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Behavioural

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety

The most common way a cat expresses separation anxiety is through

 

  • inappropriate elimination

  • pacing

  • destruction of property

  • over-eating

  • vomiting

 

Happily, there are things that we can do to help alleviate separation anxiety in our cats. These include

  • providing background noise, such as by leaving the radio or television on at a low volume

  • leaving out some clothing that smells strongly of you

  • avoiding changing the bed linens before you leave on a longer trip

  • changing your routine when you leave the house

  • skipping the long goodbye (this can attach an importance to the event and can upset your cat)

  • offering a distraction (e.g., throwing down some treats or feeding them right before you leave)

  • enriching their environment so they have entertainment while they’re alone (e.g., opportunities for climbing, windows to look out of)

  • getting a pet camera that lets you play with your cat and distribute treats remotely (I would avoid the microphone option that lets your cat hear your voice as they might get even more distressed when you don’t appear)

  • providing alternative company in the form of a neighbour, friend, or pet sitter

  • finding a live in pet sitter or boarding your cat with a friend if you’re away for a substantial amount of time

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General anxiety

General anxiety

Inappropriate behaviours should be treated as soon as possible because, once a habit is formed, it can be very hard to break, even when the root cause that started it is dealt with. This is especially true in cases of inappropriate elimination.

Anxiety can come out in a lot of little ways, but some of the more common and obvious signs include

 

  • inappropriate elimination

  • excessive grooming

  • excessive vocalisation

  • biting themselves

  • pacing

  • aggression

 

Anxiety can be caused by external stressors (e.g., a change in your cat’s life) and boredom (e.g., not getting enough play time), but, much as with humans, it can also be due to the way your cat’s brain is wired.

 

It’s important that your vet is aware of any issues that come up and any steps you take to try and rectify them. They will be able to give you advice and, in severe cases, medication, and they can steer you in the best direction when trying to help your cat. If your vet seems unsupportive, it’s okay to get a second opinion. While most vets are wonderful and only have your animal’s best interest at heart, there are still some who do not believe that cats can express distress in this way and may be dismissive.

There are a few things you can try before resorting to medication.​

  • Establish a regular routine with your cat, including scheduled meal and play times.

  • Give your cat appropriate outlets for their energy and enrich their environments. This includes offering them things to climb, access to windows, and places to scratch.

  • Give them intellectual challenges, such as ball feeders and other puzzles designed for cats.

If simpler solutions aren’t working, more drastic measures may be necessary. One of the possible solutions that is highly dependent on you, your cat, and where you live, is letting your cat go outside. The best and safest way to do this is by training your cat on a harness and lead, or building it a contained outdoor space. While almost all domesticated cats are perfectly happy indoors as long as they are given an appropriately enriched environment, there is the odd cat who is happier and better off outdoors. If you must let your cat outside unsupervised, there are some basic precautions that you should take.

If you’ve tried all this, the time may have come to consider medication.

 

Over-the-counter supplements can be effective, though as with any supplement, these are hit and miss. Keep in mind also that many even effective supplements and medications work best in the long term and may not offer instant relief.

 

CBD or hemp oil is becoming more popular to treat our pets’ ailments, but it’s very important that you pay attention to the THC content, which is the ingredient that causes the “high.” There are pet specific CBD oils, but it should be noted that the pet industry is not well-regulated. If you have a local cannabis store that you trust, see if they have a pet-friendly variety. If not, ask them if they have recommendations.

If you decide to try CBD oil or any other supplement, it is vital that you speak to your vet about it. Even if your vet is not supportive of your choice, its important that they’re aware of it as supplements and cannabis can interfere with other medications and have an affect on other health conditions.

Prescription medication is another option, and in more severe cases, especially when symptoms include aggression or self-mutilation, this is often the best route to take. Though this is often a step that pet owners are reluctant to take, the benefits to your pet can be astounding. A terrified, unhappy animal can be transformed into a relaxed and happy cat over the course of a few weeks.

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The outdoor cat

The Outdoor Cat

The indoor/outdoor debate is one that has raged on for years and has no easy answer. Most cats, given the proper enrichment and stimulation, are content to live their lives inside. However, there is the odd cat that requires more. I am not offering an opinion on what’s best for your cat, but I will offer some advice on how to keep your cat as safe as possible should you or they decide that the outdoor life is for them.

  • Microchip, microchip, microchip. This is something that should be done even with your indoor cat because even the best-intentioned cat carer can momentarily lose control. This can happen with a faulty carrier latch, a weak window screen, a guest or worker neglecting to close a door, or simply a startled, frightened, playful, or bored cat who sees an opportunity for escape. A microchip is your best line of defence against a lost cat.

  • Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate. It’s understandable that people are often slack about vaccinations when their cat never comes in contact with another animal. But if your cat goes outside, there are many preventable diseases that can be spread from other cats or animals. Ensure your vet knows that your cat goes outside and they will be able to recommend the best vaccine course to keep them as safe and healthy as possible.

  • Neuter and spay. Prevent the overpopulation of homeless pets by having your cat spayed or neutered before letting them outside. The younger they are when this is done, the safer, faster, and cheaper it is.

  • Check for fleas and ticks and regularly de-worm. A monthly flea treatment and de-wormer is a good idea, as not only can these pests be dangerous for your cat but they can then bring them inside and spread them to you. When checking for ticks, make sure you pay attention to all those hard to reach places like the back of the neck and under their front legs. A tick can look a lot like a fleshy lump when they've been feeding and are engorged. You can remove a tick yourself, but it’s important you do it properly or you can make the situation worse. Most vets do not charge for tick removal, so if possible, try to have it done at your vet’s office. However, it’s important that the tick is removed as soon as possible, so if it’s a Friday evening, don’t wait till your vet is open on Monday morning again to have it done.

  • Train your cat to come when called. You can use their favourite treats and attention as rewards. Do this inside before you start letting them out.

  • Get your cat a breakaway collar. A collar ensures that when your cat is outside, people who see it won’t think that it's a stray. By making it a breakaway collar, you ensure that your cat won’t get stuck on something while crawling through a bush or under a fence. You may lose the collar, but it means your cat won’t be trapped or choked.

  • Get a tag with your cat’s name, your address, and your phone number. Not only is this helpful should your cat get lost, but it also means a quick identification in case of accident or injury. You can have these engraved, or you can get cheap plastic ones that you write on yourself, which is a less expensive option if your cat is in the habit of losing their collar often. If you take your cat to the cottage with you, you should have a second tag with your cottage’s address.

  • Put a bell on your cat’s collar. Not only does this help warn prey animals of your cat’s presence, but it also lets you hear when your cat is nearby.

  • Reward your cat for coming back home. When first training them, this should be done with their favourite treat. As they become more comfortable outside and if they are consistent about returning, you can ease off on this and offer pets and vocal encouragement instead.

  • Establish a schedule. For example, you might let your cat outside every day after breakfast and then let them back in for dinner.

  • Make sure they have everything they need to stay warm and hydrated. This is especially important if you leave your home while they’re outside. A lined and sheltered box where they can keep themselves warm and a temperature controlled bowl for water during the winter is essential. During the summer, plenty of water and somewhere safe nearby in the shade where they can find relief until you return. However, DO NOT leave food out for them to snack on during their adventures. Not only can this attract potential predators and other cats, but a hungry cat is a cat that comes home again.

  • Make sure you keep up to date, clear, coloured photographs of your cat and any distinct markings it may have in case it goes missing. Missing cat posters should be plentiful, in full colour, with as much information as possible, and include the offer of a monetary reward. Make sure you leave information with any vet clinics in the area and ensure that your contact information on their microchip is up to date. Also make sure you get in contact with all local shelters and rescue organisations that someone might reasonably contact in the event that they find your cat. Ask neighbours if you can check their sheds, basements, garages, and under their porches. A frightened cat may remain in hiding if a stranger calls them, but if they recognise your voice, they are much more likely to come out of hiding. A frightened cat is most likely to return at night, so either buy or borrow a cat trap, line it with something that smells familiar and safe, such as a favourite blanket and an item of laundry that smells like you, and set it up in the place they would most likely come to to be let back inside.

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Furniture scratching

Furniture scratching

This is one of the most common cat complaints. Happily, as long as it’s dealt with quickly, it’s usually a fairly easy behaviour to redirect.

 

There are two steps to it:

 

  1. Blocking off access to the chosen spot.

  2. Providing a replacement.

 

Important to note is what and where your cat is scratching.

 

If your cat is scratching the vertical side of your plush sofa and you get a horizontal sisal scratcher it’s probably not going to make much of a difference.

 

Things to look for in a scratcher include size, material, and direction. The scratcher should be

 

  • large enough for the cat to comfortably use it

  • made of a material the cat likes to scratch

  • be laid out in a direction that the cat likes to scratch

  • placed where the cat will want to use it

 

Some cats will need more than one type of scratcher, and I’m sorry to say it’s probably going to clash with your decor. Some of the most popular type of scratchers (with cats) are horizontal corrugated cardboard scratchers and vertical carpeted or sisal ones, but each cat will have their own preference.

After finding something your cat likes to use, you then need to actively discourage them from scratching their previous spots. When a cat scratches, it leaves behind scent as a way of marking that spot as theirs, so you need to disrupt that somehow. Here are a few strategies you can try:

  • Change the scent by using a “happy cat” pheromone spray.

  • Cover the spot with a heavy blanket.

  • Make the spot unpleasant for them to scratch by covering it with double-sided tape.

The placement of the scratcher also plays a large role in its effectiveness. If your cat is always scratching at the living room couch, place the scratcher near to that spot. But if the scratching is a happy response to you arriving home, placing the scratcher closer to the door might be helpful. It might take a few tries to get the positioning right, and you may need more than one scratcher.

You can also encourage your cat to use the new scratcher by rewarding them when you see them use it or spraying it with a catnip spray.

Keeping your cat’s claws regularly clipped will also encourage healthy scratching behaviours. Not only that, but it will keep them from getting stuck in things and prevent accidental injuries to yourself and other pets.

 

It should also be noted that as a cat ages, their claws will thicken and start to curl inwards. At the least, this will make walking difficult, but if left unclipped, they will curl into the pads of your cat’s paws, causing pain and risking infection.

 

There are pet grooming services that will come to your home to clip your cats claws, but your vet will also offer this service.

 

It is also a fairly basic procedure that can be done at home, but if your cat is not used to it, it might take some practice. The best strategy is to have someone to help you with either holding or clipping, starting out slow (one nail at a time, whenever your cat is relaxed and calm), and rewarding your cat afterwards.

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Aggression

Aggression

Aggression in cats will come in two forms: play aggression and regular old “I’m going to murder you” aggression. Whichever one it is, it’s important that you do not lash out or punish your cat in any way as it will only escalate the situation and your cat may learn to be frightened of you.

Play aggression. You’re playing with your cat and, all of a sudden, a wild look comes into their eyes, and what was a pleasant session of unadulterated cuteness turns into lashing claws and burrowing teeth.

 

This is not uncommon and it does not necessarily mean your cat has an aggression issue. It simply means your cat has gotten a little too into it. This happens a lot with younger and high energy cats, especially if they grew up without other cats to teach them appropriate play.

 

This situation can generally be dealt with in the moment by simply recognising the signs and immediately de-escalating the situation.

 

  • Step away from the game and do not pet or touch your cat until they have calmed down.

  • If your cat has already wrapped itself around your arm, go still, relax, and do not fight back or make sudden moves. If they think their “prey” is “dead,” they will let go.

  • If they are causing you pain and you need to make them let go, making a sudden loud noise (like a loud kissing sound with your lips, for instance) will usually startle your cat out of “the zone.”

It is important that you do not encourage this behaviour. What is cute when they are kittens turns into painful, hard-to-break habits when they are adults.

To prevent this behaviour, try giving your cat more opportunities to get their energy out.

 

  • Play with them more often.

  • Use toys with a longer reach, such as wands.

  • Provide large plushy toys that your cat is able to hug and kick.

  • Get a wide variety of different toys that they can easily manipulate on their own, and regularly rotate them to prevent your cat from getting bored with them.

  • Provide enrichment in their environment with lots of places to climb, jump, and scratch.

  • Place cat towers strategically so they are able to have a good view of what’s happening in a busy room or outside a window.

 

Whenever possible, adopt kittens and young cats in pairs as they will teach each other how to interact as well as giving one another an outlet for their boundless kitten energy. This is even more important if you have an older cat in the household as a new kitten has the potential to make your senior cat’s life miserable as well as irrevocably upending their settled routine.

True aggression. Before you do anything else, it’s important to make sure there is nothing wrong with your cat. A cat that is frightened or in pain will often react violently. Once this has been ruled out, the level of aggression and how and when it comes out should be noted.

 

If aggressive behaviour is confined to a certain time of day, around a certain person, or during a certain activity, it could be that these specific things are causing your cat distress. Pay attention to how this behaviour manifests and gently find ways to desensitise your cats to these events. Talking to your vet will be helpful, and at the very least, they will be able to get you a referral to a behavioural specialist.

 

If your cat consistently attacks you out of nowhere, start by looking at your own behaviour. Are you doing something that could reasonably be causing them fear? If not, this behaviour could be a sign of some deeper psychological trauma and medication may be required to help. Medication might also be helpful in cases where your cat is especially territorial or high strung and the stress and anxiety associated with these issues comes out as fear aggression.

 

Aggression while petting. If an aggressive episode happens while you’re petting your cat, it’s probable that it’s a matter of over-stimulation.

 

In this case, you will need to pay closer attention to how and where you’re petting your cat. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of your cat not liking to be touched in a certain spot. Other times it’s more a matter of how long or the intensity with which they’re being pet

 

Pay close attention to body language and vocalisations. Some common signs to look out for include

  • no longer purring

  • a twitching or “wagging” tail

  • sudden tension or stillness

 

These signs can mean your cat has had enough. They can happen simultaneously or on their own. For example, sometimes you will get a tail twitch even when your cat is still purring. Take this as a sign and either stop petting or change the spot or the intensity of the petting.

 

Sometimes it seems like you don’t get any warning. In those cases, or until you get better at recognising the signs, pay attention instead to how long it usually takes before your cat lashes out, then in future, simply ensure you stop petting them before it reaches that point.

 

Sometimes, because cats are what they are, your cat will come back for more pets a few seconds after reacting aggressively to you. It’s important that you do not give in to them, not just because you’re risking further injury, but you’re teaching your cat that displaying aggression is an appropriate way to end a petting session.

Grumpy and asocial cats. This kind of personality can occur when a cat has undergone some trauma and has trouble trusting, something you will sometimes find in cats who

 

  • have spent time on the streets

  • have spent time in a shelter

  • are unaccustomed to human contact

  • have lost their long term home or family

 

In these circumstance, it’s entirely probable that given enough time and love, they will eventually learn to trust you. Other times, that’s simply the way the cat is. These are two very different situations but your reaction to them should be exactly the same: take your cue from your cat.

 

  • Give your cat as much space as it needs or wants.

  • Don’t force the situation in any way by insisting on pets or snuggles when your cat clearly doesn’t want them.

  • Offer your cat space and let them learn that they can trust you to respect their boundaries.

 

If you’re patient, you might even be rewarded by those boundaries expanding to include you.

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