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.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cat Stalks Humans: Tux's Trials

Dear Greyce,

I am a handsome black and white neutered male cat - a teenager really at 1.75 years old. I am curious, active and aloof, meaning that I'm not very cuddly though I prefurr to be around my purrsons whenever they are home and I do follow them from room to room. I'm left alone during the day and mostly sleep then.

The problem isn't with me, it's with Them and most particularly with Herself. For example, she was watching TV and I came up behind her, put my paws on either side of her head and bit it. No blood just a nip. But I was confined to my kennel!

After a time, I was let out and she picked me up (!) and so I bit her arm several times. How was I to know she was about to feed me dinner?

There has been a least one other incident. And now, since I'm stalking Her even more frequently, she says she is creeped out when she sits on the couch and I come around and stare her down very intently. According to her, I don't give any warning before I do the pounce-and-bite routine.

Now I've always been a bit on the nippy side but the last few months this has escalated. Sometimes I just sit very alert, not moving, but crouched low with my back arched. What gives with that?

And just in case you need to know, I live in a one-bedroom condo that has a kitchen, living room and dining room (all open into each other), an office, and a bedroom and bathroom. I'm not allowed in the bedroom when Themselves are sleeping. Ditto the bathroom. Other than that I have free rein.

I have a cat tree the overlooks the living room and a fair number of toys: a stuffed hippo, wiggly worm, small balls, twist ties/ribbons, mouse on a string. Themselves also use a laser pointer and finger gloves when they play with me - about 15 minutes a day. Though they do admit to lapses.

What's a guy to do Greyce?


Dear Tux,

Ah you handsome devil, you are at exactly the right age for this behaviour to manifest yourself. No longer a kitten you are entering adolescence where like males of many species, you get in touch with your macho side. Sure you're neutered but that doesn't matter a fig when it comes to this.

You have a problem and it has a name: predatory aggression. Basically I think you are frustrated with lack of exercise and are trying to invite play (in a way humans find fearful) so you can de-stress. It often happens to young guys like you when you don't get enough environmental stimulation. So before I present any solutions, I need to you understand WHY you are behaving this way and WHY Herself, in particular, is such a purrfect victim.

Regular readers of my blog will recognize some of the sections below, because I repeat them every so often for the benefit of new cats. WARNING: I'm going to give you a LOT of advice and lots of cross-references. Please be patient and read everything through a few times before you take action. So bear with me while I give you the lowdown.

Why You Behave This Way

All cats have a predatory cycle - after all, not so long ago we were all wild cats, and even now the more placid domestic puss has predatory needs. We are born hunters and even though our food comes in a dish - in your case at set times, we still need to hunt.

The hunting cycle consists of the following: find the prey by stalking, staring at the prey intently to get a good fix on position and potential movement, pouncing on the prey and bringing them down (with possible continued cycles of staring, pouncing, biting and scratching). The cycle finishes with chomping on the prey, grooming off the smears from your feast, and having a nap.

In the wild we need to hunt several times a day, because you never know when and if you will be successful. So you take every opportunity you can get (unless your tummy is very full).

When the domestic cat doesn't get to hunt in this way, the predatory cycle still manifests. You know it is in operation because your arousal level rises (felt as a vague anxiety) and so you go into hunt mode.

To lower the level you need to hunt or to go through something that resembles the hunt. That's why some of us race up and down corridors (usually at dawn and/or dusk - the times when wild cats hunt). Others of us may 'pick on' pets in the household - doing an invitational pounce and nip to get them to play. And others resort to humans.

IF you don't get a hunting workout and IF this happens repeatedly, your arousal level will continue to rise to the point when you cannot get it back under control and you will go off half-cocked at the least little thing. I think that is what is happening to you when your pupils get very big and you crouch low and are 'on alert'. You are highly aroused and don't know what to do about it!

There are several cats out there who have this problem. Too much energy to burn in an environment that is frankly as dull as dishwater.

So what do you need?

Two things:
* More acceptable (to your humans) ways of burning off that excess energy and mimicking the predatory cycle.
* A more stimulating environment.

Ways of Burning off Your Energy

There are two ways to do this and I strongly advocate BOTH for you.

1. When you are alone, consider some new toys that might interest and/or challenge you.

Because you are home alone for the day, I'd like to encourage you to engage in solo play as well, that is, play you initiate yourself rather than depending on another cat or a purrson. For suitable toys, consult my previous blog entries: Guys Just Wanna Have Fun (Nov. 9/09) and Stimulating Ideas (Dec 6/09), as well as the book, Boredom Busters for Cats: 40 Whisker-twitching Games and Adventures by Nikki Moustaki
available from the Edmonton Public Library (since I think you live in the area); catalog number is 636.8

Don't forget to put some of your toys away for a few weeks and bring out others. This helps keep your interest alive rather than having same-old, same-old available at all times.

And since you are a fast eater and a curious cat, I suggest your folks give consideration to a food puzzle to provide you with intellectual stimulation. For a food puzzle,  they'd reserve a small portion of your kibble for you to figure out how to get access to (and gradually increase the portion of your meal you get in this way - up to a reasonable point, that is). Have them consult my entry: Cat Food Matter's: Eating Too Fast and scroll down to the Slim Cat Treat Ball (and other videos) to get the gist. Also have a look at homemade Food Puzzles.

If I had to choose between other toys and a food puzzle for you, I'd go for the food puzzle paws down. You love food. You are curious. And you need stimulation. Enough said!

2. When the folks are around, engage in interactive play sessions.

A cat such as yourself, who prefers a hands-off approach to human contact, would find interactive games to be a good vehicle for building a bond. Many people miss the opportunity to bond with their cats because they think that cats should just keep themselves amused. This is fine for kittens but as we get older we often prefurr some human interaction. So the point is to engage in interactive games (that is, games that require both you and your purrson to participate).

Interactive means that your purrson controls an interactive toy (more about that later) in a manner that simulates prey behaviour. This gets you interested. And the hunt is on.

So now to the details about what to use.

String Games - Pictured below is what I call the worm.

The worm is, any long, thin thing that can be pulled along the ground. I have several models. Pictured here is a thick, long shoelace (the kind that is for hiking boots) with the aiglets - the end bits with the plastic on them - cut off so I don't swallow plastic and the ends made into knots. Mine is about 60" long (long enough for Herself to keep the end far enough away from me that I won't pounce on her by mistake).

The fishing pole - basically a long string attached to a pole (to keep the human our of harm's way while you play). Herself made mine using a 30" strand of fleece (from the remnant section of a fabric store) attached to a 30" piece of fake bamboo (sold in the garden section of our local hardware store) with some electrical tape (sometimes she has used duct tape instead). This is probably similar to your "mouse on a string."
The fat fleece which is a fatter, store-bought version of my home-made fishing pole toy and has detachable feathers at the end, to add interest. Pole is kitten-sized (17") but the length of the fleece (40" + 7" feathers) makes up for it. While it is similar to many such toys, it's strong point is that it is well-made and will not easily come apart (except for the feather bit - but even without the feathers I find it quite entertaining). I bought this from the local pet supply store using my catnip allowance.

Since taking these photos, I have found a new toy which very much pleases me - the kittenator by Nekoflies. Check the website for a video and range of attachments.

To use any of the above toys, have your purrson drag it along the floor. You can watch it and then pounce on it. But it gets more interesting if your purrson drags it behind her as she walks through your home. I like when it goes around the corner into another room, or behind a piece of furniture. And it is very entertaining when it starts to crawl up on the sofa and over the cushions.

Bug Games. These are for those of us who prefurr to hunt small bugs, rather than long thin things. Cat Dancer While there is nothing like a fresh grasshopper to give you some get up and go, Herself prefurrs to use the Cat Dancer (available from pet supply stores for around $4.00 Canadian). It is very simple: a coiled wire with some cardboard bits on the end. In fact it looks so simple that many people are not impressed by it in the package. But in action, it is another matter. Herself holds the wire and it goes erratically in the air. Sometimes she gets the bug to go into an open paper bag (or my brand new cat tent) so I can hunt for it there. Sometimes the bug goes between layers of tissue paper on the floor and rustles about to attract my interest.

Bird Games. Ah, the flash of feathers! While I had tried several feather toys on poles, my very favourite is called Da Bird.
It has been rated as one of the best cat toys ever for many years. Herself couldn't understand what all the fuss is about because it looks so much like every other fishing pole toy. But the proof is in the action! It is a long pole ( 3' to keep the human from getting hurt when I pounce), a three-foot piece of string on which the toy dangles, and a clump of feathers that resemble the size and profile of the real thing; those feathers are attached in such a way that they whir through the air, just like a real bird!

Herself makes it go through the room in the air and I watch it intently. When she lets it land that really gets me interested. From time to time, she lets the feathers rest on the sofa or the ground. She is patient enough to let them rest for some time, and then I get into my special crouch position and wait for the right moment before I rush up to it and pounce. Once I've released my prey, she sends it up in the air for another round. I am grateful that the manufacturers of this particular toy sell replacement feathers, because I'm sure mine will get a good workout.

Laser Pointer: I have loved a good workout with a laser pointer which is every humans' dream because it requires so little work on their part. They just sit, turn it on and point. The only thing they have to make sure is NOT TO POINT IT IN YOUR EYES because the light is intense and could cause blindness. Herself went all out and bought one from a stationery and office supply store (about $20!) because she wanted one that would take inexpensive replacement batteries. But I know you can also get them from a dollar store (sometimes for $1.00 and sometimes for $2.00 Canadian); just know that when the batteries wear out, you'll need to get a new pointer because the replacement batteries will cost more than the toy itself. I have particularly enjoyed watching and then chasing the red point up and down the stairs. And I have friends who literally can climb the walls after it!

Sad to say, it no longer interests me. It's boring because I never got to catch the light! My paws were on it but could never grasp it. In an attempt to re-new my interest, Themselves put layers of tissue paper (with a few small toys hidden between said layers) out, and wafted the pointer over that. At least this way I get to catch something!

The Wand - I love my three-foot feather wand. In fact I loved it to death so Herself had to go out and purchase several more. (Here I am with the new one on the left and the old one on the right.)  Every night before my folks get into bed, we have a special game. I hop on the bed and Herself messes up the duvet and spreads the pillows around to make an interesting hunting ground. Then the wand comes out. It goes in the air, hits the bed and flops about. It hides under the folds of the duvet. No matter where it is, I watch carefully and pounce. From time to time the feathers fly off. After a while, either I start to lose interest or the toy starts to move more and more slowly, like I've actually maimed it. And after a final pounce, it's dead. And then Herself puts it away for the night. I'm then ready for a snack.

The Rules of the Game

People make the mistake of thinking that games are purely for entertainment. They don't realize that they are a necessary part of our daily predatory cycle without which we can become quite anxious and uptight. We are hunters; so we need to stalk, chase, pounce and kill several times a day. That is why I recommend two interactive play sessions. Interactive means that you play with your purrson: Your purrson controls the toy in a manner that simulates prey behaviour. This gets you interested. And the hunt is on.  Duration is up to you: based on time available but also should be sufficient to tire you out (panting and leaving the scene means you have had enough); 15-minutes can be enough but some cats need a lot more.

In your case, I'd like to see two sessions timed as follows: one when whomever it is arrives home at night and the other, before your dinner time (which I understand to be 10:30 - just before bed) - 15 minutes or longer IF you are not panting or give up - and as long as Themselves have time.

You've been home alone all day and likely need some stimulation/interaction when you purrsons return. Of course, this is probably the time when the humans most want to flop down and relax. No such luck; but they can have it both ways if they play some laser pointer with you at this time (when they first come home) and save the more rigourous workout for later.

Each session should be followed by something to eat - a few treats or a small snack. They could time your just before bed one so you have a workout followed by dinner instead of treats. Then you'll groom and be ready for a good sleep - just like in the wild.

Here are the details your purrson needs to know, in order to follow the rules of the game.

1. Prey never come out when you are in the open. You need to be at least somewhat hidden from them (or they from you). Unfortunately many people think you should play in the middle of the room where there is no cover. (And unfortunately many cat videos perpetuate this myth.) Now how many hunters go out in the open rather than hiding under a bush or behind a tree? No I'm not suggesting that your purrson bring in some dirt and a ten-foot tree to add some realism. However a cardboard box with cutouts can serve as an excellent blind (think duck hunter here). A cushion on the floor can be a barrier (or something behind which prey can hide). A tablecloth or low bench can serve to partially hide you while in hunting pose.

2. Prey never just walk right up to you. They may wander across your line of vision. They will go away from you. But no prey invites himself to be your dinner. A common mistake most people make with interactive play is to just dangle the toy in front of you, so you stand on your haunches and box. This is a defensive move and does NOT simulate hunting. It entertains the human but has zippo value to you. No prey would behave so stupidly; so no wonder you are NOT amused.

3. Prey follow a path of some sort, either on the ground (in and around things too) or in the air. And from time to time they stop and rest. For example while birds fly a lot, they also walk on the ground (looking for worms and bugs) and this is the more likely time when they are caught by hunting cats. And after prey has been caught, it will try to get away. Over time of course, it will get more and more tired and become more and more still. Still prey is dead prey - of not much interest. Some people make another common mistake: To make the toy go off in a dozen different directions at top speed so that you exhaust yourself chasing it and NEVER catch it! Again, this may be human entertainment but only serves to frustrate you. So you need to insist that they mimic proper prey behaviour.

4. Prey eventually get caught and die. The game should NOT continue at a high speed on and on or your 15 minutes will be up and you'll be wound up tighter than a drum! To help you wind down, the prey needs to get exhausted during the last few minutes of the game, getting slower and slower, and finally be dispatched for the very last time.That way you can wind down and be ready to relax.

Three things humans should NEVER do.

1. Shine a laser pointer in your eyes: It can blind you.

2. Use their hands (even gloved! even those gloves with toys dangling from the fingers!) instead of a toy. This is dangerous to them because your will pounce, swat, claw and bite them by accident. And it is dangerous for you, because they will think you are vicious when you decide to bite their hand when they put it under the sheets at night, thinking it's another game.

3. Leave these toys out when the human has gone. Cats have been known to strangle themselves or bite and swallow the strings, when unsupervised. Such toys (that have strings or tinsel-like metal) should be kept in a drawer or closet when not in use. Besides they are more interesting if saved for special occasions.

A More Stimulating Environment

While your purrsons may find their homes a restful retreat from the working world, truth is they get exposed to lots of other stimulation by the very act of leaving it for periods of time. You don't. That means we need to make that home more interesting for you.

Let's face it: Outdoors there are micro-climates that change (with wind or temperature or time of day) that make even the plainest lawn an interesting field for a cat. Indoors - not so much; carpets and fixed furnishings just sit there.

Most humans decorate only the bottom third of their rooms and call that furnished. We cats, however, live in three dimensions and benefit from various degrees of height. Hence your enjoyment of your cat tree. I understand you don't wish to be disturbed when you are on it. It may very well be where you feel the safest and most secure.

Are there other spots in the condo where you like to rest or sit? It would help if I knew what they were and whether or not they were on ground level.

To make things more interesting I suggest trying any or all of the following - not all at once but rather one at a time.

1. A box.

Ben at Work
Now I'm not talking anything fancy here but just a box you can be in. As Ben so aptly demonstrates, some of us like an open box to sit in. Others like the box to be on its side so we are surrounded by cardboard walls and ceiling with one open end. Others prefurr a box that is like a tunnel - with an unobstructed entrance at the front and an exit at the back. Many of us like a box that is nearer the walls than in the middle of an area. So maybe you should try three boxes - one of each configuration - and see what rings your chime.

If you are a box kinda guy and find a suitable configuration, suggest that your folks indulge their artistic side and make some holes in the sides of it that would be big enough for your paw to go through. Then when your a playing with them, they could pass a toy alongside the box and you could reach out and grab it.

Feel free to change the box in about a month (or when you tire of it) - because a new one (from the liquor store, for example) will have all sorts of new smells that will interest you.

2. Tissue paper or newsprint (preferably unbleached - no colour but white if you can't find the other; dyed stuff, not-so-much). Many of us enjoy the rustling of paper especially if loosely crumpled on the floor, purrhaps with a few layers which hide a toy or two underneath. And if laced with a bit of catnip (if you are so inclined) they offer a wonderful way to roll around and get a workout.

Better still if Themselves use a fishing-pole type toy on top of the paper and even get it to go underneath one of the layers. So purrfect for pouncing.

Again, make sure to throw out any shredded paper so you don't accidentally ingest it. And refresh your supply on a monthly basis. I don't advocate keeping the paper out at all times - purrhaps just during play sessions or for a day or so. Having it out and then taking it away helps to keep it interesting. We all get bored by same-old, same-old each and every day. Besides, your humans will not consider it a valued decorative feature.

3. The catnip party. If catnip is to your liking, I suggest a catnip party (but no more than once a week because we don't want you to habituate and thus lose the thrill). Either spread the catnip on the rug (usually the day Themselves are planning to vacuum so they get to clean up the mess) and/or between layers of that tissue paper I mentioned.

Now that you are all played out, let's turn to some other serious issues.

I'm sure Herself wonders, "Why me. Why does Tux pick on me?" That's simple. Cats like you are very smart. And we take on the being that behaves the most like prey.

You MAY be reacting somewhat to the fact that she smells different than Himself - the absence of male pheromones on her body may suggest that she is an easier pick. But the real reinforcement comes by how she reacts when you do your pounce-and-bite schtick.

I bet she screams or shouts and makes a fuss. I bet she tries to get away. These are natural human reactions yet they just serve to make you MORE interested in the kill. You see, most humans don't know that the best thing to do if caught in such a situation is to freeze - because a very still being is like a dead being, and dead beings aren't at all interesting to bite or chase.

So I am going to give you the same advice as I have before to other cats: Tell Herself that the more she 
yelps and struggles, the more she will behave like live prey and the more you will continue. So for example if you are chomping on an arm, that arm should go motionless and stay like that. Dead prey is NOT interesting. You WILL lose interest.  So the key is to have the human go limp and once you have released your grip, SLOWLY remove the body part.

To speed matters up at the same time, the victim can blow in your face (something cats dislike - a lot) or make a sharp noise or spray you with the water bottle - whatever works to get your attention and should get you to stop.

Diverting the Staring and Other Such Signs

Here is what I've told cats before and I  think your folks should know: We cats are subtle communicators and not every human is sophisticated enough to pick up our signals.

You must educate your folks on the signals you give that you are up to no good - ear positions, staring, stalking and the like. Unless your folks know the correct signals, they will not be able to prevent you from engaging them in ways that are painful - to them.

Bear consults the text
They need to look at a book of photo illustrations on cat behaviour, as my colleague, Bear, demonstrates at the right. Suggest they get hold of Know Your Cat: An Owner's Guide to Cat Behavior  ( a wonderful picture book full of cat poses and explanations) by Bruce Fogle (catalog number 636.8 FOG at the Edmonton Public Library).

Also give Themselves some homework on cat signalling. Click on the following links for further information.

For example, Himself mentioned (in your e-mail) that your ears were not back, which suggests he knows something about the role of ear position in signalling. But They may not realize that in your case, the pupils of your eyes are important indicators - since big eyes indicate very high arousal levels.

By paying attention to your signals they will also pay attention to theirs, giving them two benefits: 1) they should start to see a pattern (certain signals, possible behaviours on their parts, etc. that serve as triggers) and then avoid doing whatever it is that you find so provocative; and 2) they can intervene in the early stages.

Intervention means distracting you by throwing a toy in a direction AWAY from them and that should get your mind off naughty things. And if need be, they may give you a time-out. This means scooping you up and taking you unceremoniously into another room (of kennel) and closing the door to give you time to cool off. Five minutes might do it, but if when the door is opened you revert to unacceptable behaviour immediately, the time out needs to be extended (and you'll need a litter box and water in that room).

And yes, that might mean that they need to wear a thick jacket or oven mitts corral you using a corn broom, so that you don't sink your teeth into soft flesh when they are trying to confine you. It is important that they NOT give you ANY attention when you receive a time-out or they will be rewarding the very behaviour they wish you would stop.

Some Special Advice on Stopping the Stare

Being stared at really freaks people out. And that is NOT desirable. In your case, it means you are up to no good.

Here is my advice: if Herself sits on the couch (which I understand is away from all walls facing the TV), consider constructing a folding screen from two sheets of cardboard or Coroplast (plasticized cardboard available from stores like Home Depot) that are held together with duct tape at the joining seam. The screen should be high enough that you cannot see Herself's head from you usual staring positions. This will accomplish several things: 1) give Herself a bit more confidence that she will not be blindsided by a pounce from you, and 2) force you to be more in her direct line of sight when you have pouncing on your mind (and thus put her in a position to correct you immediately).

Well Tux, that's about it for now. Consider my advice and make sure your folks do their homework. And once you have implemented my suggestions (most particularly about cat signalling and about interactive play), let me know how it goes.

Purrs to you and yours,