Apr 27, 2020

Ask the Cat Specialist - Part 1

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Spending more time with our feline friends has raised new questions in cat care

Many of us are suddenly spending a LOT more quality time at home with our pets, and you may be noticing some new things about your feline companion that seem strange. Maybe a behavior that you didn’t have to deal with very often is now something you have to deal with each and every day (I’m looking at you cats-who-try-to-be-keyboards).

Luckily, the upside of spending so much time at home is that you can more effectively change your cat’s behavior! DCHS Senior Animal Caretaker and cat aficionado, Mackenzie Korpel has gathered up some of the most frequently asked questions and is offering new ideas for how to best improve your relationship!

For a full listing of our recommended pet resources and tips, check out our full Pet Resource page. Or for a quick video to get you into your cat's frame of mind, take a few minutes to watch this TED Talk titled "Why do cats act so weird?"

1) My cat is always trying to jump on the counter! How do I get them to stop?

To figure it out why your cat maybe be jumping up on the counter, start by putting yourself in their paws. Ask yourself, “what are they doing when they’re up on the counter?” Your best tactic for addressing this behavior depends on their motivation.

  • If they’re jumping up when you’re there, they may just be seeking your attention in an inappropriate way. Try interacting more with your cat when they are behaving appropriately, making sure they are getting enough playtime. You can also offer a treat puzzle ball on the ground or hide treats in places you don’t mind them playing. That’ll help take the focus off the counter and provide rewards for doing the right thing.
  • If they’re playing with random items/food, try to find a way to mimic what they’re playing with on your floor. Find a toy that crinkles like onion skin or a paper bag that crunches like your mail.
  • If they’re just knocking stuff down onto the floor, that’s a classic kitty “cry for attention” that is meant to let you know that they’re bored and need some more enrichment in their life, like toys or one-on-one playtime.
  • If they’re eating food you leave out on your counter, then be sure to clean up quickly to remove this temptation.
  • If they’re trying to drink random liquids in your sink, it might be time to invest in a cat drinking fountain that makes noise and has moving water, which is a little more exciting than a regular water bowl.
  • If your cat seems to enjoy lounging up high, try providing more vertical space in your house that they’re allowed to use. Cats enjoy being up high, so maybe build/invest in a cat tree or wall shelves that they can climb on instead.
  • If they’re SUPER stubborn and just won’t get off the counter, there are some products out there that will help build a negative association with the counter: SSSCat spray deterrent, the ScatMat or other motion-sensing vibration alarms.

2) Help! My cat’s started going potty outside the litter box! How do I make them go back to using it?

This is probably the most common issue people tend to have with their cats. Cats being sassy is one thing, but constantly cleaning up potty messes can get really old really fast. Let’s dive in and figure out what’s going on with your furry friend:

  • Has anything happened recently that would have thrown off your cat’s typical routine? Cats love routine and habit, so any environmental changes (new people, new pet or new home) could be the cause for stress, and cats can express that stress by going outside the box.
  • If the routine is all pretty much the same, let’s turn to the litter box: Has anything about their litter box changed recently? Have you been testing out a new litter? Did you change the type or size of box you’re offering them? Have any of their boxes moved to a different location? Has your scooping schedule changed at all?

These are all questions that could lead you to the problem, but they could also help you find a solution! Maybe your cat doesn’t like the new stinky "air-freshening" litter you bought, or maybe they think a covered litter box is the equivalent to using a Porta Potty. Maybe they liked going potty in your office and now don’t want to use the basement or maybe you accidentally missed a few days of scooping and your cat thinks that box is now too dirty to step foot in. These are all possibilities and going outside the box may be your cat’s way of saying, “Something’s different here and I don’t like it!”

You can also focus on where your cat is going in relation to where their litter boxes normally are.

  • If they’re using some new, random location in your house more than once, it might be as easy as just putting a box in that spot.
  • Make sure that when you clean up after their messes that you’re using a cleaner meant for pet odors, or else Princess might think she’s allowed to pee there because it smells like her.
  • If your kitty is going right next to their litter box, then it sounds like something’s happened that your cat now has a negative association with actually getting in the box and using it. They know that this is the general area that they’re supposed to go, but something is holding them back from using it properly. Again, it could be the change in litter or change in the type or size of box.
  • Talk with your vet to see if the issue could be a medical concern that they’re trying to alert you to. Maybe it hurts to pee or poop and they think maybe it’ll hurt less if I’m not standing in that sandbox.
  • Maybe a previous declaw surgery is causing them pain and their paws hurt too much to stand in the litter.

These are all things that should be brought up with your vet, because your cat might also need prescription food or medication.

There are also products out there that you can buy to help you along this process. There’s litter attractant, which you can sprinkle into your cat’s litter boxes to help lure them to the right place. There are also brands of litter that already have litter attractant mixed into the litter itself. If your cat is brand new to your home or having new issues, feel free to play around with different types of litter, different size boxes and different types of boxes to see what they prefer.

For even more ideas on addressing cat litter box issues, check out this Pet Resource article.

3) How do I help my cat adjust to their new pet sibling/new human baby sibling/new adult roommate/new home?

First things first: be patient! Cats are creatures of habit and asking them to change up their life can be a big adjustment. It’ll take some time (for some, a really long time), but cats can learn to happily live with other pets, babies, new adults and adjust to life in a new home.

When it comes to having your cat meet a new pet, it’s important to start out keeping everyone separated in their own spaces. This keeps everyone neutral and gives them space to do the things that they enjoy doing without interruption. Introductions to each other could start out with simple treats and sniffs under the bottom crack of a door separating their two spaces from each other. If that goes well, try trading items to exchange scents or trading their separated spaces for a short amount of time, so they can safely investigate the other’s smells without feeling threatened. Next, they could meet face to face at a baby gate or with the more eager pet in a crate while the more timid/cautious one is loose. This gives them a safe face-to-face that takes away the possibility of them harming one another. After that, you could start supervised visitations/playtime between the animals. Remember, if anyone seems overwhelmed or gets angry, maybe back-track a step or two and take things a little more slowly before progressing.

For more information, check out these Cat-Cat Introduction and Cat-Dog Introduction resources.

With a new baby on the way, it’s important to start the change in routine before the baby even comes. Maybe play some videos of babies crying to start gradually desensitizing your cat to the noise. Reward your cat with treats or pets for staying calm! When the baby arrives, let your cat smell and check out the baby when it’s sleeping and not so scary. Again, it’s good to reward your cat for calm behavior. From then on, make sure to include your cat in the daily care of your baby. Don’t exclude them or keep them out of rooms that you’re in. Try to let them join you, even if it’s just them standing next to you while you change a diaper. It’s also helpful for your relationship to continue to make time for you and your cat and things you used to do together before the baby’s arrival. Take a nap, snuggle in and watch a movie together on the couch or have some fun playtime with a wand toy! As your baby grows up, make sure they know how to act appropriately around your cat, like not pulling on any limbs. Check this resource for more ideas on how to help your kitty get along with a new baby.

For meeting a new adult significant other or roommate, let your cat set the pace. If they don’t want to approach the new person on their first encounter, that’s ok. Have the new person toss treats from a safe distance or to where the cat is hiding. Otherwise, just have them be quiet and ignore the cat. Eventually, the cat will realize that the person isn’t entering the room to cause any harm and they’ll become curious. Just continue to reward brave behavior (coming closer, sniffing, etc.) and your cat will learn to trust this new person in no time!

If your cat is coming into a new home setting, it’s important to consider your cat’s previous living environment, the cat’s natural demeanor and how big the new home is. This could all play into your cat getting easily overwhelmed so it’s always good to start out with one room as their “homebase” where they have all of their essentials: litterbox, food, water, toys and a bed. Then, they can be slowly introduced to the rest of the house stemming from their “homebase”. Monitor how your cat is acting as they explore – are they running around the rooms? Are they immediately running under furniture to hide? Introduce them to the house at their pace and watch to see if they’re acting overwhelmed. For more information on how to make moving with your cat as stress-free as possible, check out this article.

Hopefully these answers improve your relationship with your feline coworkers during these home-bound times. Stay safe and have some fun together!

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