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November 12, 2019

When Cats Grieve

The whole family suffers when a beloved companion animal dies. People aren’t the only ones who grieve—other household animals often miss and grieve their absent friend.

Cats can become depressed and anxious when a companion they were bonded to dies or is separated from them. The companion can be another cat, dog or a person they were strongly attached to. The ways they express their grief as well as the depth varies with individual cats—some are deeply affected by their friend’s passing; others process the loss easily and quickly.

Grieving can be serious

Grieving cats need to be monitored. Although it doesn’t happen often, cats can become so deeply affected by their friend’s passing they stop eating.  Cats refusing to eat need to be seen immediately by a veterinarian.

Grieving is stressful and stress can compromise the immune system, making cats susceptible to illness. Change is also stressful and should be kept to a minimum. If possible, wait until the cat has finished grieving before making major changes such as remodeling, moving or adopting another animal.

Grief Counseling for Cats

Routines, schedules and consistency help reduce stress and ease cats through their grief. Those who enjoy being groomed will appreciate gentle brushings every day at the same time. Meals should be served on a schedule as well. Treasure hunts are helpful for those who love treats. Hide coveted treats around the house, on shelves and in toys, on cat trees and scratchers. The best times to do treasure hunts are just before leaving the house for work and at night, before bed.

Petting and cuddling will help cats who enjoy interacting with people adjust quicker to their loss. They aren’t the only ones who benefit from the one on one time—these shared, sweet moments between people and their cats will also help people process their grief.

New cat toys can help them through stressful times. Puzzle boxes and ball and tract toys double as hiding places for treats when conducting treasure hunts. Sometimes cats who show no interest in playing can be inspired to play by dipping toys in a sodium/spice-free meat broth.

Scratching appropriate objects can help reduce feelings of anxiousness and stress. Sturdy scratching posts and horizontal scratchers should be placed throughout the home for the cats to scratch. In addition to nail maintenance, they scratch to mark territory and when they are conflicted and stressed. Grieving is stressful.

The whole family is affected when a loved companion animal dies. Cats aren’t the only household members who grieve. Recovery should be a shared journey of healing for everyone touched by the loss.

 

Goodbye my Sweet Kingsley

RIP Kingsley Krieger

RIP Kingsley Krieger

I am very sad today. In about one hour I will be leaving for the veterinarian, taking Kingsley, my lovely, sweet cat to the vet one last time. He won’t be coming home. I am sad and weepy. It has to be this way. Kingsley has lymphoma. The disease has progressed quickly—it’s now time for me to help him over the bridge. I will miss my Kingsley and his calming purr.

This is the last precious gift I can give him—releasing him from the ravages of cancer.

I apologize for not blogging until now. After Kingsley was diagnosed on September 17th, I wrote the following blog, and had intended to post it. That didn’t happen. I’m posting it now, before I help Kingsley pass over.

Is it behavioral or medical?

Sometimes what seems like a behavior problem originates from a medical issue. It can be very hard for people to recognize when their cats are ill or in pain. Often, the only hints cats give are through changes in their behavior. Some of these changes are very subtle—others manifest themselves as severe behavior issues. When cats have sudden changes in behavior, even when the changes are subtle, they should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Even a small change in a behavior can indicate a serious problem and should be taken seriously. Doing so can save the cat’s life and can help eliminate unnecessary pain.

I Follow My Own Advice

I knew something was not right with Kingsley. The change was subtle. For the last 7 years Kingsley’s has taken naps with me, curled up in the crook of my arm, purring softly. I love that purr. A few weeks ago he stopped napping with me, favoring instead a desk with a flat, uncluttered surface. This subtle change in his habits was my first indication that there was something seriously wrong with him.

I took him to our favorite vet. He was diagnosed with lymphoma.

 

Ninja Kitten! Play Aggression

Today I met an adorable kitten—a 12 week old orange fluff ball, appropriately named Fluffer, who had been adopted when she was 8 weeks old. This tiny little ball of fur was terrorizing her adoring humans, biting and scratching whenever she wanted to play. According to the sleep-deprived cat parents, the only down time they got was when the kitten ate and eliminated. They were desperate for help and asked me to come to their home.

I was greeted at the door by Brittany and her frustrated mother, Anne. In the middle of the room Christopher, Anne’s husband, laughed and giggled as he delighted in playing with Fluffer, rolling the kitten on her back and petting her irresistible tummy. I watched for a few minutes as Christopher hid his hand under a newspaper, moving his fingers, encouraging Fluffer to stalk and pounce.

According to Anne and Christopher, Fluffer stalked and attacked at every opportunity. The time of day or the circumstances didn’t matter—when Fluffer wanted attention, she jumped, attacked and then bit. Usually she didn’t break skin, but occasionally she did. The problem, instead of getting better had worsened. Christopher admitted that when Fluffer went into attack mode, he usually responded by roughhousing with her.

I wondered if Christopher would be willing to change the way he related to Fluffer.

90% Human Behavior; 10% Kitten

It is natural for kittens to play intensely. Although play is fun it is also serious business. Kittens learn important survival and social skills when they play. Play also helps kittens develop coordination.

Kittens are little sponges when it comes to learning—they have to be in order to survive in a hostile world. Like all animals, one way they learn is by repeating behaviors when the behaviors are rewarded. Christopher reinforced Fluffer’s biting by using his hands when playing with the kitten. He also encouraged the kitten to grab and bite him during play—rewarding the kitten with attention when she attacked. Fluffer, being a bright kitten, assumed that biting was acceptable so now whenever she wants to interact with her favorite people she does what works—biting.

Brittany caught on right way. She thought a possible solution would be re-homing her dad so that he wouldn’t roughhouse with Fluffer anymore. Brittany wanted a kitten she could snuggle and cuddle with, not a Ninja kitten who pounced and attempted to kill anything that moved.

Changing Behaviors

The kitten’s behavior can be changed, but everyone in the household has to be on board—modifying how they interact with Fluffer. Christopher has to stop using his hands when playing with the kitten and he needs to resist roughhousing with her. His task is to learn how to play; using pole type toys and other interactive play items instead of his hands.

Time outs will also help change Fluffer’s behavior. Whenever she becomes over-stimulated or solicits attention through biting, Fluffer’s victim needs to stand up and leave the room without interacting with her. Time outs are short; a few seconds are usually all that is needed. Fluffer will quickly learn that when she bites and attacks, her favorite playmates disappear.

Everyone in the household promised they would do their part—changing the way they played with the kitten. Brittany could now look forward to stashing the first aid kit in the cabinet and safely snuggling with her little kitten.

Cat Carrier Trauma! Trips to the Veterinarian

Many cats and their favorite people view cat carriers with trepidation. As soon as the carrier looms into view the cats hastily retreat as far away as possible, usually securing themselves in hard to reach places. A typical scenario is one where stressed cat parents risk injury while chasing, cornering and then depositing their cat kicking and screaming into the carrier. Because of traumatic carrier experiences, many cats do not benefit from being examined by their veterinarians on a regular basis.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of a place to avoid, the carrier can become fun for your cat—a place where the cat enjoys playing, napping and eating favorite treats.

Plan ahead!

Start changing your cat’s fearful feelings about her carrier several weeks before the visit to her veterinarian. The best carrier for the job is a hard carrier because it can be easily taken apart both at home and at the vet clinic.

Typically carriers are stashed out of the way in between the dreaded visits to the vet. This isn’t the best tactic since it doesn’t take long for the cat to figure out that when the carrier appears something bad is about to happen. A less stressful approach is to permanently place the carrier in an area the cat hangs out in. That way the carrier becomes a fixture in the environment and with encouragement, a place to sleep, play and eat treats.

Influence your cat to change her fearful association of the carrier through activities she enjoys. If she loves playing, drag her favorite toys over the carrier or toss them in for her to chase. If she adores treats, place them in the carrier.

Scent can also help her view the carrier as a non-threatening place to hang out. Pet her with a soft towel and then place the towel in the carrier. Placing a towel or article of clothing that is saturated with the cat’s favorite person’s scent will also help change her perception of the carrier.

Whenever the cat chooses to go into the carrier on her own she should be reinforced with something that she loves. If she loves treats, then give her a favorite treat. If she enjoys a little loving, then pet and stroke her when she is relaxing in the carrier.

Cats are individuals—some change their feelings about cat carriers in about a week. Others require a few weeks or a couple of months until they do not have a fearful association with their carriers.  Clicker training also helps speed up the process. There is a chapter in my book Naughty No More! that focuses on using clicker training along with other force-free methods to help cats improve their relationship with their carriers and veterinarians.

Maulee enjoys napping in her carrier

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 Fix

Last week I took three days off and went on a mini-vacation with my mother, sister and my mother’s dog. We chose to vacation in one of our favorite towns, Carmel, California. I seldom take vacations. Why should I? I love what I do—I have the best job in the world. I meet lots of fabulous cats and their people and help solve cat behavior problems. The downside of taking vacations, even a mini-vacation is that it takes me away from cats—mine and my clients.

Carmel is the perfect place for a vacation, especially if you love dogs. Many restaurants have seating areas for dogs and their people. The Cypress Inn even hosts a Yappy Hour. People and their dogs can congregate every evening at 4:30 for drinks, appetizers, dog biscuits and dog talk. The Carmel City Beach is another perfect gathering place for dogs and their people. Dogs can cavort and run off leash while their people hobnob, mostly about dogs.

Dogs are fine, but they aren’t cats.

Although Carmel is dog centric, many hotels welcome cats as well. My mother chose well. She found the Carmel Country Inn. In addition to being a really nice place to stay, the inn accommodates both cats and dogs.  Even better, they have their own resident cat Tescher who has his own blog . Tescher Cat is the official greeter at the inn. I immediately bonded with him, but I’m not unique. Tescher is the type of cat who bonds with anyone who gently pets him or picks him up. One of Tescher’s jobs is to provide a cat fix for those visitors who miss their cats at home.

Tescher is very good at his job.

Tescher Cat. Carmel Country Inn

Tescher Cat. Carmel Country Inn

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.

 

Being high is good. Vertical Territory Matters

When I do consultations I ask to see the high places (vertical territory) my client’s cats like to hang out. If I’m on-site, I politely request a tour, if I’m doing a phone or Skype consultation, I require pictures or videos. The locations, heights and configuration of these high places matter. Sometimes clients show me couches, counters, refrigerators—other times I’m treated to images of elaborate shelving systems and cat trees.

Vertical territory matters for a number of reasons.
Vertical territory helps keep the peace. Cats show their position in their flexible hierarchy by where they sit or stand when they are in the same vicinity. The hierarchy is not static. In multi-cat households the cats take turns. For example: one cat may be relaxing on the highest shelf while another cat sits on a lower shelf. A few hours later they might switch places. Cats are very good with time and room sharing as well. It’s common to find one cat occupying a high shelf in one room while another resident cat enjoys a high shelf in another room. Vertical territory helps keep the peace between cats. It lets cat demonstrate their relationships to each other without going to battle.

Vertical territory helps keep cats entertained. Cats need mental and physical stimulation. Although cats are safer and healthier living indoors, they can become bored when left alone without anything to do or anyone to play with. Along with other enrichment solutions, high shelves, cat trees, things to climb and jump on will help keep cats stimulated and exercised.

Vertical territory helps keep cats safe. Cats can sleep and relax on high cat shelves and cat condos—out of the reach of dogs and children. The higher the better—minimally vertical territory should be five feet in height. Vertical territory also lets cats observe what’s happening around them. From up high they can easily identify possible dangers as well as spot their friends. Cats can also see potential morsels of food as they accidentally fall off people’s plates. Vertical territory is good.

Vertical territory comes in many flavors.
Vertical territory includes cat trees, shelves, window perches, book cases, refrigerators, architectural elements as well as other high spots and objects. Some cat trees are really ugly, others are pieces of art. Many are made out of real trees.

There are a variety of shelving solutions as well. Some are cat themed others stylish and utilitarian. Many of you are familiar with The Cats’ House in California.  This home is exclusively designed for cats—equipped with shelves, stairs and tunnels. Not only are the shelves perfect for cats to climb and explore, but they are decorative to look at.  Another solution, but with a contemporary feel was designed into a home in Japan.

In the eyes of a cat—small homes and apartments become expansive when shelves are installed and tall cat trees provided. Check out a couple of solutions that two of my clients built. Stephanie lives in a small condo with cats, dogs and snakes. She more than doubled her space by building shelves.  Her cats love it.

Stephanie's vertical territory solution--shelves for small spaces

Paige’s space is bigger. She shares her home with Savannahs. Paige’s vertical territory solution includes designing a system of shelves that runs the perimeter of all of the rooms. There is also lumber wrapped in sisal rope that reach from the floor to the shelves—perfect for Paige’s cats to climb up to the shelves on.  Check out her video, you’ll see the cats in action.

Paige H: Vertical territory

Paige's vertical territory--including sisal wrapped pieces of wood for the cats to climb

Vertical territory can be artful or it can be standard carpet covered cat trees. Both work. No matter what solution is settled on, it needs to be safe for cats. Solidly anchor shelves into walls and choose cat trees that have solid, sturdy bases. Shelves should be wide enough for cats to comfortably lounge on and they need to be at different heights so that cats can safely navigate without mishap.

Filming for TV

My intention is to write a blog at least twice a month and update my Bits and Bytes every week. As we all know, the world is paved with good intentions. I think I have a good excuse though. No, my dog didn’t eat my homework and for that matter, neither did my cat. I also wasn’t caught in a flood or earthquake that separated me from my computer.  It is all good. I have a valid excuse.

Cats and babiesA couple of months ago I was contacted by a production company in the UK about a special on cat behavior being produced for TV. The plan was for their camera crew to fly to the US and follow a cat behaviorist around for 2-3 days as he or she conducted cat behavior consultations. They asked me! And of course, I said yes! I felt honored (still do) that they chose me.  And, I loved every minute of it—from finding clients who were fine with being filmed to the filming. The UK film crew was fabulous to work with. They were gracious, fun, knowledgeable and two added bonuses—they love animals and they love tea.

Check out the pictures. Of course there are a hundred stories I could relate about each picture and each location. Note the fabulous ceiling in one of the pictures. This is the ceiling of a gorgeous Victorian house where one of my client’s lives. The other pictures are of the film crew with me on location in the other two homes where we filmed. The three black cats belong to one of my clients. I was helping the cats adjust to the imminent arrival of a newborn baby boy.

The program is scheduled to aire at the end of the year both in the UK and here in the US. More specific details about it will be posted later this year.

If you are curious to see how I look on TV, check out this segment from Animal Planet’s Cats 101.

Filming a consultation

On location filming a consultation

 

Posing with the UK camera crew

Posing with the UK camera crew

 

Victorian ceiling

I love this ceiling!

 

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.