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, August 16, 2010

Is Nala A Nuisance?

Dear Greyce,

I am a healthy three-year-old, female tabby who is feisty, playful and curious – what you call a high-energy girl who just loves to tear around. I like to wrap a plastic dry cleaning bag around my cat tree and then attack it with my whole body; sometimes I just run around the house with it in my mouth; but my folks take it away from me when they are not around. Sorry . . . I get so excited about play that I forget the purpose of writing you in the first place! So let me get back to telling you about my situation.

While I have a tattoo by which my identity and household can be traced, none of my former humans in the several households in which I’ve resided wishes to have me back. And now I have joined a new home (one-bedroom apartment in the city, actually) after living as a stray.
I have many things here that a cat could want: my own litter box, my own water bowl, my own food bowl, a two-foot high scratching pole, a lovely corrugated scratch pad, a magnificent cat tree in the living room, and toys, along with decent people. There is a Feliway plug-in so I have synthetic pheromones to give me a sense of comfort in my new surroundings.

So here is what happened.

I lived in the bathroom for the first two days until my new people could get me to the vet and make sure I was healthy. Why? Because there is a resident cat named Tiggy. She is an almost-two-year-old tortoiseshell female. I have heard that she can be frisky and energetic in spite of her small size but right now we are separated and she is terrified of me.

When I came back from the vet with a clean bill of health, I graduated to the bedroom and Tiggy was given the run of the rest of the place because as the resident cat she deserved the bigger space. After a few weeks, Themselves installed a screen door at the entrance to the bedroom; it was used when they were at home, to help us cats to get used to the sight of one another.

When Tiggy saw me, she got very frightened. I think she was overwhelmed by my strong presence for I am truly formidable. She hid behind the TV cabinet for hours even when the door was shut!

Not too much later than that, she took refuge under the bed in the bedroom; so Themselves switched our living areas. Now Tiggy has the bedroom and I have the rest of the place.

According to Themselves, this worked out well until I managed to rip the screen from the door to the bedroom and attack Tiggy. Now the real bedroom door (not the screen door) is kept shut at all times.

The problem is that I really, really want to get into that bedroom. When Themselves try to enter the bedroom, I sneek up behind them. They are on to this Greyce. If they don’t think they can make it into the bedroom without me coming along, they will close the door quickly without going in. Then I go into hunt mode, the pupils in my eyes get like slits and I bite their feet and legs.

Now when Herself sees my eyes that way, she moves away from the door and says a very firm, “No.” That stops me . . . most of the time.

It is easier for them to go in and out of the bedroom if I’m sleepy or if they have been home and with me for some time. Does that make me an attention hog? Sometimes they have used a blanket to keep me away from the door or try to distract me with a laser pointer. I love that laser pointer!

I have to admit it Greyce, I come with a few other problems as well. I nip at my purrsons’ feet and legs (teeth and claws out) when I want to play; they don’t like it. I have been reading Oliver’s Twists (March 4, 2010) and An Octopus Makes It Right (March 21, 2010) to get some tips on how to play in a more acceptable fashion.

I have a strange gait (way of walking). And while I can jump up on things, I am awkward and cautious when I have to jump off. It’s easy for me to slip (or almost slip) off the side of the bed or table or counter or couch arm. I’m sure you get my point.

And in case this is important, I hate being in the cat carrier. Really, really hate it and make such a fuss – biting and scratching - that it scared Herself. She now has long, thick workman’s gloves for the next time I need to be crated to go to the vet.

My folks have been following your blog entry, May I Present? A Cat! Frankly Greyce, it doesn’t seem to be working all that well. What’s going wrong? And more to the point, what’s wrong with me Greyce. Why can’t I keep a home?  Nala

Dear Nala, You sure know how to wear out your welcome! Before I get into the details of how to help you, let me explain why I think you behave the way you do.

How A Poor Start in Life Makes It Hard to Become A Pet Cat

Your behaviour matches the profile of cats who have had a poor start in life. This could mean any or all of the following:

i) your mother had very poor nutrition when she was pregnant with you and that affected the development of your brain;

ii) you were separated from your mom far too early, before she could teach you proper cat behaviour; and/or

iii) you were bottle-fed; and while bottle feeding saved your life, it didn’t teach you how to handle frustration – like being crated. (Your Mom would have withdrawn access to her nipples from time to time, as you got older and she started to wean you. From this you would have learned how to cope with not getting your own way all the time. When you are bottle fed, the human feeder tends to give you food on demand and so you never learn at the critical learning stage, that you can’t get your own way all the time.

Whatever the reason, when things don’t go your way you become frustrated and aggressive. And I don’t have to tell you that biting and scratching the legs and feet of your caregivers is NOT a way to win friends.

The Special Needs of Such Cats

Kittens who are reared in one or more such conditions have special needs because they do not behave the way that cats with developmental advantages do. And so they do not make easy pets. Such kittens have problems: coordination problems, increased aggression, and poor learning ability, to name a few.

I suspect that it is the quality of your gestation and early kitten hood that has resulted in your becoming a problem cat. And the fact that none of your many previous homes is interested in welcoming you back would seem to support this. It also suggests that until now, you have not been fortunate enough to have had caregivers who had the sense to contact someone like me. You got lucky this time.

Regardless of what I conclude, at some point you purrsons should discuss your gait and balance problems with your vet in case there is an underlying, treatable condition. But given your purrformance in getting into the cat carrier, I suspect that you may not be seeing your vet for a while. Purrhaps a short telephone conversation would suffice, given that you’ve just had a check-up and where pronounced ‘healthy’. It could be that your issues were discussed with your vet already – for all I know.

So What Now?

Your purrsons are willing to help you and that is a very big plus. If you were the only cat in the household I think there is every chance that you could live a happy life there. However there is another cat, Tiggy, to consider and therein lies the challenge. Your purrsons have already told me that they really, really want to make this situation work for both Tiggy and you. So let’s figure out how and the extent to which, we can make this work for all of you.

And just to capture your interest, your folks have let me in on a secret: You will all be moving to a house next spring – which means lots more space for you two cats! So what we will focus on how are: 1) how to get you to behave in a more acceptable fashion; and 2) how to get Tiggy to become more comfortable with you, over time. (You can ask me about moving, later.)

Your Action Plan

Nala, this is going to take work. And it will involve several steps. So rather than overwhelming you with the whole lot, let’s just start with the highest priority and work from there.

The First Priority: Getting Your Behaviour Under Control

We need to help your purrsons develop confidence and appropriate control in dealing with you before proceeding with anything dealing with your relationship with Tiggy.

Let’s start with dealing with your nipping when you want to play. You mentioned reading about Oliver and while his problem was a bit different, many of the recommendations I made there apply to you.

Recommendation #1: Have your purrsons learn the signs (eyes, ear position, tail, body posture) that indicate that you are up to no good; many of these are shown in my blog entry, The Pungent Sense of Comfort: Urine Marking #4 if you scroll down to the section on body language. They have already mastered this; they know your eye signals well. This gives them a chance at prevention, because they can intervene BEFORE you get to the nipping stage.

Recommendation #2: Have them distract you from your current focus with a firm command and/or toys thrown away from your current direction. I understand that a firmly delivered, ‘no’ seems to work most times and the laser pointer is a good distraction. Also consider having them throw a toy away from the direction you are headed (so you can chase after that instead) or using a fishing-pole toy to distract you – away from your area of naughty focus. (Tips on these kinds of toys are found in my entry Only On My Terms - just search under the label, play)

Recommendation #3: Make sure your folks provide you with a couple (or more) daily interactive play sessions which will lower your arousal level. That blog entry I mentioned should help them learn how to play with you properly. I’d like you to go beyond the laser pointer which, though wonderful, has one disadvantage: You will never be able to catch that light! Fishing pole toys will enable you to catch and kill.

And for you, things like empty rolls of cardboard that you can rake with your claws enable you to go through the gutting-of-prey actions that you will find very satisfying. A great, inexpensive prey toy is to get a sports sock (Himself’s size) and fill it with cotton batting or quilt batting to make it softish but fluffy. Sew or hand knot the open end shut and you have something excellent to gut.

Now about the plastic bag. I’m sure you really enjoy it but it can be a dangerous toy. So let me suggest a substitute. Since you love things you can wrap around your condo, ask Herself to go to a fabric store and find a nice piece of fleece. (I recommend this fabric because it doesn’t need any sewing and the edges will not fray.) She can cut it into wide (4” – 6” strips) and tie them together with thick knots (purrhaps filled with catnip if you are so inclined) to make it as long as you need. It’s a great drag-and-wrap toy. Again like all long, thinnish items, this should be put safely away when not supervised so you don’t wrap it around you by mistake.

Recommendation #4: Should you get to the stage where you attack your purrsons’ legs and feet and they have not been able to distract you in time, they should freeze their bodies (stopping all motion) and then slowly move away and ignore you (no positive or negative attention, either of which could be seen as a reward).

Recommendation #5: While I know that you haven’t bit and scratched to the extent of causing Themselves any infection, I would expect some more such incidents over the next while, while they and you are learning new behaviours. For this reason, I suggest they contact their doctor or local public health office for advice on a Tetanus shot – just to be on the safe side. People who work in veterinary clinics and animal shelters are required to have one as a just-in-case precaution. One shot lasts about 10 years.

Second Priority: Now About That Bedroom Door

Your purrsons need access to the bedroom through the door. We need you to allow them that access WITHOUT you wanting to barge in after them. Since it is very difficult for a cat like yourself to be so patient, they need to help you keep your distance.

Often cats in such situations are deterred through the use of fog horns or blasts of air. Indeed there are such devices that can work with a motion detector so they happen automatically. And while these things have their uses they are NOT ADVISED for you here for two reasons. First, at some point you may need to (or be allowed to) enter the bedroom and the last thing you need is to be afraid to do that. And second, Tiggy does not need the additional stress of either random aversive noise or the possibility that in time, she would encounter a blast of air if she tried to go through that door. NOT a good idea.

A Portable Barrier Can Help You Behave

Instead have your folks get a large piece of thick cardboard (I’m thinking about 2’ x 3’). This can be from a corrugated cardboard box (any loose flaps or pieces can be secured and reinforced with packing tape or duct tape), foam core (1/4” or ½”) purchased from an office supply or crafts’ store, or Coroplast purchased from a hardware store. They can put this piece either in front of or behind them as they enter and exit – whichever makes sense – to prevent you from following them into the bedroom.

They may even want to have more than one piece available. Alternatively, they could use a broom (like a corn broom with long bristles) to help you keep your distance. With practice, this can work. And should you scratch at the door after they successfully close it, they need to ignore you.

Tiring You Out, First

As you have already mentioned, you a better behaved when you have had attention first. When at all possible, you need to have an interactive play session before they enter the bedroom – especially since they have noticed that if you are played-out you are less likely to act-out. Those interactive play sessions will be a godsend at using up some of your vast stores of energy.

Nala the reason I recommend interactive play for you is twofold. First it will help release your pent up energy. Second, many adult cats have little or no interest in balls or toy mice that might have kept them fascinated when they were kittens. With your strong hunting instincts, you probably think that a stationery toy is dead prey – of no interest to you whatsoever. So you need toys you can chase after, catch and kill.

About Your Folks

One thing for sure, folks who get nipped and scratched also get scared. And then when they are going to enter a door where such incidents take place, they tend to get anxious. When they get anxious, their heart and respiration rates increase. And both Tiggy and you will sense it, think something is wrong and start to get anxious yourselves. That is why it is VERY important that your folks chill out.

Have then take several long, deep breaths (as slowly and deeply as they can) before they get to the door – breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Yes I know this sound like I’m a New Age sensitive cat (and I am) but I also know that it really engages their relaxation response. And a relaxed human can more easily maintain control of the situation.

Now my dear, I think that is enough to work on for now. But remember: You will have a lot more work to do. Just keep me advised of your progress, and I will give you more information when you are ready to take the next step.

Nala, cats like you may be viewed as a nuisance. But that is far from the truth. You are a special cat with special needs. And I think you may very well have found a home where the people will help you become the lovely cat that we know you are. In time, purrhaps even Tiggy will agree.

Good luck, Greyce