Top Cat Care FAQs – Your Most Frequently Asked Questions About Cat Care answered by Your Cat magazine feline behaviourist Francesca Riccomini.
She’s a bully!
Q. We took in a pair of wild kittens a year ago. They are now about 18 months old – nervous but friendly. We also have a female cat, a year older, who has been with us since a kitten. The older one ‘owns’ upstairs and the younger pair, female sisters, have a couple of rooms downstairs – the cats’ choice, not ours. The older one terrorises the younger cats. She goes out of her way to chase them and they live in constant fear of attack. They often have to be carried from one room to another because they fear using the hallway. We have tried a feline pheromone diffuser but to no obvious effect. What can we do to change this situation?
A. It is good that you have accepted the need for two separate cat areas within your home. Your original cat is not being nasty, she is just not predisposed to sharing her territory with what she sees as feline invaders. A feline pheromone diffuser is useful in these circumstances, but you need to make sure that your home is totally cat-friendly. This means having lots of hiding places for the cats to retreat to in the face of what they perceive to be a threat. Create hiding places which are high up and others which are dark so each cat has a choice within her own area. Also make sure they each have interesting activities like puzzle feeders, cardboard boxes and toys, as this helps reduce competition. Accept that these cats will never be one happy group, but you might be able to achieve a better situation if your expectations are realistic and the environment helps the youngsters to creep about unnoticed. If the older pet is around, it would be better not to move the others from room to room in case they start to associate close contact with you with negative emotions.
He jumps out of his tray!
Q. I have a 12-week-old Bengal kitten who insists on using every available corner as a toilet.
A. The problem with young kittens is that when they need to go, they need to go! And if appropriate facilities are not to hand they will choose an alternative. Once a pattern of behaviour is established, it can be hard to break. Corners are quiet, private locations; the perfect cat latrine site. The first thing to do is provide a variety of trays in different locations, so he’s always near one. Then look at where you place them. You say he hops out of the tray and goes into a corner to relieve himself – this suggests that his tray may be in a tricky location. Ideal places are secluded, private and often dark. Cleanliness is another issue. Few cats like to use a dirty tray. Once a cat has adopted an area as a latrine, if a scent lingers it indicates this is the toilet. You need to clean the area thoroughly and then try to change the way he views the area; placing food bowls in the area may discourage further use.
Can they live together?
Q. We adopted a kitten, Owen, five months ago, and did all the usual things to introduce him to our seven-year old British Shorthair, Leo. All seemed okay at first. However, Owen is now ten months old and will not leave Leo alone. He follows Leo wherever he goes, which he dislikes, but this just seems to make Owen more persistent! Leo seems to want to play when Owen is in the garden, but as soon as he hears him coming he becomes subdued and walks away.
Will Owen calm down as he gets older? Can they live in the same house without conflict?
A. Unless they are related, cats are rarely happy sharing their lives with other felines. Leo is very stressed. It is possible predatory behaviour has entered Owen’s repertoire in relation to poor Leo; some cats do become fixated on stalking feline housemates and it is a very difficult situation to deal with. You may be able to help by creating separate core areas based on the places where each cat likes to be and provide each with a complete set of facilities. Also make sure Owen has lots of appropriate outlets for his energy. Providing feline pheromone diff users and lots of refuges everywhere may also be useful. However, these are temporary measures. It’s impossible to say if or when Owen will calm down, but Leo is severely distressed. I suggest you get help from an experienced local feline behaviourist who could analyse your circumstances and advise you accordingly.
Tom cat is terrorising neighbourhood
Q. Some friends of ours have a problem with a neighbourhood tom that constantly torments and attacks their cats, in their own garden. The cats have had several bites from him. Is there anything they can do about it?
A. Your friends need to draw the battle lines and help their frightened cats regain their territory. Cats have a right to roam in the UK, hence your friends have no legal recourse against the owners of the cat, so if their cats are getting that badly injured then it is time for them to defend their turf. A spray of water will not hurt a cat in the slightest but most absolutely hate getting wet, so buy your friends two powerful long-range ‘super soaker’ water pistols as a present so they can begin guard duty. They can then spray the intruder cat whenever they see it. I’d also advise them to improve the garden fencing so the bully can’t get in (and their cats out), and plant lots of thick, sharp-leaved shrubs around the border to make the garden impenetrable.
Can I stop him hunting?
Q. My family hated it when our last cat brought home dead animals, especially birds. We’re about to get a new cat and would like to take steps to prevent him from hunting if possible. Can cats be trained not to hunt?
A. Many cat lovers find it hard to reconcile the image of their pet cat as a loving companion with the cold-blooded feline hunter. However, we have to accept that hunting is a fundamental feline behaviour. Cats hunt whenever their brain is stimulated by appropriate sounds or images, be it insects or larger prey. Training cats not to hunt is impossible, but you can make a difference by restricting their access to potential prey or channelling their hunting behaviour into more acceptable activities. The most successful way is to ensure that your cat can engage in predatory behaviour either in play or while obtaining his food. This can be achieved by providing daily games with fishing rod type toys and by hiding food around the house so that your cat has to seek it out. It can also help to feed some of the daily food ration in puzzle feeders so that your cat has to spend more time gaining access to it.
She hates car journeys!
Q. About once a fortnight I have to take my cat Missy on a 40-minute car journey. As soon as Missy sees her cat basket she hides and will cry for the whole car journey. My husband is a vet and has suggested tablets for Missy but I don’t feel it is right to ‘drug’ a cat. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
A. It would be better if Missy could stay at home while you start to desensitise her. Keep her carrier out all the time and make it a positive place. Put it somewhere Missy likes to be, don’t force her near it or in it, but lure her there with treats and play. A synthetic feline pheromone spray may also help make the carrier more reassuring. Once she will voluntarily go into the basket, move it around the home and repeat the process. When she seems relaxed inside, shut the door very briefly and reward her for staying calm. Eventually you can repeat the strategy by picking the basket up with Missy in it before putting her in the car. Secure the carrier, start the car but don’t move it. Stop after a very short session and go inside, rewarding relaxed behaviour and ignoring any vocalisation. Then drive a short distance, and again, very slowly, use lots of short sessions to build up Missy’s tolerance. Eventually you will be able to tackle the whole journey.
Why is she so nervous?
Q. One of my four cats, Ruby, is constantly nervous. She had an awful past as a young cat (we rescued her when she was two) and when we approach her as slowly as we can she runs and won’t come back. I suppose you could say that it is hard to gain her trust. Please help!
A. Firstly, as you have four cats, which are presumably not related, you will probably have more than one feline social group. Look at the composition of your feline group and the relationships and interactions between them. This will give you an idea of who gets on well with who. If Ruby prefers to be a loner and to spend her time in a particular area of your home, set it up as her ‘core territory’. Provide her with food, water, toys and high dark places to hide and de-stress – the latter will help reduce her high arousal and stress levels. A feline pheromone diffuser should also help by creating a reassuring environment for her. Then the secret is to avoid imposing contact, never looking directly at Ruby, particularly being sure that you don’t stare at her. Just spend time nearby sitting quietly, or talking in a low, gentle and rather monotonous tone. This sort of low key companionship is likely to be more productive than trying to ‘make friends’ by approaching and giving Ruby direct attention. She may never be a relaxed lap cat but backing off and allowing Ruby always to be in charge is the way forward. Above all you need to avoid inadvertently stressing her and ensure that your behaviour is entirely predictable.
They scratch the carpet
Q. I have three cats, a male and two females, who all have access to the outdoors. They have a great scratching post and a scratch mat filled with catnip. Yet the two females continually attack the stair carpet and a couple of areas in the bedroom. I have tried distracting them, spraying them with water and scaring them away – all to no avail. What can you suggest?
A. You need to try to understand why cats strop, as it is called, before tackling this problem. When they wake up, cats strop to stretch their bodies, so they need facilities where they sleep. A very important aspect of this behaviour is also territory marking. Stropping makes a characteristic noise, which is an auditory signal to other cats, but in addition they leave the roughened marks – a visual signal of ownership – and scent. Scent decays with time, which is why cats repeatedly scratch at the same place. Stropping is carried out at the periphery of the home range and where cats feel most insecure, so near the entrances and exits to your home where the odours from other cats come in. Stairs are a common site for scratching. The problem is likely to be worse because you are using very negative methods to deter your cats from a natural behaviour. You will be adding to their stress levels, which matters because when cats are insecure and upset they need to mark their territory even more! You need to provide multiple suitable scratching facilities in numerous locations. Repair your relationship with your pets by being calm, consistent and never aggressive. A feline pheromone spray may also help you to reduce their need for scratching, but it is only one tool and the other aspects need dedicated attention.
Why does he use the lawn?
Q. Why does my ten-month-old black cat Bruce toilet on the lawn?
A. It’s difficult to be certain, but the reason for Bruce’s behaviour may lie in the conditions he encountered in his early weeks. What cats learn in the first two to seven weeks of life sets them up forever to some degree. If there was little dug over soil to hand when his mother was teaching him she may have used nearby grass – hence Bruce’s habits. Another possibility is that at a young age he had diarrhoea which made it impossible for him to reach a suitable substrate, as it’s called, and he had to use grass. It doesn’t take long for some cats to then develop unusual substrate preferences so that they never adopt habits we would consider normal. Try adding some soil in the areas he commonly uses as a latrine so that he ‘accidentally’ eliminates on it when he goes. Then you could add more soil and he may eventually begin to dig and cover his excreta in the usual feline way. In the meantime, you would probably have to treat the lawn like a litter tray and clear up after him. If he does finally change his habits, you could encourage him to switch to a nearby flower bed by digging the soil over regularly and perhaps adding some sand, to make it especially appealing.