Advice for when the fur flies
Dr. Marty Becker, "America's Veterinarian," is the popular veterinary contributor to ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" and the resident veterinarian on "The Dr. Oz Show," where he is also the only veterinary member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Board. He is also the lead veterinary expert for VetStreet.com and the author of a brand new book, Your Cat: The Owner's Manual. In it, he explains some of the most common feline mysteries and teaches cat owners what they need to know to keep their pet happy and healthy with advice on everything from treats to toys to litter box mishaps.
BookPage editors Kate Pritchard and Trisha Ping took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about their own cats' more unusual habits.
Trisha: Sometimes when my cats (Walter, 3, and Willie, 7) groom each other, the licks turn to ear bites and a little bit of wrestling. Why is that? I thought mutual grooming was a sign of affection.
Cats are easily overstimulated, and some have more of hair-trigger than others. We’ve all known cats who turned “mean” during a petting session, especially when tickled on their bellies. The reaction is fleeting, typically: They grab with teeth and claws but often never press in to hurt. It’s more of a “Wow! Stop that! It tickles!” reaction, and I suspect that’s part of the interaction between your cats.
Trisha: Walter has been known to occasionally spend his evenings running around the house like a wild thing, emitting weird noises and periodically climbing the doorframes or bouncing off the sides of furniture. Why does he do this? Is there a way to prevent this behavior, or should I just sign him up for Parkour classes?
Classic Kitty Crazies! Cats are night hunters, equipped with senses that allow them to track rodents in low-light conditions (cats don’t need goggles for superior night vision: They are born with it!). Dusk and early evening is when the mousies come out for dinner, and that means cats do, too. With no mice around to stalk, your cat still has energy to burn.
Channel that energy into activities that are fun for you both, such as playing an interactive toy such as a “fishing pole” or a laser pointer. Cats aren’t endurance runners; they’re sprinters. Once your cat gets the crazies out of his system, he’ll be into his next cat nap.
Trisha: I have heard that it is not healthy to play with one cat while the other is watching and doing nothing. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, do you have any suggestions for how one person can play with two cats at the same time? Should I shut Walter in a different part of the house when I play with Willie, and vice versa?
It depends on the cats. Some cats share and some cats don’t. If yours don’t mind sharing you while you play, they’re no harm. If play sessions lead to fights, though, then it probably is best to separate for play sessions.
Kate: My husband and I have two cats, both male. Worthington is nine years old and Chesterfield is not quite two. We introduced them slowly, but a year and a half later they still have the occasional serious-sounding fight. Worthington, who is a little high-strung, is almost always the aggressor. I don’t believe they have ever really injured one another, but the fights worry me. What can we do?
Given enough time, most cats will eventually learn to at least tolerate each other, but there will always be some who won’t. For the cats who won’t interact, it’s perfectly fine to allow them to establish their own territories with separate food, water and litter-box arrangements. It’s not even uncommon to do so: I’ve known more than a few cat-lovers with “upstairs cats” and “downstairs cats.”
Other cats will happily share space as long as they don’t have to share litterboxes—general guidelines say one litterbox per cat, plus one more to avoid messy conflicts over potty space. Other resources such as food can additionally be a source of conflict.
Yours may be as blended as they will ever be, or you might be able to fully integrate them by backing up a little. Before you start, take them to your veterinarian to be sure there are no physical issues in either cat. Illness can make anyone cranky, and you’ll to resolve and health problems before you deal with problem behavior.
To ease the stress levels, add Feliway to your home environment. This pheromone mimics the soothing smell given off by nursing mothers, and it’s so effective that we used it for the cover shoot of Your Cat: The Owner’s Manual to help our feline models relax and get along. I use so much Feliway when working with cats in practice that my family jokes that it’s my most popular aftershave! For your situation, try it in a whole-house diffuser.
You should also establish separate areas for litter box, food and water, and sleeping. These may need to be permanent.
Allow your cats to avoid each other or interact as they choose, with no forcing them together. When they seem to have settled into their territories, you can experiment with moving their dishes slowly and gradually closer together, or by playing active games such a with a cat “fishing pole” or laser pointer. The idea is that sharing good experiences makes the cats more likely to enjoy being with each other.
Your cats may never interact like a closely bonded pair, but they likely will be able to cohabitate with little conflict if they’re more relaxed and comfortable. Beyond that, time will tell. If you find the situation getting worse or just plain intolerable, check in with your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist.
Kate: For the hour or so immediately preceding breakfast and dinner, Chesterfield will not stop chirping and meowing loudly and plaintively for his food. It’s making us crazy, especially in the mornings. I feel fairly certain that we are feeding him an adequate amount of food. How can we get him to keep quiet as mealtimes approach? We’re about to have a baby, so this question has taken on extra importance!
Switch to food puzzles! It’s not natural to eat twice a day (or worse: To have an open Kitty Buffet leading to obesity) for cats and dogs. These are animals designed to spend their waking hours finding their own meals, and working for their food.
You can turn your cat back into the hunter he was born to be by purchasing a variety of a new generation of toys that are designed to be filled with food that a pet can’t get to unless he works out how with his brain and his body. Introduce your cat to these puzzles by showing how to roll or otherwise manipulate them to get kibble out, and then may the game harder by placing them in gradually more difficult places, such as in the cubby of the cat tree.
Your cat will be mentally and physically more satisfied because of these challenges you’ve introduced, and the pestering should end because your cat is no longer relying on you to “dish it out.”
Kate: Chesterfield has suddenly discovered that the kitchen counter is where the food comes from, and he now jumps up there regularly. We chase him off and sometimes spray him with a water bottle when we catch him up there, but so far nothing has deterred him. How can we stop him from getting up on the counters?
Teach yourself to keep food off the counter, at least while you’re raising or training your cat. If your cat gets rewarded with a nibble every few times he gets on the counter, that reinforces the behavior very strongly. So first, remove the rewards.
Chesterfield enjoys perching on the sink as well
With the rewards gone, turn the countertop into an unwelcome environment by putting cardboard covered with double-sided tape, sticky side up. Cats hate to have their paws stick to anything, and they’ll avoid an area that’s sticky.
Don’t punish your cat in any way that associates you with the penalty—it can damage your relationship with your pet. Use a squirt bottle in a sneaky way, so your cat associates the counter with the shot of water, not you.
If you’re patient and consistent, your cat should eventually decide the counter just isn’t a great place to be.