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

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

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

How to deal with unwanted scratching


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

Redirecting unwanted scratching


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

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

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

Reply to any scent messages


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

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

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

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

“Aversives” – things most cats don’t like


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

 

A Word about Punishment:

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

 Alternative Marking Options for your Cat


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

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

Minimize damage with nail trims


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

cats just want to have fun!


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

If your cat enjoys scooting along stair risers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question.

cats and scratching: the “purrfect” scratching post


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This survey concluded that the “Ideal Scratching Post” would

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

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

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


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

Station 2: Single Post scratcher and cardboard scratcher


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

Station 3: Large cat bed with sisal scratcher


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

Station #4: By a litter box


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

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

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

The Take Away


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cats and scratching:why


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cats and scratching: where to put scratchers


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

Doors and Windows

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

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

 

Near Sleeping Places

It feels great to stretch after you wake up!

Near the Litter Areas

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

Cats and Scratching: Security through Scent

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

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

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What can you do when your cat thinks outside the box?

Whether you are waiting for an appointment with your vet or are in the process of treating a medical condition, accepted guidelines (ISFM house-soiling guidelines) recommend that you do an environmental and social assessment of your cat and where he lives. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at your cat’s environment and what we might change  to resolve the house-soiling.

When Your Cat Thinks Outside the Box: First Aid


REDUCE THE TERRITORY OF THE HOUSE-SOILING CAT


The “core territory” is where the cat can rest, has shelter and feels safe from predators and other cats.
Consider temporarily confining the house-soiling cat to one or more rooms with all the cat’s resources – litter box, food and water stations, cat trees. This can make an anxious cat feel more safe – from the feline purrspective, he does not have as much area to defend from other cats, pets, and people.

DON’T HAVE THE SPACE?


  • Restrict this cat’s access to the soiled areas if you can.
  • If that’s not possible, try placing a litter box where the house-soiling is occurring.
  • If the cat starts to use the box, keep it in place for at least 2 weeks (ISFM house-soiling guidelines)
  • After two weeks of consistent use, you can gradually move the box to a more suitable location. Go very slowly for best results!

DAMAGE CONTROL


  • Use an enzymatic cleaner to clean the soiled areas.
  • If your cat is spraying, set up a spraying station: a litter box oriented vertically. Line walls and floor with plastic to minimize damage to wallboard and flooring.
  • There is a risk of a cat marking the cleaned area, so “clean and cover”, as described above.

When your cat thinks outside the box – A CLOSER LOOK AT YOUR CAT’S ENVIRONMENT


  • Sketch the floor plan of your house.

    House Map
    A house map showing areas where house-soiling has occurred.
  • Mark the location of doors, windows, stairways, closets and major pieces of furniture. Mark the location of litter boxes, feeding areas, water stations, scratching posts and sleeping areas.
  • Mark where and when (extra credit!) the house-soiling has occurred.

ELIMINATION: SOCIAL OR ENVIRONMENTAL?


The house map can give us an idea of whether the elimination problem is due to your cat’s environment or if the elimination problem is social, arising from negative interactions with other cats, pets or people.

WHERE DOES “X MARK THE SPOT”?


  • Near door and windows where outdoor cats come? social?
  • Right next to the litter box? environmental?
  • On laundry piles or bath mats? environmental/social?
  • On your bed? social?
  • Quiet corners? environmental/social?
  • Near a noisy appliance? environmental?

AN ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT: The litter box


ENOUGH BOXES?

  • Even this question is not straightforward. But let’s start with the commonsense basics. There needs to be more than one box even for one cat.
  • Some cats prefer to use one box for urine and the other for feces.
  • In a multi-story house, there should be a litter box on every floor the cat frequents.
  • The rule of thumb is #litter boxes = # cats + 1 but this is not a hard and fast rule.
  • Litter boxes need to be separated – cats view litter boxes next to each other as a single litter box.

SIZE MATTERS


The litter box needs to be large enough for your cat to turn around. This box is large enough for Gus.

How big are the boxes? Cats may turn around a few times before eliminating. The litter box needs to be large enough to accommodate this motion. The rule of thumb here is 1.5 times the cat’s length from nose to base of tail.

CLEAN ENOUGH?


A study sponsored by Nestle-Purina found that cats prefer a litter box free of clumps of urine and pieces of stool, so scooping the litter box frequently may avoid house-soiling problems. If you do not scoop the boxes daily, you may need more boxes and/or larger boxes.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION


  • Litter boxes should be separated and not in areas a cat can be “trapped” in. Avoid high traffic areas frequented by lots of people and other pets.
  • Avoid areas with noisy appliances. Remember that cats have one of the broadest ranges of hearing of any land mammal, hearing the low tones of the human male voice and the ultrasonic squeaks of mice. Even our electronic gizmos may be emitting sounds that can make a litter box area unpleasant.

ESTABLISHING NEW HABITS


To break the house-soiling habit, we need to REWARD the cat for using the litter box. We can do this by making the litter box more appealing and pleasant to use.

Offering a new litter box is one way to break the habit of soiling in an inappropriate place.

  • Consider larger boxes with a cut out to allow easy access.
  • High-sided boxes will work for cats who spray or stand up to urinate.
  • It is best to ADD litter boxes at first. Once the cat has accepted the new box, you can remove the older one.

LITTER BOX CAFETERIA


  • Putting several litter boxes side by side with different fillers (include the original) can give you an idea what kind of litter your cat prefers.

KEEP IT CLEAN!


  • Consider having a “Litter Genie” or other disposal system next to each box so that it is convenient to scoop the box frequently.

THE BATHROOM IS SAFE!


  • Some cats respond positively to pheromones. The “Feliway” Classic or Comfort Zone calming diffusers give a message of security and calmness.
  • For cats who are spraying or marking, these analogs of facial pheromones tell your cat that this place is already marked.
  • You can also collect your cat’s individual scent and apply it to the area around the box – wood moldings, walls…

NO SNACKS IN THE BATHROOM!


  • Locate food and water away from the litter box. Cats do not eat where they eliminate and a litter box near food may discourage its use for elimination.

House-soiling can be a difficult puzzle to solve. When your cat thinks outside the box, it may be due to medical, environmental or social issues or a combination of these. A house map can help you locate the problem areas and optimize your cat’s environment. In the next post, we’ll use the house map to look for social problems that may be why your cat thinks outside the box.

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

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

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

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

Routines help cats: routines reduce stress


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

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

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

Human interaction and playtime


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

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

Make Sure to Maintain Routines


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

Routines help cats from becoming bored


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

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

 

Example of an evening routine


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

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

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

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Cat on Baby Scale
This scale does not tip when your cat walks on it. I have added a non-skid mat.

Feeding the older, skinny cat can be a challenge. Older cats do not digest food as efficiently as younger ones and can require more calories. Due to disease and natural aging processes, the older cat often suffers from a reduced appetite. Reduced appetite means that less food is eaten. Less food eaten means the cat will lose weight and muscle mass.

Reduced appetite in the older, skinny cat can be due to:

  • Chronic kidney disease which can cause nausea
  • Pain due to dental disease or arthritis
  • Decreased odor and taste sensitivity (part of the aging process).

How can you get your older, skinny cat to eat better?


  • Offer a palatable food with the appropriate nutrients
  • Feed her in a way that mimics a cat’s natural behavior
  • Use appetite stimulants if necessary

 

palatable, nutritious food


“Senior” Diets

A recent study by researchers at Oregon State, Colorado State, and University of California, Davis found that the only difference between commercially available “senior”diets and the adult diets was that there was higher fiber in the senior diets. So find an adult food your cat likes – preferably one that has been evaluated in a feeding trial.

A therapeutic diet may be recommended by your veterinarian if your cat has kidney disease or another medical condition.

 

“Aging Cats Prefer Warm Food”

Ryan Eyre and colleagues investigated the effect of temperature on how much older cats eat. Thirty-two cats between 8 and 14 years of age participated in a “two bowl” study of a chunks and gravy food at different temperatures.  The food was refrigerated or heated as needed to 43° F , 70 °F and 98 °F.

In a series of trials, each cat was presented with one bowl of colder food and a second bowl of warmer food. The amount of food consumed by the cats was recorded. The researchers also measured 1) thickness of the gravy at the different temperatures and 2) the volatile compounds released when the food was heated.

What they found:

  • There was no change in gravy thickness with temperature, so the texture of the food remained the same.
  • Heating increased the release of volatile compounds associated with a “meaty” flavor
  • Heating decreased the amount of volatile compounds that give rise to scents like orange peel

The cats preferred the warmer food in each of the pairs tested. They overwhelmingly preferred the food heated to 98 °F.

Other reasons cats may like warmed food:

  • The warmest food had a temperature similar to the prey a wild cat would eat – so maybe a little bit of instinct is at work here.
  • Heat is thought to activate taste receptors. Cats are thought to have about 470 taste buds and have taste receptors that detect salt, sour, bitter, and umami (meaty). So, heating food may also make it more palatable to cats by making it taste more “meaty”.

Heat your cat’s food before serving it – make sure to test before feeding. It should be “baby bottle” warm

Feeding your older, skinny cat: mimic natural feeding behavior


  • Feed small meals frequently
  • Use food puzzles to engage the cat in foraging behavior
  • Put food out in different locations
  • Consider elevated feeding stations for arthritic cats
Surefeeder for Cat
Athena’s Surefeeder opens only for her. Note the bubble on the back to keep the other cats out.

Reduce inter-cat stress in multi-cat households

medical intervention – appetite stimulants


  • Mirtazapine: Tetracyclic antidepressant that stimulates appetite in cats.  Mirtazapine comes in pills and a transdermal ointment called mirataz. Mirataz is FDA-approved for cats.
  • Capromorelin stimulates the production of Ghrelin, a hormone your stomach produces and releases. It signals your brain when your stomach is empty and it’s time to eat. Capromorelin (Elura) comes in an oral liquid for once daily administration. It was developed to manage weight loss in cats with Chronic Kidney Disease.

Make sure your old cat eats – fasting longer than 2-3 consecutive days can result in hepatitis lipidosis, which can be fatal if not treated promptly 

Keeping your older, skinny cat well-fed is essential to maintaining a good quality of life for him or her.

Warm canned food

Feed small meals frequently

Talk to your vet about an appetite stimulant if necessary.

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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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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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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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dental xrays of a cat
A cat’s dental x-rays. Top row: upper jaw. Bottom row:lower jaw. Courtesy of CatTails Feline Health Center

We humans typically have our teeth professionally cleaned once or twice a year. An annual professional cleaning is also essential to your cat’s health. But what about home dental care – what about brushing your cat’s teeth? And how do you go about doing it?

What’s in your cat’s mouth


Cats have 30 teeth. These teeth are designed

  • to hold on to prey
  • to slash and tear like steak knives.

What’s up front: Canines and incisors


The large “fang” teeth help hold on to a prey animal and “anchor” the jaws to deliver the “killing bite”. The smaller teeth between the fangs (the incisors) help hold prey but your cat also uses them while grooming – you may see your cat stop and “chew” with those front teeth to remove things from her fur or break up fur that is clumped together due to dirt and oil.

What’s Behind the Fangs: Premolars and Molars


Cats typically prey on mice, sometimes squirrels and rabbits. You will see the cat tilt his head as he chews on his prey. The premolars and lower molars help slash and tear up the mouse or squirrel into pieces the cat can swallow.  Unlike human molar teeth, these pointy teeth do not have flat surfaces for grinding and chewing food.

Home Dental Care: Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth


Regular brushing reduces the amount of bacteria in the mouth and helps remove plaque, the bacteria-laden film that forms on the teeth and hardens to tartar in 72 hours. Cats, like humans, are also susceptible to the bacteria in plaque that migrate into blood vessels after infecting the gingiva or gums. Once in the bloodstream, the bacteria can effect major organ systems such as the heart and kidneys.

Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth: what you need


  • Pet specific toothpaste: The VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) recommends the PetSmile brand,that works by dissolving the bio-film that forms on your cat’s teeth with hydrogen peroxide.  Virbac CET enzymatic toothpaste contains lactoperoxidase, and is designed to boost a naturally occurring anti-bacterial process in the saliva. These toothpastes do not contain fluoride and can be swallowed.
  • Toothbrush: There are a number of pet toothbrushes available. You may need some trial and error to find the one that works for your cat.

Although there are videos on the Internet showing cats having their teeth brushed with electric human toothbrushes, most cats will prefer a manual toothbrush. Human toothbrushes are designed for much larger teeth.

Toothbrushes for cats
What you need to brush a cat’s teeth: left to right: a cat specific toothbrush, a pet toothbrush, toothpaste, gauze squares

Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth: Where to brush


Premolars on cat's upper jawPlaque and tartar tend to accumulate on the buccal (facing the lips) side of the cat’s upper premolars. Focus on these surfaces.

Your cat’s tongue has backward-facing barbs on it to help remove tissue from prey by licking.  We don’t often see tartar on the inside surfaces of cats’ teeth during a professional, anesthetized cleaning. The barbs on the tongue may act like a brush, reducing tartar buildup.

Four Steps to Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth


  1. Accustom your cat to having his head handled. Rub his chin with one hand and gently hold his head with your other hand. Your thumb will be on his cheekbone, your second and third fingers betwBrushing the Upper premolarseen his ears and your 4th and 5th fingers on his opposite cheekbone. Hold briefly, then reward him with a treat.
  2. Once your cat is comfortable with you handling his head, introduce him to the toothpaste. Let him lick this off your finger.
  3. The next step is to rub some toothpaste on his upper premolars with your finger while you hold his head and lift his upper lip. Make sure to reward him.
  4. Introduce the toothbrush. Focus on those upper premolars. Press lightly as if you are “coloring” a picture. Use a back and forth motion. Finish up with a reward!

My Cat Won’t Use a Toothbrush


If you can get through steps 1-3, your cat will still get some benefit. A recent study by Watanabe and colleagues found simply applying the Virbac toothpaste to the teeth reduced plaque, although not as much as brushing did.

Another way to clean teeth without a toothbrush uses gauze squares. The toothpaste is applied to the gauze and the teeth and gums are rubbed lightly with these “toothpasted” squares. There are also purpose-made cleaning wipes for dogs and cats.

Dr. Melissa Guillory, a former feline vet turned dentist, has a few tips for brushing your cat’s teeth:

  • Brushing seems to work best when instituted at a young age.
  • It’s nice to get the lingual (tongue) surfaces [of the teeth] but buccal (cheek) surfaces are most important – that’s where the most plaque and calculus accumulate.
  • Use a pet specific toothpaste (fluoride can cause GI upset)
  • It only takes 72 hours for calculus to form so daily brushing or every other day is best 🙂

 

A yearly professional dental cleaning under anesthesia with x-rays is essential to your cat’s health.  Between cleanings, keep brushing your cat’s teeth to maintain her dental health.

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