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, February 9, 2014

High Energy Kitten Seen as Naughty: Auggie's Story

Dear Greyce,

I am a seven-month-old neutered male kitten who is quite endearing, as you can see in my photo. Since I was eight weeks old, I've lived with Herself and her parents. And I stay indoors.
Herself is away at school during the day, but the folks are around.

I have many toys, my favourite being a tin foil ball which I love to chase after and fetch. No matter how much she plays with me, I still want more! In an effort to curb my energy, they tried to get me a playmate but that didn't work out: the girl cat had a difficult time adapting and so now lives in a new home. Now the folks would rather that I remain an only cat.

They are getting annoyed with what they 'see' as my destructiveness. I scratch walls and doors. Sometimes I nip my purrsons.

Now Herself is thinking of confining me to her room when she is away during the day, in an effort to keep peace in the house.

What advice do you have for me?

Puzzled and curious,

Dear Auggie,

My dear, there is nothing wrong with you. You are a kitten. You are playful. You have energy to burn. This is normal. When I look at your photo I see a delightfully cute guy in the prime of his life. Ready to take on the world!

I think the problem you are having is that the people with whom you live have either had no prior experience with felines or have no memory of what it is like to have a kitten in the household. Just like our human counterparts (toddlers and pre-school children), we are curious and very, very energetic. We usually have only two speeds: full speed ahead and fast asleep. That is how we are made at this stage in our lives. So I think they need a crash course in cat behaviour and how to handle it. Two good references would be: Celia Haddon's Cats Behaving Badly and Sarah Heath's Cat and Kitten Behaviour. Both authors are in the United Kingdom (where you live).

Play Advice: Lots of the Right Kind of Play

What you need is play and challenge. Your Herself says she plays with you a lot but that it is not enough. In my experience, what people mean when they say 'a lot' is something far short of what young guys like you require. And play is very, very important for it will not only help you spend your energy, it will help calm you down and prevent a host of behavioural problems in the future.

People often think that just leaving you with a houseful of toys is sufficient. It is not. You need interactive play, that is, play where there is someone else to play with. In your case (as it is with many household cats), that playmate is a human. For play to be of great benefit to you, there are rules of play which the human must learn. Basically not just any old kind of play will do. And so my first piece of advice is to refurr to the tab on my blog page titled, Interactive Play Therapy. It describes why play is so important, states the rules of play, suggests the proper things for this kind of play, and outlines the phases of a play session (from start to slowing down to a satisfying finish). At your age, I'd think that a minimum of two and more likely four such daily sessions is in order. It will depend on your purrson's availability.

That said, you do need toys that keep you interested when people are not available to play with you. I'm sure you have a good variety of things you can hunt, fetch and chase.

Puzzling It Out

You also needs things to give you intellectual challenge - to give your brain a workout, because that will spend your energy as well. If you do not have them already, I am going to suggest that you have puzzles, as well. They usually come in two forms: ones that contain toys and ones that contain small pieces of treats or dry food. Either one is fine.

Food puzzles are items you have to figure out on your own; no human action involved after the puzzle is set up which is why purrsons tend to like them. Many such puzzles can start out easy (until you get the hang of it) and then be made increasingly complex so they will continue to challenge you. They are available in homemade (very inexpensive) versions, very reasonably-priced bought versions, and more intricate (though also easy clean and well-made) bought versions designed by behaviourists (and others) who understand what a cat needs for challenge. For more, general, information on food puzzles, consult behaviourist  Pam Johnson-Bennett.

There are a variety of such puzzles available for purchase such as those made by a company called Trixie. I offer this suggestion because the company sells worldwide and there should be a store in your area that stocks its products. And there are puzzles your purrson can easily make for you, such as Easy-to-Make Cat Puzzle

For homemade versions of food puzzles go to Frederick Cat Vet for photos and instructions. Watch the Lincoln Land Animal Clinic video of a cat working a puzzle made from a plastic water bottle. See also the article Work It Kitty which includes a video of a cat using a yogurt container treat dispenser.

And do get a copy of the book Playtime for Cats from your favourite bookstore or local library. In my opinion, it is the best book of its kind and has lots of details and practical ideas. There are lots of do-it-yourself ideas here.

What To Do About Destructiveness

What people call destructiveness is usually just our efforts to mark territory. As you know, we scent mark in order to establish our home and also to give us a sense of comfort. And since scent diminishes with time, we go on patrol and re-mark our special areas.

You may be surprised to know that most humans are ignorant about our hierarchy of marking. When we are comfortable, we mark with our cheeks (rubbing some of the 30 or so different pheromones from them onto the item or purrson in question) to help us incorporate items into our territory and orient ourselves. You'd think humans would understand this because the first thing they tend to do to a new space they occupy is to spread some of their own stuff around to make it feel like home. If that isn't sufficient we mark by scratching, depositing scent from our paw pads along with visual cues from our nails, largely to tell other cats of our presence; the fact that we may be an only cat and always kept indoors makes no difference - it's some of the wild in us left over from our ancestors. And if things are getting out of hand (or should I say, paw), we use urine instead. Since scent decays over time, we keep marking the same spot over and over again, to refresh it and make it feel like home.

For some reason, purrsons prefurr that we only rub against things rather than scratch, pee or poop there.

To deal with your clawing activities you MUST have at least one scratching post and/or pad. Some of us like to scratch horizontal areas (like carpets) and others prefurr vertical. Obviously you are a vertical scratcher and would benefit from a stable, tall scratching post. It must be tall enough that you can fully and safely stretch when you are using it. It needs to be placed where you scratch the most; location is VERY important. And then when you start to claw there, you should be told 'no' in a firm voice, and taken to the post and praised when you use it.

And for more details about getting you to scratch appropriately, go to International Cat Care (an organization based in the United Kingdom) and to Pam Bennett Johnson's scratching page which have some excellent advice to follow.


You haven't provided any details about your nipping activities, so I don't know if you are an ankle nipper or a hand nipper, and if you do it during play or at other times. For example, if people are using their hands as toys when playing with you, they are asking for trouble. 

In any event, there are two things your purrsons can do (in addition to those play sessions I mentioned) to discourage your nips:

Learn the signs that you might be wanting to nip (usually this applies only to nips that occur as part of stalking or pouncing, and that may not be relevant to you) - ear positions, staring, stalking and the like. If they can get hold of Bruce Fogle's Know Your Cat (a wonderful picture book full of cat poses and explanations) from the public library - or a similar book -  that would help them identify your signals.

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. (They also need to realize that for some cats, trying to pet the belly or the top of the head can stimulate the biting behaviour -- and they should then avoid this if it is a trigger for you.)

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, 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 where they are going (since you love to fetch), and that should get your mind off naughty things. And if need be, giving you a time-out.

A time-out means scooping you up and taking you unceremoniously into another room 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.

When a nip occurs, they must NOT react. When you bite into prey (a hand or ankle) that puts up a fight, it just spurs you on. You can't help it! Moving prey is worthy of continued action on your part. So any yelping or attempts to fight you off just makes you want to bite down and hang on even harder. And this is exactly what your human victims do. They don't think of it as a reward but that are, in fact, rewarding you for the very behaviour that is causing them so much pain.

So they need to learn NOT to react when you chomp down. The more they yelp and struggle, the more they behave like live prey and the more you will continue. For example if you are chomping on an arm, that arm so 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; that will get your attention and should get you to stop.

What Happens If This Doesn't Work Out?

Auggie, I'm not a great fan of having you locked up in one room alone all day. It might work and it might not. I fear it could be even more difficult for you.

IF this is to happen, then Herself must give you excellent play sessions, furnish the room for all your needs (litter, food, puzzles, toys, a window look-out, scratching post) AND be willing to spend time with you when she is at home - each and every day. Is she able to do this?

If she and her folks cannot find an acceptable way to make this situation work, purrhaps she needs to find you a home where they are most used to high-energy cats and have the interest and time to give you the necessary training and attention.

Okay, so purrhaps Herself freaks out at this possibility? Then have her consult with a cat behaviourist for on-site advice. Since you live in the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors or APBC for short.

In any event, I do think that good interactive play sessions, a scratching post(s) and some further learning about handling cat naughtiness properly, will go a long way to making your purrsons much more pleased with having you about. I wish you every success. 

With purrs,