“Moving with Your Cat” was originally published 9-26-21. This newer version has been updated and contains additional information.

Moving to a new home is stressful even when everything goes right! Imagine how confusing moving is to our cats – the boxes are fun when empty but soon they fill up with things and your cat can no longer jump in.

 

From the Feline Purrspective…


The bed you used to siesta on gets bagged up and taken away by strange humans. Your world seems to be coming to an end. Will you have enough to eat? Will you be safe from predators? Where can you hide?

Cats are territorial animals. An outdoor cat’s home range is the maximum area he roams and hunts in. Within the home range is a smaller area that the cat will actively defend – his territory. Inside this defended area is a smaller area called the “core territory”, where the cat can rest, has shelter, and feels safe from predators and other cats. Moving with your cat removes him from his core territory – the house or apartment he lives in.

How can we communicate safety and security to our cats when we move? Somehow, we cat owners have to provide what our cats need even though we are no longer “at home”.Needs of Domestic cats

What our cats need:

  1. Resources : food, water, litter box, shelter
  2. Safe access to resources
  3. Belonging: territory
  4. Human interaction: predictable
  5. Playtime: predatory behavior

Moving with Your Cat

Getting ready


  1. Resources: Stock up on your cat’s preferred litter and food – if you are traveling by air, perhaps you can ship some of this to your new address.
  2. Safe access to resources: Create a “safe place” for your cat. When moving with your cat, this will most likely be her carrier.  Make sure your cat is comfortable in her “home away from home”.  In the weeks leading up to the move, leave it out for her to explore and nap in. Consider feeding her meals in it.
  3. Set up a “mobile” territory: A lot of cat communication is by smell. Cats have some of the best noses -with 30 genetic variants of the V1R receptor protein in their vomeronasal organs, they are able to discriminate between a wide variety of smells (Reference 1). So, avoid laundering cat blankets or quilts that your cat sleeps on – the familiar scent of home can help reassure your cat of his territory when he is on the move.
  4. Predictable, positive human interaction: Try to maintain daily feeding and grooming routines as you travel.
  5. Predatory play: Don’t forget play time – try to set some time aside to play with your cat when traveling.

Other things to consider when moving with your cat:


  • Is your cat microchipped in case he escapes?
  • Consider a calming supplement such as Zylkene, Calming Care. It is best if you start these several weeks before moving.
  • Have copies of your cat’s medical records. Locate a cat-friendly practice in the new neighborhood.
  • Do you need a health certificate for travel?
  • Consider getting your cat accustomed to wearing a harness and leash. Even if not fully leashed trained, a harnessed cat can be more easily handled in an airport or at a rest stop if you have to change out soiled pads in the carrier.
  • Consider asking your vet for calming medication for travel.
  • Multi-cat homes: Identify the social groups in your home before moving.  This can help you when introducing your cats to their new territory.

 

moving day


Although some cats travel well together, it is usually a good idea to have separate carriers for each cat in case some random event frightens one of the cats, resulting in a cat fight.

You may want to keep your cat(s) in their own room with their carriers while furniture, etc is being moved – you don’t want them to escape!

Arriving at your new home…


  • Establish a “safe place” for each cat or social group: Choose a room with a door you can close, that does not have places where your cat can hide (under the bed, behind a bookcase) and you can’t get him. Use one of your smaller moving boxes as a hiding space – put a comfy bed or blanket in this box. 
  • The “safe” room should contain all your cat’s essential resources – food, litter box, water, scratching post.
  • Use pheromone diffusers in the “safe place”. You may also want to have them throughout the new house or apartment.
  • A gradual introduction to the new house is best for most cats. Pay attention to your cat’s body language – if she seems scared or frightened, allow her to stay in the “safe room”. Once she seems curious about the world outside her safe place, allow her to explore the rest of the house – you may want to accompany her (a harness/leash can be handy) on her first forays into the new space.
  • Maintain feeding and play/grooming routines as best as you can.

In a multi-cat homes, you may want to use a protocol similar to introducing cats. Assess how the different social groups are adjusting before allowing free access to everything. A move can disrupt the social order, giving a dominant cat an opportunity to pick on a more timid cat.

Moving with your cat is an adventure…


When your cat arrives at his or her new home, he/she must establish a “new” territory.  We can facilitate this process by:

  • ensuring that your cat has familiar items with her – the food and litter she is accustomed to, beds/blankets that have her scent on them, and a carrier she is comfortable in 
  • allowing him to establish a new “core” territory first in a “safe” room
  • allowing her to choose when she is ready to leave her “safe” place to explore the rest of the house.

Moving is stressful for us and for our cats.  Make sure to monitor your cat(s) for sickness behaviors. Reduced appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea can be signs of stress-related issues. Consult a veterinarian if these problems don’t resolve in a day or two or if your cat does not eat for more than 24-48 hours.

references

  1. 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, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 187, 2017, pp. 69-76, ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.11.011

 

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Pilling a Cat with Pet Piller
This cat knows how to take medication from a pet piller.

Many cats are terrified coming to the veterinary clinic. Some freeze in fear while others fight for their lives.  Calming medications given before the vet visit can reduce your cat’s anxiety!

Your vet has prescribed calming medication for your cat. So, what’s next?

How to Give Your Cat a Bitter Pill


Calming medications such as gabapentin and trazadone are bitter.  How do you give your cat a bitter pill?

Giving Medication in Food
Pros: convenient for the caregiver
Cons: If you give your cat a bitter pill in her food, she may refuse to eat that food in the future. Use something other than your cat’s regular diet, say, tuna fish.
Cons: Your cat needs to eat all the food to get her full dose of medication. Use as small an amount as possible of strongly flavored food to deliver the medication.

Tip: “Hunger is the best sauce” according to Sancho Panza’s wife, Teresa, in the novel Don Quixote. If your kitty is hungry, she will be more likely to eat the food containing the medication. Fast your cat overnight or pick up her food 2-3 hours before offering the medication in food.

Pilling by hand
If your cat accepts being “pilled”, coat the capsule or tablet in some butter or a pill treat, and slip it down kitty’s throat. Video Link.

Pros: You will know that your cat has gotten the medication
Cons: No one likes having something shoved down his throat. Your cat may gag and spit out the tablet.
Cons: It may be hard to repeat the dose if your cat decides to hide.

Tip: Reward your cat with some tuna juice or a tuna paste treat after she swallows the pill.  This will also help the tablet or capsule go down.

Other Ways to Give Your Cat a Bitter Pill


Make your cat a partner in his health care. Let’s reward him with something of value for taking the medication. Take a few minutes and think about what your cat really likes.  Is there a particular treat he likes – liverwurst, cheese, tuna or chicken paste? Catnip? Grooming session?

Do some “pill training” with the following methods before you try giving the medication. You can use hard treats or kibble as “fake pills”.  Start 3-4 days before you have to give the medication. This way you can practice your technique without wasting the prescription medication or running the risk of your cat biting into the bitter pill.

Introducing a pill into a stream of treats

This technique works best if the tablets are small and the cat is hungry. With larger tablets, you run the risk that the cat will bite into the bitter pill.

  • Offer your cat several treats.
  • Then offer a “fake” pill (a treat in a “pill treat”, cheese, liverwurst – something you can mold around the pill).
  • Immediately present more treats as your cat finishes eating the “fake” pill.
  • Video Link

Using a Pet Piller

Contercondition Pet Piller
Niki enjoys some chicken baby food on a pet piller.

You can use a “pet piller” to give the capsule or tablet. A pet piller is a tube with a plunger and a soft tip. The pill fits into the tip.

To use a “piller”, it is best to practice first with treats. If your cat likes tuna or chicken paste, start by offering your cat the paste on the piller and letting him lick it off. This way he associates swallowing with piller.

Work up to offering a “fake” pill in the piller after your cat has licked off the paste. You want to ease the “fake pill” into the side of mouth onto the “wave” (back) of the tongue. Avoid cramming the piller down the cat’s throat and making him gag. Follow with more paste on the piller to help your cat swallow the pill.

It may take a few trials for your cat to learn to use this gadget. Once he does, he will voluntarily swallow the pill in anticipation of getting more treats. This method works well for a variety of sizes of tablets and capsules. Video Link.

Using a Squeeze-Up Treat

If your cat likes the tubes of paste (Churu, Delectable) that you can squeeze up into her mouth, you can try to give small capsules or tablets using squeeze-up treats. You will want to cut the tube so that the opening is wide enough to accommodate the tablet or capsule that you are giving.

  • Give your cat some of the paste
  • Slip the capsule/tablet into the tube
  • Squeeze the paste with the medication up into your cat’s mouth.
  • Squeeze fast enough so that the tablet or capsule slips up into your cat’s mouth while she is licking and swallowing. On the other hand, don’t squeeze too fast or your cat will gag and refuse the treat.

Zelda, a Maine Coon cat, needs several gabapentin tablets to be calm for a lion cut. The other day, she bit into the first tablet in a pill pocket and then, understandably, refused the next treat-wrapped tablet. Fortunately, Zelda is trained to accept medication via a pet piller. She readily took the next tablet with the piller and was rewarded with a Churu treat.

Calming medications help reduce your cat’s anxiety and fear, resulting in a more productive veterinary visit. But it is challenging to give your cat a bitter pill. Training your cat to take medication not only ensures that your cat gets the medication he needs but also strengthens your relationship with him.

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A feline practitioner listens to this cat’s chest in his preferred position.

What can your cat expect at her veterinary exam? The typical exam starts at the head and works through the body to the tail. This way health vitals are systematically collected. But it is important that the feline practitioner pay attention to the individual cat. For example, if your kitty seems to have pain in her mouth, in the cat friendly exam the vet may work through the rest of the exam first, and address the possibly painful mouth last. Saving the worst for last keeps your cat from anticipating pain throughout the entire exam.

Cats prefer high-intensity interactions that don’t last long. So, your cat may be offered a break between parts of the exam. Your cat may enjoy treats, toys, or gazing out a window during these breaks.

The Cat friendly Exam


Auscultation of the chest
Here your vet “listens” to your cat’s heart and lungs, measuring a heart rate and respiration rate in addition to noting abnormal heart rhythms (eg. heart murmur) and abnormal breathing sounds (eg. congestion). The vet typically will approach the cat from the back or side and use a stethoscope.

Head and Neck examination
Parts of this exam may happen even before your cat is on the exam table. Head tilts and facial swellings can be observed from a distance while your cat is walking around the room. In the more hands-on part of this exam, your vet may use an ophthalmoscope or otoscope to check the eyes and ears. He or she will also raise your cat’s lips to get a look at her teeth and open her mouth to check the oral cavity and get a quick look under her tongue.

Abdominal Palpation
In this part of the exam, the vet massages your cat’s belly to feel her intestines, kidneys, and bladder. It is also a check for possible growths in the abdomen and thickened walls in the intestines and bladder.

Back and limb assessment
This part of the exam includes assessment of the muscles along the spine and legs. The paws will also be evaluated and the claws extended.

Under the Tail Check
A quick look under the tail for fecal debris, swelling, and discharge… completes the exam.

Reference: “2022 AAFP/ISFM Cat Friendly Veterinary Interaction Guidelines: Approach and Handling Techniques”, Rodan et al.,  Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, Volume 24, Issue 11, November 2022, Pages 1093-1132

the cat friendly exam: practice at home


Some of the handling your cat may encounter at his vet visit includes being lifted up onto an exam table, getting weighed on a scale, sitting on an exam table to have his chest auscultated, having his head and mouth examined, and having his back and legs massaged and handled.

You can practice some of the cat friendly exam handling with your cat at home.  Training some basic behaviors such as “pick up“, “sit” and “target” can make this a pleasant experience for you and your cat.

First – choose an area at home where you will train
Pick a table, counter, or dresser (avoid the kitchen table or counter) where you can set up your “exam room”.
You can purchase a baby scale to weigh your cat if you want to monitor his weight or just get the bathroom scale and place it on your counter. The weight from the bathroom scale will not be accurate but your cat will have the experience of getting on a scale.

Fast Forward…
Let’s say you have trained your cat to be picked up, to sit and to target. Your practice vet visit at home may go something like this:

Give your cat the “UP” cue and gently lift him (support his front and back body) and place him on the counter. Make sure to reward him (treats, head rubs…).

Once on the counter, use your target stick or finger, to guide him to walk over to the scale and climb on it. Once he is on the scale, ask him to “Sit”. Reward him when he sits.

Next, ask him to get off the scale using the target stick or your finger and have him sit on the counter.

Approaching him from behind, rub his head and hold it gently. Work up to lifting his lip to view his upper teeth.  Reward and repeat on the other side.

To evaluate his feet, massage each foot, gently extending his claws – reinforce cooperative behavior with a reward.

Give your cat the pick up cue, and gently put him back on the floor. Reward him for a job well done!

It does take some time to train your cat to be picked up, sit, and target and combine these behaviors as outlined above. And – unless your cat is used to performing away from home – he may not go through his home routine at the vet clinic, especially if he is being handled by strange people. But the handling in the cat friendly exam will be familiar due to his practice exams at home and should not trigger him to engage in protective or defensive behaviors.

Cats that are used to being handled do not get as stressed and anxious as those who are only handled occasionally. A cooperative cat needs little or no restraint and can often be examined by one person. Make sure you let your vet know which behaviors your cat is familiar with and what the cue is for each one.

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Cat in carrier in waiting room
Your cat will do better in the waiting room if her carrier is covered and on a higher surface.

Your cat is in his carrier and the ride to the vet clinic went well. He went into his carrier for some treats without a whole lot of fuss. You played some of the cat specific music on the ride and your kitty was actually quiet for a change.

You pull into the clinic parking lot and pick a spot to park. What’s next? The dreaded waiting room!

managing your cat’s stress in the waiting room


You enter and check in at the front desk. You put your cat in his carrier on the floor and immediately a small dog and child run up to the carrier. You are thanking your lucky stars that you covered that carrier. After checking in, you look for a place to sit and wait. The place is packed with barking dogs and some terrified looking cats in carriers. You find a seat and squeeze in to wait.

your cat’s stress in the waiting room


The Cat – Both Predator and Prey

The waiting room at a veterinary hospital can be a terrifying experience for your cat. By nature, cats are hunters but they are also hunted by larger animals, from coyotes and mountain lions to domestic dogs. Now your cat is shut in his carrier, with potential predators around.

The Cat – Both Solitary and Social

The waiting room may also have some other cats waiting. They may be frozen in fear or hissing and growling.
Cats are by nature solitary hunters but they will come together in social groups called colonies if there is enough food available. The core of the colony is the mother cat and her daughters, sisters, and their offspring. Consequently, cats are social with their immediate families, although not necessarily with other cats.

The Cat – the Language of Smell and Scent

Cats communicate in large part by smell. The waiting room is most likely full of unfamiliar scents and smells. There are the scents of strange cats and canine “predators”, in addition to the odors of humans, cleaners and disinfectants.

The Cat – Unfamiliar Sounds

Cats have one of the broadest range of hearing of any land animal – they hear the high-pitched sounds of mice (that we can’t hear) but also lower pitched sounds, like that of the human male voice. Returning to the waiting room, your cat may be hearing not only the barking dogs and hissing cats but also the sounds produced by the clinic office equipment. These unfamiliar sounds can be stressful for your cat.

tips for managing your cat’s stress in the waiting room


  1. Cover the carrier so that your cat will not see other animals or people.
  2. Place the carrier on a higher surface off the floor – on a chair, on your lap. Being higher up helps your cat feel safe, less vulnerable to predators.
  3. Play cat specific music – this music can be downloaded to your phone and played at a very low volume. Your cat can hear sounds that are almost inaudible to people. Place the phone in your cat’s carrier and allow her to hear some familiar, soothing music.
  4. Spray the carrier cover with pheromone spray (“Feliway” Classic, Comfort Zone Calming) prior to leaving for the vet clinic. Pheromone sprays can send your cat a message of safety and territory.
  5. Bypass the waiting room: Ask the clinic staff if you can wait in your car until an exam room is open. Explain that you are trying to keep your cat’s stress levels down.

Choosing a cat-friendly practice can alleviate the concerns we have listed above.  A Cat Friendly Practice will have a strategy to keep your cat from seeing, smelling and hearing other animals that can make your cat fearful and anxious.

  • waiting area just for cats
  • cat-only appointment times
  • allowing you to wait for an open exam room in your car

Managing your cat’s stress in the waiting room is another step toward having a good veterinary appointment.  Because you have prepared your cat for travel to the clinic and given her ways to cope with the stress in the waiting room, she will not be so anxious during her exam.  Our next step is to demystify the veterinary examination for our cats.  Thank you for being an active participant in your cat’s health care!

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stressors your cat experiences during a car rideCats tend to be homebodies – your cat’s ideal day may include eating breakfast, then finding a sunny window to nap in. Midday is time for a stretch and a snack; if the weather is nice, he may want to spend some time in his catio. Unlike dogs, few cats become ecstatic at the prospect of a car ride, hanging their heads out of the window.

Once your cat accepts his carrier, the next step to getting him to the vet is the car ride. The car ride introduces additional stressors for your cat to experience. Here are some tips to help your cat cope with the stress of the car ride.

Help your cat cope with the stress of the car ride


Unfamiliar Smells and Scents

 

Include your cat’s familiar bedding in her carrier to offset the unfamiliar smells of the car with the reassurance of her own, individual scent. Spraying the carrier with feline facial pheromones (Feliway Classic, Comfort Zone Calming) also sends a message of security and territory to the traveling cat. Make sure to spray the carrier 15-20 minutes before your cat enters it so that the alcohol in the spray dissipates.

Lack of Resources

Delays due to accidents or road construction are part of car travel. Make sure to provide your cat some resources on the way. A non-slip absorbent pad for accidents is part of a well-equipped carrier. On long car rides, you may want to consider putting some ice cubes in a bowl that will gradually melt, provide water to drink and less mess in case of spills.

Motion

Some pets may be prone to motion sickness – this may be in part due to anxiety. Carrier/travel training can alleviate some of this. Travel medications for anxiety and nausea will be addressed in a later post in this series.

Unfamiliar Noises

Horns honking, engine noise, and sounds of passing vehicles are part of the car travel experience. Try offsetting these unfamiliar noises with some cat-specific music (https://www.musicforcats.com/).

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin composed music that would calm cats. In 2019, this cat music was tested in the veterinary clinic at Louisiana State University.  Stress and handling scores were lower for cats exposed to the “cat music” than the scores of cats exposed to silence or classical music. (see Cat Music:Just for Cats).

Unfamiliar Sights

 

Flashing lights and large vehicles going by your car can startle and frighten your cat. Consider covering your cat’s carrier to shield him from unfamiliar sights.

Cat-Carrier-Cover

Help your cat cope with the stress of the car ride: Practice rides


Of course, there is nothing like actually having some positive travel experience. When teenagers first get their drivers’ permit, there is some anxiety and excitement on those first few drives that goes away as they gain experience driving.

Some short “practice drives” with positive reinforcement can help your cat cope with the stress of the car ride.  If your cat is clicker-trained, the clicker can be used to trigger some positive emotions – your cat associates the sound of the click with something good such as treats.

First, let’s get your cat used to the car.

  • Have your cat enter his carrier. Click and treat.
  • Carry the carrier to the car and put it inside.
  • After a few minutes, take the carrier back into the house and let kitty out.  Click and treat.

Once your cat is comfortable sitting in his carrier in the car, get ready to do some driving.

  • Have your cat enter his carrier.  Click and treat.
  • Carry the carrier to the car and put it inside.
  • Start the engine and let the car idle for a few minutes.  Play music if you plan to use it.
  • Go for a drive around the block.
  • Return home and turn car off.
  • Take the carrier back into the house and let kitty out. Click and treat.

Your cat now has some travel experience under his belt. Car travel should now be a little less scary.  Every so often, take kitty for a spin around the block or to a park nearby if he will ride in a backpack or stroller.  Try to allow him some positive experiences where the car drive does not end up at the vet.  (For information about your cat’s safety and carrier placement in the car, visit https://www.centerforpetsafety.org/).

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cats with carrier and treats

Cats love boxes and a carrier is just another box! However, your cat may have a love-hate relationship with her carrier – when the carrier comes out, she runs and hides under the bed. On the other hand, she may be relieved to enter it at the vet clinic at the end of her visit.

Carrier Training for your cat


Why your cat may not like her carrier:


  • It only takes her to the vet
  • The carrier is not comfortable – maybe it too small, too big or too open like a cage?
  • The carrier is an unfamiliar object and does not smell like her – smell means a lot to cats who use odors to communicate.

One of the reasons to do carrier training is to try and give your cat some positive associations with her carrier. We want our cats to feel safe in their carriers. It should be a little piece of home that travels with them.

carrier training for your cat: carrier basics


SIZE MATTERS


Your cat should be able to stand up and turn around in her carrier. If she can’t, it is time for a new carrier.  For tips on choosing and maintaining a carrier see  https://www.felinepurrspective.com/tips-for-choosing-a-cat-carrier/

SCENT MATTERS


Start by cleaning the carrier.

  • Hard, plastic carriers: clean with a mild detergent, rinse and wipe dry.
  • Fabric carriers: Launder the “slipcover” on the pad in the bottom. Wash the carrier with mild detergent (unscented if possible) and water, then rinse and let dry. If you are concerned about urine in a fabric carrier, be sure to use an enzymatic (biological) laundry detergent.

Most laundry detergents these days contain enzymes to break down protein and fat based stains in fabrics. However, there are detergents designed to clean materials such as wool and silk that do not have enzymes. Check the list of ingredients on your detergent to see if enzymes are listed.

Once the carrier is clean, place a towel, blanket, or cushion in it. Select something that your cat sleeps on. We want something with her scent on it in the carrier. Place the carrier in a quiet place where your cat hangs out.

carrier training for your cat: three methods


Carrier training for your cat can be done in a number of ways.

Method I: You might be able to simply leave the carrier out with your cat’s blanket and some catnip in it. If your cat goes in and takes a nap, he is comfortable with his “home away from home”.  You should be able to load him in the carrier with some treats or catnip.

Feeding in Carrier BottomMethod II: Feeding your cat in his carrier

Another method to acclimate a cat to his carrier is to feed him in it. This is perhaps more appropriate for easily cleaned hard plastic carriers. The “Kitty Diner” can also be a way to separate cats while feeding, allowing each cat his own place to eat.

 

  • Take the door off the carrier.
  • Place your cat’s food bowl near his carrier.
  • Over the next few days to a week, gradually move the food bowl closer to the carrier.
  • Work up to placing it just inside the carrier.
  • Move the bowl to the back of the carrier.

You should be able to coax him into the carrier with some treats or catnip when you need to travel.

Method III: Carrier Training for Your Cat using a clicker

This may seem more complicated but if your cat is food motivated and knows how to sit and target, it is fast and reliable. You can go a bit slower with a carrier with a removable top. One piece carriers can start at Step 3. 

Keep sessions short.  Make sure your cat is comfortable with one step before moving to the next. This entire process can take as little as a few days or maybe a week or more. Be patient and go at your cat’s pace.  Click on this link for an overview of clicker training.

Step 1 : Top off

  • Lure Kitty into the carrier with the target stick or a trail of treats.
  • Once in, ask her to sit, then click and treat.
  • Lure her out and click and treat.
  • Repeat.

Step 2: Door off

  • Assemble the carrier leaving the door off.
  • Lure your cat in with a target stick or treats. Once in, click and treat.
  • Using treats or the target stick, lure her out. Click and treat.
  • Repeat.

Step 3: Door open

  • Put the door on the carrier.
  • With the door open, lure kitty into her carrier. Click and treat.
  • Lure her out. Click and treat.
  • Repeat.

Step 4: Close the door

  • Lure Kitty into her carrier and close the door.
  • Click and treat.
  • Open the door and have Kitty come out.
  • Click and treat.
  • Repeat.

Step 5: Moving the carrier

  • With your cat in the carrier, pick the carrier up and move it to another room.
  • When you arrive in the other room, open the door and let her out.  Click and treat.

All Done! Celebrate with treats!

A video presentation is available in the video gallery: https://www.felinepurrspective.com/aiovg_videos/carrier-training-your-cat/

Whatever method you use, leave the carrier out where your cat can nap in it or play around it. It will become familiar to your cat, a “part of the landscape”. It will be there in case of emergency, such as a house fire or wildfire, when you have to pack your cat up quickly and leave.

Consider making a cover for the carrier – it can match your decor and your cat will like the feeling of safety afforded by a cozy, dark space.

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Working at a cat hospital, I have become sensitized to my patients’ distress. Many cats are terrified coming to the veterinary clinic. The experience is not only stressful for the cat but it can be stressful for you, the cat owner. Perhaps you feel embarrassed when your cat misbehaves or maybe you just dread the ordeal of getting your cat into his carrier. These are a few of the reasons why we don’t see as many cats at a veterinary clinic as dogs, although cats outnumber dogs as pets.

The net result of this stress and anxiety is that you may delay medical care for your cat because getting to the vet is so stressful.

What can we do to reduce the fear and anxiety of the vet visit for us and our kitties?

This is the first of a series of posts about making vet visits better for your cat. We will start by looking at how your cat feels about the vet clinic.

making vet visits better for your cat (and you!)


from the feline perspective


You know something’s up – your carrier is out. You hide under the bed but your human pulls you out and proceeds to squeeze you into the dreaded box.

You swing along in the air and then are loaded into a larger box that moves and smells funny.

You finally stop moving and swing through the air some more and arrive at another house where you smell lots of other animals. Oh no, not this place again! You can smell other cats – most of these cats too are afraid. As you move through the fog of smells, you arrive in a small room with a metal table.

A strange human opens your carrier door and tries to coax you to come out – you’re not sure what is out there but now your carrier seems like a good place to stay.

Suddenly, your world tilts and you slide out of the carrier onto the cold, hard table.

You hiss your displeasure. Another strange human proceeds to look into your eyes, put a hard plastic thing in your ears, and presses a cold metal disc against your chest.

Then, the strange human pokes you with a needle and you are finally allowed to escape back into the dreaded carrier – at least, it has taken you back home before.

The veterinary visit can make the most mellow cat anxious.

Does your cat…

  • Turn into a frozen lump on the exam table?
  • Or does he become a Tasmanian devil, hissing and striking at the veterinary staff?
  • Or will he frantically eat the treats offered in an effort to soothe himself?

How can we ask our cats to accept handling and medical exams?

Making vet visits better for your cat (and you!)


Sedation is one way to relieve anxiety and fear. But sedation works better when your cat is used to being handled. (For more about sedation, see https://www.felinepurrspective.com/medication-before-your-cats-vet-visit/).

In this series of posts, we are going train our cats to accept the handling that goes along with the veterinary exam. We will break the vet visit down into parts and work on making your cat comfortable with each part. We will use a technique known as “clicker training” to communicate safety and familiarity to your cat.  Your cat voluntarily accepts handling in exchange for something he likes. In this way, your cat becomes an active participant in his health care.

THE VET VISIT IN PIECES


  1. Getting kitty into the cat carrier
  2. The car ride
  3. The waiting room
  4. The exam room/vet exam
  5. Other procedures
  6. Homeward bound

From getting your cat into her carrier to the return trip to home, training can help reduce situational anxiety by making handling and traveling positive, familiar experiences.

However, don’t expect your cat to go through his entire repertoire of behaviors in a distracting environment with strange people such as the veterinary clinic. Unless you train your cat in such an environment, he may behave as if he has never done any of these  things before. However, because he is used to being handled, appropriate handling should not elicit defensive behavior.

A frightened cat fighting for his life is very intimidating to handle. However, the past 2 decades has seen the advent of stress-free handling techniques designed to address the frightened cat. If you have concerns about how your cat is handled at the veterinary practice, consider taking your cat to a Cat Friendly practice, where staff is trained in feline handling techniques.

Making vet visits better for your cat is challenging, even if your cat is calm, relaxed and food motivated.  We will start next week with carrier training.

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Brushing the Upper premolarsIn Part 1 of Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth: Why and How, we learned that brushing your cat’s teeth with a pet toothpaste such as the PetSmile or Virbac CET brands can help reduce the bacteria in your cat’s mouth and improve her dental health. But how do you convince your cat to let you brush her teeth?

The answer is to find something she likes (a Greenies dental treat? head rubs?) that you can use as a reward and break the tooth brushing into small steps that she can master while she becomes accustomed to the process.

brushing your cat’s teeth: Step by Step


To brush your cat’s teeth, your cat needs to

  1. sit still and have her head held
  2. accept the toothpaste
  3. allow you to apply some toothpaste onto to her upper cheek teeth with your finger
  4. allow you to gently brush her teeth

 

Step One


It is important to watch your cat’s body language and proceed at her pace. Break these steps up into smaller ones if you need to. For example, it will be helpful if your cat knows to sit on cue reliably before asking her to let you hold her head.

step two


In step two, we will offer her the toothpaste. Cat toothpaste is available in several flavors including chicken and seafood. Choose the flavor you think she’ll like best. Offer her the toothpaste on your finger and then on the toothbrush.

step three


Once she indicates which toothpaste she likes, move to step three: put some tooth paste on your finger and try gently rubbing her teeth.

step four


Go slowly with the toothbrush and use a very light touch. Remember, when you brush your own teeth, you can feel how hard you are pressing – you don’t have this feedback when brushing your cat’s teeth. The first few sessions will be short – try to end on a positive note, before she starts to struggle or wants to leave.

Make sure to reward her after each step. It may seem counter productive to give her a dental treat – after all, you just brushed her teeth! However, you have disturbed the biofilm with brushing and the saliva now contains the toothpaste with its antibacterial components.

It may take your cat several weeks to master all these steps.  Above all, go at your cat’s pace. Don’t move to the next step until she has mastered the step before.

To see how it’s done, check out the two-part video series, “Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth: Why and How” in the video gallery at www.felinepurrspective.com.  Part 2 features video of cats having their teeth brushed.

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

Counter-surfing cats – Why do they do it?


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

Strategies for Counter-Surfing Cats


The Foodie Cat


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

The Curious Cat


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

The Trapped Cat


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

Mat Training


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

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

 

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

A cat interacts with the training mat

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

A cat gets a treat on the mat

Reward the cat once she interacts with the mat.

Coax the cat back to the mat

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

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

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

Counter Control – Other Aids


Aversives – things cats don’t like

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

Punishment


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

Counter-Surfing Cats – a Hard Case


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

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

Solutions


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

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

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Art by Kal Meyer

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

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

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

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

Picking Up Your Cat Step-by-Step


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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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