Does your cat do things that push you over the edge even though, deep down, you know these are normal behaviors? We love our feline friends, but how do we learn to deal with their persistent attachment to habits we hate? And what are some tips on training to stop them? This is National Pet Peeve Week, so what better time to consider this question?
My sister’s cat, Jaws, used to flush the commode when she was in the shower, making the shower water unexpectedly change temperatures. Scary. He also learned to open the refrigerator and steal food. He was a challenge. When I had my kitties Punky and Poppy, litter boxes and scratching were issues I dealt with. Here are a few ways I learned to deal with things — but not before the destruction of an office chair.
1. Scratch it, mark it — oh, so much fun!
A cat’s instinct is to scratch and mark everything in plain sight, especially a particular area, like the end of the couch, a fence post or the back of a chair. Why? They want to leave a message for other cats, saying this is my territory. Marking not only involves scratching; the paws also have scent glands. Cats also cheek-rub humans to leave a scent mark.
The best trick to prevent cats destroying things is to teach them from the start when they are kittens. They love the workout of stretching and clawing and it feels good, too. Some strategies that can help include having several scratching posts — wooden, upholstery, carpet, high and low, vertical and horizontal. Place the posts close to the object the cat wants to scratch. Don’t try and place the cat on the post to scratch; instead, make the posts appealing by placing toys close, and scent the posts with catnip. Watch to see their preferences so you can give them their preferred "legal" targets.
Avoid placing scratching posts in the back room; they must be in prominent places, close to the desired scratching objects that are forbidden. When possible make the desired objects unavailable by covering them, or using a sticky tape to block access. Here are some more tips to stop unwanted scratching.
2. Higher and higher — do I see a counter to climb?
Cats love vertical challenges. They use high vantage points to survey their kingdom, watch for predators and even ambush other pets. Tables, drapes, and countertops are all fair game. The tops of bookcases and windowsills are very tempting since cats can see outside, and cats also have the advantage of looking down on the enemy and pouncing whenever possible.
My old cat Punky was a long-haired tabby who loved to climb. She was also a fat mama who refused to believe any surface was too narrow. I had to make windowsill access difficult for her because she would fall right off the sill; she wasn’t that agile as she grew older. I put a bookcase in front of one window, which gave her a wider sill to sit on without the possibility of falling.
Other tricks include using kitty condos, comfortable platforms and cat tree furniture. An alternative would be nesting beds in warm areas. If the cats climb the counters or tables and are getting into food, look at their eating habits and try to figure out if they are just not getting enough food. You may need to evaluate whether they need smaller amounts more frequently during the day.
3. Nip, bite, play and fight
A hunter’s instinct is to claw and bite. Cats are predators. Instinctually they will practice their hunting skills. They love to pounce and initiate sneak attacks.
My sister had a mischievous black cat named Jaws. One of the reasons he was named Jaws was because of his fondness for ambushing the dog, a small Poodle. Jaws would wait on top of the picnic table on the patio for the unsuspecting puppy to walk underneath, and then he would leap onto his back. Chaos would ensue.
One way to combat rough play is praise and reward for gentle play, even though many cats are not really concerned with pleasing humans. If the cat becomes too excited during play and begins to expose claws or teeth, become still and play dead. You will no longer be an interesting toy. If the cat hurts you or draws blood, say “ouch” and become still, and wait for the cat to calm down before playing again. Provide active, interactive play on a regular basis. Keep spray bottles of water in strategic places to use for negative reinforcement when they insist on sneak attacks.
When Jaws would pull sneak attacks on my sister, Susan, water became her favorite weapon. After all, turnabout is fair play and payback for the toilet flushing incidents. Jaws was absolutely one of those cats doing his best to train the owner.
4. Pee and poop, I need a safe spot!
My cat Poppy had an episode of going outside the litter box and ruined the carpet. After an investigation, I remembered I switched to another litter at one point when the store ran out of the brand we normally used. She didn’t like the change. I cleaned out the old litter, cleaned the box, put in the brand she liked. Bingo, she began to use the box again. Yay!
Now, she just reverted again, so my investigation will be ongoing.
Cats may indulge in hit or miss litter-box behavior more than once, for many reasons. Sometimes it’s a cry for help when they’re sick. Have a vet check her out, and then look at behavioral issues.
One thing to pay attention to is the consistency of the litter. When my cat Punky, a large grey tabby, developed kidney disease, the pH of the urine changed, making the litter sticky and difficult to scoop. It took me a while to figure out what was happening. Unfortunately, the disease was irreversible for the big girl. Here are some more tips for litter training your kitty.
5. What’s yours is mine and I will lie on it
Cats love paper and rattling noises. If you are reading it, they want it because you are looking at it and it is paper. If I’m writing on my laptop, the cat will lie on the keyboard, my hands or whatever he can reach.
Cats will also steal. My friend’s young cat has taken a liking to her bras and will drag them off. My sister’s cat, Jaws, used to steal socks and carry them around like they were her babies.
What to do? Move the laptop to an area that is less appealing and has obstacles in the way. Try putting the notebook computer in a stand, and so on. Another option is to place a cat bed on the desk as an alternative choice, or put the cat on your lap while you work on the computer.
"Instinctive behaviors lose pets their homes every year," says Amy Shojai, a certified animal behavior consultant and co-author of Strays, the Musical, written to explain natural pet behaviors and save pet lives. "By understanding what constitutes ‘normal’ we can give cats legal opportunities to do what comes naturally. That saves our relationship, and keeps kitties in their homes where they belong."
Always remember, many of the cat’s behaviors you find annoying are simply instinct on her part and often can be redirected fairly simply so your happy home can remain that way. Even though cats have driven me nuts over the years, I’ve managed to correct, redirect or change many bad behaviors. Now we live in harmony, mostly, until Poppy decides once again to test the litter box boundaries. Then we are off to the races.
Does your cat have any behaviors that you’d like him to stop? What are your cat pet peeves? Let us know in the comments.
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