Thomas E. Catanzaro, DVM, MHA, FACHE, Diplomate American College of Healthcare Executives
Special Recognition for these contributions to:
Daniel O. Estep, PhD and Suzanne Hetts, PhD
Animal Behavior Associates, Inc.
4994 S. Independence Way, Littleton, CO 80123, (303) 932-9095
So You Want a Cat?
Some Things for Prospective Cat Owners to Think About
Bringing a cat into your home is a wonderful experience but it is also a serious responsibility. Below are some questions for you and your family members to ask yourselves about your own needs and expectations of the cat which will help you pick out the pet best suited to you. Try to be as realistic and honest as possible in answering these questions.
1. Why do you want a cat?
What do you expect the cat to do? Will she/he just be a companion for you? Will he/she be a companion for your children? Do you expect the kitty to hunt mice or rats? Different breeds or individuals within a breed may be better suited to some roles than to others.
2. What's your family like now? What do you expect it to be in 5 to 10 years?
Are you single, married, married with children, have older relatives in the home? Are you single now but expect to start a family soon? Your choice of pet should take into account not only your present family status but also your expected future status. A cat chosen for a single person may not be suited for a family with children. Remember that owning a pet is a life-time commitment.
3. Do you want your cat to be an inside cat, outside cat or both?
What is your home like? Do you live in a small apartment, house with a fenced yard, etc.? Letting your cat outside exposes her to certain risks such as injuries from cars, cat fights, and other animals; in some cases, the free roaming cat endangers birds, flower beds and sand boxes (kids should not have to sort out kitty poop to play in their sand box). Are you prepared to live with those risks?
4. Are you planning on having other pets in the near future besides the cat?
What pets do you already have? Some cats don't get along well with other animals (and vice versa). You should think very carefully before bringing a new cat into a household with other pets that she/he may not get along with. There are introduction techniques that can be used, but not all cats have read the directions.
5. What is your lifestyle like?
Are you very active and rarely home or fairly inactive and home most of the time or somewhere in between? Do you have activities that you want your cat to be a part of? Cats are social animals and need some companionship, however some cats may tolerate more isolation than others. If you are very active and rarely home perhaps you should consider another kind of pet.
6. What temperament do you want in your cat?
Do you want a very active cat or very inactive cat? Do you want one that is shy or very outgoing with strangers? What about a cat that demands a lot of attention? A cat's temperament is very important to how well it will fit into your household. You should consider very carefully what temperament characteristics you want in your cat and then consult with your veterinarian, breeders, and other animal experts about the best cat for you. When picking a cat, never pick one that seems fearful, aggressive or overly active.
7. What breed of cat do you want? Why?
Do you want a pure-bred cat or a mixed breed cat? Never pick a cat solely on its looks or its physical characteristics. It may not have the temperament or other characteristics you want. Consult books, breeders, your veterinarian, and friends who own a breed you are considering to help choose a breed. Consider a mixed breed cat from a shelter. They often have fewer physical and behavioral problems than do pure-bred cats, but may be more of a gamble with an unknown history. If you buy a pure bred cat, only buy from an established breeder with a good reputation. Of the rarest cat breeds, the Ashera is the most expensive ($20K+), the Sokoke the most exotic (from the wilds of Africa), and the Egyptian Mau has the coolest history (lived with the Egyptians).
8. What kind of coat characteristics and coat color do you want?
Some long hair coats are more likely to shed and tangle than others, and will require more care.
9. What sex cat do you want? Why?
Each sex has its own advantages and disadvantages, special needs and problems. Males are more likely to roam, urine mark and fight with other cats, for example. All cats should be spayed or neutered unless you are planning to show the cat competitively or breed the cat. Spaying and neutering reduces the chances of certain behavioral and medical problems as well as reducing the pet over-population problem.
10. What age cat do you want? Why?
Kittens can be lots of fun but they can be a lot of work to housebreak, train to a scratching post and socialize. Are you prepared to put in the work necessary to have a kitten? Many cats are sitting in shelters, waiting for a loving household, and will show their affection when you approach their cage. It can be a rewarding visit.
11. Have you considered the potential costs/problems associated with a cat?
Owning a cat can be a very rich and rewarding experience. However along with the rewards come problems and costs. There will be a time commitment required, feeding, grooming and health care costs, cleaning up after the cat and some destruction of your property by the cat. Are you committed to dealing with these problems and costs? Remember that owning a cat is a life-time commitment.
Preventing Aggressive Behavior by Kittens
Aggression by cats directed at people is the most serious problem faced by owners. Aggressive cats can cause serious injury. There is nothing that an owner can do that will absolutely guarantee that a kitten will never become aggressive. This is because our knowledge about the causes of aggression is incomplete. However, there are some things that you can do as an owner that will lessen the likelihood that your kitten will become aggressive. Some of these things are designed to prevent kitten aggression, while others are designed to prevent aggression as your cat grows up.
Genetics and Breeding can influence aggression and other problem behaviors.
1. If you buy a kitten, purchase it from an established breeder with a good reputation. Always ask the breeder about the parents and brothers and sisters of the kitten. Never buy a kitten whose parents or siblings have been aggressive or fearful of people. Be sure that the kitten has had plenty of contact with people and other cats. Avoid buying kittens that seem overly excitable or overly fearful.
2. If you get a cat from a shelter or pet store where you cannot ask about the parents or siblings, don't pick a cat that is overly excitable or overly fearful. Avoid getting a cat that has been living by itself with little contact with other cats or people.
Out of Control Play is one of the most common causes of injury by kittens. Kittens should always be encouraged to play gently with people.
1. Never encourage a kitten to play roughly and to bite or mouth clothing or skin. This only rewards unacceptable behavior. Children should be taught acceptable ways to play with kittens and supervised to be sure that they are not encouraging bad behavior.
2. If the kitten tries to bite, nip or play roughly, either 1) try to direct her play onto a ball, string or other appropriate toy, 2) put the kitten on a time-out for a few minutes away from people or 3) use remote punishment to discourage rough play. Remote punishment means telling the kitten "no" at the same time you squirt her with water or make a loud startling sound like shaking a can full of pennies. The punishment should always occur during the rough play, never after. If you cannot catch her in the act, don't punish her. Never hit, slap, kick or use other physical punishment with a kitten. It is unnecessary and may make the problem worse.
3. Always try to make touching, petting and grooming the kitten a calm, relaxed and non. playful situation. Encouraging play in these situations will only make it more difficult for the kitten to learn the difference between play and non-play situations.
Fear and Pain are the other major causes of kittens injuring people.
1. Never hit, slap, kick or hurt a kitten. It is cruel and may cause the kitten to bite or become fearful of you.
2. Young children should never be left alone with kittens or allowed to hurt or scare them.
3. Never scare kittens with loud noises, sudden movements or other frightening events.
4. If your kitten is frightened of sounds, things (like vacuum cleaners) or people, get professional help.
5. Kittens should be taught to tolerate handling, being restrained, petted, groomed and moved around as well as having food, and toys taken from them. Rewards, not force should be used to get the kitten to comply so that she has a good attitude about doing these things. These activities should be done regularly as a normal part of play, feeding, grooming, etc.
6. Simple rules should be developed by the family as to what the kitten can and can~ do around the house (such as getting on the furniture, getting food scraps from the table, going outside, etc.). These rules should be enforced consistently by all family members.
7. Punishment for misbehavior of any sort should be done only when other things have been tried and have failed. Punishment should only be of the remote kind (a loud noise, water squirted on the kitten, or a small pillow thrown in the general direction of the kitten, don't hit the kitten with the pillow).
Territorial and Protective Aggression occurs when a cat tries to drive away unfamiliar people or cats from her territory or from people or cats she is attached to:
1. Neutering male cats and spaying female cats may reduce the likelihood of territorial or possessive aggression developing.
2. Kittens should be socialized with other cats and unfamiliar people. This means gradual, non-threatening exposure associated with rewards (food, play, petting) while your cat is non-aggressive, non-fearful, relaxed and comfortable.
3. Kittens should be taught to be calm and quiet when people or cats pass by your property (including your car), come on your property or come into your house. Use food or other rewards to get your cat to sit or lie down quietly.
4. Physical punishment should not be used to stop cats that are growling, threatening or out of control around unfamiliar people or dogs.
Redirected Aggression occurs when a cat is strongly motivated to aggress against another person or animal but is prevented from doing so.
1. Never break up a fight between two cats with your hands or other parts of your body. One or both cats may turn and attack you.
2. Never touch, pet or try to hold a cat that is hissing, growling or meowing aggressively at another cat or person.
3. A cat can remain aggressive for over an hour after becoming aggressive. Be very cautious about approaching, touching or handling a cat you know has been aggressive within the last hour or so.
Predatory Behavior occurs when cats attempt to hunt and kill small animals like squirrels or birds.
1. Kittens should never be encouraged to hunt small animals or birds or to excitedly chase any animal or person.
2. Kittens caught in the act of stalking, chasing or lunging at people or other animals should be discouraged by loudly approaching them, making a loud sound or squirting them with water.
3. Kittens should never be punished after the fact for stalking, chasing or lunging or for carrying or consuming prey.
4. Restrict the kitten's access to small animals and birds to prevent predation.
If an aggression problem develops, get professional help immediately. Do not wait. It is very likely that the longer you wait, the worse the problem will become.
If you find yourself punishing your cat more than just occasionally, seek professional help to deal with the problem.
Preventing Damage Due to Kitten Scratching
The first thing you should know is that scratching by kittens is a perfectly natural, normal behavior. It is unlikely that anything you do will stop it completely. What we will try to do is give you some things to do to lessen the damage. You should accept the fact that if you own a cat you will experience property damage and lose something of value. The basic strategy in preventing kitten damage, is to 1) prevent access to things that you don't want damaged, or to make those things give the animal an unpleasant experience when they try to damage it, and 2) provide acceptable things to scratch.
Scratching or clawing objects with the front paws is mainly a social marking behavior to let other cats and people know the cat is around. It is only secondarily that it aids in keeping the claws sharp. The location and texture of the surface to be scratched is very important to the cat.
1. Most kittens prefer a vertical scratching post, some like a horizontal post. Provide both initially to see which one your cat prefers.
2. Cats like to scratch soon after getting up after sleeping, and to mark prominent areas in their chief activity areas. Place scratching posts near sleep spots, near couches, chairs and/or doorways where the cat is most active. Put out at least 3 or 4 posts around the house.
3. Cats generally prefer posts with a covering that is easily shredded. If your post covering is not of this type, cover the post with a loose weave fabric or other material that is easily shredded. Don't replace the covering too soon. Cats like the material very worn. Wait until it is just about to fall off the post before replacing it.
4. Encourage your cat to scratch on the posts. Don't take the kitten to the post and forcibly drag its claws over the post. This will only make the cat afraid of you and the post. Lure the cat to the post with a string or dangle toy and encourage the cat to scratch the post as it plays. Reward the cat with praise and/or food treats whenever it scratches the post.
5. Never use physical punishment when your kitten scratches an inappropriate object. Gently take the cat to its post and encourage her to scratch it. If this is not possible, make a loud sound like dropping a book or squirt her with water from a water bottle. Never punish a kitten for scratching things if you don't catch her in the act.
6. Observe your kitten's scratching behavior carefully to see where and what surfaces she prefers to scratch. Use this information to place posts in your kitten's most preferred areas and to cover posts with the most preferred coverings.
7. Seek professional help if your kitten won't use her post or if you are having trouble implementing these suggestions.
Remember an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is far easier to establish good habits from the beginning than to break bad habits later.
Introducing Your New Kitten to your Other Cats
Most species of cats, including the domestic house cat, are basically solitary. They do not form highly structured social groups with the same types of social hierarchies or "pecking orders" as do dogs. Although cats can form close attachments to other animals, they are also very territorial. There is wide individual variation in how tolerant individual cats are of sharing their house and territory with multiple cats.
How Will The Resident Cat Accept a New Kitten?
The factors which determine how a resident cat(s) will accept a newcomer are not fully understood. Cats that are well socialized, meaning they had many pleasant experiences with other cats during kittenhood, will likely be more sociable than cats that did not. Stray cats that were "street cats" and in the habit of fighting with other cats in order to defend their territory and food resources, may not do as well in a multi-cat household. If the resident cats have been in the habit of chasing intruding cats off their territory, or growling at neighborhood cats through the window, they may have a more difficult time accepting a newcomer.
Genetic factors also influence a cat's temperament, so friendly parents, especially friendly fathers, may be more likely to produce friendly offspring.
A new kitten will most likely either want to play with the older resident cat or may be somewhat fearful of him. Kittens are unlikely to show territorial or inter-male aggression as do adult cats. The resident cat may also respond in a playful manner, or may show defensive, inter-male or territorial aggression.
Cats that live in the same house may become the best of friends, or they may only tolerate each other with a minimum of conflict. However, there will be some individual cats who are better off in single-cat households. The initial interactions a newcomer and resident cat have can "set the stage" for their future relationship. It is much better to introduce cats to each other very gradually, over a period of several weeks or even months if necessary than to start off with an aggressive encounter which could take even longer to overcome.
Introducing a New Kitten to A Resident Family Cat
1. Confine the kitten to one medium sized room with her litterbox, toys, scratching post, food, water, and a bed. Feed the resident cat and the newcomer near either side of the door to this room. Depending on your feeding schedule, this can either be the cats' regular meals or special "goodies" they will get only as part of the introduction process. This will help to start things out on the right foot by associating something enjoyable (eating!) with each other's presence. Don't put the food so close to the door that the cats are too upset by each other's presence to eat. Gradually move the dishes closer to the door until the cats can eat calmly directly on either side. Next, use two doorstops to prop open the door just enough to allow the cats to see each other, and repeat the whole process.
2. Switch sleeping blankets between the kitten and resident cat so they have a chance to become accustomed to each other's scent. Also put the scented blankets underneath the food dishes.
3. Spend some quiet time in the kitten's room. Sit down on the floor or the bed and let the kitten approach you. Don't stare at her, and scratch her gently under the chin or behind the ears. Before you go in her room, take a few minutes to pet the resident cat so you have his scent. Take some tidbits and/or a dangling toy with you so that the kitten associates you and the scent of the other cat with "good things".
4. Once the kitten is using her litterbox, eating regularly, approaching the door without fear or aggression while the resident cat is on the other side, and is comfortable with your presence in her room, let her have some free time in the house while putting the resident cat in the kitten's room. This switch provides another way for the cats to have experience with each other's scent without a face to face meeting, and also allows the kitten to become familiar with her new surroundings without being frightened by the resident cat.
5. After several of these switches, if both cats are becoming less curious about each other's scents and things have been going well on either side of the closed door during feeding or "treat" times, then it's time for a brief face to face introduction. There are a variety of ways to do this, depending on the cats and the physical environment. If either cat is used to and comfortable in a crate, one or both of them can be crated. Cover the crate(s) with a towel and allow only one side open so the cats don't feel so exposed. Do not use a crate if this will be the cat's first experience with one or if the cat is not calm while crated. If both cats are crated, the crates can gradually be moved closer to each other. Food treats should be offered to both. If one cat is loose, let this cat approach the crate at her own speed. Alternatively, one or both cats can be held on the owner's laps (if the cat enjoys this). Do not force the cat to stay there if she becomes excited - this could result in someone being bitten or scratched. Use food treats, allow the cats to approach each other on their own.
6. With either method, keep the interaction short, and end it while both cats are still curious and/or calm, not aggressive or fearful. Repeat this process, making each session a little longer if things are going well. In the meantime, continue to keep the cats separated.
This stage in the introduction process may be reached in several days, or it may take several weeks. How well the cats are responding to each other will determine when it's time to move ahead - there is no one correct time schedule
Avoid any interactions between the cats which result in either fearful or aggressive behavior. If this happens during a face-to-face introduction, calmly separate the cats, and continue the introduction process using the gradual steps outlined above. You may need to find another intermediate step to work with before the cats will be ready for another try at a face-to face interaction. Never put two cats together and allow them to "fight it out". If these responses are allowed to become a habit, they can be difficult to change.
Precautions: You'll need to add another litterbox, and probably clean all the boxes more frequently. Make sure that none of the cats is being "ambushed" by another while trying to use the box.
Try to keep the resident cat's schedule as close as possible to what it was before the kitten's appearance.
If problems persist or arise, consult your veterinarian for more information or for a referral to a behavior specialist. The certified applied animal behaviorists at Animal Behavior Associates, Inc. will be happy to consult with you and help you work with your pets.
Introducing your New Kitten to your Dog
Dogs and cats who were not exposed to each other's species when they were young will require some extra time to become accustomed to each other. An adult dog will most likely consider a kitten to be either a play-thing or prey and consequently will either want to play with it or harm it. A kitten may be very intimidated by an adult dog. Dogs and cats will react to each other differently because they differ in their communication signals and social behaviors. They will need to be introduced to each other slowly and gradually so that neither is harmed or frightened and aggressive reactions don't become a habit.
Introducing a Kitten to a Resident Dog
1. If your dog does not already know the commands "sit", "down", "come" and "stay" you should begin working on them. Little tidbits of food increase your dog's motivation to perform, which will be necessary in the presence of such a strong distraction as a new kitten! Even if your dog already knows the commands, work with obeying commands in return for a tidbit so that your dog will perform more willingly and reliably.
2. When you first bring her home, confine the kitten to one medium sized room with her litterbox, toys, scratching post, food, water, and a bed. Feed the dog and the kitten near either side of the door to this room. Depending on your feeding schedule, this can either be the animals' regular meals or special "goodies" they will get only as part of the introduction process. This will help to start things out on the right foot by associating something enjoyable (eating0 with each other's presence. Don't put the food so close to the door that either the dog or the kitten are too upset or distracted by each other's presence to eat. Gradually move the dishes closer to the door until the animals can eat calmly directly on either side. Next, use two doorstops to prop open the door just enough - maybe only an inch - to allow the animals to see each other, and repeat the whole process.
3. Switch sleeping blankets between the kitten and dog so they have a chance to become accustomed to each other's scent. Also put the scented blankets underneath the food dishes.
4. Spend some quiet time in the kitten's room. Sit down on the floor or the bed and let the kitten approach you. Don't stare at her, and scratch her gently under the chin or behind the ears. Before you go in her room, take a few minutes to pet the dog so you have his scent. Take some tidbits and/or a dangling toy with you so that the kitten associates you and the scent of the dog with "good things".
5. Once the kitten is using her litterbox, eating regularly, approaching the door without fear or aggression while the dog is on the other side, and is comfortable with your presence in her room, let her have some free time in the house while putting the dog in the kitten's room. This switch provides another way for the animals to have experience with each other's scent without a face to face meeting, and also allows the kitten to become familiar with her new surroundings without being frightened by the dog.
6. After several of these switches, if the animals are becoming less curious about each other's scents and things have been going well on either side of the closed door during feeding or "treat" times, then it's time for a brief face to face introduction. Put your dog's leash on, and command him to either "sit" or "down" and "stay", using food tidbits. Have another family member enter the room and quietly sit down with the kitten on his/her lap. The kitten should also be offered some special tidbits. If the kitten does not like to be held, you can use a wire crate or carrier instead if the kitten is used to and comfortable in a crate. Cover the crate with a towel and allow only one side open so the kitten doesn't feel so exposed. Do not use a crate if this will be the kitten's first experience with one or if the kitten is not calm while crated. At first, the kitten and dog should be on opposite sides of the room or as far apart as necessary so that neither becomes fearful, aggressive or "out of control". Repeat this step several times until both are relatively calm, and just curious about each other. Do not progress to the next step until this has happened. This may take several days or more of practice.
7. Next, move the animals a little closer together, with the dog still on leash and the kitten either held gently in a lap or crated. If the dog gets up from his "stay" position, he should be firmly repositioned, praised and given a tidbit for obeying the "stay" command. If the kitten becomes frightened, increase the distance between the animals and progress more slowly. Eventually, the animals should be brought close enough together to allow them to investigate each other. If the kitten is not frightened and wants to walk toward the dog on her own, let her do so as long as the dog remains under control.
8. When the kitten and the dog can be calm when close to each other you can begin letting each move around a little more in each other's presence. Continue to keep the dog in a "down-stay" using tidbits, and let the kitten explore the room. If she's still a little timid you can encourage her with a toy. Switch roles, and hold or crate the kitten and let the dog walk around. Keep the dog on leash, even in a heel position if he is still quite excited. If he is doing well, let him approach the kitten on his own. With each practice session, increase the time the animals spend together and gradually let them have more freedom of movement. Be sure that your cat has an escape route, and a place to hide. Keep the dog and cat separated when you aren't home until you are certain the cat will be safe.
9. Avoid any interactions between the animals which result in either fearful or aggressive behavior. If this happens during a face-to-face introduction, calmly separate them, and continue the introduction process using the gradual steps outlined above. You may need to find another intermediate step to practice before allowing the same amount of contact again.
Developing successful relationships between cats and dogs can require a lot of time and patience. Sometimes the two can become best of friends, while other times they only develop a mutual respect and tolerance of one another. If you have problems, ask your veterinarian for more information or for a referral to a behavior specialist. The certified applied animal behaviorists at Animal Behavior Associates, Inc. will be happy to consult with you and help you work with your pets.
Your New Cat and the Litter Box - Preventing Problems
When a kitten is about 4 weeks of age, s/he will begin to play in, explore, and dig in loose, soft materials, such as dirt or litter. Soon, this investigative digging results in the kitten eliminating in these materials. Many species of cats begin to show this behavior as soon as they can eliminate on their own. Kittens do not have to be taught by either their mothers or their human owners to relieve themselves in soft, loose materials or to dig and bury their waste. These behaviors are called "innate" behaviors because kittens do not have to learn how to perform them. However, where a cat eliminates can be affected by its experiences. Litter boxes which for a variety of possible reasons do not provide an acceptable place to eliminate from the Cat's point of view, may cause a cat to go to the bathroom somewhere else. Thus, it is important for you to provide a litterbox which meets your new -kitten's or cat's needs so that s/he will like the box and use it consistently.
The Myth of "Litter Training" Cats
There is really no such thing as "litter-training" a cat in the same way one would house train a dog. The only thing owners need to do is provide an acceptable, accessible litterbox, using the criteria described below. Remember that what is acceptable and accessible must be determined from the cat's point of view, not the owner's. It is not necessary, or even recommended, to take a cat to the box and move his paws back and forth in the litter. This may actually be an unpleasant experience for the cat and may initiate "bad" associations with the litterbox. As explained above, a cat does not need to be taught what to do with a litterbox. If you provide him with acceptable, accessible litter, he'll know what it's for.
Choosing a Location for the Box
Most cat owners want to place the litterbox in an out-of-the-way place in order to minimize odor and loose particles of cat litter tracked around the house. Often, the litterbox may end up in the basement, possibly next to an appliance, on an unfinished, cold cement floor. This type of location may be undesirable from the cat's point of view. First, if you have a young, small kitten, s/he may not be able to get down a long flight of steep stairs in time when s/he has to go to the bathroom - especially if s/he started out on the top floor of an M-level! Even adult cats new to a household may not at first remember where the box is located if it is in an area they seldom frequent Secondly, cats may be startled while using the box if a furnace or washer/dryer suddenly comes on. That may be the last time they'll risk such a frightening experience! Lastly, some cats like to scratch the surface surrounding their litterbox and may find a cold cement floor unappealing. So you may have to compromise. The box should be kept in a location which affords the cat some privacy, but is also conveniently located. If you place the box in a closet, be sure the door is wedged open from both sides in order to prevent your cat from being trapped in or out. If the box sits on a smooth, slick or cold surface, consider putting a small throw rug underneath the box.
Choosing a Litter
Research has shown that most cats prefer fine-grained litters, presumably because they have a softer feel. The new clumping litters are usually fine-grained than the typical clay litter. However, high quality, dust-free clay litters are relatively small-grained and may be perfectly acceptable. Potting soil also has a very soft texture but is not very absorbent. If you suspect your cat had an outdoor history or is likely to eliminate in your houseplants you can try mixing some potting soil with your regular litter. Pellet-type litters or those made from citrus peels are not recommended. Once you find a litter your cat likes, don't change types or brands. Buying generic, the least expensive or whatever brand is on sale may result in litterbox problems.
Some cat litters were developed more with the owner's needs rather than the cat's needs in mind. Many cats are put off by the odor of scented or deodorant litters. For the same reason, it is not a good idea to place a room deodorizer or air freshener near the litterbox. A thin layer of baking soda can be placed on the bottom of the box to help absorb odors without repelling the cat. More importantly, if the litterbox is kept clean, odor should not be a problem.
Depth of Litter
Some owners are under the impression that the more litter they put in the box, the less often they will have to clean it. Not!! When wild cats eliminate outside, they generally choose an area that has a few loose particles of dirt or other material in which they can make a scrape. They generally do not choose areas where they "sink in" to several inches of dirt. Most domestic cats will not like liner that is more than about 2 inches deep. In fact, some cats, particularly some long-haired cats, may actually prefer less litter and a smooth, slick surface such as the bottom of the litterbox. The box must be cleaned on a regular basis, and adding extra litter is not a way around that chore.
Number of Boxes
A good guideline is to have at least as many boxes as you have cats. That way, no cat can be prevented from using the box because it is already occupied. You might also consider placing the boxes in several locations around the house, so that no one cat can "guard" the litterbox area and prevent other cats from accessing it. In general, it is not possible to designate a personal, unique box for each cat in the household. Cats will often use any and all litterboxes available. Occasionally a cat will refuse to use the box after another cat. In this case, all boxes will need to be kept extremely clean, and extra boxes may be needed.
Are Covered Boxes Better?
Many cats will not show any preference for a covered versus an uncovered box. However, if you have a very large cat, a covered box may not allow him sufficient room to turn around, scratch and dig, and position himself in the way he wants. A covered box may also make it easier for another cat to lay in wait and "ambush" the user as s/he exits the box. On the other hand, a covered box tends to provide more privacy and may be preferred by timid, shy cats. You may need to experiment, and offer both types at first to discover what your cat prefers. If you do not wish to purchase a cover, you can make one from an upside-down cardboard box with the flaps and one side cut away.
Keeping the Litter Box Clean
Litter boxes must be kept consistently clean. To meet the needs of the most discriminating cat, feces should be scooped out of the box daily. How often you change the litter depends on the number of cats and the number of boxes you have. Twice a week is a general guideline, but depending on the circumstances, the litter may need to be changed every other day or only once a week. If you notice an odor to the box or if much of the litter is wet or clumped, it's probably more than time for a change.
Do not use strong smelling chemicals or cleaning products when washing the box. The smell of vinegar, bleach, or pine cleaners may cause your cat to avoid the box. Washing with soap and water should be sufficient
What About Liners?
Some cats don't mind having a liner in the box, while others do. You may need to experiment again to see if your cat is bothered by a liner in the box. If you do use a liner, make sure it is anchored in place well so it can not easily catch your cat's claws or be pulled down into the litter.
If Problems Develop
If your cat stops using the litterbox your first call should always be to your veterinarian. Many medical conditions can cause a change in litterbox habits and these possibilities must be considered first. If your veterinarian determines your cat is healthy, the cause may be behavioral. Most litterbox behavior problems can be resolved through behavior counseling. Both behavior modification techniques and changes to the cat's environment may be necessary. Punishment is not the answer. The certified applied animal behaviorists from Animal Behavior Associates, Inc. would be happy to consult with you and help you work with your cat.
Is Your Cat Stressed Out?
Stress is a word we use daily. We may use it to describe environmental events that upset us, as well as our bodies' physiological, emotional and behavioral reactions to them. Understanding stress in other species is more difficult and confusing because we use the term imprecisely when we refer to our own species. For example, can you tell if the person sitting next to you at the movies is stressed? What if the person sitting next to you at the movies is stressed? What if the person is sitting quietly, is furiously chewing gum with an angry look on his or her face or is visibly in pain.
Would you consider your cat to be stressed if it turned up its nose at its regular dinner, if it was being chased by your dog or if it was lying under the bed, refusing to come when called? The conclusions we draw may or may not be correct based on our interpretation of these behaviors. To better evaluate if your cat is stressed it is helpful to have a basic understanding of what scientific research has discovered about stress.
What Is Stress?
Because stress is complex, experts find it difficult to agree on a definition. A general definition is that stress is the body's reaction to demands placed on it and an attempt to regain the body's normal balance. This reaction includes physiological and behavioral responses. The demands causing these reactions are stressors.
A brief explanation of the basic physiological stress response will help explain behaviors associated with stress. In the early part of this century, William Canno, a physiologist who described the "fight or flight" response, and later Nans Selye, a physician who proposed the general adaptation syndrome, were the first scientists to try to better understand how animals, including humans, adapt to stressors m their environment.
When alarmed, animals mobilize their bodies' resources to prepare for action. These physiological changes include an increased heart rate, a release of sugar into the bloodstream and increased blood flow to the internal organs. The reactions are initiated by adrenaline, a chemical secreted by one part (the medulla) of the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys. As this response continues or becomes prolonged, another part (the cortex) of the adrenal gland becomes active and secretes many hormones, including corticosteroids.
These hormones affect the body in complex ways, not all of which are well understood. They also help the body' respond to stressors through their effects on the immune system, general metabolism and other body systems. High concentrations of the corticosteroids in the blood and/or urine, particularly cortisol, is a standard criteria used to determine if stress is occurring. If large amounts of the hormones persist in reaction to chronic stressors, adverse affects can result, including decreased resistance to disease, decreased growth, gastric ulcers decreased reproductive capabilities and even death.
What are some examples of stressors that cause a physiological stress response? Physical stressors that wild or flee-ranging animals (including feral or stray cats) often experience include disease, injury, lack of food and water, exposure to extreme weather conditions predators and fights with other animals. Many of these physical stressors for domesticated and captive animals have been eliminated. However, these animals are more likely to experience social or biological stressors such as social isolation, barren or restricted environments, restraint, unpredictable, unfamiliar or uncontrollable environments, or crowding that results in increased social competition and conflict.
Behavioral Responses to Stressors
Animals show behavioral responses to stressors while the physiological events previously described are taking place. Many of these behavioral responses are considered normal behaviors, such as fear or anxiety related behaviors, aggression and related behaviors, conflict behaviors including redirected behavior, displacement behavior, approach/avoidance behavior and separation distress. Other stress-related behaviors can be considered abnormal, such as repetitious and self-injurious behaviors, while others can be associated with illness, such as refusal to eat or drink.
One of the most common stressors for cats is social conflict, which most liken occurs when a new arrival is introduced into the household or when too many cats are present in the household. Although recent studies of cat behavior have shown that cats can be flexible regarding their social structure, cats are still not considered the social animals that dogs are. While some cats in a multicat household will develop close, friendly relationships, others will continually harass or be harassed by other cats in the family. Both the cat being harassed and the one doing the harassing may be stressed. The harassed cat may begin hiding more and may be reluctant to move about freely. This in turn can cause changes in litter box and eating habits.
Approach/avoidance behaviors also may be common. For example, a cat may start to move across the room to lie in a favorite spot (approach) but may be scared of being discovered by the "bully," and so turns and runs the other way (avoidance). This type of rushing forward, running backward movement can become ritualized into a stereotype that is shown out of the context in which it started. Stereotypes are abnormal, repetitive behavior patterns with no apparent purpose. Tail-chasing is another stereotype seen fairly frequently in domestic cats.
Displacement behavior may appear during social conflicts. A harassed cat may be undecided about whether to run from its attacker or stand and fight. Instead, the cat displays a third, unrelated behavior, such as grooming, which is known as displacement behavior. Displacement behaviors can also evolve into stereotypes. In the case of grooming, it can become excessive to the point of causing hair loss and skin lesions.
Redirected behavior often occurs in multicat households in which conflicts between cats are common. Cats often direct aggression to another animal that did not originally elicit the aggressive response. The harassed cat may want to attack the feline "bully" but being afraid to do so directs its attack to a smaller, younger or more vulnerable cat in the house. One of our cats, which becomes irritated when forced to get off the kitchen counter (and would not think of attacking us) often walks over to one of the dogs, jumps on his neck and begins biting him. Fortunately, the Dalmatian thinks this is a great game, and a fun wrestling match ensues.
Cats in multi-cat households may be vulnerable to frequent conflicts with other cats, making an unpredictable environment. The cats never know when they may be ambushed, attacked, threatened or chased. In other species, unpredictable environments have been shown to activate the adrenal glands, causing a stress reaction.
Environments may be unpredictable for other reasons. Attempting to punish a cat after the fact for misbehavior is a common example. Cats, and other animals, associate punishment only with what they are doing at the time the punishment occurs. If taken over to a soiled area on the floor and verbally scolded or hit, the cat does not understand that this aversive treatment is supposed to be connected to the act of eliminating there minutes or hours before. From the cat's point of view, the scolding was associated with whatever it was doing when it was so abruptly picked up. This could be anything from walking across the floor to looking out the window. Thus, the cat can never predict when its owner will come charging out of nowhere because the owner's behavior is not consistent with the cat's behavior. This unpredictable behavior can be a source of stress.
Because today's cats share many facets of their owners' lives, it is not uncommon for cats to be taken from their home environment. Cats may go on extended car trips, be flown on airplanes, spend time in hotel rooms, be taken to boarding facilities, accompany their owners during frequent moves or visit the homes of friends and relatives during vacations and holidays. Cats going to a new home from a shelter, breeder or previous owner will also be exposed to unfamiliar environments, which have been shown to trigger stress reactions.
The most likely responses under these circumstances are fear-related behaviors, including hiding, defensive aggression, excessive vocalizations, excessive elimination, a decrease in eating perhaps to the point of anorexia, "hyper' activity or freezing, immobile ' behaviors. Cats that have been well socialized as kittens and exposed in a positive and gentle manner to different environments will probably tolerate changes better than those that have not.
Barren or restricted environments also have been shown to be stressful living conditions. Cats that spend much of their time living in cages, kennels or rooms that do not provide opportunities for them to play, explore and show a variety of other behaviors may be stressed. Most people would conclude that a cat in a cage that was meowing, pacing and trying to escape was stressed. Fewer people would reach the same conclusion if a cat was lying quietly, but under these conditions, cats may show behavioral depression and become inactive. Depression also can be a sign of stress.
Another potential stressor is separation distress. It is normal for all species of social animals to show a distress reaction when separated from other animals to which they have become attached. Vocalizations, attempts to reunite with or gain access to the other animal and/or depression can be distress reactions. Dogs may show separation distress by becoming destructive, housesoiling or barking excessively when their owners leave for a normal workday. Several certified applied animal behaviorists believe cats are more likely to experience separation distress only when their owners leave for more extended periods, such as for a weekend or a longer vacation. A cat may show a similar reaction after the loss of another family pet to which it was closely attached. Reported behavioral changes include failure to eat, increased meowing or crying, lack of interest in playing or other daily routines, restlessness and elimination outside the litter box.
Individual animals react differently to stressors depending on the type of stressor, past experience and the individual's coping style. Rats, mice and some farm animals have shown passive and active coping styles in response to stressors. An animal with an active coping style is more likely to develop stereotypes, become aggressive and be more active in response to stress. A passive coping style is characterized by less activity and increased immobility.
Cautions in Interpretations
The types of stressors and the behavioral responses to them are based on scientific information about many species, including mice, rats, primates, pigs, sheep and chickens. We've applied this information to similar situations and behaviors in cats because few studies directly linking physiological and behavioral stress responses to specific environmental conditions or events have been conducted with cats.
One study by Dr. Kathy Carlstead demonstrated that irregular feeding and handling schedules, relocation to a new environment, travel in a cat carrier, noise and lack of petting from care-givers were associated with behavioral changes, with increased concentrations of urinary cortisol or with both. Her results suggest that consistent routines and predictable environments are very important m minimizing stress responses in cats.
When you are trying to determine if your cat is stressed, keep this discussion in perspective. Many of the behaviors displayed in response to stress are normal behaviors that cats should be expected to show from time to time. Just because your cat doesn't eat for a day, or it urinates outside the litter box, does not necessarily mean the cat is stressed. Experts in stress research all agree that the most accurate way to evaluate stress levels is with a variety of measurements, both behavioral and physiological. Concluding that an animal is stressed based on observations of one behavior change is likely to be wrong.
If your cat shows persistent or significant behavior changes, take the cat to the veterinarian. Illness and disease as stressors producing behavior changes should be considered first. If you know your cat will be subjected to an environmental stressor such as a move. Talk to your veterinarian about short-term antianxiety medications or homeopathic remedies to minimize the stress reaction.
We often make assumptions about what is stressful for animals based on what is stressful for us. This tendency may sometimes lead to the wrong conclusion. For example, if asked which of the following would be the most stress Jul to sheep, what would be your response: being chased by a dog, loaded into a truck, dipped m insecticide or sheared? The highest cortisol levels were measured in response to shearing, presumably because this involved being separated from the flock. Sheep are highly social, and separation from their group produces strong reactions. We're sure that some of you believed one of the other three events would be the most stressful. This demonstrates that what is stressful will vary among different species of animals.
Finally, remember that stress is not necessarily bad. Stress responses allow animals, including people, to cope with changes in their environment. Change and stress are inevitable. Some scientists believe animals actually benefit from some stress and that a totally stress-free environment may be harmful. The difficulty caring for pets is being able to know when stress is detrimental to an animal's well-being. A definitive answer may not always be available for that complex question.
Perhaps the best guideline is to try to ensure that our family cats are kept in environments that allow them to show us a wide range of their normal behaviors. As an extreme example, cats that spend the majority of their time hiding, lying immobile, fighting, chasing their tails, licking themselves, chasing or being chased are stressed and not well off. Cats that occasionally get in skirmishes refuse to come down from the top of the refrigerator for a day or get "freaked out" when the family is away for a week at Christmas, will probably show signs of stress. At other times, if they are playing, eating, sleeping, exploring and in general doing activities that cats do, things are probably okay.