Cat Behaviour: February 2009 Archives

pictures_cats_kitten_cute.jpgThis article appears at Little Big Cat, By Jackson Galaxy

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The scenario plays out with cat guardians everywhere: the cat is always getting into something, like jumping onto counters, climbing up screen doors or drapes…and the list goes on. It seems like everyone these days is armed with a handy squirt bottle or squirt gun; sometimes, as I've seen in clients' homes, in every room of the house. Somewhere along the line, this punishing tool has become as prevalent and acceptable as just saying a loud "NO!" In response, we've had many queries, both on line and in consultations, about the efficacy of this method.

I believe that the squirt bottle is NOT an effective way of changing a cat's behavior. When I say this, often I'm met with quizzical or defensive looks. The guardian might say, "But, I've seen it work. I squirt, and Tigger jumps off the counter. Nowadays, he just has to see the bottle in my hands, and he runs away." Yes, exactly my point. Tigger is responding, but is it for the right reasons? No.

What is the cat actually learning in this scenario? Is he learning that the counter is a bad place to be be? No. What Tigger is learning is that, first, the counter is a bad place to be when you are present and holding the squirt bottle, and second, he is learning to be afraid of you. The bottle appears to him as an extension of your arm, and it is you, not the bottle, that is getting him wet.

Pictures_cats_scratching_furniture.jpgDoes he get anxious and run when he sees the bottle sitting neutral on the end table? No. He only reacts when he sees you holding it and pointing it in his direction. In my opinion, this doesn't make for a trusting relationship. In fact, it can cause more behavior problems, fears and phobias that you hadn't considered. Depending on your cat's background, this may be a bigger Pandora's box than with other cats. Specifically, I believe the risk of developing secondary behavior problems is greater in rescued cats, since they may have been subject to unknown abuses, so that something as "mild" as the squirt gun can trigger response to latent trauma.

In a perfect world, we could shape the behavior of cats in terms of all undesired behaviors with 100% positively reinforced training. That is to say, with reward, the cat will want to repeat the desired action. That works in many cases, if not most. In my experience, unfortunately, it's not a guarantee. I do occasionally recommend the use of negative reinforcers, but in limited circumstances, and with some very important facts in mind:

1. Punishment must occur within three seconds (maximum) of the action occurring or else it will have absolutely no effect.

2. Punishment must also happen around the clock, meaning every single time the behavior occurs – whether you are home or not, asleep or not, paying attention or not.

3. The punishment must be consistent in its effect so that the possibility for abuse is nullified.

4. Punishment in itself is not the answer. There must be a positive alternative for the cat, or else a sense of frustration will develop, and the behavior one seeks to eradicate will be redirected elsewhere in the living environment.

Bengal_kitty_clones.jpgLet's address some of these points in more detail. The upshot of numbers 1-3 is that interactive punishment, or punishment involving person to cat, cannot work. There's no way that the cat's guardian can always grab that water bottle within three seconds, or with the same amount of intensity. Most importantly, there's no way you can follow your cat around 24/7. For anyone who tells me that they've solved the problem with the water gun, I tell them that they may have solved it while they're home, but they are seriously underestimating their cat's intelligence.

The cat knows that when the guardian is gone, the negative reinforcer is also gone. That's why, in these cases, the only thing that will work is remote punishment, or punishment that employs a device that is always present. Take, for instance, the Tattle Tale Alarm. It is a small, battery-operated device that you place on the counter. It is motion sensitive, and when activated, lets out a sound that will scare the cat off the counter. It then resets itself. There are many other such devices that use heat and motion detectors, for example, like Scraminal, which can prevent a cat from entering an entire room if you want. These high-end devices can all be found at Drs. Foster and Smith.

On the do-it-yourself side, you can even use double-sided sticky tape, or an upside-down vinyl carpet runner. You can use anything that will consistently send the message that "this is not a friendly place to be!" At the same time, I am strongly opposed to anything that shocks or otherwise causes strong bodily discomfort. For instance, I object to The Scat Mat because it produces an electric shock that can seriously frighten and hurt a cat.

Point #4 is equally important. Putting up a Tattle Tale, or any other remote punisher and thinking, "job well done!" is a big mistake. I've visited clients, frustrated by the climbing antics of their cats, who put tape on their drapes, Snappy Trainers (harmless mousetraps fitted with large paddles to make a noise) on the mantles and counters, but then new problems crop up. The cats start attacking ankles out of play aggression, for instance, or fight with one another. The whole time, the message was loud and clear; "Give me something acceptable to climb on!" So, spend the money. Cat furniture, condos, scratching posts and such, as many as possible, will give your cats a place to climb and scratch where you can praise them for doing what is, after all, natural to them. This way, for every "NO!" there's a "YES" associated with it. Also, consider employing flower essence therapy during the time of frustrating re-learning. Spirit Essences' "Feline Training" is ideal for this purpose.

cutest-sleeping-kitties9.jpgIn the end, the most important reason I can give for tossing that squirt bottle is to protect the bond between you and your feline companion. Let a strip of tape do the dirty work. The points outlined above make it a hard case for us to continue to fill roles as disciplinarians when, in the long run, we know it will not bear fruit. We are fallible; we have emotions and can overstep that line from discipline to abuse, all of us. At the very least, with every shot of water, we are eroding trust. There's no reason to let it get to that point.

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I_can_has_treats_please.jpgCats are really intelligent, I've always known that. But what I find amazing is the fact that is that Neo shows his intelligence in so many ways, and one way is that between naps and eating, he keeps a pretty tight schedule.

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I don't always feed Neo at the same time everyday and I am not big on keeping a daily schedule and routine except for the fact that I am usually up in the morning by around 7:00 am, other than that, I'm pretty flexible and so Neo has to be flexible too.

So in spite of the fact that I am not careful to keep him on a schedule, he still has one and he lets me know what time it is by his actions.

desk_napping3.jpgIn the morning he usually just accepts his breakfast whenever I get it out to him usually before 8:00 and then he goes about his day, looking out windows, asking to go outside, stretching of the sofa, visiting me in my office to nap under the light on my desk. And following me around, to the kitchen for a snack, to the basement for a workout, to the bathroom... you get the idea.

But everyday at 4:00, he comes to tell me he's ready for supper. No matter where I am or what I am doing, he comes to me and usually throws himself at my feet and looks up at me with his lovey-dovey "you're the best, Melanie" look in his eyes. I pick him up and we share a cuddle, he gets on my shoulder and starts marking my ears and then I go get him his supper.

Neo_shoulder.jpgAnd every night, without fail, he comes to tell me it's bed time. At 9:30 he says, "meow-wow" which I think is his way of saying my name and then he looks up at me lovingly until I pick him up. I usually carry him up to my bed and lie down with him on my chest. He kneads my neck and purrs, and marks my chin and ears by rubbing his face against me. After about 5 minutes of this, he find a soft place on the bed and goes to sleep.

He'll get up at around 11:00 and starts looking around for a snack so I put out a bit more food for him. I do this so doesn't wake me up too early in the morning. After he eats and looks around a bit, he comes back to bed and sleeps with me for the rest of the night. I know he's there, because sometimes he comes over for a cuddle, or if I wake up, I'll pet him before drifting off to sleep again.

pictures_cats_neo_Melanie.jpgIn the morning, I usually wake up before he does. Sometimes, he doesn't get out of bed until he hears me open a can of food and put out his food dish. Then he comes running down and has his breakfast and starts his day.

I have to say it is kind of nice to have someone come to tell me to get to bed, maybe one of these days, I'll actually go to sleep when he tells me to!

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Wikipedia describes aggression this way:

"In psychology, as well as other social and behavioral sciences, aggression refers to behavior between members of the same species that is intended to cause pain or harm."

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Picture-4.jpgSo, right away we can eliminate the term 'aggression' when we encounter a cat that shows a ferocious hiss if we come to close. Obviously, one of us is not a cat. But, what does it mean when we are quietly petting our cat and she suddenly turns, grabs the hand that pets her and sinks her teeth into it? Surely, that's a form of aggression; even if we aren't members of the same species. Getting away from definitions and such, what we really want to know is why does a cat show what is definitely a behavior that says "get away and don't touch me!!", or what many term as cat aggression.

First of all it is helpful to not confuse cat aggression with the kind of aggression that's found in people. People are complex entities that are driven by many things, such as emotions, belief systems, family ties, the "seven deadly sins", the boss's moods or the NFL on Sundays. People are able to pass their aggressive nature around like the common cold infecting those around them, especially when inspired by a call to action for a certain cause (think half-time in the locker room). We can even turn it on and off, if and when we want to. That same Wikipedia definition goes on to state that some psychologists draw a direct relationship between low IQ and aggressive behavior; those towards the higher end of the IQ spectrum are more likely to be termed as assertive. But, our purpose here is not to split hairs between aggressive and assertive human personalities.

In animals the aggressive side of their personality is usually linked to certain and specific situations. Here it is helpful to note the difference between cat aggression and the predatory nature of cats. Certainly, when cats demonstrate the stalking, chasing, capturing and killing of prey they are showing a very distinctive quality of aggression. This type of aggression is called goal oriented aggression. Cats hunt in order to provide food for themselves, and in some cases, their kittens. Even when your cat brings home a field mouse and presents it to you, she is acting out a eons old instinct, although she may not know what to do with her catch. Cats will hunt, quite often for their entire life, while at the same time they are well fed and cared for by their owner. Maybe this is just cats showing they can be assertive, too.

Most all other forms of cat aggression are known as defensive aggression. These kinds of cat aggression characteristics can be directly attributed to three aspects of the nature of cats:

The Territorial Nature of Cats

The Maternal Instincts of Cats

The Degree of Socialization of Kittens

Cats mark (define) their territory with scent marks that tell all others that this is her land. She will defend that territory against all other cats. Notice I say 'all other cats'. She will confront and chase away all uninvited cats vigorously. Other animals, including people, she may or may not confront, depending on whether she feels threatened. Predators may get a free pass as she lowers her head, with eyes dilated, and becomes as unobtrusive as possible. But other cats will get a very unwelcome confrontation and generally will respect what she is telling them, including avoiding her territory in the future. Or at least, if they have to, they'll cross her territory very cautiously (isn't it amazing how swift a cat can be, yet when called for they can move in the slo-motion that TV sports analysts would admire?).

The only invited guests she'll entertain are any males that respond to her caterwauling when she comes into heat. "Invited" guests may be a little misleading. Complete strangers can show up and the result is a ritual to determine who the best mate is will ensue. This will include fighting and growling in single elimination scraps until a victor is determined. Even then a female cat might mate with the second or third place finisher in addition to the winner. It's all so very uncivilized and unladylike. But, when she's mated all those boys had better watch out. They'll all be chased off so that she can bear her kittens in well deserved peace and solitude.

After the kittens are born, there is even more reason to demonstrate her territorial cat aggression. Not only does she have to protect her territory and the food it supplies, but she has to offer protection to her young brood. Cats have very strong maternal instincts and she will face the fiercest threat to her kittens head-on. And, if the predatory threat is too strong for her, she will distract it into chasing her so she can lead it away from the kittens den.

Kitten+Fight.jpgCat aggression is also linked to the experiences cats had when they were a kitten. Everything your cat knows, she learned when she was a kitten. When kittens have positive experiences while they are young, the more likely they will accept those encounters when they are grown. If kittens have a bad encounter with unfriendly people or other pets, or their kitten-hood is over-protective and they don't have the opportunity to have a lot of experiences, they can grow into shy, withdrawn adult cats. This socialization of kittens is the process of allowing them a well-rounded introduction to the things that make up her world. Cats are smart enough to know what poses a danger and what is not a threat. A kitten who was introduced to a friendly dog will grow up not being threatened by dogs in general. But, she will know when a dog isn't being friendly, she shouldn't stick around to find out why.

This kind of cat aggression is based in fear. Cats are most comfortable in familiar surroundings and familiar faces. Those things and images she has not been positively socialized with will cause her to be reclusive and even afraid of. That's why kitten socialization is so important. One can see why feral cats especially will show aggressive growling and hissing towards anyone or thing outside of their colony brethren. Probably though, one won't get close enough to cause such a reaction unless she perceives imminent danger.

When it comes to 'biting the hand that pets you', a different kind of cat aggression needs to be defined. Let's call it personal space aggression. In addition to the the territory your cat calls her own, there is an area that surrounds her physical body she considers her personal space. Just like people, she will only allow certain individuals to intrude into that personal space. Further, this space can expand or collapse depending on her mood. Kinda like people. As her provider, she will allow you closer than others. If strangers were allowed to handle her when she was a kitten, she will be friendly to them as an adult. The puppy she grew up with will enjoy the same liberties. Few others will be allowed that same degree of closeness. Even then it comes with a set of unwritten rules. Generally speaking, she will be the one to determine if and when anyone is allowed into her personal space. Including the puppy she grew up with.

pictures_cats_big_ears.jpgIf she's quietly lying on your lap and you're gently stroking her, there are a few things that can cause her to want you to stop. You may be irritating a sore spot with your petting. She may be aroused sexually and really not be interested at that particular moment. Or she just may grow tired of being stroked. In any case, she'll show signs of irritation when she's finished with the session and you should take note of them. Her ears will lie back against her head, her eyes will dilate and she will stare at the source of her irritation, namely your hand. That's when it's time to stop and go get a treat, just to stay on her good side.

All these forms of cat aggression: goal oriented, defensive or personal space, can cross over each other and blend into the creature you know as your cat. Broken down they help with the understanding of why a cat shows aggressive behavior, but they all work together in the real world and define a part of a cat's personality. One thing to remember is for you to not take cat aggression personally. Cat aggression is closely linked to a specific reaction to a cat's interpretation of a negative element in her environment. I imagine that if she were in the locker room at half-time, she would be hiding in the corner wondering 'what the heck is wrong with those guys?'.

Article by Robert Gallegos. Robert Gallegos is a life long lover of cats. He is dedicated to sharing his understanding of the cat experience, reducing the epidemic feral cat situation, and helping cat lovers to provide the best care for their cats.

Visit Robert J Gallegos' website, Cat Lover Gifts World, a web site dedicated to proper cat care with quality cat lover gifts based on an understanding of cat behavior, instincts and the unique requirements for healthy cats as pets. Cats are the newest of animals to be domesticated and still have one paw in the wild. It's a major reason why they're so mysterious and resistant to human expectations.

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OK, this is something different. I was perusing YouTube and I found this video of a cat that sprayed their owner. I've got a neighbour that had this happen to him as well. Although I haven't confirmed it, my neighbor claimed that this is the ultimate sign of effection between cat and human. Apparently this is a way of the cat saying "you are mine."

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I did a quick search on the subject and I came across an answer that that I've seen before on Yahoo Answers. Answer number 3 says the following:

"...My cat did the same thing to me. It's a cats way of saying that "You belong to me" or "This Object belongs to me". It's a cat's way of marking his territory and telling other cats to back off. Hehe, not only has my male cat sprayed Me...3 times... but he also sprayed one of the female cats...THAT HE BROUGHT HOME. Cats are strange, but funny at times,..."

I love my cat but I'm not sure how I would react to Maddy spraying me. I think I know my cat pretty well but I can totally see her doing this to me when I least expect it.

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