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

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

Indoor Cat Fights vs outdoors


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

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

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


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

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

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

breaking up the indoor cat fight


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

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

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

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

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

if you have help


DO ask your “helpers” to clap their hands together or rattle pots and pans. Be ready to slide your barrier in to block visual contact as soon as the cats are momentarily distracted.

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

Other tools in the indoor cat fight


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

Noise makers – Cans with pennies can be effective to startle the cats. Avoid the use of air horns – in close quarters, these will be really loud. You don’t want the cats to associate a traumatic event with each other.

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

be proactive!


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

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

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

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Kittens a kndergarten session

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

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

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

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

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

Resident Animals


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

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

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

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

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

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

socializing kittens: making good memories


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

Kitten kindergartens – Where? 

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

Who can come?

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

Pre-Requisites for kindergarten

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the SEEKING system is activated

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

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

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

cats eating from a food puzzle: contrafreeloading?


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

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

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

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

Cats are freeloaders!


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

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

why are cats freeloaders?


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

Cats are solitary predators

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

Is hunting more “fun”?

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

cats eating from a food puzzle


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

training your cat to use a food puzzle


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

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

selecting a food puzzle


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

 

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

 

 

a homemade food puzzle
Cat using a homemade food puzzle

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

 

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Giving your cat a pill can be a challenge for many cat owners. Often, the pills are bitter or seem too big. The veterinary staff demonstrates the technique but when you get home, you end up with a cat under the bed and the pill on the floor!

I had medicated cats before I became a veterinary technician, using a plunger style pet piller. In tech school, I adopted a 3 yr old Birman cat, Marley, who needed a daily dose of medication for anxiety. It was a daily struggle giving that little blue pill, which could end up in his mouth, but I often found it under the bed or in the hallway on the floor.  Marley would see the pet piller in my hand and run.

Giving your cat a pill – daily medications


So, I cringed when my cat Athena was found to be hypothyroid after radioactive iodine treatment. She needed thyroid pills twice a day. She is a cat who could be difficult to handle alone. However Athena liked the soft treats the pill was hidden in, and life was good, for a time….

After a while she tired of the pill treats and we were back to the drawing board. I turned to some low stress techniques –  I first offer Athena a treat, then the treat-coated pill, and follow with a few more treats.  When I adopted Zelda and Gus, who will eat anything that is not locked up, I finally trained all the cats to sit in a circle and stay, while Athena takes her medication. Then all the cats get treats!

I still have to “pill” Athena occasionally – she does not like having something slid down her throat and quickly goes back to eating the pill by herself. 

cat whispering – pill training


Giving your cat a pill for a chronic condition can be different than medicating her when she does not feel well. Say she is diagnosed with pancreatitis or an upper respiratory infection. Either one of these can reduce appetite and then your cat is not interested in treats. This is when having done some “pill training” comes in handy.

If you are doing a treat time every day or a treat time a few times a week, mix it up a bit and give some treats using “pilling” techniques.

A Pet Piller to give medication
A pet piller with a hard treat.

Treats by Pet Piller

  • Start by offering your cat the pet piller with a lickable treat on it.
  • Then try offering hard treats using the piller
  • Get your cat accustomed to having you behind him while giving treats.
  • When your cat needs medication and he is not well enough to take it in treats, the pet piller will be familiar.

 

Giving your cat a pill – think outside the box


Sometimes, you need to think outside the box when giving your cat a pill. A few months ago, my youngest cat, Gus, got loose with his harness and leash on when we were hiking. After 2 hours, we found him – his harness and leash were gone, and he was painful when walking. An MRI of his spine showed lots of inflammation but fortunately, no nerve damage. He was so painful that he would growl when he changed positions. His appetite was down and taking a pain medication in a treat was not an option.

I considered using the pet piller since he is familiar with it but then decided to try a technique I had recently seen at a conference on senior cat care. This technique uses one of the popular “squeeze up” treats for cats that come in tubes (Delectables, Churu).

Cut the end of the tube so that you can squeeze the paste up for the cat to lick.

Put the tablet or capsule in the opening.

Squeeze the tube and the tablet goes up into the cat’s mouth with the paste.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

giving your cat a pill – practice makes purrfect!


Why wait until your cat is sick to come up with a strategy for giving your cat a pill? Do some “pill training” – set aside some time to accustom your cat to different ways of taking “pills” (disguised treats).  When the time comes to give that pill, your cat will be familiar with the pet piller or squeeze-up treat and you will have had some practice with pilling.

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

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

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

Trial and Error Learning


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

Social Learning – Can cats learn from us?


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

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

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

“Do As I Do”


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

Can a cat “Do As I Do”?


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

Training Ebisu was a two-step process:

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

Ebisu successfully learned two new behaviors through imitating her owner:

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

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

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

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

So what do we learn from this?

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

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

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


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

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

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Trimming your cat's claws

You may notice that as your cat scratches, husks of keratin are shed, little curved “skeletons” of claws. This is a natural process –  if you provide him with a scratching post, is trimming your cat’s claws necessary?

Your cat’s claws are meant to be curved and sharp. But you may find that you need to dull the tips of these scimitars:

  • to minimize damage to your sofa
  • to avoid being scratched when handling your cat
  • if your cat does not shed her claws frequently enough and the claw is threatening to grow into her paw pad.

trimming Your Cat’s claws : not a “nail TRim”


Cats have sharp teeth and claws to hunt their prey and defend themselves. Their paws and claws are sensitive to touch and pressure – they need to be able to apply the right amount of force to keep a wriggling mouse under control.

Our fingernails are made of a hard substance called keratin, a protein that makes up your hair, skin and nails.  The visible fingernail is actually dead cells – living cells grow from under the cuticle and displace the dead, translucent cells, pushing them through the skin. Because your visible fingernails are dead, it does not hurt to trim your fingernails.

Your cat’s claws also contain keratin. The visible layer is dead cells, displaced as living cells grow from the underlying dermis. This dermis or “quick”,  contains blood vessels, nerves and other tissues. The “quick” envelops and connects to the outermost bone of the cat’s toe – our fingernails are NOT connected to our finger bones but to a matrix of tissue containing nerves and blood vessels that is separate from our finger bones.  Like human fingernails, the translucent keratin of the cat’s claw is made up of dead cells and does not hurt when trimmed.

THE BONY STRUCTURES INSIDE YOUR CAT'S TOES
WHAT’S INSIDE YOUR CAT’S TOES

Your cat’s claws are protractible, that is, they can be extended. When relaxed, the claws are hidden in a sheath of skin – your cat must extend them to use them.

what you need : trimming your cat’s claws


  • scissor-type nail trimmers for cats -or-
  • human toe nail trimmers
  • styptic powder or cornstarch, flour

 

trimming your cat’s claws: where to trim


  • protract your cat’s claw by gently pressing on her toe
  • most cats have white claws with a visible “quick”
  • the quick is pink; trim outside the quick
  • if you do clip the quick, press a pinch styptic powder, cornstarch or flour over the claw to stop the bleeding
THE RED AREA IS THE QUICK. NOTE THE BONE THAT THE QUICK IS ATTACHED TO.

Training your cat to accept “nail trims”


  1. Find a treat your cat likes. We will use positive reinforcement to accustom your cat to “nail trims”. Your cat will associate the treat he likes with having his claws clipped.
  2. Find a position that cat prefers for “nail trims”. Does your cat like to sit on your lap? Sit next to you on the sofa? If these are not options, perhaps a table with a fleece blanket on it will work.
  3. Find the nail trimmer or clippers that you will use.

 

It is less aggressive to approach your cat from behind for procedures like nail trims. For example, if she likes sitting on your lap, have her sit facing away from you.

step by step:


  1. Desensitize your cat to having his feet handled.  Offer your cat some treats while you handle his foot. Once you stop handling his foot, remove the treat. (Having someone to manage the treat plate is helpful!)
  2. Desensitize your cat to the trimmers. Touch her foot with the trimmers while giving her a treat. Remove the treat if not touching the foot with the trimmers.
  3. Trim a claw or two the same way. Work up to trimming the whole foot.

Once your cat is comfortable with step 1, proceed to step 2; proceed to step 3 when he is ready.

If your cat is clicker-trained, you can “click then treat” each behavior. For example, handle the foot, click, then treat. Your cue for step 1 could be a light touch to the paw before handling;  step 2 cue may be letting your cat smell the trimmers.  Always remember to reward kitty!

Be patient and take your time. You will find that trimming your cat’s claws does not have to be an ordeal and can save you a trip to the vet or groomer.

If your cat seems painful when handling her feet or her toes appear swollen, infected, or discolored, consult your veterinarian before attempting to trim her claws.

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