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September 22, 2017

Older Cat Adjust to New Home

Pillow, an older cat is adjusting to his new home and life. He’s the cat I inherited when my mom died recently. To help make the adjustment as stress-free as possible for him, I brought home the beds and blankets he favored at my mom’s house. Pillow is ignoring them, preferring to shoehorn himself in a small table that I converted into a cat bed. It is circular with a little wicker frame around the edges, barely big enough for him to curl up and sleep in. It also stands about 4 feet high—perfect for viewing the sunroom and the kitchen.

Pillow's new bed

Pillow’s new bed

When Pillow isn’t favoring his table-bed, he enjoys sleeping in his carrier. The carrier is always open, available to him and is complete with a comfortable towel and a favorite banana toy. Sometimes he nibbles on treats as he lounges in the carrier. As evidenced from the pictures, Pillow continues to enjoy his meals to the fullest.

Pillow loves his cat carrier

Pillow loves his cat carrier

Pillow and I have established a routine that includes hobnobbing while I eat breakfast and drink my morning coffee. He sits on a stool next to me, never begging or trying to grab my food. He is a great cat. Part of our morning ritual includes my grooming him after breakfast. When he lets me detangle and de-mat his fur without complaint, he is given special treats—making what could be traumatic into a pleasant and rewarding experience for both of us. The daily grooming sessions are becoming easier every day. Pillow, being a Maine Coon with fur that easily mats, needs to be groomed at least once a day.

Pillow has adjusted well. It is about time to start introducing him to the rest of the gang—one cat at a time. I share my home with Bengals and a large, male Savannah. Bengals and Savannahs are highly energetic cats, who love to spend their days climbing, running and playing. They are not calm, mellow cats. Pillow, a portly cat prefers napping—the exact opposite of my other resident cats.

Jenniyha loves to play

Jenniyha loves to leap and play

Although I live with more than one cat, I will concentrate on introducing Pillow to Sudan, my male Savannah. Sudan will have the most difficulty adjusting to a having another male cat in the household. Because the Bengal girls will be a little easier to integrate with Pillow they will meet him after he is introduced to Sudan.

Portrait of Sudan, my Savannah Cat

Sudan, my Savannah Cat

A four phase approach

I will introduce Pillow and Sudan to each other in as stress free way as possible, following the four-phase approach detailed in my book Naughty No More!.The two cats will be encouraged to share mutually enjoyable experiences while they remain separated from each other. Although this may sound a bit strange, cats can start to build relationships without meeting face-to-face.

During the first three phases of the introduction, the cats will be kept separated from each other, Pillow in the sunroom and kitchen, while Sudan and the girls stay in the hall, office and bedrooms. They will only be allowed to switch rooms during the last phase of the introductions.

Cat pheromones

The first step will involve building social skills through doing scent exchanges and basic clicker training. Cats have scent glands on different parts of their body that produce pheromones—some are friendlier then others. The pheromones that are produced by the sebaceous glands on cat cheeks, are sometimes referred to as the friendly pheromones. Cats often say hello by approaching their fave people and rubbing their cheeks and head on them, marking them with their scent. I will use these friendly pheromones, along with clicker training, to encourage good will between Sudan and Pillow.

Clicker training—not just a dog thing

Clicker training is not just for the dogs—it is for all animals, no matter the species. It is a reward-based training technique that has its roots in classical and operant conditioning. Clicker training is based on the premise that animals will repeat behaviors when their actions are immediately reinforced.

It is easy to clicker train cats. Two essential tools are needed—the first is something that the cats love. In clicker-speak, this is called a primary reinforcer. Both Pillow and Sudan are very food motivated, they live for treats. The second tool is a device that always does the same thing whenever it is activated. This will become the secondary reinforcer. I use an iClick clicker. If one of the cats had hearing challenges, I would have used a quick flash from a flashlight as the secondary reinforcer.

iClick clicker

iClick clicker

After assembling the tools, my next step was to pair the treat with the click so that Pillow would have a positive association with the sound. After the click is paired with the treat, it will become a powerful communication tool that will let the cat know when he is doing a desired behavior. Since Sudan was already a pro with the clicker, I focused on training Pillow.

Pillow was a fast learner. It was easy to pair the click with a treat. I started by clicking once and then immediately giving him a treat. After he inhaled the treat, he looked up at me and I repeated the process, clicking and treating him again. It took ten repetitions until Pillow made the connection between the click and the treat. Years ago, when Sudan was introduced to clicker training, he made the connection between the click and the treat after the fifth repetition. The sound of the clicker is now a powerful communication tool for both cats—alerting them the instance they are doing a desired behavior.

The three of us are ready to start phase I of the introductions.

Help for cat behavior problems is available

For help introducing cats to each other, as well as other cat behavior challenges, contact Marilyn to discuss scheduling a consultation.

 

Myths about Cats and Cat Behavior

Myths and misconceptions have been spun about cats ever since people started sharing their world with them. Some paint cats as mysterious, others put them in league with the devil. Different factors shaped these inaccurate beliefs—one of the strongest contributors to these myths is that people have found cats and their behaviors puzzling. Many of these erroneous beliefs persist today. Unfortunately, some are harmful and life threatening for cats.

Four of these misconceptions I frequently encounter are:

Cat behaviors can’t be changed

“I used to have a cat, but he peed on the furniture so he had to go”.

Many people believe that once a cat is repeatedly displaying an unwanted behavior, the behavior can’t be stopped. This is a dangerous myth because the consequences include surrendering cats to shelters, abandoning and euthanizing them for fixable behavior problems.

Although some behavior challenges are unpleasant to live with, they can be resolved through a combination of addressing the reasons for the behavior, behavior modification and by making changes to the environment. This is what I do.

Cats can’t be trained

 “No way can cats be trained like we trained our dog!”

The concept that a cat can open his carrier door, go in and close it behind him is often met with eye rolls and heads shaken in disbelief. Many people usually stare in blank befuddlement when told that cats can be trained to do tricks such as shaking hands and jumping through hoops—tricks acceptable and expected from dogs. These folks mistakenly think cats do whatever they want, only when they want and that they cannot be trained. Popular quotes support their misguided beliefs. “Dogs have owners, cats have staff”. “Cats take a message and get back to you”. Although, these idioms may sound catchy and cute, they perpetuate the stereotype that cats are un-trainable.


Cats, like all animals, are trainable. Clicker training, a scientific and force-free method is a popular and effective training technique. Felines can be easily trained to do many of the same tricks dogs are taught to do, such as sitting, shaking hands, playing dead and jumping through hoops. An added benefit is that clicker training is fun for both the learner and the teacher. It’s also a great tool for helping to resolve behavior challenges such as fearful behaviors, furniture scratching, counter surfing as well as many other troublesome behaviors. My book, Naughty No More! details how to use clicker training in conjunction with other force-free methods to solve behavior problems and teach tricks.

Cats are independent and self-contained

“My cat can be alone for a couple of days. I’ll leave enough food for him to eat while I’m gone”. 

There is a widely held belief that cats are self-sufficient and can fend for themselves. The results of this fallacious assumption include cats left to fend for themselves while their people enjoy a holiday away from home as well as being left alone for hours every day without the benefit of a companion or environmental enrichment.

Often cats are chosen as companions over dogs because they are said to be more self-contained and require less maintenance then dogs. To a small degree that is correct. Cats don’t need to be walked and they spend a good portion of their day napping. They are also proficient litter box users.  Regardless of the differences, they still need fresh food and water every day and their litter boxes need to be scooped minimally once a day. Additionally, cats need companionship and mental stimulation. Leaving them alone while on holiday or for hours every day with nothing to do and no one to socialize with can lead to depression, obesity and destructive behaviors.

Cats need privacy

“I spent $500 on a painted designer litter box cabinet. It functions beautifully as a side table and hides the cat box!”

Myths about cats and cat behavior

Litter box hidden in a cabinet

Litter boxes are often placed in cabinets, closets and other out-of-sight areas because people are under the impression that cats need privacy when they go to the bathroom. These may seem like ideal locations for litter boxes because they are out of the way, hidden from view and private. Although this might be a perfect solution for people, it’s not for cats. They have a different perspective on ideal places to eliminate. Often what is perfect from a cat’s viewpoint clashes with their people’s preferences for litter box placements.

Survival and safety take priority over privacy any day. Cats prefer eliminating in areas where they can’t be potentially trapped or ambushed by another animal. Cabinets and closets are perfect set ups for ambush. The types of boxes make a difference too. In addition to the trap potential, covered boxes retain unappealing odors.

An ideal location for a litter box is against the wall in a large room—not in a cabinet or enclosed in a closet. The view from the litter box should be expansive. The cat needs to see the whole room, out the door and down the hall (if there is one). A box with a view is perfect for identifying any potential threat which can then easily be escape from. Litter boxes should not be placed in high traffic areas or areas with lots of noise and activity. Although cats aren’t into privacy like people are, they do not want to do their business in high traffic areas either.

Help for Cat Behavior Challenges is Available

For help with cat behavior challenges, contact Marilyn to discuss scheduling a consultation.

 

Change Unwanted Cat Behaviors

12.30.12 Too many cats are surrendered to shelters and euthanized for fixable behavior problems. Behaviors can be changed through environmental and behavior modifications along with other force-free methods. A certified cat behavior consultant can identify the behavior triggers and develop an effective plan.

The Problems with Laser Pointers

Play!

No. Well maybe… there are exceptions.

As a general rule, I recommend against using laser pointers when playing with cats. I don’t like them because they frustrate cats. Cats need to catch their prey, to have the satisfaction of feeling their hard earned prize beneath their paws.  Because cats can’t catch the elusive beam of light, it leaves them frustrated. I usually encourage people to avoid laser pointers; there are so many other exciting toys to use. But, sometimes there are situations when laser pointers are the only way cats can be played with. It’s either laser play or no play.

The best way to play with a cat is to mimic hunting by dragging the toy away from or across the line of vision of the cat. Pole type toys are perfect for this. Unfortunately, some people may find it difficult or impossible to drag the toy or flick it in the air. Their movements may be restricted for a variety of reasons, including physical challenges, or they may be living in a small crowded space. People still want to play with their cats and cats need to play. In these circumstances, laser pointers may be the best tool for the job.

Laser pointers can be played with in a way that minimizes the cat’s frustration while still mimicking the hunt. In addition to the laser pointer, soft toys and coveted cat food need to be recruited for the job.  The toys are placed strategically in the play area so that the cat will be able to “catch” the prey. Food is at the ready.  Using a variation of Pam Johnson-Bennett’s hunt/play technique, play by aiming the beam in front of the cat and zigzag it away from her. Periodically, let the cat “catch” the beam by resting it on one of the stuffed animals that is doubling as prey. The cat should be able to feel the toy solidly under her paws before moving the beam away.  Although the length and intensity of play sessions vary, don’t end abruptly. Slow the beam down until it lands on the final catch of the session. Immediately feed the cat. She will eat, groom and then take a nap.

Considerations

  • Care must be taken to play within the cat’s limitations. Consider the age, health and general condition of the cat. Play should be fun, not painful.
  • Laser beams should never be shined in the eyes of cats or any other animal who happens to be hanging around.

Cat Litter Boxes: Locations Matter

Poor litter box location

Tucked away in a cabinet, behind the laundry room door—this may seem like an ideal location for a litter box. It is out of the way, hidden from view, odors are contained and it’s private. Although this might be a perfect solution for people, it’s not for cats.

Survival and safety take priority over privacy. Cats need to go to the bathroom in locations where they can’t potentially be trapped by another animal. They also don’t want to eliminate in enclosed areas that retain odors and most cats don’t respond well when startled by sudden noises such as cycling washers and dryers.

 

What’s wrong with this picture?
Everything is wrong with the location of this litter box. It may work for the cat’s people, but not for the cat. The box being located in a cabinet has two fundamental problems. Cabinets retain odors. Even though this box is scooped every day, the smells remain in the cabinet. People can’t smell the odors, but the cat can. Because a cat has a highly develop sense of smell, they often avoid litter boxes that smell offensive to them.

Everything about the location of this litter box screams ambush and is a set up for the cat to be trapped by another animal. In addition to potentially being waylayed in the cabinet, the cat can be cornered behind the door. Furthermore, because the cat can’t see around the door, he can’t see any threats that he may need to escape from. Cats do not want to be in situations where they can be trapped or ambushed.

In addition to the potential of being trapped, laundry rooms are notorious for sudden noises. The sounds of cycling washers and dryers can startle cats—another factor influencing the cat to find a safer place to eliminate.

Ideal Litter Box Location
An ideal location for a litter box is against the wall in a large room. The box should not be in a cabinet or enclosed in a closet. The view from the box needs to be expansive—the whole room, out the door and down the hall (if there is one). A box with a view lets the cat identify any potential threat which he can easily escape from. Litter boxes should not be placed in high traffic areas or areas with lots of noise and activity. Although cats aren’t as into privacy as people are, they do not want to do their business in high profile areas either.

Some people may not want to put litter boxes in those areas that are perfect for cats. Litter boxes do not need to be the focal point of a room. They can be placed in spots that are both unobtrusive to people and appealing to cats. Litter box placement can make the difference between a cat faithfully eliminating in the litter box and one who avoids it.

 

Every Month is Senior Cat Month

Maulee helping me write

I love senior cats. OK, I love all cats, but there is something special about senior cats. Maybe it’s their grey-around-the-whiskers-look or their fragility, maybe it’s the purr. I don’t know, there is just something very special about elderly cats.

Maulee is my special senior cat. She is overseeing today’s blog entry about senior cats. This isn’t unusual, because she loves to keep herself warm, napping on the hot modem next to my monitor when I write. Maulee is an 18.5 year old Bengal Cat who is in relatively good health. Although she still loves to play, napping next to me is probably her second favorite activity—eating is her first. She is a food hound.

We share a special bond. Although I am bonded with all of my cats, the bonds Maulee and I have are different. She is constantly at my side, on my lap or napping next to my monitor. She prefers purring, chortling and talking to me over wandering the house and interacting with her younger cat companions.

Like many senior cats, Maulee occasionally has cognitive challenges. Sometimes, late at night she finds herself lost and confused in the house. I know, because she will start howling and screaming for me to help her. I will follow the calls and find her sitting, facing a corner yowling. Other times she’s standing in the middle of a room. Her calls of distress, although heart wrenching, quickly change to purrs and nose kisses when I sweep down, pick her up and carry her into the bedroom.

Maulee’s cognitive challenges have dramatically decreased since I made a few changes. The first two involve changes to the environment, the third increases mental stimulation. I am limiting the areas she and her cat buddies can go at night. Hall doors are closed—keeping the cats in the back of the house. The area they can roam is still large, but now all of the cats are more inclined to sleep in my bedroom. I have also increased the number of night lights around the house. Although, these two simple environmental changes have helped Maulee, I found that using clicker training to mentally stimulate her has vastly improved her cognitive state.

Yes! You can teach an old cat new tricks

At twelve years of age, Maulee was no spring chicken when her clicker training career started. She quickly caught on to the concept and became my clicker star. When Animal Planet’s Cats 101 filmed her for their Bengal and clicker training segment she was 17.5 years of age. Before the show she had never jumped through hoops. It took her only five minutes to learn the new trick. Just because a cat is a senior, doesn’t mean the cat can’t learn new things. Maulee is proof.

Clicker training is more than teaching tricks. Since increasing the frequency of Maulee’s clicker training sessions, I’ve noticed a decrease in cognitive challenges. She hasn’t gotten lost in a corner in many months and our nights haven’t been interrupted by her howls of distress.  I have also observed that Maulee is more alert, interacts and plays a little more with the younger cats. Clicker training is mentally stimulating. Maulee is thinking through problems. She is highly food motivated and likes to figure out what she needs to do in order for me to click that clicker and toss her a coveted treat. Clicker training is one of her favorite activities. I know because she purrs and chortles throughout the sessions. Clicker training is helping to keep her young in mind and spirit.

November is Senior Cat Month. Every month is senior cat month—every day senior cat day. If you are looking for a new cat companion, I urge you to adopt a senior cat. Just because they are old, doesn’t mean they don’t have many fulfilling years ahead of them. Look at my Maulee—18.5 years young.

Maulee sometimes enjoys napping on her back

Making Sense of Scent

Scent exchange

Maulee checking out a sock that has another cat's scent on it

Cats have an acute sense of smell. Scent is one of the ways that they relate and understand their environment. Scents can make or break new relationships. I preach scent exchanges when introducing cats to each other. Scent exchanges can either encourage friendships, or if forced upon cats can lead to violence and stress.

There are some sources on the internet that counsel forced scent exchanges by applying the scent of one cat directly on another when introducing a new cat to the resident cat or when working with inter-cat aggression.  I highly recommend not exchanging scents in this fashion. Doing so can stress the cat wearing the other’s scent and result in their hating or fearing each other—they cannot retreat away from the other’s scent. There is a more peaceful way of conducting scent exchanges. Instead of forced scent exchanges, gently pet each cat’s cheek with a different sock or soft towel and then put the scented towels or socks in the other’s confinement area, while the cats remain separated from each other. That way the cats have the choice of checking it out on their own schedule. If the cats don’t feel secure to venture near the scent-laced objects, then they don’t have to. They can wait until the smell dissipates in strength and then investigate it. It’s about choice. And it’s about reducing stress.

Not only does this pertain to cat scents, but also to calming collars and scents that well-meaning people sometimes put on their cats. Cats often find the scents and calming collars annoying or threatening but have no way of escaping them since they are wearing them.