The most essential information for both potential cat owners and feline fanatics. Find out how to choose, housebreak, groom, and even travel with your feline friend.
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Solving Behavior Problems
In This Chapter
- Why cats do what they do
- Medical reasons for "bad" behavior
- Litter-box avoidance and other problems
- When to get help -- and where to find it
- The controversy over declawing
- Trick-training for cats
Cats are among the easiest of animals to live with as pets, which in part accounts for their massive and ever-growing appeal. Cats are naturally quiet, clean, affectionate, and largely self-sufficient, capable of adapting to any kind of dwelling, any definition of family.
But when things go wrong . . . they go very, very wrong from the human point of view. A cat with a behavior problem such as aggression can be a source of strife and even heartbreak in your family, with the cat the eventual loser. Other cats can ruin your belongings -- covering them with the hard-to-remove stench of urine, clawing them into tatters, or chewing them into bits. Your furniture isn't safe, nor are your houseplants, nor are your own hands, for some cats seem quite deranged at times, purring one minute and biting the next.
To some cat lovers, these behaviors can seem unpredictable, unfathomable, and even spiteful, when, in fact, they're nothing of the sort. What cat lovers call "bad" behavior often makes complete sense to a cat, who's just doing what comes naturally to him, coping with boredom, illness, stress, or change in the way cats have always done. What cat lovers call "problems" are natural behaviors to cats, as much a part of their genetic makeup as super-keen hearing or whisper-soft paws.
To solve problem behavior, you must understand problem behavior.
Unfortunately, too many cat lovers don't even try to understand, reacting instead in the way that makes sense to the human animal -- in anger that can start with physical punishment (which never works on a cat) and can end with a one-way trip to the shelter.
For your cat's sake and for your own, we offer alternatives to spare you both the confusion, anger, and resentment that feline behavior problems cause and to restore contentment and trust in your home -- to help you reclaim the loving relationship you both deserve.
In this chapter, we help you understand what's causing your cat's unwanted behavior and show you how to set up a program to turn the situation into something you both can live with. Your cat's not perfect, and neither are you, and that's something to keep in mind as you work with behavior problems. Problems often take time to develop, and they also take time to fix.
The process takes patience and a certain degree of accommodation on your part. But most cat-behavior problems can be worked out to both your satisfaction. Don't give up. Read on.
The first step in solving any behavior problem is to make sure it's not a medical problem. We can't stress this fact enough. The signs of illness in cats can be very subtle -- see Chapter 9 for more information -- and are often disguised as behavior problems. Talk to your veterinarian before attempting to change your pet's behavior, because your efforts will likely fail if you're working with a sick cat. This advice is doubly true if your cat's behavior change is sudden -- he's likely sick, especially if you can't pinpoint any other environmental changes, such as a new person or pet in the home, as a reason for the behavior change.
Your veterinarian can also guide you with your plans for changing a healthy cat's errant behavior -- or refer you to a behavior specialist who can. Behavior is one of the fastest-growing areas of knowledge in veterinary medicine, a result of the profession's realization that behavior problems end up killing more animals than do diseases. This new emphasis has increased the use of drug therapy to help with behavior problems, including use of some of the same antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications used in human medicine. These medications aren't miracles, but they can give your cat a fresh start as you work to cure behavior problems.
Understanding "Bad" Behavior
Here's an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon and learn a lot about your cat at the same time: Go to your video store and rent a documentary on tigers.
You're certain to be astonished at how much the cat purring in your lap reminds you of this stunning wild cat. The way the tiger walks, with understated elegance and always the promise of power. The way the tiger hunts, still and focused except for the tiniest twitch at the end of the tail.
Now, pay attention to the part of the film about "territory," how tigers need one of their own and how tigers let each other know where one animal's hunting turf ends and another begins.
They rub against things, they spray, and they claw.
Admittedly, seeing a tiger do these things is a lot more dramatic than watching an eight-pound domesticated cat do them. A scent-marking head bump from a tiger may knock a person over. And as for the other two behaviors, you wouldn't even want to be around. If a tiger wants to leave a message (or refresh an old one) he stands up on his hind legs and digs his claws into a tree, putting deep slashes (along with his scent) on the hapless plant. And then, just to make the point a little more emphatic, he turns, faces away from the tree, raises his tail, and squirts a great blast of urine at it. And then he turns again and sniffs, with a gaping expression (called a Flehmen response) that looks like a sneer but is really enabling him to "taste" the smell through a sensory organ in the roof of his mouth.
With no one to yell at him for doing these things to the corner of a couch or a pile of dirty laundry, he ambles off. His world smells the way he thinks it ought to, and he's content.
Now maybe you're beginning to see the problem. The very same things the tiger does to mark territory are natural behaviors for your cat, too. And yet you want your pet to abandon them entirely? We have news for you: It's just not possible. Nor is asking fair.
Fixing feline behavior problems is like taming a tiger: You must work slowly to reshape your pet's natural behaviors in ways that you both can live with.
Looking at the Root of Unwanted Behavior
You're asking a lot of a cat whenever you bring her into your home, and the fact that, in most cases, the situation works as well as it does says a lot about the strength of the love between cats and people. You ask your cat to relieve herself where you want her to instead of anywhere in her territory. You ask her to scratch in one place instead of marking every surface in her life. You ask her to ignore her ability to jump gracefully onto tables and countertops and adjust her naturally nocturnal schedule to your daytime one.
Most cats make the compromises. For those who don't, you need to figure out why before any problem solving can begin. Here are some things to consider:
- Medical problems. As we mention at the beginning of this chapter, behavior problems are often really signs of illness. A cat with untreated diabetes, for example, drinks and urinates frequently, may overwhelm your efforts at keeping the box clean, and starts choosing other sites to relieve himself. A cat who suddenly starts biting may be in pain and is only lashing out to protect himself. A cat with a urinary-tract infection may find urinating painful and come to associate the pain with his litter box. Are you really surprised he's going to stop using it? All the behavior techniques in the world aren't going to cure a medical problem. You'll need your veterinarian's help for that.
- Stress. Cats find change stressful and can react by altering their behavior in an attempt to cope. Maybe a cat marks territory in a home that's just been "invaded" by a new pet or person. In a cat's mind, this behavior makes sense and is calming: Making the world smell like himself is comforting to him, if not to you. You need to calm your cat's stress in other ways, by limiting his territory for a while, for example, or by putting him on medication.
- Unreasonable demands. You need to look at your own role in any behavior problem. Are you asking something of your cat that's not possible for him to give? Your cat may not want to use the litter box you give him if it's rarely clean, for example, and asking him to leave the couch alone is really not fair if he has nothing else in the house to scratch. You need to provide him with some alternatives before you can hope for good behavior.
- Boredom. You've asked your cat to give up the whole world and all you're offering in return is a few hours of your presence a day and maybe a catnip mouse? Boring! Indoor cats need lots of things to keep themselves amused -- lots of toys and lots of games, and lots of attention from you. You needn't spend a lot of money on cat toys -- we've got a section on freebies in Chapter 6 -- but you need to make an effort to help your cat play with them. If you're gone from home a great deal, another cat (or even a dog) may provide your pet with exercise, companionship, and amusement.
- Never trained correctly in the first place. If all you're ever doing is screaming or hitting at your cat, you're probably not teaching him anything except that you're someone best avoided. Physical correction has no place in changing a cat's behavior -- cats just don't understand it. And using such correction just stresses them out, leading to even more problems.
Look at what has been going on in your life. How has your cat reacted to the situation, and how have you? Keep a journal of problems to help you spot and understand trends and to remove some of the emotion involved in living with a problem pet. Realizing that your cat's behavior isn't spiteful or capricious can make the problem easier for you to live with while you work on turning the situation around.
Strategies for Changing Behavior
Unlike dogs, cats don't have a built-in mechanism for working with a family. Dogs take naturally to the idea of a family, because their ancestors lived and hunted in cooperative teams called packs, which have a highly developed social structure. With the exception of lions, cats large and small are solitary hunters, and they're used to taking care of themselves. You can't make cats do what they don't want to do, so to change any behavior, you must offer an alternative you both can accept, even while you work to make the "bad" behavior less appealing.
Your cat loves you and enjoys your company, but if you want to convince him to do things your way, you must answer the quintessential cat question: What's in it for me?
The good news is that cats are creatures of habit. After yours learns where scratching, chewing, or relieving himself is okay, you can put away all the gadgets you've used to convince him.
Reward your cat for good behavior with praise, with treats, with petting, and with games. If your cat uses the scratching post instead of the couch, make sure she knows you approve by playing with her with a cat fishing pole or a toy on a string. Tell her that she's good for using the litter box, for eating her plants instead of yours, and for attacking her toys instead of your slippers. Your cat isn't born knowing the rules of living among humans, and if you make following the rules pleasant, you have much better luck getting her to follow them.
Never hit your cat, and never let her think any discipline is coming from you. Physical discipline is worse than meaningless to cats -- and it can make a situation even worse by making your cat stressed out and afraid of you.
What works in cats is to make them believe that whatever they're doing wrong triggers an automatic response they don't like -- and that you have nothing to do with it as far as they can tell. The couch they used to enjoy clawing is now covered with something they don't like to touch. Every time they get on the counter a tingle of static electricity tingles under their paws or a stream of water hits them in the fanny.
Following is a list of booby traps that work well to discourage cats and help you and your kitty live together in harmony:
- Use water and loud noises: Slyly squirting your cat with a squirt bottle, setting off compressed air in a can (with or without a horn), loudly shaking pennies in an empty soda can, and squeezing a squeaky dog toy (cats don't like the sound, but you can't use this device if you also have a dog, because they do!) are all tools to stop your cat in the middle of a bad act and convince her that maybe a repeat isn't in her best interest.
- Take cover: Covering areas you don't want your cat to touch with double-sided tape, foil or plastic, or plastic carpet runners with the points up is also a good plan. An electric mat called a Scat Mat (available in pet-supply stores and catalogs) that gives off a slight shock is great for furniture and countertops.
- Set wooden mousetraps: Wooden mousetraps are another device to give your cat the message about being where he ought not. Get a few of the kind that aren't prebaited and set them upside-down on countertops or in wastebaskets, with a sheet of newspaper over them. The devices aren't meant to hurt or trap your cat but just to startle him. After he bumps a trap, it jumps and closes with an eye-opening crack, helping to convince your pet that the area you've booby-trapped is better left alone.
- Coat with something icky: Coating something you don't want your cat near with a substance that tastes horrible -- such as Bitter Apple or Tabasco sauce -- is another form of booby-trapping that works in some cases. It doesn't take much: Your cat's sense of smell and taste is very keen!
Sometimes you need to go back to the beginning and reduce your cat's stress by giving her a smaller area for a while, the same as we recommend you do when you first bring your cat or kitten home. (See Chapter 5 for more information on introductions.) This safe room is not a punishment for your cat; on the contrary, it's a relief from whatever's bothering her in a new environment and a chance to refocus her on the behaviors you want -- using a scratching post or a litter box. The safe room is excellent therapy for marking, because your cat doesn't have a large territory to defend.
We want you to play with her and pet her and tell her she's loved. But for short periods -- a week, maybe two, followed by a gradual re-introduction to the house, room by room -- a safe room can ease both your minds and get her retraining off to a good start.
Veterinarians are increasingly able to offer medications to help during the retraining of your cat, drugs that are also used in human medicine to relieve anxiety. These medications can really help, but they're usually a short-term solution. You still need to deal with the underlying problems in order to achieve long-term success. Discuss the use of these medications -- or a possible referral to a veterinary behaviorist --with your veterinarian.
You need to make sure that what you're expecting from your cat is fair in two ways: Are you being reasonable? Are you being consistent?
Being reasonable involves offering your cat alternatives: a litter box and a location he likes, for example, or a scratching post in a choice location. You also need to consider whether you're fulfilling your cat's needs -- is he getting enough exercise and play?
If your cat's constantly in need of something to do and you're not there to play with him constantly -- and few of us are -- consider getting another cat for a playmate. Be aware, however, that not all cats will take to a newcomer. Some are such loners that the addition of another cat may cause more problems than it cures. Unfortunately, there's no way to predict which way your cat will go.
Consistency is about always expecting the same standards of behavior. Letting your pet on the counter while you're both home alone but expecting him to stay off after guests arrive simply isn't fair.
House-training problems -- called inappropriate elimination -- are the number one cause of behavior-related complaints from cat lovers -- and with good reason. No one likes to deal with urine and feces in a litter box, much less in a part of the house you didn't expect to find them. Cats who can't be convinced to use the litter box all too often end up looking for a new home -- and for these animals, the prognosis is grim.
Fortunately, most cases of inappropriate elimination can be solved if you're determined to look at things from your cat's point of view, make a few adjustments, and stay patient.
Although you still need to fix the underlying problems of why your cat isn't going where he should, some medications may help in the short run. Talk to your veterinarian.
The first step in getting your cat to use the litter box is to figure out why he's not using it. Rule out a medical problem -- commonly, a urinary-tract infection. These infections give the cat a "sense of urgency" to urinate even when the bladder is not full, and urinating may even be downright painful in more-severe cases. Your cat may come to associate the use of the box with these unpleasant sensations and so avoids the box. If that's the case, you need to retrain your cat, perhaps by changing the box and litter so that it "feels" different, but probably by using the safe room approach. (More on that in this section.)
Where to find help with behavior problems
Many people are reluctant to seek help if faced with a pet-behavior problem, either because they think the idea of a "pet shrink" is crazy or because they don't think the money would be well spent.
If you're one of these people, think again. Consulting a behaviorist can save you time, money, and aggravation. You save time, because someone with experience in animal behavior can quickly determine the root of the problem, without the emotional baggage that a pet owner may bring to the situation. ("He's doing it for spite!") You save money, because a consultation or two is a great deal cheaper than a new sofa. And aggravation? We don't need to explain that one if you're living with a problem cat.
More importantly, getting help can save your cat's life! Behavior problems are among the top reasons why cat owners "divorce" their feline companions. Here, divorce means giving your pet to another person or animal shelter or worse -- requesting they be euthanatized (a nice way of saying humanely killed -- and often the ultimate result at the adoption shelter) or abandoning your pet to the streets.
Be aware, however, that animal behavior is an unregulated field -- anyone can call himself a behaviorist.
You're best off choosing a veterinarian who's board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. These professionals have gone through years of study in animal health and behavior and have done a residency in the field as well. Your best bet at finding one of these veterinarians is to contact your closest school or college of veterinary medicine's teaching hospital.
People with other academic degrees (such as psychology), general practice veterinarians, and people who've picked up their cat knowledge completely in the field also make themselves available for advising on behavior. You find good and not-so-good people in all three areas, which makes getting recommendations and checking references important.
In addition to checking with your closest school or college of veterinary medicine, check with your own veterinarian or local humane society, any of which may be able to refer you to someone who can help. Some humane societies even offer behavior classes or consulting.
The form the consulting takes varies. Some behaviorists consult by phone, others take appointments with or without your cat, and still others make house calls. Online help is hit and miss, with a lot of unqualified people offering advice. One exception is America Online's Pet Care Forum, where behaviorist Steve Aiken runs the cat area.
If your cat checks out fine, you need to experiment to make sure everything about the box is to his liking. The following list describes some things to consider:
- Cleanliness. Cats are fastidious animals, and if the litter box is dirty, they look elsewhere for a place to go. Think of how you felt the last time you were faced with a dirty public restroom, and you can probably empathize! Attend to the box frequently -- twice a day is ideal -- and make sure that it's completely scrubbed clean and aired out on a weekly basis. Another option: two litter boxes.
- Box type and filler. Many choices people make to suit their own tastes don't match with what their cat wants, and when you're talking boxes and litter, your cat's opinion is the only one that really counts. Many times the offending box or litter is one chosen in an attempt to reduce smell for people -- but your cat can still smell just fine. A covered box may seem more pleasing to you, but your cat may think it's pretty rank inside. Likewise, scented litters may make you think the box smells fine, but your cat may disagree -- not only is the box dirty, he reasons, but it's got this extra "clean" odor he can't abide. Go back to basics: a simple box, a plain litter. Many cats prefer clumping litter, and this variety makes the box easier to keep clean, too. Just skip the deodorizers.
- Location. Your cat's box should be away from his food and water dishes (you don't eat near the toilet, so why should your cat?) and in a place where he can get to easily and feel safe. Consider location from a cat's point of view: Choose a quiet spot where he can see what's coming at him. A cat doesn't want any surprises while he's in the box. You should also experiment with additional boxes in your house, especially if you've got more than one cat. Urine and feces are weapons in a war over territory: Some cats share boxes; many don't.
Make the area where your cat has had mistakes less attractive by cleaning thoroughly with a pet-odor neutralizer (available in pet-supply stores or catalogs) and covering with foil, plastic sheeting, or plastic carpet runners with the points up to discourage reuse of the area. Enzymatic pet-mess cleaners take time to work, so figure on keeping the area blocked off for at least a couple of weeks.
If this procedure doesn't clear up the problem, you may need to retrain your cat by keeping him in a small area for a few days. Make sure that the safe room has no good options besides the litter box --no carpet, no pile of dirty laundry. Block off the bathtub -- keep an inch of water in it to discourage its use as a place to go. After your cat is reliably using the litter box, let him slowly expand his territory again. As long as you keep up your end of the bargain and keep the litter box appealing, he should keep up his end, too.
The application of urine to mark territory is different from the release of urine to eliminate waste from the body. Urine-marking is called spraying, and the strategies for addressing it are different from those that you use in getting a cat to use a litter box. The cat who's marking territory backs up to the object he wants to mark and sprays urine backward, with his tail held high and quivering, alternating his weight on his back feet.
Although both male and female cats spray, unneutered males are the biggest offenders, followed by unspayed females in season. The first rule of dealing with this stinky problem is to make sure that your pet is neutered -- this procedure takes care of the problem in 90 percent of the cases if done before sexual maturity is attained, at about six months.
For those cats who don't respond to neutering, environmental stresses -- such as a new person in the house or a neighbor's cat in the yard -- may be triggering the spraying. Anti-anxiety drugs may help, as can cleaning sprayed areas thoroughly and covering them with foil to discourage fresh marking. (Cats dislike anything involving foil, and the sound of urine hitting the stuff really annoys them.) Don't hit your cat for spraying, even if you catch him in the act -- doing so makes him even more insecure and likely to mark.
A few days of isolation in a safe room may break the spraying routine. (See the section "Calm kitty," earlier in this chapter, and also the use of safe rooms as discussed in the "Introductions" section of Chapter 5.)
Maybe your cat is trying to tell you something with his spraying. In her entertaining book Hiss and Tell: True Stories From the Files of a Cat Shrink (Crossing Press), behaviorist Pam Johnson writes about a man whose cat sprayed his new wife's work clothes every evening. In the end, he discovered that the woman was having an affair with a coworker, and the cat was reacting to the smell of the other man on the wife's clothing. Pretty smart!
Attacking Other Problems
We've really given you the keys to solving most problems you may face earlier in this chapter: Make sure that your cat has no health problems and then make sure that what you want your cat to do is more attractive than what you don't want him to do. The same rules apply for other cat problems, but we've included a few more tips in the following sections to help you cope with some specifics.
Gina gets calls all the time from readers who are astonished that their dogs consider the contents of a litter box some kind of special treat. These folks are always desperate for an end to this disgusting habit.
As incredible as the thought seems to humans, many dogs do indeed consider cat feces to be every bit as wonderful as dog biscuits -- they're drawn to the undigested protein.
Faced with constant supply and ready access, no dog can resist for long, which is why efforts to train a dog to leave the litter box alone are rarely successful. The better plan is to restrict access, which you can accomplish in many ways, including those described in the following list:
You need to do a little detective work and figure out what's causing your cat to bite or claw you. Aggression takes many forms, and the solution depends on the cause, some of which may be as follows:
- Fear or pain. If your cat is striking out because he's afraid or hurting, your best bet is to leave him alone and work on the underlying problem. A cat in pain or fear has his ears flat back against his head and his body rolled into a defensive posture low against the ground with claws up and ready. This cat is saying, "Don't come near me!" You need to let your cat calm down -- hide if need be -- before you can get your veterinarian to check her out. Often under these circumstances that carrier your cat seems to hate will seem like a haven. Place the carrier with the door wide open in the room with your cat. Your cat may choose to go in there and this may save you the "fight" of trying to force your cat to enter the carrier for the trip to the veterinarian. Remember: Don't fight with your cat. You will lose.
- Overstimulation. You're petting your cat and suddenly he grabs you with his claws and teeth. Not a full-powered attack, but you've still got those sharp tips around your hand. What to do? In the short run, freeze. Don't fight your cat or you may trigger a real bite. Sometimes smacking your other hand hard against a hard surface -- a table top, for example --may startle your cat into breaking off the attack. If you stay still, however, he usually calms down and releases you.
That's the solution if you've gotten to the attack stage. The better option is to be familiar with your cat and his body language and stop petting before he becomes overstimulated. Cat lovers often think such attacks come without warning, but the fact is that they missed the warning signs of a cat who's simply had enough. The tail is the key: If your cat starts twitching his tail in a jerky fashion, time to call off the petting has arrived. If you watch your cat's body language -- more on that subject in Chapter 12 --you can slowly build up your petting time. Three pats, then four, then five. Push up to, but never over, your cat's level of tolerance and build slowly on your successes.
Often these "I've had enough" attacks come if you've been petting your cat's belly. This is a very sensitive area for cats, and even if yours offers it to you, you're better off petting somewhere else. One reason is sexual in nature: Your male cat becomes aroused when his belly is rubbed, and reacts with a bite because that's what feline mating behavior involves. (For more on cat sex -- it hurts! --see Chapter 14.)
- Play aggression. Sure, it hurts all the same, but the cat who pounces on your feet and then careens off the wall isn't trying to hurt you --he's playing. You need to increase your play sessions with your cat with an appropriate toy, such as a cat fishing pole or toy on a string -- not one of your body parts -- to help your cat burn off his excess energy before you try for a quiet pet session. Let him know that attacks on you are not permitted by letting him have it with a blast from an air horn or a spray bottle. A little Bitter Apple on your hand can help, too.
- Redirected aggression. Your cat sees another cat, an intruder, outside your living-room window. He becomes enraged. You walk by, and he nails you. What gives? You were just the victim of redirected aggression. This one's tough to fix. Try to discourage strange cats in your yard: Thump on the window or put the air horn out the door and give them a blast.
Use your squirt bottle, air horn, or other deterrent to discipline your cat if you see him on countertops and tables. As much as possible, try to stay out of sight so that your cat associates the annoyance with the table or counter. A Scat Mat (a plastic mat that gives off a tingle if touched) is great for this: It disciplines your cat when you're not around, and from the ground, your cat can't tell whether it's still there or not.
Most "interior redecoration" done by cats is a result of them doing what comes naturally -- chewing, clawing, and even digging. You need to work to convince your cat to leave your things alone while offering him places where he can be a cat and not get in trouble.
You need to start on this project by getting your cat a good scratching post or cat tree. (See Chapter 6 for information on these items.) A cat tree or post must be stable enough for your cat to climb and pull on, covered with material your cat can dig her claws into, and put in a prominent area so that your cat uses it.
After you've got the post or tree in place, encourage your cat to use it by teasing her with a cat toy and praising her for digging in her claws. If your cat enjoys catnip, rub some on the post to encourage her to spend more time there and give her treats for being on the tree as well. Make sure that she knows in no uncertain terms that climbing and clawing are perfectly fine and encouraged on her scratching post or cat tree. Don't put her paws on the post, however -- cats don't like to be "forced" to do anything!
Make sure that the post you choose isn't covered in the same texture of carpet as that in your house or your cat may have a hard time making the distinction between why clawing carpet on the post is okay but not on the floor. Better yet: Choose a post or tree covered with sisal, a rough-textured rope material cats love to dig into.
When aggression can't be fixed
We feel you must never forget that the combination of agility, climbing acumen, sharp claws and teeth, and a stubborn streak larger than any one person could ever possess combine to make most any cat someone you don't want to get on the wrong side of. We do not wish to instill fear or shy you away from the joys of living with a cat, but we do want to emphasize a couple of things.
Unless you feel very competent at restraining cats, never attempt to force your cat to do anything using any but the most gentle of physical means. The best way to deal with a cat who has gone "over the edge" is to leave him alone. Do not try to restrain or punish him. Leave the room or let him leave the area and find a quiet place to calm down.
If you ever find yourself facing a vicious cat, call for help. Occasionally a cat will seem to go nuts, sometimes for no reason at all, and Paul has experienced this first-hand. The following experience is fortunately quite rare. We hesitated to even include it -- but felt it our responsibility to do so.
Paul once found himself rushing to rescue his sister from her beloved cat, who had suddenly turned aggressive and imprisoned her within a single bedroom (with a phone, luckily) in her New York City apartment. Thinking this was humorous, Paul entered the apartment to find a cat who had gone crazy and quickly convinced Paul that his only safe haven was on the terrace.
Paul will never forget watching this once-friendly cat lunge at the plate-glass window trying to reach him. Talking with his sister through the bedroom window, Paul convinced her to call animal control, which finally came and captured the cat with appropriate equipment. Unfortunately, this cat never calmed down and had to be euthanatized. Although a postmortem examination did not reveal any explanation for the sudden rage behavior, Paul believes this must have been a medical problem with an unfortunate outcome. This sort of thing is very rare, but it emphasizes that, should you ever find yourself facing an uncontrollable feline, seek safety and call for help.
Now that we have scared you, let us reassure you that you are unlikely to ever face such a situation. It has certainly not caused Paul to abandon cat ownership, nor has it ever caused him to dissuade anyone from cat ownership -- quite the contrary!
Make the areas you don't want your pet to touch less appealing during the retraining process by covering them with foil, plastic sheeting, or plastic carpet runners with the pointy side out. Use double-sided tape generously as well -- cats hate the feel of sticky stuff under their paws. You can still use the furniture yourself by applying the foil, plastic, or what-have-you to pieces of cardboard that you can lift off if you want to sit down.
Because clawing is also a territory marker, move the cat tree into a prominent place, near that clawed corner of the couch in the center of the room, now covered with deterrents. Praise your cat for using the post instead. Move the post slowly -- a few inches a day --to a place more to your taste.
If you catch your cat clawing, squirt with a spray bottle or use another distracting device. Try to stay out of sight whenever you do so and don't lose your temper. Remember: The idea is to get the cat to believe that the furniture itself is doing the disciplining. ("Wow, I put my claws in there and got water on me!")
Yes, your house is going to look pretty ugly for a while, with cat deterrents all over the furniture and a cat tree in the middle of the room. You must live with it until your cat's new pattern of clawing only where acceptable is established. If you're patient and consistent, that new pattern will eventually take root.
For some cats, nail tips help with clawing problems. Glued onto the nails every six weeks or so, these Soft Paws tips even come in a variety of colors.
Keeping your cat's nails trimmed is another way to reduce his destructive capabilities. For instructions on how to do this task safely, see Chapter 7.
The plant terminator
Plants and cats are natural together, at least from the cat's point of view. The leaves are good for nibbling, and if the pot has the room -- and it doesn't need much -- the soil looks like a suitable alternative to the litter box.
Pity that people don't see things the same way.
The key to peaceful coexistence between cats and houseplants is to give your kitty a garden of her own and make the rest of the plants as undesirable or as hard to get to as possible. We've put a list of cat-friendly plants in Chapter 8; keeping fresh greens growing takes care of your cat's need to nibble. As for your other plants, here are some tips on keeping them safe from kitty:
- Make the pots unattractive. Use foil or plastic carpet runners with the pointed-side up under the pots to discourage your cat from approaching, and put decorative rock over the soil to discourage digging.
- Make the plants taste bad. Putting Bitter Apple or Tabasco sauce on the leaves makes your cat think twice about munching.
- Convert them all to hanging plants. If all else fails, this strategy is by far the most successful for keeping plants untouched around a determined leaf-chewer.
Don't count on any deterrent to keep your cats from plants that are toxic -- don't have them in your house, period. We've included a list of toxic plants from the National Animal Poison Control Center in Chapter 21.
Should you consider declawing?
If any one topic is sure to produce a discussion among cat lovers, it's declawing. The procedure is widely performed to end scratching and is just as widely vilified. Some breeders and humane societies refuse to place a cat or kitten with any adopter who doesn't promise not to declaw. Even Paul and Gina don't agree on the subject.
Declawing is the surgical amputation under general anesthesia of the last part of the toe -- comparable to the removal of your fingertip at the first joint. The skin is glued or stitched over the exposed joint, the feet bandaged, and the cat sent home to heal for the next couple weeks. In most cases, only the front claws are removed.
Although the procedure is a successful way to curb destructive behavior, Gina feels that, too often, declawing is performed at the first sign of clawing or -- worse -- is considered as automatic a part of owning a cat as vaccinations. Paul believes that although perhaps not what your cat would choose, done properly, the short-lived and very controllable discomfort that results from declawing is easily justified when you consider that for many cat-owning families there is not agreement on the value of the cat to the household. To those who are not the cat lovers in the house, the cat will lose when it comes down to a choice between the leather couch or the cat.
Scratching is natural and satisfying for cats, and you owe your pet the effort to teach him to scratch in appropriate places before you opt to declaw him. But although Gina feels that declawing should be reserved for those cats who can't be reformed and are facing euthanasia because of their behavioral problems, Paul argues that many cat owners know their tolerance for destruction and many just do not want to even risk damaging their furniture and opt for declawing as a preventive measure.
Paul adds that frequent attention to trimming your cats nails -- keeping the points off -- can accomplish the task nearly as well, but most people just aren't religious enough about this task to stay ahead of the risk to the furniture.
By the way, Paul's cat, PC, is not declawed. She and Paul have an understanding that she abides to and so the issue has not needed to be addressed.
One thing that Gina and Paul agree on concerning declawing: If you do choose to declaw your cat, you must keep him inside -- without his claws, he's less able to defend himself against dogs and other dangers; he can't swat and has a harder time climbing to safety if attacked. (Although don't ever think for a moment that declawing diminishes the threat posed by a good sharp set of cat teeth!)
The cloth chewer
Some cats like to chew and suck on clothes, especially wool sweaters -- a problem behaviorists call "wool chewing." This destructive habit was originally thought to be associated with a cat who'd been weaned too young, but now behaviorists believe that the tendency is genetic and more common in some breeds or mixes -- such as the Siamese or other Orientals -- than in others.
Increasing fiber in the diet (such as adding a teaspoon of canned pumpkin daily) may help, as may offering substitute chew articles such as sheepskin-covered dog toys. Regular, active play sessions also may help your cat shed some of his excess energy.
Wool chewing is one of those cases where the most effective way to change your cat's behavior is to change your own. Keep the objects of your cat's obsession out of reach in closed hampers or drawers!
The trash cruiser
You can foil the cat who gets into wastebaskets by using a single, marvelous innovation -- a can with a lid. Why struggle with your cat if a pop-up lid fixes the problem? Another alternative: Put the basket behind a cupboard door.
Mousetraps in the top of the trash startle your cat, and double-sided tape along the rim discourages him. These deterrents also make using the basket a little harder for you, which is why we prefer the lid-it-or-hide-it approach.
Some cats are chattier than others; indeed, "talkativeness" is an adored breed trait in the Siamese and other Orientals. If you've got a noisy Siamese, to a certain extent you're just going to have to live with the problem -- in other words, you can't change the stripes on a tiger!
Some noisiness is inborn: Kittens call to their moms when they want something. Some noisiness is actually trained into cats by humans. If you hop up and accommodate her every time your cat demands something -- to be fed or let out or in -- you've taught her that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Even in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn.
To retrain your cat, resolve not to give in to her demands. If you start out by ignoring her yowling and then give in anyway, you've taught her that all she needs to do to get her way is to make more noise, not less. Correct her for the noise -- with a shot of air or water -- and then go about your business. She gets the point soon enough that her demanding gets her nowhere. Realize that in the short run your cat will be even more insistent. If you give in, you're sunk. So don't. This, too, shall pass.
Can your cat learn a trick or two?
Some people point to the dog's ability to learn obedience commands and tricks as proof that the dog is smarter than the cat. Others point to the same as proof that the cat is smarter than the dog.
We're not going to get into that argument. The important thing to remember is that cats and dogs are different in how they relate to us. Dogs have an ingrained need to be part of a family structure -- to have a job to do within that family. Dogs are that way because wolves are that way -- survival depends on the family, or pack.
The cat came from a different place -- from solitary hunters who didn't need teamwork to survive. If you want to put a good spin on it as a cat lover, you could say that dogs need to be with us, but cats choose to.
Because of this distinction, you absolutely cannot get a cat to do something he doesn't want to. Something must be in it for him. With training tricks, that something is usually food (although some cats will work for a toy, or petting). Teach the cat an association between a word -- such as "sit" -- and an action by using treats and praise.
According to animal trainer Anne Gordon, in her book Show Biz Tricks for Cats (Adams), you start teaching the "sit" command with a hungry cat, a table, and a quiet room. Get your cat to stand up by touching her in front of her tail and then hold the treat a little over her head, saying her name and the command "sit." Slowly move the treat between your cat's ears, but not high enough for her to pick her front paws off the ground and grab the tidbit. Instead, she'll sit. After she does, praise her and give her the treat. Work in short sessions and be patient. Your cat eventually gets the idea!
Sound crazy? Gordon has trained dozens of animals -- including many cats -- for commercials, TV shows, and movies. Her book offers precise instructions for teaching 30 tricks, including jumping through a hoop, climbing a ladder, and rolling over. Great fun!
Meet the Author
Gina Spadafori Gina is the author of the best-selling Dogs For Dummies, which was given the President's Award for the best writing on dogs and the Maxwell Medallion for the best general reference work, both by the Dog Writers Association of America. With top avian specialist Dr. Brian L. Speer, she has also written Birds For Dummies.
Along with Dr. Paul D. Pion, she was given the CWA's awards for the best work on feline nutrition, best work on feline behavior, and best work on responsible cat care for the first edition of Cats For Dummies. She and her pets divide their time between Northern California and South Georgia/North Florida.
Paul D. Pion , DVM, Diplomate, ACVIM (Cardiology):Paul is co-founder, president, and CEO of the Veterinary Information Network, Inc., and a boardcertified veterinary cardiologist. Paul has been awarded a Physician's Science Award by the National Institutes of Health, a Small Animal Research Award by Purina, the National Phi Zeta Award for one of the two most outstanding manuscripts in 1989, and a Special Recognition Award by the American Animal Hospital Association for innovations in the field of veterinary medicine.
Paul graduated from the veterinary college at Cornell University and has taught in the veterinary school at the Univesity of California, Davis. While at UCD, he made an important research discovery that has touched the lives of every cat in the world: He proved that deficiency of a single amino acid, taurine, was casuing heart disease in cats. His discovery was published as a cover article in SCIENCE, one of the most competitive and respected research journals and, more important, led to the reformulation of the world's cat foods and the virtual eradication of a heart disease that afflicted tens of thousands of cats annually in the late 80's.
Paul lived in Davis, California, with his wife, veterinarian Dr. Carla Weinberg, sons Luca and Joel, and a house full of pets.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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As with all of the DUMMIE books I have read (and there have been many) this Cat book is both informative and entertaining. It is fairly comprehensive in scope and is both worthwhile for new cat owners and those who have shared homes with cats for years. The format of the book and the presentation of subject matter was reader friendly. This book should encourage readers to become new cat owners and those with cats it will offer a deeper understanding particularly if they are experiencing problems or issues with their pet. I highly recommend this book to all readers with cats.
Are you having problems with your furry feline? Or mabye you just want to know more about her. All your questions will be answered if you read this book!
Gina Spadafori has saved the feline species as we know it. In the long history of domestication, no human being has so completely understood the way cats operate. Her expertise on the care and, more importantly, the loving of cats is so detailed, I began to wonder if the book hadn't been written by a cat. Imagine that! A cat who could write a book!
The authors of this fine book have done a great job of compiling information for cat owners and cat lovers into a handy guide. The pictures used in this edition add to the beauty and enjoyment a reader gets from this book. WELL DONE!
I am an avid collector of cat and dog books. I received this for Christmas 2014 and I loved it instantly. I have quite a few other cat books, but this one is definitely the most informative. Beautiful pictures as well. 5 stars all the way. No cat owners book collection is complete without cats for dummies!
Ok just start it like leo started - hannah
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A beautiful she bobcat walked in. Hello may I help?
Is this book about cat owners or the animaal caats