An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Guys Just Wanna Have Fun!

Just when I think I'll get a nap in, I get an e-mail instead. This time it's from a teenager -- Minoose who is at loose ends.

Dear Greyce, he wrote. At two years of age, I'm stunningly covered in black, brown and white fur with a stylish white ruff on my chest. To add a dash of chic I have coloured fur on my left ear. My green eyes turn dark when I'm up to no good. (I have a mischievous streak.) I was feral and didn't see purrsons until I was eight-months old but I'm okay with humans now (except for their kittens who can be a bit much) and am most attached to a converted dog person if you can believe it. The problem simply is a difference in expectations: Herself expects cats to just sleep a lot and purr -- the ultimate low-maintenance pet; but I have lots of energy so I expect her to partake in activities throughout the day that are mutually entertaining. I'm afraid I'm exhausting her.

Here is my typical day. I start after Herself rises by supervising the preparations for breakfast from my perch on the dining room table. A meow is sometimes necessary to get Herself to speedread through the morning paper so that we can embark on the next phase: massages and pets for as long as I can stand them! This is followed by races all over the house (with rests, of course) chasing the laser pointer. (I go through my tunnels, too.) Then it's back to supervising morning chores, after which we usually take a nap together. In truth, we usually nap a couple of times a day unless she goes out or doesn't feel like it. For example, sometimes Herself shows no sign of settling down in the afternoon and I have to whine a lot to remind her. If she ignores me, then I go off by myself and sleep in the closet. Laser races commence before Herself's dinner. (I free feed throughout the day.) Around 9 p.m. I get dry food and a few teaspoons of yogurt. We are mostly content with ourselves as company. But she seems to be getting a bit harried by my energy level. In my younger days, I used to play with meeces, tossing them up and hiding them in Herself's bed and shoes; but they don't interest me much now. What do you advise?"

Well Minoose, you are a lucky cat -- to be off the streets AND have someone who is willing to entertain you pretty much more than once a day. Most cats I know aren't given that kind of attention and more's the pity.

It seems to me that the problem has a number of parts beginning with that difference in expectations. As you mentioned, Herself is a converted dog person. Congratulations on having her make the transition to having a member of the superior species join her household. However dog people need educating about what a cat expects because they tend to view all small critters as miniature versions of the dogs they knew and loved. While they may breathe a sigh of relief that you don't require daily walks and outdoor visits to deposit your waste, they may be overwhelmed as you bust the myths about the lay-about cat who sleeps, eats, purrs and not much more.

I understand that Herself refers to her self as the big cat. This is obviously dog thinking gone awry. Dogs are pack animals; they prefer groups and like to know exactly where they stand in that group. If there are no other dogs about, they will easily transfer this need to whatever living creatures are around; and in a household that usually is human(s). In such cases, humans may think of themselves as the leader of the pack. But cats are another matter altogether.

As you well know (but Herself likely does not), cats are NOT pack animals and tend toward a solitary existence (with few exceptions like times for mating and rearing the young). As long as resources are plentiful, it is possible for cats to live together (in feral cat colonies for example) but if anything disturbs that relationship, they feel no need to restore harmony (the ways dogs who have a falling out would). Herself would be mighty surprised to find that you think of her as your big, awkward kitten (one in dire need of education and direction) rather than as your boss! Let her have her illusions as long as they do you no harm.

So, you might ask, if cats prefurr a solitary existence why do I want to play all the time? Why are our play sessions and our companionship such an important part of the day? The answer is simple: environmental stimulation. If you were in the wild, you would have a large territory to patrol on a regular basis. It's size would depend on the competition as well as on your age, gender and reproductive capability (translation: whether or not you are spayed or neutered). Territorial size varies from that associated with intact males -- very large territories (several miles), to spayed females (1/10th of an acre). Needless to say, even the smallest territory in the wild is larger than most households in which cats are kept confined; and this is often the reason for their being bored, overweight and host to a lot of behavioural problems.

While cats can adapt to smaller environments, the key to making the adaption work best is stimulation. Outdoors you have varied terrain as well as a number of micro-climates. Changes in temperature, air currents and the like can bring different smells your way, and the time-sharing of non-essential elements of the territory means that others of your kind may leave their business cards for review (in the form of pheromonal deposition from urine, feces, cheeks, paws and the anus -- for those not in the know). All this provides a rich and ever-changing sensory array to keep your senses in turn and your mind sharp.

Now let's get to the bottom line: It's all about prey. Cats (even the so-called itsy bitsy cutie pie known as the housecat) have a lot in common with their wild counterparts: All are mighty hunters. Cats are wired to seek out prey several times a day. If you don't have that opportunity, your arousal level rises. Only a good workout provided by hunting (or reasonable facsimile thereof) can lower those levels for you.

Cats usually hunt at dawn and dusk, when prey are likely to be about. That is why humans often remark that their cats go crazy, running about the house chasing after the invisible. They are doing so to lower their arousal levels which are at a point where even the smallest movement will set them off. "So what?" Herself might ask So what, indeed. If these levels are not lowered, they rise to a point where you cannot lower them and behavioural problems results - big time.

"Then why can't Minoose just play by himself?"  she might ask. You need to tell her, "I don't need to play. I need to hunt."

You need to exercise the full predatory cycle - stalking, pouncing, biting, etc. several times a day in order to lower your arousal levels, get the necessary physical exercise (likely followed by a long nap, of course) as well as mental stimulation. Did you know, Minoose, that housecats reared in homes have simpler brains than those living in the wild? Makes you think, doesn't it? That domestic lifestyle dumbs you down! But you, Minoose, were a wild thing during your formative months. You need a workout not only of your body but also of your brain.

Have no fear, Minoose, for I have several ideas for you. Some of them relate to environmental stimulation (through furnishings, etc.). There are so many of them that I will need to address them in another blog entry at a later date. But I'm not going to leave you hanging. I'm going to offer some suggestions which Herself will find easy to implement.
Right now you have food available at all times (which is great). As long as your weight is not a problem, free feeding is definitely the way to go just like your feral cousins.But what you need is to have Herself hold back on some of your food so it can be used as part of a game you play with yourself. What you need are some of those toys into which a few pieces of kibble (or treats) can be inserted. Now the toy you use for this depends on what is available at your local pet supply store, so I'm going to give you some names: Kitty Kong, Play-N-Treat Balls, Peek-a-Prize. Then you'll have to figure out how to roll the ball or stick your paw in the puzzel box, in order to release the treat. Herself may be so inspired by these (or intimidated by the price) that she models the toy and makes you a puzzle from a small cardboard box instead! Similarly, she could put a few pieces of kibble into a small paper bag (never plastic) and hide them so you have to hunt to find them and tear them open before you can munch. Sure beats sudoku!

But you can't spend all your solitary time eating, so I have some other suggestions for you as well.
I know you are no longer interested in meeces but I wonder what yours looked like. I still enjoy batting around some of those small, fur covered ones -- only if they are very small and are grey or white rather than coloured. But I also have a microchip mouse - a mouse with a microchip that squeeks when it is prodded. Play-n-Squeak is one brand. I find that fun on a cold winter day. Other action toys include the Zig-n-Zag ball and the Push-n-Roll .

My friend, Bart from Brandon, recommends balls - either small balls made of soft rubber or mylar crinkly balls. He particularly likes the ones that bounce because he has trained his people to throw them down the steps so he can chase and retrieve them. Don't use ping pong or other balls for this -- you could choke on them or someone could twist an ankle over an errant ball in the middle of the night.

Other suitable passtimes include straws and pencils - for rolling and retrieving.

In addition, encourage you person to go to the liquor store. No, I'm not suggesting that you drive her to drink but rather than she procure that rare item which is found there: the cardboard box. This box can be used in a variety of ways depending on your preference. My predecessor, Cathryn Twinkletoes, just enjoyed sitting in an open box. There was something about being cossettted by its sides and smelling the cardboard that really rang her chimes. Another of my friends prefers a box turned on its side from which to retreat and view the surroundings. A new box can last up to a month before it's time to send Herself out into the big world to procure another.

Also consider the paper bag -- note I say paper and NOT plastic. To be useful such an item should be large enough to enter, have it's rim rolled back about an inch (2.5 centimetres for Canadians and Europeans) and have a prize inside -- like a straw or piece of kibble. It's fun to go into the bag and roll around in it and it makes a wonderful noise.

Another noisy wonder is tissue paper. My friend Christmas Blessing enjoys jumping through rough piles of used tissue (especially if toys are hidden beneath the layers). Newsprint can also work -- as long as its crumpled.

So these are just a few ideas to get you started Minoose. I will have many more in future blogs entries, because this is such an important topic.

Let the games begin!

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