Tag Archives: behavior problems

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Trying to make sense of the pheromone mess.

Image 1First things first! Some of you might be wondering what the heck Feliway is! Feliway is a “feline facial pheromone analogue (also refered to as FFP or FFPA).” It is a human-created chemical copycat (no pun intended) of the pheromones that your cat deposits when they rub their scent glands on objects (or even on you). Pheromones are chemicals that many animals use to communicate – and in cats, these chemicals are quite important! The face (cheek, forehead, chin) and paws have important scent glands, and of course urine or spray marking contains pheromones – cats use all of these scent glands to mark their turf and communicate with other cats.

Now, when scientists came up with idea to manufacture a synthetic version of these pheromones they must have thought they hit the animal behavior jackpot. Imagine, a product that could convince a cat they just sprayed somewhere, so why bother doing so again? Or being able to convince animals that they should feel nice and cozy and secure because the pheromones that their mom would have released are being diffused throughout the environment?

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NAUGHTY OR MISUNDERSTOOD? You decide!! Photo via Flickr/CreativeCommons LicenseTommy Hemmert Olesen https://www.flickr.com/photos/tommyhj/
NAUGHTY OR MISUNDERSTOOD? You decide!! Photo via Flickr/CreativeCommons LicenseTommy Hemmert Olesen
https://www.flickr.com/photos/tommyhj/

Are cats naughty or just misunderstood? Those of us who work professionally to help people solve behavior problems in their cats would be more likely to say the latter – I am careful in my own descriptions of behaviors as undesirable as opposed to inappropriate – because most of those "problem" behaviors are normal responses to an unsuitable (or perhaps even inappropriate!) environment.

So given that cats may be misunderstood, how can we increase owner understanding of a cat’s behavioral needs? A new study, The prevention of undesirable behaviors in cats: effectiveness of 7 veterinary behaviorists' advice given to kitten owners, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, took a look at whether a standardized behavior discussion between vets and new kitten owners could prevent misunderstandings later.

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Cats and urination outside of the litterbox.

Cat urination outside the litterbox can damage relationships and floors. Photo via InspectAPedia.
Cat urination outside the litterbox can damage relationships and floors. Photo via InspectAPedia.

Urination outside the litterbox is one of the most common behavioral reasons cats are abandoned and euthanized. Litterbox avoidance is a frustrating problem to live with, and damages property and the bond between an owner and their cat. While owners often attribute this behavior to a complex “revenge” plot by the cat (“he’s mad at me for x, y or z”), urination outside the box is typically caused by one of three things: something about the box the cat doesn’t like, a medical problem, or stress.

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Do you play with your cat? How about every day? Be honest. I know most of you reading this are pretty lazy about playing with your cats (I can be too). You might even blame it on your cat…”Oh…he doesn't really like to play with toys,” “She liked to play when he was a kitten, but now that she’s older, she prefers to cuddle.” I've heard it all before and I know it’s a lie! Why? Because to cats, play should be practice for predation, and cats are natural-born killers who cannot resist the opportunity to pounce! This doesn't mean that the play is always fun for the human, who may or may not be particularly skilled at eliciting those killer behaviors in their cats. But we’ll get to that. First, let’s look at a recent study examining how play might influence the behavior of cats.

An Owner Survey of Toys, Activities and Behavior Problems in Indoor Cats” was recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. The study was a survey of 277 veterinary clients in Tennessee who were bringing their cats in for a veterinary visit (coming for anything besides a behavior problem rendered someone eligible to participate). The goal of the study was to examine just how much playtime owners give their cats, and how this might be correlated with behavior problems.

Owners were asked standard questions about their cats (such as if they were spayed/neutered, the cats’ sex and the like). The survey also asked owners if the cats eliminate outside of the litterbox, fight with other cats, and if they bite and scratch people. They were next asked how often and long they play with their cat, and what types of toys/activities they provide for their cats (e.g. balls, mice, stuffed toys, catnip, etc.). Finally, they asked participants if they talk to their veterinarian about any behavior problems their cat might be experiencing.

On the human side of things, all owners stated that they played with their cat at least once a month, with 64% claiming to play at least twice a day. Most owners played with their cat for 5-10 minutes at a time. The majority of people (78%) reported leaving toys out all the time for their cat.

On the cat side, we've got a lot of naughty kitties out there. Sixty-one percent of owners reported at least one undesirable behavior, with many cats displaying aggression toward people (36%), closely followed by urination outside the litterbox (24%) and aggression between cats in the home (21%). Of those owners with “problem children,” only half of them had mentioned the problem to their veterinarian.

Photo by Jon Ross via Creative Commons/Flickr
Photo by Jon Ross via Creative Commons/Flickr

Was playtime correlated with behavior problems? Maybe. The owners who played with their cats for longer periods of time reported fewer behavior problems (on average one behavior problem, compared to the 2.25 behavior problems reported by those who played with their cat for only one minute at a time). Behavior problems were strongly related to the sex of the cat, with male cats being more likely to have reported behavior issues, regardless of neuter status.

I do think we should interpret these results with some caution. First of all, we have a very small sample size of people (less than 10) who reported they only play with their cat for one minute at a time. These people may not be representative of a random sampling of people who don’t play much with their cat, and of course, we don’t know if the decreased play is the cause of the behavior problems, or the result (or because of something else altogether). We also don’t know if those who claimed to play with their cat for longer periods of time were being honest. Perhaps many of them only play for one minute as well, they just didn't feel like admitting it!

We also don’t know if people who bring their cats to the vet regularly are different from pet owners who do not. More than half of all pet cats do not get a yearly exam, due in large part to the fact that many cats are afraid of their cat carrier (a subject for another blog post!). So it’s possible that the cats represented in this survey are also somehow different from your average pet cat, for better or worse.

On behavior problems: it seems like a lot of cats are having them (more than reported in a previous study). Is this because people are making less time for their cats? Are more cats bored and indoors? (For the record, I advocate keeping cats indoors only, but it needs to be a loving, fun and stimulating environment!) They also didn't report whether age correlated with behavior problems, but I wonder if aggression toward humans is more prevalent in younger cats and kittens, with more of a playful/predatory bent, than the more fearful, defensive types of aggression problems seen in some cats.

Most people don’t mention behavior problems to their veterinarian, and while the authors suggest that veterinarians can be a resource for help, (no diss on vets, but…) I think it’s important to remember that most veterinarians do not get much (if any) training in cat behavior. In many veterinary programs, ONE multi-species behavior course is an elective, not a requirement (see here, here and here for examples of veterinary curricula). Many veterinarians admit they know little about behavior, while others may give outdated or just bad behavior advice!

That said, veterinarians are hopefully making progress on this end, and hopefully know of some resources for cat-owners that they can at least point them to (such as veterinary behaviorists, CAABS, the IAABC and Cats International) if they can’t answer a client's behavior-related questions! Because behavior issues are a major reason that cats are surrendered to shelters, it is important to intervene and provide assistance early!

This study reveals some valuable information about pet owners and the type of activities they provide for their cats and I have plenty of thoughts about the findings! This study found owners reporting even less playtime with cats than data from a study in 1997, where owners reported 20-40 minutes of daily play with their cats. Sadly, the current figure is probably not enough to meet most cats’ needs.

Food puzzles are a great way to provide enrichment for your cat!
Food puzzles are a great way to provide enrichment for your cat!

Furthermore, people need to expand their selection of toys and activities. In the current study, only 39% of owners reported using an interactive (“fishing pole”) toy with their cats. This is a travesty! Only NINE percent had a cat tree, four percent trained their cats to do tricks, and less than one percent provided food puzzles as enrichment for their cats. I’d say those are four “magic bullet” things that all cats owners can do to immediately improve their cats’ lives, and sadly, not many people are doing any of them.

 

Does your cat have a cat tree? Picture by David Kowis via Creative Commons/Flickr
Does your cat have a cat tree? Picture by David Kowis via Creative Commons/Flickr

So for those of you who might be cringing about the kitty care you are providing right now, I’m going to give you a few quick tips to make playtime easier for you and your cat:

Think like prey – get interactive (that means a toy with a stick that you move, not a toy you just toss across the room) toys that resemble birds, bugs and mice. Move them like birds, bugs and mice! Quiver, skitter, hop, but whatever you do, don’t shove the toy in your cat’s face. No self-respecting mouse would do that. Also, don’t feel the need to wildly wave the toy around constantly. This might work for kittens, but older cats need more calculated play…bringing me to my next tip:

Take advantage of your cat’s stalk and rush hunting style. Stalk and rush means that the predator spends a lot of time carefully watching prey before making a very hasty and deadly attack. Cats really like the “pre-pounce” phase – where the toy is barely moving for many seconds. Watch their eyes – are their pupils dilated? Is their butt wiggling? Are their whiskers forward? If yes, you have feline focus!

This short burst style of hunting means that you don’t always need 20 minute play sessions with your cat. Several 5-10 minute sessions are likely just as effective! Just make sure your cat has a little time to calm down from the play before taking the toy away.

Use all of their senses! We are visual, so we tend to think that cats are too. But they want to use their senses of smell, sound and touch too! Try toys scented with catnip, or small amounts of mint, valerian or even cat food. Remember their sense of smell is much stronger than ours, so a little bit will go far. The scent may help them track toys as you move them around.

Move toys against a scratchy surface, like under a paper bag or rug, or hide the toy behind a table leg and gently tap the toy against the leg. The sound will immediately pique your cat’s interest!

Be sure to let the cat catch and touch the toy frequently. They have many sensitive nerve endings and whiskers in their face and paws to help them hunt. These are designed to help them capture prey. This why lazer pointer play can get frustrating; they can never catch the toy.

Cats can get bored of the same toys. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Cats can get bored of the same toys. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Rotate toysa previous study suggested that cats don’t get bored of play – they get bored of the same old toy. So be sure to take some toys away, and put out different ones. Have multiple interactive toys for play sessions. Switch toys if your cat seems to lose interest and see if she is re-engaged!

 

I hope now you feel a little more inclined to pick up that dusty cat dancer that’s been sitting in the back of your closet and give your kitty a little exercise! You may even have fun and create a bonding moment with your cat…and if you’re lucky, you’ll prevent some behavior problems too!

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Humans are on an endless quest for a fountain of youth – keys to longevity and health – and we’d like to know what might help our pets live longer too. Scientists in the UK recently published a study, “Longevity and mortality of cats attending primary care veterinary practices in England” in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, examining factors that were correlated with increased lifespan and risk of death in domestic cats.

Cats are considered seniors by the age of 10 or so. Photo by Edward Townend, https://www.flickr.com/photos/townendphotography/
Cats are considered seniors by the age of 10 or so.
Photo by Edward Townend, https://www.flickr.com/photos/townendphotography/

There have been surprisingly few studies on the lifespan of pet cats. Cats are considered seniors by age 10 and cats typically stop producing offspring by the time they are 11 or 12. Sources report the average lifespan of cats to be from 10 to 14 years, but little is known about what might cause some cats to live longer lives than others.

The current study utilized veterinary records from September 2009 until December of 2012. To be included in the study, cats had to be noted as deceased in the veterinary records. Other factors that were noted were: sex of the cat (including neuter status), age at time of death, body weight, insurance status, breed and disease status were also included as variables when known. From over 12,000 records of deceased cats, around 4000 were randomly selected for the final dataset.

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No, but we've got lots of other things to talk about!

What factors lead some cats to develop behavior problems? And what effect does early experience have on kitten behavioral development? There are still many elusive and unanswered questions, but a new study brings us a little closer to understanding some of the relationships between age of spay/neuter (s/n), household variables (such as number of other pets, use of punishment), kitten personality factors (such as fearfulness) and report of behavior problems by owners.

Development of behavior in adopted shelter kittens following gonadectomy performed at an early age or at a traditional age” (well that’s a mouthful) by Porters et al. (in press at the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2014) examined the relationship between time of s/n (either at 2-3 months or 6-8 months) and report of both short-term and long-term behavior issues. Previous studies have suggested no problems, increased shyness in early-neutered kittens, or increased aggression and less affection in late-neutered cats.  Hmm, well that’s a whole lot of mixed messages. The goal of the current study was to address some of the weaknesses of previous studies, which suffered from small sample sizes, lack of long term follow up, lack of random assignment to groups, and reliance on owner recall rather than frequent surveys of current kitten behavior.

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