Are Mischievous Cats Just Bored?

This scenario may be all too familiar: An unsuspecting cat owner comes home from work to find that his or her once well-behaved feline has tipped over a houseplant, batted everything off the home office desk and pulled a foot-long thread from the living room curtains. What’s the scoop? Simply put, kitty could be bored.

Understanding Cat Boredom
To understand the behavior of a cat, consider what goes on in zoos. Several decades ago, zoo animals were often just given food and water and left to sit in their cages. Now, zookeepers devise numerous enrichment activities, encouraging the animals to hunt for food and even playing games with them.

“Today’s cats are like yesterday’s zoo animals -- they stay home without much to do and rarely use their instincts to hunt, explore, play and interact,” says Steve Duno, a pet behaviorist in Seattle and author of Be the Cat (Sterling 2008). “As a result, they get a little nutty.”

While bored cats can exhibit destructive and antisocial behaviors, they might also demonstrate less obvious symptoms, including depression, excessive grooming, skin disorders, hypervocalization, house-training accidents, overeating and excessive sleeping. 

Inspiration From Zoos
So what’s the solution? “Open your own zoo, so to speak, by offering your cat behavioral and environmental enrichments,” Duno says. However, instead of overwhelming your cat with these enrichments, introduce a few at a time.

In addition, don’t adopt a kitten to entertain your cat, especially if your cat is older and not used to other animals. “You’ll only create more problems,” says Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, author of Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Cats and Dogs (Cattledog Publishing 2009).

Cures for Kitty Doldrums
If your own cat seems stuck in a dreary rut, and any underlying health problems have been ruled out by your veterinarian, our experts advise the following:

Make your pet work for its food By nature, cats are hunters, which is why constantly putting their food in bowls or free-feeding may cause boredom. Instead, make it a game for them to find food. Dr. Yin recommends cutting 2-inch-high openings in a shoe box, making sure the openings go to the bottom of the box. Place your cat’s dry food under the box and let your furry pal bat it out. You can also use balls that hold food.

Train your cat “If you’re not free-feeding, cats are easy to train, and the training provides stimulation,” says Dr. Yin. She likes to train cats to “sit” and “come” for when they’re hungry enough to eat treats. To train your cat to sit, hold a treat away from your pet and wait until your cat sits. Then put the treat right up to your cat’s mouth and give it to your pet. If that doesn’t work, push the treat from your cat’s nose to right above its head, which should prompt a seated position. If your cat remains seated, reward with another treat. Now walk away while saying “come.” Your cat should follow you. Repeat the instructions for sitting to return your cat to a seated position. Be sure to reward with treats when warranted. Later, you can use these commands to distract your pet whenever it misbehaves.

Put kitty on the trail If possible, hide food -- or other smell-good items -- around the house to stimulate your cat’s olfactory sense and to excite its hunting drive. For instance, leave scent trails throughout the house. Drop a little lavender oil or cinnamon in various places, leading your cat to a treat. You can also hide catnip or place an evergreen bough out of reach of your cat.

Provide visual stimulation If possible, hang bird feeders near windows or a mobile from the ceiling -- out of paw reach -- for your cat to view. An aquarium or cat-themed DVDs are good for entertainment and companionship. You can also try rearranging the furniture to spark kitty investigations.

Boost the fun factor Set up scratching posts and leave out interactive toys. One caveat? “Rotate the toys so your cat doesn’t get bored seeing the same one,” Duno says.

Your cat should respond almost immediately to these enrichment activities. Not only will you notice that it is more interested in its environment, but you should also start to see behavioral improvements. Duno concludes, “Now that you’ve followed the lead of today’s zookeepers and provided a more stimulating environment for your cat, you’ll probably even notice that your cat is happier and more content with life.”

Cats Sacrifice Efficiency for Smooth Moves

Cori Elson, like many cat owners, loves observing her cat, Rita. “She walks around like she’s on a stealth mission, moving so elegantly,” says Elson.

It turns out that scientists also enjoy cat gazing. Recently, researchers from Duke University’s evolutionary anthropology program observed and measured the gaits of six felines. They determined that cats evolved to move differently than the other mammals we most commonly observe, namely humans and dogs.

"It is usually assumed that efficiency is what matters in evolution," says Daniel Schmitt, Ph.D., a Duke associate professor of evolutionary anthropology. "We've found that's too simple a way of looking at evolution, because there are some animals that need to operate at high-energy cost and low efficiency."

Below, Dr. Schmitt explains how these findings apply to your cat.

Survival of the Fittest
Animals that need to travel long distances in order to find safety or food move in energy-saving ways. Humans, dogs, large birds and horses use gravity to their advantage when they walk and run. "Our centers of mass rise and fall when we walk,” explains Dr. Schmitt. “When we do that, humans and other animals minimize energetic costs. It's an evolutionary miracle in my view.”

The movement of our furry feline friends is a different sort of miracle. Dr. Schmitt and his team of researchers found that when cats slink close to the ground, they walk in a way that the movements of their front and back ends cancel each other out -- a good core workout to be sure but not the way to use gravity to one’s advantage or to conserve energy.

"The total movement of their bodies is even, and they flow along," describes Dr. Schmitt. "If they're creeping, they put each foot down in an even fashion. We think it has to do with stability and caution.”

It also has to do with putting food on the metaphorical table. "Cats need to creep up on their prey,” says Dr. Schmitt. “Most scientists think that energetic efficiency is the currency of natural selection. But here we've shown that some animals make compromises when they have to choose between competing demands."

What This Means for Your Cat
Your feline shares the same basic movements with wild cats, even though it may just stalk a toy mouse instead of big game. The stealthy, energy-inefficient way it moves when on the prowl causes it to expend many calories. That, in turn, means it needs to consume many calories.

The current obesity problem among domestic cats may, in part, result from the fact that such house kitties no longer inhabit the environment in which they evolved -- an environment of daily, high-intensity workouts. A two-cat household -- or one with enough cat trees and toys to keep your furry friend in motion for part of its day -- can help keep your pet in fine shape.

Walk This Way
Because a cat’s gait is theoretically important to its survival, an impaired gait is always a sign of a problem. If you notice Fluffy looking unsteady or walking without his usual fluidity, make an appointment with your veterinarian. All of these symptoms are typical signs of middle-ear disorders, like ear infections or punctured eardrums.

As for Rita, she seems to take her gracefulness for granted. “Sometimes when I’m watching her, I swear she looks at me like I’m crazy,” Elson says. “I guess my walk isn’t as fascinating to her -- unless I’m moving toward her with treats!”

Kitten Kindergarten

When it comes to pet training, dogs traditionally have had a paw up on their feline counterparts. Programs to increase a cat's socialization and training aren't considered by most pet owners and didn't exist until recently. But school is becoming the "in" thing for kittens, with the advent of kitten kindergarten.

Kitten kindergarten is the brainchild of Australian veterinary behaviorist Kersti Seksel, who opened her own "Kitty Kindy" under a decade ago for young cats aged 7 to 14 weeks. The concept has now appeared in the U.S., where in many communities from coast to coast courses are spread out over a few weeks. These courses allow kittens to play and interact with owners and other cats. Owners also learn to care for their kittens, and behavior problems are nipped in the bud.

"People have had misconceptions about cats: that they're loners and that they're not sociable. But they are wrong," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified animal behavior consultant and author of books on feline care, including Psycho Kitty (TenSpeed Press 2007). "It's laying a foundation for great socialization and hopefully the prevention of future behavior problems."

What Is It?
Kitten kindergartens are being offered by a variety of veterinarians, humane societies, behaviorists and other specialists. In the U.S., the programs tend to be targeted at kittens between 8 and 15 weeks old. The young felines generally must be up-to-date on shots and have a health form signed by a veterinarian saying they are in good health and have tested negative for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV).

Steve Dale, a cat behavior consultant in the Chicago area who teaches kitten classes around the country, says that the goals of any kitten kindergarten should include getting a cat accustomed to a pet carrier, helping to socialize a cat and teaching owners how to handle, feed and play with their pets. Dale, who developed his curriculum based on Dr. Seksel's teachings and feline behavior guidelines from the American Association of Feline Practitioners, says these goals are achieved through a variety of games, drills and introductions to other cats, people and even dogs. Pet owners should also get opportunities to ask questions and learn some of the basics about having a cat at home -- Litter Box 101, discouraging scratching on furniture, diet information and grooming, among other issues.

What's the Benefit for Your Cat?
Cats, like other animals, go through an early development stage when they trust that everything in their environment is safe, including people, other pets and surroundings. For kittens, this stage generally comes between about 8 and 15 weeks of age. "Cats have this very narrow window where physiologically they are like putty, and you can teach them all sorts of things," Dale says. This is a great time for bonding with a family and becoming comfortable in a new home. But after that stage, as cats begin to explore, they can become more timid and cautious of new people, places and things.

"None of us want to find our cat ducked under the bed when we have to take her to the clinic," says Arden Moore, editor of Catnip, the monthly magazine for cat owners from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. "With something like kitty kindergarten, you're starting off on the right paw, if you will. You're showing your cat that the carrier is a safe, welcoming place. The car is no big deal. And the veterinarian's office is no big deal. You're getting them used to being handled by different people and safely introduced to new environments."

Socialization to new places, people, pets and situations while a kitten is in that impressionable stage will create positive associations for the cat. If a kitten gets used to being handled by pet owners and even strangers, then it may be more receptive and relaxed at veterinary exams or routine events like getting their nails cut and teeth brushed.

What's in It for You?
Kitty kindergarten, while less focused on training tricks, helps to develop positive behaviors so that cat and owner may cohabitate in the most positive environment.

"It's creating a good relationship from the beginning between the kitten and the owner," Johnson-Bennett says. "Because it's a relationship, you need to know what the cat needs and how to provide it. Having your cat be more sociable and comfortable around people and other pets means they are less likely to hide when the doorbell rings, they're more comfortable being held and it's easier to introduce another pet into the household."

Kitten kindergarten works on a variety of levels. Brand-new cat owners can learn the basics of feeding, litter box maintenance, grooming and even playing with their pet. For more experienced pet owners, the classes can aid in socializing their pet so they have fewer adjustment issues later on when they want to bring home a dog or visit the veterinarian.

Where to Find Kitten Kindergartens
Kitten kindergartens have been opening in communities around the country. Here are some resources to find one that is right for you:

  • Check with your veterinarian Many veterinarians are taking the initiative to start these classes. "It's a great way to put a cat in a fun environment when they visit the vet, not just for the dreaded vaccinations," Moore says.
  • Talk to the local humane society These organizations also see kitten kindergartens as a positive way to reduce the number of cats that are abandoned or put up for re-adoption due to behavior problems. "Shelters really love it," Moore says. "It's helping kittens get socialized and adopted."
  • Online resources Pet experts have set up Web sites with information about kitten kindergartens. Steve Dale's Pet World Web site contains a variety of resources, as does the Web site of veterinary behaviorist Sophia Yin, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her site is called AskDrYin.
  • American Association for Feline Practitioners The AAFP has developed feline behavior guidelines that might be helpful in choosing your kitten kindergarten. The group has a Web site called CatVets.

Kitten kindergartens are a sign of change in our understanding of what cats need and what type of relationship you can have with your cat. Kitten kindergartens, Dale says, help owners to provide both mental and physical stimulation for their feline friends. Kitty can then graduate to its next stage of life, feeling healthy, prepared and confident.

Bringing Home Baby: Tips for Introducing Your Cat

You have this sweet, cuddly bundle of joy. Just looking at him brings a smile to your face. He’s so darn cute that you even forget about the early morning feedings, bathroom mishaps and random crying jags in the middle of the night. 

Then, you decide to have a baby.

So, how do you make sure your newest family member and your beloved cat get along? We have tips to help make the introductions pleasant and safe for both parties.

  1. Time. When you bring home a new baby, you will have much less time for your cat. So, in the months prior to your baby being born, as harsh as it may sound, try spending less time with your cat to get him accustomed to this inevitable change. If your cat is particularly attached to you, try having your significant other form a similar bond with the cat so she won’t feel abandoned when the baby arrives. Similarly, if mom used to be the one to do certain things -- like cut his nails, brush his fur or cuddle with him at night -- these duties should be handed off before the baby comes, as well.
  1. Space. Since your cat won’t have complete access to your lap anymore, teach your cat to sit on the floor next to you, or wait to be invited into your lap, as opposed to jumping up on his own volition.
  1. Smells and Sounds. Desensitize your cat to the new sounds and smells that accompany a baby by putting baby oil, powder or whatever products you plan to use on your own skin so your cat can smell them and have some time to get used to them.

Get your cat used to baby sounds by playing recordings or YouTube videos of crying or babbling, and turn on any noisy gadgets like ambient noise machines, swings, etc. well before the baby arrives. Try to make these experiences pleasant by petting your cat and/or giving him a treat at the same time.

  1. Health and Safety. Get your cat used to regular nail trimmings, and if your cat exhibits behaviors like swatting, nibbling or biting, it’s extremely important that you enroll him in behavior classes before the baby arrives.

Consider carrying a swaddled baby doll around the house to get the cat used to the presence of a baby, and invite over friends and family members who have babies. Always supervise any interactions between your cat and a baby, and never force it. If your cat chooses to stay away, let him, as it could be a sign that he’s stressed.

5. The Initial Meeting. Once the baby is born, ask a friend or family member to take one of the newborn’s used blankets or onesies from the hospital to put in your cat’s crate or bed so that he can become familiar with the baby’s scent. Then, when you bring your baby home, ask someone to stay outside with your baby while you go inside to greet your cat. Spend some time with him, giving him lots of love and attention, and then go outside and bring in your newest bundle of joy. Though the cat may initially run away, he will eventually come back. Allow the cat to investigate, but also set healthy boundaries. Since new babies can’t control their head movements or roll over, a snuggly cat can be dangerous, and a stressed out cat may pee in the crib. So, if he is showing interest in jumping into the crib, consider getting a crib tent to keep him out.

Cat Litter Box Problems Eliminated

When Pete Roberts’ cat Tony began to relieve himself while standing in the litter box, the Brooklyn, N.Y., resident was appalled. “We didn’t know what was wrong, but we had to do damage control fast,” he says. At a loss as to why Tony developed this annoying habit, which allowed him to spray over the top of his litter box, Roberts and his wife had to get creative. “We bought one of those litter boxes with a lid and made a ‘hinge’ inside with packaging tape,” says Roberts. This way, when Tony aimed higher than his 4-inch litter box, the only thing wet was the tape in the back of the box.

Countless other cat owners find themselves equally challenged by their pets’ sudden elimination mishaps. Perhaps even your own feline falls into that bathroom hit-or-miss group. Despite your feline’s mysterious nature, there are ways to discover why kitty is giving you grief, as well as steps you can take to solve common litter box problems.

Out-of-the-box Thinking
Readers of The Daily Cat have posted numerous questions on this very subject. For example, several owners are concerned because their feline friend pees all over expensive rugs and precious furniture. We asked animal behaviorist Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., of Animal Behavior Associates Inc. in Littleton, Colo., to shed some light on the confusion.

“Medical problems must always be ruled out first,” says Dr. Hetts, who explains that health issues are the most common causes for changes in elimination habits. If your cat has a painful medical condition, such as a urinary tract infection, it may associate the litter box with pain. Other conditions, such as diabetes, can increase urination. Because cats don’t always act sick when they are feeling unwell, litter box avoidance may be your best sign of a health concern. Therefore, a good first step is to take your pet to your local veterinarian.

If kitty passes the medical exam with flying colors, plenty of other reasons could be causing its unfavorable behavior. Here are a few of the most common ones:

Litter essentials  Cats are finicky about many things, including litter. Research shows that most cats enjoy the soft texture of fine-grained litter and hesitate to go near scented litter. The answer to your pet’s elimination problem could therefore be as simple as trying out various types of litter. Buying the cheapest litter may help your wallet, but if Fluffy doesn’t like it, it won’t think twice before going all over the couch instead. “But how can I avoid the strong stench of cat urine without deodorized litter?” asks one reader of The Daily Cat. The answer: Spread baking soda underneath the litter to help absorb odors without repelling your cat.

Cleanliness Put yourself in your cat’s paws: If you walked into a bathroom that stinks, would you be tempted to use it? Baking soda and unscented litter in the box may work temporarily, but if the box isn't consistently clean, the cat won’t use it. Cleaning doesn’t take a long time. Scoop it clean daily and you won’t have to change the actual litter for a couple of weeks. At least once a month, scrub the box with soap and water, avoiding strong-smelling chemicals or cleaning products. Then thoroughly dry the box with a few paper towels before refilling. Simply adding more litter does not equate to less-frequent cleaning. In fact, most cats avoid litter more than 2 inches deep.

Box particulars Not all cats are created equal, so not all litter boxes work for all cats. After weeks of replacing wet packaging tape in Tony’s covered litter box, Roberts searched for a more permanent litter box option that would suit Tony. “We looked online and browsed around the pet store, and we bought a Clevercat® litter box,” he says. Similar to a trash bin, this unique box includes a lid with a hole on top. When the cat needs to relieve itself, it hops inside through the hole, takes care of its business and then exits through the same hole. A built-in tracking mat removes the litter from the cat’s paws before it hops off. “We’ve used this ever since, but it may be hard for your own cat to hop in if he’s old,” says Roberts.

Although this type of setup was the perfect solution for agile Tony, old age or excessive weight may discourage your cat from using such a box. Before choosing a litter box, it’s therefore important to take into account your cat’s breed and preferences. From faux houseplants to washroom cabinets, a variety of innovative litter boxes are available on the CatLitterBoxes web site.

Stress Creatures of habit by nature, felines thrive in familiar surroundings. A new litter box location, a recent move to a different home or any kind of change in your cat’s surroundings may cause your pet to shy away from its litter box. To avoid such problems, gently reteach your cat where to go. Don’t add the unnecessary stress of punishment. Instead, encourage adjustment by gently picking up your cat and putting it in its litter box when you catch it eliminating at the wrong place.

If you have a multi-cat household, be sure to provide your pets with a sufficient number of litter boxes. The general rule is to have one litter box per cat, plus one. If you live in a home with stairs, remember to give your cat access to a box on each floor.

Social system Cats are territorial animals that are sometimes driven to exclude other cats, and even humans, from their turf. To communicate their boundaries to trespassers, they sometimes leave behind an odorous mark. Providing a private toilet area for your cat is one way to solve this problem. For multi-cat households, leave several feet between each cat’s box, if possible. That will prevent one cat from ambushing another while the latter is feeling vulnerable and trying to go.

Another possible solution is neutering/spaying. Research shows that 90 percent of male cats that sprayed urine stopped after being neutered. If your problem cat is male, neutering may be successful, since intact males are usually the marking culprits.

Disgruntlement with owner Some owners interpret litter box mishaps to be their pet’s way of showing spite towards them. “Definitely not,” insists Dr. Hetts. “This is an anthropomorphic interpretation and not a helpful perspective for solving the problem,” she adds.

When All Else Fails...
Exasperated with their cats, some readers of The Daily Cat claim they’ve tried everything and yet nothing works. “This is usually what happens when people take a ‘try this, try that’ approach,” explains Dr. Hetts. “They haven’t tried the right thing, because what they’ve tried has not been relevant to the reason or cause for the behavior.” The most effective solutions are the ones based on clues your cat gives you about the issue. For example, if your cat starts peeing next to the litter box instead of inside, it may not like the type of litter. Or if your pet stops using a box located next to a window, it may have felt threatened by a passing stray it saw while using the litter box one day.

Although cats cannot be litter-trained as dogs can be house-trained, “if you build it, they will come,” encourages Dr. Hetts. “Meaning, if you provide a cat-friendly litter box that meets the feline’s behavioral needs, she will use it.” So put your investigative hat on. With a bit of work and dedication, you can reach a compromise that will keep both you and kitty satisfied. “Problem solved,” laughs Roberts now, relieved that Tony is no longer relieving himself on a bedroom wall.