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Curious about your cat?
Animal behaviorists Dr. James Ha and Ellen Leach answered a selection of your cat questions. He is a research associate professor in the psychology department's animal-behavior program at the University of Washington and she has a degree in psychology/animal behavior and is the founder of Behavioral Resources For Cats.
Dog lovers feeling left out? The mysteries and wonders of dogs will be our next topic. Watch for your chance in the coming weeks to ask questions about dogs.
My cat just had dental care and several teeth were removed. As part of her care, she is receiving a liquid antibiotic twice a day. Apparently, this stuff tastes foul. Now, she runs and hides any time I approach.. Any suggestions on how to make the medication moments less of an ordeal for her (and me, her loving caregiver)? Thanks.
— Ann, Seattle
About two months ago, I moved my two cats in with my boyfriend and his puppy. The puppy doesn't understand that the cats just don't like to play. Every time the dog approaches, the cats hiss and run away. Are they ever going to get along? — Sally, Seattle
Ellen: The longer cats have lived without exposure to a dog the longer it will take. The hissing indicates fear and the cats need time to become relaxed about the puppy. They can be introduced slowly and with lots of escape areas for the cats. Make sure every room the cats use has elevated and low escape areas where they can watch the puppy. Also provide rooms that the cats can access but are off limits to the puppy (use door spaces and/or magnetic cat doors on interior doors). Make sure the puppy attends obedience classes so you can control his/her behavior around the cats.
We have two three-year-old female cats that are litter mates. They get along splendidly and are often found curled around each other, cleaning one another and playing tag. However, each of the cats has attached themselves to my daughter and me. They insist on our undivided attention, want to be held, cuddled, babied. Wherever we go in the house they are never far from our side. They even go as far as to wait at the door when we get home from a long day and they are ecstatic to see us. I've raised them with a lot of respect, love and attention. My question is, did we just get lucky to get such social cats or have we tapped into their "inner circle"? — Karen, Seattle
Jim: I am not sure about any "inner circle" but you sound like you got a little lucky with great cats, and then raised them right! Congratulations!
I have two 11-month-old indoor cats. Is it OK to let them on the balcony of my fourth-floor condo? One is a real Curious George and I'm afraid he'll try to chase birds and kill himself jumping off the deck. I really like to leave my doors open. Is it safe for them to be out there? — Roger, Kirkland
Ellen: I know of cats -- even those who were used to going out on a balcony -- who fell to their deaths. If the condo will allow it, you can enclose the deck with a mesh that will be virtually "invisible" from a distance. There are even special meshes for this. (Search "cat enclosures" on the Web and you'll likely find a supplier.) Alternatively, you can take the kitties on outings on a leash, in the car, in a collapsible mesh tunnel called a "Kitty Walk."
ATTENTION ARCHITECTS AND BUILDERS: We need more buildings with pet-safe balconies and other pet areas.
My cat was recently diagnosed with crystals. We have changed her diet and are correcting the problem. How do we get her to start using the litter box again, now that she is feeling better? She had always been fantastic about using the box and that is how we knew instantly there was a problem. — Kris, Seattle
Jim: Basic housebreaking: Take her to the box regularly, reward her with praise and special food treats (tuna, organ meats) whenever you see her use the box. Keep the box immaculately clean, to start with at least.
Can you talk a little about the advantages/disadvantages of having two cats instead of one? — John, Phinney Ridge
Jim: Sure, but you might not like the answer: It depends! It depends a great deal on the breed and individual temperament of the cats, sex, reproductive status and living conditions (space, exercise opportunities). It also depends a GREAT deal on how such introductions are handled behaviorally. But I can say that it is rarely the case that a lone cat develops behavioral problems, unlike dogs which are much more social. So I would not worry about having a single cat. Bringing in another cat needs to be handled carefully and in a smart way.
I've always wondered if cats use a form of subtle communication with their eyes? The "vocabulary" of different ways a cat will wink at me (and other cats) seems to be rather large. Forgive the pun but is there more to this behavior then meets the eye? — M., Burien
Ellen: In many animal species, including cats, an unbroken gaze can be interpreted as aggressive. So many species have ways to break the gaze. In cats this is done with a "friendly" blink, which breaks the gaze. In fact, giving a lot of blinks to a cat you're first meeting can help you "make friends" with the cat.
My cat vomits a lot for some days. We are tired of cleaning it up. Why does my cat always vomit? — Jose, Seattle
Jim: See a veterinarian, and if you don't get a satisfactory solution, see another vet, perhaps one specializing in cats. This is often a food allergy, or even something more serious. It is only very rarely a behavior issue.
Which is better? The little plastic caps you can put on claws or declawing to prevent scratching? — Cheryl, Des Moines
Jim: This is a very controversial issue, and I will probably get a lot of flak for saying this, but I feel pretty strongly that declawing, at least the front claws, is a viable option for dealing with aggressive or damaging cats which do not respond to behavior modification. I have never personally seen or heard of a case in which there was a problem that could be traced to declawing.
Prompted by response that Ha got to this answer, he and Leach decided to weigh in again to add more layers to this complicated subject.
This issue has been addressed repeatedly by the scientific community, and there is no scientific evidence that declawing has any effect on cats' behavior, climbing ability, ability to defend themselves, or development of later behavior problems. For instance, it is not true that declawed cats are more likely to become biters. Having said that, it is important to note that declawing is a surgical procedure with all of the risks involved with any such procedure. I strongly encourage cat owners to try behavior modification methods. The plastic caps, if introduced properly, are an option in some cases, although many cats will not tolerate them. And we have to recognize that declawing has become a very emotional issue for some owners. That's not to say that those emotions are not important, but in my opinion, given the lack of evidence for negative results for declawing, it's certainly more desirable than euthanasia, which is the option that the owners I work with may be considering.
Ellen: Some details often considered regarding declawing include issues of lingering post-surgical pain and phantom pain. Very important is the question of the necessity of the surgery. The AVMA (American Veterinary Medicine Association) supports declawing only when the cat cannot be trained to not use its claws destructively. So here we are back to an education issue. In many, if not most cases, cats can certainly be "trained" with positive reinforcement and by providing scratchers that are appropriate to that cat and put in the right places. Cats are not mature until two years old (and older in some breeds) and kittens may not know how to appropriately inhibit their claw use. That is best learned from other cats but can also be taught through positive reinforcement. I feel that kittens should not be placed with young children or the elderly in part because of thin skin.
My cat Charlotte was a rescue from the Wenatchee Humane Society. She is very aggressive towards the other cats -- chasing them, biting them in the rear end. Also, when you tell her "NO" she goes "mewor"... and slaps us with her paw or she will pounce on top of our feet. She will hiss and spit at us for no reason, even if you just say hi. She is 1 1/2 years old. We can't clip her nails or administer meds if needed because she is so strong she growls and turns and twists. Even the vet and vet tech have a hard time. We just don't want her to be mean to people and animals anymore. — Michele, Shoreline
Jim: This is a pretty serious situation, and I would really encourage you to see a behavior specialist for a more in-depth discussion and treatment of this. Your cat was clearly not socialized, with cats or humans, at some critical periods in her life. This can be corrected with some effort and care but see an expert for help.
I am interested in getting a cat but am unsure how it will respond to the other pets in the household. There are also two birds, a rabbit and a hamster. Would it be wiser to get a kitten, or not to get a cat at all? I am a big cat person but do not want to create a hostile environment for the other animals. — Todd, San Diego, Calif.
Ellen: Of course the very safest thing is to not get a cat in this situation. If you decide to try it, the next best thing would be to adopt a cat who is not interested in expending energy unnecessarily. That could mean an elderly cat or a less active breed. Or even better yet -- a cat that has already lived with other small creatures and been reliable. Sound hard to find? Probably not, as the shelters are full of wonderful adult cats who have lost their homes even though they have been perfect pets. Many cats are surrendered due to owner relocations, allergies, and any number of unfortunate human circumstances. Be sure to give the animals a very slow introduction period in which you have many chances to monitor the cat's behavior. I would keep the cat separate from the other animals whenever you are not monitoring. And always provide many escape areas for the other animals when you are around.
Why, whenever my cat uses the litter box, does she always put her two front feet on the rim of the box, back feet in the box? Always. — Katie, Seattle
Jim: Cats are very fastidious, and they are keeping as many paws as possible away from the box's, um, contents. If they get pickier with age, or the box becomes dirtier through lack of maintenance, they will stop using it altogether, a commonly reported behavior problem. So be glad she is putting at least a couple of paws in that box.
What do cats learn from humans? — Jose, Seattle
Jim: A great deal. Whatever you want to teach them? Broad question, but cats certainly can and do learn a great deal from the animals around them, and that is why so many behavior "problems" are based in inadvertent rewarding of inappropriate behavior by humans.
I'd like to know why cats always wander into the bathroom while you are in there doing your "business"? — Ruth, Port Orchard
Jim: Most likely just looking for attention, or at least keeping track of your whereabouts, while you are sitting still.
Why do my two healthy cats go through periods of licking their fur too much (creating bare patches)? — Sam, Seattle
Jim: See a veterinarian. And if you don't get a solution, see another vet, perhaps one that specializes in cats. While this could have a behavioral cause, it is more likely related to a chemical or hormonal imbalance, in my opinion.
Any suggestions on successfully changing indoor/outdoor cats into totally indoor cats? We moved our two cats into a new home, and so far I haven't let them out after about a month. They seem intrigued, but not too interested in going out. Will this last once the weather improves? I am growing their own grass indoors, and make sure to include active play time. Will this work? — Susan, Port Ludlow
Jim: Yup, sounds perfect! I would expect that they will be quite happy with the wonderful indoor world that you have put together. Forethought like yours is what prevents the problems later. Good job!
My cat sleeps on my head at night and "loves" to knead my hair. I don't mind, but just wonder why he does this? Thank you! — Toni, Renton
Ellen: The kneading is a behavior from kittenhood when the kitties knead at mom cats' nipples to get milk. As adults, many cats express this behavior at times of contentment. I would guess that accessing the hair on your head plus the heat we generate from our heads may be extra motivations for the behavior. (And the closest thing available that's something like mom cat's belly.)
Our cats often sit atop a newspaper being read or desktop papers we are focusing on. Is this a common cat behavior, and what might be the underlying (pun intended) cause? — Mark, Seattle
Jim: Ouch, great pun! OK, good pun. Attention, it almost always comes down to attention. They want it, you are not giving it, so they sit in your line-of-sight and wait patiently.
Cats are such magnificent creatures, and some day I'd like to have a job like yours. Studying cats. Where would I search for a profession in this area and how did you get started in this? — Katie Aprill-Tomlin, Seattle
Ellen: That will depend on your specific interests in cats. Physiology? Natural behaviors? Behavior management? It's best to have some general training and then specialize. Behavior management of animals has been my special interest, so in the university setting I have studied topics such as animal learning, animal motivation and a number of basic psychology topics (cognition, aggression, etc.) I have also attended many workshops and conferences related to animal behavior management and training. These can be found via training associations of other species (dogs, horse, etc).
This field is quite new, especially for cats, so finding a profession may well mean creating one for yourself.
Conducting classes and consultations is one of many potential paths.
Jim: I agree, the field is a full one, and growing more complex, but there are lot of ways to get started. A strong way to do so is to get some college-level education in biology and psychology, and then get practical experience, working with a veterinarian or animal shelter. There are certification programs now, like the one sponsored by the professional Animal Behavior Society, that can provide some guidance. Talk to people who are doing what you want to do: most of us are happy to provide advice and answer questions.
My 14-year-old female has been on a strict diet for a year and gone from 23 lbs. to 18.5 lbs. She has been at 18.5 lbs. for about five months. I am wondering how I could her interested in exercising more. Any suggestions? — Irene, Seattle
Jim: That's a pretty elderly cat, and older animals slow down a lot, so I doubt you would be able to increase her exercise very much. Play behavior, rewarded with great (but low calorie!) treats, is usually the way to do it.
I have a Maine Coon cat that continually sheds. Literature says that a weekly brushing would maintain the coat, but even with daily brushing clothes and furniture are covered. My vet didn't seem to have an answer. — Jan, Auburn
Jim: Hmmm, I am a behaviorist; don't think that I have any suggestions for this one. My advice would be to see a vet that specializes in cats. We have a few in the area.
My cat likes to move her water dish around the room. I have placed the dish in a number of different locations but it seems to not make a difference. What does this behavior mean? — Mike, Bothell
Ellen: I think your kitty has simply found something interesting to do. She sounds like she has a "busy head" and would probably have a great time learning some tricks. Check out Karen Pryor's book "Clicker Training for Cats."
I have a 2 1/2-year-old cat and a 8-month old beagle. Cat is a boy, dog is a girl. The beagle plays rough with the cat and the cat does not fight back. He will just lay there most of the time and let the dog play. The cat meows and will sometimes get upset but for the most part lets the dog go. The cat clearly does not like what the dog is doing and we stop it when the dog seems to be getting too rough. When they are together outside the dog does not rough at all and they get along better. My question is: Why does the cat just lay there and complain and not put the dog in her place? Thanks! — Kelly, Seattle
Jim: Well, in my experience, I have never known a cat that couldn't defend itself against a dog in a situation like this. They usually have very effective ways of communicating their displeasure --such as a nice set of very sharp claws or teeth. So I don't think that it's a real problem.
Our male kitten is compulsive about licking our faces in the morning. He generally waits until the alarm goes off, but then he just can't seem to get enough of it. He rushes back and forth between my husband's face and mine, purring loudly, and licking all over our faces and even sticks his tongue in our noses. What is this communicating? And why is he so compulsive about it? — Michele, Seattle
Ellen: Does this kitty by any chance have to wait in the morning for breakfast, a special treat or favorite activity in the morning? If waiting for a meal, you could try setting up a timer feeding before you need to be awakened. If it's a special treat or activity, schedule that for the evening instead. If still a problem, we'll have to dig deeper.
It would be great if you could explain this one: About once or twice a month my cat will have days where she will go into her cat box every five minutes! This usually coincides with days when she is in a generally foul mood and acts super skittish. If you look at her funny she will bolt and try and climb walls. Then it's back to the cat box. Is it PMS or something? — Eli, Seattle
Ellen: I would recommend a trip to the vet. She may be having some intermittent, early stage urinary-tract problems. This could explain her foul mood. The skittishness could be due to pain/discomfort and she doesn't understand the source so reacts to the external environment. If she checks out OK, then it may be that she needs more activity and stimulation. If you're paying attention to the fact that she is in the litter box, that could be reinforcing that part of the scene.
I've often wondered just what exactly my cat -- a Pixie Bob -- is thinking about when she's just sitting there staring off into space. It's obvious what she's thinking about when she's watching birds. But a lot of times she'll just sit and stare at me. — Darcie, Seattle
Jim: We really have no idea, and no real way to find out but all animals spend a great part of their day resting. Much of the time is spent in simply maintaining contact -- being aware of the activities of social partners and other animals in their world.
Our cat is a 3-year-old gray tabby. He talks all the time, even when he has food, water and a clean litter box. He purrs all the time and seems very happy. Is he trying to tell us something or is he just a very talkative cat? — FM, Bellevue
Jim: Just a very social cat. Vocalizations are a way of maintaining contact, just making sure everyone is there and knows where everyone else is. This kind of behavior varies widely from breed to breed and individually.
How much does nutrition play in animal behavior? I have a cat who was very aggressive and once I changed his diet, he seemed much more calm. Any thoughts on this? — Kate, Seattle
Jim: Absolutely! Diet plays an important role in behavior, and problem behaviors. When I see a case or make a house call, I ask a number of questions about diet, and diet changes are a common recommendation. We don't really know a lot about this connection in cats, a bit more in dogs, but it is a somewhat new field, even in human medicine.
Do you have any suggestions for how to prevent my cat from tearing up the corner of all of my carpets? Whenever there is a door closed in my apartment that she wants to get past, she will try and "dig" her way under the door. Sometimes I catch her and let her know it's not OK, but she keeps doing it! Thank you. — Eli, Seattle
Ellen: Letting her know it's not OK will, unfortunately, not get you very far.
It's a fair likelihood that your kitty needs something better to do with her time and energy -- something more interesting than what she is doing. Be sure her environment and schedule provide her with lots of opportunity to engage in cat activity (scratching, climbing, running, predatory play, etc.) and sensory stimulation beyond the confines of your dwelling. P>
My cat has always (more than 10 years) urinated in inappropriate places in the house, no matter how often I change the cat litter or what type of litter I use. This happens daily. The vet has found nothing wrong with her. Nothing has gotten her to stop. What can an owner do? — Mary, Seattle
Ellen: There are many possible reasons for litter box problems. Basic factors include litter box situation, medical problems and stressors. There are a number of do's and don't's with the litter box situation beyond litter type. Location factors include things like cleanliness of litter, number of cats sharing box , easy access, no sudden disturbances (e.g. laundry machine noises, small children) , easy EGRESS in case of disturbances, and a protected feeling in the location provided by a corner or overhead shelf. Most cats prefer no hoods and no pan liners.
As you have done, having a vet check is important. However, sometimes it takes more than a urine exam to uncover the problem, so a full exam including blood work may be warranted. Still you may need two or three rechecks on the urine as conditions such as urinary crystals don't always show up at one exam.
If all these factors are OK, then it's time to take a look at behavioral stressors -- and there are many possibilities there. At that point you may need help in identifying the problem and, more important, what to do about it.
One of my male cats will hold the other male cat to the floor by taking hold of the scruff of his neck with his mouth. Is this an alpha/beta thing? — Ann, Everett
Jim: Yes, this is very typical behavior among cats: you frequently see it on television documentaries about lions, tigers, and, well, even bears, for that matter. It's a very common "display" of dominance. It's not a problem unless it becomes pathological (draws blood, for instance) but rather is simply a proper way for two cats to communicate their understanding of their relative social positions.
My boyfriend was adopted by a stray cat a few months back. Overall he is a really good cat, except that he gets very aggressive sometimes. He is not neutered -- would this help? Do you have any suggestions? — Crystal, Lynnwood
Jim: Yes, neutering would probably help. I qualify this answer because when working with animals (or humans, for that matter), there are no absolute answers. But, yes, in the vast percentage of cases, neutering a male cat reduces this kind of aggressive behavior. Besides, in my opinion, it is responsible cat ownership! After that, just make sure that you (or he) are not inadvertently rewarding this behavior -- that acting aggressively doesn't get him attention (no matter how seemingly negative) when he is being otherwise ignored.
I have a roughly 4- to 5-year-old spayed female who over the past year has started urinating and pooping on the carpet and not using her box. We also have a neutered male, about a year older, and he uses the same box. We have tried all kinds of sprays and cleaners, but she still is misbehaving. Otherwise, she's a healthy, happy affectionate feline. Any clues what may be causing this and what can we do? — Valerie, SeaTac
Jim: First, make sure that you see your veterinarian, to make sure that there are no medical (veterinary?) causes for this behavior. If the cat is deemed healthy otherwise, then you need to work on litterbox issues. There is a long list of possibilities: try a new box, try different litters, try an open vs. a closed box, try cleaning the box at least daily. I would strongly encourage you to try a second box, separated by some distance from the first box. For some cats, privacy is important; for others, it might be cleanliness. And this behavior can change with age, so it's not too surprising that this might pop up later, after a long period without problems.
Resources for cat behavior
The Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) has a free cat (and dog) behavior helpline, where anyone in Washington can call for help. The phone number is 425-787-2500, ext. 605 for cats (and ext. 852 for dogs). They also have resources online for cats and dogs, where people can submit questions online. You can find these resources at www.paws.org/cas/helpline/.
How do we keep our cat from scratching the furniture? Not just ideas to protect the furniture -- but how can we try to modify her behavior? — Angie, Seattle
Jim: The trick here is to try to figure out the "Why?" Why is she scratching the furniture? Two common possibilities include attention-seeking and exercising or trimming claws. Once you have an idea about the why, the solutions become clearer: for attention-seeking, you need to realize that you are probably rewarding the behavior (scratching) with attention (however negative that attention might seem). Try paying attention to her, and intercepting her with attention as she seems to be heading for a scratching location. If it seems like exercise or claw-trimming, try placing a variety of scratching posts and devices near the furniture (it may take a variety of attempts: like humans, cats can be particular about what appeals to them). You can, at the same time as these attempts, discourage the behavior, for instance with a spray bottle of water or other noxious smells, but be sure to do this remotely, so that the cat does not connect the noxious event with you.
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