HSSC Feline Behavior Program
HSSC’s Feline Behavior Program helps ensure that each cat’s stay at the shelter is as comfortable, enriching, and stress-free as possible.
We often work with challenging cats – those who start off very shy or shut down or those who are fearful of humans and may swat or bite out of fear. We help rehabilitate as many as we can and find appropriate barn cat homes or other alternative placements for those who prefer not to socialize with humans.
We strive to make sure that all available information about a cat’s personality and behavioral needs are documented and made available to potential adopters so that every cat in our care will get adopted as quickly as possible to the RIGHT home.
Saffron is HSSC’s Feline Behavior Program Manager and writes our popular weekly Caturdays with Saffron social media feature to share her love, insight and knowledge about cats and their behavior. Saffron grew up in a household with eight cats and currently has three of her own: Dominic, Thor and Daenerys. She has a degree in Animal Training and Behavior and worked with large cats and other exotic animals before coming to HSSC.
Welcome to Caturdays with Saffron
For those of us who celebrate it, Thanksgiving is coming up! In the excitement of the holiday, it can be easy to forget about any special arrangements you may need to make for your feline friends. I have a few pieces of advice for how to make Thanksgiving cat-friendly! If you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, then you can think of this as advice for any event where you have visitors and delicious food in your home.
-When celebrating a holiday that involves a lot of food, it’s natural to want your feline friend to join in on the fun! However, you definitely want to be cautious about what food you offer your cat. Rather than giving them human food, you may want to pick out a ‘special’ cat food to offer your kitty instead; something tastier than what they get on a day to day basis. If you really want them to share in some of what you’re cooking, a small amount of unseasoned white turkey meat is probably your safest bet. Ensure that anything you offer them is fully cooked to avoid salmonella, and check for bones as they could splinter and cause GI issues. Be careful not to go overboard; even if the food you offer your cat is completely safe for them, giving them too much of a new thing could give them an upset tummy which could result in diarrhea or vomiting.
-Even if you don’t want your cat to join in on receiving Thanksgiving food, they might have a different idea. When you are making so many delicious dishes, they are often left on the stove or counter for people to serve themselves- but if you turn your back or leave the kitchen, your kitty may be too tempted by the delicious smells and decide to hop up there and serve themselves as well! If I’m going to be leaving a dish out on a counter, I like to take a large pot or mixing bowl and use it to completely cover the dish so I don’t have to worry about my cats getting too curious and helping themselves. Many tasty human dishes contain garlic or onions, which can be dangerous to cats, so be extra careful about leaving anything with these in them out in places that your cat could get to.
-If you’re setting the table and creating a nice atmosphere in your home, you may turn to flowers or other plants as pretty décor. However, there are many different kinds of plants that can be very harmful to cats. This includes the popular holiday flower, lilies. Before you or your guests set out the beautiful flowers, make sure you know what they are and if they’re cat-safe or not.
-If you’re having visitors at your home, the noise and activity may be less happily festive to your cat, and more of a stressful disturbance. Even typically friendly cats can feel overwhelmed if there are lots of people over- especially people they’ve never met before- and different noises and activity levels going on throughout the home can be frustrating to cats, as they thrive on familiarity and routine. Make sure you have a nice area set up for your cat that is off-limits to visitors, where they can eat their food, drink some water, and have some peace and quiet if that is what they want. To drown out background noises, you could leave a fan running, or play some gentle music at a low-volume. And do your best to make some time for your cat during your busy day! Try to stick to their usual routine of feeding, playing, and cuddles if at all possible, as it will go a long way in keeping their stress levels low ♥
Today I’m going to talk about when cats fight! It could be two cats you’ve had for years- even siblings who grew up together- who have started to fight with each other, or you could have adopted a cat recently, and everything SEEMED to be going well with the introduction process at first- but now, six months in, they’ve started fighting. What do you do?
First off, you should determine if they are actually fighting, or if they are just playing rough! It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes. Since it is difficult to describe exactly what to look for, I’ve found two videos that will help show you.
Video of cats playing: https://youtu.be/l_GQKtA13-w?t=32
Video of cats fighting: https://youtu.be/y8HfHxMqXt0
If your cats are just playing- then no need to do anything of course! They are having a great time with each other.
If your cats are fighting, then I do encourage you to watch the video all the way through, as Jackson Galaxy has some great advice in there. Here are some basic things you need to know:
- If your cats are truly fighting, you will likely need to do a reintroduction. Cats don’t just work things out on their own. To do a reintroduction, you really do just start from scratch and go through the steps. You can find our guide about introductions here: https://humanesocietysoco.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/HSSC_Cat-Cat-Intros_2020-12.pdf
- Try and figure out why the fighting was happening so you can avoid the situation repeating itself. If you go through the steps of reintroducing your cats, but you don’t fix the underlying issue, then they are likely to wind up back at ‘fighting’ again. One common thing that can lead to fighting is not enough stimulation/playtime; if one cat isn’t having their energy and play needs met, they may turn that focus onto the other cat and end up taking things too far. You should be playing with your cats every single day, and if there is one cat who is consistently the aggressor, take special care to ensure they get enough playtime with you! Wand toys are your friend, as are any toys that they like to engage with on their own- kicker toys are often especially great at letting a cat get some frustration out.
You should also make sure you have plenty of litter boxes (at least one more than the total number of cats in the home), and make sure they are SPREAD OUT- having 3 litter boxes right next to each other is basically the same as only having one litter box. Along the same lines, make sure you have more than one water dish or fountain, plenty of scratchers and nice napping spots, and enough vertical space for all the cats in the household to enjoy at the same time, if they so desire. If your cats have issues surrounding food, plan on having separate areas for mealtimes- someone can get put in a bedroom, another one in a bathroom, until they are done with their food.
What about those times where you really aren’t sure if the cats are fighting or playing, or if they start off playing and it turns into fighting? Or maybe they are fine most of the time but every once in a while they get in a bad fight? Of course, you will want to intervene in the moment to break it up. Don’t insert yourself physically between the cats, as you could end up getting hurt- sometimes all it takes is clapping loudly, or stomping your feet, or raising your voice, to startle them into ending the fight- then you will want to give them some solo-time for them to cool down, maybe play with each of them so they have a healthy release for their energy. You can also use visual barriers to break up a fight- even something as simple as a flattened cardboard box can be held in between the two cats to break that eye contact.
If you’re concerned and unsure if you need to do more than in-the-moment intervention, what you should do is look at the overall quality of life of the cats. Is someone eliminating outside of the litter box? Are appetites decreasing? Does one of the cats spend much of their time hiding under a bed or in a closet? Do either or both of the cats slink slowly around the house, tail down, not showing confident body language? Have you noticed any other behavior changes? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, then that means you really do need to take this seriously, and conduct a reintroduction and address the underlying issue. If, however, the cats seem to be content with the rest of their lives- show positive body language, eat, drink, and use the litter box without issue, engage in pets and playtime as normal- then you likely have two cats who get along fine and just sometimes have a play session that is too rough for one of them. Just be sure to keep a close eye on the situation in case it starts to get worse! The faster you are to intervene in a bad situation, the easier it will be to arrive at a solution.
Throughout history, various cultures have viewed black cats in different lights- either as symbols of bad luck or evil omens, or in others as a sign of good fortune! Of course, none of these seem to have any scientific basis; as Groucho Marx said, ‘a black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere’.
Somewhere among all the good and bad myths about black cats, many people have become afraid that black cats who are adopted out in October- close to Halloween- may be mistreated in some way. Thankfully, this does not appear to be true. The number of black cats adopted in October are comparable to the number adopted at any other time of year, indicating that there is no influx of people seeking them out for nefarious purposes, and there is no evidence to suggest anything negative is happening with owned black kitties- there is no increase in the number of missing black cats that are reported, or animal cruelty reports, or anything similar.
There’s also the idea that year-round, black cats are less likely to get adopted than cats with other coat colors. A study conducted by the ASPCA revealed why we might perceive it this way- because there are simply MORE black felines than there are cats with other coat colors. This can make us feel like black cats are getting left behind, even when they are not! For example, let’s say a shelter takes in 10 cats- 8 of them black, 2 of them orange. Within the next week, 5 cats are adopted: one orange, and four black. This still leaves behind four black cats vs. only one orang cat, which can make us perceive that people are viewing them as less desirable, even though more black cats got adopted than orange kitties!
So, the great news is, we really don’t have to worry about black cats in shelters any more than we do any other colors of felines! However, I’m certainly still going to encourage you to adopt a black kitty, and we happen to have some right now who are waiting for their forever homes.
Storm and Midnight are two adorable cats available for adoption at our Healdsburg shelter. They’re barely out of kitten-hood at 6 months of age! Though they may have started off shy with us, they’ve blossomed into snuggly, energetic kitties who love people. You can find out more about them by calling us at 707-431-3386 or reading about them on our website: https://humanesocietysoco.org/pets/storm-the-cat/
This week, I’m going to talk about ‘chatty cats’- those who meow a lot!
Meows can be absolutely adorable. It’s neat to hear the different voices of different cats, and having your cat ‘talk’ to you can be lots of fun! However, a cat that is constantly meowing may have something else going on, and it may get frustrating for you at times.
Is your cat fixed?
Unaltered kitties will be more vocal, especially when it comes to mating behaviors and when searching for a mate. There are so many reasons to get your kitties spayed or neutered- don’t hesitate!
Vet checkup time!
If your cat’s vocalizations have recently changed in type, frequency, or volume, a vet checkup is in order. There are several different medical reasons a cat could be vocalizing more than they used to. Be sure to take note of the context and details of the vocalizations to tell your vet- does it happen right after they eat? After they use the litter box? Is it a meow, or more of a wail? If you aren’t confident in your ability to describe the sound, you can always try and get a recording on your phone.
If your kitty has been meowing or crying more frequently recently, but gets a clean bill of health from the vet, then the answer could be that something in the environment has changed that is causing them stress. Did you just rearrange your living room? Is there construction happening on your street? Did new neighbors move in who have a barking dog? Try to identify what you think could be causing your cat anxiety, and do what you can to help them. Playing soft music or having a fan running can help drown out outdoor noises. If the noise won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, you could also work on desensitizing them to it by getting a recording of the sound, and playing it at a soft volume while you play with them, give them treats, etc. and slowly increase the volume over time. If you rearranged a room in your house, make it a positive place for them by putting in blankets or cat beds that smell like them, playing with them in there, giving them treats, etc.
These are just a couple examples of things that could be making your kitty feel stressed; don’t be afraid to get creative in your thinking. Extra-sensitive cats may even get temporarily upset over small changes, such as a water dish being moved to the other side of a room.
One reason a cat may meow will be because they want something. It could be pets, it could be food, or they could be after playtime. If you think this is the case, then the reason your cat is continuing the behavior is likely because you are inadvertently rewarding them for meowing. What you’ll need to do is ignore the meows and reward the silence. Do they meow incessantly while you’re preparing their food? Wait for a moment of silence before you put the food bowl down. Do they meow and paw at you when you’re working on your laptop until you pet them? Ignore them until they take a break and sit quietly next to you, and then lavish them with pets. As a cat-parent, your first instinct is usually to run to your baby and give them whatever they want when they meow to you in their adorable little voice, but if you don’t want them to meow at you all the time then you will need to be consistent with your responses. If your cat is keeping you up at night with their meowing (or other activity) I recommend reading this previous post I wrote: https://humanesocietysoco.org/owner-support/caturdays/#1660850808545-5f89e550-2b69
Sometimes, there isn’t an external reason for a cat to be meowing all the time. Some cats just really like to talk! If you have one of these cats, there isn’t much you can do about it. You can probably still reduce the frequency using the suggested techniques in the attention-seeking section, but there is no real way to change a cat’s personality- and honestly, we wouldn’t really want to anyway!
Cats are, without a doubt, interested in climbing and exploring everywhere they can. This of course includes areas where many people would rather they not go: the kitchen counter, or maybe the dining room table. So how can you dissuade them from going in these areas?
Most importantly, you need to make sure that you don’t give your cat a compelling reason to go on the counter. Don’t leave any food out, not even little scraps- cats have an excellent sense of smell and will know!
Many people turn to a spray bottle to deter a cat from a certain action. I caution you against this, because more likely than not all your cat would learn from this is not to do that thing when you are around. They’ll connect the action of you picking up or shaking the squirt bottle with being sprayed, but they won’t necessarily connect their action with the consequence. It’s also possible that over time, this could have a negative effect on your relationship with your cat.
Instead, I advise you to use much more effective environmental deterrents. What this means is that you will leave something on your counter that your cat doesn’t like for them to ‘discover’ on their own. Whatever environmental deterrent you choose, it should not need to be a permanent measure. You may only need to use it once, or maybe for a week, or perhaps longer for very determined cats (or intermittently for those who will try again every once in a while). As for what you should use, there are a variety of things you can try. If you know of an object or material that your specific cat hates (that isn’t harmful, of course) then go ahead and use that! If you’re not sure what to try, here are some suggestions:
-Tape with sticky side up
-Motion activated air-spray (one brand example is Ssscat)
-Overlapping cookie sheets that will ‘clatter’ when your cat jumps on them
-A light coating of water that will get their paws wet
-A small but bright motion sensor light, if your cat is doing this at night
You also need to remember that no matter how many environmental deterrents you try, they aren’t going to do long-term good if your cat doesn’t have appropriate spots to climb and get up high. Note that I used the plural here, as more likely than not you will need to provide more than one thing to climb, especially if you have multiple cats. Cat trees can be expensive- less so if you are willing to purchase them unassembled and do that work yourself- but they are not the only option. Basic sturdy shelves, if installed securely, can create a wonderful little ‘stairway’ for your cats along a wall. Window hammocks/shelves specifically designed for cats can also be great, though I do recommend the ones that attach to the sill with screws rather than suction cups on the window. Even just clearing off the top of a bookshelf can provide a great perch for your cats as long as they have the means to get up there. The more of these climbing spots that can be next to windows, the better! Some cats like to have something in the corner of a room that is frequented by your household members, so they can stay above the activity but still watch everything that happens. Do everything you can to make these climbable spots appealing to your cats- leave treats for them to find, sprinkle them with catnip, or give them lots of pets up there if they find attention reinforcing. If you combine creating positive associations with the areas you want them to climb with temporary environmental deterrents in the areas you’d rather they not, your kitty will likely no longer feel the need to jump on your counter.
Today’s Caturday post is just a feature for three of our adoptable undersocial kittens- Dragon, Big Foot, and Stouffer- but I thought you might all like to see how cute they are and how much progress they’ve made from the hissy, scared kittens they were when they first arrived.
Today, I want to talk about a cat’s sense of smell. Scent is a very important tool for cats. While humans have about 5 million olfactory sensors in our noses, cats have an estimated 45 to 200 million!
By understanding how cats use scent, you can help make your cat more comfortable and less stressed, AND avoid unwanted behavior such as furniture scratching and urine marking.
Cats really want everything in their environment to smell at least a little bit like them. They use their scent to claim ‘ownership’ of an object, or a person, and we WANT them to do this because it shows that they are feeling confident and comfortable. Cats have scent glands all over their body- on their face, their paws, on and around their tail- and they use these to deposit their scent all around them. When you come home and your cat runs up to you and rubs their head against your leg, they are basically saying ‘hey, I love you, you belong to me.’ They will rub their face and body against chairs, table legs, whatever cat furniture you have, and anything available to them in areas that they frequent and want to feel comfortable in. When a cat scratches something with their claws, they are depositing scent. When a cat sleeps on their favorite blanket or your pillow, they’re depositing scent. This is all great behavior that we want to see in our kitties!
Most people don’t want their cat to scratch the couch or their favorite armchair. The thing to understand is that to your cat, this is perfectly reasonable behavior. This area is important- to you, AND to them. It is only natural that they will want to ‘claim’ it. So rather than trying to get kitty to leave the couch alone and go to the scratching post on the other side of the room, you will likely have more luck putting a scratcher right next to the couch they like to scratch, as well as putting a temporary deterrent such as sticky tape or aluminum foil on the couch- so this way you are giving them a ‘no, don’t scratch this’ while at the same time giving them a ‘yes, do scratch THIS thing which is right in the same area’. If you put a blanket on the couch that they like to sit on, this is another way for them to have the area smell like them (by simply lying on the blanket), and they may feel less of a need to scratch there.
Urine marking is, of course, another ‘natural’ way for cats to deposit their scent around their territory- but it doesn’t mean we want them to do it in our home! An altered cat who is using urine to claim their territory is not a confident, comfortable cat- they are likely feeling anxious or stressed which is why they are using such an extreme measure to try and make themselves feel better. You can help your kitty by making sure there are lots and lots of ways they can confidently mark their territory with just their scent glands. In addition to scratchers, which I’ve already touched upon, make sure there are plenty of ‘soft’ materials all over for your cat, as these hold scent well for kitty’s purposes. You could use cat beds, or fuzzy blankets, or pillows, or towels. Of course carpeted cat furniture works very well. You also have to be sure that you aren’t cleaning these objects too frequently- if your cat has a favorite blanket, but you’re washing it once a week, you’re removing their scent over and over again. In other words- having cat hair on your stuff is good! Of course, if your cat is spraying out of anxiety or stress, there is likely an underlying reason and you will need to address that as well as giving them better options to mark their territory.
A cat’s excellent sense of smell is why we should avoid scented litters, too. Whatever scent the litter has added to it, while it may smell pleasant to us, that scent is amplified for the cat and can lead them to dislike their litter box so much they will choose someplace else to go. It’s also why litter boxes need to be frequently cleaned, and why covered litter boxes should be avoided: imagine if the only bathroom you got to use, every single day, was a dirty port-a-potty.
Scent is also very important when it comes to introducing your cat to new animals. If you bring another pet home, one of the first things you should do to help them get comfortable with each other is give them things that smell like the other one, and make their interactions with the scent a positive experience by feeding them treats or playing with them on and around the object.
Whether it’s a routine trip to the vet, an emergency evacuation, or time to move to a new home, one of the most stressful parts of having a cat can be getting them in a carrier when they don’t want to be there- not to mention keeping them relatively calm when they’re inside. It doesn’t have to be stressful! I strongly recommend that EVERY cat should be taught to like their carrier- or at the very least, they should not be actively afraid of it.
A big reason why many cats are afraid of carriers is because the carrier is only ever used when something negative is happening to them. My first suggestion for cats who don’t like going in their carriers is simple desensitization. Find a place in your home where the carrier can stay out all the time. Make it cozy with blankets inside and over it, feed the cat next to it (and then inside of it once they’re comfortable with it), leave treats and catnip inside for them to find if they choose to check it out. Most cats LIKE resting in cozy dark places, and a carrier can make an ideal napping spot. If it’s a regular, everyday object to them, they won’t only associate it with vet visits or being loaded up in a car for a long period of time. For a lot of cats, this is all you need to do.
However, this may not be enough for every cat. Sometimes they view their carrier in such a negative manner that even if they are desensitized to its presence, they will not want to go inside- or maybe they’re okay with that, but will go into a panic the second you close the door and pick it up. If you start slow and progress using small approximations, you can train your stressed kitty to accept their carrier, or perhaps even like it.
-Get a new carrier
This isn’t always necessary, but sometimes it can help to have a completely fresh start. Maybe there’s something about the style of carrier you’ve been using that your cat hates. Maybe it was peed in by another cat once a really long time ago and your cat can still smell it. If they have a negative association with THAT carrier in particular, getting a new one can make a big difference. Size of carrier is also important- some cats may prefer small carriers as they feel safe in a very enclosed space, but those who are more on the side of hating carriers tend do better with larger carriers. You can even consider getting a dog-sized carrier for your cat.
-Disassemble the carrier
If your cat is completely panicked by carriers then it can help to get the kind where the top half is removable and introduce your cat first to only the lower portion of the carrier. Feed them next to or on it, sprinkle catnip, do all the same things you would do with a ‘whole’ carrier. Once they’re comfortable with that, put the top back on, but leave the door off- and then once they’re comfortable with that, put the door back on!
-Get them comfortable with you shutting the door
Just because your cat is comfortable going in their carrier doesn’t mean they’ll be comfortable inside with the door shut. Once they will reliably go inside for treats, a toy, or whatever works for you, teach them that the door shutting doesn’t mean bad things are going to happen. You may need to start off by simply touching the door with your hand while they are inside, and rewarding them with a treat if they don’t move. Then, progress to closing the door partway and rewarding them, and work your way up to closing and latching it. Listen to what your cat is telling you- if they stop wanting to go in the carrier, then it means you’re moving too fast for them.
-Get them used to the door STAYING shut
Start small- keep the door shut and feed them a steady stream of treats for five seconds, or give them scritches through the grating, and then open it up. Slowly increase the amount of time you leave the door shut, and cut back on how much you give them attention while they’re in there- ideally, you want them to be able to remain calm in their carrier even when you walk away from them.
-Get them used to the carrier being moved
This works in much the same way as the previous step, using small approximations. Pick up the carrier for half a second, set it down, and reward your cat. Slowly increase the time you spend holding, and then walking around, with the carrier. It’s very important to hold the carrier properly- I always tell people to pretend that the handle that most carriers have on top doesn’t even exist, and pick up the carrier from the bottom so it’s held securely to your chest, rather than dangling at your side and bumping around with every step you take. This will keep your cat more comfortable and will decrease the chances of them disliking rides in the carrier.
Not every cat will require more extensive training, but for those extra-anxious kitties, putting in some additional work to ease even a little of their stress can make a world of difference. If you’re feeling REALLY ambitious, then after successfully carrier training your cat you can even work on desensitizing them to riding in a car!
Lola, one of our available for adoption cats, is a great example of a cat who is comfortable with their carrier:
I never did any kind of ‘formal’ training with Lola- the carrier is simply left in her habitat, and Kelly, who took the video, had NO trouble getting Lola to go inside despite the fact that I don’t think she has ever crated Lola before!
The last two weeks, I’ve written about how to play with your cat, suggesting everything from wand toys to bubbles. This time, I’ll be talking about a few other kinds of enrichment you should be offering to your cat! You can think of these things as ‘environmental enrichment’- things that you set up for your cat to enjoy that don’t require you to be there to actively engage with them.
The best cat TV is simply a window your cat can sit in that has a view of the outside world, ideally with trees, birds, etc. for maximum entertainment. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have a view that is entertaining enough to your cat, you can go with literal cat TV- YouTube has lots of videos of birds, mice, fish, etc. Depending on how playful your cat is, though, you may want to avoid putting this on your big flat-screen TV, in case they try to ‘catch’ the pray and end up knocking the TV over. Small tablets or phones can work better for these high-energy kitties. Be sure to have a play session with them after their screen-time is over, to avoid any frustration they may be feeling from watching things that they aren’t able to catch- though some cats may find the experience relaxing and may go right into nap-time!
-Cat trees and other cat furniture
What you want to go for when picking out cat furniture is 1. Vertical space and 2. Hidey holes, ideally with multiple exits.
Number 1 is important for every single cat. I cannot stress enough how essential vertical space is to help cats feel safe, relieve stress, and improve their overall quality of life. It also links back to cat TV because putting up a cat tree or shelf right in front of a window is perfect for your cat. However, there are plenty of other places to position cat furniture. In a perfect world (according to cats), there would be enough shelves and furniture throughout every room that a cat could navigate across the entire house without ever touching the floor. I don’t know that we can always live up to their standards, but we can at least meet them halfway!
Number 2 is something to focus on for cats who are more of the ‘wallflower’ types, when you are trying to boost their confidence and comfort level. While vertical space will definitely help these cats as well, giving them ways to move across a room ‘unseen’ will encourage them to come out more. When choosing these items, if you have multiple pets, remember that your cat doesn’t want to be cornered- many cat cubbies only have one entrance/exit, meaning that if your cat goes inside and then something scary comes towards them, they are trapped. Getting tunnels, or cubbies that have multiple entrances and exits, can help solve this problem and give them a way to move across the room while still feeling protected. They can also be lots of fun during play time, whether your cat is shy or not- most cats really like being ‘hidden’ and then jumping out to pounce on a toy.
Many cat furniture items can double as scratchers, but since cats have different preferences for what they scratch, you might want to branch out a bit. Disposable cardboard scratchers are often a favorite, and you can simply lie them flat on the ground, buy the ‘slanted’ ones, or attach them to a chair leg with zip ties or pipe cleaners for a vertical scratching opportunity. Sisal rope, carpeted posts with different styles of carpet, or even just plain wood are all good kinds of scratchers to try. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new shapes, sizes, and materials. Scratching is a very important part of a cat’s daily life and is part of how they mark their territory and feel confident in their home. You should have at LEAST one scratcher in every room in your house, in a style that your cat likes to use.
Bring a little bit of the outside, inside! With cat grass, some stores will have pre-grown containers that you can buy, though you may more commonly see little kits with seeds and dirt where you can grow your own. Many cats absolutely love nibbling on this stuff, and if you have a cat who likes chewing things, giving them something good to gnaw on may help direct them away from dangerous or undesired things like electrical cords.
Food puzzles are a great tool, especially for cats who are easily bored or need extra enrichment. There are lots of different kinds of puzzle feeders with varying difficulty levels, for both wet and dry food. Some cats will take to them readily, while others will have a learning period. Here is a great free resource for learning more about puzzle feeders: http://foodpuzzlesforcats.com/
Other Kinds of Toys
Last week, I made a post about one of the best way to play with your cat- with a wand toy! However, there are plenty of other great toy options out there that can benefit your cat (especially if you have one who wants to play ALL the time), so today I’m going to talk about some of those.
-Battery powered toys
Sometimes, the hardest part about picking out the right toy for your cat is choosing one that is engaging enough that they’ll play with it on their own. Battery powered toys often solve this problem because they move, drawing your kitty in! There are lots of different kinds of these toys. I highly recommend one with a ‘timer’ function built into it- one that you push a button to turn it on, and it will shut itself off 10-20 minutes later. It’ll save the batteries, and if a toy is left running all the time it can just fade into the background and become boring to your cat. This is my favorite one to use in the shelter: https://bit.ly/2DXGsY7 but depending on your cat’s play style, there are plenty of other options they may find more appealing.
-Rattle mouse toys
This style of toy is what I’m talking about: https://amzn.to/3KoQ3ba These are probably one of the most popular toys I’ve seen. That honorific comes from a survey of those whose opinions matter the most- the cats, of course. You can toss these around for your cat and maybe even get them to play fetch with them. However, many cats who are on the more playful side also have a great time playing with them on their own- I’ll often see them batting them back and forth between their paws and picking them up in their mouth and carrying them around. The size, texture, and noise really seem to get their hunter instincts in gear!
Another great kind of toy is the simple ‘ball toy’. I’ve found that most cats aren’t actually the biggest fan of the ones with bells in them, and seem to prefer ping pong style balls or the ones made out of firm foam or other soft material. The problem with these is that it’s so easy to lose them- one bat of the paw and suddenly it’s under the couch, out of reach. You could buy them in bulk so even when you lose the first 20 you still have 20 left- or you can make it a bit easier for your cat. Put the ball in a large cardboard box, or an empty storage bin, or even your bathtub. You could also set up a larger space using a perimeter of towels or boxes to prevent the ball from rolling away. This way they can bat it around in that space and never worry about it rolling underneath something.
While these aren’t technically toys, when used in conjunction with toys, they can certainly help hype your cat up! Some cats may respond to these by getting sleepy, while others may not have a reaction at all- but many, many cats become more hyperactive after rolling around in these. It can be great to try out catnip for your senior kitty and see if it gets them more engaged in play time. While you can get toys with catnip in them, I suggest getting dried or fresh catnip or silver vine (or silver vine sticks) and giving your cat a little just before you want to initiate a play session.
Especially if your cat is the type to get overstimulated when you play with them, I cannot recommend kicker toys enough. They are great for cats to latch onto with all four paws and their mouth and get out their kicking and biting urges on. There are lots of toys specifically designed for this purpose, but some cats can be just as satisfied with a medium-sized stuffed animal. Check out a thrift store near you, toss whatever good ones you find in a laundry bag and run them through the wash, then sprinkle with catnip and see if your kitty likes it!
There are catnip bubbles made just for cats, which are a lot of fun but are often very sticky and a bit messy for your hands. However, even just regular bubbles can be fun for some cats. Just be sure to blow them a little distance away from your cat, so they can choose whether or not they want to engage- some cats are afraid of bubbles.
Whether it’s little bundle toys of shiny mylar, or a mat or cat bed with mylar sewn inside of it, or even just a crinkly paper bag, many cats love toys that make a crinkle sound when they play with them. If you have a cat who enjoys them, it can often be an easy way to get their attention and let them know it’s play time- simply pick up a mylar toy and crunch it with your fingers, and your cat may come running! Some cats find the sound a little too spooky for their taste, so if you have one cat who loves crinkle toys and another who is afraid of them, be sure to have separate playtime with each cat with different kinds of toys.
Variety is the key! If your cat doesn’t like one kind of toy, there’s always more to try. I’ve barely scratched the surface with this post; there are so many more kinds to try. If you find your cats get bored of their toys after a week or so, put things on a rotating schedule- one week you keep the rattle mice toys in a closet and use bubbles and ping pong balls, and then switch out the next week. Keeping some toys out of sight for a little while can help them feel fresh and brand new. Of course, if your cat has a favorite toy that they adore or like to carry around a lot, you should leave that one out for them all the time!
One of the Best Ways to Play with Your Cat
Every feline, regardless of their age, should be engaged with play and other enrichment every single day. If you have just adopted a cat, keep in mind that they may need to settle into your home and gain their confidence before they are willing to engage in play.
While there are many great things you can give to your cat to play with independently, there is no replacement for interactions with you, their human! There is one kind of toy that shines above all others when it comes to spending time playing with your cat- a wand toy.
Many cats have a preference about exactly what kind of wand toy they want to play with, so you may need to try out a few before you find their favorite. Lots of cats like ones that have string-style elements to them, or dangly tassels/strips at the tip. Get a few different styles, and read through the following tips to get them playing.
-Have the right expectations
If you have a kitten, then your play session could look like how you might imagine- them bouncing off the walls and doing flips to grab the wand. Most cats will lose this intense playfulness as they get older- so maybe your 5 year old cat will only chase the wand toy if you keep the play area small and make it easy for them to catch, and your 18 year old will only follow the wand toy with his eyes and maybe lazily bat at it every once in a while. These are still forms of playing, and if you get your cat to engage in this, you are doing a good job.
-Keep it new and exciting
When not in use, keep the wand toy tucked away behind a closed closet door or somewhere else your kitty can’t find it. Not only does this eliminate the risk of them getting tangled up in it or chewing on it, it also ensures that the toy will be of interest to your cat every time you bring it out, rather than just being another part of the scenery. Switching between styles of wand toys, if your cat will play with more than one kind, is another way to keep things fresh.
-Make the ‘hunt’ fun
If you just stand over your cat and wave the toy back and forth, you might find that they seem bored. Kittens and particularly playful adult cats might find this entertaining enough, but most cats will want a little something more. Remember that in the wild, cats will hunt things both on the ground and things flying up in the air. Try dragging the toy along the ground for them to chase, or flicking it to imitate a bird flying back and forth across the room. Maybe your cat likes to sit on the top level of their cat tree and have you flick the wand toy up towards them, or maybe they’ll hide under a chair until just the right moment and then pounce. Try having the wand toy disappear around the other side of the couch so they have to go look for it. Remember, your cat is a hunter, so make the toy imitate what live prey would do, which most of the time is moving away from the cat. Your cat is going to have more fun this way- and so will you because cats are really cute when they play!
-Let them catch it
If your cat doesn’t get the satisfaction of catching their ‘prey’, it could lead to frustration or redirected aggression- or could simply be unsatisfying for them. Make sure you let your kitty catch and ‘kill’ the toy after a few minutes- and then repeat the playing process a few times, ending on a successful ‘catch and kill’ of the toy. If they don’t seem to find satisfaction in catching the wand toy, you can always switch them over to a different style of toy, like a kicker or something else that they like to grab onto.
-Feed them after
To fully satisfy their hunting instincts, give your cat food after the play session is over. It’s often great to schedule playtime right before mealtime, but you can always just give your cat a couple of treats or a small snack as long as you’re not going overboard with excess food.
Today I’m going to talk about senior cats!
When is a cat considered a senior? There doesn’t seem to be a set age that everyone will agree on, but the range where you can start thinking of your cat as a senior or at least a ‘pre-senior’, if you will, is around ages 7-11. Some seniors, you will not really be able to tell they are seniors! Many cats will keep high energy levels and a youthful spirit well into their late teens. Of course we all want to make sure our kitties have long, happy lives, and I’m going to give you a few suggestions on how to help keep your cat content and healthy as they age.
-Have a good partnership with your vet. While it’s usually recommended to take a cat of any age to a vet at least once a year, it becomes even more important for senior cats. If you can catch an oncoming health condition early, it will be easier and cheaper to manage, and can give your cat a longer, higher quality of life. You also want it to be easy and fast to get them to a vet if something unexpected comes up. If you’ve ever thought about getting pet insurance, you may want to consider doing it BEFORE your cats reach their senior ages, to better prepare for anything that comes up. Some common health conditions that you may bring up with your vet, or they may look for with seniors, are: kidney health, thyroid health, diabetes, and arthritis.
-Water intake. Important for all cats, even moreso for seniors! Making sure they are getting adequate hydration is a part of staving off health conditions. In the natural world, cats get 70-75% of their hydration from their food, so if you’re not already, talk to your vet and consider switching your kitty to a wet food diet (or at least including wet food in their meals). If they’re a fan of wet food already and you’ve been advised to increase their hydration even more, you can try mixing warm water into their food- some cats may really enjoy the ‘broth’ this creates. Be sure that they have multiple water sources available to them, and that they are refreshed daily, as cats will commonly turn up their noses at dirty or old water. Drinking fountains are also a great thing to offer for them.
-Ramps, stairs, or stepping stools. As cats age, they may need some help getting to their favorite spots. Cat trees may not be as easy to climb, or your cat may have difficulty jumping up on your bed from the floor. Give them easier ways to climb up to things- you can place an ottoman, small table, or something similar next to a higher object, or get actual pet stairs or ramps. You can also change things up: if they loved sitting on the top of their cat tree in a window where the sun shines through, simply set up a lower-to-the-ground spot that the sun will hit for them to lounge in.
-Litter box changes. If your senior starts going outside the litter box, your first step should be the vet, but sometimes the reason they are going out of the box is simply because the box has become uncomfortable for them to go into. If they are going next to or near the litter box, that is a good clue that this may be what is going on. To help them out, you should consider adding a litter box with lower sides, or an extra-low entrance, in case the problem is that physically climbing into the box is difficult. There are litter boxes made specifically for senior cats; ‘puppy litter boxes’ may also have low enough sides. The other thing to consider for seniors is the substrate you use. If their paws have gotten more sensitive with age, what they’ve been using for years may suddenly be unpleasant or painful to them, so you can try adding a new litter box with a softer substrate and see if they prefer to use that.
If you have a multi-story home, make sure you have litter boxes on each floor. If climbing up or down stairs is more difficult or painful, they may not be willing to make the trek to find the box.
-Don’t give up on playtime! (Most) senior cats aren’t going to be bouncing off the walls running after a wand toy like they did when they were a kitten, but they still need to be engaged. See if they are willing to do shorter chases of wand toys, or bat at one dangled near their head. Give them catnip, and kicker toys, or try different styles of toys to see what will encourage them to be active. If your cat is in their late teens or early twenties, even just following a wand toy with their eyes and giving it a lazy bat ever once in a while can be considered playing. Every cat needs this stimulation, regardless of age.
-Warming mats. Even younger cats often gravitate towards heat, of course, but older cats seem to want it even more. You can get heat pads that are low voltage and plug into an outlet, but if you’re concerned about something like this, there are self-warming mats that are made with a layer of mylar in between the fabric, which helps bounce your cat’s body heat back at them. And leaving soft blankets in a sunny spot is always going to be a hit!
-Slip-proofing. If your senior is having some trouble getting around on slippery surfaces, like hardwood floors or any other smooth or slick areas that they normally traverse, get some rugs or mats with a rubber backing to lay down so they don’t have to worry about sliding around everywhere.
-If you’re looking to add another cat to your household during your current cat’s senior years, I recommend that you NOT get a kitten. Their energy level can be overwhelming to your senior cat, and can contribute to increasing their stress levels. If you are absolutely set on getting a kitten and there is nothing I can say to convince you otherwise, then you are going to better off getting TWO kittens, because they will have each other to direct their energy onto. You will still have to do proper introductions with your senior and the kittens, and ensure that your senior gets alone-time away from the kittens and doesn’t miss out on attention from you. Your best bet is going to be considering adopting another adult cat.
Speaking of senior cats… We have lots of amazing ones available for adoption right now! Here’s a sample of some of the wonderful kitties who we have:
Fabulous Fig, located at our Healdsburg shelter: https://humanesocietysoco.org/pets/fig-the-cat/
Sweet Peanut, in Santa Rosa: https://humanesocietysoco.org/pets/peanut-the-cat-2/
Amazing Lola, also in Santa Rosa: https://humanesocietysoco.org/pets/lola-the-cat/
Cats in Hot Weather
In Santa Rosa, we’ve been having a spell of somewhat cooler weather- but in many other places, it is HOT, and we’re certain to have hot weather here again soon. While cats are a little more tolerant of hotter weather than many humans, we still need to keep their comfort and health in mind when it comes to the heat. So what are some things you should (or shouldn’t) do to help keep your cat cool, and what are some signs of heat stroke to watch out for?
- Be sure to have multiple options for water- bowls, water fountains, whatever they like best. Refresh the water daily so it is clean, as it’s better for your cat and will make them more likely to drink it.
- Take a damp towel and gently wipe their body/feet, if they will tolerate it.
- Encourage them to play with ice cubes, or ice cubes made out of wet food/pet-safe broth or other yummy treats. Frozen water bottles wrapped in towels and placed near them can also provide a cooling effect.
- The things that you would do to keep yourself/your home cool will benefit your cat. Running oscillating fans even when you aren’t home, and making sure you close blinds/windows will help. If you have linoleum, tile, hardwood, etc. encourage your cat to be in these areas. If you don’t, or your cat prefers to hang out somewhere else, consider getting them a cooling mat or two and putting them in places your kitty likes to be. Of course, if you are lucky enough to have AC, then you’re golden!
- Avoid encouraging them to play in the hottest parts of the day. Try to stick to mornings and evenings.
- This is more talked about for dogs than cats, as dogs are more likely be taken in a car, but never leave your cat in an unattended car for more than a minute or two, as the temperature inside a car grows much hotter than outside, and it happens a lot faster than you might think.
- If you normally let your cat outdoors, keep them inside during a heat wave. You will have greater control over the temperature they are exposed to, and will notice if they start showing signs of heat stroke.
What about grooming options, such as lion cuts? Will shaving your cat down help them stay cool during a heat wave? Though it seems like getting rid of that fur could help them, this may not be the case. James H. Jones, an expert in comparative animal exercise physiology and thermoregulation at UC Davis, says “Fur acts as a thermal regulator to slow down the process of heat absorption.” Cats will shed and make their coats more suitable for heat protection instead of warmth by getting rid of their thick undercoat, but according to Jones, having a healthy, well-groomed fur coat will help them stay cooler on hot days. A lion cut could also result in outdoor cats, or even just those who sit in sunny spots, getting a sunburn.
One time that you definitely SHOULD consider getting a lion cut for your cat is if they have mats. Mats or heavy tangles will prevent a cat from thermoregulating properly. If you aren’t sure if a lion cut or other form of fur trimming will be helpful for your cat’s health, I recommend consulting your vet.
What about brushing your cat? Yes, please! Helping them get rid of the fur they are shedding will help keep them cooler. A furminator or other style of brush that is good at removing that heavy undercoat can help in the summer.
Here are some signs of heat stroke to watch out for. If you’re suspicious of heat stroke and see these signs, administer emergency first aid and then take your cat to the vet immediately.
- Anxiety (may present as the cat pacing)
- Bleeding from the nose
- Muscle Tremors
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Prolonged panting (some cats may pant after an intense play session, but if it lasts for more than a minute or two or is accompanied by any other concerning signs, it should be taken seriously)
- Bright red tongue
- Dark red, or pale, gums
- Weakness or lethargy
Emergency first aid:
- Get your cat to a cooler location
- Put cool or tepid water (NOT ice cold) on your pet, and blow a gentle fan on them to maximize heat loss
- Wet the area around your cat down; you could get a damp towel or two and place them next to your cat in their carrier as you take them to the vet.
This week, I’m going to talk about separation anxiety.
There’s a stereotype that all cats are aloof and independent- those of us who have cats have seen this proven wrong time and time again! While some cats definitely appreciate their alone time, many cats may suffer from separation anxiety; sometimes, the signs might be very subtle so you don’t even realize that’s what’s happening. So what are some common signs of separation anxiety?
- Excessive vocalization when left alone or when they are about to be left alone, or if separated from their favorite person
- Following their person from room to room as they are getting ready to leave; jumping on top of bags; standing in doorways the person is trying to walk through
- Not eating or drinking when alone
- Urinating or defecating outside of the litter box, especially on things that smell like their person (laundry, a pillow, etc.)
- Over-grooming/hair loss
- Destructive behavior when left alone or separated from their favorite person
- Extreme excitement upon their person returning home
As you can probably tell, some of these signs may be difficult to notice, if they are only happening when no one is home with the cat! If you have suspicions and want to keep a closer eye on your kitty, I would recommend getting a camera to put in your home when you are gone. There are lots of different kinds that allow you to view live video from an app on your phone, and many of these are relatively inexpensive.
So if you think your cat has separation anxiety- what can you do to help them?
- Set aside some time in your morning routine to have a nice play session with your kitty. This is when you should bring out their favorite toy, and spend 5-15 minutes trying to wear them out. Then, give them a snack. If you already gave them breakfast, just give them a small scoop of their favorite wet food, or some of their favorite treats. If a cat plays, then eats, they’re going to be more likely to want to groom themselves and then take a nap, and will be less focused on your departure.
- Don’t make a big deal when you leave the house. Don’t go give them cuddles, tell them you’ll really miss them, or make a big scene of saying goodbye. Ideally, have them occupied with something else- the snack you just set out for them, or a battery-powered toy, and just simply leave. The same thing goes for when you come home- don’t instantly run to them to greet them, especially if they’re meowing or pawing at you for attention. Instead, wait for a moment when they are calm, and then shower them with love.
- Make sure they have lots of independent enrichment available to them. By this, I mean something that doesn’t require a human to make it fun. Toys are great, of course, if your cat will play with them by themselves- battery-powered toys, motion-activated fish that flop around when a cat bats at them, a ping pong ball dropped in the bathtub so they can bat it around without losing it under a couch. It can be a good idea to have these toys hidden away when you’re home, so they feel more ‘fresh’ to your cat who will be more interested in engaging with them when you’re not around. Enrichment goes beyond just standard toys, as well! Puzzle feeders or foraging toys are a great tool- or you can even just leave treats hidden around your home in some of your cat’s favorite places. Leaving on gentle music or low-volume TV, or even an oscillating fan, can be a comfort and may also serve to drown out background noises that could be contributing to your cat’s anxiety. Cat TV in particular can be a great source of entertainment- either videos found on YouTube showing birds, fish, etc., or the real deal- hanging a bird feeder outside a window that your cat has a nice view from. Some cats also feel more secure in a cozy hiding spot, so make sure to provide them with cave cat beds, cardboard boxes, cat tunnels, and the like. If you are able to get a camera to watch your cat when you are gone, then you can pick up on things that make them feel better. If you see them crying and walking around looking stressed, but they become quiet and calm if they go in a cardboard box, then that tells you that they need more den-like places to hang out inside of.
- Desensitize your cat to the signs that mean you are leaving. So if you notice your cat starts to vocalize every time you pick up your keys to head out, pick up your keys at other times of day as well- when you’re heading to the couch for some TV and kitty-cuddle time. If putting on your shoes makes your cat seem anxious, put them on, walk around the house, then take them off. If your cat no longer has these triggers that let them know they’re going to be alone for a long period of time, they’re less likely to feel anxious. You can also show your cat that you won’t always be gone for 8+ hours; start taking five-minute walks around the block, or even just walk to your car and back.
- Use Feliway in your home. Feliway is a synthetic cat pheromone that can provide a general calming effect for your anxious kitty.
- If your cat is attached to you specifically, but there are other people in your home, encourage them to bond with your cat! Get them to feed a couple meals, or give some of their favorite treats, or spend some time playing with them.
- Consider getting another cat. While there’s a process to introducing a new cat to your home, the long-term benefits can outweigh the short-term effort that has to be put in. While of course there will always be some cats who want to be the solo king or queen of the castle, most cats will find having another kitty companion to be very enriching, and having a friend around can help ease their anxiety.
If your cat is showing some of the classic signs of separation anxiety, a trip to the vet is often in order to rule out any medical problems. If your kitty gets a clean bill of health, then you can integrate some or all of the techniques above and see what works to keep you both happy!
Today I’m going to talk about ‘vertical peeing’. I don’t mean spraying, which is when a cat is using their urine to mark their territory- this post is specifically about cats who won’t crouch when they go to pee in the litterbox, or start off crouching and then slowly raise their butt as they are going, resulting in pee getting outside the litter box.
The first thing you should do if your cat engages in this behavior is take them to the vet. It’s possible they have a UTI, or joint pain, or something else going on medically that is causing this behavior. While older (or overweight) cats are more likely to have something medical going on related to this, it’s always possible a younger cat has something happening too.
If kitty has a clean bill of health, step two is figuring out if this is a behavior that you can modify, or if you need to work around the behavior. If your cat has peed normally their whole lives, and they have just started this behavior, then chances are there is something about your litter box set-up that they find distasteful. If you made any changes to their litter box set-up recently- such as you switched types of litter, or got a different kind of box- then simply switching back to what you were using before will hopefully solve the problem.
However, even if you didn’t make any changes to the litter box set-up, it doesn’t mean they aren’t unhappy with it. Many people have less-than-ideal litter box set-ups for their felines, and their kitties tolerate it for years, but then something ELSE happens to add to their daily stress, and they aren’t willing to tolerate it anymore. So even if your cat has been happily using their litter box for years, it is still worth it to try some changes. If you’re not sure where to start, you can check out this previous post I wrote below on Inappropriate Elimination.
Sometimes, there may not be anything you can do to change their behavior, especially if this is something this cat has been doing since they were very young. For some cats, this is just… how they pee. It could be because of an aversion that was formed when they were very young to litter touching near their rear, or something else that happened when they were a kitten, or maybe it’s just more comfortable for them. But I do have a few tips on what you can do to make it more manageable for you.
-Get a very large litter box. Many commercially available litter boxes are not an adequate size for cats. If your cat is as long (or longer) than the litter box, you are making it difficult for them to be able to fit in it properly to make sure their urine stays inside, even if they are trying to do so. With a large box, even if they don’t squat all the way, more or all of the pee may wind up inside because there will be more room behind your cat.
-Get a (large) box with high sides. Note that I’m not saying get a covered litter box- many cats do not like covered litter boxes, and who can blame them, as they are the cat equivalent of a port-a-potty. You are welcome to try, but make sure you also have an uncovered litter box available, or you could end up creating a whole new problem where you cat doesn’t want to use the litter box at all.
With these high-sided boxes, you still want the entrance to be easily accessible for them, so make sure it has a lower-cut entrance that is easy to climb in and out of. If you can’t find one that is appropriate, get a large plastic storage bin, remove the lid, and cut a section out of one side to create an opening for your cat. Make sure the edge is cut smoothly or sanded down if necessary so your cat won’t hurt themselves.
-Get washable mats that you can put under and around your litter box. That way, if some urine does manage to make its way out of the box, it will at least be easier for you to clean up. If you have your litter box against a wall, use Velcro or tape or whatever works for you to secure something to the wall as well. If you don’t want to deal with washing mats, you could always buy pee pads for this purpose instead.
Litter and Litterboxes
I’ve made posts in the past about everyone’s favorite behavioral concern- inappropriate elimination, when your cat urinates or defecates outside the litter box. Today I want to narrow the scope and talk specifically about litter and litter boxes.
Some of you may go through this list and see things that you are doing, and yet your cat has used the litter box without issue for years. That’s great! There will always be exceptions. However, one thing to understand is that a cat may be accepting something unpleasant, because the unpleasantness hasn’t crossed their ‘line of tolerance’, but then something else in their life changes that pushes them over the edge and they stop using the litter box they’ve used for years. So if your cat unexpectedly starts going outside the box, you should still consider some of the things on this list.
First off, let’s talk litter. Different cats have different preferences for style/brand; your average cat will like a soft material similar to the consistency of sand. I can tell you one thing to definitely NOT use, and that’s scented litter. What smells pleasant to us can make your cat, with their superior sense of smell, say ‘no’ to the box. It can be tricky to figure out if a litter is scented or not, as sometimes they are marked with different terminology. It could say ‘scented’, or ‘contains odor-blasters’, or ‘smell-reducing’, so make sure to look a little closer to ensure you truly are getting unscented litter.
Also experiment with how much litter you use. Most cats will want to be able to thoroughly bury their litter, so make sure it is deep enough for them to accomplish this. However, some cats- particularly those with long hair who are more susceptible to getting litter stuck in their fur- may not like a thick layer of litter in the box. For a starting point, I recommend 2-3 inches deep, and then you can adjust from there based on your cat’s behavior.
Now on to the boxes themselves. I present you with a list of “dos” and “don’ts”:
DO- scoop the litter box daily, or even more than once a day. Clumping litter makes this easy. A cat will not want to use a litter box that has a lot of urine and feces in it already. I personally find the ‘litter genie’ or ‘litter locker’ style of litter disposal bins make it less of a chore to clean.
DO- deep clean the box once a month or so. By ‘deep clean’ I mean completely empty out all the litter and wipe down the box with a rag and water. If you need to use a cleanser on it, use something very mild/unscented. If you use non-clumping litter you will need to dump and replace the litter more frequently.
DO- provide enough litter boxes for however many cats you have. General rule of thumb is one more box than the number of kitties in your household.
DO- spread out the location of your litter boxes. If you have five litter boxes but they are all lined up in one spot, to a cat, it is basically the same as just having one litter box. This becomes more and more important the more cats you have.
DO- use large enough boxes. Many commercially available litter boxes are simply not large enough for many cats. You can buy extra-large litter boxes, or you can turn something else into a litter box, such as taking a plastic storage bin and cutting the walls shorter for easy access.
DON’T- use liners. Cats can get their claws stuck in the liner when they are digging in the litter, which is unpleasant to them- and not to mention it shreds the liner and makes it virtually useless anyway.
DON’T- use covered litter boxes. They trap the smell inside, and can make it a scary experience for your kitty- they need to be able to see what’s going on around them as they do their business, and be able to easily escape if something (such as another pet) comes up on them suddenly.
DON’T- keep the boxes in noisy areas. Laundry rooms are a very popular place to put litter boxes, but especially if your cat is the skittish type, having to go next to a loud appliance is going to make them dislike their box.
DON’T- keep the box in a corner/area with no escape route if you have two or more pets who have problems getting along. If someone feels like they can’t use the litter box without being cornered, they will probably find somewhere else to go.
Today I’d like to talk about compromise. Perhaps not the first thing you think of where cats are concerned, but making compromises for your cat is a big part of being a cat lover! There are a lot of things that I encourage people to provide their cat that they are less than enthusiastic about because of their own personal aesthetic or cleaning preferences. Sometimes, you may be able to give your cat what they need without completely going against your own desires.
I’ll jump right in and start talking about litter boxes. Dealing with litter is typically every cat person’s least favorite task, but having a good litter box setup is essential to keep your cat happy and healthy. One of the first things I look at when I’m trying to help someone solve inappropriate elimination- when a cat urinates or defecates outside their litter box- is where their litter boxes are located. If you’re like most people, you probably have your litter boxes in more ‘out of the way’ places, like your laundry room, or a closet, or some other location that isn’t highly visible. While many cats can and will be fine with this set-up, it’s not guaranteed to work for all cats all the time, so you have to be prepared to put a litter box in a more open, socially significant and easily accessible spot, such as your living room.
So how can you make it more tolerable for yourself and the other people in your house? I have a few suggestions.
- Try a covered litter box. I am usually the first one to tell people to remove the cover from a box (a covered litter box is the cat equivalent of a port-a-potty), but some cats WILL use them without issue, and if it makes it better for you to have the box out in the open, it is worth trying. You could also consider getting a special end table or coffee table that has a little section/compartment in it that can fit a litter box. There are tables specifically designed for this, and these are basically the equivalent of a covered litter box, but some cats may prefer them to having an actual cover.
- Make the litter box pretty. Pick out a color that matches your furniture, or ask the artistic member of your family or friend group to draw a pretty design on the outside of the box with permanent markers. If you like how it looks, it may bother you less.
- Keep the litter box clean. Get a litter genie or litter locker or equivalent, and any time your cat goes, scoop it right away. If you stay really on top of keeping the box clean, you likely won’t even notice that it is there. This is also quite beneficial for your cat!
One thing that is great to have PLENTY of around for your cats are soft, cozy places for them to sleep. Cats are very scent-based creatures who feel most secure when their space smells like them, and while they will specifically mark their territory with their scent glands by scratching or cheek-rubbing, simply just lying on something is also a way that they deposit their scent. The more places you have for them to lounge, the more secure they will feel. Cat beds are certainly one way to offer them this option, but if you find yourself tripping over their beds, or simply don’t like how they look, there is another great way to give the cats what they need: blankets. I haven’t met a cat who doesn’t enjoy faux-fleece throw blankets, and there are SO many options for color, design, and style, you will probably be able to find pretty much whatever your favorite decor-theme is on a throw blanket. I have more throw blankets than I can count, and they are EVERYWHERE. On my couch, on my recliner, folded up by the bed and on the floor by my sliding glass door, in my cats’ crates… anywhere I want my kitties to feel comfortable sitting, I put a blanket there. It has the added benefit of keeping cat hair more localized to the blanket rather than getting directly on your furniture, and can even deter undesirable scratching-if you cat can claim the couch by simply sitting on their favorite blanket that’s draped over it, they may be less inclined to scratch the arm rest to mark their territory.
Speaking of scratchers- cats ARE going to scratch in socially important areas to claim the space as theirs. This is why, even if you have a million scratchers, your cat might ignore them in favor of your favorite chair: the scratchers aren’t in the right spot. Many people aren’t thrilled with the idea of having to put an ‘ugly’ scratcher right next to their couch, but the same thing that applies to beds and blankets can apply to scratchers. There is such a huge variety out there, if it is important to you, you should be able to find some that are aesthetically pleasing to you AND that your cat likes to scratch. You will need to keep your cat’s preferences in mind, but even if your cat’s favorite thing to scratch is a cardboard scratcher, they are made in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and many of them have cute or pretty prints on the side. The internet is of course a great place to look for these, but I have found some unique options in locally owned pet stores that I’ve never seen anywhere else.
The last thing I’ll talk about today is vertical space. It is ESSENTIAL to provide cats with places where they can climb. If you don’t give them spots, I promise you they will make them. An easy way to do this is, of course, by getting a couple of cat trees. The same things apply as with scratchers; shop around and pick one that is aesthetically pleasing to you. If you’re good with building things, or have extra spending money to splurge on something, I have seen beautiful custom-made cat trees that are designed to look like an actual tree, or a castle. If, however, you don’t feel like you can fit a regular cat tree into your space, and want a more affordable option, you have other choices. Window hammocks are a good option- there are ones installed with suction cups, though do be cautious about these slipping and falling. The kind I use screws into the windowsill with support brackets underneath. You can also just use standard shelves, positioning them up and down your wall in places your cat will be able to get to, though be sure to install them with adequate support brackets. If you can’t or don’t want to nail anything into your walls, position your furniture in such a way that cats can jump from the back of the couch, to a nearby small bookshelf with a cleared-off top, and then to another, slightly taller bookshelf or dresser or whatever you have. Put some of those aesthetically-pleasing throw blankets on them instead of picture frames or decor or the things you may normally put on top. Remember that whatever vertical space you choose to offer, it has to be easily accessible, and you should have more than enough for the total number of cats in your home. Your cats will appreciate the effort you put in!
Office Foster Cats
At our shelter, we get creative with cat housing. If we have the ability to do it, and think the animal will benefit from it, then we say ‘why not’? One of the things we will do is have cats in an ‘office foster’ placement, meaning that instead of being in a kennel or one of our habitats, they share an office with one of our staff members! Cat’s generally don’t do well with a back-and-forth situation, so when they are an office foster, they stay in the office 100% of the time. Some of the cats would say that it is really THEIR office that they are happy to share with their human friend.
So what kind of cats benefit from being in an office? Many times, putting a shy or timid cat in an office can help them feel more comfortable with people. Some shy cats need to get used to a human presence before they are more deeply engaged with toys or attempts to pet. Having someone sitting nearby, working on their computer, can be hugely beneficial. It can help the cats learn that just because a human is nearby, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be bothered, or reached for, or given medication. It often makes them feel comfortable enough to start coming out and exploring and checking out this person who’s always hanging out near them!
Other times, we’ll put a cat in an office if we want to monitor them for something- for example, if they are at risk for a urinary blockage and we want someone around to notice if they are straining in their litter box; or if we have a bonded pair who we don’t want to separate but need to know which one of them is vomiting.
And sometimes, the reason we put a cat in an office is simply because of space! If all our larger cat habitats are full, and we have a cat who isn’t doing well in one of our portaled kennel set-ups, we will move them to an office to decrease their stress.
While we always make the choice to put a cat in an office or not based on what we think is best for them, that doesn’t mean it isn’t also rewarding for the person! It’s very easy to fall in love with any of the animals at our shelter, but even moreso when they are around you most of the day. Sometimes, if I’m stuck on something I’m writing or another project I’m working on, looking over at the cute face of whatever office cat I have at the time can give me the inspiration or motivation I need to keep going. After all, the animals are why we do what we do!
Right now, we currently have two cats who are available for adoption out of offices!
Elfie is a GORGEOUS fluffy black dude! He was shy for the first week or so after his arrival, but then started hanging out with his office mate regularly, and now greets everyone who enters the office with a happy chirp and an invitation to stroke his luxurious fur. He is tremendously playful and loves wand toys or anything that makes a crinkling noise. He also adores his cardboard scratcher and will sometimes flop over and use it like a kicker toy! Elfie came to us from a bustling household full of lots of noise and activity, and that just wasn’t the lifestyle for this gentle guy. He’s looking for a more relaxing home where he can hang out with his person a lot and bask in the attention!
Chanel is a lovely calico lady who is the master of affectionate cheek rubs. She’s oh-so-slightly timid at first but doesn’t take long to warm up. In her picture, you can see she’s in her favorite little cubby- a part of her office person’s desk that they set up just for her! Chanel loves being all cozy in her cubby, but comes out for plenty of attention too. She’s a great example of an ‘independent yet affectionate’ cat- she doesn’t need constant attention but thoroughly enjoys it when it’s petting time!
A big thank you to Katie and Nina for taking in these kitties, and to all the other staff who have had office cats in the past (and I’m sure will again in the future)!
What to do if you find a kitten outside
It’s kitten season, and that means that at some point, you might stumble across some young kittens outside! We have many good Samaritans show up at our shelter with a kitten or two, or sometimes a litter of four, five, or more. We all want to keep these little guys as safe and healthy as possible. Sometimes that means taking them to a shelter, but other times, the best thing to do is to leave them where they are to receive care from their mom. So how do you figure out what is best?
- If the kittens appear to be sick, injured, really thin, or generally in poor shape, then they are likely not being cared for by mom, and need help! Take them to a vet or animal shelter right away. We recommend you call ahead to make sure the animal shelter you are planning on going to is able to help the kittens; if they aren’t, ask them to refer you to another shelter that may be able to help.
- If the kittens appear healthy but are really small and young, then mom is probably nearby, and typically their best chance at growing big and staying healthy is by staying with mom. Mom might be off hunting and planning on returning to her babies later; you can check on them every couple of hours if possible, to see how they’re doing or if there is any sign that mom returned, even briefly. Try putting a ring of flour around the kittens, so you can check for paw prints. If you feel like the spot the kittens are in isn’t safe, you can move them a short distance away, or even put out a cardboard box and let them all snuggle up in that. As long as you don’t move them too far, mom will be able to find them. If you’ve seen no sign of mom after 12 hours or so, contact your local animal shelter and see what they advise- the young kittens may need a foster home or other help from the shelter! If mom has returned, however, that means the kitties are being cared for and should stay with mom- you can contact your local shelter for information on what to do concerning spay and neuter and when it should happen.
- If the kittens are older/larger, are active, playful, and running and walking around without issue, then they are likely of an age where they aren’t depending on mom quite as much. Contact your local animal shelter and ask about the best course of action; trap-neuter-return (TNR) might be the best choice for the cat family, hopefully including mom, or it may be appropriate to bring them to an animal shelter for adoption or foster care.
Additional resources to check out:
This week I’d like to talk about unsocialized kittens!
An unsocialized kitten is one who, either through lack of exposure or negative experiences, does not understand or like humans. They are scared of people and may hiss, scratch, or try to bite if they are cornered. If they continue to grow up without much human contact, they will become a feral adult cat. However, if you get to them young enough, it’s possible to turn them into a little purring machine who loves snuggles and being around people! After a kitten has reached 3 or 4 months of age, the socialization process is usually less likely to be successful, but each individual kitten is going to be different. In general, the younger a kitten is at the start of the process, the easier the transformation is going to be.
At our shelter, the very young unsocialized kittens go out to foster; being in a foster home with multiple people to offer them gentle attention and love is often all it takes to fully socialize these tiny kitties. If, however, they come back to the shelter for their spay/neuter surgeries and are still showing undersocial behavior, or if we get older kittens in as strays who need socialization, we have a team of staff and volunteers who jump in. It’s best to have multiple people work with an undersocial kitten, so they can form positive associations with more than just one person, and will be more open to meeting new humans as they grow up. We make sure their kennel or habitat is set up in a special way, to provide them with a hiding spot to feel safe in, but to still allow people to easily interact with them. Unlike with shy adult cats, who often do best left to adjust for several days before much interaction, with young unsocialized kittens it’s important to gently engage them as much as possible after only a day or two of settling in.
With undersocial kittens, this often means starting off gently petting them with a stuffed animal, or dangling a toy for them to follow with their eyes, or even just being near them while they eat and talking to them. As they get more used to a human presence, we start petting them, holding them, or hand feeding them. They start to become more playful, purr every time they’re pet, and really enjoy being cuddled! We tailor our approach to each kitten’s individual needs to keep them as comfortable as possible- some kittens warm up to us very quickly and love humans after only a day or two, while others can take a couple weeks or longer. Once they’re responding positively to all their staff and volunteer visitors, we make them available for adoption! They sometimes have a longer adjustment period in a home than a kitten who was socialized to humans from a young age, and some may retain an element of skittishness to their personality, but as they grow up and settle into their new homes it’s usually impossible to tell that they were once a frightened, unsocialized kitten. We’ve adopted out hundreds of undersocial kittens over the years with great success! We send adopters home with a short informational handout with tips and tricks for helping their new kitty adjust.
Why You Should Adopt Two Kittens
Today’s post is about encouraging adopters who are interested in a kitten to get TWO kittens instead of just one! If any of you are thinking about adopting a kitten this year, I urge you to consider the same!
Our shelter has already adopted out several kittens over the past few weeks, and there are many more to come! We have TONS of kittens in foster homes right now as we wait for them to be big enough to spay or neuter them and make them available for adoption. The best way to know when we have available kittens is to keep a close eye on our website- all available kittens will be listed on our adoptions page!
If you are planning on adopting a kitten this year, I’d like to ask you to consider something: adopt two! Many people are concerned that getting two kittens at once will be too much work for them, but it’s actually the opposite- most of the time, two kittens are less work than one. Kittens are VERY playful little critters, and it can be difficult for us humans to keep up with their need for interactive play. If a kitten doesn’t have enough stimulation and enrichment, they will create their own- possibly by pouncing on your feet at 2 AM, or chewing on the cord dangling from the back of the TV. Having a second kitten around means they have an endless source of entertainment and takes some of the burden of providing frequent playtime off of you.
Another benefit of having two kittens is that they will teach each other manners. Biting and scratching are natural cat behaviors- they are predators after all- so it’s no surprise that kittens will pounce on and bite or scratch their toys, or sometimes your hands or feet! While you can help a solo kitten learn to direct their energy towards a toy rather than your skin, the best way for them to learn is with another kitten friend who will help them discover good boundaries when it comes to biting and scratching. This will help them grow up into an adult cat who knows that they shouldn’t bite other living beings as part of playtime.
The easiest way to get two kittens who love each other is, of course, by adopting littermates. However, sometimes you might want to introduce two kittens from different litters (which is normally much easier than introducing two adult cats). If you want two non-sibling kittens, I recommend watching the Kitten Lady’s video on how to safely get two kittens together: https://youtu.be/1vZiorgO5Q8
If you have another young, playful cat at home who you think needs a buddy, then adopting a single kitten could be the right fit for you if you think three felines in your house would be too much- though in that case I recommend introducing the kitten to your adult cat using the traditional cat introduction methods. If you have an older cat who is likely to be overwhelmed by a kitten, then adopting two kittens can sometimes make the process easier on your resident cat, as the kittens will be able to get out their bucket-loads of energy with each other rather than constantly bothering the older cat.
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!