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.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Stuck in the Kitchen: Suzi's Series 1

Dear Greyce, I am a seven-year-old calm and affectionate female and live in an apartment in Bulgaria with my brother, Koko who is my sole playmate. Since we were kittens, we have lived with the same human. And we are all quite attached to one another.

Herself has a big heart and is involved in cat rescue. That unfortunately means that there are also other cats on the premises. Three years ago, Sissi joined us after being rescued from an animal collector. She is now six years old and temperamental. While she is fond of our human, she is independent and has no use for other cats.

At first she was kept in a separate room and then we were introduced through a glass door. Sissi was so distressed by seeing us that she punched her head against the door to try to get at us; one time she even made her nose bleed from the impact! In time she was put on a leash to be introduced to us; when Herself was not looking, Sissi would charge me! Why me? Well my brother pays no attention to other cats other than to play with them from time to time, so chasing after him would be of no interest to her.

When we moved apartments we were all on equal footing because the territory was new to all of us. But soon Sissi starting attacking me again. We were finally able to reach a state of mutual tolerance and then, about a year ago, two foster kittens arrived.

They are both males. Rijko is affectionate and gentle. The other has cerebellar hypoplasia. (Readers note: This is a congenital condition for which there is no treatment. Cats so afflicted have tremors and jerky movements; problems with coordination require careful watching or the cat can be hurt falling off furniture and the like.) He was shy at first but now plays rough and attacks me. Herself has been looking for a home for them but it is not easy.

So here is the current situation: We live in a two-bedroom apartment with a large living room. When Herself can supervise us, we can go out on the balcony. Sometimes she opens the window which is protected with net, and we can sit there and look outside. We also share a scratching post and two cat beds.

Living with Sissi was far from easy when there were just three cats in the household, but it was getting better. Now with two more cats, my life is unbearable. I now stay on the kitchen furniture and refuse to come down to the floor level unless I am protected by my purrson. And when I need to use the litter box and my purrson cannot protect me, I’ve used the kitchen towel instead. Herself just purchased Feliway but it doesn’t seem to be helping.

Help me, Greyce! Scared Suzi of Bulgaria

Dear Suzi, You are certainly facing a very big challenge. I know you will be living in this apartment with this number of cats for some time. We need to figure out a solution fast, before you develop a urinary tract infection (or worse) because of all this stress. So let me first define the nature of your problem and then suggest some measures that could improve your life a lot.

The problem you face is due to three factors.

Factor One. Introductions with Other Cats. When Sissi arrived, Herself went through the right steps for cat introductions but she just went through them too quickly. In other words, she did not match the pace of the introduction with the level of distress Sissi was experiencing. With a cat like Sissi, it may have taken a good 6 to 12 months before the two of your could even share the same space for brief periods. Until then, it would have been advisable for her to be kept well-supervised, on leash and never allowed to get very near you when you were in the same room. When she could not be so supervised, putting her in another room (door shut) would have been the answer. Now the two of you eventually managed to tolerate each other, until the foster boys arrived. It would have been easier on the rest of the household, if the boys had been kept in a separate room (or a large wire crate) because none of you would have to interact. But that is all in the past. I could suggest a complete re-introduction process but that would be too complicated with your current household. So let’s not waste time with the past and get on to more pressing matters.

Factor Two: Confinement Stress. When cats are put into spaces (like apartments or even houses) from which they cannot escape and find themselves with other cats they do not like, they want the other cat to go away. So they attack and try to get rid of the cat they dislike (just like Sissi is doing to you). But some just keep mostly to themselves (which seems to be Koko’s way of coping) or try to hide or keep their distance (just like you are doing). My guess is that you are not a confident cat and that is why you are the likely victim when the household is stressed. When the foster males arrived, the situation became more stressful and that meant that Sissi started to bully you again; but this time she was joined by one of the boys! You cannot become confident when you are a victim and never know when you will next be attacked. So you retreated to the safest spot you could find and refuse to leave it.

Factor Three: Lack of Resources. I’m sure you are all well fed and received decent care. However while you all share a scratching post and cat beds, there really isn’t enough to go around. This makes confinement even more difficult and likely leads one cat to guard coveted resources (like a particular cat bed) from the others.

Now don’t give up Sissi, because I have some solutions for you.

Solving These Problems by Time Sharing Your Space(s)

Right now it seems that all of you have equal access to all parts of the apartment. And while that may seem fair to Herself, she really isn’t doing you a favour. All of you (and you, especially, Suzi) need SECURE spaces, that is, places where you know you are SAFE and will NOT be able to be attacked. This will reduce the stress on everyone and can help to build your confidence.

Let me explain how this works. You have told me that Sissi is very independent and really doesn’t have much use for other cats. So she should probably have her own space. I am assuming that the foster males get along together and if that is the case, they should have their own space. And you and your brother are very close and could share space. Cats who get along with everyone can choose to go wherever they wish. In other words, compatible groups can share a space at the same time; but any cat who doesn’t get along should not be part of that group. The most important thing is that you Suzi, should NEVER be in the same space as either Sissi or the bully male.

The space for each group MUST be secure. For example if it is a bedroom, the door needs to shut properly so that it cannot open without human help. The doors that separate the various groups need to remain closed at all times AND opened very carefully by the human, so that eager cats do not escape.

Each room should be fitted suitably. This means each room must have a litter box and a water dish some distance away from the litter box. If you free feed (that is, if food is left out for you at all times), then you need food dishes as well. And of course, there should be some toys, a scratching post, and places to sleep. Providing levels (through stable, secured shelving or a cat tree) would reduce stress even more though it may not be advisable for the bully male, because of his coordination problems. (See my blog entry, A Cat Tree for Every Cat, posted on 2/7/10 for more details.).

You tell me you have two bedrooms and a large living room. I will assume that the living room is connected to the kitchen. At any time, Sissi should be in one room with the door closed (e.g., one bedroom), the foster boys in another with the door closed (e.g., one bedroom), and YOU in another with the door closed (e.g., living room). Koko and Rijko could choose where they go because they get along with everyone. Since you are the victim and need to build your confidence, it would be helpful if you could spend most of your time in the largest, most active area of the apartment – which I think would be the living room/kitchen/dining area. But if this is not suitable because of other issues, don’t worry – any secure, safe space that keeps you away from Sissi and the bully male would be great.

Now I am NOT suggesting that each group lives only in that one space, forever and ever. Instead I suggest that the groups rotate through the various spaces so that everyone remains used to the entire territory. That means that Herself could rotate each group of you through the three spaces either a different times of one day OR keep each group in the same space for one day at a time. She should make sure to visit each group at least twice a day, as well as make sure your litter boxes are cleaned along with fresh water and feeding. And most importantly, she needs to play with each group. The play I suggest is interactive and that means she needs to make or purchase fishing pole type toys.

Switching rooms can be a little tricky. The most important thing is that YOU are protected when a switch occurs. Herself can either carry you to the new space in her arms or take you in a cat carrier. She should not release you into the new space until she is very certain that neither Sissi nor the bully male are in the room and that the door is shut. It is VERY important that Sissy or the bully male NOT be able to hurt or chase you when you are all switching spaces.

Room switches can be tiring for humans though Herself will probably notice a great improvement in cat relationships as a result. My friend, Kahlua, lives in an apartment-sized dwelling (what is known here as a double-wide trailer). When several newcomers arrived over a period of months, her purrson had to divide the space into as many as four separated, closed-off areas, in order to keep the peace; and she used room switching in order to get everyone used to each other’s different smells and territories. It took a lot of energy. But it was worth it because with time and patience, some of the cats start getting used to the others and slowly they have managed to learn to share the house with almost all of them together!

Whether or not time-sharing of space will work in your household will also depend upon whether or not there are also other humans in your apartment. If so and if they do not wish to (or cannot remember to) cooperate, then they could leave a door open when it should not be, and you would no longer be protected.

IF this is the case and there is the danger that other humans would leave the spaces unsecured, don’t despair. There are other options so you do have alternatives. But first, I want you to think about what I am suggesting and consult Herself about whether or not it will work for your household.

I will post another blog entry in the next few days and continue with my proposed solutions. In the meantime, I have a question. You have provided me with the names of all of your feline housemates except for the male bully. Could you let me know what his name is, please? Good luck Suzi!