“Look at Me” can often be done with a chin rub and slow eye blinks.

When behavior problems arise, your vet may recommend drug therapy and environmental changes for your cat. These interventions work best when coordinated with a behavior modification plan.

What is behavior modification? What does behavior modification for cats involve?

Behavior modification for cats – more than just training and medication


Behavior modification is a type of behavior therapy. It has its roots in the work of B. F. Skinner in the 1930’s. Skinner was psychologist who believed behavior is a response to an organism’s environment and is not a consequence of mental states (beliefs, memories, desires, plans) (Reference 1).

Skinner came up with the theory of operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, reinforcement and punishment are used to encourage or discourage behaviors (Reference 2).

Reinforce the Behavior – Make It Happen Again!

Add Something “Good” Take Away Something “Bad”
If you reward your cat for sitting with his favorite treat, he is more likely to sit the next time you ask. If you stop trimming your cat’s nails every time she growls or hisses, you are reinforcing her behavior of hissing and growling at nail trims by “removing” the unpleasant nail trim.

Punish the Behavior – Make It Stop Happening

Add Something “Unpleasant” Take Away Something “Good”
If you spray your cat with water when she jumps on the counter, she may be less likely to jump up on the counter. Your cat claws at your hand for a treat. If you put the treat behind your back, the cat learns that the treat goes away when she swats at your hand.

Operant conditioning forms the basis of many training methods.  It appears to be pretty straight-forward: can we just reward the cat for using the litter box and spray her with water if she doesn’t? 

Problem behaviors involve more than just a stimulus and a conditioned response.  Operant conditioning  does not take into account the emotional state of an animal. It may be difficult to positively reinforce or punish an animal that is fearful.

To modify or change problem behaviors, the animal’s emotional state must be addressed. Teaching a cat or dog a substitute behavior for the undesired behavior or medicating him does not teach him how to respond to other stressful situations in his life.

Christine Calder, a member the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, describes a five step process in working with problem behaviors in dogs (Reference 3).

  1.  Avoid all the things that cause the behavior.
  2. Open the lines of the communication – learn body language; stop punishment.
  3. Build a toolbox of known behaviors such as voluntary eye contact, touch, or a chin rest.
  4. Teach the animal to relax.
  5. Systematic desensitization and Counter Conditioning (to what triggers the behavior).

 Behavior modification for cats can follow this five-step plan.

You may have gotten a new dog or your young nephew comes to stay with you.  Your cat finds these new additions terrifying so she hides under the bed to be safe.  She does not use her litter box because she is afraid the dog or the child will be there. You try to adapt the environment to accommodate your cat and the newcomers but your cat remains fearful. 

Behavior Modification for Cats- More Than Just Training and Medication


  1. Avoid Triggers: We offer the kitty the sanctuary of a room or place in the house off-limits to the dog or child. This area has all the cat’s resources: litter box, cat tree, food and water.
  2. Establishing communication: Spend time with your cat, coaxing her to come to you; brush or pet her if she likes it. Learn her body language so that you know when she is done interacting (see “How to interact with your cat” ). Have your nephew also learn cat body language. Stop punishment: no spraying with water bottles; speak to your cat quietly with a pleasant tone.
  3. Toolbox of known behaviors: For a cat, these may be targeting on your finger or a stick, and learning to pay attention to you through eye contact.
  4. Teach the cat to relax: A cat who is relaxed is calm. She is able to devote more of her energy to learn how to cope with new situations. When the cat can relax on cue, she is able to choose a calm state. We can work up to asking for calm behavior when the dog or child is nearby.
  5. Desensitization: In this case, we introduce the cat to the dog or child in a safe situation. The dog or child is separated from the cat (use a barricade as needed) and the cat can come or go as she pleases. Gradually the distance between the cat and the dog or child is decreased.
  6. Counter-Conditioning: Previously, the cat associated the dog or child with being anxious or fearful. If she can be calm when dog  is on the other side of the barricade, we can start to form some new associations using high-value treats or other things the cat likes, such as being brushed.  With supervision, your nephew may be able offer your cat treats or brush her.

Behavior modification for cats is more than just substituting a desirable behavior in place of a problem behavior.  For the intervention to work, the emotional state of the cat has to be considered.  We need to give the cat a break from the stressful situation, then establish communication with cat.  We need the cat to trust us and look to us for guidance. Teaching the cat to relax and getting accustomed to what triggered the behavior are the final steps of the behavior modification plan.  The services of a cat behavior professional can be helpful in these situations.

references

  1. B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) Advocacy of Behaviorism and its Application to Psychology and Life
    Operant Conditioning and the Law of Effect.  https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/b-f-skinner Viewed 5/2024.
  2. Cherry, Kendra. What is Operant Conditioning? February 24, 2023. https://www.verywellmind.com/operant-conditioning-a2-2794863  Viewed 5/2024.
  3. Calder, Christine D. Behavior Modification for Dogs. Behavior Bytes. December 28, 2022. https://cattledogpublishing.com/blog/behavior-modification-for-dogs/ Viewed 5/2024.

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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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Eating is a positive experience for healthy animals. Two neurotransmitters released while eating are dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is associated with feelings of reward and motivation; serotonin with feelings of happiness and calmness.  Thus, food is one of the ways we can induce a positive emotional state in a healthy cat.

Food and your cat’s mental health


Recent research points to two dopamine events when eating: the first when you actually eat the food and the second, when the food reaches your stomach. (Reference 1). On the other hand, rising serotonin levels act as an appetite suppressant, giving a feeling of satiety. (Reference 2)

The connection between food and your cat’s mental health provides us an opportunity to take advantage of the emotions triggered by dopamine and serotonin when eating.

Foods that calm


There are foods  that incorporate tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin. Royal Canin’s Calm diet  and Hill’s c/d Multicare Stress for cats  contain hydrolyzed milk protein and L-tryptophan to reduce your cat’s fearful behaviors in stressful situations or environments.  The caveat with these foods is that the cat must eat enough of the food to get the appropriate dose of tryptophan.

Cat using food puzzlefood and environmental enrichment


Engaging in foraging behavior can benefit cats with generalized or separation anxiety. (Reference 3)

  • Foraging can provide a cat that is vigilant, tense and easily aroused with an alternative outlet for her energy
  • Cats with separation anxiety will find foraging a rewarding activity that is not related to interacting with the owner.
  • Serotonin release during the foraging cycle promotes calm behavior.

Foraging Method 1 – Multiple Separate Feeding Stations

  • Divide your cat’s daily food ration into portions.
  • Place these in different places around the house.
  • Put some dishes up high or in boxes and closets for variety

Foraging Method 2 – Use of Food Puzzles

  • Cats have to use their paws to get the food
  • Vary in complexity and style

cats with carrier and treatsFood and your cat’s mental health: behavior modification


We can use the positive emotions triggered by eating to guide our cats’ behaviors.  The use of a stream of small food rewards will trigger dopamine release, which in turn gives the cat feelings of reward and motivation.  Food can be a powerful adjunct to some of the interventions used in veterinary behavioral care: (Reference 3)

  • counter conditioning
  • operant conditioning
  • differential reinforcement of alternate behaviors

These methods work best with foods that the individual cat finds particularly palatable and desirable.

counter conditioning and food


Counter conditioning refers to training a different response to a situation.  Consider the cat carrier that takes your cat to the vet.  Many cats have a fearful association with the carrier and the process of going into it.  The goal of counter conditioning here is to teach the cat that good things happen when he’s near the carrier.

We start with getting the cat accustomed to the carrier by just leaving it out in the room.  Once he is comfortable with the carrier left out, we can offer some treats close by the carrier and gradually work up to treats in the carrier.  Over time, the cat will associate good things with the carrier – we have used food (treats) to change the cat’s emotional state when near the carrier.

operant conditioning and food


With operant conditioning, an animal repeats behaviors that have good consequences and avoids ones that are not rewarding.  Say you ask your cat to “sit”. When he sits, you reward him with a treat (food) he likes. He will be more likely to sit next time in anticipation of getting his reward.

differential reinforcement of alternate behaviorS


Here you will be replacing an undesired behavior with one that is more appropriate to the situation.  Say your new kitten attacks and hangs on to your legs as you as come in the door or you have a “door-dashing” cat.  You could train (operant conditioning) your kitten/cat to jump up on a nearby shelf or table on cue for a  food reward when the door is opened.  (The cue can be spoken or you could jingle your keys.) The goal is to replace the attacking/door dashing behavior with sitting on the nearby piece of furniture.

Food makes our cats feel good. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin promote positive emotions when eating.  This connection between food and your cat’s mental health provides you with opportunities to influence your cat’s behavior through diet, environment and training.

references

1. Cell Press. “Your brain rewards you twice per meal: When you eat and when food reaches your stomach.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 December 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181227111420.htm>.

2. Voigt JP, Fink H. Serotonin controlling feeding and satiety. Behav Brain Res. 2015 Jan 15;277:14-31. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2014.08.065. Epub 2014 Sep 16. PMID: 25217810.

3. Delgado M, Dantas LMS. Feeding Cats for Optimal Mental and Behavioral Well-Being. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2020 Sep;50(5):939-953. doi: 10.1016/j.cvsm.2020.05.003. Epub 2020 Jul 8. PMID: 32653265; PMCID: PMC7415653.

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A safe place for a cat when visitors come. This cat can CHOOSE to go higher or to another room if he wants to avoid strangers.

The doorbell rings and your cat runs and hides under the bed. You answer the door and your friend comes in. After some small talk, she says “By the way, how is Fluffy?” You explain that Fluffy is fine and is hiding – she just isn’t a very friendly cat.

The cat afraid of strangers may freeze or feel she has to protect herself with her claws and teeth during her veterinary exam.  Medication and training help but these will work better if your cat has some ongoing positive or at least neutral experiences with strangers.

Socialization for the cat afraid of strangers


Kittens handled gently and appropriately by a variety of humans when they are 2-7 weeks old (the sensitive period) quickly learn to accept people and enjoy being with them.

That is fine and good you say, but my cat is older now and I don’t have a time machine. It is true that we can’t have the same impact on an older cat as a kitten.  However,  we can still provide the older cat positive, predictable experiences with humans in and outside the cat’s household.

Ways to Socialize the cat afraid of strangers


Safe Places
Consider having some high perches or maybe a cat tree in your living room. Cats are curious folk and want to satisfy their curiosity if they can do it safely. A high perch or cat tree allows a cat to CHOOSE to interact or not.

CAT guidelines – Rules for Humans!
If a cat anticipates that a human will treat her in a positive and predictable way, she will be more likely to interact with that person. The CAT human-cat interaction guidelines  developed at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, aim to make cats more comfortable when interacting with us and are easy follow.

Point out these guidelines to guests and ask that they follow them. The video version may be more appealing to children. After a few experiences of visitors seemingly ignoring your cat, she may start to show up when strangers come over.

Desensitizing Your Cat to the Sound of the Doorbell
Doorbells can be noisy and startling.  After all, doorbells are designed to alert us to deliveries or the arrival of visitors.

  • Record the doorbell sound on your phone.
  • Lure your cat to her high perch or cat tree in the livingroom.
  • Play the doorbell sound at a very low volume and offer her a high value treat.
  • Lure her down with target stick or treat. Repeat.

Gradually increase the volume of the doorbell sound over time. The doorbell will still be an unexpected noise but now has a positive association with it. You can also use the doorbell sound to cue your cat to go to her safe place (very useful if you have a door-dashing cat).

The Calm Before The Storm

For big holiday gatherings, you may also want to consider giving the cat afraid of strangers a supplement such as Zylkene or Anxitane a few days before the big event. These non-prescription supplements can make your kitty feel calmer when lots of unfamiliar humans are around.

Regular veterinary care is an essential part of a long and pain-free life for your cat. Regular visits can head off problems and spread veterinary costs out over time. Desensitizing your cat to strangers can help reduce his fear and anxiety at the vet clinic, making it easier to take him to the vet.

If you have concerns about how your cat is handled at the veterinary practice, consider taking your cat to a Cat Friendly practice, where staff is trained in feline handling techniques.

This is the final post in the “Better Vet Visits for Your Cat” series. I hope you try some of the techniques suggested in these posts. Remember to break things up in simple steps that your cat can understand and master. And, always try to see things from the “feline purrspective”.

 

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

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

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

How to Give Your Cat a Bitter Pill


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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Ways to Give Your Cat a Bitter Pill


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

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

Introducing a pill into a stream of treats

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

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

Using a Pet Piller

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

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

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

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

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

Using a Squeeze-Up Treat

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

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

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

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

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cats with carrier and treats

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

Carrier Training for your cat


Why your cat may not like her carrier:


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

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

carrier training for your cat: carrier basics


SIZE MATTERS


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

SCENT MATTERS


Start by cleaning the carrier.

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

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

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

carrier training for your cat: three methods


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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Method III: Carrier Training for Your Cat using a clicker

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

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

Step 1 : Top off

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

Step 2: Door off

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

Step 3: Door open

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

Step 4: Close the door

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

Step 5: Moving the carrier

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

All Done! Celebrate with treats!

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

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

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

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

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

brushing your cat’s teeth: Step by Step


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

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

 

Step One


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

step two


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

step three


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

step four


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

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

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

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

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Cat with Human toothbrush
Human toothbrushes are not designed for cats’ smaller mouths.

Good dental care for people centers on regular dental cleanings once or twice a year. This is supplemented by home dental care – twice daily brushing and daily (or more) flossing. Our cats should have periodic professional cleanings done under anesthesia but what about home dental care? How about brushing your cat’s teeth?

Brushing your cat’s teeth


The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) has a list of accepted products for cats. On this list are several dental diets including the over-the-counter Hills Oral Care, a water additive, oral spray and oral gel made by HealthyMouth, in addition to Greenies treats. The list is a bit outdated with the most recent entries dated 2012. Nowhere are toothbrushes or toothpaste.

Having tried the diets, the water additive, and brushing teeth, I have found that hands-down brushing your cat’s teeth is the most effective. Tartar accumulates most frequently on the outside of the cat’s upper premolars and those are the teeth we can target.

The benefits? Brushing reduces the amount of bacteria in the mouth more effectively than water additives and sprays. Cats are prone to developing tooth resorption which is similar in some ways to human cavities. However, where filling cavities works in human teeth, these feline resorptive lesions just get bigger and bigger once they start and filling them does not work – they need to be extracted.

While we don’t really know why tooth resorption occurs in cats, bacteria is thought to play a major role. (“Microbiome analysis of feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions (FORL) and feline oral health”, Thomas et al., J Med Microbiol. 2021; 70(4): 001353.)

For dogs, VOHC recommends the PetSmile brand of toothpaste, that works by dissolving the biofilm that forms on the teeth using hydrogen peroxide.  The PetSmile website indicates that this toothpaste can be used for cats also.

Virbac makes the CET brand of dog and cat toothpastes.  CET toothpaste contains lactoperoxidase and is designed to boost a naturally occurring anti-bacterial process in the cat’s saliva.  Watanabe and colleagues measured bacterial counts on dogs’ teeth and found that simply applying the toothpaste to the teeth reduced bacteria, although not as much as brushing with the toothpaste. (J Vet Med Sci. 2016 Jul; 78(7): 1205–1208. “Inhibitory effect for proliferation of oral bacteria in dogs by tooth brushing and application of toothpaste”)

So, consider brushing your cat’s teeth. To learn more, check out the two-part video series, “Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth: Why and How” in the video gallery at www.felinepurrspective.com.  Start with Part 1 to find out which teeth you need to brush, what you need to do this, and a strategy to encourage your cat to accept the toothbrush.

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

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

What’s in your cat’s mouth


Cats have 30 teeth. These teeth are designed

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

What’s up front: Canines and incisors


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

What’s Behind the Fangs: Premolars and Molars


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

Home Dental Care: Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth


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

Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth: what you need


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

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

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

Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth: Where to brush


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

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

Four Steps to Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth


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

My Cat Won’t Use a Toothbrush


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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

When the SEEKING system is activated

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

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

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

cats eating from a food puzzle: contrafreeloading?


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

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

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

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

Cats are freeloaders!


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

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

why are cats freeloaders?


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

Cats are solitary predators

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

Is hunting more “fun”?

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

cats eating from a food puzzle


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

training your cat to use a food puzzle


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

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

selecting a food puzzle


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

 

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

 

 

a homemade food puzzle
Cat using a homemade food puzzle

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

 

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