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January 18, 2021

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.


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

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.

Me on TV

I am going to be on TV this Friday night on CBS Channel 5 at 7:20 PM on a show called Pets Around the Bay. After it aires, I’m told that it will be available on line . The filming took about 5 hours a couple of months ago. They filmed me talking about cats and cat behavior and showed me clicker training a shelter cat. I am curious to see what they used in the segment.