But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him —“The Cat That Walked by Himself,” Just So Stories
CATS ARE TERRITORIAL BY NATURE, PARTLY BECAUSE IN THE wild they don’t have other members of a pack to rely on. A single cat is the pack, the whole organism—solely responsible for her own survival. Cats crave a territory rich with resources and they have a powerful drive to preserve and secure those resources for themselves, and only themselves (and, among mother cats, for their young). That craving can feel like a low level of background anxiety that is with them always, sort of like the constant anxiety of a person who is worried about resources—such as money, love, or attention—that she perceives to be in limited supply. Whenever a cat’s anxiety about resources is revved up, for whatever reason, she feels best when she’s doing something to secure those resources.
What she does is what humans call the problem.
The stress of worrying about scarce resources—and competition for them—may lead not only to behavior problems, but to lowered immunity and health problems.
This may be the most important chapter you read. Cats’ innate territoriality is the least appreciated of the things you must understand about them. You will refer to this chapter again and again to remedy each and every unwanted behavior. The advice in this chapter is also powerfully preventative, and will last you throughout your relationships with all of your cats.
Understanding the ways in which your cat is hardwired for survival will help you create an environment that channels her instincts in ways acceptable to both you and her. With the exception of the mating instinct (which requires that you spay or neuter your cat in order to avoid the related problems), every major feline behavior problem either has its root in the cat’s home environment or can be helped by a holistic approach to changing that environment. You must fix the environment, or territory, in one way or another, to maximize the effectiveness of any behavioral modification program. Let’s look at an example of the subtle chain of environmental causality. Some of the most upsetting behavioral problems that people come to me about are those related to urination and defecation outside of the box. Why does this happen? Not because the cats are perverse, or bad, but because something in the environment in or around the litter box, or in the greater environment, has upset them. Cats often urinate or defecate outside the litter box because they have too few boxes, or the boxes are located contrary to the needs of both hazard-avoiding cats and territorial cats, or there’s competition for other resources among the cats. People also frequently consult me because their cats are yowling, clawing, biting, or knocking things over. This can happen if cats are stressed, don’t get enough attention, or if they’re bored because they lack a stimulating environment with appropriate prey targets and other items that allow them to fulfill their instinctive drives and release pent-up energy or tension. A cat whose territory provides no outlets for releasing tension may also start eating holes in your furniture, among other destructive or annoying behaviors. All of these problem behaviors can be changed—by changing the environment.
In this chapter, I’ll give you guidelines on setting up your cats’ environment to make sure you have the healthiest, happiest—and least destructive—cats possible. Here’s where you will find the most comprehensive explanation of how to Transform the Territory, the “T” part of the various C.A.T. Plans that appear in the chapters to come. While in each chapter I usually summarize the “T” step for the behavior issues discussed there, you’ll always want to return to this chapter for the fullest description. The changes I recommend will help you adapt your cats’ environment to their primal needs and instincts, which include the following:
• the mating instinct
• the need to feel safe: perching, resting, and hiding areas; friendly pheromones; and your deterring of outside cats away from the home
• the need to release pent-up energy, anxiety, or tension or mark territory with scratching posts, etc.
• the desire for a choice of safe pathways to resources
• the need for food and water—and in the right locations
• the need for prey targets and other environmental stimulation: toys, cat tunnels, novel feeding opportunities
• the desire for companionship and a group scent
• the need for attractive, safe places to eliminate
The Mating Instinct: Humane Sterilization Reduces Many Behavioral and Health Problems
In Chapter 7, I discuss in detail how failure to spay or neuter cats leads to many behavior problems. Unless you are a breeder, the first and most important step to take to adapt your cats to your home and the other animals in the home should be to neuter or spay them at the appropriate time. Aside from reducing the population explosion that results in so many unwanted, unhealthy, and miserable animals, sterilization has many other benefits—both for the cats and for you.
• are less likely to spray or to escape your home
• have less desire to fight and are less likely to suffer the resulting abscesses
• are less likely to contract diseases such as Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)
• are not prone to testicular cancer
• are not likely to develop the “stud tail” caused by overactive tail glands
• cost less to feed, requiring about one-quarter fewer calories
• have a decreased risk of mammary cancer, especially if spayed before the first heat
• have no uterus and therefore no risk of ovarian or uterine cancer or pyometritis, a virulent and potentially fatal inflammation of the uterus that can afflict cats soon after estrus
• are less likely to try to escape the home
Before discussing the specifics of transforming the territory in order to change unwanted behaviors, let’s talk first about what that territory consists of.
Should He Stay or Should He Go?
Whether your cat is an indoors-only cat or is sometimes allowed outside, his perceiving another cat outside—by direct encounter as well as by seeing, hearing, or smelling one through a window or door—is the single most common cause of spraying inside the home (see Chapter 8), and also a major cause of what’s called redirected aggression (see Chapter 7), which can seriously damage many good cat relationships. However, those aren’t the only considerations to be taken into account in deciding whether to let your cat outdoors or keep him inside. Let’s look at the major pros and cons.
In North America, about a third of urban and suburban cats are let outside; in the United Kingdom the figure is considerably higher. The outdoors can enrich a cat’s environment and break up monotonous days indoors. For some cats, that stimulation can actually prevent or diminish many behavior issues, including, possibly, spraying inside the house. Sometimes (but by no means always) having an opportunity to spray outside, often in response to seeing other outdoor cats or smelling their urine, could satisfy the urge to spray.
If you do want to let your cat outside, the watchwords are supervision and safe experimentation. See what works best for your cat. To be ultrasafe, take your cat out on a harness and leash or in a walking jacket, and watch him carefully. If you take him to your yard, it’s best to do this when you’re sure there is no scent from other cats in the yard—which you achieve mostly by having deterred outdoor cats from your property in the first place (see Chapter 9). On the other hand, if outside cats are staying away, your cat may no longer have an urge to go outside.
As a general rule, if your cat has never been outside, it’s best not to start. In my view, you should let your cat outside only if you know the cat is safe—that is, because your cat is in a yard or cat enclosure that it can’t escape, on a harness and leash with you, or in an area where there are no cars, predators, competitors, or anything else that might harm or stress your cat. Of course, even if he’s in an enclosure or you’re taking him out on a cat harness and leash, as long as he’s outside and able to see and smell other cats, he may feel some stress. Also, because fleas and ticks can be an issue for cats allowed outside (even if just briefly), make sure your cat is protected with a cat flea and tick product.
If your cat isn’t neutered or spayed, he or she should never be allowed outside.
Though letting cats outside can sometimes decrease their spraying or urine-marking inside the home, it can also have the opposite effect. There’s territory to be marked! If it’s not being marked outside, a cat may feel anxious: Time to mark indoors. So if your cat is not spraying and you don’t want him to start, don’t let him outside. If he is spraying, it’s a toss-up as to how going outside will affect the spraying problem.
The outdoors, great or suburban-style, poses many hazards that can injure your cat—sometimes fatally—or make him sick. Cats may be hunted by dogs or wild animals. (And there are also people out there who just don’t like cats.) They can be hit by cars, contract parasites from drinking stagnant water, acquire feline diseases, and suffer extremes in weather and temperature. They may get into fights with other cats and be badly hurt. And cats in their turn threaten bird species throughout the world, including the songbirds in your back yard. (On the other hand, so do humans, as cat lovers never tire of reminding bird advocates: Human activity is fifty-six times more likely to kill birds than cats are.)1 Once a cat has gotten a taste for the hunting life, it is very difficult to get him to stop.
Other than the safe outdoor alternatives I’ve already mentioned, my advice is generally to keep your cat indoors. He’ll be safer, live longer than an outdoors-only cat (an average of twelve years versus three, according to some estimates), and feel less need to urine-mark his territory.
There are plenty of ways to make the inside of your home just as stimulating as the outdoors—which is what the rest of this chapter is about. Many unwanted behaviors can be remedied by mimicking aspects of a cat’s natural environment. As awareness of cat behavior has grown, so have the number of useful and even very nearly magical tools that you can use to transport cats to a feline Eden—all while keeping him indoors, safe and happy.
NOTE ON RECOMMENDED BEHAVIOR TOOLS AND PRODUCTS
The tools I recommend include toys such as preylike targets at the ends of easily manipulated wands, battery-operated toys, cat trees and tunnels; food puzzles and timed feeders; pheromone sprays and plug-ins that calm and soothe cats and help them get along; high-grade enzyme-based odor removers to help ensure that cats won’t develop an association with the location of inappropriate elimination; and deterrents to the outdoor animals that can cause your cats anxiety and lead to all kinds of behavior problems.
Now, products and brand names may both come and go. Those that were once the best may suffer degraded quality control, be overtaken by a competitor, or have their names changed by new owners. (Indeed, as we were editing this book, one of my long-time favorite behavior-modification products was taken off the market.) Some product manufacturers may go out of business. And some may not be available in certain countries at all. Yet I want the advice in this book to remain as relevant and up-to-date as possible. So I have hit upon several solutions.
When I refer to a behavior modification tool you will need to make or buy, I’ll often use a generic term for it (e.g.: pheromones, wanded toy, etc.; see the full list in Appendix C).
When I do recommend one brand of product over the others, I will provide the brand name of that product as available in early 2012 to online and offline shoppers in the United States.
Magical as some of these tools are, under no circumstances should you attempt to remedy your cats’ unwanted behaviors through the use of products alone. For maximum effectiveness, they should be incorporated into my program of behavior modification techniques, and used according to my instructions—which will not always be the same as the manufacturers’ directions.
REAL ESTATE AND RESOURCES
Feelings of Safety: Cat Trees and Other Forms of Vertical Territory
Ever notice how your cat likes to climb up, jump up, or lie on top of things? A big difference between you and your cats is that you never walk into a room and look around for the highest, safest spot. This is the spot—the top of the couch, the windowsill, the mantel, the countertop, the chair, the bed, or your lap—from which the cat could safely observe a big dog, a dominant cat, or some other possible danger coming from any direction and from a long way off. Your cat likes to have places from which he can get a good view of the carpet savannah and wooden forest floor that is your home. He may contest these safe, valuable spots with other cats in the household, especially if you haven’t provided enough of them. (Or, if you’re lucky, he may develop an amicable time-sharing schedule with the other cats.) Humans and dogs don’t need vertical territory, but cats’ territory must encompass three dimensions, especially if you have more than one cat.
The way to create vertical territory for your cats is by providing cat trees and perches they can climb around and on top of, giving them a feeling of safety while also stimulating their minds. The more cats you crowd into your home’s fixed territory, the greater the chance of conflict among them. Adding vertical territory with multiple levels can truly be life-altering for cats, because the increase in available territory will decrease territorial tensions. Cats were born to escape predators, carve out territory, and sleep on elevated surfaces. Support your cat’s natural behaviors: to climb, to perch, and to stake out territory and elbow room. More than one cat, more than one tree level and more than one perching area. All cats should have a cat tree, window perches, and even cat walks—shelving mounted on walls in configurations that allow cats to perch at different levels. A cat can spend hours spiraling up and down a cat tree, now perching, now resting. Experiment with different locations until you’ve figured out which ones maximize your cats’ use of the elevated places. Sunny spots are usually popular. Unused, far-off corners of the home may or may not work for your cat.
If your cats compete for an area like the back of the living room couch, try placing a cat tree nearby. One cat may decide to utilize the cat tree instead of the couch some of the time. Such time-sharing arrangements can help reduce the competition that can lead to hostility or outright fighting—which in turn can lead to many other seemingly unrelated behavior issues. Vertical territory helps timid cats to feel more confident and relaxed, and dominant cats to feel less of a need to be bullies.
CAT TERRITORY ON A BUDGET
To save money on cat trees and perches, clear off the top of an armoire or dresser or remove the picture frames or plants from a windowsill and you’ve just created more perching and resting areas for your cats.
Cats also don’t care that the cardboard boxes they play in and scratch on cost nothing, or that the paper bags (with the handles removed and the cuffs rolled down to keep the bags open) they enjoy were free.
To create an inexpensive cat tunnel, turn an open, empty box on its side, toss a few toys and some catnip inside, and create a fun fort in which cats cavort.
Scratching Posts and Other Stimulating Gear
Cats need environmental stimulation to relieve stress and excess energy and, well, to enable them to act like cats. Environmental stimuli can take many forms: climbing frames, cat trees, cat tunnels, interactive playtimes, battery-operated toys, fish tanks, bird feeders, novel feeding opportunities like cat grasses, different feeding stations, and especially food puzzles, which require the cat to work at getting food or treats.
Scratching posts or pads answer several needs at once, and are particularly important. In addition to channeling the cat’s need to scratch onto something more desirable (from your point of view) than furniture and other household items, scratching materials allow cats to get rid of old claw growth and keep their claws sharp, stretch their muscles, mark territory, and release emotional tension (even cats with amputated toes and claws will want to paw-mark, so they need scratching posts, too). To see what your cats prefer, experiment with horizontal and vertical surfaces (cats who like to stretch when they scratch may prefer a tall post), and pay attention to whether they like tree bark, wood, fabric, rope, cardboard, or carpet. Cats like to scratch-mark along their usual pathways, so put some scratching posts along those pathways. Cats will generally use cat scratchers more if they’re closer to the core of the home instead of the outskirts. Make sure that you have at least one cat scratcher for each of your cats, and place them throughout the home in areas where your cats tend to spend a lot of time.
Cat tunnels and hiding places can keep cats busy and feeling safe. They’re great for the fearful or timid cat who needs a safe place to hide or a way to covertly move about the home. You can also keep boredom at bay by mixing things up a bit: Move toys, boxes, or tunnels around every so often.
Bird and squirrel feeders are also entertaining for cats, and you can place them outside, near a window whose view your cats can watch like a big-screen TV. Or you can set up an indoor fish tank, making sure it has a tamperproof top. Many cats will also watch bird videos, though my own otherworldly cats prefer the fish from Finding Nemo. When the fish swim off the edge of the television screen, my cats look for them behind the TV and even in other parts of the room.
Food puzzles are also great stimulants. Puzzles trigger your cat’s prey drive and then allow him to sink his teeth into the treats or food he’s able to work out of the puzzles. There are several great food puzzles on the market, but you can make your own food puzzle out of a shoe box or any plastic container in which you’ve cut a hole and placed food to be fished out. Food puzzles help to prolong feedings and reduce anxiety or tension. Natural holistic remedies such as flower essences have been shown to have a profound effect on behavior issues in many cats, as well as to calm fearful cats. Many shelter staff members have reported to me that the effects of natural holistic remedies are sometimes the only reasons fearful or timid cats are able to get adopted. Of course, I recommend you incorporate such remedies into an overall behavior plan, but even used alone, the remedies may still have positive effects. Depending on the remedy, you may add them to your cat’s food, water, or skin (to be absorbed transdermally), to help your cat become more relaxed, confident, and better able to deal with stressors.
THINGS TO KNOW FOR BOARDING
Pheromones and other holistic remedies are so effective at calming and soothing cats that you should ask a key question of any cat boarding facility you are considering: “Do you use pheromone plug-ins around the cats’ living quarters?”
DISPERSAL, TIME-SHARING, AND CHOICE OF PATHS
In a multicat household, cats care about more than just the size or amount of a resource. They care about having multiple resource locations with multiple pathways to them. This will give them choices about which ones to visit, when to visit, and will make it easier for them to time-share those resources with one another. The easier it is to time-share, the less conflict and territorial behavior you will see and the greater the feeling of self-confidence for all the cats. For best results, you should apply this principle of abundance and dispersion to all your cat’s resources, from litter boxes and toys to cat trees and perches. Let’s start with food.
ADD AND MULTIPLY
Throughout the advice that’s to follow, keep in mind that, for the best possible results, you will want to make available several feeding stations throughout the home, several water stations, multiple perching and resting areas, multiple litter box locations, multiple cat scratchers, and multiple prey targets, or toys, in different locations. Even if you think your cats are happy without such a land-o-plenty, I urge you to try it and see the results for yourself. I’ve had many clients tell me they didn’t realize what a happy and confident cat was until they made these changes. Even my clients who live in small apartments in New York have noted that their cats get along much better or become less “aloof” or “stressed” after the addition of something as simple as another food bowl somewhere else in the apartment.
In a multicat household, if you offer your cats one big communal cat food bowl or even several cat food bowls all within the same room, and feed them all at the same time, you will fail to address the cats’ territorial needs. The existence of only one location for food and a limited number of pathways to it could be enough to create the kind of tension at mealtime that leads to fighting and bullying. Some cats may end up unhappily hungry as others bully them out of the way. Food abundance and dispersion are easy but critical ways to keep space between your cats, allow them to time-share more efficiently, and keep them happy.
Free-feeding, which consists of keeping food available to the cats at all hours of night and day, preferably in several locations throughout the home, is another way.
No one really knows why cats like to eat plants, especially grass, but they do. While ingesting plants is probably normal—feral cats eat grass nearly every day, and one study showed that 36 percent of pet cats eat plants—it can be dangerous, as most houseplants are toxic to cats in small amounts and some are even deadly.
Offer your cat such alternatives as a stalk of celery, a leaf of Romaine lettuce, or cat grasses from your local pet store or farmer’s market. You can even grow your own pesticide-free herbs, grasses, or catnip. Putting more vegetable matter in your cat’s diet may be particularly effective if you’re trying to prevent her from chewing or eating either houseplants or flowers.
Why free-feed? Cats have small stomachs that empty out in a couple of hours. An empty stomach is no fun, especially if it’s empty for several hours. Cats in the wild and those allowed to set their own feeding schedules eat quite frequently—from nine to sixteen mouse-sized meals per day—and appear to have evolved to eat that way.2 Not surprisingly, cats who are fed only twice a day, during scheduled feedings, can become agitated, and they can get even more cranky if the food isn’t served on time. Their stomachs will be growling and their dinner conversations may be kind of grumpy (sometimes even hostile), causing them to take their unhappiness out on each other. Dominant cats will want to make sure everybody knows that they’re in control and they are going to get the food first. Dominant cats who are concerned about a perceived scarcity of food resources may be so anxious about preserving their dominance that they intimidate lower-ranking cats not just at mealtimes but at other times of the day, too.
Even a cat who doesn’t have to share food with other cats is happier when she can readily follow her body’s natural rhythms. Anytime a cat eats, she’s at her most content, with a more stable mood and emotional state. Many clients are totally unaware their cats are stressed about food until they see the difference in the cats’ personalities after they begin either free-feeding the cats or providing them with more than two meals a day.
Cats fed on timed, human schedules tend to be less cooperative and more aggressive than cats allowed to eat on their own schedules. In most cases you don’t need to worry that free-fed cats will gain weight. In fact, I’ve seen obese cats lose weight once food was made readily available, because once they realized that there would always be enough food and there was no need to gobble it up all at once, they stopped overeating. Free-feeding may also reduce some cats’ tendency to bolt their food down and later regurgitate it.
If a cat is not able to regulate her food intake, however, I do not recommend free-feeding. You may create an obese cat. For these cats, a timed feeder that delivers food four or more times a day is ideal. You won’t be increasing his calorie allotment—just how often he is fed. However, for cats who can regulate their intake and for whom obesity is not an issue (75 to 90 percent of cats), I would go as far as to say that feeding them only twice a day is inhumane.
Dispersal of food resources can have strikingly positive effects on the happiness and harmony of your feline household. Place food bowls in different locations throughout the home (not just in different areas of the kitchen or bathroom)—for both free-feeding and scheduled feedings. There should be as many feed bowls as there are cats. Feeding cats together is a surefire way to start a behavior problem. Experiment with placing bowls on different levels—some on the floor and some on tables or windowsills. A more timid cat may not feel comfortable eating on the floor.
Food puzzles (described earlier) are a great way to help prolong your cat’s feeding so he doesn’t gobble down all his food at once. Instead, he’ll have to work to get the food out of the puzzle, which also gives him the mental stimulation that he needs. You might start out with using the food puzzle as a supplement to his regular feeding until you’re sure he is actually able to get all the food out.
As for what to feed your cats—when in doubt, talk to your vet about your cat’s diet.
Kittens should be exposed to various types of cat food flavors and textures. If they’re not, they may later refuse to eat anything but what they were conditioned to eat as kittens. Cats can be finicky about food. They won’t necessarily eat a healthy meal even if they’re hungry. They’ve been known to starve to death (or eat their young) rather than eat an unpalatable meal. Compare your picky child to that!
Indeed, cats are so finicky that cat food manufacturers are forced to use humans to test cat food because cats themselves refuse to do it.*
Water, Water, Everywhere
Water is as important to cats’ health as it is to ours. Water helps to soften hard stools, digest and absorb nutrients from food, regulate body temperature, and flush waste. Cats can live for days without food, but bodily functions simply shut down if they lack sufficient water.
As with the food bowl, all it takes is one cat sitting next to the water bowl or on the pathway to it to intimidate another cat. So spread the water wealth.
Ever wonder why your cat prefers to drink out of your glass? Or from anywhere other than the water bowl next to his food? Instinctively, cats prefer to drink water that’s located away from their dead prey which, in nature, may contaminate their water with bacteria. To honor this survival instinct, separate their “dead prey”—which in this case is their store-bought food—from their water. Both food and water should also be placed in an area separate from your cats’ litter boxes. To make water appealing, keep it fresh—I refill my cats’ water several times a day, and I recommend you do so, too, if your cat doesn’t drink enough. A bowl should either be wide or filled to the brim with water. Why? Because cats’ whiskers are very sensitive. They may use their paws to dip the water out, and spill it on your floor, rather than push their whiskers against a narrow-brimmed or less-than-full bowl to drink from it.
Cats are drawn to running water, so if your cat doesn’t seem to be drinking from his bowl, try a fountain. Cats are notorious for not drinking enough water, and these simple prescriptions can make it more likely that they will get what they need.
Why are there so many different kinds of cat toys—often complicated, many seeming more like puzzles—compared to what’s available for dogs? Because cats are more predatory than dogs. Cats need to strategize and hunt and chase and kill more than any other animal. Outdoor cats even kill prey animals they have no intention of eating (or even of offering to you).
There are several types of toys: inanimate toys (which I also call “dead prey”), battery-operated toys, and, best of all, interactive toys (the best of the prey targets). There’s nothing wrong with dead prey, those little fake mice and glittery toy jingle balls, but a cat without an interactive toy may be a cat that doesn’t play or never gets to express its catness by completing an entire prey sequence. When you maneuver an interactive toy in a prey sequence like the one described in the next section, your cat will come to life! Battery-operated toys act like interactive toys, but are useful for letting cats play and work out stress even when you’re busy or not around. I recommend having plenty of all of these kinds of toys spread all over your home, like all feline resources, and kept out in the open (not all in a box or cupboard). Do rotate toys, however, keeping some of them hidden, so they can be brought out and appear new all over again. And there are some toys that you should put away after each use, such as toys with feather or string that your cat might ingest or get wound up in.
It’s important to experiment with what kind of toys your cat enjoys. Does she like the ones that make noise? That roll or bounce? That have catnip in them? Some cats dislike sharing toys and will even want their own set of toys with only their scent on them.
I’ve spoken to many clients who’ve insisted their cat would never play with a toy under any circumstances. This is a sad and unhealthy situation. But not long after a consultation with me, in which I always discuss the “prey sequence,” they call back to say their cat is literally leaping in the air after a toy. Some tell me they feel guilty that their kitty could indeed have played all these years. They go on to tell me that their cats are completely different cats and are so much happier now. A prey sequence completed means a happy, more confident, and satisfied cat. The key is in choosing the right toy and knowing how to make it look alive. Ready?
The Prey Sequence
Stalking and catching prey, or its bloodless equivalent, is crucial to your cat’s happiness and to both remedying and preventing behavior issues. It’s the same with humans: Exercise reduces our anxiety, irritability, and other behavior issues, and increases our mental alertness, our feel-good brain chemicals, and our longevity.
Cats are calmed and their confidence and mood are improved by completing one or two prey sequences consistently, every day, so set up a daily schedule and stick to it. Predictable playtimes let a cat know when it’s time to be active and, at least as important for some owners, when it’s time to rest. For an adult cat, try one to two playtimes daily, from ten to thirty minutes each. Maneuvering two toys far apart can enable you to save some time by playing with two cats at once—if they don’t mind it. Automatic toys are also time-savers for humans and they can be just as important for cats so they don’t become reliant on humans for all their physical exertion. For a kitten, I recommend as many as four playtimes per day, which mirrors kittens’ natural preference. If your cat is easily bored, then first make sure you are conducting the play sequence properly, and if you feel confident that you are, give your cat a two- to five-minute break and then resume playtime.
I recommend performing prey sequences even if your cat isn’t (yet) exhibiting a behavior problem. Your cats will be less likely to hunt at unwelcome times, intimidate other cats or people, or develop anxiety problems. Play is so important to a happy, well-functioning cat that for years the signature area in my emails to clients has said, “Have you completed a prey sequence with your cat today?” A prey sequence is also a redirection and reassociation technique that we’ll use for several behavior problems (compulsive behavior, aggression, inappropriate elimination, and spraying), so I’ll describe it in some detail.
You will play with one cat at a time, at least to start. Never create tension and competition for the prey target by using one toy to play with more than one cat at the same time. I’ve seen such competition be the reason two closely bonded cats became archenemies. If you must play with two cats at once, or you just want to, it’s best to maneuver one wanded toy in each hand, far apart, so as to keep the cats as far apart as possible. If a particular cat feels uncomfortable playing while another cat watches intently, separate the cats so they can’t see one another during the playtime. How do you know if your cat is uncomfortable? When he will not play or plays for only a short period of time.
STOP LOOKING AT ME!
Sometimes the only reason a cat will not play is because there are other cats in the room—a sure sign you probably have some intercat social stress within the home. Try taking the timid cat into a room with you and close the door. Then initiate a playtime with a wanded toy. You might be surprised by the outcome!
The Wand Toy Among interactive toys, wand toys are the best at allowing you to replicate a real hunt with the unpredictable movements of real prey—just the kind that your cat is programmed to notice. A wand toy has a long, thin wand that’s attached to a string, which in turn is attached to a toy or a cluster of feathers. The best feathers make a twirling motion and fluttering sound that mimic a bird in flight. Play in terrain, such as a living room, with plenty of furniture, barriers, and hiding places. Cats don’t like to hunt out in the open but in an area where they can ambush their prey.
When you maneuver the wand toy, doing your best to replicate real prey and a real hunt, your cat will generally display the following motor patterns, which are part of her instinctual hunting repertoire.
• staring at the prey (or toy)
• stalking and chasing
• grabbing, or pouncing and biting
• the kill bite (seen most clearly in outside cats who hunt for their food)
From Eye Stare to Kill Bite: The Complete SequenceYou are essentially the life of the prey target. Wave or twitch the toy several feet away from your cat. How? Cats are irresistibly riveted by certain sounds like the pitter-patter of tiny feet, the sounds of crinkling, slithering, flopping around, and scurrying, and by motions that look like hopping, snaking, and flying, limping and fluttering—and dying, with one last gasp. Don’t wiggle the toy in your cat’s face or move it toward your cat. This won’t make sense to your cat, and it might frighten her. Real prey moves away. Real prey hides. Your cat also needs the mental stimulation of strategizing how he’s going to ambush that mouse behind the couch. It’s not all about chasing and pouncing and biting. So be sure to hide the toy for a few moments behind a chair, sofa, or even an empty box (complete with scurrying or flopping sounds) before making it reappear. This will really help release those feel-good chemicals in your cat.
Your cat’s menacing stare is the beginning of the sequence, as he orients himself to the toy. Watch him stalk or chase it. Some of the stalk may be invisible: The cat is strategizing. Then he may crouch near the ground or break into a slinking trot, now and then taking cover. The stalk or chase may be brief:† some cats like to launch themselves (the pounce) at the toy almost immediately and bite into it. Or your cat may wait and then, while planting his claws into the ground to pounce, make the telltale butt wiggle that signals an impending takeoff. Or he may just try to Grab and Bite the toy, perhaps as he sits atop his cat tree and strategizes how to grab the toy as it flies over. Many cats will play with their “prey” and, by purposely releasing it, repeat the stalk-and-chase and grab-and-bite steps over and over again.
Make sure it’s a game, neither too easy nor too challenging. Don’t keep the toy away from your cat so that he never gets to catch it, and of course don’t just hand it over, either. Your cat will decide how many repetitions of the prey sequence he needs, how many stalks, chases, grab-and-bites, and so on. So repeat the sequence several times so that he can catch the toy over and over again. If he doesn’t seem to follow through with the entire sequence, don’t worry. Just have fun with your cat! He will know what to do.
Eventually, cause the toy to slowly “die” as you put less and less energy and motion into it. This will bring your cat to the end of the prey sequence and calm him down. You may also witness something that looks like the Kill Bite: Your cat won’t want to let go of the toy, and may even try to carry it off. Or he’ll roll onto his side and kick against the toy with his back legs while biting into it. Letting your cat finish the kill can be very satisfying and rewarding to him. By contrast, I’ve seen cat owners stop far too soon, putting the toy away midhunt, when the cat is completely revved up to chase and grab over and over again, as a cat would in the course of weakening real prey.
The Happy Ending: Food! After your cat sinks his teeth into or grabs the toy one last time, offer him treats or feed him his regular food. He clearly can’t eat the toy (though some have been known to eat a feather or two—not good), but he may want to eat something, so you’re substituting treat-prey for the toy-prey. It’s the best kind of bait-and-switch. Offer food even if you think your cat is not hungry. Eating and hunting are independently controlled behaviors in cats, and cats will hunt even if they’re already satiated. But if your cat’s intention was to eat and he doesn’t have a chance to do so, he may feel unsatisfied. Some cats will actually drag the toy over to the food bowl after playtime and start eating on their own! Food rewards will also teach your cat to love his prey target. If your cat doesn’t eat the food or treat, that’s okay, too.
CAT’S-EYE VIEW: POWER DOWN THE LASERS, JEDI
As fun as it can be to play with laser lights—“Look at that crazy cat, chasing a spot of nothing!”—laser lights can cause frustration in a cat because he never can catch or grab onto anything. If he feels unsatisfied, he may find ways to complete the hunt with something else he can sink his claws into—like another cat or your ankle.
If you do use the laser light, follow it up with a tangible toy he can “kill.”
Toys with strings and feathers can present hazards to your cat, so be sure to put them away when you’re finished playing.
Companionship and Group Affiliation
You could call companionship a form of stimulation—so be sure to provide your cat with plenty of it. Most pet cats have been socialized to be around humans (or other cats or animals), and they form lasting bonds. Some cats may experience separation anxiety if their people leave on vacation or even for a few hours, or if one of their animal friends suddenly goes absent. Many cats, when left alone for long periods, may develop other behavior problems.
We owners are very important resources for cats. We feed them and boost their confidence and sense of security. So give your cat lots of attention. You’ll not only stimulate her but reduce, and even eliminate, the stress and anxiety that can lead to behavior issues. One great way to give your cat a boost is to let her sleep in your bedroom, whether you’re there or not. New kittens especially love the companionship of other cats.
Clean, Safe, Attractive Places to Eliminate
Even a poor litter box situation usually has something going for it. If there’s something in the box that a cat can dig into, she may still be drawn to a box that is smelly or has some other problem, the same way you might go to a beach even if there’s garbage on it and the water’s too cold. Sometimes you just want to hang out at the beach, right? But proper litter box environment is multifaceted and ultracritical. Your home should have more than one clean, large, accessible, safe, well-lit, and well-situated litter box station. (The number of boxes depends on the number of cats; I’ll get to how many stations in a moment.) A feline utopia in your litter box resources will prevent both unwanted urination and defecation outside of the box and other behavior issues caused by avoidable social tension between cats (see Chapter 7).
Signs that your cat is unhappy with her litter: She doesn’t dig in the litter or sniff it, doesn’t try to cover her elimination in the box, scratches outside her box after eliminating, stands on the edge, puts two paws in, or eliminates just outside of the box.
If your cat gets in the box only to struggle mightily, squatting for a very long time, she may have a urinary health or constipation issue. The same is true if she doesn’t go at all, avoids the box, produces only a tiny amount of urine, or has pinkish or reddish urine. Vocalizations while eliminating can be a sign that your cat is in pain. If your cat is blocked, unable to produce urine, produces pinkish or reddish urine, or vocalizes while eliminating, take her to the vet immediately. These conditions can become quickly life-threatening.
Maintenance Litter Given a choice, cats instinctively prefer the sand used by their wildcat ancestors in the desert. But they’ll happily use a manufactured litter that’s close in texture. Unfortunately, litters are marketed toward you, as if you were going to use it, or your kitty shared your aesthetic preferences. But your cat is the ultimate buyer. I’ve found that for a maintenance litter (to use when your cat hasn’t recently had elimination issues), most cats prefer an unscented, medium-grain clumping litter, or a very fine-grain silica (or sandlike) litter. Both types of litter neutralize smell; the clumping litters do so even more effectively if they contain carbon. The silica sand litter looks and feels like white sand. It’s very light, nontoxic, absorbs urine instead of clumping, and absorbs smell very well. It is the first choice of many veterinarians. There are some silica litters on the market that are full of chemicals and that are made up of large jagged pebbles that can hurt a cat’s paws; you should avoid those. They can be a big deterrent for cats.
I do not recommend corn litters or wheat litters for adult cats. Many cats eat these litters, which can be unhealthy while also conflicting with the elimination drive, but cats instinctively do not like to urinate or defecate in a food source. As a result, I’ve seen hundreds of cats develop an aversion to food-based litters. These litters are also soft in a negative way: Cats’ paws tend to sink in them, which they dislike. I can’t tell you how often food-based litters have wrought havoc on good litter box behavior or made existing issues worse. I also recommend avoiding litters that smell of pine. Pine falls under the category of a (strongly) scented litter, which cats dislike and may avoid.
Kittens need litter that is expressly designed for them. Like human babies, kittens like to put things in their mouths, so I don’t recommend using plastic pellets, clay, or clumping litters for kittens.
It may be that not all of your cats like the same litter, so be sure to have a couple of different kinds of litter available. If you switch brands, do so by gradually mixing ever-increasing quantities of the new litter with the old litter, until the change is complete. That way your cat will get used to the new litter and you’ll minimize the chances of any negative reaction.
Litter Box Cleanliness “The housekeepers clean the box twice a week,” one of my clients proudly told me. Egad! If I could write and appear in a public service advertisement for feline health and happiness, I would put litter box cleanliness at the absolute top of my list of priorities. Your cat spends much of the day cleaning herself. You should not make her job any harder by failing to provide her with a sparkling-clean litter box.
• Two scoops a day keeps the behaviorist away. Ultimately, the frequency of your scooping will vary with your cats’ need for clean boxes, how many they use, and how often certain boxes get used. As you begin the process of finding the right frequency, start with this rule of thumb: If your cats are eliminating properly, scooping once a day may be enough; but I recommend twice-a-day scoopings. If you go on vacation, make sure your sitter maintains the same cleaning schedule you do (or better). If that’s not possible, then you may need to add extra litter boxes while you are out of town. I don’t recommend covered boxes, but if you insist on using one, scoop two to three times daily.
• Change the litter. You can’t keep a box clean forever just by scooping out soiled litter. The scents of feces and urine—so unattractive to kitty—adhere to the remaining litter even when the urine clump and stool is removed, so all of the litter will start stinking soon enough. A good rule of thumb is to completely change clumping litter every few weeks and non-clumping litter (pellets) every day to every week, depending on the cat, the litter, and the smell. To neutralize odors, you can also mist an odor-binding cleaner in your litter boxes. In one study, litter boxes sprayed with such a cleaner were used more than boxes without it, and cats showed greater satisfaction with their litter box.3
• Clean the boxes every few weeks with a mild cleanser (not bleach), then scrub and rinse. If you wait until the box starts to smell, then you have waited too long to clean it—and you may have set your cat on the downward escalator to disliking his litter box situation. Boxes should be replaced every six months, unless they’re made of a nonabsorbent plastic.
Enough Litter Boxes? Add More In a multicat household, it’s important to avoid competition for litter box resources. Otherwise, dominant cats may try to deter other cats away from the box, and cats who want to avoid an altercation will avoid the litter box area—finding their own elimination resource elsewhere (in places you are almost certain not to be happy about!). Many cats also like to be able to choose a box that doesn’t smell very strongly of another cat. One reason may be simple cleanliness, but they may also want to avoid what they perceive as other cats’ territorial marking of the litter box with urine or feces. One sure way to reduce competition and social tension is to increase the number of boxes, locations, and options for the cats. Generally, you should have one box for each cat you own, plus at least one more, or at least one box per floor of a multilevel house, whichever is more. That means that if you have only one cat, but live in a three-story house, you’ll need three boxes. If you have three cats in a single-level home, you’ll need at least four boxes.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Litter box areas and the pathways to them must be well-lit twenty-four hours a day—at least with night lights. Good lighting will immediately make the litter area more visible and friendly at night. Cats can see very well in low light, as much as six times better than we can, but they see even more clearly with more light, and they feel better when they know they can see anything lurking nearby. Some would rather not walk into dark and shadowy areas even during the day.
Box Size and Type A litter box should be uncovered and should be one-and-a-half times the length of your cat. Given a choice, most adult cats (especially the obese) will opt for a jumbo-sized box. My cats revel in large, see-through, low-sided plastic storage containers. If you have soiling problems, and have the space, try them. These containers usually cost the same as or less than a litter box from the pet store, and because they’re less absorbent, they last longer. I recommend boxes about six inches tall, sixteen inches wide, and twenty-one to twenty-three inches long.‡ The box’s walls should be high enough to keep litter in, but low enough that your cat can step in easily. What if your cat likes to kick out his litter? Get a see-through storage container that’s more than six inches high. Make your cat an entrance by cutting a U-shaped opening from the top to about six inches from the bottom. However, if your cat is old, arthritic, or overweight, don’t use a box any higher than six inches. And if you have a kitten that can’t easily scale the side of a regular litter box, you can temporarily provide her with a low-sided litter box especially for kittens.
A note on automatic self-cleaning boxes: The quick answer? If you have or have had elimination issues, stick with your manual box. I’ve seen some cats who like self-cleaning litter boxes, but most would rather go scuba diving.§ Many cats develop aversions to these boxes because their motors make noise during cleaning and the actual litter area is not big enough for most cats. However, most owners can’t clean litter boxes immediately after every use, as the automatic boxes do, so the automatic box’s greater cleanliness might appeal to certain felines. Still, the automatic boxes are by no means maintenance free. You must monitor the level of litter daily and make sure the cleaning rake or mechanism is not gummed up with litter, or worse. If you want to get a self-cleaning box, it should be in addition to an appropriate number of do-it-yourself boxes.
Litter Box Placement Naturally, people have their own vision of how many litter boxes they will have in their home and where they will be located. But our aesthetic sensibilities will never defeat a cat’s instincts. At the end of the day, the cat decides! If you do add new boxes, do not move your cats’ existing boxes unless the location is poor or they never use them. But in considering where to place the new boxes in order to create the feline utopia that will keep your cats happily eliminating where you want them to, use the following list of do’s and don’ts as your guideline.
Do make for easy access. Your cat should not have to run from the second floor down a flight of stairs to the first floor, hurdle a sleeping dog, run a gauntlet of other cats, tumble downstairs to the basement, sprint through a maze of boxes, pole-vault over a baby gate, and crash through a cat door into a dark garage just to eliminate. Well, actually, he most likely won’t do all those things. He’ll go somewhere more attractive and convenient—to him, that is, not to you. Just as you always ask, in malls or airports, “Where’s the closest restroom?” that’s what he wants to know, too. As long as humans love to hide litter boxes away, cats will reciprocate that love by bringing their feces and urine out into the open.
Do spread them out. I’ve worked with many humans who had, say, six cats, and who had all seven litter boxes (a good start!) lined up … in the basement … accessible only by a single kitty door, on the other side of which was Buster the Bully Cat, looming.… Oh! Terribly sorry for the interruption, your timid cat says. Don’t mind me. I’ll just go upstairs on the couch. Aside from the competition and convenience problems, having just one location for boxes fails to respect the fact that some cats want to defecate in a place other than where they urinate. This is probably the biggest error I see clients make.
THE OVERCROWDING PROBLEM
Sometimes it’s not just the litter boxes that are all located in one place but everything dear to a cat. Often set up in basements, these cat habitats are full of toys, litter boxes, food—and other cats. You may think this is like setting up a recreation room for your kids, but it’s more like—to put it in child-speak—creating a situation where the peas touch the carrots and the ketchup and the soccer balls and Uncle Bob’s sweaty gym shorts, too.
Whether you’ve just got a litter box line-up or a full-blown cat habitat, overcrowding of resources is guaranteed to make time-sharing more difficult and to increase the odds of tense meetings in a multicat household. If all the resources are in one place, that means there will be a limited number of pathways to that place, which makes your bully cat’s job of intimidating and guarding that much easier.
An example of good litter box placement is to put the boxes on opposite ends of the house in something like a north, east, south, west configuration. Think of your home as being made up of pathways that cats must take to get to important resources (food, water, resting/perching areas, litter boxes). Place litter boxes on different sides or ends of these pathways. If you increase locations, then, when Angel heads west down the hallway only to confront a waiting Buster, she can turn right around and light out for a box in the east, north, or south.
Do put them out in the open. Open placement of boxes increases your cat’s sense of escape potential and her choice of ways to get into and out of the box. Cats have an innate survival instinct not to put themselves in a vulnerable situation. When she’s in her litter box, your cat should have the best view of her territory in order to see who may be coming into it. When you’re placing boxes, envision your cat in the box and see what she can see in the environment. Will she be able to see who is walking into the room? A common misconception is that cats want privacy, which humans conveniently interpret as a box wedged into a tight spot invisible to guests. For cats, a good vantage point and escape potential will usually outweigh any need for privacy.
Most people would rather not have a box right out in the open. But placement in closets and cabinets, or behind plants or furniture, should be the exceptions, not the rule. If you choose one of these hidden locations, make sure your cats have alternative locations that are more easily accessible and have better vantage points and escape potential. Do keep the litter box safe from dogs and short-legged humans by using a baby gate that your cat can easily jump over, or a pet gate that has a special small door for cats located at the bottom. This will keep Fido and Baby Fred out, but allow Fluffy to saunter in whenever she likes.
Whenever possible, don’t wedge a box up against a wall. The box should have a foot or more of buffer on all sides so your cat can walk all the way around it, sniff, and decide which side to step into. Not only have you increased your cat’s choice of entrances into the box, but the exits as well, which gives the cat her ever-so-important escape potential and, of course, choice.
THE PRIVACY MYTH
A cat’s supposed need for litter box privacy is largely a myth sprung from anthropomorphism. I’ve seen cat owners remodel a part of their home just to seclude the litter box. Add a toilet roll holder and a few magazines, and some of the litter box setups I’ve seen would look just like what a miniature human would want in a bathroom. Cats are not embarrassed to be going to the bathroom. What cats want is safety. When they’re urinating or defecating, they need to feel safe from predators or competitors (real or imagined). That may mean they don’t want to have to eliminate in front of the dog, but more often it means that while they’re immobile and vulnerable, they instinctively want a location with good escape potential and vantage point.
Many of the don’ts are just the opposite of the do’s, but there are a lot of other don’ts as well, summarized below.
Don’t put the litter boxes in high-traffic areas like hallways. Cats’ dislike of commotion is not arbitrary.
Don’t deter your cat from the litter box with obstacles like piles of laundry.
Don’t let him see an outside cat through a window in or on his way to the litter box (see deterrence in Chapter 8)
Don’t put a litter box near anything that could startle a cat with a loud noise, such as a garage door, refrigerator, or washer or dryer. But if you must, give your cats some quieter alternative locations, too.
Don’t put litter boxes only in small, cramped places like the laundry room (which also has the disadvantage of reeking of strong smells such as those of bleach or detergents).
Don’t put boxes in a location where anything bad—fights, hostility, or punishment—has occurred. Cats can have flashbacks. If your cat is near a box where he’s had negative experiences, he may growl, hiss, and even piloerect. Or he may just not use the box.
Don’t put boxes only in a bathroom. Some cats have no problem with their litter boxes in a bathroom, but to others a bathroom might as well be a major train station, given how much traffic in and out there is. They may also dislike the steam and humidity from the shower. If you do put a box in a bathroom that is in frequent use, place an additional box somewhere else so that if the bathroom is occupied and your cat would rather not share, she has a choice.
Don’t put litter boxes next to “nest” items—food, water, and beds. Especially in a small room, nothing associated with a cat’s nest area should be in the same room as the litter box. In the wild, stool or urine near the nest area attracts parasites, predators, and competitors. Keeping the nest area safe from threats is a hardwired survival instinct in a cat, which means that most cats will not eliminate near it. If you can’t place litter boxes and food bowls in different rooms, place them diagonally across the room from one another or erect a visual barrier to create a sense of separation.
A COUPLE OF OTHER BIG DON’TS
Don’t use covered boxes, especially in a multicat household. Covers are for humans, not for cats. There are no equivalents of covered litter boxes in nature; crawling into something like a hole reduces a cat’s view of the terrain and of possible escape routes. Covers also trap smells and produce a Porta-Potty effect, keeping urine and stool moist and extra stinky. Your poor cat can’t plug his acutely sensitive nose. My eyes burn just thinking about it, and I know your cats’ eyes do, too.
If you’re worried about your cat scattering litter, accidentally urinating over the edge of the box, or spraying against a wall while in the box, buy a high-sided storage container as recommended earlier and cut an opening in the side so your cat can easily walk into it.
I have seen many cases where a covered box was the one and only reason a cat stopped using the litter box. Obese, arthritic, and elderly cats often struggle to get into or maneuver about in covered boxes. These too-small boxes are almost always a bit too high-sided for cats with mobility problems. If you already have a covered box, I recommend that you either take the cover off or offer your cat at least two uncovered alternatives in different locations.
Don’t use liners! The crinkly noise can be a deterrent to some cats, their claws get caught in the liner when they scratch to cover up, and if the liner doesn’t exactly fit the box, urine may splatter up against them, which they definitely will not like.
If you’ve read this chapter carefully, you’re well-armed to prevent a great deal of unhappiness in your cats, and the undesirable behaviors that often go hand-in-hand with unhappy cats (making for unhappy owners, too). After I briefly explain the relationship between medical problems and behavior in the next chapter, you’ll be ready to apply the T of the C.A.T. Plan to all the behaviors that will be discussed.
* According to writer Marc Abrahams’s review of a scholarly paper on human cat-food tasters, “[h]uman volunteers rated 13 different commercial pet food samples, concentrating on 18 so-called flavour attributes: sweet; sour/acid; tuna; herbal; spicy; soy; salty; cereal; caramel; chicken; methionine; vegetable; offaly; meaty; burnt flavour; prawn; rancid; and bitter.… The tasting protocols depended on the texture of what was being tasted. When munching on meat chunks people assessed the hardness, chewiness and grittiness (‘sample chewed using molars until masticated to the point of being ready to swallow’). But they gauged gravy/gel glops for viscosity and grittiness (‘sample placed in mouth and moved across tongue’).” See Abrahams, “Pet projects: Can humans tell pâté from dog food?,” The Guardian (May 26, 2009), www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/may/26/improbable-research-pet-food.
† In some species, like cheetahs and pumas, the motor pattern is so tightly wired together that stalking and chasing is absolutely necessary. Amazingly, cheetahs can’t even paw-slap or eat an animal that they haven’t chased first, which is why wobbly newborn calves are safer from cheetahs than older calves that can run. For this fascinating observation I am indebted to Harvard instructor Raymond Coppinger and his wife, Lorna Coppinger, and their book, Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, p. 207 (The University of Chicago Press, 2001).
§ I had a pretty good idea of which automatic boxes available on the market actually worked before The Hammacher Schlemmer Institute recently asked me to do a more controlled study. After testing several models, The Littermaid litter box was my recommendation, just as the Littermaid was the box I’d seen work best in years of house calls for clients.