Last week I wrote an article outlining the most common ‘mistakes’ (opportunities) guardians make that I see as a cat behaviourist. In preparing for the article, I had actually chosen ten, deciding to split them up between two articles. This is the second article with the final five most common mistakes/opportunities I see.
Let’s get into it!
The importance of regular and appropriate play is something I discuss with virtually every client. Almost always it simply comes down to education and awareness. That is, guardians may not realise just how important play can be!
You see, in their natural environment, cats will hunt up to dozens of times a day for food. And of those hunts, perhaps 6-12 will be successful. In fact, much of their physical make-up (highly attuned senses, agile bodies, sharp claws etc) have evolved for this one activity! They are incredible hunters.
A domestic, indoor cat still has these activity requirements, despite not really having to hunt for their food. That genetic machinery is still there, bubbling under the surface, ready to be switched on at a moment’s notice (as most guardians can attest to when their cat notices a gecko or similar!).
A lack of play can manifest in several different ways, mostly as unwanted behaviours resulting from pent up energy and frustration, including aggression, attention-seeking, anxious behaviours and self-soothing behaviours.
The method of play and the timing is very important. I’ve written some blog posts on this subject:
And here’s an excellent YouTube clip from Jackson Galaxy explaining the importance of play. I often share this with clients.
In a natural environment, cats are solitary hunters and feeders. This means, given the choice, they would eat (and hunt) alone.
In a domestic environment, without this knowledge, guardians will generally feed the cats in the same room – usually the kitchen or laundry. I see it in most multi-cat households I visit. But when I ask the guardian about the feeding behaviour of the cats, they will often tell me that one cat is a gobbler and another likes to wait until the other is gone before feeding. Sometimes they will both eat at the same time, though will often angle their bodies to either carefully watch the other, or block the other from their food.
These are all signs of tension. Remember, if a cat feels in competition with another for resources (in this case, food), territorial tension can result even if you don’t notice it. And that tension can overflow to other situations (not just meal times), resulting in ‘negotiations’ and other forms of aggression.
Here’s an article I wrote on the subject. It’s definitely worth reading if you haven’t already.
Ultimately, the take-away here is not to feed your cats close together if you can help it. Out of sight from each other or in different rooms would be ideal!
Staying on the subject of food, another issue I often see is inconsistent mealtimes. This only applies to meal-fed cats (if you have dry food out all the time then this isn’t an issue, unless it often goes empty).
Sometimes when I ask a guardian how often they feed their cat, they’ll tell me “whenever she asks”, or “whenever she’s hungry”. This usually means that they’ll only feed them when the cat annoys (reminds) them. I call this ‘pester-feeding’.
The problem with this approach is that the cat has now learned that whenever she is hungry, she must go and annoy her guardian. If the guardian is present and has time, the cat will get fed. If the guardian is in the middle of something, this causes stress on both sides (the guardian is getting ‘annoyed’ by the cat, and the cat is getting stressed because she isn’t getting food).
If it stays at this low level of pestering, then it may be ok. The issue is that when behaviour that has previously been rewarded (pestering behaviour is rewarded by food) suddenly doesn’t get the intended outcome (e.g. the guardian is in the middle of an important phone call and can’t get the food), something called an ‘extinction burst’ happens, where the behaviour escalates.
If the behaviour then gets an outcome, this becomes the new level of behaviour the cat performs to get the food.
I’ll give you an example that I’ve seen a few times that shows what happens when this escalates:
A cat who is used to being ‘pester-fed’ is hungry so goes and vocalises and rubs against her guardian. Her guardian is in the middle of an important zoom call for work. The cat meows louder and jumps on the keyboard trying to get attention, because, you know, it’s worked before! The guardian picks her up and throws her off. The cat, who is really hungry by this stage, goes and bites the guardian’s leg. The guardian lets out a little yelp and apologises to her zoom colleague before going and feeding her cat to ‘get her off her back’.
What do you think has happened here?
The guardian has rewarded an escalated, inappropriate behaviour. And behaviours that are rewarded, tend to continue.
So next time the cat is hungry, and the guardian ignores the first ‘meow’, she is much more likely to go for the ankle-nip again because it worked last time.
Then guess what happens? In the morning when the guardian is still is bed and the cat is hungry, she’s bitten again. And so the behaviour escalation cycle continues, until it becomes a full-blown case of human-directed aggression, all because the cat was used to being pester-fed!
It may sound far-reaching, but it’s not an uncommon scenario.
Fixing (or avoiding) it is simple. If you meal-feed, make sure the mealtimes are consistent and that the cat isn’t fed-on-demand. This way, she will learn to be confident in the fact that food is coming at regular times, negating the need to pester you for it!
I get it! Cats are just way too cute not to boop them on the nose as you walk past, or give them a belly rub when they are laying next to you on their back.
The thing is, they probably just don’t want you to!
Forcing unwanted affection on your cat is a sure-fire way to breaking trust and teaching your cat to avoid you! Think about it. Every time you walk past, or she comes near you, she gets ‘accosted’ with love!
Clients often explain that if they didn’t force their ‘love’ on their cat, they’d never get any themselves!
Here’s a blog post I wrote on the very subject
As I’m shown through guardians’ homes, I’m not only assessing the resources numbers and locations, but I’m also keeping an eagle eye out for hazards.
Plants are the big ones. Often when I spy a lily, I ask the guardian if they have done any research into plants that are toxic to cats, to which I almost always get a ‘no’ response. They are usually horrified when I tell them just how hazardous they can be, and the first action they take is usually to relocate the lily outside!
Though it’s not just plants that hare hazardous. Also consider string, hair ties, plastic bags, essential oils etc.
Here’s a great PetMD article that goes through the 10 most common household hazards for cats.
Over two articles, I’ve discussed the ten most common mistakes/opportunities I see in guardians’ homes. Sorting out just these ten things can help avoid the majority of behavioural issues I’m asked to help correct. Remember, a cat’s environment will determine their behaviour (for the most part). Providing an appropriate and enriching environment is simply the most important this you can do for keeping happy and healthy companion animals!