Dr. Emily Weiss, Senior Director of Shelter Behavior ProgramsSeptember 21, 2007
Oh, behave! So we say to our cats at least once or twiceor a zillion timesdaily. We needed some help decoding whacky felines pronto. Luckily we were joined for an online chat by the ASPCA’s Dr. Emily Weiss, Senior Director of Shelter Behavior Programs and the developer of Feline-ality™, the first research-based adoption program for cats in shelters.
Dr. Weiss had a blast answering questions about your quirky, crazy kitties! Cats keep us on our toes, that’s for sure! But that’s why we love them.
Hello! I've got a kitty who, most mornings, begins meowing fairly loudlybefore dawn! I have tried firmly saying "quiet" over and over after each meow. I wait until he's finally quiet before getting up, trying to give him the idea that I will get up if he's quiet. Are there any tactics to curb this “wake up!” routine? Thank you!
As hard as it sounds, to stop the behavior it is important not only to “not get up”but to not stir, also. Simply, he has learned that your stirring, then saying “quiet,” then waiting for some period of time leads to breakfast! I love cats!
Another option is to get a dispenser that automatically feeds at a certain time in the morning. You can also get him a toy that can be filled with some food items so he can bat it around at night.
My foster cat, Tom Thumb, was returned by his first adopter because he, um, "played house" with him as the "daddy" and his soft bed as the "mommy." Is there anything I can do to redirect him, or do I just need to find him an understanding home? By the way, his testosterone levels have been checked and they're a normal low for a long-time neutered cat, which he is. Thanks, Dr. Weiss!
I am always asked "why does he…" for all sorts of behaviors, and my answer is always the samebecause it feels good! This behavior is obviously no different. Masturbation can increase for neutered animals when they are anxious, so my first thought is the behavior is likely to occur more when he is first re-homed. I would suggest observing him in your home to see if the behavior decreases as his routine becomes predictable. If it does, I would suggest simply educating his next adopters about what they are likely to see, and how the behavior is likely to change.
I volunteer for my local humane society and spend most of my time working with the cats. Can you offer any advice on assisting potential adopters in selecting the cat who is right for them and their families?
Great question! We have just finished two years of research on the new ASPCA's Meet Your Match Feline-ality adoption program. This research-based program helps shelters and adopters make matches based on the behavior of the individual cat and the expectations of the adopters.
The program helps shelters better communicate with adopters. Adopters tell you, through a short survey, what their expectations for behavior are, and what their lifestyle is like. This helps adoptors focus not just on their own expectations, but also those of others in the family.
You can learn more at the website we just launched for animal professionals.
My cat, who recently had a urinary blockage taken care of, is now peeing on the couch not two feet away from the litter box. Originally I just had the boxes in the basement, but after his last urinary blockage, I moved one up to make sure he is able to relieve himself when he needs to. What can I do to stop this? What might be causing this behavior? I don't feel a bloated bladder, and he does go in the box otherwise, so I don't think he has the blockage again. Thanks!
Step one is to get him back to his vet for a visit to make sure he is fine physically.
I think you’re saying that he is jumping onto the couch and urinating. If this is the case, you will need to first cover the couch with saran wrap or tin foil, as these are surfaces that cats often do not like. They also work because if he urinates on the surface, it splashes and gets his feet wet, which he won’t like (your couch is then also protected from the urinea bonus!).
Next, you may need to elevate your litter box to about the height of the couch for a bit. Be sure he has both high and low litter boxes available. They should be available in both the basement and near the couch. Keep a good log to look for patterns, and adjust the litter boxes slowly if needed. When he is reliably urinating in the box again, begin to move it back to a more appropriate place very slowlyonly a few inches a day. Good luck!
I have a three-year old cat who has been chasing my 14-year-old mama cat ever since he moved into the household two years ago. She is scared of him. I've tried getting them used to each other but it doesn't work. I have to put him in the basement at night and she hides out during the day when he is up. My vet has even prescribed amitriptyline on his ear, but he hasn't mellowed out. He seems to enjoy tormenting her.
I would love to know if the two cats have fought in the past or if the behavior has always been simply chase and run.
Assuming the behavior has been chase and run, the behavior is continuing because it works, and it feels good. While we cannot stop your older female from running, we can make the chasing behavior not feel good by introducing a stimulus that does not feel good to him. I suggest you squirt him with a water bottle when he is about to chase.
I'm moving to a place where the cats won't be able to go outdoors as they do now. How can I handle what is sure to be a big problem for themand me?
You are right that it will be a big change for your cats. Outside is an ever changing place with tons of natural enrichment for them. Your goal will be to best provide a changing and enriching environment inside to decrease the likelihood of them creating their own.
Instead of feeding them in bowls, have them hunt for their food around your house. You can place their food on small plates, or in boxes or even in toilet paper tubes distributed throughout the house. They can spend part of their day hunting just as they did outside.
Give them forage. Provide them with grass that you can buy from most large pet stores. This will give them the ability to graze just as they did outside.
Hang toys by vents so they flutter unexpectedlythis will provide them with hunting experiences that can occur “at any moment.”
The key is to change things oftenand provide variety!
We have a three-year-old old cat who is incessantly hyperactive. I have had cats my entire life and have never encountered such an energetic, wants-to-play-all-the-time kitty. We have several toys and kitty condos, and we play with him nightly. But he still plays throughout the night and gets into any and everything throughout the day. He is just incredibly curious and energetic. We love him dearly, but it's like we’ve had a kitten for three years! Any suggestions?
I love this post! It is obvious that in the world of the ASPCA’s Meet Your Match Feline-ality adoption program, you have a gregarious and valiant catI suspect he would be a Party Animal!
It would be great to direct his energy into some tasks that involve brain power as well as physical activitythis might help to channel his energy. How about teaching him some fun behaviors such as high-five, fetch and roll over? Cats often train better than dogs! I think he would be a perfect candidate. By using positive reinforcement training he would have to figure out what behaviors result in a food reward.
Have fun with him! You may also want to peek at the post above this one regarding moving outside cats inside, as there were some enrichment options that he would love!
My cat likes to stand outside the tub when my husband is in the shower. Then when he comes out, she rubs up against him and demands his attention. She doesn’t do this with me! Can you explain her behavior?
Who is teaching whom? Sounds like your cat is quite the lion tamer! I think what may have happened is that she learned your husband is likely to pat her when he exits the shower. It likely became a bit of a ritual for the two of them. Chances are, one day your husband was in a rush, and did not pat hershe might have responded by swatting, meowing or some behavior that then resulted in your husband paying attention to her. Sounds like this has now progressed.
You both need to decide if this behavior is something you can live with, or something you need to change. I think it is cute! If you want to change it, your husband will need to change his behavior. I suggest he towel off in the shower and then immediately leave the bathroom. Good luck!
I have a male neutered Maine coon who is very jealous of my other cats. If I give attention to any of my other cats, he will try to attack that particular cat. Is this normal with that breed or is he really jealous? All of my other cats are rescues as well and I try to divide my attention to all equally, but he is the only one who displays this type of behavior. Thanks.
Sounds like you have a cat who finds your attention valuable, and he is guarding his resource of attention from others in the house. One of the easiest ways to solve the issue is to give him a food dispensing device with a small amount of tasty food in it when you are giving attention to another cat. This will work in two waysif he is wants the food, he will not be able to attack while obtaining the food from the device. Also, he will learn that when you give attention to other cats, it feels good to him! Good luck.
One of my cats likes to bite plastic bags. Is this dangerous to her? I try to stop her whenever I see her do it, but I'm not always home to keep an eye on her.
I love cats! Their individually never ceases to amaze me!
The danger in biting a plastic bag would likely be either consuming a piece of the bag, or somehow becoming tangled in the bag and suffocating. I recommend keeping the plastic bags out of reach, especially when you’re not home.
Let's see if we can give her some more appropriate things to bite on. She might be biting them because of the sound, the texture or the movement. If it is the sound that excites her, there are some fantastic crinkle toys available that make stimulating sounds when bitten. These toys would also work for the texture motivation.
If it is movement that interests her, maybe you can hang a light cotton cloth by a vent so it moves when the vent is blowing air.
My 15-month-old male cat wakes me up several times in the night by jumping on the mini blinds on my bedroom door. I have to put him in his carrier to sleep, because when I close him out of the room, he rips at the carpet and bedroom door. He does not make the connection between jumping on the blinds and being put in his carrier.
Cats are very often most active at nightI am often asked how to stop a particular activity that wakes a pet parent at night!
It sounds like in this case, if you could just stop him from jumping on the blinds, the other behaviors he engages in do not wake you. So let’s first stop him from jumping on the blinds, and then let’s replace it with another activity that will not likely wake you.
Since the blinds are on the door, you will need to keep him back from the door. Cats are often not fond of walking on crinkly tin foil. I suggest placing sheets of crinkly foil in front of the door to “block” his access to the blinds (talk about foiling the behavior). Also, be sure to coil the blind string so it is not a tempting toy.
Next, let’s set up some food enrichment for him in another room. There are some great food dispensing devices for cats available at most pet stores. Also, maybe hang a feather on a string above a vent for him so he can hunt in a room other than your bedroom.
Hi! We rescued a cat, Blossom, from outdoors three years ago. She has taken well to living indoors, and has come a long, long way from the terror she used to feel. She lays near me, stretches out, gives herself baths, etc. But in all this time, I still haven't been able to pet her. Just recently she came and brushed against my foot and has been seeming to try and find a way to get close to me ever since, but if she gets too close, she will snap back and hiss. I spend a few hours each day with her, reading, etc., and she is very comfortable, but I don't know what else to do to try and touch her. Any suggestions? Thanks!
First, we are making the assumption she’d enjoy that type of touch. It may turn out that she wouldn’t. Plenty of well-socialized companion cats hiss when you attempt to pet them. If we can teach her to anticipate what will happen next, she can make the choice to be patted or not.
I suggest that you give a verbal and visual cue for “I am about to touch you.” The verbal cue may be “touch” and the visual may be extending your hand so that it is about one foot away from her chin. To begin, be sure to just touch from belowfor example the bottom of her chin, or her chest. The touch should last only a small second, then freeze and let her choose to stay or not. Repeat often. When she can anticipate what will happen next, she will “tell you” whether she wants to be touched or not. Good luck!
I recently got involved in TNR with a feral cat colony near work. We have had Tiger for four weeks now. When we trapped her, she was very weary of humans. She loves to play with us and my other cats, but still won’t let us touch her. She seems to be getting better, but I wonder if she will ever be happy. I wonder if I should return her to her colony.
It sounds like Tiger has made some good progress. I would be hesitant to return her to a colony at this point, especially if the colony is truly a feral colony. If she has now associated homes with food and other things that feel good, she may approach homes and be perceived as a nuisance by someone.
I would instead focus on working with her to become more comfortable with touch. In the post above this one I explained how to teach a cat to anticipate when touch is coming. This would be a good program for Tiger as well.
My 11-year-old gets scared of every unusual or sudden movement or loud sound I make. Then she shrinks into a "please do not hurt me" position. It was not like that in the past. She is very loving. We have a strong bond and there was never any accident or problem or anything that could trigger this. She sleeps next to me holding my hand. Is this just a normal part of aging or is it something to be worried about?
Step one is to take her for a checkup with your vet. Sudden changes in behavior can be indicators of health issues. It may be as simple as some hearing loss or sight loss.
Assuming your vet gives her a clean bill of health, we are not going to know why the behavior started to occur, so let’s simply start to teach her that a loud sound is not something to fear.
While she is eating dinner, very softly bang a spoon against a pot. The sound should be audible, but not loud. She should notice it, but it should not cause a fear response. At each meal, slowly increase how loud you bang, until you can bang quite loud and she continues to eat. Now, change the soundand again, begin with the sound low enough that she hears it, but does not startle.
Finally, begin introducing these sounds in other “feel good” situationswhile she is playing, grooming or resting in the sun. In a few weeks you should be able to decrease her reaction to many sounds.
As much as it breaks my heart, I'm afraid I will have to give up my cats! They're peeing in the house! I rent, and I can't have this. Is there anything I can do, other than spending a fortune on repellants and enzymes to clean up? Clean or dirty boxdoesn't seem to matter. I seem to think it may be the male, because the scent is very strong, but the female is pregnant. I don't know if that makes a difference. HELP!!
It sounds like your cats are not spayed or neutered. Unaltered cats are more likely to spray. I recommend spaying and neutering.
Since the behavior is already occurring, we likely need more intervention than just altering the cats. I would suggest you first do some investigation to confirm which cat (if not both) is urinating outside of the litter box. Videotape your cats at night or when you are not home to gain more information.
Once you know who the culprit is, you may need to confine him to a small space, like a bathroom, when you are not around to supervise. Be sure there are at least three litter boxes in the home, and use litter without perfumes. You may need to experiment on litter types as well.
There are other strategies as well, if these do not work for you. Feel free to check out our animal behavior section at www.aspca.org.
Hi. I have two young cats, Coco and Trixie, who are sisters and have gotten along beautifully the entire two years I have had them. They are indoor cats and were neutered before I got them! They are both eating normally and seem healthy. For two days now, Coco will hiss and growl at Trixie if she approaches. If Trixie is lying down or sleeping, Coco is fine and doesn't get upset. What should I do?
Whenever an aggressive behavior suddenly pops up, the first thing to do is visit your vet to be sure that there is not an underlying physical issue.
If the vet finds that the cat is healthy, I would recommend simply observing the behavior for a couple of days, and pairing the presence of the other cat with things that feel good. For example, if the cat enjoys being patted, she should be patted when the other cat is present.
I've got two male cats who are peeing in the basement. We've tried everything that we can think of to get them to stop. We have used Feliway spray and plug-ins. We've taken the litter box lid off and changed the litter to unscented. We wash and scrub the floor constantly. I just don't know what else to do. Do you have any other suggestions? Do you know why they are doing this? Are they mad at us? Thank you!
Certainly sounds like you have done quite a bit to solve the behavior. I am not sure if you are dealing with spraying behavior or just urination issues.
Assuming most of the urine is on the floor, as opposed to the walls, I would suggest that you lock the cats out of the basement for a bit. When you do, provide three to six litter boxes for them, with two close to that basement door. When you are not around to supervise, they will need to spend time in a confined space (like a bathroom) that can be easily cleaned. Make sure there are 2 litter boxes in that space, as well as some fun enrichment.
Clean the basement well, and if possible, place saran wrap or tin foil down where they used to urinate, and provide two to four litter boxes in that space. Then give them access for a few hours a day. Increase the time slowly.
Do cats mellow with age? My two furballs are a year old, and they are very cuddly, but prefer to be next to me and not on me. I would love it if they became lap cats. My mom's cat became a lap cat after five years. Is that common? Thanks!
Certainly behavior can change significantly over the lifetime of the cat. However, there is no guarantee that the way the behavior will change for these two will be to become lap cats.
You can try making every lap experience one that feels good for them. Maybe when they come onto your lap, they receive a tasty treat?
The new ASPCA Meet Your Match Feline-ality program can identify what cats are more likely to be lap catsso for your next cat, you may want to visit a shelter using Feline-ality!
Why would my kitten suck on her sister kitten? The kittens are four months old. Their mother is outside and I brought these two inside about a month ago.
This behavior can happen for a number of reasons, and can quickly become obsessive. I wonder if the kitten is sucking on anything else at this point?
Step one is a vet visit to make sure he is healthy. Next, it would be helpful to give the kitten some enrichment, such as a food dispensing device, to give him more appropriate oral behaviors to engage in.
I wonderare cats truly rebellious or am I just anthropomorphizing my cat and reading way too much into his behavior? My cat Socks appears to be one of the sneakiest creatures ever. The more something bothers someone at home, the more he seems to do itand he does it rather suspiciously. For example, my dad has a favorite chair that he does not like the cat on. Socks will wait for him to get up from it and jump on it as soon as he leaves the room, every time, without fail. If my dad waits around the corner and watches him to catch him in the act, he doesn't move an inch. As soon as my dad gives up and walks away, he leaps onto the chair. It has become like a game. Another example is that he has found that I jump out of bed a little faster if he jumps on top of my paperwork and rips tiny little pieces off the edge with his teeth until the whole paper is shredded. The more I try to keep these things out of his reach, the more he seeks them out and uses them whenever he wants attention. If I yell at him, he looks me right in the eye, tears another piece off and looks back up to make sure I'm noticing it. It looks terribly cleveris it?
Your cat sounds like a star! Instead of thinking that he is doing something to “spite” someone, or to be rebellious, it is more parsimonious for us to assume he is behaving in the way he does because, simply, it works.
All animals, including us, do things because they feel good (or less bad than an alternative). When we analyze his behavior with the chair, it is obvious that the chair feels good to him, but the chair paired with the stimulus of your father does not feel good.
When we observe his behavior with you in the mornings, chances are, one morning, he began to nibble on your paper, which resulted in you getting out of bed. He likely tried that behavior againand bammosuccess!
Rainbow, our four-year-old shelter cat, frequently stands over one of her catnip toys meowing (usually in the kitchen), then picks it up in her mouth, carries it to wherever we are in the house, drops it at our feet, then sits down in front of it. What is she trying to tell us?
Aww! Okayso I will start by saying thisI cannot tell you for sure what your cat is communicating. However, I suspect she has learned that if she behaves in this way, she is likely to engage her humans in interaction. I imagine it is fairly hard to resist her and her toy when she drops her toy and sits in front of it! If your likely behavior is to engage her, and she continues to drop her toy for you in the future, I think you can conclude that she is asking for your involvement in her activity.
Two years ago, my dog brought home a feral kitten (four weeks old). After weeks of nursing her back to health, kitty thrived. Now at two years old, she still cuddles up to my neck and does that kitty nursing kneading thing and sucks on my neck (and necklace). This behavior, I am assuming, is remnant of when I fed and bathed her and gave her medicine. She was in such pain (mange, ticks and fleas) I would cuddle her in the nape of my neck and hum to her. Is this still okay, or do I need to wean her?
What a nice present from your dog! Nursing and kneading behavior is not uncommon in adult companion cats. However, the behavior can become obsessive, so some caution should be taken. If the behavior does not bother you, I would simply try to ignore it as not to encourage an increase, or cause anxiety. Chances are it will then likely remain stable.
I live alone with my four-year-old cat (adopted from a shelter as a kitten). He is fun, funny, and personable. However, every three weeks or so he goes on a rampage and bites my wrists in the middle of the night harddrawing blood. He latches on and won't let go. I have to lock him out of the room when he does this. I have tried water guns, compressed air, cans of penniesall will stop him in the moment but none deter him from doing it again. He has his claws but never uses them. I am worried that when I have a family or others living with me he will subject them to the same treatment. HELP!
It is hard to know exactly what is occurring around these events. My suspicion is he has aroused in play to a very high level and is engaging you. However, I would suggest before you develop a plan, you first videotape the behavior. That will likely mean a lot of boring video to review, as the behavior only happens about every three weeks. Although boring, the footage will give us a much better picture as to what is going on. Are you twitching in your sleep? Is he stalking your hands, just waiting for the twitch to come? Is he in another part of the room engaging in play right before? Are you disturbing him while he sleeps and he responds by biting your wrist?
Once we can identify what is occurring before the event, we can better put together a protocol to decrease or eliminate the behavior.
We recently adopted a second kitty, who is now five months old. She and our older cat (six years) exhibit typical wrestling/playing behaviors. How do we know when it is beginning to border into fighting? Thank you!
Usually play behavior can be identified by loose bodies, lots of starts and stops, ears flashing back and forward, and while there might be vocalizations, the sound is likely not an alarm scream heard in most fights.
Be sure that both cats engage each other in play, as opposed to the kitten impacting himself on the older cat. You may want to introduce a couple of cat-sized stuffed animals (maybe even tie a string to one so you can move it around a room) for your kitten to wrestle with as well, so that the other cat can choose to engage, or not engage, as he chooses.
Can you re-trap a cat? I had Amadeus for eight months before he got out this week. I saw him yesterday in a neighbor’s garden. He would only let me get so close, and he rolled over and put his legs up in the air when I was talking to him. I tried to re-trap him, but have had no luck so far. I don't know if he will go in againthat is how I first got him. I know he must be hungry. When I trapped him the first time, he had a lot of really bad wounds. I really want him in right now.
Oh goodnessmy heart goes out to you. Yes, you can often re-trap cats. Be sure to use food with very strong odors and place more than one trap.
You may want to call your local humane society for assistance. I wish you and your cat health and safety!