Welcome to the Cat Division

The Cat Division of the IAABC offers opportunities to both seasoned and aspiring professional Cat Behavior Consultants. We encourage members to share with and learn from one another in IAABC's online educational venues, including discussion lists, guided studies, case study tutorials, mentoring, and networking. We work together to establish guidelines for dealing with cat behavior issues and toward the goal of enhancing the lives and relationships of cats and their people.

The Not So Touchy-Feely Feline!

Ingrid Johnson on April 16, 2014

Leave me alone.
Leave me alone.

Petting induced aggression, over-stimulation, petting intolerance, hypersensitivity to touch, short fused personality-call it what you will all of these terms mean your cat is not so touchy-feely! Similarly to some people, some cats just want to be with you but not constantly touched or pet. I’m sure we all have a friend out there that wants to hug you every time you see them but perhaps you just saw them yesterday and you don’t feel the need to hug them! Cats can be the same way and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The key to managing and dealing with your over-stimulated cat is to recognize the signs that they are growing displeased with the petting. If your cat is sitting beside you on the sofa and you’re petting them and you see their tail start to flick and switch back-and-forth in an agitated short, quick, motion or you see their ears go flat or their skin ripple, twitch and roll then stop touching them! I call this the equivalent of the kitty heebie-jeebies. These cats often want to be with you but not necessarily be touched the entire time so that means if on the fifth stroke you would normally get swat or bitten stop at three. The key with these cats is to always leave them wanting more. In other words, stop before you push them to the point where they feel the need to lash out at you. They don’t have any other way of saying, “that’s enough, thank you”. So the cat either gets up and walks away, swats at you or bites you. The problem is that many people don’t recognize that the cat has given you many warnings prior to one of those three things happening, you just weren’t listening!

Another great tip for these cats is to simply find other activities to bond with them. Most cats that have petting intolerance also do not like a lot of brushing or grooming. Find ways to spend time with your cat such as interactive play via a lure toy instead of constant touching. Even cats with petting intolerance usually enjoy a good chin or cheek scratch, so stick to the head when petting.

Additionally, I find that many cats with this problem are also obese and they never get to touch down their own back with their own tongue while grooming themselves. So when we pet them down their back it’s a very sensitive area since it never gets touched in their self-grooming process. Part of the beauty of having a multi-cat household, as so many people do these days, is you may have one cat with petting intolerance and others that love affection and relish and it. Accept each individual for who they are and try not to make them something they are not.

Those Perplexing Feline Body Postures!

Ingrid Johnson on March 29, 2014

Clients often express to me that they think their cat does not like them, is ignoring them or is a snob. This prompts further questioning, “Why do you think your cat doesn’t like you, I ask?” The most common reply is, “he sits with his back to me; he shuns me.” They are always surprised by my answer. “Your cat trusts you,” is my reply. Cats are constantly self- preserving, which means most of the time they really want to be sure that they are safe and “have their back”. A cat that is confident enough to sit in the middle of your living room with their back toward you feels comfortable in the home and is showing you that it is trusting of your presence. The exact opposite of how most humans interpret this behavior.

Sleeping is also a vulnerable position for the cat. This is an obvious time when they could fall victim to an attack by another predator or a rival cat. Remember that even your pampered indoor house cat, is still a cat! The cat is a species that is both predator and prey. Instincts override all of the comforts we provide and all of the amenities they enjoy. So the next time your little love bug decides that curling up on your lap is the best place to sleep or snuggles into bed with you at night, that’s a compliment folks!

Which brings us to another perplexing and often misunderstood feline behavior, the belly, to rub or not to rub, that is the question isn’t it? So many clients carry over our knowledge from the dog, a species we as humans have lived with much longer than we have lived with cats. We know more about the dog as a whole, their social order, their body language etc. After all, we domesticated them intentionally to meet our needs. So often I hear, “my cat is belly up and showing me submission.” Submission, however, is not a common component in a cat’s behavioral repertoire. They will typically retreat, otherwise known as “flight” or stand their ground and engage otherwise known as “fight”.

So do you touch the belly or not?? The answer to this can be variable. Other body language needs to be observed to help make this decision as does the surrounding circumstances. It could be an indicator that your cat is feeling relaxed and in a loving mood. Perhaps your cat enjoys belly rubs and you are ready know how and when to interpret their wishes based on previous experience. If their ears are pointed forward and erect and their pupils are not dilated, the tail is calm and not flicking, then the coast is likely to be clear. It is also important to note that some cats, when feeling safe and secure, will sleep this way, again, showing trust and comfort, but are not interested in having this very vulnerable place touched. The most common and instinctual reason for belly exposure is when two cats are engaging in play or about to have an altercation. The cat that flops onto its side exposing its belly is NOT being submissive; it is exposing all of its weapons. The cat that is in standing position best watch out because it is about to get greeted with teeth and four paws full of claws! If the ears are flat back against the head, the tail is flicking from side to side and your cat seems wound up and agitated, it probably is, and sticking your hand in the mix is not recommended. Respect this; this is not a funny way to play with your cat. Instead, stuff a kick pillow or other large toy in their belly and let them attack that!

In fact, this is one of the most common problems of learned aggression. Cats that are allowed to play with hands and feet inappropriately continue to do so throughout life and it can be a very challenging problem to resolve. Many are euthanized every year simply because someone taught them to “play” this way. It is not cute or funny. This type of play typically starts when the cat is just a kitten. Acting ferocious seems cute and entertaining, but when that cat is a full grown 12 pound carnivore, that does not know the power of its own bite, it hurts, a lot! This is one of the most common reasons clients seek my behavioral help and it could all be avoided if we just played with our kittens with toys instead of our hands.

Since the cat has now surpassed the dog in popularity it is imperative that cat guardians learn more about these normal behaviors so that we can all “speak the same language” and communicate better. It will create understanding instead of misinterpretation that can lead to so many negative assumptions. Please take the time to understand your cat, and what they are trying to tell you. If you are unsure, please ask I am here to help!

Does your cat know your voice?

Mikel Delgado, CCBC on August 05, 2013

How do our cats recognize us (if they do!)? Most likely, they use multiple cues – our appearance, our scent, our mannerisms, and likely, our voices. Some scientists recently examined whether cats can recognize us by one cue alone – the sound of our voices calling their names (Saito & Shinozuka, 2013)

The study has generated a fair amount of attention, and some misleading (or just ridiculous) headlines, such as:

  • Your cat is only PRETENDING to ignore you: How cats can understand their owners’ voices but play dumb as a form of survival
  • Researchers: Cats Recognize and React to Owner’s Voice (When They Feel Like it)
  • Cats showcase facial and voice recognition of their owners
  • Study: Cats may not be as aloof as they seem
  • Asshole Cats Acknowledge Your Existence in Imperceptible Ways

Note that most of these headlines play into the stereotype of cats as aloof, independent and well, just jerky (something I think most cat owners would argue is not exactly…errr…accurate). So what exactly did the researchers do and find? Do you agree with their conclusions? Or those of the media?

Twenty cats participated in the study. Each session had five trials. The experimenters played the sounds of three strangers calling a subject cat’s name in a manner similar to the owner, matching for sex, tone and other phonological elements (trials 1-3). Then they played a recording of the owner calling the cat’s name (trial 4), and lastly, played the sound of a final stranger calling to the cat (trial 5). The expectation was that cats would habituate (show less responding) to the sound of their name as the three strangers called their name, but if they could recognize their owner’s voice, they would show increased responding on that fourth trial.

The experimenters videotaped the cats during the presentation of the sounds, later coding for behaviors such as ear movement, pupil dilation and vocalization and magnitude of the cat’s response. Head and ear movements were the most common responses of cats to hearing their names called by their owners.

Fifteen of the 20 cats showed habituation to having their name called by three different strangers. Habituation is a decrease in responding to repeated presentation of a stimulus (Domjan, 2009). The five cats who did not habituate were dropped from the rest of the analysis. Results showed that cats who “habituated” were likely to show less responding at the third strangers call, and that their responding increased when they heard their owner’s voice. However, response did not decrease on the fifth trial, to the sound of the fourth strangers’ voice.

So are you convinced that cats recognize their owner’s voices? There are some potential issues with the study that leave me less than completely bowled over. A typical habituation experiment repeats the same stimulus until the subject (human or animal) stops (or significantly reduces) responding. Perhaps the effects could have been easier to find if the calls were not each from different people. In this experiment, since each trial had a different voice, there may have been some “dishabituation” on every trial due to the fact that every stimulus was actually different. Since 25% of the cats in the study did not habituate, it may have been more effective to increase the number of habituation trials before testing the cats.

The actual number of behaviors observed was very small – the cats showed an average of one or so behaviors in response to the third voice (indicating habituation) but only an average of around 1.5 behaviors in response to their owner. This was also less responding than on the first trial, which averaged two behavioral responses. While the difference between the responses on the third trial and responding to the owner’s voice was statistically significant, in that it showed a higher level of responding than expected by chance to the owner compared to the third stranger, I will let readers decide whether they feel this is a strong demonstration of owner recognition.

Given the low number of behaviors demonstrated by cats in general, the experiment could have also included a baseline condition to see the normal level of these behaviors in cats (ear twitching, head movement) in the absence of any auditory stimulus. Perhaps cats already perform these behaviors at around the same rate (1-2 behaviors) without having their name called.

Finally, I would suggest that there may be better or other measures of responding to human voices. Other studies have used approach (to speakers when a sound is projected) as a measure of response to auditory cues.

The authors concluded that the cats responded to their owner’s voice, although only through orienting behaviors (and not via vocalization or other body movements). They said this contrasted with dogs, because dogs understand social cues including pointing gestures and facial expressions. My main problems with this conclusion are that the experimenters didn’t examine either of those behaviors in this study, so it seems erroneous to include that in their conclusion; and researchers have already found that cats can use human points to find hidden food (Miklosi, Pongracz, Lakatos, Topal, & Csanyi, 2005). They then conclude that there are differences in the human-pet relationships of cats and dogs, and ground this in the framework of cats’ self-domestication.

The media conclusions are a bit concerning – the study did not examine facial recognition (“Cats showcase facial and voice recognition of their owners”), and “playing dumb as a form of survival” was not addressed, aside from noting that cats have not been domesticated to “take orders” from humans, unlike dogs. This demonstrates the importance of going to the source literature whenever possible (even if you’re reading my blog posts).

While this study is far from perfect, it does contribute to the current (and greatly lacking) area of study on cat-human relationships and social cognition in domesticated cats. I’d love to see more research on cat-human interactions, looking at other modalities of recognition and response. It does demonstrate some support that our voices are just one of the possible ways that our cats recognize and become attached to us.

References:

Domjan, M. P. (2009). Principles of learning and behavior. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Miklosi, A., Pongracz, P., Lakatos, G., Topal, J., & Csanyi, V. (2005). A comparative study of the use of visual communicative signals in interactions between dogs (Canis familiaris) and humans and cats (Felis catus) and humans. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 119(2), 179-186. doi: 10.1037/0735-7036.119.2.179

Saito, A., & Shinozuka, K. (2013). Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus). Animal Cognition, 16(4), 685-690. doi: 10.1007/s10071-013-0620-4

Species Specific Behaviors and How They Present as Behavior Challenges in the Home : Part Three

Ingrid Johnson on July 29, 2013

Welcome to Part Three of an informative series on the fantastic feline senses and how these innate behaviors can present as behavior challenges in the home environment. If you are just joining the discussion please refer to Parts One and Two of the series.

Vertical Space

cats on a climbing tree

Cats have an innate need to climb and seek refuge up high. Cats are the most three dimensional species with which we share our homes. They typically feel most secure when they can view their world from a place of concealment and gain control over their environment from a single vantage point. This can pose a nuisance to clients who either do not realize this need or want to fight this natural instinct. Giving cats an appropriate place to seek height is the best and easiest way to control this natural behavior. If acceptable outlets are not provided, the cat will find one. Locations may include the top of the refrigerator, kitchen cabinets, entertainment center or closet shelf. If these are places you would rather your cat not frequent than you must provide a cat condo, cat tree or a bed up high in a location that you can tolerate. Much like the need to scratch and groom, the safety and comfort of vertical space is a trait that must be accepted and appropriately provided for rather than unrealistic attempts to control or cease it entirely.

Predation/Hunting/Play

cat caught a dragonfly

Normal hunting behaviors and a cat’s normal predatory nature is a species specific component that factors into a cat’s internal clock and potential interest in the provided toys. Cats are crepuscular, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk. This is an essential feline trait as much of their prey is also active during these hours. This can cause problems in some homes as many clients’ schedules conflict with this routine. At a time when most families are sleeping in the morning or just winding down their day in the evening is when the cats are saying “hey, let’s play now!”

Predators like to chase and hunt most anything that moves. Human directed aggression is another example of how the cats’ need to hunt and perform normal behaviors can manifest as a behavior problem. This is particularly true of poorly socialized single kittens, kittens that were not among their peers for appropriate sparring, and cats that were taught that biting hands and chasing feet is a game. This is a common behavioral challenge that requires understanding of normal feline behavior to successfully overcome. Prevention is the best option, so never ever play with your hands with your cat as this behavior problem is learned directly from humans!

Additionally, cats are prey specific. They will typically hunt the exact same species of mouse or bird that their mother taught them to hunt. This particularity can make it a challenge to find just the right toy for your cat. Many clients end up spending money on toys their cat has no interest in. Proper toy selection is a necessary part of successful playtime with your cat. During this time of trial and error I encourage patience, and suggest that toys that are of little interest are never a waste as most people have friends, family, or a local shelter who would welcome the donation.

This prey preference also reminds us that we do not need to offer every flavor of food under the sun. We humans tend to anthropomorphize and think that our pets want and need variety the same way our human palate craves variety. In fact, they do not. Stick with one or two of your cat’s favorite flavors of food and you are good to go! This will also leave you with something to offer if your cat ever gets sick and you need to offer something new and exciting to tempt their appetite. And while we are on the predator and food preferences topic it is important to state here that cats would rather starve than eat an unacceptable meal. They are not scavengers, but rather stealth hunters. They prefer a fresh kill, and do not typically eat cold, dead prey. So if you have noticed your cat does not want cold food from the refrigerator, this is why! Dogs are very different in this regard!

Masters of Disguise

While this aspect may seem a bit more medical than behavioral I feel it is important to touch on here. Cats are amazing at masking their illnesses. Again, reiterating that they are a species that is both predator and prey, it is imperative that they do not show weakness in the wild. This instinct still carries over to our beloved pampered pets and owners so often miss the subtle signs of sickness. Since cats are also extremely diligent in their routines, I often stress to clients to keep in their observations their cat’s daily repertoire. The day they do not come for their canned food breakfast or neglects to meet you at the door like clockwork could be the very first clue that the cat wasn’t feeling well. I often compare how tough cats are to their canine counterparts. A dog with a broken leg will limp and whine and appear quite challenged; a cat with a broken leg will run on it! They hide so much and it is our responsibility to be the best cat parents we can be and that means keeping a watchful eye and remaining observant.

Any change in behavior can be a sign of a medical problem. Here are a few signs to watch for:

  • Increased or decreased thirst
  • Increased of decrease elimination (urine or feces)
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Excessive vocalization
  • Changes in favorite sleeping/hiding spots
  • Increased vomiting or soft stool
  • Elimination outside of the litter box (urine or feces)
  • Lack of interest in play and normal interaction

I hope you have enjoyed our three part series on some of the most common species specific behaviors and how they can present as behavior challenges in the home. If you are experiencing any of these problems with your cat and would like more specific advice to resolve your problem please fill out the behavior questionnaire on this website for a personalized in-home consultation.

Species Specific Behaviors and How They Present as Behavior Challenges in the Home: Part Two

Ingrid Johnson on July 22, 2013

This post is Part Two in an informative series on the fantastic feline senses. If you are just joining this discussion please refer to Part One for an introduction. The following are additional feline specific behaviors and an explanation of how their senses can conflict with the very human world that we expect for cats to comply to. I hope you find this information helpful, enlightening and potentially life changing, to better help you to be able to meet your cats need in your home environment.

Rubbing/Bunting/Skin glands

Marking the ownership of an object or place can be done by using a combination of several skin glands. Much of this type of communication goes on unbeknownst to humans as they are incapable of detecting the scent deposited. Alternatively, cats seem to be able to locate areas that have been “rub marked” quite easily, indicating that these odors are quite fragrant to the sensitive feline nose.

One particular way that this correlates with behavior challenges is in the introduction of a new cat to the home, or a cat returning home after having been removed temporarily. When cats live in groups they form a colony scent. When one is new to the group or recently reintroduced achieving a neutral, or colony odor, is important in the acceptance of that incoming cat. Scent exchange is a huge component and unfortunately over-looked factor in creating a harmonious relationship among cats. I find this important feline communication tool is missed by humans because we are so inferior in the scent world.

Visual and Vocal Displays

Even though cats are social, they are still solitary hunters. It is not to a cats benefit to get into physical confrontation with another cat and become injured to the extent that they cannot hunt or defend themselves. To this point, cats perform a myriad of physical body postures and vocalizations to get their opponent to back off so that a cat fight is avoided. Many clients have a hard time understanding these concepts and will misinterpret the meanings.

Cats scream/shriek/yowl as if each individual strand of hair is being plucked out one at a time when trying to get an opponent to back off. Many clients will race to the noise in complete distress thinking their cats are engaged in a terrible fight only to find them at a standoff three feet apart. Now, certainly there is still a conflict issue that needs to be addressed here, but so many times the cats are not physically engaged in a brawl, but rather displaying as if they are about to fight. The goal of this sound is designed to convey the size and strength of the individual emitting them. Or in other words, “please back down, I do not want to have to fight with you; this is your final warning!”

Unfortunately, the ear piercing shriek is also a sound sometimes heard in the exam room at the vet’s office if a cat is terribly frightened and does not want to be touched. The purpose of these loud shrieks is the feline equivalent of “please don’t touch me or I’ll really have to show you what I can do!” The sheer abruptness and volume of this sound is likely designed to startle the aggressor or in this case, the veterinary staff, and get them to loosen their grip.

Auditory

cat listening

Feline hearing, once again, is far superior compared to many other mammals, especially humans. This sensitivity is vital to survival for the use of detecting their prey as well as potential threats. Domestic cats need to be desensitized to sound early in life as this heightened sense could lead to a noise phobic animal if not given proper exposure.

The ability to purr is another audible sound made by the cat which can be experiencing either pleasure or pain. It has been hypothesized that purring can function as a manipulative tool to solicit contact or care from another cat or human. Some have even speculated that it is possible for the vibrations of the purr to help aid in the healing of the body when ill. It is nonetheless a comfort behavior that is exclusive to the cat.

Grooming

cat grooming self

Grooming is another essential feline survival skill. Grooming habits are hardwired into this species and start young. Cat fetuses have even been observed wiping their paws against their mouth in the womb. Cats spend about one sixth of their life grooming themselves. They need to clean themselves after consuming their kill because they need to eliminate the scent and blood from their body so as to not alert future prey of their presence. Grooming also helps with coat maintenance which helps maintain body temperature. A healthy coat can insulate or help keep the animal cool, an unhealthy coat cannot properly serve either function. As cats groom themselves and deposit saliva on each strand of fur, that saliva evaporates helping wick heat from the body. Alternatively, a balled up, matted coat cannot allow the many layers of fur to aid in keeping the animal warm. A healthy coat is important for survival in the cat. While not entirely behavioral, not wanting to groom is a behavioral change seen in sick cats and should serve as a red flag to owners that their cat could be ill.

Stay tuned for more species specific behaviors explained coming soon in Part Three!

Species Specific Behaviors and How They Present as Behavior Challenges in the Home: Part One

Ingrid Johnson on July 15, 2013

The domestication of the cat has increased its need for communication and signaling. The domestic cat is no longer an exclusively solitary species as it now lives close together with other animals and humans, benefits from cooperation, and needs to resolve conflict without physical confrontation. For the purpose of self-preservation cats perform a number of species-specific behaviors that can contribute to behavior challenges in the home environment. Their predatory behavior can present as play and aggression concerns, feline elimination preferences can present in litter box and marking challenges, and their superior senses can become overwhelmed in our human world presenting problems owners have a hard time grasping and relating to.

The seemingly secret world of feline communication involves olfactory (scent), auditory (hearing), visual (sight), and tactile (touch) communication. Scent signaling between cats is a vital means of communicating. For these well equipped carnivores scent signaling can help avoid what could become a dangerous encounter with a rival. Relying so heavily on scent communication, however, can also result in miscommunication and an inability to control the information conveyed. The following is a brief synopsis of some basic feline communication techniques and the correlating challenges they can pose in the home environment.

Scratching

cat using scratching post

Scratching is a normal feline behavior that serves as a communication tool between cats. It is also a topic discussed with virtually every behavior consultation. Cats scratch to scent mark, visually mark, groom their nails and because it feels good. Cats tend to scratch in higher traffic areas rather than the perimeter of their home range and scratch the same chosen item over and over again. This acts as a clear visual marker which in turn draws attention to the scent deposited. This instinctual marking behavior factors into every behavioral discussion as it is commonly a behavior that owners want to appropriately direct or unrealistically cease. The latter is not possible. Even declawed cats perform the act of “scratching.” Helping clients understand why this behavior occurs and how to encourage the cat to use an appropriate scratching post is key. A cat’s natural desire to scratch in regularly used routes is precisely why scratching posts are often not used when they are placed in a corner of the basement where the cat never frequents.

Urine Marking (spraying)

Urine spraying is a complex and poorly understood feline marking behavior. Unfortunately it is also under researched, so exact interpretation of the messages left behind by urine spray is speculative. It can be exhibited by a cat of either sex regardless of neutering status, but is most common in unneutered males. It is suggested that cats can use urine as a passive aggressive behavior to avoid conflict with other rival cats. Urine marking is often done around the perimeters of a cats “home-range.” While the territorial function of urine marking is unclear, it is common when a new cat enters an existing cat’s space for the perimeters of that space to be urine marked. The marking could be done by the existing cat, the new cat, or both. It is also speculated that cats use urine marking to assist in the “time-sharing” of resources such as when hunting in a field. Prior to entering a field to engage in the hunt, a cat may spray to let another cat know that particular area is a currently occupied hunting ground.

Regardless of intent, urine marking is an all too common problem in many homes that house cats, particularly multiple cats. The interest in the deposited urine spray is intently investigated by all cats encountering it which suggests that the information left behind is of great importance. Traditional sniffing is typically followed by a Flehmen response. Flehmen is probably one of the most species specific behaviors that could be mentioned here, while it is not exclusive to cats, it is often discussed as if it were a feline exclusive behavior and seems to be most well known in the cat. Flehmen is usually performed in response to scents deposited by other cats, most commonly urine. During the Flehmen response the cat opens its mouth and moves its tongue back and forth across the roof of the mouth right behind the incisor teeth where the ducts to the vomeronasal organ are located. It is presumed that the vomeronasal organ gathers and possibly stores social information.

Helping families cope with urine marking and understanding the many reasons it may be occurring in their home with their particular cats is important in my role as a behavior consultant. While the precise messages left behind by sprayed urine are still yet to be translated (into human!), acquiring an understanding of this normal feline behavior is essential when experiencing an elimination problem.

Elimination Preferences

The use of a loose substrate with which the cat can dig in, eliminate and then cover is another species specific preference in the cat. What many people do not realize is all of the particulars that can correlate with elimination preferences. For example, most cats prefer to urinate in one location and defecate in a completely different location. Sometimes even a different substrate is preferred for a bowel movement versus urination. This is certainly a topic of discussions with every behavior consult, but especially in homes with too few litter boxes or when the litter boxes provided are all in one room. An inappropriate elimination problem is often the result of too few places to eliminate so the cat will simply choose a place in the house that seems acceptable to them. Adding an additional box or two can quickly resolve such issues.

Because cats are a species that is both predator and prey and because the act of eliminating is one of their most vulnerable moments, litter boxes must allow the cat to feel safe while using them. This is precisely why hooded litter boxes, automatic litter boxes, and boxes placed in dark, dank, dead end areas are found to be unappealing and even frightening to a cat. Most cats prefer to eliminate in a location that allows them to visually see if a predator or even a rambunctious littermate is about to approach and attack. If given the choice a cat would rather eliminate in the middle of a vegetable garden and be able to see all around them versus using a cave-like environment. This usually helps provide a visual aid one can relate to. This is also why so many of the litter boxes on the market today do not appeal to cats. They are too small, often covered, or have some sort of gadget or contraption that makes noise, moves or does some other scary thing a cat would rather not experience while eliminating. Stressing the importance of these feline specific preferences is key to preventing a problem before it starts!

Stay tuned for more species specific behaviors explained coming soon in Part Two!

Vets Need Behavior Consultants

Jane Ehrlich on June 24, 2013

I was the only feline behavior consultant attending this year's American Animal Hospital Association conference, as far as I knew. I wasn't a vet, nor a tech. After the four days, I left with a notebook of interesting bits I could pass on to my clients, yes, but also confirmation that feline behavior was still low on the vet's priority list. The "feline track" was small compared to the one for dogs.

Very doggist.

Even a talk on fear and aggression handling for clinic staff was 90% dog. (The lecturer, a vet-behaviorist, admitted there was "too little known about cats.")

One of the biggest names in veterinary medicine, Niels Pedersen, who wrote the book on feline infectious diseases, told me there, "Behavior? It's either sex or stress. If it's sex, castrate 'em. Stress? Drug 'em." Oh, well that's all right, then. It's a common attitude.

After speakers' talks on non-medical feline matters, at several conferences, I asked the same question: How can we get more vets to use behavior consultants?.

Nobody had answers. In true displacement gesturing, I (metaphorically) scratch my head in frustration.

Story thus far: many vets ain't very interested.

Vets prefer dogs. According to Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, spokeswoman for the excellent "Cat Friendly Clinic Guidelines", only 17% of vets even prefer cats. (48% prefer dogs). Cats being most popular domestic pet in the US, it would be financially viable to consider a more cat-seductive practice, yet almost half aren't interested in adopting even those Guidelines for their clinics.

In an admittedly unscientific survey, I asked 31 vets at the AAHA conference if they used cat behavior consultants. Twenty-nine said they didn't. I've asked many vets here in Arizona that question. The vast majority said no. Why not? Many explained, "We don't think about it." Several admitted they didn't know any. A few said, "I can handle that sort of thing."

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Fact: most cats are dumped at shelters—and killed—or just plain dumped, because of behavior issues, not medical ones.

You could be hard-pressed, looking for "feline behavior" as part of DVM curricula. Most vets have admitted they'd gotten "one or two lectures" in their three-year program. No classes in feline behavior, but perhaps one or two in animal behavior. An online look at what some of the major vet programs offer: some prominent universities have behavior clinics; however, there is only one general animal behavior course in its three-year program, and it's an elective. Another has three courses, two of which are elective. (They have a course every year in raptors, swine and goats.) "No book required nor recommended." A third has one elective course, two others have none, although, again, they have their own behavior clinics.

How much of these courses cover, specifically, feline behavior? Department spokespeople: "We don't know, but if the professor is covering dogs, horses, and other animals, it would be little."

The assumption is, you can learn more in graduate and postgraduate work; after the DVM has been achieved. (The American College of Vet Behaviorists has a respected program for vets, as one example.)

There is no feline behavior journal . No feline behavior lecture at the American Board of Vet Practitioners conference in the Fall, nor at other conferences coming up this year.

The vets who feel they don't need a behavior consultant would benefit greatly not only for their clients, their clients' cats, but for their clinic credibility, if they change their minds. ( The others can find a good list from the AAFP, IAABC or other organizations.) My clients tell me that when they mention their cat's problems to the doctor; on soiling inappropriately, for example, they get general advice: "Change litter. Clean around the box with an enzymatic cleaner, or move it.", without understanding the reason behind the issue. Is it due to box issues or stress or hormonal issues, if there's no medical cause? Makes a difference in terms of treatment. Aggression toward other house pets? "Drug him or remove him" is often the offered answer. Or Feliway. Sometimes the honest vet explains that s/he doesn't know.

Good behavior consultants understand cats' issues that exasperate the owner. They know how to help and advise through protocols and suggestions, learned through years of personal and clinical experience. They can answer questions and solve issues that many vets can't.

Spraying, soiling, scratching, avoidance, aggression toward people or pets…the reasons behind such behavior, the triggers involved, learning about as much background as is possible, learning the home and outside layouts, relationships between cat and owners, family, more. Habituation, desensitization, types of learning and conditioning, taking a thorough history&ellips;it's not just a matter of reading books. Strong experience in reputable institutions can replace academic training, if that's all there was…if there was so little.

TV programs and web blogs about cats (excluding the cute picture-laden ones) have never been so hugely popular as they are now. Sure, there are good tips on the internet, but there's also a lot of simply wrong advice. (Still reading about using vinegar to clean boxes? Pushing the cat's head down onto the urinated-upon surface? Amazing.) No blog, website or column can solve every case; how many cats are "relinquished" because a net tip didn't solve the problem? If a vet couldn't solve a behavior problem, are cats dumped, too?

A jazzy site and a claim to be "an expert" isn't enough. One so-called "professional animal behavior association" outside the US isn't even credible among true experts, from my understanding. Sure, homework is needed, as it would be for any profession.

I never pretend to be a vet, but recommend the client check with the vet first, to rule out possible underlying medical issues. That vet should also be able to recommend a good behavior consultant if the cat is physically healthy. People should examine the background of any professional who's considered. Those certified in animal behavior should have a lot of experience in specifically feline issues. There are also superb, renowned behavior consultants who are not certified, but have had enormous wealth of experience, written for good journals, participated in major projects and programs sponsored by responsible institutions.

Until recently, one couldn't get certified in feline behavior; IAABC, thankfully, offers that, now. I hope this is a sign of more to come, that feline behavior is taken every bit as seriously as canine and equine.

Vets, vet-behaviorists and behavior consultants need to share. We could learn so much from each other. After all, we're doing it for the cats, not for our own egos.

Feline Arthritis

Ingrid Johnson, CCBC on March 24, 2013

Osteoarthritis is defined as inflammation of the joint lining and deterioration of the cartilage. Arthritis is a painful condition that should always be taken seriously. Almost all senior cats have some degree of arthritic changes. In fact, studies have shown that cats start developing microscopic arthritic changes around 10-12 years of age. Treatment for arthritis is most effective if started early before obvious signs of the condition occur.

How will you know if your cat is arthritic? Well, take into account a few obvious precursors:

Is your cat overweight?

Is your cat over 10 years of age?

Is your cat handicapped in anyway (i.e. a tripod)?

Is your cat de-clawed?

If you answered yes to any of these questions then starting treatment earlier rather than later would be to your cats benefit. Just like people if your cat has suffered an injury, is handicapable, or has been overweight most of their life then they are more likely to suffer joint pain sooner. Rainy days and cold weather cause flare ups in arthritic symptoms in animals just like in people. It is important to ask your veterinarian what type of supportive care they would recommend.

There are other signs that your cat may be suffering from arthritis. For example, have you suddenly noticed they haven’t jumped up onto the counter top in a while? Do not be fooled! Your cat may still get on the counter, but remember cats are the masters of disguise and excellent at masking any symptoms of illness. They may simply be taking the path of least resistance to access the counter. When was the last time you saw them jump directly from the floor to the countertop without using a chair, stool, table etc. to aid them?

Other signs include:

Difficulty climbing the stairs or jumping onto the bed or sofa: if your kitty used to fly up the stairs and launch onto the bed and no longer does so that could be an early sign. It is not that they are just “getting old”, there are physical changes slowing these behaviors as well.

Heat seeking behavior such as lying on heat vents and sunny locations: providing warmth is actually a great recommended treatment for arthritis support so provide access to sunny spots; heating pads, snuggle safes, thermal heated cat cushions, and the like.

Inappropriate elimination: think about how difficult and tiring it can be to walk on the beach. Posturing in cat litter every time your cat has to go to the bathroom can be extremely difficult when their hips, knees, and elbows don’t work like they used to. Sometimes we have to provide less litter depth or a puppy pad for arthritic cats to help set them up to succeed in their litter box. Having more targets available is also helpful. More litter boxes ensures they always have a clean place to go. If they have a hard time navigating in the box they could accidentally step on a soiled area creating litter box avoidance; since cats are fastidiously clean animals and do not want to become soiled in the process of eliminating. After all, the carpet is always clean and is a nice stable surface that doesn’t move out from under their feet!

Changes in grooming habits: cats get matted along their hips, back, and hind quarters when they are too arthritic to groom. If they are too obese to reach these areas and arthritic on top of that, now we have two challenges to overcome. Arthritic senior cats need regular combing and brushing to maintain their coats and if they are not on anything to help with their discomfort the grooming process can be a painful one. If your cat is extremely matted you may need the help of a professional groomer to gain a fresh start. Your groomer should be able to teach you what tools to use to continue to maintain your cat’s coat, but you still may need professional help from time to time. Shaving your cat into a lioncut can be very helpful and more comfortable for them then combing in their senior years.

Aggression: some arthritic cats are so very painful that they are quite irritable and exhibit pain induced aggression or petting intolerance. These kitties really need some help. They may also have matted hair coats compounding the pain as matted hair alone can be uncomfortable to the skin and sensation of touch. If beneath that their joints also hurt, you may have a very irritable kitty on your hands.

As you can see, arthritis can result in some significant changes in behavior and daily routine for your cat. So what do you do? Ask your veterinarian! There are a wide variety of products on the market now. There are glucosamine and chondroitin products for cats, these come in the form of treats or capsules depending on how agreeable your cat is to being medicated. There are also prescription mobility diets specifically formulated to be high in Omega 3 fatty acids, this is a very easy way to provide your senior cat with some arthritis relief! Antioxidants and Omega 3’s are also great supplements for senior cats for many reasons more than just joint support. Lastly, if your kitty is severely affected pain control may be prescribed and there are a few different forms your veterinarian may recommend depending on the degree of discomfort your cat is experiencing.

Remember that with a cat any change of behavior can be a sign of a possible medical condition. Arthritis support in cats is often grossly over-looked as their symptoms are more subtle. They are not dogs. We don’t take them for a walk or a run each day and then notice they are falling behind or limping. Again, because they are a species that is both predator and prey, they mask their symptoms and will not tell you they hurt. It is up to us to listen and observe early warning signs!

Eye, Stalk, Chase, Pounce, KILL!!!

Ingrid Johnson, CCBC on February 22, 2013

Our cats may seem like pampered indoor housecats, but on the inside they are still fierce predators! The greatest thrill for a cat is what is referred to as the “completion of the sequence of the kill.”

It is important when we are playing with our cats that we remember this sequence and try to mimic it the best we can. Whether playing with an individual toy or engaging in interactive play with you, it is important to allow them to capture their prey. Many people think it is funny to not let the cat catch the toy; this is actually very frustrating and quite frankly, not nice. If you play using a laser light toy, give your cat a tangible object to capture at the end of the play session, feed them a meal or offer treats, something that says you caught it!

When cats play they do not have to be flying through the air to be engaged and having a good time. Simply focus and eye contact on a toy, with ears perked up and erect tells you that your cat is engaged. (See photo)

Be sure to keep the toy moving away from your cat as most prey do not run towards their predators and bop them on the head! It is remarkable how many people stick the toy right in a cats face and wonder why they are not interested. Move the object in a tantalizing motion; let it be still, quiver, then bolt, as that is how prey moves.

Let your cat pounce on it a few times and then engage them in the stalk and chase again. Despite what great hunters they are, they do not always catch and kill their prey on the first try. Cats also like to torture the poor creature a little bit, letting it go and then recapturing it.

Try different toys! Cats are extremely prey specific; so much so that they will actually hunt the exact species of mouse or bird their mothers taught them to hunt if given the opportunity. If they do not play with one thing continue to try other toys and do not lose hope. Some cats enjoy feathers, others prefer tiny delicate lure objects, and others enjoy a big stuffed animal type toy. If you have multiple cats you will likely have multiple preferences.

Finally, end every play session with a satisfying kill!


Ingrid Johnson, CCBC
Certified Cat Behavior Consultant
FundamentallyFeline.com

The Importance of Interactive Play

Jane Ehrlich on November 27, 2012

In the beginning, I underestimated play. Interactive play. As an owner I knew it provided exercise (for me especially; my cat would watch while I chased—you know the drill). As time and experience as a behaviorist carried on, I learned of the many benefits that play offers for a cat’s health—not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. It can make all the difference to a cat’s complete well-being. Play is fun exercise.

We know that real play—not tossing the same ol’ toy until the cat looks at it, one day, and lies down, but real interactive action—improves muscle tone. It is hugely rewarding to see shoulder, back and leg muscles become defined in an out-of-condition cat that now has an exercise regime. Of course it is far healthier for an overweight cat to exercise more and eat less, and to dismiss, to my mind, the feline diet foods and eat less of the good stuff. I’ve also seen scrawny metamorphose to healthy bulk, because of increased leaping and chasing and dashing and pouncing.

Action motivates the couch-potato feline. Whether by illness, age or temperament, some cats don’t appreciate moving. If they could get you to forever peel kibble for them from a silver platter, while they imprint their body shape on velvet cushion, they would. The right toys and patience, not to mention encouragement, arouses my 13 year old from her cheerful lethargy. Her feline instincts blossom and her ‘inner hunter’ emerges. Our indoor kids are used to their measured, timed plates of food. Having them hunt for the odd treats and using puzzle-balls so they have to roll and paw and chase after their food reaps rewards in so many ways.

That mental stimulation: the hunting instinct, with its focus, stealth, run and attack, are not only sharpened but increased as the boredom that can come from being too domesticated in the home often enervates. Boredom saps the cat as much as the human. There’s nothing better for vanquishing it, besides a good dose of love, than making the cat move and dash…

...preferably with you. Bonding thing, play. Through play you learn to appreciate the graceful, powerful, beautiful animal she is, and she looks forward to you being there as a provider of wonderful excitement and fun. Many owners have seen their shy, under-confident little ones become friendly, assured furry beings in a household which is now less threatening. A cat must get used to a whole battery of new smells, spaces, people and paces when she comes to a new environment. Playing when she’s comfortable emerging from under the bed can work wonders when it comes to easing into her new life. Additionally it benefits the resident cats whose lives she intruded into. Increasing the exercise (separately, then gradually, together) for everyone helps to ease the situation.

Many times the dissent between members of the multi-cat household has been considerably eased by the introduction of several daily 20-minute play sessions. With individual cats, play helps them gain confidence in their new territories and families both human and feline, as well as re-channeling fear, frustration and anger into a more constructive energy outlet. When cats can play closer, and eventually together, they often learn better levels of tolerance and may even gain friendship.

Play is a huge stress and aggro-wrecker for various kinds of aggression, from redirected to territorial to intermale and others. So many behavioral issues have been calmed by introducing interactive play. The camaraderie, with joy, creates a happier outcome as the anxiety and the aggression is properly, healthily re-channeled.

Many a cat, having gone through some ordeal—gaining a new home, losing an owner or best cat-friend, or showing common symptoms of depression (decreased eating or grooming, hiding, increased sleeping, vocalizing)—has been able to adapt, even thrive, through structured and plentiful activity. I’ve observed cats clearly mourning for a loved fur-friend adjust far more rapidly to a life without him because he’s been distracted through action, and those endorphins whizzing around (no, it’s not scientific) mean he’s feeling good.

A play session before bedtime can help the cat sleep further into the night, and can help keep owners’ ankles from being attacked due to frustration at not being able to—you guessed it—play, hunt, catch! I’m willing to bet the quality of sleep is healthier, as well.

Exercise can also help cats who previously had access to the outdoors but now need to adapt to an indoor life. While different countries continue to stoke the controversy over which means a healthier life, the fact is more people are keeping their cats inside. To give them the best quality of that life possible it’s crucial not only to provide the territory, the ‘cat TV,’ the posts and the potted grass, but interactive play—lots of it—as well, to ensure those instincts are able to emerge and thrive! In my part of the world coyotes, irrigation pipes and sizzling temperatures take their toll. When advising clients to help their cats adapt to an indoor environment that kind of exercise (interactive play) is at top of the list. The results speak for themselves: they adapt—and adapt well.

Play’s fun! Even if you were out of the habit before pets came into your life, remember what it did for you when you were younger. You’re getting the same stimulation, the action that your cat is, together! You’re running around more. You’re learning this toy works and that one doesn’t, by trial and error, not to mention a bit of frustration on your part. You’re spending calories. You’re thoroughly enjoying yourself and your happier, healthier animal.

What gym could do that?

Win-win.



Jane Ehrlich is the owner of CATTITUDE Feline Behavior.

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