ASK THE EXPERTS: BAD KITTY/GOOD KITTY
Do you have a question about your cat for our cat behavior experts? Questions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our behavior experts regret that they cannot answer all individual questions. We will post a selection on this page.
NOTE: Please consult your veterinarian if you believe your cat is ill or in need of medical care. This forum for general information only and should not be considered a substitute for professional veterinary care.
Q: I had three indoor cats until recently. My mom died a month ago and now I also have her four year old "Tippy." At first the cats were tolerating each other and I thought it was going to be OK. However, Tippy soon learned the hierarchy and has decided she can be the boss over the youngest and skittish one of the bunch, "Keeper."
Tippy will not let Keeper come out of the bedroom, and now Keeper is afraid to step foot out of that room. We had to provide a litter box and food and water in our bedroom to keep peace in the house! What can we do? Tippy seems very happy and well adjusted to her new environment. All four cats are spayed females. I hate to have Tippy declawed, but I don't want to make Keeper's home in our bedroom permanent. Any suggestions? Thank you.
A: HI Claire,
It sounds like Keeper is the "low one on the totem pole" and Tippy realizes this. It always amazes me how cats are able to pick up on this, but they do, and some cats, especially strong-willed ones, will take advantage.
First of all, for the time being, I would switch each of them from the bedroom to the rest of the house - let Keeper run with the others and then Tippy, alternating days or half days for now. To facilitate this, and depending on if the cats are good jumpers or not, I would put up either a baby gate or simply close the door when Tippy is in the bedroom. The baby gate would be preferred if Tippy won't or can't jump over it as then there is more contact than having them in separate rooms behind a closed door. The objective is to start getting them to have contact and interact, but of course, without the aggression.
At least once a day, and twice if you can manage it, take the two cats to a neutral room in your house, preferably one that is not frequented that often by the cats, where you can monitor and supervise them for a few minutes. A couple of minutes before you start the training session, plug in a Feliway Comfort Zone plug in into an electrical outlet in that room. You can unplug it when you are finished with training. Keep the other cats out of the room while you are working with Tippy and Keeper. Start with five minutes, increasing gradually to ten minutes.
Watch for signs that Tippy is about to attack or chase Keeper. These signs would include Tippy lowering her body toward the ground, staring fixedly at Keeper (and with dilated pupils), ears pointing out toward the side (not pinned to her head), tail swishing slowly. You will then see her body tense as she gets ready to spring into action.
Friendly body language, on the other hand, would be Tippy standing upright, tail upright or gently draping down. She would not indicate muscle tenseness nor would she be staring fixedly at Keeper. She would also turn her back on Keeper (or not) and would not seem obsessively interested in her either.
When you are in the room and Tippy approaches Keeper with an aggressive type stance, clap your hands and say a sharp "NO!!" Tippy will likely back away. Do this each time she approaches Keeper.
Try to distract Tippy while in the room through gentle interactive play, such as dragging a string along the ground or tossing a favorite lightweight mouse or other toy. Avoid strenuously active play though as you want to keep things calm, not get her too excited.
If Tippy gets ready to pounce, intervene with the hand clapping and the "NO!!", tossing a light weight toy, tossing a small pillow in front of her or simply stepping in between her line of sight to Keeper. The objective is to throw off her concentration.
I have found that if you do this several times, most cats will simply give up their mission (at least for that moment!) as they are inherently lazy and it is simply too much work to keep up the effort for this "game!"
Try doing this for a few days and see if things are getting a bit better...AND do switch them in and out of the bedroom, so Tippy learns to be quiet and Keeper has her buds back. Hopefully, working with these techniques for a couple of weeks, the situation will improve and you will be able to let them be together for longer and longer periods.
The trouble is that females (even spayed ones) are often the LEAST likely to get along (male-female or male-male is much better) and when you add that extra girl to the bunch, especially a self-confident, dominant personality like Tippy, there can be problems, as you have seen.
If things are really not getting better and you have honestly tried working it out, either one cat will always have to be isolated from the one that doesn't get along with it or..you will have to find a new home for one of the cats. However in most cases, the cats eventually find their balance and work out their territories and calm can return to the household.
By the way, declawing Tippy will definitely not resolve the situation and may even make her much more aggressive (she still has teeth and is a dominant personality and Keeper knows this). Please don't declaw her.
Q: I have a three-year-old cat that is very timid. I also have the mother and the kitten was born here, but the mother was very protective and we left the kitten alone because the mother would get very upset. I realize now that we should have persisted playing with the kitten because she is so timid now that she hides most of the time. I have gotten her to come out around me and she talks to me and wants me to pet her - on her terms. I would like her to become more outgoing and would like to know what I can do to help.
A: Just as people have different personalities, so do cats. Although it is certainly true that working to socialize your girl when she was a kitten would have helped, there is no guarantee she would ever have been the type of cat to be comfortable with strangers.
However, there are some things you can do to build your relationship and her self-confidence - and maybe you are already working in this direction. You will need to be very patient, gentle and calm with her as these changes don't happen overnight. However, any improvement is likely to bring great satisfaction to both of you, bring you closer, so it is worth the effort. And the fact that you wrote to me shows that you are willing to try, which is already half the battle! I have found that overcoming these seemingly impossible barriers often make for the most lasting and deep bonds.
It might be better to temporarily confine the cat to one room, your bedroom or another room where you can go often to work with her. It is best if you choose a room without too many hiding places. What you want is for her to feel somewhat exposed in the room, but not threatened. Provide her with the comforts and necessities she needs while she is in this room, such as litterbox, food, water, scratching post and comfy bed or pad. You can have her share the space with her mother as you desire, but please remove her mother from the room when you are going to want to work with this girl.
Keep the door closed and when you know you are going to have time for a training session, it is best to remove her food an hour or so before, if at all possible.
Enter the room and sit quietly on a low chair, cushion on the floor or lie on the bed. Try to imagine how imposing you are standing as you loom over a little cat and you will understand why the low profile is less intimidating. You can engage in any activity you like - read, watch TV or listen to music at low volume, work on the computer. Just BE there and get your cat used to the fact that you are spending quality time with her, yet not demanding anything of her. Talk to her quietly, calmly, and if you move, move slowly. Tell her you love her and want her to feel safe. Cats may not understand our conversations, but they understand our tone and the sentiments behind it. So be sincere in telling her that you just want her to be happy, feel safe and loved.
Just tell her how you feel and do your best to project those calming and loving feelings to her. The sound of your voice and your sincerity will make its mark. Even if you can only spend five minutes a day, this will start making an impression on her.
After a few days of just being there and talking to her, you can offer her little tidbits of special food treats, from your hand. If possible, plan on spending your together time right before her normal mealtime, so she is further motivated by hunger.
Most cats love chicken, which you can buy freeze dried or in little strips of grilled chicken and freeze into snack bags, defrost as needed. But bits of other meat, meat baby food on a little spoon, cream cheese or other cheese, a little sardine are some other healthy and delicious treats that she might not be able to resist. If she only likes dry food, there are commercial treats that might appeal.
If at first she is reluctant to take food from your hand, you can put the treat at arms length. When she has learned that she can eat and you will not try to grab her, move the treat a little closer. Again, if you talk to her, use a low and soothing voice and try to keep any anxiety or impatience from your tone. This is usually a slow process, but after a few days, you should start to see progress.
As she gets a little bolder, you can extend your hand to her with one finger pointing (hold out your hand, curl the other fingers under, forefinger pointed toward her - move slowly). Most cats at this stage in training, will sniff at the finger, possibly touch it with their nose. If she does this, you can gently caress her in a line along her jaw, moving from her mouth toward the ear. Again this might be something to happen in stages. When she allows this, you can continue behind her ears and scratch gently behind the ears with your fingers.
In this whole process, try not to show your frustration or impatience, and don't get discouraged. Just take every move toward getting closer as a treasured gift. When you will look back on things as they were a few weeks ago, you will very likely be surprised at how much progress you have made - baby steps some days, bigger steps others and some days, no steps at all ... but with the hope and anticipation for tomorrow!
As she begins to trust you more, act a little more boldly and try to get her interested in an interactive toy. Don't be too aggressive with the toy. Most cats are more impressed by a toy that shimmers for a second and then holds still than in one that makes constant vigorous movements - at least until they get going with playing. In this case, it is best to keep the toy low to the ground, or drag it on the ground, rather than shaking it in the air - less intimidating. Make these sessions around 10 minutes or so. If it is in your bedroom, hopefully she will start to crawl in bed with you and cuddle up during the night, especially if the room temperature is on the cool side.
As I said, she may never go beyond a certain point, but it seems to me you already have the start of a trusting relationship with her. You just need to build on this, one block at a time. Sometimes, because of the commitment on your part, these relationships become the most special ones. Good luck!
Our Good Kitty/Bad Kitty Expert: Marva Marrow is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (IAABC: International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants) with more than 30 years of experience. Her feline behavior business, The Kitty Kouch aids veterinarians, shelters, rescue groups and private clients. She is a frequent contributor and consultant to Cat Fancy and Animal Awareness magazines and to nationally syndicated newspapers. Marva breeds, shows and shares her home with her Oriental Shorthair cats. She may be reached at email@example.com.