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Pets: Figuring out feline behavior

These reader questions were answered at the 2015 International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Feline Behavior Conference last month in Atlanta.

Speakers included veterinary behaviorists and certified cat-behavior consultants on issues ranging from the social organization of cats to how to introduce an outdoor cat into the home. (To learn more about animal behavior, or find a behavior consultant at iaabc.org.)

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Q: My cat likes to chomp on my fingers. I’ve even put on thick gloves, but she bites them, too. This is very irritating. Any advice?

– M.M., Cyberspace

A: “This could all be a fun game to your cat, who previously learned that human fingers are fun to bite on,” says certified cat-behavior consultant Ingrid Johnson, of Atlanta. “One option is to stop using the gloves, which may have become a cue to let the bite-the-fingers games begin, even more than previously.”

“If you feel safer, then by all means keep the gloves on, but put lemon juice or vinegar on them (or spray them with a manufactured product such as Bitter Apple, available at pet stores and online),” says New York City-based certified cat-behavior consultant Beth Adelman. “If the cat does bite down on you, say, ‘Ouch!’ ”

Johnson adds, “Gently push (the finger the cat is biting) into the cat’s mouth (without gagging the pet). Don’t pull it out, or it may become like a tug-of-war game. Meanwhile, try to distract your cat with a (another) game, or maybe some treat-foraging toys (which the cat must maneuver to extract the goodies), or anything substantial to chew on and really bite into, which can enhance serotonin (a positive neurotransmitting chemical found in the brain) – not just a laser light game. Continue to reward your cat with these alternative and appropriate objects or food to bit, instead of your fingers.”

Johnson has created foraging toys and sells them on her website: fundamentallyfeline.com. Dozens of other choices are available at pet stores and online.

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Q: My husband and I are retired and are home most of the time. We’re planning a vacation for about a week, the longest we’ve been away. More often, we go on one- or two-day trips. While we’re away, a friend will come in twice a day to feed our cat, scoop the litter box, and maybe stay to keep the cat company for half an hour.

Our cat is on a very specific schedule, and I wonder if that matters. Will our cat miss us? Do cats have any concept of time to understand that this time we’ve been gone longer than a day?

Our friends think we’re crazy worrying about our cat, but he’s very attached to us.

– C.K., Buffalo

A: It sounds as if you’re just as attached to the cat, which isn’t a bad thing.

“To the best of your friend’s ability, adhering to your general schedule will help the cat adjust while you’re away,” Johnson says. “Leave on the TV for background. I suggest a hockey game; you’re in Buffalo, you’re a hockey fan and many cats like to follow the puck. If not, a radio station playing soft music is a good idea.

“Leave out fun toys, but have your (pet-sitting) friend rotate some of the toys, so there are new ones added daily, as old ones are hidden for a few days. Even something as simple as an empty box can enrich a cat’s life.”

Another great stress-buster is Feliway; you plug in a diffuser that emits a calming pheromone. Spraying scents such as lavender, rosemary or honeysuckle also relaxes some anxious cats.

“Cats don’t wear watches,” Adelman adds. “But they know the difference between (you) being gone for a few hours and several days, especially if the absence is unusual.

“The truth is, the cat hasn’t seen your travel itinerary and may even wonder if you’re coming back. So hiding treats in food puzzles and rotating interesting toys give your cat something else to think about.”

Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can’t answer all of them individually, he’ll answer those of general interest in his column. Send email to petworld@stevedale.tv. Include your name, city and state.