Ensure Curiosity Doesn't Kill Your Cat

Kelly Vorhauer, a fitness instructor in Atlanta, Ga., didn’t think twice about the thumping noise coming from her clothes dryer. She had put in a pair of men’s denim overalls, so she dismissed it as just the wet, heavy fabric swirling around inside. It wasn’t, though.

The thrashing sound was Vorhauer’s orange and white cat, Simba, which had hopped inside the warm dryer while Vorhauer folded clothes in another room. Her husband Paul wound up rescuing Simba because of his curiosity over the annoying noise. After spending four days in a veterinary emergency hospital, the shaken cat pulled through, to the couple’s amazement. “There’s no doubt in my mind I should have lost him,” says Vorhauer, who couldn’t bring herself to use the dryer again for more than a year. “I am absolutely blessed that he didn’t die.”

While mishaps like Simba’s are rare, our homes are filled with all kinds of hazards. Luckily, you can prevent many problems from occurring by simply being aware of potential dangers and taking appropriate steps to protect your cat. Here are a few common, yet potentially deadly, household items and products that cause big trouble for our curious feline chums.

Plants
Certain plant species are deadly to cats but perhaps none more so than lilies. Nibbling on the leaf or flower of Easter, stargazer or tiger lilies -- all popular flowers included in bouquets -- is enough to induce kidney failure in felines, says Steven Hansen, a board-certified veterinary toxicologist who manages the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center in Urbana, Ill. Don’t be afraid to beautify your home with greenery, though. Just make sure it’s the nontoxic kind. A list of safe, as well as dangerous, plants is on the ASPCA Web site.

Cleaning Supplies
Pick your cleaning products wisely. Chemicals that disinfect, or those that remove lime and scale from showers and tubs, tend to be much more harmful than mild soap-based cleaners, says Dr. Hansen. If your cat licks an area sprayed with one of these caustic substances, it can burn its tongue. As a result, your kitty may stop eating and drinking for several days, which, in turn, may lead to liver-related problems, says Dr. Hansen. If a significant quantity is swallowed, it can be outright toxic. When cleaning the bathroom or another area with strong chemicals, shut the door to prevent your pet from entering. If you spill cleaning solution on the floor, wipe it up immediately.

Electric Cords
Cord chewing is a year-round hazard, occasionally resulting in burned mouths. Worse yet, in some cats, electric shock triggers fluid buildup in the lungs, called pulmonary edema, a condition that’s fatal if not treated immediately, says Drew Weigner, DVM, a board-certified feline specialist in Atlanta, Ga. If your feline has a fetish for electrical cords, encase the cords in sturdy protective tubing. One such product is the Critter Cord, a transparent, flexible cover infused with a citrus scent that the company says deters chewing. Bitter sprays are also available to go over cord protectors.

Small Objects
Ingestion of items like bottle caps, coins, thread and dental floss are all too common in felines and may cause intestinal blockages, says Dr. Weigner. String is a particular hazard, he says, because it can cut through the intestine, causing an infection of the abdominal lining that’s usually fatal in cats. Common sense prevails, however. Be vigilant about putting away small objects and keeping them out of your cat’s reach.

Prescription Drugs
Pill vials quickly turn into toys for felines, which love batting them around. But if they pop open, your cat might eat the contents inside. Some human drugs are toxic to animals, so keep medication off counter tops and securely stored in a cabinet or drawer. If your feline is also on medication, avoid mix-ups by keeping the vials in separate places. Most veterinary hospitals use odd-colored bottles with different labels than human pharmacies do to prevent such mishaps.

Kittens Need Extra Monitoring
All cat owners should be aware of potential household dangers, but kitten owners in particular need to be extra careful, says Dr. Weigner. Because kittens love to explore, and usually get themselves into trouble, he recommends keeping kitties under six months of age confined to one room with food, water and a litter box when you are not at home.

In general, the best way to keep cats out of harm’s way is to treat them like you would a small child, he says. “By taking the same types of precautions you would with toddlers, you’re going to go a long way in taking good care of your cats and keeping them safe.”

Weird Cat Behaviors Explained

Cats often surprise us with their unpredictability and, at times, they may even seem downright ditsy. Big Boy, the extremely large cat who charmed my mother for more than fifteen years, was fond of darting into the kitchen sink. There he would sit, staring into the dish drainer as if it contained the answers to the mysteries of the universe. To avoid disrupting his peaceful meditations, my mother would use the bathroom sink upstairs. It was clear who owned whom in that relationship, but it begs the question: Why do felines like Big Boy behave in such puzzling ways in the first place?

Wacky Cat-isms
“The why part [of cat weird] is easy -- cats and people are different species with different genetic evolutions,” says Oceanside, California-based Animal Behavior Consultant Arden Moore, who is the author of pet books such as The Cat Behavior Answer Book: Practical Insights & Proven Solutions for Your Feline Questions (Storey, 2007). As an example of a basic difference between cat and human behavior, Moore points to the fact that cats “rank as one of the top snoozers of all creatures, averaging around 16 to 17 hours of sleep each day. Most people are lucky to get seven hours of sleep a night.”

Cats as Comedians
Karen Santos, companion animals manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in Yarmouth Port, Mass. contends that cats have a “better sense of humor” than humans. She attributes this to the fact that cats “live more in the moment,” adding that “They don't hold grudges and when they do, they are short-lived and specific to a particular event.” That distinction could explain why one of my own cats, Miss Manners, tends to sulk in the coat closet for about an hour after returning from a trip to the vet. After her kitty retreat has ended, Miss Manners shows she has forgiven me by rubbing against my ankle and purring sweetly.

The “closet-sulking cat” illustrates just one kind of seemingly flipped-out feline. See if your own cat falls into one of the following types:

The Esther Williams Cat
This is a feline that, despite all scientific claims to the contrary, enjoys swimming and being near water. Your favorite feline may be exhibiting an evolved trait linked to breed. “Some cats love to swim, especially certain breeds like the Turkish Van,” explains Moore. In their pursuit of water, these cats may even hop into the shower stall or bathtub to join their humans.

The Bowl Prober
Bowl probers sometimes paw their water bowls before they drink. The reason: it’s following the pattern of “wild cat ancestors who need to test the water to make sure it is safe,” says Moore. Cats’ paw pads constitute one of their most sensitive areas so, “Pawing the water helps some indoor cats check for any possible ‘dangers’ lurking in the water bowl.”

Mr. or Ms. Confidence
If you have a dominant and confident kitty, you may be in luck. Moore says this feline type makes the perfect candidate for toilet training. Before you toss the cat litter box, though, be forewarned. She cautions, “This training can be thwarted if you -- or others in your home -- forget and put the lid down or shut the bathroom door.”

The Herb Lover
The herb-loving cat is always more than eager to get its paws on catnip. Feline fans of this perennial member of the mint family roll in it, sniff ecstatically at it, and close their eyes blissfully as they indulge. But, as many as 30 percent of adult cats have absolutely no interest in catnip, according to Moore. “Some cats prefer honeysuckle, which must be moistened to release its active ingredients,” she adds.

The Ear Licker
Some cats seem to have a human earlobe fetish. They’ll lick the ears of their owners, or even those of startled guests, with apparent enjoyment. Moore offers a simple explanation: “A young kitten separated from its mother before being weaned may be determined to lick your earlobes with its rough tongue. It may mimic the suckling it enjoyed while nursing.”

Food Burier
Santos notes that some cats scratch around their food dishes, almost as if they’re trying to “bury” their food under the kitchen floor or other surface. This behavior may reveal their lineage. “The wild ancestors of cats would bury their food to save it for later, so they could return to it.”

The Gift Giver
Has your cat ever suddenly dropped a toy mouse in your lap? Several cat owners have reported receiving such unexpected gifts, whether they want them or not. The moment becomes even more memorable if the mouse was a once-live real one. Santos explains that it is your kitty’s way “of showing affection.” 

Predator to the Invisible
Cats playing games with a speck of dust are not, contrary to their humans’ bewilderment, losing their kitty minds. That speck of dust or ray of sunlight that they are chasing serves as entertainment, according to Santos. Call it the “Project Runway” or “Top Chef” equivalent of relaxing amusement in the kitty’s world.

The Crazy Running Back
Almost all cat owners have observed what some call the “kitty crazies.” Their cat abruptly runs around, occasionally leaping into the air like a ballerina or a football star on too much caffeine and then just stops as if nothing had happened. Santos theorizes this behavior can be attributed to a feline’s inherited need to stay in shape for hunting.

Whether your cat has a bathtub fetish or, like Miss Manners, is fond of kneading hats, one thing is clear: Such behavior makes perfect sense to felines. So long as the behavior isn’t destructive to you, your cat and your surroundings, it’s best to take inspiration from your cat. Live in the moment and think of cat weird as the new feline wonderful.

From Scaredy Cat to Party Animal

If your cat isn't a party animal, you are not alone. Many felines shun social events and seem to prefer solitude to human interaction, which they may fear. This behavior might ruffle your fur since all of us at times want our buddies to share in the fun and meaningful aspects of our lives. If your cat's first inclination is to run and hide, help is here from Suzanne Hetts, PhD, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist of Littleton, Colorado's Animal Behavior Associates.

Choose carefully
What you see in a shelter -- albeit with its stressful environment -- is likely what you'll get, especially if you choose a "feral-background" kitty. If you adopt this type past the age of ten to twelve weeks, it's probably not going to be a sociable, lap-sitting cat. "Characteristics that help a cat survive in the wild are different from those that make a good companion animal," says Dr. Hetts.

Genetics matter
Behaviorists have identified the trait of boldness, which, when linked to paternal parentage and combined with socialization, produces the friendliest cats. Dennis Turner, a Swiss behaviorist, found that the friendliest cats had the same father or sire. Kittens from bold fathers tend to approach unfamiliar objects, but they still need socialization. Heredity and environmental influences are both important.

Socialize soon
Good social skills begin early in life. Introduce your kitten to cat-friendly adults and children -- more than one new person once a week -- from a very young age. The sensitive period for socialization is between two and seven weeks. "This critical 'early socialization' should include gentle handling, including being picked up," Dr. Hetts suggests. "Every visitor should dangle your cat's favorite toy for a few minutes, or if your cat enjoys treats, bequeath a few choice morsels."

Safely widen kitty's world
Consider promoting supervised, confined outdoor time so your cat can cope with change in a more complex environment. A good start is to acclimate your cat as early as possible to a harness. You may also buy a cat containment system or a new "kitty stroller" to encourage environmental enrichment. Just be sure that your cat's vaccinations are kept up to date if you plan to safely introduce your kitty to the great outdoors.

Less is more
Try this training tip: Once you've played with or given treats to your cat, ignore it until it approaches you. "The one who's not trying to force appears safest to the cat," says Hetts. Don't try to pick up your feline at this point, but instead show it you know how to behave in "cat company" by using these greeting techniques:

  • Communicate like a cat Use proper cat greeting skills so you don't offend your cat's "social-abilities." Dr. Hetts explains, "Don't rush. Your cat will approach when it's ready. Curl your fingers in against your palm (a relaxed fist) and straighten your index finger. A friendly cat will come up and sniff, then process the scent through a special organ in its nose and likely sniff a second time. Next, it may rub against your hand, so reciprocate the rubbing but keep it on its scent glands -- on its cheeks and in front of its ears. You could run your hand lightly down its spine, but patting from strangers isn't usually welcome." 
  • Lure with treats If your cat is spooked out and doesn't make an appearance at all, utilize whatever your feline will come for, like bagged treats, food in a pouch or...dinner. Ask visitors to be calmly seated, then you can make familiar sounds, such as running the can opener or opening/shutting the cabinet door where treats are kept. Or lay a luring trail of treats from your cat's hiding spot into the party place, all the way up to your visitors' feet. Your cat may find that too irresistible to pass up.
  • Be kind Never give your cat a reason to be afraid of you or other people. Don't ever spank or hit a cat (or any animal). Why not try effective discipline delivered remotely and triggered immediately by the cat's own behavior, such as a SSSCAT? It's a motion detector that sprays a harmless mist in front of your cat when your cat jumps on it, leaving you innocently out of the picture.

It may take a while before your cat might be ready to party hearty, and certain felines -- similar to humans -- retain some of their loner ways. But try to be patient. Your cat is tuned into your feelings and actions, so if you are happy and relaxed, those good vibes likely will rub off on your scaredy cat.