offer him the puzzle only.

A demonstration can help your cat learn. Cats are able to mimic the actions of humans and they are able to adapt human actions to their own bodies.

selecting a food puzzle


Cats using a puzzle feeder
Two cats using the Catit Food Tree.

 

There are many food puzzles you can make or purchase. Start your cat with a “beginner” puzzle and see what he likes to do. My ex-feral cat, Gus, easily mastered the Catit “Food Tree” but it was almost a year or so before he was willing to try a flat panel puzzle where he had to move pieces to uncover the food.

 

 

a homemade food puzzle
Cat using a homemade food puzzle

You may want to make some puzzles first to find out your cat’s preferences before purchasing one. Visit foodpuzzlesforcats.com!

 

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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!

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a cat is examined in her carrier
A cat is examined in a familiar place – the bottom of her carrier.

The other day a client brought her cat in for an exam and vaccines. This cat had been previously seen at the clinic and had been aggressive toward the veterinary staff and the owner. She had been prescribed gabapentin to reduce anxiety when coming in for vet visits. Gabapentin is bitter, so some cats will not eat it in food and may need to be given the pill.

The owner was unable to get her cat to eat the powder in food and brought the cat in unmedicated. This cat was in a soft carrier and was striking with her front paws at the carrier sides when approached. When cats are in a negative emotional state as was this cat, the two ways available to the veterinary professional to try change the emotional state are food and play. This cat was having neither.

A dilemma – proceed with the visit?


 

the veterinary staff


If we move forward, glove up and use thick towels, we can immobilize the cat and perhaps administer vaccines. Being in the soft carrier, she would be difficult to get out, but we could give the vaccine through the mesh sides, although there would be the risk if she wiggled loose a vaccine intended to go under the skin could end up in the muscle.

the cat’s point of view


When presented with a threatening scenario, a cat has three options: 1) flight 2) fight 3) freeze (learned helplessness).
The cat in question was in a carrier in an exam room so flight was out of the question. She decided to fight, which she was ready to do,  striking at the carrier sides when the owner or veterinary staff approached.

Imagine being snugly enveloped by towels, you can’t see what’s going on nor can you move. Some cats will continue to thrash, kick, and bite; other cats will give up at some point. The exam may be very brief, perhaps just measuring the heart rate through the towel. Whether the cat continues to fight or gives up, the experience is negative. If the cat perceives that fighting is successful – after all, she goes home after the struggle –  she may fight even harder on the next visit. The cat will stick with a strategy she thinks works.

the stress of the vet visit


So many owners are stressed about how their cat is treated at the vet clinic, they try to avoid bringing the cat in until it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes, to the cat’s detriment, health conditions have worsened by the time the cat receives medical care.

owner’s stress


  • The cat hides under the bed when the carrier comes out.
  • The cat has to be “dragged” out from under the bed.
  • The cat does not want to go into the carrier.
  • The cat cries constantly on the way to the vet.
  • The owner anticipates that the cat will be difficult and sedation will increase the cost of the visit.

the cat’s stress


  • You are placed in a box that you associate with fear and anxiety.
  • Your box (with you in it!) is placed in a larger box that moves and smells funny.
  • You are frightened, may be nauseated, or may soil yourself.
  • The vet clinic smells of other frightened animals.
  • You are handled by strange humans.

Each time “heavy restraint” is used, a cat often becomes increasingly aggressive, until the exam and treatments have to be done under anesthesia.

Cat friendly handling – breaking the cycle


Cat friendly handling is geared toward following the CAT handling guidelines.

  • Give the cat as much choice and control as possible.
  • Pay attention  to the cat’s body language and tailor the handling to the individual cat.
  • Touch the cat where he prefers to be touched.
  • Positive Reinforement: Make unpleasant procedures (vaccines, sample collection) worthwhile to the cat, offering food or head rubs.

Low Stress vet visits require that the veterinary staff and cat owner work together as a team.  Cat friendly handling begins at home and continues when the cat and owner arrive at the vet clinic.

“A BETTER VET VISIT FOR YOUR CAT


  1. Train your cat to comfortable in her carrier. Consider a carrier with a removable lid so that she can at least be examined in the safety of her “home away from home”.
  2. Desensitize your cat to riding in the car – take a drive around the block where you don’t end up at the vet.
  3. If the veterinary team recommends an anti-anxiety “cocktail”, figure out how your cat will take it. Consider training your cat to accept medication.
  4. If your cat has a favorite treat or food that he likes, consider picking up his food the night before for a morning appointment or in the morning for an afternoon appointment. Bring the treats along and offer them to the staff to feed kitty during his exam or procedures.
  5. Choose a Cat Friendly Practice where the staff have had some training in cat friendly handling.

What happened with the cat we talked about earlier?


The owner felt that a cat-only practice made her cat more reactive. We elected not to proceed with the exam and suggested the owner find a clinic that was a better fit. We can only hope that the cycle of aggression will be broken.

Like taking a toddler to the doctor, the vet visit can be scary for your cat. Cat friendly handling can make the visit less stressful for both you and your cat!

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Clicker training your cat pairs the sound of the clicker, a small handheld gadget, with a treat or some other thing the cat likes. When the cat hears the click, he knows that a treat or something good is on its way. If the cat sits when he hears the word “sit” and hears a click as he sits, he will look for his expected reward. If he receives the reward, he will be more likely to “sit” next time upon command.

At the core of clicker training your cat are two learning processes: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Let’s look at these two ways of learning.

Classical Conditioning – An involuntary response is associated with a stimulus


Pavlov meme
During the 1890’s, a Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov was studying digestion in dogs, measuring the amount of saliva produced by a group of dogs presented with meat.

Pavlov noticed that:

  • the dogs would drool when food was placed in front of them
  • they would also drool before they received the meat, when they heard the footsteps of the assistant bringing the meat.

This started a series of experiments using lights, metronomes and, of course, bells to stimulate the drooling.  Pavlov had discovered the learning process that we now call “classical conditioning”, where an involuntary response like salivating is associated with a stimulus, the ringing of a bell.

Operant conditioning – A voluntary behavior is associated with aN outcome


Likewise, snapping the lid off a can of cat food can help call the kitties to dinner. The dogs connected the ringing of the bell with food; your cats may be accustomed or conditioned to associate the sound of  the can opening with being fed. This is another example of “classical conditioning”.

Your cat has heard the can opening. Now, he must decide whether he is going to come for dinner. Most of the time, he makes the decision to come when “called”, anticipating a dinner of cat food. This “voluntary” response is the learning process called operant conditioning – the cat has control over whether he comes or not.

Folks who study behavior have identified 4 different scenarios in operant learning: 2 that increase the likelihood that the behavior being trained will be repeated and 2 that decrease the likelihood that the behavior is repeated.

operant conditioning – 4 scenarios


INCREASE THE BEHAVIOR


POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT


Treats to reward cats

ADD a good outcome – the cat is likely to perform the behavior again.

We ask the cat to “sit” and when he sits, we give him a tasty treat. We REWARD the behavior of sitting.

DECREASE THE BEHAVIOR


POSITIVE PUNISHMENT


cat on counter

ADD something unpleasant to discourage a behavior.

Your kitty jumps up on the counter and you spray her with water. She jumps down. You have added an unpleasant spray of water (punishment) to getting up on the counter.

negative reinforcement


TAKE AWAY something unpleasant- the cat is likely to do what stops what’s unpleasant.

You are trying to trim your cat’s nails but the moment you touch her foot with the clippers, she growls and hisses and you stop. It is likely next time, she will growl and hiss to stop you from trimming her nails. You are reinforcing her behavior of hissing and growling at nail trims by “removing” the unpleasant nail trim.

negative punishment


TAKE AWAY something the cat likes to discourage a behavior.

Your cat wakes you up at night to be petted. You put her outside the bedroom and close the door. You are removing the opportunity for some stroking that your cat enjoys with the hope that your cat will not wake you up in the future.

THE PROBLEM WITH positive PUNISHMENT

  • It is difficult to get the timing right – you must spray the cat as she is jumping on the counter otherwise she may associate something else (you) with the spray of water
  • Punishment does not remove a behavior.  There is an immediate effect – kitty jumps off the counter – but she may continue to jump on the counter if you are NOT there to spray her. 
  • Devices like a SSSCAT (a motion-activated spray system) may keep her off the counter as long as they are working.  A concern with these devices is injury if the cat is startled and falls off the counter.
  • Punishment can put the cat into an anxious, fearful state, anticipating a consequence (punishment) the cat does not understand. 

“Classical” conditioning and “operant” conditioning with positive reinforcement form the core of clicker training your cat.

  • The cat learns to associate the “click” of the clicker with food or something he values.
  • He will choose to perform a behavior, like sitting upon command, anticipating a treat.

Positive reinforcement is the most successful training technique because the cat will not be fearful or anxious but will be in a positive emotional state, ready to learn – after all, something good will happen!

 

A POSTSCRIPT


What to try if your cat hates nail trims

Positive reinforcement!

  1. Start by handling her feet and giving her a treat for each paw you pick up.
  2. Move on to touching her feet with the nail clippers, and give her treats for each paw.
  3. Work up to trimming a few claws at a time, and of course, reward her!

Counter Surfing

With kitchen counters, the drive to seek food is strong and difficult for a cat to suppress. Also, cats instinctively, “go for the high ground”, especially if they are avoiding something they are leery of.

  1. Is your cat jumping on the counter to get food or avoid the dog and the toddler? You may need to control the dog or toddler.
  2. Keep food off the counters unless you are preparing it.
  3. Find a place (preferably high) for kitty to sit while you are working at the counter and reward him for sitting there.
  4. Sometimes, using “aversives”, things cats don’t like, may help. For example, using a non-toxic citrus spray on the counter or using an upside-down carpet runner (with the “spikes” facing up) may deter jumping up on the counter.
  5. If your cat is driving you crazy or may get hurt, put him in a safe place with all his resources while you prepare food.

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