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.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Going Strange with Strangers

Dear Greyce, I am a big, indoor-only, senior guy (10+ years) with a black and white coat and share a residence with a human male. While I am in good health, I behave in a way that makes my purrson want to enrol me in etiquette classes for he says I lack a sense of hospitality.

From time to time, my purrson goes away and leaves me in the care of a pet sitter. One day I was sitting in the front window when she arrived. She entered the front door and I approached her, hackles up. And what does she do? Says "hello", then ignores me and goes to the kitchen. "Definitely worth watching," I thought to myself. As she bent down to clean up my feeding area, I started to yowl in pre-attack mode. That got her to retreat into the living room and sit down while I re-assessed the situation and gave her a good sniff; then I went under the dining table. She returned to the kitchen and prepared my food and then headed downstairs to scoop my litter box. Meanwhile I ate my meal and returned to my place under the dining table. In time, I went down the hall to the bedroom and jumped on the bed. She spoke to me from a distance and then left.

I admit that I wasn't at my best. But I was unnerved by the situation. That's obvious, isn't it? I confess to being like this from time to time, usually when a stranger who has a loud manner comes into my home or catches me by surprise. At that point I am beyond reasoning, so my purrson takes me to the bedroom to let me cool down (or until the stranger departs). Then I behave as if nothing ever happened.

I admit to having a penchant for a bite or two when having a stranger in the house just gets to be too much for me. I understand the local technical institute offers course in Hospitality Management. Do you think I need to get a diploma or would just a few courses be in order? Inquiringly, Cosmo.

Dear Cosmo, I can only imagine how unnerving your behaviour is to recipients of your unusually rough 'welcomes'. From a human point of view, you certainly don't convey any sense of "So glad you dropped by. Why don't you stay awhile?" But what humans probably don't realize is that you are not doing this to be mean. You do this because you are threatened (even if the humans involved would be surprised at being called a threat).

I bet that when you get in this situation, your hackles rise to make yourself look bigger to your attacker and you yowl a warning; it wouldn't surprise me if your pupils were dilated. When you retreat under the dining table, you do so as protection (the table forms a roof yet its open sides allow plenty of opportunities for escape). I bet a package of catnip that when you are hunched down there, your ears flatten from time to time and your tail thumps.

What the humans don't seem to get is that you are in defensive aggression mode. You are frightened and want to scare them away. And if they don't get the message, you bite.

Your pet sitter seems to be savvy. She immediately understood that you weren't on your best, so she calmly went about her chores. And when she continued to invade the most precious parts of your territory (like your feeding area) and you were about to lose it, she backed off and sat down in the living room until she felt she could resume. These are excellent strategies for helping you to manage the situation in a safe way: a calm manner, slow movements, backing and staying away from prime territory (like feeding areas), no eye contact or direct stares (looking away from you - while keeping you in the corner of her eye - would ease your sense of threat). I'm sure if she had approached you directly, you would have given her a bite. So she deserves at least one can of sardines for handling the situation in such a wise way.

However that visit had left a strong impression on her and if you want her to continue to pet sit, you need to get back on her sweetest cats list.

A cat, like you, whose normal routine changes in a quite radical way (as it does when your purrson leaves for a trip) becomes anxious. Don't take this purrsonally, it even happens to humans. When Himself goes away, Herself sometimes has problems sleeping at night (at least for the first few days) because she suddenly hears house noises that she used to take for granted. The same thing can happen to us because our normal routine is disrupted and we don't have our purrsons around to add ambience and safety. And that means we can become jumpier so that even the smallest thing can 'set us off.'

So in the interests of helping you calm down, please do the following:

Step One: Have your purrson purchase a Feliway diffuser (NOT the spray bottle) from your veterinarian or a pet supply store; this is a plug-in that fits into an electrical socket and allows synthetic feline pheromones of comfort to waft through the air. Insist that he read the directions carefully (something most humans do not do) and even consults the websites for further information. There are two websites I recommend: one from the United Kingdom which is the most comprehensive at and one from the United States at which also has useful information. These sites will help to completely familiarize himself with the product so that it is used wisely and well. The diffuser has an expiration date. So he needs to buy one that will last a long time because he will be using it sporadically rather than for a month at a time.

A day or so before he leaves you under a pet sitter's care, have him plug the diffuser into a socket near the area where you like to hang out in the most when you are alone. (Yes he will have to figure that out, purrhaps by the tell-tale evidence of shed fur deposits in valued areas). The diffuser will help keep you calm while he is away. He can unplug it when he returns.

Step Two: If your pet sitter is a regular feature of your life and is willing to do so, ask that she drop by about two days before she is due to pet sit and deliver a sweat sock she has worn for at least a day (and prefurrably even slept in) so that it is filled with her scent; I'm talking fresh, loaded scent here. Your purrson can leave that sock where you hang out so you can incorporate her smell (and refresh your memory of her) before she arrives. This is part of feline introduction etiquette: introduce by smell before coming in purson.

Step Three: And if there is such a thing as a tape recorder or similar device, she could make a recording of her voice talking to you s-l-o-w-l-y and mentioning your name many times in that conversation. A five- or ten-minute spiel could be put on an auto loop and your purrson could play it to you several times (say at least twice a day for at least a few days before he left). This would refresh your memory on her voice.

Hopefully one or both of these measures (the sock and the recording) would refresh your memory and allow you to incorporate that smell and that sound into your regular territory.

Step Four: Pet sitters are notorious for bringing foreign smells with them - namely those of other cats (and even, I'm told of dogs and other critters!). And that can be very unnerving. Request that your pet sitter have a bottle of Feliway spray and use it on her trouser legs (at cat greeting/rubbing height) about 10 minutes before she comes through the door. This gives a chance for the product to 'set' before you encounter it. Alternatively your purrson could purchase said bottle and leave it at the front entrance for use. Again pay attention to the expiration date. I've learned through hard experience that this is one case where the expiry date is very meaningful; Feliway does lose it's ability to work over time which means that an expired bottle is useless.

Step Five: Of course, should you still 'go squirrelly' from time to time, then the way she handled the situation is the THE way to go.

And that's why I want to explore this matter further. What I've suggested up to this point are situational measures. I am more than willing to provide information on stop gaps but I really think you deserve more help than that. And to be of further use to you, I need more information.

Most cats tend to hide from strangers or ignore them. Some (me for instance) are very friendly and simply adore men; those male pheromones are sweet nectar to moi! You are an exception but rest assured you are NOT unique.

Exceptional cats like yourself behave as they do for one of the following reasons:

#1: You were not socialized to humans when you were a kitten and thus have a difficult time with them unless you know them for a long and continued period of time. Most such cats hide. But those who left their mothers too soon and were bottle fed by humans do not learn how to deal with frustration and thus find dealing with novelty of any kind a very threatening situation and tend to bite. Does this situation apply to you?

#2: You are an anxious cat by nature (when in doubt, blame your parents), though most such cats tend to hide when faced with an anxiety-provoking situation.

#3: You have an untreated hyperthyroid condition which can be associated with increased aggression. However from the nature of your writing, it seems you've been behaving like this all your life. So I doubt this is the case if you have regular veterinary check ups;  but since your thryoid can be at issue as you age, you might ask your vet to check it out.

#4: Your arousal level is high and unmediated (which is what I think is going on). This means that you are not being given sufficient opportunity to exercise your predatory cycle and to manage your anxiety levels.

So that I can help you further, I'd appreciate the following information:

How often are you faced with visitors to your home?

When a stranger (not your pet sitter) comes into your home what EXACTLY do you do? For example, do you approach him/her? Do you yowl? Raise your hackles? Flatten your eats? Thump your tail? Or do you come up and the purrson starts to pet and then you bite? Do you retreat or do you attempt to bar the purrson from entering your home? Details please, because it's all in the details.

Do you have a gender or age prefurrence when it comes to humans?

Think back to cases where you have bitten someone. Can you re-trace exactly what happened, that is, the steps up to the biting? This will help me determine if there is something the purrson is inadvertently doing that sets you off.

Do you have a cat tree (a multi-level cat perch - NOT a condo which is a tall, cylindrical tube)?

What kinds of things do you like to do with your purrson? Examples: relax in the same room but apart, sit on his lap, be petted, chase).

What kind of toys do you have? Does your purrson play with you? If so, in what way (petting, wrestling, dangling a fishing-pole-type toy, laser pointer)? For how long? How often?

So Cosmo, what I have recommended should get you back in your pet sitter's good books. If you send me the details I've requested, I will be much better able to help you in the long run. I look forward to hearing from you.

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