Welcome to Caturdays with Saffron,
our Feline Behavior Manager!
Training Your Cat
Last week I wrote about treats and hinted that I would be writing a post about training cats, and here it is! This is not a comprehensive guide to training- there is way too much to talk about for that! This will be a basic guide that can help you get started. Training, if done properly, can be extremely enriching and beneficial to a cat (or any other animal). Don’t listen to anyone who tells you cats can’t be trained- they absolutely can, and I know because I’ve done it!
First off, I will say that training cats is really not that different from training dogs, or any other species. The most widely accepted method of training in the modern age is positive reinforcement based training. We never use force or punishment to get an animal to do what we want; instead, we give the animal something that they want, to reinforce a behavior that we want from them. If you are already familiar with this method and have used it with a dog, rat, bird, etc. you can apply the same exact techniques to a cat! Often the easiest animals to train are those who are food motivated, as treats are a very easy reward to give, but if an animal isn’t that into food, you will have to ask yourself what it is they DO want. Pets? A favorite toy? Catnip? Finding something that they like and will be willing to work for is the first thing for you to do and will help shape how you train them.
When you are training an animal to do something, you need to work in small approximations. Say you want to train your cat to jump through a hoop. You can’t hold the hoop three feet above their head and expect them to just jump through it right away. You need to break it down into smaller pieces. So what could be the first step here? Simply getting your cat to approach the hoop. Hold it at ground level and encourage your cat to walk towards it, and if they do, reward them. Once they have that step down, move on to step two: getting them to walk through the hoop at ground level, rewarding after. Once they will walk through it, you can lift the hoop, maybe just an inch off the ground, so they have to step slightly higher to get through, rewarding after. Then raise it another inch, and so on, and so on. How fast you are able to progress will depend entirely on your cat. Some cats may not be willing to walk through the hoop as step two; maybe they are nervous about it but will be willing to stick their head through it, in which case you can reward that behavior, and then get them to put one paw over it, and then the second, and then the front half of their body. If your cat isn’t willing to do what you are considering the ‘next step’, it probably means you are asking too much of them and need to break the training down into more manageable pieces for them.
What if your cat won’t even approach the hoop in the first place? If you find that they are scared, intimidated, or otherwise repelled by an object that you are trying to use in the training, you will first need to desensitize them to the object. You can do this by first figuring out on what level they will accept the object. Are they fine with the hoop if it’s lying flat on the ground? Does it have to be on the other side of the room from them? Does it need to be tucked under a couch or blanket with only a small part of it showing? Whatever you find they will accept, start there, and then use gradual steps to get them more used to it. Desensitization can also apply to things like noises or smells, so if you are trying to get your cat used to electric trimmers, for example, you may need to desensitize them to both the site and sound of the trimmers.
One key point about delivering a reward to the cat is the TIMING. If you give them their treat at the wrong moment, they won’t necessarily understand that you are rewarding them for the specific behavior they did. So if they are willing to walk through the hoop, and then they come over to you and get a treat, they may think they are being rewarded for coming to you rather than the act of walking through the hoop. It can be awkward and difficult to make sure you are getting a treat to them right as they are walking through the hoop, though- and this is why clicker training is such a useful tool. The purpose of using a clicker is to mark the point in time that your cat is doing the thing you want it to do- it’s really easy to quickly press down on something you’re holding in your hand. Of course, you first have to teach your cat that the sound of the clicker means a treat is on its way. This video does a good job of explaining the basics of clicker training: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INBoq-5D_m4
For more info about clicker training (or training tips in general), you can find a lot of resources online. However, make sure that whoever is writing the articles you read, or whoever makes the videos you are watching, promotes positive reinforcement based training and isn’t advocating for force or punishment. Karen Pryor is a great animal trainer with lots of online resources- or if you want a book, she has one called ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’ that is a great read.
Positive reinforcement training and desensitization can be used for so many things: getting your cat to like their crate, getting them to wear a harness, teaching them to give a high-five… Anything that your cat is physically capable of doing, with enough time, dedication, and consistency, you are likely to be able to train them to do it. This post barely scratches the surface of training- I haven’t even talked about cues, or shaping vs. capturing- but with an understanding of the basic principles you can teach simple behaviors like jumping through a hoop. And don’t think that you can’t teach your 14-year old to do something- old cats absolutely CAN learn new tricks, and with positive reinforcement based training, the experience will be enjoyable and enriching for both you and your cat.
Giving Your Cat Treats
Giving your cat treats can be useful in so many different scenarios- when you are introducing a new animal to your home, getting them used to going in a crate, getting them to take medication, helping shy cats gain their confidence, helping them make friends with a new person in your life… the list goes on and on. If there is something you want to get your cat to do, or something you DON’T want them to do, then treats will likely be able to play a role.
An important part of making sure that the treats can help you and your kitty friend in whatever you are trying to accomplish is to avoid giving them treats ‘whenever’. Save them for when you are working with your cat or teaching them something! Another thing to keep in mind to ensure treats are being used as effectively as possible is that it’s often better to have your cats on set meal-times rather than free-feeding them. If your cat can eat whenever they want, they are going to be less hungry for treats and less motivated to work with you for a food reward. When you are giving them treats, give them as small a piece or amount as you can that still seems motivating to them.
So what kind of treats are good? Well, that really depends on your cat. If they are on a special diet, you should consult with your vet to see if there are any commercially available treats that would be all right for them to have. Some prescription diets also make treats that still meet the requirements of that diet, so you can ask about those. If your cat is really food motivated you may even be able to use their regular kibble or wet food for training purposes. If you are going to be using a lot of treats, as may be the case if you are training them to do something difficult, you should check with your vet to see if you need to decrease the amount of regular food they get, so weight gain doesn’t end up being a concern.
If your cat doesn’t have any dietary restrictions and you’re not sure what treat to get them, I have some suggestions of things to try:
-Tiki Cat/Churu/other wet food style treats. These kinds of treats come in a small tube-like package and have a soft, creamy consistency (the packaging is reminiscent of Go-Gurt). Most cats will lap them up with their tongue straight from the package, and you can just squeeze it up as they go. If that doesn’t work well for you, you can always squeeze some out onto a small spoon, a popsicle stick, or something similar. A spoon or stick works well for using regular wet food as a treat, as well.
-Meaty sticks. The brand I’ve used the most is ‘Sheba’ but there are other kinds out there too. They can easily be torn or cut into small pieces.
-For something easy to make yourself, use plain cooked chicken. Boil it, or if you have a pressure cooker that works great, and be sure not to add any seasoning. Then you can cut it up into small chunks and freeze it in little baggies or tupperware, so you can unfreeze what you need for a day or two and the rest will keep longer.
-Greenies, Temptations, or other similar crunchy treats. These kinds of treats come in different flavors and styles, and while many cats won’t care, others are definitely picky about what kind they like best. Greenies are my most-used treat at the shelter, and I’ve found that more cats prefer the smaller, square-shaped greenies over the larger, fish-shaped ones.
There are SO many kinds of treats out there; don’t be afraid to experiment to find something your cat truly loves! If you wind up with a treat that your cat doesn’t like, give the rest of them to a friend, or donate them to us or another animal shelter where they’ll go to the shelter cats (or in our pet food pantry for other cat people).
If you are wanting to train your cat to do something specific- give you a high five, come when you call them, walk into their crate or to a specific location on command- often the best place to start is by clicker training them. I’ll write a post about training in the future, but if you think training your cat is something you’d like to do, then I encourage you to start looking for that special treat that your cat absolutely loves!
Cats Who Won’t Let You Sleep
Today I’ll be talking about cats who won’t let you sleep!
Most cats are crepuscular by nature, meaning that they are naturally most active and dawn and dusk. However, this doesn’t mean that their routines can’t be altered, resulting in a kitty who is meowing for food or attention at two in the morning. The good news is if their routines can be altered in this way, they can also be altered in a way that is more in sync with your own schedule!
The first mistake many people make is unintentionally rewarding their cat’s nighttime activity. If your cat is yelling at you for food in the middle of the night, and you get up and give it to them, then you have just encouraged them to continue their behavior. The best thing you can do for your cat’s unwanted nighttime behavior is to ignore it. I know how difficult this can be- I have a cat of my own who would often try and insist on getting pets at 3 AM, and he figured out he could wake me up by standing right next to my face, pulling at the cord charging my phone, and knocking it onto the ground. To solve this, I had to temporarily change the way I positioned my phone on my nightstand so he couldn’t get to it. After he got out of that habit, I was able to put my phone back in its normal position, and he leaves it alone to this day. The caveat I will add here is if your cat is suddenly exhibiting strange vocalizations or behavior that you have never seen from them before, then it can be a good idea to get them checked out by a vet. If they have a clean bill of health, then you can go ahead and ignore away!
Of course, ignoring this behavior will only go so far if you don’t engage with them during the times of day you DO want them to be active. It is especially important to establish a routine of playing and feeding. Perhaps an hour or half hour before you are ready to wind down for the night and head to bed, you should have a play-session with your cat. Do your very best to tire them out! Once playing is over, this is when they should receive their dinner, or even just a small snack. A cat who just expended a bunch of energy and then ate a meal is going to be a sleepy cat, and timing it out like this is going to align their ‘bed time’ with YOUR ‘bed time’. If you are having a hard time getting your cat to play, I strongly recommend watching this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMPjoNg3nv8
It can also help to establish a routine/boundaries in the morning. Maybe you roll right out of bed and the first thing you do is go hug your cat and feed them. While this may not create any problems with most cats, some cats will connect you waking up with them immediately getting attention or food, and then may decide to try and wake you up earlier if they want those things while you are still asleep. If yours is the kind of cat who does this, then you should wait to give them attention until after you’ve done something else- brushing your teeth, or booting up your computer, for example. Your cat can then establish this as the ‘signal’ that you are going to give them attention. For feeding, the best thing you can do is establish a very clear, unique signal that you are going to start prepping their meal. You can pick whatever you want, but make sure it’s something that doesn’t occur at any time OTHER than when you are offering food. I have a service bell that I ring, and all my cats come running in anticipation of food. I taught them what it meant by ringing the bell and then immediately giving them a treat before prepping their meal- they figured it out really quickly!
As you work with your cat to help shift their desires to align with your own schedule, the most important thing to remember is that it will take time and consistency. They may not understand what is happening at first, so you need to be patient with them as they learn. Just as it isn’t easy for humans to instantly adapt to a new schedule, cats need time to get used to a new routine, so while some cats may pick up on what is happening right away, with most kitties it will likely be at least a few weeks before you start to see positive results.
How to Feed Your Cat
Today I’m going to be talking about how you should feed your cat!
I’ll start by saying that I’m not going to tell you WHAT to feed your cat. There’s a lot of debate over wet food vs. dry food, this brand vs. that brand, and the best thing I can tell you to do is to consult your vet. While I’m personally a fan of wet food since cats get a lot of their moisture from their food, different cats have different dietary needs, and a medical professional is going to be the best person to tell you what- and how much- your cat should be eating.
Free-feeding vs. Scheduled mealtimes
For both medical and behavioral reasons, I strongly encourage you to have your cat on set mealtimes rather than leaving food out for them all the time. Free-feeding, or ‘grazing’, has a higher potential to lead to obesity and other health issues. Some cats may also not want to eat food that’s been sitting out for a while- with wet food, it’s usually easy to see why as it hardens up with an unappetizing crust, but dry food that’s been sitting in a bowl for a few hours can also be more ‘stale’ and distasteful to your kitty, even if it looks all right to us. Grazing also isn’t aligned with the natural patterns of their behavior. Cats are designed to work for their food, and eat once every several hours. Ideally, a cat’s daily food should be broken down into 3 or 4 smaller meals each day, roughly 6-8 hours apart, with each one being preceded by a play session or some form of activity on your cat’s part.
This type of schedule isn’t going to be practical for every pet owner, as we all have busy lives and there might not be someone at home in the middle of the day to offer a third meal. If all you can manage is two meals a day, that’s okay too! To help add more enrichment to mealtimes, you can look into getting your cat a puzzle feeder. This can be an easy way to engage their mind and promote behavioral health. There are LOTS of different kinds of puzzle feeders, so you may need to experiment to figure out what works for your cat. Understand that it may take them time to learn how to use a puzzle feeder, but they can be great for all cats, regardless of their feeding schedule. I recommend looking at this website to figure out what puzzle feeder may be right for you: http://foodpuzzlesforcats.com/
Cats who beg for food in between mealtimes
A lot of the time, I have people tell me that they keep their cat on a free-feeding diet because if they don’t have food out constantly, their cat won’t stop begging them for food. They’ll knock things over, chew on things, or meow incessantly. One thing to keep in mind is that if your cat engages in this behavior, and then you give them food, you have just taught them that doing these things is a good way to get food! There are better strategies you can use to eliminate or lessen this behavior.
-Follow a set schedule for feeding. Cats may not be able to read a clock, but they do have a general sense of time, and benefit hugely from having a routine. Do your best to feed your cat at the same times each day.
-Perform an action that can let your cat know that it’s feeding time. Pick something unique that won’t occur at other times of day. For example, I have a service bell in my kitchen, and when it’s time to feed my cats I ring it, and they all come running. I started off by ringing the bell and giving them each a treat, so they’d get an instant reward for the sound, rather than having to wait for me to put food in their bowls. It didn’t take them very long to figure out that bell=food. You can use whatever signal you like as long as it’s obvious to your cats, it’s not something that occurs at other times, and you’re able to provide reinforcement immediately after using the signal.
-Make sure your cat isn’t simply bored in between mealtimes. If they’re bothering you a lot, maybe they’re looking for cuddles, or some play-time with you. Think about how frequently you play with your cat and ask yourself if you may need to make more time to do so, and look at the enrichment you have for them around your home- if they aren’t using it then it may be time to switch things up.
-If your cat is one of those who seems to chew on everything when they’re hungry, provide them with some objects that are appropriate to chew. I suggest looking into cat grass, silver vine sticks, and commercially available chew-toys for cats.
Feeding multiple cats
Whether your cats are all on different diets for health reasons, or one of them finishes quickly and tries to get more than their fair share, I always recommend feeding cats spread out from each other. Even if they don’t appear to be at odds during meals, one of them may be scarfing their food faster than they’d like to prevent another from stealing, and it can cause stress that may bleed over into other areas of their life. If your cats love each other, never try to go for the other’s bowl, and no one has any behavioral problems, then you’re probably fine just putting their bowls several feet away from each other. If there’s any conflict between your kitties around mealtimes, I highly recommend putting them in separate rooms with closed doors. This gives slow eaters a chance to relax and take their time without worrying they’ll lose their food, and in general can reduce the stress in your cats’ lives.
Suckling Behavior in Cats
Suckling and kneading are completely normal behaviors- it’s how kittens get milk from their mother. Young kittens will often continue to suckle on things for a period of time after being separated from their mother, and while many cats will grow out of this behavior, some will continue to do it well into adulthood. So, should you be worried if your cat or kitten suckles on things?
Most of the time, no. When older cats suckle on something, it’s usually an instinctual “I’m very happy” moment for them. It’s often accompanied by biscuit-making, a much more common behavior that nearly every cat engages in at some point. However, as with all behaviors, if suckling is something that you’ve never seen your cat do before, and they’re suddenly doing it all the time, you should consult a veterinarian. If your cat is licking or suckling on lots of different things, it can indicate a nutritional deficiency or other health concern.
The other thing to look out for is WHAT your cat is suckling. I most commonly see the behavior with soft blankets or other bedding. If your cat’s favorite blanket has a bunch of loose threads, they could end up accidentally swallowing them, which can cause some serious health issues. If your kitty wants to suckle a blanket, make sure it’s in good condition and doesn’t have any tassels or anything else that could turn into a hazard.
Sometimes, you’ll also see kittens suckling on each other. This is more concerning as it can cause irritation or injury on the kitten being suckled, and can even result in a medical emergency, especially when the genital area is being suckled. Most of the time, temporarily separating the two kittens for about a week (sometimes a little longer) is all it takes. You can put them back together for play sessions a few times each day, but you’ll want to keep them separated whenever you aren’t available to supervise. Temporary separation may not always solve the problem, however, especially with older kittens. There are a few other things you can do:
-Put a pet-safe, gross tasting spray on the spot that is being suckled. Ask your vet for recommendations. At the shelter we sometimes use ‘Grannicks Bitter Apple’.
-Redirect the suckling. When you catch them in the act, gently remove them from their friend and present them with a soft blanket or cuddly toy.
-Enrichment, enrichment, enrichment! Keep your kitty active and engaged in other behaviors and they will be less likely to suckle. Ensure that you are not only having interactive play sessions with your kitties multiple times a day, but that they also have things to keep them occupied when you’re not around. Window perches with views of bird feeders, battery-operated motion toys, puzzle feeders and foraging toys… the list goes on!
You may also find that your cat likes to suckle on you! If you think it’s cute and don’t mind, just make sure that you don’t have on any lotions, perfumes, makeup, or anything else that could be harmful if ingested. However, I’ve found that most people aren’t big fans of having their cat suckle on them. If you want to stop the behavior, simply use the same techniques as listed above.
Why you shouldn’t use a squirt bottle on your cat, and what to do instead
The squirt bottle is a common tool that people will use to attempt to deter their cat from certain behaviors, such as scratching a couch or jumping on the dining-room table. I’m here to tell you that it may not actually be working as well as you think it is!
You may have found that spraying your cat makes them stop whatever they are doing, and maybe over time you see a decrease in that behavior, but let me tell you a secret- more likely than not, it is only stopping them from doing it while you are around. The next time kitty wants to jump on the counter, or scratch your favorite armchair, they will just check to make sure you and the spray bottle are nowhere to be seen, and then go ahead and follow through with their plans.
There is also the risk that using a spray bottle on your cat could harm your relationship with them. Rather than form a negative association between their behavior and the water, it’s more likely they will form a negative association between you and the water. Some cats can be quite forgiving and you won’t notice a change in your bond with them, but others may become significantly less trusting of you- and why take the risk when there’s a better way?
So, what is this better way? There are two aspects to it: using environmental deterrents, and giving your cat an alternative to the behavior they are trying to express. You will have to tailor your approach to the undesired behavior you are experiencing, but I will give a few examples. If your cat is scratching a piece of furniture, use an appropriate environmental deterrent- such as double-sided sticky tape or anti-scratch spray- and give your cat a scratching post right next to, or at least near, the piece. Your cat is likely scratching that object because it is a socially important location to them. By using an environmental deterrent, you’re saying ‘no, don’t scratch here’, and by putting a post in the same area, you are also giving them a ‘yes, scratch here’. By giving them a ‘yes’ nearby, this means that you should only need to use the environmental deterrent as a temporary measure, until the cat has learned to use the alternate instead. Another common example is a cat jumping on a kitchen counter or dining table. The ‘no’ would be putting out aluminum foil, or sticky tape, or a ‘Ssscat’ air spray device (and also removing anything that is making the area extra appealing, such as food scraps). The ‘yes’ would be giving them plenty of other options to satisfy their climbing and jumping urges: cat-trees or other cat furniture items, or strategically installed sturdy shelves.
You may ask why an environmental deterrent is different from using a spray bottle, and there are two reasons: the first is consistency. With an environmental deterrent, your cat will find something unpleasant EVERY time they try to engage in the relevant behavior, and consistency is one of the key parts of training an animal. The second reason is that rather than you being on the other end of the spray bottle, there is no person for the cat to connect the negative experience with, so instead they are going to associate it with the location and their behavior. The spray bottle tells them ‘don’t do this while my human is watching’. That aluminum foil on the counter means that the counter is a bad place to be. The sticky tape on the armchair means that scratching it isn’t going to feel good. Long-term, you are going to see better results using environmental deterrents, and are more likely to have a trusting friendship with your cat.
Today I’m going to go over a few of the most basic things everyone should be doing with their cats to keep them content and happy!
First up is communication. I think we all wish our pets could speak with us. It would make everything so much simpler; we could explain why they have to take their medication, ask what part of them hurts when they’re feeling sick, and could talk through conflicts they have with other pets. Sadly, our pets are probably not going to spontaneously learn to speak ‘human’ anytime soon, but there is one very easy way you can tell your cat you love them: with the slow blink. The next time- or every time- you make eye contact with your cat, don’t stare for too long; instead, look at them for a moment, then close your eyes for a moment, and open them again. Your cat may just return the gesture! This is a sign of trust and love; a cat is not going to be willing to close their eyes around a creature who they think is going to harm them.
Next, you should always make sure you are petting your cat how they want to be pet. This can mean something different for every cat. Some cats love to be picked up and held and be pet ‘roughly’. Others will not, and when you think you are showing them love by picking them up and cuddling them, you’re actually making them uncomfortable. If you’re not sure what your cat wants, the best thing to do is to let them choose. Sit near them, offer a hand, and let them guide you to the areas they want to be pet. One of my cats runs up to me when she wants pets, and once I’ve started, she turns her face away from me and presents her booty because she thinks booty scritches are the best thing in the world! She is also a very selective lap cat- she only wants to sit in my lap when it’s HER idea, so while I don’t pick her up and put her in my lap, I will sit near her and make my lap as appealing as possible by sitting in a neutral pose and draping a nice fuzzy blanket over my legs. Quite often it results in a happy purring cat on my lap!
Another important key to your cat’s happiness is to play with them every day! Every cat, regardless of age, needs interactive play time with you on a daily basis. I’ve written a post on this before, so if you’d like more information about how to best play with your cat, you can read that post here:
The last thing I’ll mention today is the importance of making your home cat friendly. This doesn’t mean you have to have cat toys strewn all across your floor, but it DOES mean making accommodations for your kitty friends. It’s absolutely essential to provide them with vertical space where they can climb and rest; a cat tree or two is usually the easiest way to accomplish this, but feel free to get creative with your own furniture or sturdy shelves if you want to! A variety of cat scratchers in socially important locations (such as next to the living room couch) is also a must, as are soft beds or blankets that you don’t wash too frequently, so your kitty can sit on them and ensure their scent is spread around enough to keep them confident and happy. Another key thing to do, that is usually people’s least favorite thing, is to have an appropriate number of litter boxes and place them in ideal locations. The general rule is to have one more litter box than the number of cats you have, and to place them in easy-access locations, away from noisy appliances. While some cats may be fine having litter boxes placed in out-of-the-way corners or closets, others will want them in a more open space, especially if there is another cat in the home who may try to bully them during their litter box time!
Remember that the happier and more content your kitty is, the more likely that happiness is going to spread and give you contentment in your life too!
Whiskers are VITAL to your cat. The most prominent (and generally most important) ones are the whiskers on their muzzles, but if you look close you’ll spot whiskers in other areas, like above their eyes, on their chin, and on the backs of their legs!
Whiskers help a cat understand what is going on in the world around them. Their roots are three times deeper than that of a cat’s fur, and the follicles they emerge from have more nerves and blood vessels, so whiskers are very sensitive. They have proprioceptors (special sensory organs) on the end of each whisker that aid the cat in navigation and balance. A cat’s eyesight is honestly not so great, especially at close range, and their whiskers more than make up for this deficit! If a cat is hunting something, whether it’s a mouse outdoors or a wand toy that you’re dragging in front of them, their whiskers help them detect the slight changes in the air currents created by the moving object or creature to know it’s exact location. Whiskers are also why cats are able to easily balance on the top of a narrow fence, or on a door frame or window ledge. They also aid them in determining how far away things are so they can judge the distance for a jump properly.
Generally, a cat’s whiskers are about the same width as their body (or even a little bit wider). Anything that touches the tip of the whisker communicates info to the cat- such as, “I might not be able to fit through this space”. This offers an explanation for why cats will sometimes turn away from food or water bowls that are too narrow for them- if their whiskers brush against the sides of the bowl, in addition to possibly being painful or uncomfortable, their brain is telling them that if they push their head into the bowl, they may not be able to get out again. Of course, we’ve all met those funny cats who have no problem shoving their face in a narrow glass to steal the water you’ve just poured for yourself, but in general, you want to be sure to offer food and water in wide, shallow bowls to avoid whisker fatigue/whisker stress, as it’s known.
The way a cat positions their facial whiskers can also tell you a little about how they’re feeling. Whiskers that are in the ‘relaxed’ position- going straight out from the side of their face- means your cat is feeling at ease. If their whiskers are pointed forward, they are focused on something or excited about something- perhaps hunting a toy or looking at a bird out a window. If their whiskers are angled back, flattened against their face, it’s usually because they are feeling fearful. By flattening their whiskers, they are getting them out of the way to reduce the chance of damaging them in case of a fight.
Whiskers are very sensitive, so many cats will not like having theirs touched, while others will welcome pets on and around their whiskers as long as you are gentle! Always let your cat decide if they’re okay with you touching their whiskers or not, and be sure never to pull on them or rub them away from the direction the cat is angling them. And of course, you should never trim your cat’s whiskers! After reading about how important they are and what they do for the cat, it should be easy to understand why.
Today I want to talk about the tail quiver!
When cats are feeling relaxed and friendly, you will often see them walking around with their tail held high, straight up in the air! At times- often when you have just come home, or maybe when you’re about to open a can of wet food- you may see your cat ‘quiver’ or vibrate their tail. This is a sign of happiness that means your cat is excited to see you.
So why the tail-up pose for when cats are relaxed and happy? It may seem a little gross from a human perspective, but it is very common for cats to sniff each other’s butts as a way of confirming identity or offering a friendly greeting. If a cat is willing to expose a vulnerable part of their body to someone else, it means they trust them, so if you ever find yourself with your kitty’s butt in your face you should definitely take it as a compliment- they are just saying they love you!
Some people, when they see their cat quiver their tail in excitement, think that their cat may be spraying. This happy-tail-quiver does in fact greatly resemble the motion that cats do when they are urine marking, but it is quite easy to tell when that is happening, as they will typically be backed up to a wall or other vertical surface- and you’d be able to smell it after! The good news is that these behaviors are not linked: a cat who says hi with a happy tail quiver is not more likely to spray than any other cat. The cats who are the spraying culprits are usually those males and females who are unaltered, so as long as you are spaying and neutering your kitties, you are likely in the clear!
You should also be sure to not mistake a bristling or puffy tail for a happy quivering tail. A poofy tail can either be an indication of aggression or overstimuation/desire to play. If it’s a sign of aggression, you will likely see a lot of other obvious signs- growling, hissing, intense staring, a tense body. If you see a poofy tail without other apparent signs of aggression, then your cat likely just has some energy to burn, and it’s a perfect time to play with them. One of my cats has a lot of playful energy in the mornings, and if I don’t initiate play early enough, he gets the zoomies and runs all across my apartment with a giant poofy tail! It’s certainly fun to watch, but it also tells me I need to start tossing some toys around for him or swinging the wand toy around so he has a healthy outlet for that energy.
I would love to see pictures of your cats and their happy-tail-poses, if anyone would like to share!
Today I’d like to talk about redirected aggression. Picture this: Your cat is sitting in a window, staring at something very intently. After a few minutes, they walk away from the window, looking agitated. Then, one of your other pets walk by and your cat hisses and swats at them. Or maybe they come over to where YOU are sitting and bite your leg. This is a classic example of redirected aggression!
It works like this: your cat sees something that elicits either a prey or predator response in them- another neighborhood cat, a dog, a bird that they REALLY want to leap for- but isn’t able to get to them. Or, maybe something scares them- you drop a ceramic bowl in the kitchen while they are nearby, and the bowl shatters and scatters its contents around. Whether they cannot reach the source of their feelings (a bird or cat outside) or associate the fear they felt from the shattering bowl with you or another pet in the home, they seek another outlet for whatever kind of pent-up energy they are feeling. This is completely relatable behavior- have you ever had a bad day at work, and then gone home and snapped at a loved one even though they had nothing to do with why you are feeling so crummy?
So what can you do about it? There are two angles to this: prevention vs. managing it when it happens. Many times you may not be able to identify the trigger, but if you can, figure out the context in which your cat is experiencing the frustration that is causing them to redirect. Here’s a common scenario: your cat is sitting in a window, and you notice that a neighborhood cat is stalking around outside, and then a minute or two later your cat lashes out at you or another pet in the home.
To try and prevent this, you can either work to keep your own cat away from the window, or to keep the outdoor cat away from the window. If this is the only window that looks down onto the area the stray cat uses, then simply blocking it off, using blinds, curtains, or opaque window clings could be a simple solution, and you can direct your cat to a window where they will have a more calming view. However, if there are multiple places where your cat will be able to see the ‘intruder’, then you’ll want to put outdoor environmental deterrents out to keep the cat from coming too close to your home. Examples of these include motion-detecting bright lights or sprinklers (or ones set to go on at a certain time if the cat always comes around a certain hour); ‘cat spikes’ which can be lay on dirt, gravel, grass, etc. and will be uncomfortable for a cat to step on; and scent-based deterrents such as citrus scents and vinegar.
If you’re not able to identify a specific trigger or are unable to prevent it, then you can manage the behavior your own cat displays. It will help to learn what your cat’s signs or behavior are before a potential event. If you’ve noticed that your cat always goes and swats at your dog right after sitting in a specific window for 20 minutes, then be prepared to engage them with a toy or other distraction to give them a healthy outlet for their energy. It can help to give them a ‘time-out’, not as a punishment, but as a way to allow them time to cool off. You can put them in a room with some toys (a battery-powered toy can be great here) and let them spend a few minutes alone to work off whatever frustration they are experiencing.
In some cases, you can also see longer-lasting redirected aggression, even if there is no trigger present: after an initial incident of one cat redirecting onto another animal, you may notice in the coming days or weeks that they start to lash out at the ‘victim’ for no apparent reason. This is because when they see the other animal, they are connecting them with the state of arousal they were in that caused them to attack in the first place. Sometimes this will fade on its own within a few days, but many times you will need to work to break this association. Step one is separating the animals for a few days; you may need to switch off who has access to the ‘main rooms’ of the house and who is being confined to a smaller (but well-enriched) area, so no one becomes frustrated with their situation. After a few days have passed and the feelings of fear on the victim’s side and the feelings of aggression on the instigator’s side will have faded a little, start to use positive reinforcement to rebuild the relationship. Things like offering treats when the cat shows calm behavior around their ‘victim’, providing things that smell like the other animal at meal times or during play sessions, or getting them to play on opposite sides of the same room. In some cases you may need to work through it as though you are introducing two animals who have never met before. You can find guides about introducing cats to other cats or to dogs on our website:
Here are some recommendations for how you can best accommodate a blind and deaf kitty.
Sweet cat Maribel, who entered our care as a stray a little while ago, is now available for adoption! It turns out that Maribel is blind AND hard of hearing- but she is ALL sweetness! She is a champ at navigating her habitat here at the shelter. She climbs up and down her cat tower, drinks from her water fountain, never misses where her food is due to her keen sense of smell, and uses her litter box well. She is affectionate, cute, and will make a wonderful companion cat.
It isn’t exactly common for a cat to be blind and partially deaf, as well, so you might be wondering what you may need to do to help Maribel thrive in your home that a fully visual, fully hearing cat would not need. Here are some recommendations for how you can best accommodate a blind and deaf kitty.
🐾 When you first bring your cat home, you should start them off in a single room and gradually expand their world, so they have time to learn where everything is.
🐾 When approaching your cat, to avoid startling them, you can tap the ground with your feet to create vibrations, gently pat the surface the cat is on, or gently blow on them from a short distance away. You can also use their sense of smell to your advantage and hold treats or a food dish in your hand and let them find your hand.
🐾 Try to keep their environment as static as possible; while they can adjust to occasional furniture moves, the less things change, the less chance for confusion. It is especially important to keep litter boxes, food dishes, and water dishes in consistent locations. Meal times should be as consistent as possible every day. It can be a good idea to provide a water fountain, as the motor will produce vibrations, so your cat has an easier time locating it. You can also leave a radio or TV that is low to the ground on; the sound will produce vibrations that can help your cat orient themselves within your home.
🐾 Nothing ‘essential’ to your cat should be on an elevated surface; all litter boxes, food, water dishes, etc. should be as easy as possible for them to get to.
🐾 Your cat should be kept indoors only, with the exception of a completely enclosed catio.
🐾 Offer your cat multiple litter boxes, especially if you have a large house. If they seem to be having trouble stepping in and out of the box, you can offer them one with especially low sides.
🐾 Use toys and enrichment that will allow them to use their other senses; catnip, silver vine, and cat grass are all examples. Toys that make noise typically also produce vibrations, which can help engage your cat. There are ‘purring toys’ or ‘heartbeat toys’, typically designed for kittens, that may be of interest to your cat. Having an open window with a screen so they can enjoy the smells and feel fresh air and sunlight can also be very enriching. You can also ‘talk’ to your cat by speaking while you are petting them; they will feel the vibrations from your voice.
🐾 Don’t carry your cat around the house; this will make it harder for them to orient themselves. If you pick them up to cuddle them, try to place them in the same area you picked them up from. If your cat ever seems lost and unsure of where they are, you can take them to a familiar spot such as their litter box or feeding area.
Cats are resilient creatures and with just a little help from you, a blind and hard of hearing kitty can live a fulfilling life full of happiness!
Cats are often thought of as nocturnal creatures. While this isn’t exactly true (they are crepuscular and tend to be most active around dawn and dusk), cats do still need to be able to see well when it’s dark out. While a cat won’t be able to see in complete darkness any better than a human, they CAN see much better than us in dim lighting. How do they accomplish this?
The eyes of cats, as well as many other animals who are most active during times of low-lighting, have a structure in them called a tapetum lucidum. If you’ve ever shone a flashlight towards a cat and watched their eyes shine, or turned on your porchlight at night and seen creepy glowing eyes looking at you from the darkness, then you have seen the tapetum lucidum in action. It functions in much the same way a mirror does- light that goes in reflects off of it, and the light that ‘escapes’ from the eye after bouncing off of it is what creates the glowing effect that you will see.
However, not all of the reflected light escapes from the eye. Some of it reflects back through the retina, increasing the light that goes to the photoreceptors in the eye. The photoreceptors trigger nerve impulses that pass via the optic nerve to the brain, where a visual image is formed. If there is only a small amount of light that reaches the photoreceptors, what is seen will not contain as much detail. Because the tapetum lucidum reflects an extra bit of light to the photoreceptors, it increases the amount of detail and allows cats (and other species with a tapetum lucidum) to see better in dim lighting than humans can!
The attached ‘night vision’ picture shows a comparison of what a human (top) and a cat (bottom) would see on a dark night.
Why We Don’t Always Take In Stray Cats
It isn’t uncommon to see cats outdoors. It can be hard to know when it is appropriate to bring a feline to a shelter, and when it is best for them to stay where they are. Typically, if a cat looks like it is in good shape, the best thing to do is to leave it where it is. Please read through the attached infographic for more information as to why! One of the big reasons is that by not intaking cats that don’t ‘need’ us, it leaves us open to help more cats (and other animals) who genuinely need our help, thus allowing us to save more lives!
However, there may be times where you want to find out more information about a cat. As animal welfare professionals, we want to make sure outdoor cats are spayed and neutered, but it can be difficult to tell if you’re not a medical professional. Or maybe you are considering ‘adopting’ a friendly cat who is always greeting you when you get home from work, and want to make sure they don’t already have a human. You could go knock on some doors in your neighborhood and see if anyone is familiar with this cat. You could also try posting fliers with your phone number or email and a picture of the cat asking if it belongs to anyone; or even put a breakaway or easily torn paper collar on the cat with a note taped to it with your contact info. Please note that it is ESSENTIAL the collar be a breakaway, as a regular collar could be very hazardous to the cat.
If you’re not sure if the cat should be taken to a shelter or not, or would like to get a friendly, handleable cat scanned for a microchip, you should always call ahead. That way, staff can advise you on the best course of action, and if they do think a cat needs to be brought to a shelter, they can advise you on which one based on jurisdiction so you don’t have to waste time driving to a bunch of different shelters.
What can you do to help make sure your kitty will not wind up in a shelter? You should ALWAYS microchip your pets, and always double-check that your information is up to date! There have been times that a cat is brought to us with a microchip, but it’s unregistered, or has 10-year old info, so there is no way for us to contact the owner. You can register your pet’s microchip online through the specific microchip company; there are also online registries that will work for any microchip regardless of brand. It’s never a bad idea to keep your info up to date in multiple registries! If you plan on letting your cat roam freely around your neighborhood, it can also be a good idea to be on speaking terms with your neighbors and make sure everyone knows you have a cat- that way, if someone is having an issue with your feline or is concerned for their well-being, it’s more likely they will know to just come talk to you instead of taking them to a shelter.
Sometimes, you’ll be petting or playing with your cat- and they’ll scratch you, or nip at you. It happens to all of us! This kind of behavior is typically referred to as overstimulation, and there are multiple ways it can happen, but there are always warning signs; many people just don’t know what to look for because understanding cat body language is definitely an acquired skill! If you can figure out what the trigger for the nips and scratches are, and learn to notice the signs that it’s about to happen, you can reduce or eliminate the behavior.
Some cats can get ‘touch overstimulated’, which basically means that while being pet feels good for a while, eventually it may start to feel irritating or even painful. A good way to understand this is to compare it to being tickled- some people enjoy it for a minute or two, but then the feeling becomes ‘too much’ and you want it to stop. If you don’t pick up on your cat’s signals to stop, they will use a bite or a scratch as a more obvious sign that they need a quick break. All cats have a different threshold of what is ‘too much’, and different parts of their body have different sensitivities. Many cats tend to be sensitive on their stomach or paws and can reach their overstimulation threshold faster- or sometimes immediately- when being pet in these areas. If you think this is the type of overstimulation your cat may be exhibiting, I strongly recommend watching this video by Jackson Galaxy.
Another type of overstimulation is ‘play overstimulation’ where a cat is hyped up from playing with a toy or watching a bird out the window, and then your fingers or foot move in a fashion that makes kitty’s instincts kick in and go for a pounce. Or maybe your cat WANTS to play and isn’t being engaged, so is seeking their own outlet for their energy. This is especially common in cats who, as kittens, were enticed to play with waggled fingers or a moving foot under a blanket. Avoiding encouraging cats to play with body parts, and immediately redirecting to a toy when it does happen, is the best way to avoid this behavior. If your cat is trying to play with your hands or feet when there doesn’t seem to be any stimulation present telling them it’s play time, they may be letting you know that they have a lot of stored-up energy and need an outlet for it. Make sure you have regular play-time with your cat each day, and provide them with toys and enrichment that are easy for them to engage with even when you are busy with something else, such as a battery-operated motion toy or a ball-on-track toy. Every cat can have different preferences for the style of toy they like, so you can experiment and find out what they love.
Cats may also give ‘love bites’ where they nip or lick to express their affection/claim you as ‘theirs’. These bites are typically fairly gentle, though firmness of the nip can vary from cat to cat. However, it can be difficult to distinguish when a nip is out of affection vs. when it is a sign of overstimulation, so it’s important to pay attention to your cat’s body language.
Every cat may have individual signs that they are becoming overstimulated, and they may present with varying degrees of subtlety. One cat may thrash their tail in large motions, whereas another may only move the very tip a slight amount. Some cats may hiss or growl. You should always do your best to tailor cuddling and petting styles to each individual cat; one of your cats may LOVE getting their belly rubbed, while another cat may find this experience extremely unpleasant and react negatively. Common signs of overstimulation include a twitching or thrashing tail, dilated pupils, fluffed up fur (particularly around the base of the tail), ears twitching frequently or quickly, and a quick jerk of the head in the direction of your hand as you are petting your cat. If you ever feel a cat’s skin ‘ripple’ under your hand as you pet them, this may also be a sign they’re getting overstimulated. The more time you spend observing your cat, the easier it gets to notice their individual signs and prevent nips and scratches from ever happening!