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 31, 2011

Cat Leaves Home on Purpose: Sinbad's Tale

Dear Greyce,

I am a neutered, two-year-old male Siamese-cross with a problem: I no longer like living at home.

It all started when I was about a year old. When my humans were away at work, I missed them a lot. So I took advantage of my cat door and went exploring. That's when I found the humans and the two cats next door. And I've begun living there for more and more of my time.

Those two cats are older and tolerate me and I'm careful only to eat from their bowls after they have had enough. Their humans are home for about half the day so they provide company, too. And I like to sleep at the end of their bed. There is a cat door so I have access to the outside world.

But let me get back to the situation at my original home.

I am a human-oriented cat with a particular attachment to Herself. I'm okay with the rest of the family (Himself and the children) .The children are pre-teen (plus one baby, more about that later) and are good with me. I used to love to play with them and sleep on their beds.

I live(d) in a three-floor house. My food is in the basement washroom. My cat door is in the basement. And when Themselves confine me (in an effort to keep me at home), there are two litter boxes in the basement far from the feeding area.

I have free access throughout the house except for the children's bedrooms when they are asleep. My favourite napping spots have been on the beds of the various human occupants, as well as in a lovely enclosed basket high on a shelf which I loved to hide in until Bella started to use it. Now I'm no longer interested. ("Bella?" you ask - more about this pest later.)

I am allowed on all furnishings except for the kitchen surfaces. I have a scratching tree I seldom use.

As an indoor-outdoor cat my schedule was more like my wild counterparts': active in the mornings and evenings with plenty of time for naps in between. I'm a skilled hunter of birds and mice. I prefurr to stay inside during the winter, although I live in an area where the climate is mild enough year round.

Indoors I like to play with a mouse on a string. I am fed wet food twice a day and kibble is always available - in both houses. If I do eat at home, I do it late at night now.

Problem #1: An Intruder: Because I used to cry when I was left alone, Themselves got a female kitten (now spayed) called Bella. She is affectionate and we'd play together. But now she really annoys me. She hides and waits to pounce. Sometimes I like this game but it puts me on edge when I'm not expecting it. Themselves put a bell on her collar so I get a warning when she is up to no good. But I really just want to stay away from her.

To make matters worse, she barges into the feeding area to eat first!

Is there anything called being too affectionate? Because that is what Bella is to both me and Themselves. She never gives me space! She goes wherever I go, just like my shadow. She is even worse with Herself and wants to sleep with her under the duvet!  In fact, Bella is all over my humans.

In other words, Greyce, what was supposed to be a companion has turned into an intruder!

Problem #2: Changes to My Territory: To make matters worse,  Themselves had renovations done on the house. The builders made lots of noise for a very long time. They moved the location of my cat door several times. Thank goodness they have now left for good (yippee!). In the last few days I've popped in for some food but I don't stay long.

Problem #3: Human Invasion: Wait for it Greyce . . .  six months ago They had a baby! The good news is that Herself is now at home - with the baby, of course. Luckily the baby is happy and doesn't cry a lot but when it does I am curious and go and see what is wrong. But mostly, I just stay out of its way.

With all this commotion, do you blame me for moving out?

Themselves miss me very much. Herself is home with the baby so there is always the chance for human companionship but I am less interested now. When I occasionally return home, I am very nervous - even with Herself.

They have tried to entice me back in the following ways:
1. They used Feliway to give me a sense of comfort. No deal.

2. They confined me at home (by locking my cat door). I usually go to the bathroom outside. But when confined I have two litter boxes in the basement (well away from my feeding area). Still I poop on the floor.

3. When I'm confined, they give me a bit more space and do not pick me up. A good effort but not enough.

4. They tried to leave Bella outside so I can roam about the house in peace but she sat at the door and cried so much that they gave up on this. Too bad for me. When I'm confined inside the house, I keep my distance from Bella but never fight with her.

5. When I come home they give me a treat. So what.

6. They called me for every meal even if I didn't come home. Now they don't bother.

7. They asked the neighbours to discourage me from living with them, as that is the only place I go.

So Greyce, we have a problem. I'm happy living elsewhere with short, occasional visits to the old homestead. But the humans are not.

How can we make this a win-win situation?


Dear Sinbad,

You are a credit to your breed or should I say, cross-breed, for you are behaving like a true Siamese.

The Siamese is very human-oriented and often is a one-purrson cat. Changes to that purrson, such as the hormonal changes from pregnancy that would be apparent to your sensitive nose and changes in daily schedule or prolonged absences would greatly affect you because you were so strongly bonded. I have known of Siamese who pine away when separated from their purrsons who are on extended business trips, for example. However, even such attachments can fray. And fray yours has.

The Siamese is very intelligent. You have the brains to assess your situation and take appropriate action.
Simply put, the various changes in your territory were increasingly stressful and so you sought and camped out in a more hospitable environment. Good for you.

If you did not have access to a cat door, you would likely have manifested your distress in other ways. Pooping outside the box is one but we cats have a full repertoire - fur plucking, aggression, peeing outside the box, to name a few. So in many respects, everyone is better off with the route you have chosen.

And by the way, like a Siamese you prefurr a warmer environment which is why you like staying indoors during your mild winter season.

If you had a cat door but no other hospitable home environment, you might have wandered off further or sought refuge in the yard somewhere as did my colleague Baldrick, written about by Dr. Peter Neville in his book, Do Cats Need Shrinks?  He too was feeling the pressure of a home environment that became increasingly unattractive.

I sense that you are a very sensitive male for in the presence of your feisty companion, Bella, you have consistently back down and avoided confrontation. To the human mind, your being older and male should result in a more assertive stance regarding Bella's barging. Instead you do what you can to avoid her, defer when she hogs the food bowl and takes over your special basket. Coupled with her forays into unexpected pouncing on you, I believe Bella is aggressive and that your lack of responding in kind might have given your humans the impression that the situation was less serious than it is.

Unfortunately most humans do not recognize these behaviours for the serious level of distress they represent (until it gets to the fur-plucking, peeing-around-the-house or home-leaving stage) and make little attempt to intervene. We have to give Themselves credit for trying to leave Bella outside while you roam about the house, even though this method didn't work.

Truth be known, most humans don't know how to intervene appropriately. And so you take matters into your own paws and simply leave the premises. You have succeeded in finding a more suitable environment for yourself and in making your humans feel guilty about it. Doing a two-for-one special is no mean feat.

Alas I sense a wish to reconcile. And so I will do what is in my power to restore your relationship with the old homestead.

First, I will take each of your three problems in turn, describe them in more detail and propose actions to mitigate them. In some cases I note the need for more details from you before I can provide specific advice. At the end, I'll outline the overall action plan.

Problem #1: An Intruder - also known as Dealing with Bella the Bully

Yes, I call them as I see them. Bella is a bully. She may look sweet and be affectionate but a cat who elbows her way to the front of the food line, takes over your prime hiding spot, and pounces on you unexpectedly needs to be set in her place. And you need to build up more confidence so that you don't always defer to that wild child.

Here is what you need to do:

1. Reduce the need to compete for resources by creating a sense of abundance.

It's a fact of life that humans think we cats should share things nicely. What they don't understand is that our normal tendency is to claim territory (and the things in it) for ourself alone - just as we do in the wild. Only mom's with kittens share.

Why then, can and do cats live together? Truth be told, this only works under certain conditions. There must be an abundance of resources: food, sources of shelter and safety, etc. must be sufficient for all without having to share at the same time. Any perceived resource shortage will trigger a need for competition for the right to said resource. In other words, perceived lack of resources is stressful even in a domestic situation where everything seems (at least to the humans) to be provided.

Right now your purrsonal furnishings are limited to one basket on a shelf (now Bella's) and one scratching tree (not often used). To truly advise you I need more details for you about the exact location of both items and a fuller description of the tree (number of levels, what it is made of, and if it is a tower rather than a tree).

Once I have that information I will be in a better position to advise on: a) the addition of suitable resources (like other hiding spots for you) and b) whether or not moving the current tree or accessing a substitute might also work in your favour.

As you know, cats live in three dimensions so height is quite important. Both a dominant cat and a cat feeling the need for security will seek high places if possible - the former to survey and maintain charge of the area and the latter to keep out of harm's way. We need to ensure that both Bella's and your needs are taken care of in this respect.

Cats sharing a household are often least stressed when they can occupy separate, staggered levels (that is, levels that are not exactly on the same place) like a hierarchy. Where these levels are in relation to the room they are in and most especially to the entrances and windows is also important (which is why it would be useful to give me information on the layout of furnishings in said rooms.) So here is the deal: you provide me with the necessary addition data and I'll come up with suggestions.

Feeding Frenzy: You mention how Bella barges in to be first at the food bowl. I assume this relates to the provision of wet food which is given to you both twice a day. I wonder if you have separate food bowls. If so, does she take over yours first? Or prevent you from accessing your own while she is dining?
Here are three possible solutions, depending on the details of your situation.

a) If you share a wet food bowl, the solution may be very simple: the provision of two bowls of wet food, spaced a distance apart.

b) If you have separate bowls a distance apart and she is still a pest, then make sure you have two, separate feeding areas in two separate rooms so that she cannot be in two places at once. Then you should be able to dine in peace.

c) If she persists in delaying your dining gratification even if you feed in separate rooms, the solution would lie in separate feeding rooms, with you in a closed room along with human companionship (so Bella doesn't interfere and your confidence is bolstered). If you will not tolerate a closed door, then the human must stand guard against Bella's interference.  This would give you a sense of security while keeping Bella at bay.

The Pouncing Pest: I agree that the occasional pounce can be a bit of fun, especially if followed by a game of chase. But what you describe is a predatory attack. I've asked for more details about this attack (like where and when it is likely to occur, and how you and your humans react) so that I can give you explicit advice about what to do about it. You see, sometimes such attacks only occur at certain times of the day or in certain places in the house (a particular room,  near one or more entrances, or behind a particular piece of furniture).

If, for example, they occur at certain times of the day, I'll bet it is in the early evening. And I bet it means that Bella isn't getting enough of a predatory work out and has energy to burn. In such cases, she will pounce to initiate play. When you are not in the mood to join in, it is incumbent on your humans to provide her with predatory play opportunities. I written about this extensively in other entries; tell your purrsons to consult my entry Cat Stalk's Humans: Tux's Trials (posted on 12/11/11). Even though the case is different, that entry talks about ways to play and stimulate her than should help keep her out of mischief.

If these pounce attacks occur at certain locations, details about where (and the layout and furnishings involved) will help me give you clear advice.

I have found, however, that there are two things that humans may be lacking if these attacks occur in their presence.a) The ability to prevent them before they occur (because they don't understand cat signalling systems and so miss the chance to see that Bella is about to be up to no good) or b) the understanding of how to intervene appropriately. Since I don't know which applies to your case, let me talk about both.

Pounce Prevention: As you know, we cats have an extensive body language that provides subtle communication without the need to meow. When a cat has mischief on her mind, she will betray her thoughts in various ways: through her tail, her posture, her ear position, the size of her pupils or by staring. If your purrsons are not totally versed in cat talk, advice them to consult the following site Cat Talk with Photos. They may also want to consult Bruce Fogle's book, Know Your Cat: An Owner's Guide to Cat Behavior which has excellent photos with explanations.

Once they can identify cat signal systems to the point of learning when Bella is up to no good, they should interrupt at the first signal, that is, as soon as possible. Sooner is better because it will help Bella learn when she is behaving in an unacceptable fashion. Interruption could include any of the following:

a) Say "No, Bella" in a strong, firm voice.

b) Distract Bella with a favourite toy.

c) Put a piece of cardboard in front of Bella to break a stare at you.

d) Okay, so she is still at it. Some people find that keeping a spray bottle of water handy, and spraying the cat (not in the face but elsewhere) is enough to get them to stop because most cats hates becoming wet.

e) If she persists (or has been interrupted while pouncing) she should be given a time out.
For a time out, Bella would be carried from the scene (without ANY attention, positive of negative because some cats thrive on any attention of any kind). She would be placed either in a hard-sided cat crate (even nearby) or behind a closed door for 5 minutes. After being ignored for that time, she can be let out (again with NO attention of any kind) and see what happens. If she starts up again, the length of her time out is increased. For a cat as social as Bella, a time out will be seen as strong (yet gentle) punishment and she will quickly learn to avoid the behaviours that lead to being removed from the scene.

Helping Bella Keep Her Distance: The purpose of having Bella being kept at a distance from you is twofold: a) to allow you to build up confidence in her presence and b) to allow her the chance to learn to leave you alone. Of course this can be accomplished by the pouncing prevention techniques I've outlined. It could also be accomplished by having you live in separate areas of the house (though I strongly sense that this would not work in your case and thus do not suggest it). It can also be accomplished through the proper provision of high and/or secure places in the home. (That's why I'm so hungry for more details from you.) Here is one other thing to consider: putting Bella on a lead.

If it is all too much trouble for your folks to monitor Bella (and I understand that keeping her in a separate room would only result in enough meowing to guilt them into releasing her), then I suggest they consider using a harness and lead (or at the very least using a lead on her collar).

Getting a cat used to a harness takes time. So if she isn't used to it already (and I assume she is not) then have your folks read up on the process (see my entry, Harnessing Facts posted on 4/26/11) and decide if it is worth pursuing. It may not be, in her case. I just don't know.

Alternatively, they could consider just attaching the lead to her collar. Now I assume she wears a collar to which a short lead (1 to 2 metres - substitute yards if American) could be attached. If not, it is going to take some time and lots of work to get her used to this and again may not be worth the effort.

If they select this option (that is, harness and lead or collar and lead), the lead should only be used under responsible human supervision; otherwise a) Bella could easily escape from it (believe me, I've done it myself) or b) she could get tangled in it which would be very traumatic and possibly even dangerous for her.

So assuming the proper condition (about supervision) is in place, then Bella and you can be in the same room, with Bella kept at length from you by the responsible human. She should be sufficiently apart from you that she cannot attack you even if she wishes. Do NOT tether her. Do NOT leave her unsupervised with a leash.

Start with her at the farthest distance from you in that room. As she learns to behave in your presence, she can be allowed to advance toward you about 15 cm (6" in American, at a time) - taken in very slow steps - no more than 15 cm per day. Each increment should be kept without further advancing for as many days as it takes for you to become comfortable and no longer react to that change.

Tell your folks to beware: they MUST proceed at a pace with which you are comfortable. Rushing the process will only set you back!

Problem #2: Territorial Change

Renovation hits the top of the list when it comes to stressors in a cat's life. Unexpected noises (especially loud ones) and an influx of strange people are terrible for a cat. My colleague, Mango, is having to endure the extensive renovation of his home. He hates it!

As you know, a cat's territory - where he eats, sleeps, and even eliminates - is his most important asset. Any change to that territory (and its resources including new household members, changes in schedules, etc) is cause of anxiety because in our minds, it may mean our survival is at stake. Thus we adapt better when change is done s-l-o-w-l-y.

What is also difficult is adjusting to the physical changes in territory. Many purrsons don't realize that we patrol our territory several times a day to make sure everything is as it should be. We mark significant objects (like sofas) and places (like the corners of walls that stick out near entrances and exits) usually with pheromones from our cheeks, although we can resort to scratching or even urine marking depending on the situation. More change means more marking and greater frequency thereof. It can tire a cat out!

Our territory (and changes to it) is so important to us that we develop a cognitive map of it in our heads. This helps us to know what belongs where (and when it have been moved - even a little- or is missing) and assists our navigation. With each move of your cat door (and other changes of which I am not fully aware) you then have to make a new cognitive map in your head of where everything is located and how it relates to everything else!

It takes time and a lot of work on your part to re-learn the map.  Any human who has renovated a bathroom that involves moving a toilet will know what I mean if they have tried to go to the bathroom in the dark and find themselves wetting the floor instead!

In addition, we make scent trails with our paw pads, connecting all important parts of our territory so that we can navigate it safely in the dark. With renovations, these trails would have been destroyed or in need of more constant renewal.

Thank goodness the renovation is completed. You are now in a position to re-learn your cognitive maps once and for all.

Problem #3: Human Invasion or What to Do with Baby

Right now Baby does not seem to be an issue for you. Still, interactions between you (or Bella) and Baby are best supervised to protect you both, because we cats can become agitated by a baby's jerky movements and may even interpret them as prey. No, I don't mean to cause unnecessary alarm because the chances of this happening as small; but it is always a good idea for your purrsons to keep a good eye on Baby and any feline when they are together.

And it is great that you are not allowed in Baby's room when Baby is sleeping. I like the idea that you have some access to the room because it gives you the chance to incorporate Baby's smells into your territorial and thus not react strangely to them.

When Baby is ready to crawl you (and Bella) are in for a great adventure. Even more so when baby becomes a toddler because Baby will then be able to travel on his own steam and may be particularly attracted to your ears or tail. Baby's love to grab such things and can hang on for dear life. You will want to keep out of Baby's way.

Here are some options:
a) Make sure Baby is in a playpen or similar device so Baby is in the same room but doesn't have access to you.
b) Most especially if Baby is out and about, make sure that Baby is closely supervised by a human.
c) Arrange to have access to a cat tree or higher shelf from which you can be part of the family activity but safe from Baby.

In any event, have you folks read the last section of my entry, May I Present? A Baby! posted on 1/16/10. It talks about how to deal with the feline-baby relationship as the baby grows.

Action Plan for You

Here are the steps to follow:

1. Review my advice. Don't skim (like we all do when reading stuff on computer); read it carefully, including the additional references and entries.

2. Get me further information  - as requested in this entry and as posted to you by private e-mail. Once I have that information I can make more specific recommendations and you can then acquire or move the necessary resources into place.

3. While #2 is going on, have Herself (and others if they wish) learn cat talk if she doesn't know it already.

4. Have your purrsons determine how to deal with Bella, that is, which options they will prefurr to use (of those suggested) to get her under control. No, she doesn't have to be purrfectly under control before we work on re-bonding you to your original home, but they do have to be "at the ready".

5. Then we will work on re-building your bond. This is the step I have not gone into detail about here because I want everything to be in place first. And your folks have a LOT of reading and thinking to do. But in this step we will talk about dedicated play times, dedicated snuggle times (if you are up to it) and dedicated leave-me-alone times. We will continue to talk about your relationship with Bella and well as with Herself and the rest of the household.

And just a note: Herself's commitment is pivotal because your bond has been strongest with her. She already has quite a few responsibilities in the household and will probably need consistent and reliable help in implementing the action plan, particularly Step 5. Someone else may have to keep Bella amused while work is going on with you, for example.

Once your confidence is more fully established and Bella learns to keep her bossiness in check, you will be able to take over on your own. But the key is to complete the first 4 steps before we work directly with you. I want everything in place so things can go as smoothly as possible.

And just as importantly: There is no point in trying to confine you now. Bella would only make you miserable. And you don't have sufficient places to be left alone in peace . . . yet.

You have a challenge ahead of you, Sinbad. But you are such a smart cat that I'm sure you are more than a match for it.

I'm looking forward to continuing our work together.