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September 22, 2017

Cat Behavior and Medical Issues

03.01.15 Cats need to be examined by veterinarians whenever their behavior changes or they have behavior issues. Felines are subtle—sometimes the only indications of medical problems or injuries are changes in behavior. Elimination issues, aggression as well as other behavior challenges can be caused by painful and sometimes serious diseases, injuries and chronic conditions. Even subtle changes in behavior need to be checked out.

Cats need to be examined by a veterinarian when they display changes in behavior.

Cats need to be examined by a veterinarian when they display changes in behavior. by Shutterstock.

For lively discussions about cats and cat behavior, please check out The Cat Coach on Facebook

Tips for Adding Vertical Territory for Cats

Let’s Get Vertical!

Cats need vertical territory. The term “vertical territory” is a catchall phrase that describes the high places cats climb and jump up too. It takes many forms—commercial and homemade. You do not have to go in debt in order to give your cats high places to hang out. You can make your own or use household furniture and architectural elements that are already built into your home. Armoires, bookshelves and the tops of entertainment centers are perfect places for cats to lounge and nap. Architectural elements such as beams and windows with wide sills can also double as vertical territory. Other solutions include readymade cat furniture such as cat trees, condos and shelves.

Tips for adding vertical territory. Great example of vertical territory

Example of good vertical territory

Vertical territory (VT) serves many functions for cats. It helps them feel safe, secure and entertained. From up high, cats can survey their world, picking out a stray morsel of food, watch the goings on in their homes and they can observe other resident animals who may pose a threat to them.

VT is one of a few ways cats show their position in their changing hierarchy. Cats are into time and room sharing. One cat might occupy the top shelf of a cat tree during the morning, another at night, while another surveys her world from up high in another room. Many factors determine where cats sit in relationship to each other. It can be as subtle as a change in room temperature, a favorite persons’ presence, the arrival of food or it may be that one cat is feeling a bit under the weather. VT helps keep the peace.  For more details about why cats need VT, check out: Being High is Good. Vertical Territory Matters.

Tips for adding vertical territory. My cat playing in his cat tree

My cat, Sudan, playing in his cat tree

Not all vertical territory is created equal: tips for adding vertical territory

Some VT solutions are perfect—others not so much. Consider these five points when buying or building cat furniture:

  1. Stability. Cat furniture needs to be stable and should not have the wobbles. If it wobbles, stabilize it with extra hardware.
  2. Shelf size matters. Shelves and perches should be large enough to accommodate 1-2 cats. Kitties like to have the option of stretching out and lounging. Many delight in sharing a shelf with a buddy, especially on a cold day when they snuggle together for warmth.
  3. Check shelving surfaces. Although some creative interpretations of cat furniture are beautiful to look at, they may not be ideal for cats. Some have perches finished with a slick varnish. Cats can slip and fall when jumping up on them. Additionally, many cats find hard surfaces uncomfortable for napping. Make the slick surfaces comfortable and slip-free by firmly securing sisal, cat beds or other material to them.
  4. Keep it safe. Rambunctious cats can cause shelves to crash to the floor and cat trees to topple. Make them safe by securing shelves to the wall with substantial brackets and by attaching stabilizing pieces of plywood to the bases of unstable cat trees.
  5. Think accessibility. Cats who have special needs and those who are not quite as agile as they once were may find it difficult to navigate tall cat furniture. Help them access the tops by giving them furniture that has shelves down low they can easily reach. The lower shelves will help the special kitties safely climb to the higher perches. Pet stairs and chairs, placed next to the furniture, will also help them enjoy hanging out on cat trees and shelves.

Don’t skimp on vertical territory. More is more—your cat will thank you for it.

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More information on how to keep cats happy is found in Marilyn’s book Naughty No More!

 

Cat Introductions: Pillow and Sudan

The stage was set and it was time to start the cat introductions– introducing Pillow to Sudan, through a combination of clicker training, management and environmental changes. Since Sudan does not like other cats, except the ones he grew up with, the introductions between the two cats needed to be slow and gradual. The good news is that my other cats, Maulee, Olivia and Jinniyha were already playing and interacting with Pillow under the door.

Hello

One month ago we started the first phase of the four-phase cat introduction process. Phase one used scent exchanges combined with clicker training to help develop a friendly or at least a tolerable relationship. Both cats were already clicker-savvy—having a positive association with the sound of the clicker.

Cat introductions & scent exchanges

Cat Introductions: Clicker, towels and treats

Clicker, towels and treats

I focused on the pheromones secreted by sebaceous glands on cat cheeks. These are sometimes referred to as “the friendly pheromones”. They can help promote a remote, but friendly relationship

All of the necessary tools were assembled: soft towels, a clicker and treats. I conducted the scent-exchange exercises twice a day—once in the morning and then again at the end of the day.

 

I began the exchange by gently petting Sudan’s cheek with a towel. Taking the second clean towel, I stroked Pillow on his cheek. The towel with Pillow’s pheromones was placed in the hall where Sudan hangs out and then I placed the towel with Sudan’s scent on it in the sun room.

Cat introductions: petting Sudan's cheek with a towel

Petting Sudan’s Cheek with a Towel

Sudan immediately went over to investigate the towel. Since he did not display any stress or fractiousness towards Pillow’s scent, I clicked and tossed him a treat. I aimed the treat so that it landed about six inches away from the towel. After he ate the treat he checked out the towel again. I waited a couple of seconds while he explored it and then clicked and treated him again. There were no signs of anxiety or aggression. I am always very alert for these signals.

Cat introductions in a stress free fashion

Sudan checking out the towel

After a few cycles I focused on Pillow who had picked up the towel and carried it over to his table-bed. Of course he was reinforced with a click and a treat.

I repeated the scent exchanges twice a day, each time with a fresh towel. Both cats responded positively to the scents on the towels. Sudan became very attached to the newly-Pillow-scented towels, rolling on them immediately after they were placed on the floor.

Usually, after one-two weeks of positive responses the second phase of the introductions can start. Because of Sudan’s reluctance to accept other cats, I extended the pheromone exchanges to one month.

A serious setback

Cat Introductions: Sudan darts through the door

Sudan

The first phase was progressing nicely, but then two weeks ago, a friend of mine accidentally opened the door to the sun room. Sudan, waiting for the opportunity, darted under his legs into Pillow’s room. My friend yelled, startling Sudan. The Maine Coon was sun bathing when Sudan spotted him and ran at him. He first gave Pillow a nose touch and then immediately launched himself at the unsuspecting cat. Although it was an aggressive attack, neither cat was injured.

This is not a good sign. I am not sure if Sudan will ever tolerate another male cat in his territory.

Help for cat behavior problems is available

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

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.

 

Shy Cat Tip: The Power of Food

05.26.13 Encourage the shy cat to overcome shyness by ensuring that fun, positive things always happen when you are around him. Armed with treats the cat adores, give him a small treat whenever you see him. Instead of free-feeding, feed multiple meals a day.

“My Cat’s Story” Video Contest Winner Announced!

The wait is over!

We loved checking out all of the videos that were submitted for our contest. It truly was heart-warming to see the bonds people have with their cats.

We are excited to announce the winner of the “My Cat’s Story” video contest. It was a tough decision because the judges had some wonderful submissions. It was so heartwarming to see the relationships the entrants had with their cats and how lives have changed with love.

The judges, Pam Johnson-Bennett , Marilyn Krieger and Steve Dale, all certified cat behavior consultants, felt the winner best showcased the relationship she has with her cat and the change in the cat’s behavior. The judges also wanted to highlight the two runners-up because they also did an awesome job of presenting their cats’ stories.

The winner will receive a $150 pre-paid VISA gift card, an autographed copy of THINK LIKE A CAT by Pam Johnson-Bennett, an autographed copy of NAUGHTY NO MORE by Marilyn Krieger, and the e-book GOOD CAT by Steve Dale. Additionally, the winner will appear in the TICA Trend magazine and also be featured in Bengals Illustrated.

The “My Cat’s Story” Winner is Lana Lingan and her cat, Handsome. Congratulations, Lana!

Judges’ Comments: We liked the story about Lana and Handsome because it clearly showed how Lana was able to transform a scared cat who was abandoned into a sweet, affectionate cat. Lana let the cat progress at his own pace, never forcing him, always encouraging him. We loved seeing the bonds that the two share. Clearly they enhance each others lives.

We had two runners-up who also shared their wonderful stories of how love, patience and understanding were rewarded with a strengthened bond with their cats and positive changes in behavior. Congratulations to both runners-up. We hope you enjoy their stories.

Runner-up Andrea Dorn and her cat, Mewdy Blue. Congratulations, Andrea.

Judges’ Comments: We like this video because not only did it showcase how an outdoor-loving cat can be transitioned to a fulfilled and enriched indoor life, it also shows how cats are very trainable. It was also heartwarming to see the strong bond Andrea and Mewdy Blue clearly have.

Runner-up Jason Girouard and his cat, Millie. Congratulations, Jason!

Judges’ Comments:
We were impressed with the dedication and patience that Jason and his family showed toward saving and socializing this young kitten who grew into a very loved member of the family.

A big thank you to everyone who spent the time and effort to enter our contest. We are very pleased!

 

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.

 

Hiding Places

02.10.13 In addition to high places to climb, cats enjoy places to hide. Most cats like hanging out in tunnels, igloos and paper bags with no handles.  One homemade solution is to cut large circles in the bottom and sides of a few boxes and then firmly secure them to each other—creating a tunnel with 3 or 4 access points (bottom, two sides and possible the top).

High Places

02.03.13  Cats need vertical territory (VT)—high places to climb and hang out on. You don’t have to spend a fortune on cat condos. Architectural elements, window perches, shelves, tops of refrigerators and cabinets, armoires and other household furniture, can all become part of the VT solution.

Emotional Lives of Cats: Separation Anxiety

Cats can become depressed and/or develop unwanted behaviors when they are separated from bonded companions. Their cat-parents may be on vacation or spending long hours every day away from home. College, a new job, divorce as well as other life changing events that take people away from their homes can cause cats anxiety and depression. Being separated for an extended time from a bonded-someone can be problematic for sensitive cats, resulting in unwanted and sometimes destructive behaviors.

There is a large range of behaviors associated with separation anxiety. These include litter box aversion, destructive chewing, over-grooming and other OCD behaviors. Aggressions, hiding and lethargy can also indicate that cats are experiencing separation anxiety. And, cats aren’t the only ones affected—cat parents often become frustrated and stressed by their cats’ behaviors.  Unfortunately, this can weaken the relationship between people and their cats—causing more stress and escalating the behaviors.

There is hope!

The good news is that these troubled cats can be helped to feel secure in their world through specific activities and changes to the environment.

  • Scent. A special companion’s scent can help cats feel they haven’t been abandoned. An article of clothing worn by the cat’s person can be placed on the cat’s favorite sleeping area, just before the person leaves for the day. This also works for travelers. Before the favored human leaves for an extended time, articles of clothing with their scent on them should be placed in separate, sealed plastic bags—one for each day spent away. Every day, the cat sitter places a fresh article of scent-laced clothing where the cat sleeps.
  • Sound. A favored person’s voice can help calm cats when they are left alone for an extended time. Weird and crazy as it may sound, some people call their cats every day and leave messages on their voice recorders for them. This of course, only works with land lines and answering machines. Digital recordings can also be made, played by the cat sitter, or timed to self-activate at specific times on a computer. A radio tuned to a talk program or a soft classical music station can also help calm cats.
  • Environmental enrichment. Providing cats with mental and physical stimulation can reduce stress and anxiety. Interactive toys such as ball and tract toys, puzzle boxes and treat balls can keep your cat engaged and focused.  Cats also need vertical territory—tall cat trees, shelves and window perches to climb and nap on. Vertical territory, when placed next to secure windows keeps cats entertained with the goings-on in the neighborhood.
  • A friend. Some people think that adopting another cat will help resolve their cats’ separation anxieties. Sometimes bringing a new cat friend home can ease the situation but it can also horribly backfire—causing the resident cat to become more stressed and unhappy. Every cat is an individual, with his and her own distinct personality and likes and dislikes. Some cats do well and thrive with a new cat buddy, others do not. Cats who have a history of enjoying the company of other cats are more likely to adjust to a new addition after they are gradually introduced to each other.

This is a brief list. There are many other force-free methods and activities that can help relieve cat’s stress and anxieties. Depending on the situation, the people and the cats, some of these suggestions are more effective than others.  A good, certified, science-based cat behaviorist can help formulate a plan that will reduce and eliminate stress and anxieties.