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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medication before your cat’s vet visit


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

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

Gabapentin


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

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

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

Gabapentin is available in capsules, liquid and small tablets.

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

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

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

 

Trazodone


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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Invitation to play
artwork by Phyllis Meyer

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

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

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

Cats at play – what are they playing with?


Object play


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

Social Play


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

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

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

The body language of cat aggression


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

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

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

Cats at Play – Mutual Social Play


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

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

Mutual social play

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

Cats at Play: the body language of mutual social play


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

Invitation to play


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

Play


Cats chasing each other

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

end of play


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

When cats at play begin to fight:


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

What to watch for:


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

 

what to do: separate the cats


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

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

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

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

From the Feline Purrspective…


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

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

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

What our cats need:

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

Moving with Your Cat

Getting ready


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

moving day


 

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

Arriving at your new home…


  • Establish a “safe place”: Choose a room that you can locate your cat’s essential resources in. Some familiar furniture will reassure him. Leave his carrier in there.
  • Use pheromone diffusers in the “safe place”. You may also want to have them throughout the new house or apartment.
  • A gradual introduction to the new house is best for many cats.
    Pay attention to your cat’s body language – if she seems scared or frightened, allow her to stay in the “safe room”. Once she seems curious, allow her to explore while having access to the “safe place”.
  • Maintain feeding and play/grooming routines as best as you can.

Some cats are more adventurous than others and may want to explore the new place once things are moved in. Keep a close eye on your cat’s body language.

Other things to consider when moving with your cat:


  • Is your cat microchipped in case he escapes?
  • Consider a calming supplement such as Zylkene, Calming Care. It is best if you start these several weeks before moving.
  • Copies of your cats medical records
  • Do you need a health certificate for travel?
  • Consider getting your cat accustomed to wearing a harness and leash. Even if not fully leashed trained, a harnessed cat can be more easily handled in an airport or at a rest stop if you have to change out soiled pads in the carrier.
  • Consider asking your vet for calming medication for travel.

Moving with your cat is an adventure…


I recently moved from my townhome of 13 years to a larger, two story house. It was a local move and was a bit drawn out since we did the moving ourselves. The four cats were curious at first but seemed to be a bit edgy as furniture began to disappear. I had started giving them Calming Care about 10 days before moving and planned to continue it for a week or so after arrival. (Many of these supplements may need 4-6 weeks to reach full effect).

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…

(adapted from  “To a Mouse,” by Robert Burns)


I had planned for the four cats to stay in the master suite for a few days after moving and had set them up in there. But before long, paws began to show up under the doors, as all four cats proceeded to rattle the closed doors.

I finally gave in and let them out. I was worried that they would hide in some inaccessible space but they proceeded to explore and prowl around. I had placed the large cat tree so that the cats could access the top of the kitchen cabinets – this was a popular (although dusty) activity. The next day, Gus managed to catch some mice in the basement – we were officially moved in!

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a cat is examined in her carrier
A cat is examined in a familiar place – the bottom of her carrier.

The other day a client brought her cat in for an exam and vaccines. This cat had been previously seen at the clinic and had been aggressive toward the veterinary staff and the owner. She had been prescribed gabapentin to reduce anxiety when coming in for vet visits. Gabapentin is bitter, so some cats will not eat it in food and may need to be given the pill.

The owner was unable to get her cat to eat the powder in food and brought the cat in unmedicated. This cat was in a soft carrier and was striking with her front paws at the carrier sides when approached. When cats are in a negative emotional state as was this cat, the two ways available to the veterinary professional to try change the emotional state are food and play. This cat was having neither.

A dilemma – proceed with the visit?


 

the veterinary staff


If we move forward, glove up and use thick towels, we can immobilize the cat and perhaps administer vaccines. Being in the soft carrier, she would be difficult to get out, but we could give the vaccine through the mesh sides, although there would be the risk if she wiggled loose a vaccine intended to go under the skin could end up in the muscle.

the cat’s point of view


When presented with a threatening scenario, a cat has three options: 1) flight 2) fight 3) freeze (learned helplessness).
The cat in question was in a carrier in an exam room so flight was out of the question. She decided to fight, which she was ready to do,  striking at the carrier sides when the owner or veterinary staff approached.

Imagine being snugly enveloped by towels, you can’t see what’s going on nor can you move. Some cats will continue to thrash, kick, and bite; other cats will give up at some point. The exam may be very brief, perhaps just measuring the heart rate through the towel. Whether the cat continues to fight or gives up, the experience is negative. If the cat perceives that fighting is successful – after all, she goes home after the struggle –  she may fight even harder on the next visit. The cat will stick with a strategy she thinks works.

the stress of the vet visit


So many owners are stressed about how their cat is treated at the vet clinic, they try to avoid bringing the cat in until it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes, to the cat’s detriment, health conditions have worsened by the time the cat receives medical care.

owner’s stress


  • The cat hides under the bed when the carrier comes out.
  • The cat has to be “dragged” out from under the bed.
  • The cat does not want to go into the carrier.
  • The cat cries constantly on the way to the vet.
  • The owner anticipates that the cat will be difficult and sedation will increase the cost of the visit.

the cat’s stress


  • You are placed in a box that you associate with fear and anxiety.
  • Your box (with you in it!) is placed in a larger box that moves and smells funny.
  • You are frightened, may be nauseated, or may soil yourself.
  • The vet clinic smells of other frightened animals.
  • You are handled by strange humans.

Each time “heavy restraint” is used, a cat often becomes increasingly aggressive, until the exam and treatments have to be done under anesthesia.

Cat friendly handling – breaking the cycle


Cat friendly handling is geared toward following the CAT handling guidelines.

  • Give the cat as much choice and control as possible.
  • Pay attention  to the cat’s body language and tailor the handling to the individual cat.
  • Touch the cat where he prefers to be touched.
  • Positive Reinforement: Make unpleasant procedures (vaccines, sample collection) worthwhile to the cat, offering food or head rubs.

Low Stress vet visits require that the veterinary staff and cat owner work together as a team.  Cat friendly handling begins at home and continues when the cat and owner arrive at the vet clinic.

“A BETTER VET VISIT FOR YOUR CAT


  1. Train your cat to comfortable in her carrier. Consider a carrier with a removable lid so that she can at least be examined in the safety of her “home away from home”.
  2. Desensitize your cat to riding in the car – take a drive around the block where you don’t end up at the vet.
  3. If the veterinary team recommends an anti-anxiety “cocktail”, figure out how your cat will take it. Consider training your cat to accept medication.
  4. If your cat has a favorite treat or food that he likes, consider picking up his food the night before for a morning appointment or in the morning for an afternoon appointment. Bring the treats along and offer them to the staff to feed kitty during his exam or procedures.
  5. Choose a Cat Friendly Practice where the staff have had some training in cat friendly handling.

What happened with the cat we talked about earlier?


The owner felt that a cat-only practice made her cat more reactive. We elected not to proceed with the exam and suggested the owner find a clinic that was a better fit. We can only hope that the cycle of aggression will be broken.

Like taking a toddler to the doctor, the vet visit can be scary for your cat. Cat friendly handling can make the visit less stressful for both you and your cat!

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