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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At the vet clinic where I work, we see quite a number of “fat cats”. Estimates of the prevalence of feline obesity cluster around 50%.   Why are our cats getting fat? (See How Do I Tell if My Cat is Fat?)

Your cat has evolved to eat a diet rich in protein found in meat. His stomach is small and his GI tract is short. 

Some experts estimate that a cat’s stomach is about the size of a ping pong ball but it clearly must stretch – when a cat eats a mouse, he often eats the whole thing, tail included!

When cats moved indoors, they gave up a free-roaming life in exchange for the safety of our homes and a consistent food source. Let’s look at the differences between cats in the wild and housecats.

Cats in the wild


Cat hunting
A cat pouncing on a mouse.
  • Cats in the wild hunt during the late afternoon to early morning hours when their prey is active
  • They sleep during most of the daylight hours.
  • A feral cat has about 3 hunting sessions – late afternoon, midnight and early morning.
  • He probably eats about 6-8 mice a day (180-240 kcal)
  • Most of his waking hours are spent on the prowl, foraging for food. 

housecats


A cat plays with a toy near closed door during a cat introduction.
  • Some domestic cats live an indoor-outdoor life. These cats may supplement human-provided meals with mice and other things they catch outside.
  • Many cats live exclusively indoors.
  • Most housecats adopt their owner’s schedule and are awake during the day.
  • Housecats are either meal fed at set times or free-fed.  Dry cat food may be left out, allowing the cat to “graze” during the day.

Housecats don’t have to expend time and energy to get their food – it is provided for them. When viewed this way, it is not surprising that there are many indoor fat cats. They don’t move around as much as their outdoor counterparts and don’t burn as many calories.

 

get fat cats moving: food and emotions


Neuroscience identifies 7 basic emotional systems: SEEKING, CARE, PLAY, and LUST are considered “positive”. FEAR, SADNESS, and ANGER are viewed as “negative”.

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.

the hunting cat


Cats are skilled hunters. Hunting is an expression of the SEEKING system. The cat finds this activity pleasurable (dopamine is released) and rewarding (he enjoys the positive emotions that accompany eating). By providing your cat with food, he still enjoys the positive feelings that come with eating but the pleasure felt while hunting is not there.

Sedentary indoor cats with nothing to do may become bored  and anxious.  Many turn to eating as a self-soothing behavior, consuming more calories than needed – now, we have fat cats.

The seeking system is strong in the hunting cat – cats will stop eating to pursue new prey!

get fat cats moving for health and happiness


  • Divide your cat’s food into 4-5 meals –  this gives the cat something to do and look forward to.
  • Make small meals a “hunting” experience!

 

FOOD PUZZLES


Although cats are born “freeloaders”, they can be persuaded to work for food using food puzzles.  A food puzzle allows a cat to engage in foraging behavior, like the wild cat picking up the odd insect or lizard on his prowl.

Food puzzles help reduce boredom and engage cats mentally.  Indoor cats in particular may benefit from using food puzzles.

HAVE FUN – TOSS A MEAL!


Toss your cat’s dry food, a piece at a time, down the hallway. He will have to chase the kibbles, using his hearing, sight and paws to bring down the “prey”. Older kitties may do better at catching kibbles if you “skid” them along a hard surface – skidding gives the cat a longer auditory signature to locate the food. (See “Cats Avoid Fighting Over Treats“).

WHEN YOU’RE NOT AT HOME


Timed Puzzle Feeder
This Cat Mate feeder can accommodate a food puzzle.

There are timed feeders like the Cat Mate that can accommodate some smaller food puzzles such as Doc and Phoebe’s no-bowl feeders. Alternatively, a Lickimat can be cut to fit into a timed or microchip feeder. Silicone ice cube trays or candy molds can also be cut to fit a feeder and promote foraging.

Hi Tech options: There are now feeders that will toss treats. You can start the sessions remotely through an app on your phone. The PetCube has a camera and microphone that you can use to talk to your cat and watch him. The Pet Cube is perhaps more geared toward tossing treats – it works well, though, with larger cat kibble such the dental diets and Greenies dental treats.

Of course, there are other reasons your cat may put on weight, for example, steroid therapy can be accompanied by weight gain.  Your vet is your best resource to advise you on an appropriate calorie intake for your cat.

But it is rarely a mistake to pay attention to your cat’s behavioral health – take advantage of his superb hunting skills to get him moving!  He will be healthier and happier.

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Sometimes when your cat behaves “badly”, you are able to address what triggers the misbehavior and life goes back to “normal”: you add a new litter box and the house-soiling stops; you start taking your “bully” cat for walks on a leash and everyone settles back down again. Problem solved!

Other times, you feel you’ve taken care of what triggers the misbehavior but your cat continues to, say, pee in the bathtub. And in still other instances, you can’t eliminate the stressors triggering the behavior, and the behavior persists. For example, you just don’t have the finances to get a bigger house but you don’t want to re-home any of the cats.

Anxiety and misbehavior in your cat


When your cat is stressed, he can become anxious and fearful. Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and helps the cat respond to perceived danger.  One way your cat may let you know she is anxious and fearful, is by “misbehaving”.  She may avoid her litter box and or hide and strike out at you when you try to pick her up.

Your vet might recommend a behavior modification plan and an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medication to deal with the anxiety and misbehavior in your cat.  Behavior modification aims to give the cat a way to cope with the stress that is giving rise to the “misbehavior”.   Anxiolytics reduce your cat’s anxiety and put him in a positive emotional state, making him more receptive to behavior modification.

Fluoxetine: Rx for anxiety


Let’s take a look at Fluoxetine, a medication that is frequently prescribed by veterinarians to treat anxiety.

In human circles, fluoxetine is more commonly known by the brand name Prozac.  It is a “selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor” (SSRI).
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that carries “messages” between neurons. Neurotransmitters are typically reabsorbed in the neuron once the “messaging” is done but SSRI’s keep serotonin from being reabsorbed, resulting in more serotonin being available to carry messages between neurons. Serotonin is thought to regulate mood, digestion, and sleep among other metabolic processes (see SSRIs mayoclinic.org).

Your cat should be calmer and less anxious when taking fluoxetine.

House-soiling and aggression toward people are two of the more common behavioral problems in cats. Let’s take a quick look at two cases where  fluoxetine and behavior modification helped manage feline anxiety and misbehavior.

Susie, a 13 year old female cat


Problem Behavior: House-soiling in variety of locations with chronic diarrhea

When Susie was 11 years old, her feline house-mate passed away and her owner adopted a younger cat. Susie began pooping outside the box. After most of a year, the owner felt the cats got along OK but house-soiling and diarrhea continued. The owner found Susie “aloof” and difficult to handle. Susie was surrendered to a veterinary clinic when she was 13 years old.

A Plan for Susie

Medical plan: treat the diarrhea

Behavioral plan:

  • Desensitize Susie to interacting with people
  • Gradually introduce Susie to the other cats in the clinic

Susie’s Timeline:

  • Susie is surrendered to the vet clinic in  mid-May 2021. She is fearful and reluctant to interact with people and other cats and is placed in a “room of her own”.
  • In early July, Susie begins taking a steroid medication and also starts fluoxetine. The diarrhea starts to resolve in the next few weeks.
  • By early September, Susie is becoming less fearful and is interested in coming out of her room. She starts to accept being handled by the clinic staff.  She is not pooping outside the litter box as much.
  • In November, Susie starts having supervised visitations with staff and other cats outside her room.
  • By next March, Susie is able to be out unsupervised in the clinic during working hours.  House-soiling is better – she poops right next to the litter box and not in random locations.

Susie had a long history of house-soiling. Treatment of her medical problem and reducing her anxiety has improved her quality of life. She remains on a low dose of fluoxetine which helps her cope with the stress of interacting with strange people and cats that come to the vet clinic.

Gus, 3 year old male feral cat


Problem Behavior: Aggression toward people

Gus was an intact male cat that was trapped in a live trap. He is positive for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus and was not eligible to be released after being neutered.

Behavior modification plan for Gus:

  • Desensitization to people
  • Clicker training for appropriate social behaviors toward people

Gus’s Timeline:

  • Early March 2019: Gus is trapped with a live trap
  • March 5: Gus is neutered. Gus is fearful, fighting and biting when handled.
  • Late March: Gus starts taking fluoxetine, to reduce anxiety and misbehavior.  He takes the daily fluoxetine tablet in a treat. At first the drug makes him sleepy but this passes in a few weeks and he is exposed to a variety of people.
  • Clicker and leash training begin in early June.  He learns simple commands to sit, follow a target on a stick, wear a harness and allow humans to pick him up.
  • Gus is adopted in early August. Owner continues clicker training and outdoor walks.
  • Gus is weaned off fluoxetine by the end of November, after 7 months of drug therapy. He tolerates people and no longer tries to bite them.

Anxiolytics combined with behavior modification can help you deal with anxiety and misbehavior in your cat.  In some cases, a cat can be weaned off the medication while in others, continuing to give a low dose helps when the stressors causing the misbehavior cannot be eliminated.

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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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What can you do when your cat thinks outside the box?

Whether you are waiting for an appointment with your vet or are in the process of treating a medical condition, accepted guidelines (ISFM house-soiling guidelines) recommend that you do an environmental and social assessment of your cat and where he lives. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at your cat’s environment and what we might change  to resolve the house-soiling.

When Your Cat Thinks Outside the Box: First Aid


REDUCE THE TERRITORY OF THE HOUSE-SOILING CAT


The “core territory” is where the cat can rest, has shelter and feels safe from predators and other cats.
Consider temporarily confining the house-soiling cat to one or more rooms with all the cat’s resources – litter box, food and water stations, cat trees. This can make an anxious cat feel more safe – from the feline purrspective, he does not have as much area to defend from other cats, pets, and people.

DON’T HAVE THE SPACE?


  • Restrict this cat’s access to the soiled areas if you can.
  • If that’s not possible, try placing a litter box where the house-soiling is occurring.
  • If the cat starts to use the box, keep it in place for at least 2 weeks (ISFM house-soiling guidelines)
  • After two weeks of consistent use, you can gradually move the box to a more suitable location. Go very slowly for best results!

DAMAGE CONTROL


  • Use an enzymatic cleaner to clean the soiled areas.
  • If your cat is spraying, set up a spraying station: a litter box oriented vertically. Line walls and floor with plastic to minimize damage to wallboard and flooring.
  • There is a risk of a cat marking the cleaned area, so “clean and cover”, as described above.

When your cat thinks outside the box – A CLOSER LOOK AT YOUR CAT’S ENVIRONMENT


  • Sketch the floor plan of your house.

    House Map
    A house map showing areas where house-soiling has occurred.
  • Mark the location of doors, windows, stairways, closets and major pieces of furniture. Mark the location of litter boxes, feeding areas, water stations, scratching posts and sleeping areas.
  • Mark where and when (extra credit!) the house-soiling has occurred.

ELIMINATION: SOCIAL OR ENVIRONMENTAL?


The house map can give us an idea of whether the elimination problem is due to your cat’s environment or if the elimination problem is social, arising from negative interactions with other cats, pets or people.

WHERE DOES “X MARK THE SPOT”?


  • Near door and windows where outdoor cats come? social?
  • Right next to the litter box? environmental?
  • On laundry piles or bath mats? environmental/social?
  • On your bed? social?
  • Quiet corners? environmental/social?
  • Near a noisy appliance? environmental?

AN ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT: The litter box


ENOUGH BOXES?

  • Even this question is not straightforward. But let’s start with the commonsense basics. There needs to be more than one box even for one cat.
  • Some cats prefer to use one box for urine and the other for feces.
  • In a multi-story house, there should be a litter box on every floor the cat frequents.
  • The rule of thumb is #litter boxes = # cats + 1 but this is not a hard and fast rule.
  • Litter boxes need to be separated – cats view litter boxes next to each other as a single litter box.

SIZE MATTERS


The litter box needs to be large enough for your cat to turn around. This box is large enough for Gus.

How big are the boxes? Cats may turn around a few times before eliminating. The litter box needs to be large enough to accommodate this motion. The rule of thumb here is 1.5 times the cat’s length from nose to base of tail.

CLEAN ENOUGH?


A study sponsored by Nestle-Purina found that cats prefer a litter box free of clumps of urine and pieces of stool, so scooping the litter box frequently may avoid house-soiling problems. If you do not scoop the boxes daily, you may need more boxes and/or larger boxes.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION


  • Litter boxes should be separated and not in areas a cat can be “trapped” in. Avoid high traffic areas frequented by lots of people and other pets.
  • Avoid areas with noisy appliances. Remember that cats have one of the broadest ranges of hearing of any land mammal, hearing the low tones of the human male voice and the ultrasonic squeaks of mice. Even our electronic gizmos may be emitting sounds that can make a litter box area unpleasant.

ESTABLISHING NEW HABITS


To break the house-soiling habit, we need to REWARD the cat for using the litter box. We can do this by making the litter box more appealing and pleasant to use.

Offering a new litter box is one way to break the habit of soiling in an inappropriate place.

  • Consider larger boxes with a cut out to allow easy access.
  • High-sided boxes will work for cats who spray or stand up to urinate.
  • It is best to ADD litter boxes at first. Once the cat has accepted the new box, you can remove the older one.

LITTER BOX CAFETERIA


  • Putting several litter boxes side by side with different fillers (include the original) can give you an idea what kind of litter your cat prefers.

KEEP IT CLEAN!


  • Consider having a “Litter Genie” or other disposal system next to each box so that it is convenient to scoop the box frequently.

THE BATHROOM IS SAFE!


  • Some cats respond positively to pheromones. The “Feliway” Classic or Comfort Zone calming diffusers give a message of security and calmness.
  • For cats who are spraying or marking, these analogs of facial pheromones tell your cat that this place is already marked.
  • You can also collect your cat’s individual scent and apply it to the area around the box – wood moldings, walls…

NO SNACKS IN THE BATHROOM!


  • Locate food and water away from the litter box. Cats do not eat where they eliminate and a litter box near food may discourage its use for elimination.

House-soiling can be a difficult puzzle to solve. When your cat thinks outside the box, it may be due to medical, environmental or social issues or a combination of these. A house map can help you locate the problem areas and optimize your cat’s environment. In the next post, we’ll use the house map to look for social problems that may be why your cat thinks outside the box.

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A common complaint of cat owners is that their cat does not always use the litter box. This can be a nuisance – cat urine can have a strong odor particularly if the cat is not neutered or spayed. Soft stools can be a challenge to clean up. I am always surprised at how many people accept the “out of the box” incidents and use potty pads or towels to manage the mess. What can you do if this happens to you?

Why your cat thinks outside the box


There are  a number of reasons cats may think “outside the box” and don’t use their litter boxes.  Sometimes, it is a marking behavior.  Other times, the litter box does not meet feline requirements, the cat is sick, or another cat is “guarding” the box.  These are just a few of the reasons that may lie behind feline house-soiling.

Marking


Cats use urine to mark territory, advertise for a mate or let other cats know that Mr. Fluffy has been here (feces may also mark terrritory but urine is more common in domestic cats). The urine mark not only gives information as to the sexual status and general health of the marker, it also has a “time stamp” indicating when the mark was made. Cats, being solitary hunters, avoid confrontations to reduce the risk of injury. This “time stamp” may help cats avoid encountering each other.

Such urine marking is often but not always sprayed on vertical surfaces. It is typically characterized by small amounts of urine. This is usually a behavior of intact males and sometimes females but can occur with neutered or spayed animals. (Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery 16(7):545, 10.1177/1098612X14539085)

PROBLEMS WITH THE BOX


  • Box is too small
  • Box is in a busy location near noisy appliances or in a high traffic area
  • Box is located near a window where neighborhood cats come
  • Box is not clean – remember to scoop at least once a day

A research team at Nestlé Purina found that cats prefer to use unused litter boxes. However, this preference for unused boxes did not seem to be due to odors. Cats did not seem to care whether or not the litter box smelled of urine or feces. But cats did not want to use litter boxes with actual urine clumps and feces nor did they want to use litter boxes with simulated urine clumps made from salt solution or “faux feces” made of gelatin. Ultimately, it appears that it is important to scoop frequently, removing physical obstructions from the litter box.

“Does previous use affect litter box appeal in multi-cat households?”
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2017.02.008

MEDICAL PROBLEMS


Pain and discomfort when eliminating can result in a cat associating the litter box with pain. Ongoing pain can be frightening for a cat and cause him to be anxious, exacerbating urinary and gastro-intestinal problems.  The cat may choose not to the use the litter box he associates with the painful elimination.

When your cat thinks outside the box, it could be due to medical issues, including:

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Bladder stones
  • Arthritis – can make it difficult for a cat to squat or step over a high side to get into the litter box
  • Constipation and diarrhea
  • Cognitive dysfunction in older cats ( Cat Dementia: How Can We Manage It?)
  • FIC (feline idiopathic cystitis) – (see “Is My Cat Sick from Stress”)
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease

Social problems


  • The litter box is being “guarded” by another cat
  • The family dog is coprophagic and “haunts” the litter box
  • A toddler wants to “play in the sandbox” too
  • A house guest kicks his shoes off and they hit the wall; the noise startles the cat in the box

When your cat thinks outside the box – make an appointment with your veterinarian.  Your vet can:

  • Assess your cat’s overall health
  • Collect blood, urine and stool samples for diagnostic screening
  • Take X-rays if there are concerns about bladder stones or arthritis
  • Prescribe pain medication
  • Prescribe anti-anxiety medication while house-soiling issues are being resolved

It is wise to act promptly when house-soiling issues arise. When house-soiling continues for a long time without resolution, we run the risk of “coping behaviors” becoming habits. For example, a cat may choose to urinate in the shower or bathtub, defecate in a quiet corner in the front entryway, or eliminate right next to the box. Once these behaviors are established, it is sometimes difficult to break these “bad” habits.

Our next post will look at what you, the cat guardian, can do to encourage new habits and help remedy house-soiling, when your cat thinks outside the box.

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Kitten with adult cat

You have decided that you want to get another cat. Why not a kitten? A kitten is young; he or she should be adaptable and open to new experiences. Right?

Before you go to the shelter or call a breeder, think first of your resident cats: their ages, health and life experience.

Introducing Kittens to Older Cats


Scenario #1:  senior cats


Let’s say your oldest cat is ten years old, comparable to a 56 year old human. She still is up for a rousing game of “chase the feather bird” but she is not forever pouncing on toys. She is still jumping pretty well but does spend a lot of her time in sunny spots, snoozing and soaking up the warmth.

Her health is pretty good for her age but she most likely has started to develop arthritis. You don’t know much about her early life (she was a rescue) but she gets along fairly well with the now 7 year old male cat you adopted when she was 3 years old. You recall that it took some time for them to accept each other but they will snuggle together in winter and groom each other’s heads from time to time.

If you could ask your two senior cats if they want a kitten roommate, they would probably say “No, please maintain the status quo”.  An energetic kitten may be more than they want to deal with. However, the two cats form an established social group, know the rules of feline etiquette, so there is a good chance that introducing a new cat will be successful.

The newcomer may or may not be accepted whole-heartedly into this social group. You may end up dealing with two social groups – your older cats and the kitten. Think about getting two kittens, ideally from the same litter. They will form their own rough and tumble social club and the older cats will not need to join the fracas unless they want to.

scenario #2: the single young adult cat


In this case, you have a young male cat about 1 year old.  You adopted him when he was a 10 week old kitten and he has been the only cat in the house since.  He is still rambunctious and playful.  You feel he would benefit from a younger companion.

Although this cat is still young, his socialization with other cats stopped at 10 weeks. He may tend to view a kitten more as an object, a toy to be played with, than a member of a social group.  The introduction process could be more complicated than introducing kittens to older cats that have been socialized. This young, single cat will benefit from training and possibly medication to put him in a relaxed emotional state while meeting his new roommate.

The Nuts and bolts of introducing kittens to older cats


It is wise to follow the basic rules of introducing cats in both scenarios.  Give your resident(s) time to get used to the idea of sharing the house with a furry newcomer. Start with:

  1. Scent exchange
  2.  Time-sharing of common areas
  3. Visual introduction with a barrier in between.

Time with the barrier in between can give you an idea of how the older cat(s) and kitten(s) will react. Make sure everyone is offered high value treats and toys and consider having a helper so there is a person on either side of the barrier. Have a sheet or blanket to cover the barrier if needed.

cat on leash
Zelda walking indoors on her leash.

 

Consider harness/leash training both kitten(s) and adult cat(s).  The harness/leash can give you more control over the visitations by regulating how cats approach each other.  A leash can keep a rambunctious kitten from pouncing on a senior cat; a leash can help keep an overstimulated young adult cat from relentlessly pursuing a kitten.

 

 

A word to the wise…


  • Assess the medical and social history of your resident cat(s) when planning to adopt a new kitten or cat.
  • Go slowly when introducing kittens to older cats – an older cat can hurt a young kitten.  Supervision is a must!
  • Watch everyone’s body language: take a step back if there’s a lot of hissing and growling.
  • Always be ready to separate fighting felines!

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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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Cats are the only domesticated animals whose ancestors are solitary. Horses, dogs, birds, cattle, pigs –  all are descended from animals that instinctively formed social groups (herds, packs, flocks…).  Cats are what we call “socially flexible”.  A cat can be quite happy living on his own but he may join a cat colony (group of cats) if there are plenty of resources – food, places to sleep. 

Cats formed a social structure to live alongside humans


The domestic cat’s ancestor, the African wildcat, is a solitary hunter, and does not spend much time with other wildcats unless it time to mate.  10,000 years ago, wildcats were drawn to the wealth of prey found in and around human settlements. Wildcats that could tolerate other wildcats nearby could share the feast. These are the ancestors of our domestic cats today.

Cats are popular pets with a small footprint.  It is not uncommon for a cat owner to want adopt another cat.  But how do you know if the cats will like each other? What if they fight? 

If there is sufficient food, cats will form social groups called colonies. The colony is often a collection of smaller social groups of cats. Cats belonging to a particular social group, will share food, water, latrine areas, sleeping and resting places. Different social groups will take turns using critical resources such as food, water, etc. 

Introducing Cats


Gradual step-by step introduction mimics what we see in feral cat colonies. The newcomer initially stays on the periphery of the colony and gradually is accepted by the colony members over time. (See Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, “Cat Behavior: Social Organization, Communication and Development”, I. Rochlitz (ed.), The Welfare of Cats, 1–22. 2007 Springer)

A few years ago, I wrote “Introducing cats: A Short Guide” for my website. The “Short Guide” recommended a step-by-step process for introducing cats.  With the new cat in his own separate room, the first step involved exchanging bedding between the new cat and the residents.  Subsequent steps allowed the cats to explore each other’s areas while the other cat is out followed by feeding the cats and playing with toys on either side of a door that is closed at first then opened later.

I still recommend the same step-by-step gradual introduction but have made the following updates:

  • Eating is not a social activity for cats. Wild cats prefer to take their mouse away from other cats and dine alone.  But food still is a way to make cats feel good.  So, instead of using your cat’s regular meal to make interacting with the newcomer positive, we will use special treats and toys. The cats can continue eating their regular food at the usual time and place. After all, why spoil your meal by eating with someone you don’t know and may not like.
  • Many cat introductions have been done with a door that is ajar and then gradually opened wider and wider. Over the past few years, I have come to the conclusion that it is worth investing in a screen, stacked baby gates or other barrier you can see through. You have the flexibility of being able to cover this barrier quickly with a sheet to interrupt a fixed, direct, aggressive stare between cats; if one cat “rushes” at the other, the barrier is there to prevent a cat fight.
  • Another epiphany I have had is that using a carrier (even if it is large and covered with a towel) for supervised visitations is not ideal. The cat in the carrier may feel trapped and unable to leave an unpleasant situation. On the other hand, harness and leash can provide us more control when starting visual contact and supervised visitations – we can deter cats from rushing up to the barrier or perhaps even avoid a cat fight.

 

A cat plays with a toy near closed door during a cat introduction.

 

When introducing cats, it is best to go slowly – it is better to take baby steps and only have to back up a little if something goes wrong. Of course, make sure to monitor each cat’s body language and demeanor. Each cat is an individual – I have had some cats get together in a matter of days while other can take months. Try to avoid the temptation to rush ahead so that the barriers can come down – the  house may still be separated into hostile camps.

 

Make sure to visit the updated web page Introducing Cats: A Short Guide

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Cat with July 4th colorsDoes the color of your cat’s coat mean anything? Is there a link between coat color and temperament in cats?

Black cats are often associated with the occult; orange cats tend to be regarded as friendly.  Calico and tortoiseshell cats – those cats with tri-colored coats – are considered strong-willed and difficult to work with.  There is even a term – “tortitude” – to describe these cats!

In a study published in 2016, researchers at UC Davis decided to look into whether there is a link between coat color and temperament – in particular, do cats with particular colors of coats tend to be more aggressive? Cat owners were recruited online to fill out a survey about their cats. The team received 1,274 responses that they analyzed with statistics. 

Owners scored their cats for

  • aggression toward humans
  • aggression when being punished, petted, or brushed
  • aggression when in the veterinary clinic

Aggression toward humans scored the frequency with which a cat reacted with aggressive or affiliative behavior to people. A 6 point scale was used ranging from 0 = never through monthly, weekly, up to 5 = daily.  Behaviors included hiss, bite, slap/scratch, bite/scratch and stalk (play), groom/lick, curl up next to, approach and greet with head/body rubs.  The possible range of scores was 0-20.

Aggression from handling scored the likelihood that the cat would react to being punished, petted or brushed by hissing, biting, slapping or scratching.  Scores ranged from 0 = unlikely to 3 = very likely. The maximum score possible was 27.  Aggression during the veterinary visit was also scored from 0 = likely to 3 = very likely but with a maximum score of 9.

Overall, the aggression scores are rather low in all three categories.  For example, in the “human aggression” category, high scores were 2-3 out of 20.  Female cats had higher scores overall but the research team felt the difference to be small enough that they could combine the sexes in the overall study.

Coat color and temperament – findings


Tortitude


The calico and tortoiseshell cats were found to have some of the higher scores (2.47) for aggression toward humans (Gray and white cats scored 2.26 – so not much different than the tri-color cats). 

  • These scores are not very high scores out of a possible 20. 
  • Calico/tortoiseshell cats are predominantly female (the tri-color pattern is linked to the X chromosome making the combination of 3 colors very rare in male cats).  Female cats were found to be a little more aggressive than male cats in this study and this sample would have had more females.
  • Perhaps, the stereotype of the “strong-willed” tri-colored female cat affected how respondents scored their cats.

other findings


  • Gray and white cats, both female and male, were more aggressive toward humans and when being handled. 
  • Black and white male cats scored higher than other groups of male cats in human-directed aggression.
  • Surprisingly, there were no significant differences in aggression among cats at the veterinary clinic.

Although the results of this study seem to support the stereotypes of cat color and aggressive behavior, e. g. “tortitude”, it is best to take these results with a grain of salt. 

  • Overall, the scores for aggression to humans and when being handled were quite low.
  • The questionnaires were completed by the owners and there will be some differences in the way people interpret and score things.
  • Stereotypes may have affected how respondents view their cats and scored them.
  • The questionnaires did not involve a random sample of cats and cat owners but cat owners who voluntarily signed up to fill out the forms. These could be potentially more interested and “saavy” owners.
  • There will be differences in how people approach and handle their cats.

At the Battersea Dogs and Cats home, cats were more friendly with humans after the human volunteers watched a video demonstrating how to  interact with cats. ( see “Practical Guidelines for Interacting with Cats” )

The link between coat color and aggressive behavior does not seem particularly strong.  Such information could be useful to cat owners, shelters, and veterinary clinics to allow them to anticipate what behaviors they may encounter. But as the saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.  A cat’s coat color is only part of the story – it is important to assess each cat as an individual.  Approach him or her respectfully following the CAT guidelines.

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