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January 26, 2021

My New Caricature

Ask a Behaviorist

Ask a Behaviorist: Caricature of Marilyn Krieger, CCBC

Guess who this is! This is a caricature of yours truly and I love it! I’ve been writing two articles a month for Catster (Ask the Behaviorist) since February. Starting with my May 23rd article, this is my new visual identity in Catster. The artist is the talented Nigel Sussman. Although, I think he did an exceptional job on the whole image, his depiction of the Bengal rocks. The first of my articles that displayed the new identity is my piece about clicker training: Can You Actually Train a Cat? Sure — Here’s How.

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.


A Different Kind of Cat Behavior Consultation

Often during, before and after doing cat behavior consultations, I have unexpected encounters with animals of other species. Last year I had a number of awe-inspiring experiences with Bobcats, Asian Leopard Cats, African Servals, Coyotes one Mountain Lion, chickens and a number of reptiles. I can now add Turkey to the list. This experience—maybe not so awe-inspiring.

Saturday I was scheduled to do an on-site cat behavior consultation that revolved around a couple of cats who had severe litter box issues. I was early for the consultation. I am always early… Anyway, since I had time to kill, I checked out the neighborhood. I enjoy checking out neighborhoods—looking at houses & gardens. I am partial to really old homes and contemporary houses. As I was slowly driving up a hill, admiring the homes, a wild turkey sauntered off of the sidewalk and positioned himself in front of my car. Please keep in mind… I’m a suburbanite girl and I was in a suburban neighborhood. It’s not every day I see a wild turkey.

Also, keep in mind that I am not versed in Turkey Speak.

A turkey standing in front of my car or any car is not a good thing. I stopped my car and got out, with the intention of herding the turkey out of the street to a safer area. He didn’t want any part of it. He was making all sorts of cute little trills and chirps… very endearing and sweet. I chortled back at him… maybe this wasn’t the best idea… he answered me back and I think I became his person.

I couldn’t herd him out of the street—he stood his ground and approached me. I turned back towards my car—he followed me and attempted to hop in—kind of like a dog. Neighbors came out to watch the spectacle… one person told me he is a wild turkey, not domesticated. I carefully got out of my car again and started walking away. He rushed towards me … so I retreated, up on the sidewalk. I called my client and told her that I was going to be delayed since a turkey was resource guarding my car. Great entertainment for the neighbors… lots of giggling. One of the neighbors suggested I give him the keys to my car and maybe my phone number…

Finally someone took pity on me and ran interference so that I could return to my car and make my escape.

Animals Repeat Behaviors…

There is a short video posted on my site of sweet, little Olivia, one of my Bengals, closing the door. This behavior has earned her a little publicity. Animal Planet’s Cats 101 filmed her shutting the door for the Bengal segment that aired for the first time last fall. People are curious about how I trained her to do this behavior. Although clicker training was used to capture and shape shutting the door, it originated as a natural behavior.

Years ago Olivia did a less refined version of the behavior before meal times. It started with a simple headbutt on the door of the bathroom where she and two of her siblings enjoy their meals. Her headbutt always moved the door a couple of inches. Because she always headbutted the door right before being fed, I consistently reinforced the behavior by feeding her immediately after. When I realized this was a step toward learning other fun behaviors, I decided to use clicker training to capture, shape and build this into a cued behavior.

It was easy. Olivia was already being reinforced for the abridged version of the behavior, and she was also fluent in “Clicker Speak”. I stocked my bathroom with her favorite dehydrated chicken treats and a couple of clickers. I was ready. With the aid of the clicker, I captured the natural headbutting movement and then gradually  changed it (called shaping in Clicker Speak)  to the desired behavior of standing on her back legs and pushing the door closed with her front paws. Every step was marked with a click and reinforced with a treat. After she performed the behavior correctly a number of times upon request, I added the verbal cue “door” as I gave her a visual cue.

Sessions were short as it had to be fun for Olivia. If it wasn’t fun for her; it wasn’t fun for me. She started adding her own special touches. One of my favorites is a chirp. She always chirps when she closes the door. Her chirps are always reinforced. I love her chirps; her chirps reinforce me.

As a Bengal, Olivia is highly motivated by attention. She is what I call in my book Naughty No More! an “Attention Seeker”. She will do just about anything for praise and attention. Since I take advantage of bragging rights, I show my cats and their neat behaviors off whenever the opportunity presents itself. My cats love an audience and will happily repeat behaviors for a little praise and attention. Olivia thrives on admiration. People come over to visit Olivia. They call me on the phone and ask if Olivia is in the mood for visitors. Then they come over just to see her close the bathroom door.

Olivia is trying out new variations of the behavior. She rushes into the bathroom when she sees anyone entering and closes the door behind them. Yesterday she followed me into the kitchen. When I opened the refrigerator, she stood on her back legs, chirped at me and closed the door. Of course Olivia is always reinforced for her new, creative approaches to her old standard door behavior.

Introducing the New Cat to the Resident Cat

I’m inspired to write a blog about how to properly introduce cats to each other since so many people do the introductions too fast and in a way that results in stress and aggression.

Introductions can be done with a minimum of stress. They need to be done slowly, it can take a month or longer to properly introduce cats to each other. Cats are territorial. It’s too much to ask any cat to accept a stranger into her house without proper introductions. People are the same way. We don’t react well when an uninvited stranger walks into our home. Neither do cats.

The newcomer needs her own room where she can be safe, away from any other animals. This will be her safe room, her sanctuary. It needs to be comfortable for her, with food, water, bed, cat boxes, a window to look out of and toys. The other reason she needs to be confined away from your resident cat is safety. Whenever bringing in a new cat, ALWAYS keep it completely separate from the other animals. There are diseases that can easily be transmitted to your other cats. In fact, I highly recommend keeping water hand cleaner handy. Use it after you interact with the newcomer. Too many diseases are so easily transmittable.

So… to those of you who think it’s an OK thing to put a cat in a carrier in the center of the room so that the cat “safely” meet the other cats… it is not OK, it is not safe. It also very scary for cats to be in a carrier for hours or days and it’s inhumane… I’m segueing again. Sorry…

Back to introducing cats. The goal is to encourage the cats to have positive associations through mutual activities while they are separated from each other. I’m posting some excerpts from a page that I give my clients on how to introduce cats to each other. I’m being slightly lazy because I need to post next about the 35 Bengals in need… now 45…

Judge by the cat’s responses in each phase to determine the length of each of the phases detailed below. There is no typical time frame. Every cat is different. If there is howling or hissing or any other signs of aggression, prolong the phases. Cats should remain separated from each other throughout the introduction process described below:

1. Twice a day: Use two clean socks or rags. Gently pet the new cat’s cheek with one sock, transferring pheromones onto the sock. Repeat, using the second sock on the resident cat’s cheek. Place each sock where the other cat hangs out, but not under their food, near litter boxes or in their sleeping area.

Socks must always be clean.

2. Continue pheromone exchanges. Also, 2-3 times a day, feed the cats delicious treats or regular meals simultaneously, separated by the closed door. Try feeding close to the closed door. If, at first they either won’t eat or display aggression towards each other, back the food away from the closed door to a comfortable eating distance. When comfortable with the distance, move the feeding stations closer to the door until they are eating next to each other (separated by the closed door) without displaying aggression.

3. Continue the activities in Phase 2.

Twice a day: Continue to pet cheeks with socks. Instead of putting the socks where the other cats sleep, inch socks towards feeding stations. Use clean socks or rags each time.

Twice a day: encourage non-threatening interaction between the cats. Use a toy with something cat-intriguing on both ends. Position the double-ended toy under the door so the cats can play tug of war. Before play sessions spray Feliway spray on the bottom of the door. Don’t leave this toy out if you can’t supervise the play.

4. Continue the activities in Phase 3, separated by the closed door.

Change locations for a few hours every day, putting the resident cat in the newcomer’s room, allowing the newcomer to explore another area of the house.

Twice a day: Continue to pet cheeks with socks. Instead of putting the socks where the other cats sleep, pet their cheeks with the socks that have the other cat’s cheek pheromones on it.

5. Continue the activities in Phase 4, separated by the closed door.

Introduce cats to each other without the benefit of a closed door: Open the door to the confinement room. When door is opened, feed one cat at a distance from the room at the same time the other cat is being fed in the confinement room. The cats should be able to smell and hear each other and if possible, see each other. Gradually increase time the door is open by one second at every feeding time. Supervise! At any sign of aggression, divert the cats attention and close the door.

Watch the body and eye language and the locations the cats choose to occupy. Check for fur rippling, ear positions, fixed stares, pupils dilating, pounce postures, etc. If all OK, gradually extend their times together, supervising them

Once a day: Use clean towels. Pet the resident cat’s back and sides with a towel. Pet the new cat with another towel. Then exchange towels, petting each cat with the other’s towel.

Whiskers (Vibrissae): The First Installment


Miss Mushu

Many years ago there was a lovely cat named Mushu who refused to eat like most other self-respecting cats. Instead of putting her head into her food bowl, she would dip her right paw into the food and scoop up big chunks with the intention of depositing the food in her mouth. Unfortunately, Miss. Mushu wasn’t very adept at this activity and would fling food around the room. Her meals would regularly end up plastered on the walls and sometimes on the ceiling.

Why was Mushu depositing her meals on the ceiling instead of in her mouth? Was Mushu a clumsy example of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution? Was she learning to use a knife and a fork?

The answer to this mystery lies in her muzzle whiskers and the shape and depth of her food bowl. A cat’s whiskers help her define her world. They are an important part of her navigation equipment. Whiskers help her find her way around in the dark. Whiskers are very sensitive, sensing changes in the wind and air currents, allowing her to sense objects and navigate around them in the deepest night. Since they are the width of her body; she uses them to determine if she can fit into tight places. They also help her hunt, are like little fingers outlining her prey. Her whiskers help her determine where to strategically bite her prey in order to kill it. Whiskers help her see.  They are sensitive. They feel.

Small bowls can annoy sensitive whiskers. The bowl Miss Mushu ate out of was small and deep, her whiskers touched the sides. Since Mushu couldn’t verbalize that she hated the way the bowl felt on her sensitive whiskers, she scooped the food out with her paw and flung it on the walls and ceiling.


The Negatives of Positive Punishment

Recently, I had a consultation with a client whose cat decided to not urinate consistently in her litter box. As soon as the client filled out my history form and after I saw the litter box situation, I knew immediately why her cat wasn’t using the box. An easy fix… But this blog entry isn’t about the triggers and the solutions, this is about punishment and why cats should not be punished…

Unfortunately my client, in her frustration, was punishing the cat for not using the box. She both rubbed the cat’s nose in the urine and swatted her on the rear for her accidents. After awhile, the client noticed that the cat’s behavior escalated and the cat no longer enjoyed sitting on her lap. She finally was alarmed when her kitty started avoiding her most of the time, with the exception of meal times. (This case has a happy ending, client is no longer punishing her cat and the cat is now consistently using the box)

Besides being inhumane and cruel, punishing a cat will not stop a cat from doing an unwanted behavior. Cats do not associate the punishment with the unappreciated activity. Instead, cats will commonly associate the punishment with the punisher. I find this sad and tragic. The person that the cat has loved and trusted is now perceived by the cat as scary and hurtful. Understandably, this usually results in the cat becoming fearful of her person. Essentially, the cat/human bond is broken. Other common responses are; the behavior escalates, other unappreciated behaviors develop.

Cats usually have a legitimate reason for not using the litter box or doing other behaviors we don’t approve of. It’s up to us to figure out what these reasons are. We need to find what is triggering the behavior, then eliminate or modify the triggers. Usually environmental changes (ie, add more litter boxes, scoop, etc.) are needed along with behavior modification of both the cat and the human companion.

So, please, don’t punish a cat when she acts out. Punishment doesn’t work. It’s inhumane and it breaks the cat/human bond. Instead use positive methods. They are more effective, they build bonds and can last forever.

Demystifying The Cat

  • Dogs have owners, cats have staff.
  • Cats do what they want.
  • Dogs come when they’re called. Cats take a message and get back to you.
  • Cats are mysterious.

These are a few of the misconceptions and cutisms that feed a false myth about cats. Cute as some of these sayings may sound, they have perpetuated a false stereotype about cats that has harmed and in many instances, killed cats. Unfortunately, many people believe that cats do whatever they want, and that their behaviors can’t be changed. They think that unappreciated cat behaviors such as inappropriate elimination, scratching the furniture and aggression can not be modified or stopped. Unfortunately, since so many people have bought into the myth, cats are regularly surrendered to shelters and or euthanized for these very fixable problems.

One of my goals as a certified cat behavior consultant is to bust this myth and to demystify the cat. Educating people about cats is very important, will help save lives and also help people appreciate how wonderful and special cats are. Cats are very trainable and behaviors that we don’t appreciate can be modified. Many times the reasons the cats are engaging in these behaviors is because of human error. Usually it takes some management and behavior modification, both of the cat and her human companion. Sometimes the fixes are simple, the result immediate, other times it takes more work, including environmental management, positive reinforcement and an understanding of the triggers. In the majority of cases, the behaviors can be modified and stopped.

Please, if you have a cat that is engaging in a behavior you don’t like, don’t give up on the cat. Chances are, the behavior can be modified. Instead call either a certified cat behavior consultant or a veterinary behaviorist. If you have economic challenges, then call your local humane society for behavior help. Many humane societies offer free phone consultations both for cats and dogs.