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, September 2, 2010

Dealing with a Pest

Dear Greyce,

I am a stunningly beautiful 10-year-old tortie (that's me on the right with the lovely red collar) who lives in a two-floor townhouse: the main floor is open plan (with my food and water in the kitchen) and the bedrooms and laundry room are upstairs. There is a cat door to the bedroom, as well as one to the laundry room where the litter box resides. I enjoy full use of my home including a lovely cat perch and a multi-level cat tree. And I have access to the outdoors, on a leash and harness.

For many years I shared this home with a distinguished Siamese companion named Basil. We were the best of friends and did everything together. Last year Basil left his physical form and I mourned him deeply. But I adjusted, for I had my purrson all to myself.

Because I was missing feline friendship, Herself thought she would do me a favour. This so-called favour arrived in a cat carrier in May (a year after Basil’s death). I sniffed both it and its contents and because I didn’t seem distressed, they opened it up and out came a kitten.

Lucy is a rambunctious calico who is now five months of age. She is intact; I am spayed.

When she is not eating or sleeping, she is playing. She has toys to keep her occupied: mice which she fetches and a laser pointer to chase after; but she also insists on bugging me ALL THE TIME and most often in the living room where we hang out. She runs at me, chases me, silently pounces on me, and bites - all day long! In retaliation, I hiss and scream at her; but I never use my claws. Greyce, this brat is getting on my nerves!

Sure Basil and I used to play fight; but I am now too mature to play games 24/7 - especially with such an upstart. I am content with a bit of laser pointer or string chase, though lately I’ll take Lucy’s toy in my mouth and call for her, in an attempt to teach her about prey.

When she is calm or sleeping, she is an angel. We sleep on the cat tree at the same time, but on different levels. I will sometimes lie near her and even, on occasion, give her a bath. But most of the time, I am a victim of an in-house predator.

I am so fed up that now all Lucy has to do is walk past me and I hiss. And my hissing concerns Themselves, so they call me over for a pet and say ‘good kitty’ and it quickly calms me down.

Enough with the ‘good kitty’ routine! How long must I endure this? Is there someplace I could send this pest?

In desperation,


Dear Alley,

I hear you loud and clear. There is nothing worse than being bothered all the time.

Your humans thought they were being nice to you by installing a permanent play-date, but they forgot a few things: the age difference for one and the need to support the acquisition of manners for another. In human equivalents, you are in your 50s and Lucy is a young child. I don’t know of many human 50-year-olds who enjoy hanging out with the young, unless they are beloved grandchildren – and then they get to give them back to their parents before they become totally exhausted!

As to my second point, manners, it’s obvious your human needs lessons in cat etiquette in order to be of any use in this situation. When Lucy first entered your territory, you were able to sniff her crate and then when you appeared disinterested, she was taken out. My impression is that since then, she has had the run of the place.

Well Alley, as you well know, your purrson was very lucky that you didn’t beat Lucy up from the get-go. We cats tend to view strange cats as invaders and act accordingly, unless they are very young kittens. So have your humans file this piece of information – in case they ever decide to introduce another cat some time later in their lives. They will need to follow my rules for introduction (see blog entry, May I Present? A Cat!) or they will be in for cat fights extraordinaire!

There are four things you need, to get your problem under control.

First, strategies to dissipate Lucy’s higher energy level. Lucy is ‘full of beans’ and she comes by this honestly. And while spaying her in due time will likely reduce her energy level somewhat, it is not the total answer at all. She is a young cat and she is practicing her predatory skills (which Herself may think of as playing but is really hunting). Young cats with energy to burn often behave like Lucy (and if they don’t have another cat in the house to annoy, will start attacking human ankles, instead).

As you know, we are born hunters and we need to exercise our predatory skills every day. The most common time that most of us do so is at dawn and dusk (times when we would hunt in the wild); at these times, our humans notice that we run around like crazy and seem to be chasing shadows and ghosts. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are doing cat aerobics and hunting exercises to reduce the build-up of energy we naturally have. And if we don’t get this opportunity (or it isn’t enough for us), then our arousal level stays at a higher level. This means that we become more reactive (jump or startle at slight movement) and more aggressive. And if nothing is done about these levels, it gets to a point where even we – with supposed play – cannot reduce that arousal of our own accord and we need pharmaceuticals. In plain language, many cats become anxious and then are prescribed anti-depressants; and while drugs have their place, it’s a crying shame in a case like yours (I mean, Lucy’s) because there are much easier and more appropriate solutions.

Alley, the solution for Lucy is twofold: 1) more predatory play and 2) more outdoor time, if possible.

1) Predatory play. Sure we cats can amuse ourselves – when we are young. As we age, solitary play becomes less interesting and we are most aroused by interactive play and that requires either another cat (as in play fighting) or a prey toy operated by a human in a way that triggers our prey drive and challenges us. Insist that Herself reads my entry, Only on My Terms (Dec. 20/2009), for it gives specific examples of appropriate toys and detailed instructions of how to properly use them. Two, 15-minute play sessions a day with Lucy should go a long way to solving the problem. Direct Herself also to Guys Just Wanna Have Fun (Nov. 9, 2009) and Stimulating Ideas (Dec. 6, 2009) for additional solitary play toys that may be useful with Lucy.

2) Outdoor time. I also understand that you are allowed outdoors on leash and harness. I don’t know the details (e.g., if you go for walks, are tethered and if so, where, etc.). And rather than getting specific, just know that allowing Lucy more periods of safe access to the outdoors will be helpful as well. Outdoor environments with their changes in micro-climates, shifting breezes, and chance to survey wildlife (like bugs, butterflies, etc.) are very stimulating for us and again help to keep us sane.

Second, a way of helping Lucy keep her distance from you, at least at first. Okay so Lucy’s energy levels are being reduced; now she needs to keep her distance.

Since you both are leash-and-harness trained, I suggest this. When you are together AND she can be directly supervised, have her put on leash and harness. (I’m a big fan of direct supervision rather than tethering – which can be too dangerous indoors; there are too many changes to wrapped around furniture and knock things over and get hurt in the process.) Your purrson should hold the leash to keep her at a distance that you can tolerate. Over time (repeated sessions) this distance can be reduced (by 6” per time) as long as you are comfortable. For your purrson to truly know that you are comfortable, I urge the reading of my entry, The Pungent Scents of Comfort #4 (make sure it is #4 - Jan. 26, 2010) and scroll down to the area called Body Language which gives pictures and descriptions that might help your purrson decode the signaling between Lucy and you. Other useful links on this topic are.

I doubt that Herself plans to spend every moment at home directly supervising Lucy on her harness. But have her allot some part(s) of the day to this practice.

Third, a change in reward structure. Lucy need to learn that attacking you at every moment is not allowed. If your purrson learns about cat body language (as mentioned above) she should be in a better position to intervene BEFORE Lucy gets out of hand. As soon as she notices that Lucy is up to no good (and the sooner she does, the better), she needs to intervene as described below:

Say “Lucy, No!” in a firm tone. Sometimes, that by itself will stop a pest in her tracks. Note that I suggest using a firm tone, NOT yelling (which can be upsetting, especially if you, Alley, are anxious).

Use distraction – such as throwing a toy in a direction away from you and seeing if she will chase it; or using a fishing-pole type toy for interactive play (as described in that blog entry I have already mentioned). The object here, is to divert Lucy from you in a positive way.

Give a time-out: If neither of the above methods works and Lucy persists, use the time-out. As I’ve said in other entries: "A time-out is simply what it says: the bully is picked up unceremoniously and carried to another room and the door is closed. There is no eye contact; the purrson resists the temptation to either scold the bully or say something to the effect "this hurts me more than it hurts you" and just gets on with it. Five minutes later, the door is opened (again NO visual or verbal interaction with the offender) to allow the bully to leave the room. If the bully is back to his old tricks in short order, another, longer time-out is provided.

The point of the time-out is to help the bully learn that as soon as he has trouble on his mind, he will be put out of commission and thus not be able to get his way. The sooner in the aggresssion cycle that the purrson can intervene (for example, when she notices the bully beginning to stalk the victim, or sees the bully lying in wait for the victim), the better. It makes it much easier for the bully to learn. You see, we cats learn best when interrupted from undesirable behaviour within 30 seconds (YES seconds) of that undesirable behaviour."

Temporary Separation: I have also made another suggestion in previous entries which can be used when other methods of intervention don't seem to be working: "If the bully is just having a bad day and cannot resist attempting to torment the victim, then a day spent in sanctuary is usually advised (i.e., a separate room with litter box and water and toys). Ditto, if relationships between two cats are uneasy, it is best if they are both kept physically apart when there is no responsible purrson available to supervise their interactions. Yes, this means when your purrsons go to work for the day, each of you may be spending your time in separate parts of the house. Exactly who gets which part of the house depends on the individual situation but regardless, the basic principle is to keep said cats apart when they cannot be supervised, to prevent a permanent rupture in their relationship."

Used consistently, Lucy will learn that attacking you at every moment is not a good idea. And you will learn that when Lucy is up to no good, she gets stopped in her tracks; so you will be less anxious.

Now another thing. What your folks do now, in calling you over and comforting you when attacked, is well-intentioned but NOT a good idea. Yes it is soothing. But it is also teaching you that reacting in distress gets you positive attention from them. So I’d rather they provide appropriate intervention with Lucy and safe cuddles and pets for you at other times. Otherwise, you could be set up to be rewarded for subtly inciting Lucy to bug you so you can get attention. And this is not a good idea.

Fourth, a safe place to which to escape when you need to be alone and not disturbed.

Alley you can achieve this in one of two ways, so I will give you options.

The first way is to time-share space. In this case, whenever Lucy cannot be supervised, the two of you are kept physically separated; that means that there is a closed door between you and Alley (no accessible cat door, thank you) so that she cannot get to you. You cats can be separated in different spaces at different times, so that you both end up having full use of the house (and can continue to mark it as part of your territory) – just not together UNLESS Lucy is under supervision. At the very least, time-sharing would be a good idea when your purrsons are away from home (and there is no one to intervene on your behalf). Note however, that both of you need access to water and litter box – toys for Lucy, too; so this will mean the installation of another bowl and box in an additional location, so that neither of you goes without.

Keep in mind that physical separation doesn't mean you don't get time with your beloved human. You still should get play and petting sessions, etc.

The second way is more expensive but gives you your own, long-term, retreat. I’m so pleased to learn of your cat doors (in the bedroom and in the laundry room). No doubt both of them allow both Lucy and you access to them, and that is a great idea.

Is there another room in which an electronic cat door could be installed? Such a door is only activated by a cat who wears a collar that it ‘recognizes’ and thus allows entry to. This is useful when you need to get away from a pest, like Lucy, without her being able to get in, as well. So if Themselves would agree, they could install such a device into another room (ideally outfitted with a litter box and a bowl of water). It would be lovely if the room had a window, a viewing perch or shelf, or just some place comfortable to rest. That way you could get away for a break when you need to do so.

Alley, your purrson thought she was doing you a favour. Now you must be firm with your human about following my advice. If that upstart and you are to really make a go of a positive relationship, your human MUST assist you – in ways that make sense for cats. Not only will it help you, it will also help Lucy to gain a proper cat companion in a way you both can handle.

Do let me know how it goes.

I wish all of you the best,


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