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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A cat’s first experience with grooming is when she is born. In the first 3 weeks of life, her mother cleaned her nose to tail many times a day, stimulating the kitten to void her bowels and urinate. When the kitten reached 4 weeks old, she started grooming herself, and also grooming her litter mates and mother.

why do cats groom?


Cats are mammals. Mammals have fur to maintain their high body temperature. The fur traps air next to the mammal’s body, providing an isolating layer to regulate his temperature.

It is important to keep the fur coat clean, after all a matted or pelted coat cannot trap as much air as a clean coat, where air surrounds each individual hair.  Oil from the skin can combine with shed fur and dirt to form mats.  Grooming helps distribute the oils of the skin throughout the fur so that mats are not likely to form.

Grooming not only helps keep your cat warm when cold and cool through the evaporation of saliva when hot, it also has a social function.  A cat will not only groom himself, he also may participate in allogrooming. Allogrooming refers to animals of the same species grooming each other.

Grooming Your Cat – allogrooming


Some studies show that allogrooming occurs most among cats that are related, that are of the same social group. It is an affiliative behavior.

But there is also evidence that allogrooming is not restricted to family groups. It also a way for cats to redirect potential aggression and avoid physical conflict. Cats, being solitary hunters, prefer to avoid fighting. Fighting can result in injury, making a cat unable to hunt and feed himself.

In urban cat colonies and in multi-cat households, the abundance of resources make it possible for many cats to live close to each other, with abbreviated, overlapping territories.  More cats closer together increases the likelihood of  aggressive encounters.  Allogrooming gives cats a way to redirect the aggression with a few quick licks to the head, soothing a would-be combatant and avoiding a fight.

I have two male cats, Gus and Marley, who are not fond of each other but co-exist. I was surprised the other day to find Gus grooming Marley’s head. Had Marley appeared aggressive to Gus? Marley is bigger than Gus – was Gus trying to calm Marley down to avoid a  fight?

Grooming your cat: a social interaction


Cats often groom their people, licking them with their barbed tongues. How can we reciprocate? Consider grooming your cat.  Grooming your cat can be soothing, making her feel calm and secure. And, it can help reduce hairballs and mats, by removing excess hair and distributing oils over the cat’s coat.

tips for grooming your cat


  • Make sessions short.

    grooming comb with rounded tines
    Note the rounded tines on this “greyhound” comb. There is a “coarse” and “fine” side.
  • Only groom part of your cat’s coat at a time – say, one side.
  • Consider using a comb with rounded tines – it is often more effective than a brush.
  • Comb at an angle, in the direction of the hair.
  • Don’t pull knotted or matted hair out – this hurts! Tease mats apart gently with your fingers if possible, then comb the area, starting with a “coarse” comb and working up to a “fine” comb.
  • Groom frequently, say every few days.

My cat won’t let me groom her


Treat Holder
Soft food, spread on the Lickimat, can be eaten by the cat during grooming.

Desensitize your cat to being groomed. Try distracting her with tasty treats – a “Likimat” can keep her engaged with a soothing behavior (licking) while you groom.

If your cat is clicker trained, try the following steps:

  • Establish a cue for grooming, for example, show your cat the grooming comb and let her rub against it.
  • Touch your cat with the comb, click and treat. Work up to brief combings – make sure to reward.
  • Gradually increase the time of combings, making sure to reward kitty.
  • WATCH her body language to know when to take a break.

Oil, dirt and shed hair can clump together to form larger mats that feel like Brillo pads. These mats are best taken care of by a professional groomer. Cats’ skin is delicate and can tear easily, requiring a trip to the vet for wound repair.  Above all, resist the temptation to use scissors. Even small mats are best removed by hand or with a clipper.

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Gentle handling between 2-7 weeks helps kittens build trust with humans.

We will soon be entering “kitten season” in Colorado. Although cats indoors can breed at any time of the year, the wild cat population typically mates in January and February. The kittens will be born in April and May, during warmer temperatures when prey is more abundant.

Like any other baby animal, kittens depend on their mothers for survival. What happens if the mother is killed or trapped? What if the mother abandons her kittens?

If part of a cat colony, the mother’s sisters would take over the care of the kittens. The females in the colony share the role of parenting the kittens. Females of the same social group who give birth around the same time will nurse each other’s kittens, allowing each other a chance to go off and hunt.

Not all cats live in colonies – some live a more solitary existence. If something happens to the solitary mother, her kittens’ outlook for survival is bleak. With human intervention, some of these kittens will survive. Will the kitten raised by humans make a good pet?

Raising kittens – the role of the mother cat


Kittens are born helpless, unable to regulate their own temperature. Their eyes won’t open until they are a week old. They are dependent on their mother for warmth and round-the-clock feedings. She must lick them to stimulate urination and defecation until they are about 3 weeks old. (Bringing up a litter of kittens)

time to grow up and learn to hunt


  • When the kittens are 3-4 weeks old, the mother cat begins to bring back “dead” prey to them
  • In the next few weeks, mom brings back fatigued or injured prey. The kittens start to practice their hunting skills.
  • If a kitten loses control of the prey, mom is there to recapture it.
  • The kittens see their mother eating the prey so they eat the prey.
  • The mother cat shows the kittens how to bury urine and feces at this time. (Veterian Key)

weaning


As the kittens begin to eat solid food, the mother starts to restrict their nursing.

  • she leaves the nest for longer periods of time
  • she makes it harder for the kittens to nurse by crouching or lying on her stomach
  • she may hiss or growl at them when they try to nurse
  • she climbs out of their reach for extended periods of time.

This is a frustrating time for the kitten – he or she is hungry but cannot have milk and must find other food to eat; this frustration encourages the kitten to turn his attention to his hunting and survival skills. His first prey may be a crunchy insect!

 

the kitten RAISED BY HUMANS


Fosters of pre-weaned orphan kittens are some of the unsung heroes of the animal rescue world. In addition to feeding kittens up to 10 times in 24 hours, keeping them warm, and stimulating them to urinate and defecate before and after feeding, fosters must try to mimic the social stimulation (see below) that the mother would provide. (Hand-rearing kittens)

  • kitten being brushed
    A kitten is brushed with a soft toothbrush.

    Mother cats lick their kittens overall to clean them, provoke urination and suckling, provide comfort, and strengthen their social bond. Human caregivers may use brushing to mimic grooming by the mother cat.

  • Fosters must show kittens how to use the litter tray at 3-4 weeks.
  • Fosters must wean the kittens and transition them to solid food.
  • Fosters should expose the kittens to a variety of people and friendly pets.

The “Tarzan” kitten – The kitten raised by humans


Kitten starting solid foodA human caregiver cannot replace a kitten’s mother – after all, we are not cats. For example, how does a human foster mimic the frustration accompanying weaning that encourages the kitten to get his own food?  Kittens raised without their mothers and siblings are prone to behavioral issues – they don’t know how to deal with frustration; early separation from the mother may cause changes in brain function.

 

Some behavior problems commonly seen in orphaned kittens:

  • fear and aggression toward people and other cats
  • fear of new things
  • lack of social skills
  • overly dependent on caregiver
  • lack of bite inhibition – the kitten does not know how hard to bite
  • “wool sucking” – sucking on fabric, other kittens or human earlobes. The kitten could hurt the litter mate or person or ingest something harmful.

(Maddie’s Fund)

These behaviors often can be managed with gentle handling and training.

tips for adopting the kitten raised by humans


  • Adopt a kitten that was raised with her litter mates or other adult cats – she will learn how hard to bite, since her litter mates will bite back; older cats will also offer a response to inappropriate play behavior.
  • Adopt 2 kittens around the same age, from the same litter if possible
  • Choose kitten(s) that were exposed to a variety of people when they were 2-7 weeks old
  • Ask if the kitten(s) had different environmental experiences: car rides, television, vacuum cleaners.

Whichever kitten(s) you choose, please consider training your kitten(s).


Patience, gentle handling, and training can help the kitten raised by humans become a valued member of your household.

Kitten season can be overwhelming for rescue organizations.

Want to help?

  • Adopt
  • Foster
  • Donate

What if you find a litter of kittens by themselves?

  • Keep an eye on them – the mother could be out hunting
  • Contact your local cat rescue
  • If she does not return after several hours or the kittens are in danger, you may need to act

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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 hunting treat ball

Your cat went in for her annual exam and your vet suggests that she lose some weight. Most likely, you were also given some daily calorie estimates and food amounts. Perhaps your vet recommended a weight loss food. What’s next?

Three ways to help your cat lose weight:

  1. portion control
  2. feeding multiple small meals
  3. keeping your cat moving

Portion Control


If you have not done this already, measure how much your cat is eating. Make sure to include treats and table scraps. If your cat is a grazer, put out a measured amount of food in the morning and measure what remains the next morning, 24 hours later.

Gradual weight loss is best. The rule of thumb is to cut your cat’s food portion by no more than 10-20% at a time. Drastic food reduction can lead to a cat who is frantic for food, begging and sometimes biting you in his quest for food. It may take some time to reach the calorie allowance recommended by your vet.

The Behavior of Feeding: Multiple small meals daily


Now that you know how much to feed, let’s look at how you feed. Cats have small stomachs; in the wild, they follow a nocturnal schedule, hunting and feeding about 4 times, starting in the late afternoon and finishing in the morning.  In between hunts, the cats nap and groom; sometimes they play with the kittens.

Your cat is designed to eat multiple small meals a day. If your cat is a grazer, this is what she is doing and she may be fine with her portion set out in a bowl for the day. Other cats may want to eat everything at once, which can lead to GI upset and boredom. To help your cat lose weight, portion control can be done by using a timed feeder or you can follow a feeding schedule. Here is a sample schedule for a working owner feeding 4 meals a day.

  1. AM before leaving for work – meal feed: canned or dry food
  2. Day Time: food puzzles or feeders with dry or canned food
  3. PM arrive home from work – meal feed: canned or dry food
  4. Bedtime Snack: Treat Time – treat toss or training

Strategies for the Multi-Cat Household


Life is rarely simple – often you have one cat who needs to lose weight and a “skinny” one who is a “grazer”.

Technology to the Rescue: Microchip feeders

SureFeed Microchip Pet Feeder:

Surefeeder for Cat
Athena’s Surefeeder opens only for her. Note the bubble on the back to keep the other cats out.

This plain vanilla feeder is ideal for grazers who tend limit themselves. The feeder is programmed to sense an individual cat’s microchip and only opens for the particular cat. Put the “skinny” cat’s food in the Surefeeder and the “fat” cat’s food in a timed feeder or in bowls spread out through the house. The Surefeeder can also accommodate canned food.

 

 

 

Timed Microchip Feeders:

These feeders sense the tag on the pet’s collar and allow a pet a certain amount of time to eat. Many of these feeders can accommodate more than one pet if they are eating the same food. However, some reviews note that a persistent pet will refuse to leave when the doors try to shut, keeping his head in the bowl and continuing to eat.

The Meowspace:

This is a ventilated transparent “box” with an access door. Some models have a microchip flap while others have a magnetic flap. The Meowspace also has a timed access option, allowing the cat to access the “space” only at certain times of the day.

The DIY version: You can make a “meow space” out of a closet by installing a microchip cat flap in the closet door. To add a “timed” option, place an inexpensive automatic feeder in the closet.

Low Tech Solutions to help your cat lose weight:

Some cats prefer to be up high while others are “ground dwellers”. If this is the case, you can feed the cats who climb up high on a shelf, top of a bookcase, or on the upper level of a cat tree while the other cat eats at ground level. Another option is to meal feed and separate the cats in different rooms when feeding.

keeping your cat moving


In the wild, cats prowl around looking for food. You can mimic this behavior by placing portions of food in different places around the house. Your cat has to go look for it. This is the idea behind Doc & Phoebe’s indoor hunting system.

Puzzle feeders also can also stimulate and engage your cat while feeding. Make sure to introduce your cat to his puzzle feeder gradually, increasing the food in the puzzle and decreasing his food in the bowl as he learns to use the puzzle feeder.

Using the indoor hunting system or puzzle feeders can be challenging in the multi-cat home: some cats will catch on more quickly than others, getting more to eat in the process. Indoor hunting and food puzzles may not be appropriate. In that case, help your cat lose weight by engaging him in a daily play session or taking him for a leash walk outside.

Treat Toss
If you are feeding dry food, you can make one of the meals a tossing game. Dental treats or dental kibbles are large and can be tossed for your cats to hunt down. Space the cats out so each cat has his own “territory” to hunt in and make the rounds, tossing the kibbles. This is also a great way for the cats to interact with guests, who usually enjoy tossing the treats to the eager felines!

Help your cat lose weightreduce his risk of medical problems such as diabetes and arthritis, and form a closer relationship with your cat through daily play and exercise activities.

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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!

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Kittens at Kndergarten
Kittens at “kitten kindergarten” session

What makes A good pet cat?


We will soon be entering “kitten season” in Colorado. Although cats indoors can breed at any time of the year, the wild cat population typically mates in January and February. The kittens will be born about 2 months later, during warmer temperatures when prey is more abundant.

Many of these wild kittens will end up at the shelter; some may be adoptable.

How do I know if a cat will be a good pet cat?


Nature and nurture are parts of the puzzle that determine how a cat will behave towards people.

Nature:

Nurture:

The science of epigenetics studies modifications to our DNA that don’t change the DNA sequence. The epigenome refers to chemical compounds that are attached to your DNA. Exposure to pollutants, what you eat and stress are some things that can result in certain compounds attaching to your DNA and turning particular genes on or off. These changes can remain as cells divide and may pass from generation to generation.

Nurture : The “Sensitive Period” in kittens


Kittens learn most efficiently when they are 2-7 weeks old.  This time is called  the “sensitive period”, when rapid growth of neural cells makes learning easier. The learning that happens during the “sensitive period” prepares a kitten for the social and physical environment she is born into. A cat who will be a good pet cat needs to be exposed to humans and where humans live during her “sensitive period”.

Human contact


Kittens who are handled kindly and gently by a variety of humans during the “sensitive period” quickly learn to accept people and enjoy being with them. The positively socialized kitten  generalizes what he learns about individual people to people in general.

Rough, insensitive handling during the “sensitive period” can make a kitten aggressive and fearful of people for life.

Exposure to Human households


Kittens exposed to the environment in human homes during the “sensitive period” adapt quickly to electronic devices and appliances, other animals, and living indoors. For example, they learn that the noise of the vacuum cleaner, although unpleasant, is not life threatening.

Diet


Kittens are more willing to try new foods at this time, although they follow their mother’s lead (if she is there) in choosing what to eat. Good nutrition helps a kitten’s brain and body develop – malnutrition early in life has been linked to epigenetic changes.

 

the end of the “sensitive period”


At 7 weeks, this “golden time” of learning closes – the fear reaction becomes established in the kitten. She will become more cautious and careful from now on. Caution and wariness are crucial to her development in the wild as a solitary hunter. She will continue to learn and develop socially but will not be as open to new experiences.

socialization after the “sensitive period”


By the time the sensitive period ends, kittens have been weaned and are eating solid food. In a wild cat colony, they will continue to play with other kittens and interact with adults. The kitten will learn how hard he can bite when playing- his litter mates will bite back! This is when he will learn the body language of adult cats, how to approach other cats, and improve his hunting skills by observing other cats.

thinking of adopting a kitten?


  • Think about adopting 2 – they can keep each other occupied and cats that grow up together often form strong bonds and a social group.
  • If possible, adopt kittens who are at least 12 weeks of age. These kittens will have spent some time with their mothers and litter mates, learning how hard they can bite when playing. They should also recognize some basic social signals given by adult cats (important if you are bringing them into a multi-cat home).
  • Above all – try to adopt kittens that were handled gently and kindly by people during their “sensitive period”. They are familiar with humans and enjoy being with them. Ask the adoption center about the kittens’ experiences when they were 2-7 weeks old!

 

If you opt to introduce kittens to older cats, SUPERVISE AT ALL TIMES. Make sure your older cats are vaccinated for upper respiratory diseases and feline leukemia (if they go outdoors). Gradual introduction is still recommended. A pair of kittens may still be your best bet in this situation and give you time to introduce all the cats at their own pace.

 

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cat in carrier with removable topMany of us (cat owners) dread taking our cat to the vet. There is the ordeal of the carrier and car trip; once there, your cat seems miserable. However, regular veterinary care is the key to a happy and longer life for your cat. Can medication before your cat’s vet visit help?

Not every cat needs medication at the vet.  Some cats are fine just having some familiar things with them.  Familiarity can help reduce situational anxiety – the anxiety you experience when you are in a strange place. Things we can do to increase familiarity for your cat at the vet visit include:

  • Training her to be comfortable in her carrier
  • Choosing a carrier with a removable top to allow examination in her carrier
  • Getting her used to the car and taking her on some drives that don’t end up at the vet
  • Bringing your cat’s favorite treats
  • Spraying the carrier with pheromones (Feliway) before the visit

For some cats, this may not be enough. Your usually nice kitty becomes a raging demon or just freezes like a rock and doesn’t move – both reactions can be the result of anxiety and fear.

I recently took my youngest cat in a for a rabies vaccine and to have a tooth evaluated. Gus accepted handling and food but had a whopping heart rate of 230 beats per minute! He was anxious even though I was there with him.

We would like our cats to associate good things with going to the vet but they may not be feeling well when they are there or they anticipate getting poked with a needle for vaccinations or blood tests.  So, when the carrier comes out, your cat may associate it with negative emotions and understandably becomes anxious.

Anxiety actually has a function in our lives – worrying about something in the bushes pouncing on you probably saved a lot of cavemen and feral cats; anxiety can improve your physical and mental performance. But anxiety at the vet clinic does not benefit your cat and can actually make things worse. An unpleasant visit can become an unpleasant memory.

Medication before your cat’s vet visit


Have you ever had elevated blood pressure at a doctor visit?  Anxiety before medical appointments is common for people as well as cats.  Because cats don’t speak human language, we can’t reassure them and let them know exactly what is happening. It is worth considering medication before your cat’s vet visit to help reduce his anxiety.

Gabapentin and trazodone are two medications commonly used to reduce the stress of the vet visit.  These medications must be prescribed by your veterinarian.

Gabapentin


  • Developed as an anti-convulsant
  • Has anti-anxiety properties – reduces the release of excitatory neurotransmitters
  • Is a pain reliever

Gabapentin is commonly used in the veterinary practice to reduce anxiety in cats.  There have been a few studies evaluating fear and stress in cats having taken gabapentin – these studies found a reduced CSS (cat stress score) after administration of gabapentin.

The typical dose is 100 mg given 1.5 – 2 hours prior to the vet visit. Frequently, a dose is also given the night before. Doses can vary for individual cats – some cats may do well with a 50 mg dose while others may need 150 mg.

Gabapentin is available in capsules, liquid and small tablets.

  • Capsules: The capsule is opened and the powder is mixed in a small amount of tuna fish or canned cat food. Gabapentin is bitter and some cats may not eat it in food. The capsules may also be given using a pet piller or a squeeze up treat.
  • Liquid: The liquid may result in foaming at the mouth.
  • Tablets: Gabapentin can also be compounded into small, flavored tablets – these can be given in pill treats.

Your cat may be a little sleepy or wobbly after taking gabapentin. You may want to watch kitty near the stairs or jumping up on things!

Gabapentin is a pain reliever for cats – reducing pain may be one of the ways it helps reduce anxiety and fear

 

Trazodone


  • Antidepressant that is commonly prescribed for insomnia and depression in humans
  • One of its side effects is drowsiness

There have been a few studies looking at cats receiving trazodone. One study in particular found that the CSS (cat stress score) was the same in the treated group as the group receiving the placebo. So, trazodone appears to be more of a sedative (makes you sleepy) than an anti-anxiety drug.

Typical dose is 50 mg given by mouth 90 minutes before the stressful event.

  • Can result in lower blood pressure in cats
  • There is a risk of serotonin syndrome if used with other anti-depressant medication such as fluoxetine (Reconcile).
  • Available as a tablet or can be compounded into a liquid or capsule form.

 

There is increased interest in identifying medications to reduce stress and anxiety in cats at veterinary visits. We should expect to see more medications becoming available in the near future.

Medication before your cat’s vet visit can be part of a low-stress veterinary visit.  However, it will be most effective  when combined with training to reduce situational anxiety and low-stress handling techniques.

As for Gus, I will make sure to give him some gabapentin before vet visits.

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Invitation to play
artwork by Phyllis Meyer

It’s fun to watch cats play with each other – pouncing on each other, wrestling and chasing after one another. But some of these behaviors are similar to fighting – how do you know when cats are playing or fighting?

A group of cat behavior researchers posed this question recently. Previous research has focused on what the cat is playing with – an object, another cat? These researchers classify play according to the emotions and motivations of the cat.  They have coined the phrase “mutual social play” and have listed the behaviors that are characteristic of mutual social play between cats. This list will help us decide if our cats are playing or fighting.

“Play” has many different definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “play” as “engag[ing] in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”.

Cats at play – what are they playing with?


Object play


  • Chase a ball
  • Throw a catnip mouse into the air
  • Pounce and attack another cat’s tail – although the cat is playing with another cat, this play treats the other cat’s tail like an object.

Social Play


  • with other cats
  • with other animals (including humans)

Kittens practice hunting skills and improve their coordination through play.  Play helps adult cats explore their environment and engage in social relationships in a way that’s fun for them.

Let’s return to our original question – play between cats can look pretty rough. How do we tell whether cats are playing or fighting?

The body language of cat aggression


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.

Kittens practice these fighting postures when they play with littermates. You can see them arch their backs and sidestep. However, as kittens reach 12 weeks or so, the arch and sidestep are seen less frequently. This is most likely because the kittens are starting to identify these postures as aggressive, as part of a cat fight.

Although kittens will continue play together, they start to become more interested in playing with objects around 10-14 weeks of age. They begin to focus more on capturing prey and getting food for themselves.

Cats at Play – Mutual Social Play


Adults cats also play, although play becomes less frequent as cats grow older.

The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways,” said Jaak Panksepp, a noted neurobiologist.

Mutual social play

  • Is reciprocal, that is the participants want to play with each other
  • The participants enjoy the interaction
  • The participants exercise social skills that can be used in other social interactions

Cats at Play: the body language of mutual social play


In mutual social play, there should not be much vocalization such growling or hissing; claws are generally sheathed and biting is gentle, without intent to injure. There are lots of pauses.

Invitation to play


Two cats face each other – one may roll over on his back showing his belly. The other cat can be standing close over the first cat – the tail is often up. One cat may reach out and tap the other cat with his paw.

Play


Cats chasing each other

The invitation is often followed by a pounce and the two cats may engage in bouts of wrestling and chasing. The cats will switch roles. They may repeat the “invitation” to continue the play session.

end of play


Play is overPlay usually ends with one cat standing facing the other cat, who may be on his/her side, or there is a chase sequence that just dies off, with the cats walking away from each other.

When cats at play begin to fight:


What starts as mutual social play can sometimes turn into a cat fight.

What to watch for:


  • There is no reciprocity – cats are no longer taking turns pouncing and chasing
  • Increase in vocalization – hissing, growling
  • You start to see “distance increasing postures”:  standing sideways, arching back, fur on end

 

what to do: separate the cats


  • Distraction – use a loud sharp, noise to disrupt the interaction
  • If hostilities are not too far advanced, try tossing treats in opposite directions
  • Use a towel or piece of cardboard to herd the cats away from each other
  • Give the cats a “cool-down” period in separate rooms

Above all, try to avoid handling the cats – cat bites and scratches can easily become infected and require medical attention

Play can be part of the “social glue” that keeps a social group of cats together. Keep an eye on interactions between the cats in your home – particularly ones between cats of different social groups. Make sure to not to confuse fighting with mutual social play!

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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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