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Ask The Behaviorist
Cats: Dr. John Wright answering questions
Please be aware that the following suggestions are
general advice and are not intended to be a
substitute for taking your pet to a veterinarian.
Posted February 10, 1998 | previous set | next set


Question:

Why does my beautiful little tortoise cry and cry until she gets me to follow her as she walks back and forth through the house, rubbing on every hard surface? She circles the house over and over and turns her head constantly to make sure that I am following her. This routine goes on every night? I love her but these "tailgate" walks are wearing me out. Thank you.

(name witheld by request)



Response from Dr. Wright:

Cats are actually quite social animals that seek and respond to social stimulation offered by other household cats and their people. Although there are often individual differences in HOW social a cat may be, most cats tend to indicate their intention to "be social" by approaching, rubbing, vocalizing. The order of these communicative behaviors may be different from cat to cat, and may depend on the cat's confidence. An intention to approach you may be followed by rubbing a chair leg or coffee table leg, rather than your leg, if your cat is a bit standoffish. Some cats carry their tail high, walk confidently toward their person, jump in her lap, and begin to repeatedly rub or even head butt, especially until the owner reciprocates.

My own cat typically only does this when I'm safely in bed & not moving - so the situation can also determine when and how much greeting goes on (Domino wouldn't dare approach me if I were walking or I could potentially get up and walk - she'd prefer to play it safe & watch from under the bed, until my legs are trapped under the covers - then, she jumps up, rubs, head butts, and finally vocalizes once I acknowledge her presence). The "follow me around the house" routine your cat involves you in may be an extension of the social greeting, generalized into a ritual of her own, which she finds rewarding. Try to interrupt the behavior pattern by initiating play (use a string on the floor) or offering a treat (she has to come to you to get it - think about tossing a few underhanded at first) if you fear a circular path is developing beneath your feet on the carpet! Good luck.



Question:

I have a one and half year-old male who can't seem to stay out of trouble. He opens the closet doors and chews and claws at my clothes, he claws at the mattress and pillows of our bed, and he always bites or attacks us at almost every opportunity. I have had at least five other cats (all female) in the last 20 years or so, and they never behaved that way. At first, I thought it was because he was jealous of my other cat, but his behavior has continued even after she passed away. I make sure he always has food and water, I play with him every day, I hold him, pet him, but he is still so wild. Is it because males are wilder than females? What can I do? I don't want to give him away, and I don't want to have to give him medication. Please help.

(name witheld by request)



Response from Dr. Wright:

It sounds like you have a healthy 1.5 year old male cat who just has more energy and Stamina than you are used to. Age is on your side; as he gets older, he will be less lively (although you shouldn't count on this any time soon). Your idea of playing with him is a good idea. Be sure to allow him to run after and attack his favorite play items by throwing them away from you, and in front of and away from him to elicit a chase. If you are using your hands to play with him, consider stopping that - you may wish to provide only treats or stroking with your hands, so he doesn't associate their movement with things that are okay to attack (even in play). Instead, play with him more often (more frequent play bouts that last only a few minutes). The "attacking your closet items" may be an example of self-play that indicates he needs more frequent play bouts throughout the day.



Question:

I have two cats - your basic American mixed breeds. Tuxedo (black and white) is the first one I brought home from Pet Refuge in fall of 1987. She loves everyone—children and other pets as well and is a very sociable and calm kitty. The second, Georgia, was a stray I brought home in fall of 1989. She is skitterish and not as sociable (part Siamese I'm told) and I believe was abused and caged before she was dumped in the mountain woods north of Atlanta. Over 8 years later, the first cat Tuxedo is still very jealous of Georgia. If Tuxedo is laying by me and Georgia wants to approach and join in, Tuxedo hisses and bats her away. Georgia only comes near me when Tuxedo is not to be seen - she will even eyeball the room to see if Tuxedo is anywhere near and will catch her laying beside me! I know they are friendly to each other when we are not around because I've come home and found them laying side by side sleeping. So how can I get Tuxedo to give poor Georgia a break?

Patricia Garwood Laskowski
LaPorte, IN
garwood.1@nd.edu



Response from Dr. Wright:

Your cats Tuxedo and Georgia are probably regarding you as an important resource - they need affection from you, or at least your attention. You've made a noteworthy observation that they CAN get along (you see them resting together in your absence), but there is something about YOU that causes Tuxedo to keep Georgia away. The idea is to make Georgia's presence in the room indicate to Tuxedo that she (Tuxedo) will get something that feels good - like play or food. Try eliciting play with her, or offer her a treat when Georgia first comes into the picture. Sometimes both cats can participate in play if there is a play item for them to share. Other cats regard food as the favorite resource, and will accept the other's presence if she can learn that you will offer her a treat ONLY when the other cat (Georgia) is in the same area (and not at other times). Look for progress from week to week. However, if Tuxedo regards your petting as the most desired resource you may wish to call a certified animal behaviorist for help - the problem/treatment may involve doing several different aspects that are too complex to describe here. Good luck.



Question:

I have two altered males both approx. 5-6 yrs of age. They both have very sloppy litter box habits that are getting worse. They use the box but don't always quite hit it. They often hang out the front and urinate out the end. Or they use it but will not cover the evidence. They have the largest litter box I can find. I have tried every brand of litter on the market. I sift the box 1-2x a day and completely change it at least once a week. The box does have a cover and is located in an accessible room. These are totally indoor cats whose behavior other than this is totally exemplary. Any suggestions?

(name witheld by request)



Response from Dr. Wright:

Leah's problem is one that is not uncommon among owners of large cats. Sometimes cats are so large that they do a balancing act to be able to fit into a litter box, but invariably, part of their anatomy hangs out. When that part is their "end" rather than their "front" (some cats actually stand with their legs outside the box) the area surrounding the box can become soiled on a regular basis - they develop a preference for assuming the same posture and stance in the box, resulting in house soiling. The idea is to make the box an attractive place to use, while blocking the pattern of hanging over the box, once entered. It's not clear from your description how this occurs, since you're already using the largest box available, and it is hooded. If you're using a box that has a step-into entrance, try getting one that requires your cats to duck under the cover and go up into the box. You may also wish to think about a box that is deeper than the one you're using so your (squatting) cats can't elevate themselves high enough to go outside the box. Scooping the box frequently is good, but probably is not the problem. Try these options - hopefully you won't have to resort to toilet training your 5 - 6 year olds! Good luck.



Question:

I have two fixed male cats that have been living in the same home for 2 years. Last June a new roommate and her fixed female cat moved in. My roommate and I cannot get the group together. Either the female cat stays in one room with the door shut and the boys try to get in all the time because the door doesn't lock. Or if the door is open they run in after her. If she even thinks one of the boys is coming in she runs for a few hiding spots and won't come out until the boys are gone and the door is shut, even to the point of sitting in her own pee. It is very draining continually reprimanding the boys. I really want them to all get along so I don't have to yell at my cats anymore. Do you have any suggestions on how to make my dream a reality?

Leslie Singleton
Brooklyn, NY
lsingleton@earthlink.net



Response from Dr. Wright:

Leslie has a problem dealing with the introduction of a female cat into the household (territory) of two male cats. The female is fearful of being found by the two males and is exhibiting extreme fear on some days (sitting in her own excrement) even after eight months of sharing the same household. The goal of the treatment is to reduce the assertiveness of the males while reducing the fear/anxiety of the female. Forcing the cats to confront one another is not the solution (and one they have thankfully not tried, given their frustration with the problem), and providing the female cat with her own room and escape route is a good move! But it's clear that continuing on this way is not going to work!

One option would be to allow one male cat (the least assertive) to be placed in a carrier at the opposite end of a room (the living room) while the other male is not there, and place the female in a carrier at the opposite end of the room at a distance where neither shows discomfort, or only mild discomfort. Enable the cats to associate something pleasant with the sight of the other for about 15 minutes to half an hour (each session), and move the cats closer VERY GRADUALLY over the days/weeks - if you go too fast, the female will let you know. Try tossing a treat or eliciting play with something you can dangle in front of the cage, so the cats are facing (and noticing) one another. Gradually, the female should become more accepting of the male until you can open her carrier door and allow her to step toward the male cat's carrier to get the treat. After doing the procedure with one cat, try the other. You get the idea.

I've worked with many cats using this procedure. Some get the hang of it after a couple of days, most after a few weeks, and a few take several months and the referring veterinarian prescribing anti-anxiety medication to facilitate the exposure. This is another case where you may wish to ask for additional help from a certified animal behaviorist - s/he may be able to help you make the most rapid progress with the least risk of something going wrong, if you're uneasy about trying this on your own. Good luck!



Question:

What does it mean when your cat drinks dirty water? Why does he or she do that?

Jared
Grand Island, NY
tomcaff@ix.netcom.com



Response from Dr. Wright:

Jared - there are many possibilities for your cat's preference for drinking "dirty" water. Some cats develop a preference for the taste of water they experienced while they were young, especially if they were NOT given a choice of water that tasted differently. It's almost as though anything else (including clean water) doesn't taste right. It may be that your "clean" water has too much additive in it (chlorine?) and it's actually distasteful, although clean looking. It may also be that the location of the dirty water is where "I have always drunk water and I don't care if it's dirty - that's where I'm drinking!" Or, cats may choose to drink from cool locations like the toilet, where the water is (to them, at least) a lot fresher than the water bowl that hasn't been changed for 24 hrs. There are a lot of other answers to individual taste "preferences." Hopefully I've hit on one that works in the example you have in mind.



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