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.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Putting One Paw Forward - Re-integrating the Pariah

Dear Greyce, You were so helpful to us (see Family Feuds, Thursday, Nov. 12/09), that we would like your advice on another problem. As you know, we are a rather large family gathered in one household: three, one-year-old youngsters plus both our parents; and then there is Grandma. Her name is Rosebud; she is five years old and what a purrson would call sweet and shy. For some time, we have been picking on her -- so much so that she moved outdoors. Of course, she asked for it because every time one of us came up to her, she would hiss and act scared. So brave cats that we are, we responded accordingly -- by attacking  her to put her in her place. Now she still hangs around in the yard -- which is over half an acre in size. (Sorry I don't know how many hectares that would be.) She just doesn't hang around with us. In fact, she is behaving just like our Grand Uncle (her brother) who, when faced with the arrival of a new cat, left the house except for occasional visits. 

Everything she could ask for is outside. She has food and water and doesn't need a litterbox because the outdoors will do. She has an unheated house in the storage area out back. Don't be alarmed about the lack of heat Greyce; we don't live in the north like you do; our climate is much milder. She comes up on our raised, outdoor deck via a tree beside it (which we all use). When we go outside, we generally ignore her -- largely because she makes herself scarce.

She gets regular petting from our purrsons. And sometimes she comes indoors for food; some nights (when we are sequestered in a room so we don't disturb our purrsons' sleep) she even sleeps with our purrsons on their bed!

Now we hear that our purrsons feel badly about this and would like her to rejoin the family inside the house! We're not sure this is such a good idea because it sounds to us like she has things the way she wants them.

Looking forward to your wise advice, Curly, Ziggy and Persephone

Dear Youngsters, I'm glad to hear from you again and learn that you took my past advice. No doubt you appreciate not getting smacked by your mother in the mornings before she goes outside. And no doubt, you think I'm marvellous for proposing a wonderfully workable solution.

The problem you set before me is quite complex. And I think it needs to be taken one step at a time. It will require great commitment and patience on the part of your purrsons. You, of course, will all have roles to play as well. So in this entry I am just going to frame the problem in a lot more detail and then outline the first step. If all goes well, you can contact me again and I'll have you put another paw forward.

This problem is like a ball of yarn. It has many strands so let me unravel them one by one: 1) catsonality differences that make Rosebud vulnerable; 2) the need for appropriate human intervention, 3) the crowded nature of a multi-cat household, and 4) the need to time-share. All of these can work for or against restoring cat family harmony.

#1: Catsonality Differences
As you mentioned, Rosebud is sweet and shy. If she had been confident, she would have put you in your place and commanded your respect. But because of her nature (and there is probably a genetic component since her brother behaved in the same way), she was freaked out instead. You picked on her and kept on doing so and because this happened she became a pariah -- an outcast; and she responded appropriately, by vacating the premises. In short, different cats react differently and we will have to accept and work with your various natures to develop a manageable situation.

#2: Appropriate Human Intervention
In such situations (as described above), it behooves the purrsons in your household to be on their toes and nip your little forays in the bud. They need to be on the lookout for the signals you give each other that suggest you are up to no good. You and your siblings have quite the system of social signalling involving ear position, overall body posture, whiskers, pupil size -- all of which signal intent well in advance of actual behaviour. For example, the hiss Rosebud gives is a signal which means back off. I'm fearful but if I have to, I WILL fight.

Now there are many purrsons who can't tell much about social signalling in cats. Thank goodness for Trevor Warner's Cat Body Language Phrasebook: 100 Ways to Read Their Signals -- either taken from the local library or purrchased for about $10.00. Lots of coloured pictures with clear explanations of what is going on should help your communication-challenged purrsons sort things out.

Oh, I can hear you now: But we never get our signals crossed so what's the big deal? Simply this: your purrsons can't make heads or tails of your signals and have allowed you to get away with some very unharmonious (I'm being generous here) behaviour.

Purrsons who are aware of body signals can intervene between warring parties, in advance of attacks. How so? They can distract the aggressor with motion -- throwing a toy mouse, for example, in a direction away from the intended victim; or bring out a fishing pole toy and suddenly announcing a game -- again away from the victim. In other words, they divert and channel the aggressor's energy in an acceptable way.

They can clap their hands and say 'no' in a no-uncertain-terms voice; and if that doesn't work, they can unceremoniously pick up the aggressor and put him or her in a locked room (with water and litter box) for a time-out (say five minutes). When the time is up, the door can be opened. But if the aggressor goes back to taunt the victim, another time-out is enacted, for a longer period of time.

When I say, unceremoniously, I mean it. Talking to the aggressor, saying 'This hurts me more than it hurts you' or 'You bad cat why can't you be nice to Grandma?' only gives the cat attention. Ditto, eye contact or doing more than just opening the door after a time-out. The whole point is to let you know the behaviour is unacceptable in a clear yet humane way.

And the action (the clap and, if needed, the time-out) MUST be carried out immediately -- the sooner it is done, the better it works. Best even before someone pounces on someone else! I know of purrsons who have this down to a fine science (the intervention NOT the pouncing).

 #3: Crowding in Multi-cat Households
In the wild (and we are all closely related to our wild ancestors -- much more so than dogs), cats tends to live a solitary existence except when they mate or when females rear their young. This is because a single cat's territory is usually just large enough to support one cat; and that means that any incursions into this territory by another cat are a definite threat to the resource base. That is why for so many of us, our first reaction to a feline stranger is to have a showdown (unless all the proper rules of cat etiquette are observed, which is another matter entirely).

Sure there are cat colonies -- often matriarchies found on farms. But even here, at around the age of 18 months, male cats will be driven off the property and have to search for a harem of their own.

When resources are abundant, cats have been known to be able to live in and congregate in groups. BUT should there be a misunderstanding between feline parties in such a situation, the cats will no longer continue to get along -- and someone will have to leave. Cats are NOT like dogs so they do NOT subscribe to a pack mentality which requires them to maintain the group and its hierachy at all costs. Bottom line: A cat can get along with other cats but if a seriously aggressive incident occurs, then the bond between them will fracture and (without knowledgeable human intervention) one of the cats will leave.

Remember what I wrote about cat territory? You may be aware that the smallest cat territory belongs to the neutered female (1/10 of an acre) and gets much larger -- all the way up to the intact, male. Fortunately for the purrsons who love them, most cats are adaptable and can manage in smaller spaces (apartments for example). The key to harmonious living in a multi-cat household lies with resources: food, water, litter boxes, viewing points, toys, etc. As well as opportunities for predation. Let me spell this out in detail.

Food: sufficient bowls of food -- at least one per cat -- and (though not always possible) spread in more than one part of the house. This enables the less confident cat to have access to a feeding area away from the household toughs and to be able to eat in peace. This is helpful when there are set feeding times; but even if you all free feed, chances are the shy cat will have kept tabs on who is where in the household and head to the safest food bowl. (The other alternative is an electronic cat door installed in a door to a room. The shy cat's special collar can unlock the door and she or he can then go there and be left in peace when need be.)

Water: As above.

Litter Boxes: The rule is a box for each cat (even if they share), plus one; and a box on every floor if there are kittens or arthritic or elderly cats who cannot easily manage stairs. And the boxes need to be in more than one location, so that no one risks ambush while using the facilities.

Many multi-cat households are great at providing sufficient food, water and litter in more than one location. Here is where they fail: absence of sufficient vertical space and absence of predatory options.

Cats, unlike humans, live in three-dimensions; that is, we like height. In a multi-cat household, we organize ourselves so that some of us are on the floor, some on chairs or the backs of couches, and others on shelves or high ledges, if available. Sorting us vertically expands our space and reduces our anxiety.

Top cat (or sometimes shyest one) sits on the highest perch -- because in the wild that would afford the biggest view of any oncoming threats and be the most easily defended space. Lowest cat (or sometimes that shyest one) will choose the floor. This is why I'm a great advocate of cat shelves, cat window perches, and cat trees. I've written about this in my entry, Stimulating Ideas (12/6/09).

"Lowest" cats can have their confidence assisted by the use of cat tunnels along the periphery of rooms (since only confident cats enter the middle of rooms).

But even then, there is a limit to how many cats a particular household can support. My friend Bart was fine with several feline companions (about six, I think) and then Number Seven came on the scene and a great peeing fest happened! Go figure -- lots of resources but still, there is a breaking point. And in Bart's house, this was it. Once the newcomer was re-homed, everything went back to normal.

Now you guys will have to be on the lookout as you continue to grow. You three are now in your teen years and can start to strut your stuff. This means that even if you got along before, you might develop differences now. So if your purrsons want harmony, they should start monitoring the situation (and intervening where needed) NOW!

On to predatory opportunities. All of you have access to the outdoors so you have plenty of opportunity to stalk, hunt and chase. Still, anxiety can well up in a multi-cat household. To nip it in the bud, generous use of fishing pole toys (with purrson attached), toy mice, etc. is recommended, as per my advice to Minoose (in Stimulating Ideas mentioned above and in Boys Just Wanna Have Fun).

#4: Time-Sharing
This is an honoured method amongst cats: share space (and resources) on a timed basis. That is,  use the same space but at different times so one cat doesn't interfere with the other. In a way, this is what is happening in your household now. And I think it is where your purrsons should begin to build.

Putting the First Paw Forward

When the five of you inside-house residents are put into your respective rooms for the night (in order to allow your purrsons to sleep undisturbed), then your purrsons could welcome Rosebud into the house -- through the patio door (her prefurred point of entry). Offering a small treat or dangling an interesting toy may serve as an incentive. It is at this time that they can give her more attention.

Since she enjoys sleeping with them on their bed, I suggest the provision in that bedroom of a small bowl of food, a water dish (some distance from the food) and a litter box (further away but in the same area), to start with. That way Rosebud will have everything she needs -- even if she doesn't use it, it will give her some security. (These should be put away when she leaves in the morning so that your smells don't mix and put her off using them. This applies especially to the litterbox.) She will soon learn that the rest of you are confined for the evening and thus will be able to relax.

Obviously, in the morning -- perhaps after a breakfast treat, she should be allowed to leave out the patio door BEFORE her fierce daughter, Felicia, or any other of you hooligans (oops, did I say that?) are let out of confinement. Again this will give her confidence that she is safe when she is inside the house.

Now I understand she doesn't come into the house every night. So the first step is to establish the routine (outlined above) so it can become a habit for her. Patience and consistency are key. She will do this when she is good and ready. And being able to do this on a consistent basis is the first step to POSSIBLY re-integrating her into your home.

I'll be frank. Re-integration isn't easy and it isn't always possible, especially when so many cats are involved. It will take a great deal of patience and commitment. So I suggest we all take it very slowly here.

Before we go any further, I suggest you have your purrsons do the following:

  •  Review that book I mentioned (Cat Body Language) and ensure that everything is fine in your existing indoor household;  
  • Modify or add to your existing inner resources (cat trees, shelves, etc) before we even put another paw forward. 
  • Determine yet another room or secure space (other than the ones in which you are sequestered at night) that could be used as a sanctuary for Rosebud, should they choose to proceed with the next step(s)
  • And if they wish, they should consult Cat VS Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat and/or Think Like A Cat: How to Raise A Well-Adjusted Cat NOT A Sour Puss -- both by Pam Johnson-Bennett (click on Books on her website).
When they have completed these tasks and if they are still willing to do so, then get in touch again and well proceed with the next step.


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