Needs of Domestic cats

What do cats need to be healthy and happy? Whether you are a new cat owner or someone who has owned a number of cats, this is a question that needs some careful thought.

Your cat is not human; he/she is a different species. After all, if you were going to have a tiger as part of your household, you would need to learn something about how tigers live in the wild to set up an appropriate habitat. Zoos have found that providing an environment that allows animals to engage in behavior typical of their species reduces mental and physical health problems.

This post was originally published on 7/4/2021.  It has been rewritten and updated with new references on 2/17/24.

What do cats need – Healthy Feline Environments


Let’s start with ourselves. Many philosophers and psychologists have come up with answers to what humans need for a happy and fulfilled life. One of the simpler models is that proposed by the psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943 (Reference 1).

Needs and motivation


Maslow postulated that people are motivated by five types of needs (Reference 1):

  1. Physical needs (food, water)
  2. Safety
  3. Love/belonging
  4. esteem
  5. self-fulfillment (be all that you can be)

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

As an individual satisfies needs in one of these categories, he is motivated to tackle the next level.

  1. What motivates behavior at the most basic level is the need to survive. We need to eat and drink to stay alive.
  2. Having satisfied these needs, the next step is to ensure that we will continue to have food and water. We need shelter and a job.
  3. Once fed and secure, we can address the need to be part of society – to belong to a group.
  4. The next level of needs is esteem: we need to value ourselves and feel that other people value us.
  5. We are now at the top of the pyramid. We can work on reaching self-imposed goals: maybe become a writer or artist, nurture extended family, or climb mountains.

There is flexibility in this hierarchy- some needs are met at the same time; for some individuals, reaching your full potential may be more important than the esteem of others.

Let’s apply this thinking to cats. We’ll start with the wild cats – those secretive, un-owned cats that populate neighborhoods and barns.

what do cats need? wild cats


  • A wild cat’s needs begin with having prey to eat.
  • Once fed, he will find a safe place where he can sleep, eat and retreat from danger – like a den.
  • He must establish his territory where he can hunt regularly and have access to food.
  • A well-fed wildcat who hunts successfully has good prospects for mating. 
  • As far as Nature is concerned, the wildcat has reached his or her full potential once he or she has ensured that there will be another generation to hunt and mate, continuing the species.What does a wildcat need?

 

When food is plentiful, some cats will group together in colonies near the food source. The colony forms around breeding females with some unrelated male cats in the colony that help with kitten care and protection. A colony fulfills safety and belonging for a wild cat.

what do cats need? Domestic cats


Things are a bit different for the cat who lives with humans. Hunting and establishing a territory have become separate from getting enough food; our house cats are spayed and neutered, so do not have a drive to mate and reproduce. We can construct a hierarchy showing what do cats need for the cats that live with us.

the 5 pillars of a healthy feline environment


The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) list five things that make a healthy environment for a cat (Reference 2).

  1. A safe place
  2. Multiple and separated key environmental resources
  3. Opportunity for play and predatory behavior
  4. Positive, consistent and predictable human-cat social interaction
  5. An environment that respects the cat’s sense of smell and other senses

 

We can assemble these needs into a pyramid diagram:

  • At the bottom of the pyramid are the needs for survival: food, water, and litter boxes.
  • The next level ensures that these essential resources are available to each cat to use safely, without fear of competition or interference from other cats, pets or humans. The cat owner should provide multiple and separated feeding, watering stations and litter boxes.
  • One of the AAFP requirements is an environment that respects the cat’s sense of smell and other senses.  Such an environment is the cat’s territory. Cats will mark walls and furniture in the home with facial pheromones and scratching posts with pheromones released when scratching. Your cat belongs to his territory.

Thinking about cats as aloof and independent would most likely consider the cat’s needs are met at this point.

Needs of Domestic cats

 

 

the cat-human bond


Our cats share basic physiological needs with their wild relatives. But the domestic cat has chosen a different path and has some different needs because of his bond with his human caregiver. The two final levels of the pyramid are 4) positive and predictable human interaction and 5) the opportunity for predatory play.

  • Human Interaction: To truly feel safe and secure in her territory, a housecat needs to know how the humans in the house will behave: when will she be fed? Will they approach quietly and greet her? Will they swoop down on her and pick her up when she least expects it and hold her dangling in the air?
  • Predatory Play: The need to hunt defines who your cat is – this is what he was born to do.  We need to provide our cats with an opportunity to hunt – whether it is fishing kibble out of a food puzzle or chasing a stuffed mouse at the end of a wand toy.

These last two needs bring us to the heart of the cat-human bond.

Positive and predictable interactions  allow us to communicate with our cats; predatory play helps us recognize the cat’s nature as a born hunter and allows us to share this essential part of his life.

We are one of the “5 Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment”.

In return for helping our cats satisfy their needs, we humans enjoy the pleasure of our cats’ company, better heart health and reduced stress and anxiety. 

references

  1. Taylor S, St Denis K, Collins S, et al. 2022 ISFM/AAFP Cat Friendly Veterinary Environment Guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2022;24(11):1133-1163. doi:10.1177/1098612X221128763

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An elevated perch allows this cat a good vantage point to survey her surroundings for other cats and people.

Pandora Syndrome refers to cats suffering from multiple medical ailments that do not resolve with appropriate medical treatment. Instead, the symptoms are chronic, waxing and waning in response to environmental stressors. These cats also share a history of traumatic experiences and exhibit an abnormal stress response, partly due to epigenetic changes resulting from the stressful events in their lives (Reference 1).

Pandora syndrome is an “anxiopathy” – a condition resulting from chronic activation of the central stress response system (Reference 1).

Treating Pandora syndrome in cats: the environment


Careful modification of the Pandora cat’s environment (in additional to medical therapies) can reduce the severity and frequency of the cat’s symptoms (Reference 1). One of the first studies to demonstrate the efficacy of MEMO (Multimodal Environmental Modification) studied the response of 46 cats with Lower Urinary Tract Symptoms (LUTS) to MEMO. Cat owners were asked to reduce environmental and social stressors using the following suggestions (Reference 2):

  • avoid punishing the cat
  • change to canned food
  • change to unscented, clumping litter
  • improve litter box management
  • provide climbing structures, viewing and resting perches
  • provide audio/visual stimulation when the owner was gone
  • increase interaction with the cat
  • identify and resolve conflict in multi-cat homes

The most commonly followed MEMO suggestions were:

  • increasing the amount of time interacting with the cat
  • changing to a canned diet
  • adding another litter box

During the 10 months of follow-up, no signs of LUTS were observed in 70-75% of the cats. Owners also reported reduction in fearfulness, nervousness, respiratory signs, aggressiveness, and lower intestinal tract signs (Reference 2).

Treating Pandora Syndrome in cats: MEMO


Environmental modification for the Pandora cat needs to:

  1. increase the security of the environment
  2. allow the cat to feel in control of his environment

Treating Pandora syndrome in cats: choosing the memo that suits the cat


The basic blueprint for cats’ environmental needs can be  found at https://catfriendly.com/cat-friendly-homes/what-your-cat-needs-to-feel-secure/.  Treating Pandora syndrome in cats will be most successful when MEMO is tailored to the individual cat.  Here is some additional information to consider once the basic environmental needs are satisfied.

The Fearful, Nervous Cat that Prefers to Stay Alone

For these cats, MEMO will focus on providing safe places and positive, predictable interactions with humans.

  • make plenty of hiding places available – these can be the top shelves of closets or boxes in the bottom of closets
  • increase the number of “vantage points” through the use of shelves, perches and cat trees (Reference 3)
  • increase the security of the floor space: minimize wide open spaces by positioning furniture to create places where cats can rest and hide (Reference 3)
  • use baby gates to limit the access of potential stressors such as dogs or small children to the cat’s area (Reference 3)
  • allow the cat to choose to interact with humans (https://www.felinepurrspective.com/touch-not-the-cat-interacting-with-cats/)

Treating Pandora Syndrome in Cats in the Multi-cat home

In a multi-cat house, Pandora cats may show aggression or become ill when threatened. Successful MEMO requires identifying the social groups of cats in the house and ensuring that plenty of resources are spread throughout the house. Be prepared to intercept aggression when necessary (https://www.felinepurrspective.com/managing-aggression-in-the-multi-cat-home/) – keep the peace!

Separation Anxiety

Some Pandora cats were orphans or abandoned. These cats may exhibit some separation anxiety due to a strong attachment to the owner. For example, some of these cats follow the owners around like a dog (Reference 1). MEMO can be adapted for these cats.

  1. Encourage Kitty to spend “alone time” in an enriched room or space (don’t force – maybe coax her into the room with some treats). Enrichment can be elevated perches near windows, a play tunnel with toys in it, food puzzles with snacks. Cats have a great sense of hearing and many like music – choose music designed for cats when you are not there.
  2. Establish a routine – help your cat to have control of his environment by knowing what is going happen and when it will happen (https://www.felinepurrspective.com/routines-help-cats-reduce-stress-and-anxiety/).

Many cats cope with environments that are not optimal. However, Pandora cats have suffered traumatic events in their lives resulting in epigenetic changes. These cats exhibit an abnormal response to environmental stress. Consequently, they do not cope as well as other cats with changes in their environment and develop chronic illnesses. MEMO allows these cats to feel safer and more in control of their environments, reducing their stress, and, in turn, reducing the frequency and severity of their symptoms.

references

  1. C.A. Buffington DVM, PhD, DACVN.  Pandora Syndrome in Cats: Diagnosis and Treatment; Today’s Veterinary Practice. August 10, 2018, Issue: September/October 2018. viewed on 1/06/24 https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/urology-renal-medicine/pandora-syndrome-in-cats/
  2. Buffington CAT, Westropp JL, Chew DJ, Bolus RR. Clinical evaluation of multimodal environmental modification (MEMO) in the management of cats with idiopathic cystitis. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2006;8(4):261-268. doi:10.1016/j.jfms.2006.02.002
  3. Ellis SL. Environmental Enrichment: Practical Strategies for Improving Feline Welfare. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2009;11(11):901-912. doi:10.1016/j.jfms.2009.09.011

 

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Some of the Signs that May Indicate Pandora Syndrome

The term “Pandora syndrome” was coined by Tony Buffington of Ohio State University to describe cats with chronic clinical symptoms suffering from health issues involving multiple organ systems. Buffington initially studied a group of 200 cats that had “incurable” urinary tract symptoms (bloody urine, difficulty urinating, urinating outside the box, and urinating small amounts). These cats had other health issues in addition to the urinary tract disease.  Curiously enough, the cats’ symptoms resolved after living in an enriched environment (Reference 1).

Early studies linked the urinary symptoms to diets containing too much magnesium, causing formation of urinary stones. However, dietary changes did not resolve the cats’ urinary issues and they continued to suffer from bloody urine, difficulty urinating, urinating outside the box, and urinating small amounts, frequently in the absence of stones (Reference 1).

diagnosing Pandora Syndrome in cats


What “Pandora Cats” have in common (Reference 2):

  • history of traumatic experiences such as abandonment, orphaning, infection
  • having more than one disease at once
  • clinical symptoms that wax and wane in response to changes in the environment

More About Pandora syndrome in cats


Genetic makeup and traumatic events are thought to contribute to Pandora syndrome in cats. Our genomes (cats and humans) contains the DNA that makes us unique. DNA is made up of 4 building blocks that can be assembled in different orders. The sequence of the DNA building blocks in a gene provides the code for a particular trait such as eye or hair color (Reference 3).

However, there is more to growth and development than just genes that code for a particular trait. The science of epigenetics studies modifications to our DNA that don’t change the order of the DNA building blocks. 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 molecules attaching to your DNA and turning particular genes on or off. This is why genetically identical twins may have different skills, health, or behavior (Reference 3).

The epigenome is reset when the genome is passed on from parents to their offspring at conception. Maternal stress during pregnancy, traumatic events such as abandonment, orphaning, and infection can subsequently affect the epigenome. While many cats recover from these things, others may develop chronic illnesses or behavioral abnormalities (Reference 2).

Pandora cats are inherently “sensitive” cats who have difficulty coping with challenges presented by their environment.  They have a heightened stress response that increases the likelihood of them becoming ill.

Why the name “Pandora” syndrome?
Pandora is a figure from Greek mythology. She was a human woman made by the gods from clay.  She was endowed with many attributes, such as beauty, charm, cleverness, and curiosity. Before sending her to earth, the gods gave her a box, that she was told NEVER to open. Pandora’s curiosity got the best of her one day and she opened the box, releasing evils to plague mankind – disease, violence, greed, old age, death… However, all was not lost. Hope was also in the box to help people survive and cope with the evils in the world.

Like Pandora’s box, “Pandora cats” have multiple problems (“evils”).

diagnosing pandora syndrome in cats


A diagnosis of Pandora Syndrome is a diagnosis of exclusion – the symptoms may respond to medical therapies but then recur. Diagnostic procedures do not reveal a root cause. Diagnosis requires an extensive review of the cat’s life history, medical history and home environment. Some sample questions are below. (A more complete history form can be found in the supplementary materials of Reference 2).

Life History

  • where did the cat come from? from a shelter? was he/she a stray? an orphan?
  • are other cats/pets in the house?
  • how many people in the house?
  • indoor only? outdoor access?
  • is your cat fearful? friendly?

Medical History

  • vomiting? diarrhea? coughing? sneezing?
  • using litter box?
  • history of medical problems- e.g. allergies, heart problems?

Environmental Resources

  • safe and secure resting places?
  • multiple, separated litter boxes, feeding stations, water bowls?
  • can the cat interact with people and other pets on his/her own terms?

treating pandora syndrome in cats


Pandora syndrome is treated with medical therapies and MEMO (multimodal environmental modification).   MEMO aims to reduce the cat’s perception of threat and increase his/her perception of control of his/her environment. There is no cure for Pandora syndrome but medical therapies and MEMO can reduce the cat’s clinical signs and increase the time between episodes of symptoms (Reference 1).

The goal of MEMO is to create an OPTIMAL environment for the individual cat.  This will be the subject of the next post.

references

  1. C.A. Buffington DVM, PhD, DACVN.  Pandora Syndrome in Cats: Diagnosis and Treatment; Today’s Veterinary Practice. August 10, 2018, Issue: September/October 2018. viewed on 1/06/24 https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/urology-renal-medicine/pandora-syndrome-in-cats/
  2. Tony Buffington CA, Westropp JL, Chew DJ. From FUS to Pandora syndrome: Where are we, how did we get here, and where to now? Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2014;16(5):385-394. doi:10.1177/1098612X14530212
  3. National Human Genome Research Institute; Epigenomics fact sheet 8/16/20. Viewed on 1/6/24. https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/fact-sheets/Epigenomics-Fact-Sheet.

 

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Gus greets Miso

Social Groups of cats in the multi-cat home


This post was originally published 8/29/20. This newer version has been edited to incorporate new material and references.

If there is plenty of food around, free-roaming cats tend to form groups called colonies. The core of the cat colony are the females, typically a mother, her sisters, and her daughters. These females share the care of the kittens – they nurse each others’ kittens and even help each other give birth.

Male kittens are driven off by their mothers at maturity to avoid inbreeding. They can become solitary hunters like their wildcat ancestors or become attached to an unrelated colony if accepted by the females.

Smaller social groups of cats often form within the larger social group of the cat colony.   These groups of 2 or more cats typically

  • sleep snuggled together
  • groom each other
  • rub against each other
  • “play fight”.

These cats are comfortable sharing resources: food, water, litter boxes, sleeping and resting places.  Often these are cats that grew up together but that is not always the case. 

social groups of cats indoors -managing the multi-cat home


In the multi-cat home, some cats also prefer to stay together. Identifying the social groups of cats in the home can aid in allocating resources and reduce conflict among the resident cats [Reference 1].

Identifying the social groups of cats


Members of the same social group mayCat sharing a basket

  • sleep snuggled together
  • groom each
  • rub against each other
  • engage in mutual social play.

There are no hard and fast rules to affiliation: some cats will not snuggle together, but will groom each other and play together.

A Multi-Cat Household and its Social Groups


There are 3 social groups in this 4 cat household.

Social Group 1

Athena forms her own social group.  She is a 15 year old spayed female. She recognizes her housemates but prefers to spend time by herself or with her owners.

Social Group 2

Marley (14 yr neutered male) will hang out with 4 year old Zelda. They will rest together and  “share” snacks. They will occasionally “play fight”.

Social Group 3

Zelda and Gus (3 yr old neutered male) groom each other’s heads and play together occasionally.

Gus and Zelda also go on walks together with their owners.

Allocating resources in the multi-cat home to reduce conflict


One of the keys to harmony in the multi-cat home is to provide multiple resources and spread them throughout the house.  The goal is to ensure that all cats have access to litter boxes, food and water without having to compete with another cat. Here is a simple diagram showing the location of litter boxes on the second floor of a multi-story home [Reference 1].

When locating resources, watch for “bottlenecks” such hallway doors where cats may have to pass each other. Try and place litter boxes, water stations… away from these areas.

House map cat resources
A simple sketch of your house can help with locating litter boxes.

tips for managing resources in the multi-cat home


  • # litter boxes =  # social groups + 1
  • Feed cats individually and out of sight of each other.
  • Have daily play time for each cat
  • Have multiple sleeping, resting places – have secluded and elevated choices

monitoring interactions between cats to manage conflict


Once the social groups in the house are identified, it important for the cat owner to monitor how the cats are getting along and intervene, if necessary, to prevent conflict [Reference 1].

  • A cat fight can result in injuries to the fighting cats and the humans who try and manage the fight.
  • Aggression does not need to cause physical injury – psychological stress resulting from one cat guarding resources from another can result in illness and undesirable behaviors such as house-soiling.

signs of conflict – signs of play


It is important to be aware of potential conflict in the multi-cat home.  Signs of conflict not only include chasing, running away, howling and hissing, but also more subtle, seemingly harmless behaviors such as staring and blocking doorways.  To make things more confusing, chasing and running away can be play behaviors! For more information, visit “How Do Your Cats Get Along – Conflict Behaviors”.

 Cats are socially flexible and can form social groups with unrelated cats, although the strength and intensity of these social bonds can vary.  A few aggressive interactions between cats who sleep snuggled together, groom each other and share resources may not point to a deterioration in their relationship [Reference 2].  However, cats whose affiliation is weaker and whose inter-cat interactions are frequently punctuated with hissing and growling may warrant a call to your veterinarian or a cat behaviorist. 

The next post will look at identifying aggressive behaviors in more detail and what interventions are available to the cat owner.

references

  1. Ramos D. Common feline problem behaviors: Aggression in multi-cat households. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2019;21(3):221-233. doi:10.1177/1098612X19831204
  2. Gajdoš-Kmecová, N., Peťková, B., Kottferová, J. et al. An ethological analysis of close-contact inter-cat interactions determining if cats are playing, fighting, or something in between. Sci Rep 13, 92 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-26121-1

 

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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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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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outside the box

 

When your cat thinks outside the box, it may be due to medical, environmental or social issues or a combination of these. In the two previous posts, we considered some of the medical and environmental issues that can give rise to house-soiling. When your cat thinks outside the box, we must also consider his social environment: are his interactions with people and other pets positive?

 

 

 

When your cat thinks outside the box: the social environment


People and pets other than cats


Positive and predictable interactions with people are a key element of a healthy feline environment. Our cats should expect that we will:

  • allow them to choose whether or not to interact with us
  • pay attention to their body language
  • handle them in a way they accept

Following these simple guidelines can help reduce a cat’s anxiety and insecurity. Making your cat feel secure and confident can go a long way to avoiding house-soiling problems.

Do ask family and visitors to follow the CAT guidelines .

Do not punish your cat for house-soiling even if you catch him in the act. Most likely, he or she will not make the connection. Punishment will only increase his or her stress and may increase the motivation to pee or poop in less obvious places (ISFM House-Soiling Guidelines). Punishment may also cause your cat to be afraid of you.

Do consider restricting children and dogs from the litter box areas using baby gates and gadgets such as a “door buddy“.

Be proactive and try to anticipate how your cat will handle new situations: For example, if you are going to have house guests, think how your cat will react to these strangers. Say you have a litter box in the guest bath – you may want to close your cat away from that area when guests are visiting in your home and provide a litter box elsewhere.

dealing with Inter-cat issues


CATS OUTSIDE THE HOME


Neighborhood cats coming into your yard can impact your cat’s behavior. These cats may mark your doors or yard with urine

They may come to the windows and look in. In response, your cat may mark or soil near the doors and windows that lead to the outside. Cat doors may trigger a similar response.

In  the previous post, When your cat thinks outside the box: the environment, we talked about noting house-soiling incidents on a map of your house.

If the “x’s” on your house map are near outside doors and windows, neighborhood cats may be a problem.  (House-Soiling Guidelines)

Taking Action: Secure Your Cat’s Territory!

  • Move your cat’s food and water stations away from doors and windows
  • If necessary, block your cat’s view of the outside by using window film, cardboard, paint… so he cannot see the intruder.
  • If you see outdoor cats in your yard, consider a motion activated sprinkler or critter spikes (for fences) to discourage the neighborhood cats from coming into your yard.

CATS INSIDE THE HOME


Where are the “x’s” on the housemap?

If the “x’s” are in hallways, stairways, doorways leading into rooms (in the interior of the house), your problem may be coming from inside the house – other cats. (House-Soiling Guidelines)

Cats are socially flexible. They do very well on their own but can live with other cats if there are enough resources and if these are spread out.

Diagram social groups cats
There are 3 social groups in this 4 cat household.

Social Groups of Cats

Within a cat colony, there are often smaller groups of 2 or more cats that prefer to spend time together. These cats will often:

  • sleep together touching each other
  • groom each other
  • rub against each other
  • “play fight”

These social groups are comfortable sharing resources: food, water, litter boxes, sleeping and resting places. (See Social Groups of Cats)

Most of the time, things go smoothly and different social groups will take turns using the resources. However, occasionally a cat or cats will “pick on” a particular cat. In a wild setting, this cat could move on, joining another colony or living a solitary life. These options are not available to the indoor cat.

Is your house-soiling cat being picked on by another cat? Does your other cat:

  • stalk and track the house-soiling cat?
  • stare directly at her?
  • attack him? (do not mistake aggression for play: see Cats at Play)
  • block her from using critical resources – litter boxes, food, sleeping places?

 

The house-soiling cat may feel safest on the owner’s bed and use the bed as a litter box.

What to do:

  1. Diagram the social groups in your multi-cat household using the criteria above.
  2. Note on the house map where different social groups hang out.
  3. Draw the paths cats have to follow to reach food, water and litter boxes.
  4. Which social group does your house-soiling cat belong to?
  5. Does he or she have an open path to reach the litter box? Can a “bully cat” hide behind furniture and ambush him or her?

Taking Action – Make the house-soiling cat feel confident and secure again


  • Separate the different social groups.  Make sure that each group has all their resources (food, water, litter boxes, cat trees). 
  • Set up a time-sharing scheme for different social groups to use the common areas while you are resolving the problem.
  • Make sure that there are enough resources so that cats of different social groups do not have to share.
  • Move furniture if necessary to eliminate ambush spots in the litter box areas and on the way to the litter boxes.
  • Your vet may prescribe medication for the cats involved.

Taking Action: keep the “bully” cat busy and reduce boredom


  • food puzzles
  • regular play time
  • outdoor access on a leash

Once your house-soiling cat is using his or her box again, you can consider gradually reintroducing him or her to the other cats (see Introducing Cats). If he or she is the victim of a “bully”, be sure to go slowly and supervise the interactions between the bully and victim. This may not be successful and cats may need to remain separated or be re-homed.

This is the final part of “when your cat thinks outside the box”. These three posts only scratch the surface of a complex behavior that can be due to medical, environmental or social issues or a combination of these. Your first resource should be your veterinarian. Do consider making a house map and, if you have a multi-cat household, a social diagram. These simple tools can provide you and your vet insight into 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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Art by Kal Meyer

“Music has charms to soothe the savage beast” is actually a misquote of the poem, The Mourning Bride, by William Congreve in 1697. The word “beast” is commonly substituted for the original word “breast”.  But perhaps Congreve actually meant “beast” – a similar reference to “savage beasts” and music is found earlier with the Roman poet Lucan, whose work was translated into English by Thomas May in the 1620’s.

“…Whose charming voice and matchless musick mov’d

The savage beasts, the stones, and senseless trees…”

Music can arouse strong emotions in people – it can help instill a martial spirit, make us happy but also make us melancholy and sad. It clearly effects our mood.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin set out to find music that would affect the moods of our cats. Snowden, Teie and Savage created music for domestic cats that would calm the cats. They observed the responses of cats to the “cat music” and compared these with the cats’ responses to classical music that humans find calming.

Human Emotions and Features of Music


Specific features of music induce particular emotions in humans:

  • Slow tempos, a narrow frequency range, decreases in pitch, longer sounding of the notes are characteristic of “sad” music
  • “Joyful” music features fast tempos, increasing pitches and notes tend to be more staccato and not held very long.
  • “Angry” music is louder and has a higher fundamental frequency; “fearful” music also has a higher fundamental frequency but notes are not held as long.

Snowden and Teie hypothesized that music with the features described above would affect cats in the same way as people, as long as the frequencies and tempos are the same as what is found in natural cat communication.

Cat Music vs Human Music


The “cat music” used in this study had an average pitch that was 2 octaves higher than the human music; it was also 1 octave higher than the fundamental frequency of natural cat communication  (“meows” and “howls” were excluded).

The “cat music” also included elements at lower frequencies for the listening pleasure of the cats’ human friends. One piece contained a pulse rate of 1380 bpm, similar to purring, with melodic sliding frequencies; another had a pulse of 250 bpm, similar to kittens suckling, also with melodic sliding frequencies.

 

Do cats like cat music?


Snowden, Teie, and Savage’s study compared the reactions of 47 spayed and neutered cats to the “cat music” with the cats’ reactions to the human music. Researchers watched for the following responses:

orient/approach behavior

  • orient head toward speaker playing music
  • move toward speaker
  • rub speaker
  • purring

Avoid/fearful behavior

  • leaving the room
  • hair on end
  • growling
  • hissing
  • arched back

results:


Cats showed more Orient/Approach responses to the cat music than the human music. They also approached the source of the cat music more quickly than the human music. There were few Avoidance/Fearful behaviors (9 out of 94 trials – same for both types of music).

Cats were more interested and responsive to music that was designed for them. These pieces were also composed to be calming, so perhaps it is not surprising that there were few “negative” behaviors seen in the cats’ responses to the music.  So, when choosing music for your cat, consider the features of the music and what emotional state they may induce.  Just randomly picking some classical music to play for your cat may not achieve the goals that you are looking for. 

Trying Out Cat Music


In 2019, the cat music was tested in the veterinary clinic at Louisiana State University. Twenty one cats completed the study. The cats presented for 3 examinations, two weeks apart. Each cat was exposed to one of three soundtracks : silence, cat music or classical human music. Each session included an examination and blood draw. The chosen soundtrack was played throughout the session, until the cat was placed back in her carrier.

Cat Stress Scores (CSS) were measured when the cat arrived, during the exam and at the completion of the blood sampling. A Handling Score (HS) was also measured during the examination.

The CSS and HS were not very different comparing cats exposed to silence and classical music; however, CSS and HS were significantly lower for cats exposed to the “cat music”.

cats prefer species specific music


Art by Kal Meyer

Cat music can help reduce stress-related behaviors.  I have found “cat music” useful to calm my kitties

  • when work is being done on my house
  • when I am transporting my cats in the car.

 

The cat music developed for the studies above can be purchased at https://www.musicforcats.com.

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cats fighting due to frustrationYou are sitting by the window, engrossed in your latest murder mystery. You don’t notice that neighborhood tabby outside your window but your cat does and goes into full battle mode, hissing and striking at the window. You look up and jump, as your cat turns and strikes out at you. She looks like a miniature saber tooth tiger! Alarmed, you throw your glass of water at her as you beat a hasty retreat.

This is an example of what we call redirected aggression. Something happens that frustrates or frightens a cat, and the cat strikes out at whomever is closest. The cat cannot strike out at the cause of the arousal – it may be out of reach or too risky to confront. In this case, the tabby cat is out of reach but you are not!

People can find themselves in a similar situation. Say you get criticism from your supervisor. You can’t retaliate – it could effect your work evaluation. So, instead, you “take out” your frustration and anger on the assistant helping you, directing some snarky comments at her.

Avoiding Redirected Aggression in your cat


As Benjamin Franklin observed, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Be aware of situations that could trigger redirected aggression in your cat or any cat. Redirected aggression can damage the cat-owner bond if either the owner or cat is hurt. Redirected aggression can wreak havoc on the fragile harmony of a multi-cat household.

things that can Trigger Redirected Aggression in your cat


  • presence of another cat
  • high-pitched or loud noises
  • visitors in the house
  • a dog
  • an unusual odor
  • being outdoors unexpectedly

Your cat may feel he must defend his territory against strange cats, visitors to the house and dogs. He may scratch or bite when you intervene to move him to a safe place.

Strange odors, say smoke from a wildfire burning nearby, and loud noises can instill fear in your cat and he starts fighting with his housemate.

Being outdoors unexpectedly can be terrifying to the indoor-only cat and she may vent her fear on her would-be rescuer using her teeth and claws.

These are all situations where a cat may strike out and attack an “innocent” bystander because the cat is aroused or frightened.

Watch your cat’s body language for aggression: hair standing on end, growling, hissing? Staring at other cats, dogs, people? Is she blocking another cat from areas in the house? Stalking another cat?

Removing the Triggers for Redirected Aggression in Your Cat


Outdoor cats:

  • Discourage them coming into the yard using a motion activated sprinkler.
  • If you have a fence around your yard, cat proof it .
  • Install privacy film on windows where your cat may see outdoor cats.
  • Place scratching posts by doors and windows and allow your cat to mark his territory by scratching

Loud noises: If a loud noise scares your cat, let her hide and calm down before handling her. Once calm, try to entice her with a tasty snack or a wand toy. Wait for her to approach you.

Visitors: Advise visitors to leave the cat alone unless she comes over to greet them.

Dogs: Keep dogs separate from the cats using a baby gate or other barrier until you introduce them, one cat at a time.

Odors: You may need to separate cats and put them in quiet rooms until the odor dissipates or the cats acclimate to it. (In the case of wildfires, you may wish to have the carriers out and ready to go. Having the cats in smaller rooms will make it easier to kennel them up if you need to evacuate).

Being outdoors unexpectedly:

  • Your indoor cat escapes and you find her hiding under the steps. Avoid trying to pull her out.
  • Instead, arm yourself with patience and tasty food.
  • Get her cat carrier and cover it with a towel (making it appear dark and safe). It may take a little time but there is a good chance she will choose the safety of the carrier over the “great outdoors”.

If you have trained your cat to come when called, call her periodically – give her time to get over her fright and let her training kick in. And having her carrier with you can help you get her back indoors.

Redirected aggression in your cat is a consequence of an emotional state.  He may be ready to fight, frustrated or fearful and he vents these emotions on whomever is close because he cannot reach what’s triggering the emotion or he cannot flee the situation.

Join The Feline Purrspective next week for “Redirected Aggression in Your Cat – When It Becomes a Problem”.

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