The Classic Comprehensive Handbook of Cat Care
The training necessary to make a cat easy to live with is minimal when compared with what the average dog requires in order to become a pleasant companion. Training for many cats includes only housebreaking (housetraining) and teaching them to come in response to their names, but many other things can, and sometimes must, be taught. Cats need to learn that curtains, houseplants, tabletops, and kitchen counters are off limits.
They need to learn that biting and scratching are unacceptable ways to play with people. Some cats shake hands, retrieve balls, sit on command, and do other tricks that are amusing but not necessary for good companionship.
In order to have a good relationship with your cat and to have success in any training you choose to do, you must be able to understand your cat’s body language. Failure to do so not only prevents you from really appreciating the nuances of your cat’s disposition but also can result in serious scratches and bites to you. Cats’ body language can be most easily understood if you remember that relatively subtle alterations in pupil size, body hair, ear, mouth, whisker, tail, and body position can combine with vocalization in numerous ways to indicate your cat’s mood. The following information describes only the most basic and obvious ways a cat uses his or her body to communicate.
The neutral posture is assumed by a relaxed cat calmly observing his or her environment. The cat’s mouth may be held open or closed. The tail is usually held in a relaxed, lowered position, and both ears are pointed forward.
When alert, a cat’s whole body becomes more rigid, the ears are held erect, and the tail becomes slightly raised. Often the tail twitches and the cat holds his or her mouth closed as the whiskers are brought forward.
Alert cats may purr when they are relaxed with the person (or object) that draws their attention.
As an alert cat moves forward to greet you, the tail will move to the straight-up position. Although the back may be slightly arched, a friendly cat saying hello always keeps the fur lying smooth. He or she may purr and/or rub the side of his or her head against you.
Unlike the alert cat who pushes forward to give a friendly greeting, the frightened (threatened) but self-confident cat may rush forward and attack. This cat’s facial expression becomes menacing as the pupils constrict and direct eye contact is maintained. Both the ears and whiskers may be directed forward when there is a clear intention to attack. The tail may stand straight up, but most often it extends out from the body and its tip flicks back and forth, expressing disturbance with the situation. Hissing, growling, and spitting complete the threatening picture. Should you need to handle a cat exhibiting this body language, be prepared to risk a bite or severe clawing. Unless the aggressive cat can be left undisturbed for at least thirty minutes, this mood is difficult to change.
Cats who feel threatened but are less self-confident may adopt similar body language but turn their bodies to the side and fluff up their fur to appear larger than they would otherwise. They also draw their whiskers back and flatten their ears against the backs of their heads. The pupils dilate and the mouth is opened wide to display the fangs. The cat will often scream and hiss. (This is a typical Halloween cat posture.) Sometimes a cat displaying the defensive threat type of body language can be gradually calmed down with soft talking and cautious attempts at petting, but there are many gradations and variations in this body language pattern, especially if the cat is in a situation that elicits conflicted emotions.
Misguided attempts to handle or calm the cat can result in injury. To complicate matters further, male cats may display similar body language in play.
Fearful cats often assume a crouched position while maintaining the ruffled fur, flattened ears, and vocalizations of a more aggressive cat.
Extremely fearful cats who are willing to defend themselves may roll onto their backs with their claws unsheathed and their legs ready to kick and scratch. When fear turns to complete submission, however, the cat will become quiet, smooth his or her fur, and avoid eye contact with you. It is usually safe to handle a fearful cat once he or she has become submissive as long as you are careful not to scare the cat again.
CAT BODY LANGUAGE
TEACHING A CAT HIS OR HER NAME
Use your cat’s name frequently during training. Be sure to use it at pleasurable times such as during feeding, play, and when giving affection.
Although you must use it as well to get your cat’s attention before correction, your cat will learn his or her name much more quickly when it has pleasant associations. If you associate it consistently with good things such as special food treats, your cat will soon come running when you call his or her name. One caution: Never punish your cat after he or she comes in response to his or her name. Your cat may think you are giving punishment for coming and learn to avoid you when called by name.
Although many cats do not seem to respond to punishment as correction for misdeeds, most do. Each time you get a new cat you will have to determine what method is best for that individual. In general, avoid physical punishment; instead get your cat to respond to gentle words and petting as positive rewards for acceptable behavior. Use a sharp “No!” when you find your cat doing something undesirable and see if this is sufficient to stop the behavior and prevent its recurrence. Be sure, however, to avoid punishing a cat after the fact for something he or she has done, since delayed correction is not only ineffective but confusing to your pet.
If harsh words are not sufficient correction, a loud hand clap is startling and sometimes quite effective. In some instances you may have to resort to picking your cat up by the scruff of the neck and giving a shake. A spank on the rump should be a last resort. Cats are intelligent creatures, and this type of physical punishment sometimes results in a cat who will “behave” when you are around, but immediately do the forbidden when you leave the room or the house. Also some cats may become aggressive toward people who administer physical punishment. A squirt from a water gun or spray bottle will often work better than punishment more directly associated with you. Keep a filled implement at hand. When your cat chews on your plants, gets into the fireplace, climbs on the curtains, jumps onto the stove or into the toilet, or does something else equally as dangerous or irritating in exploration, give a squirt to his or her face. The unwanted behavior will usually stop after a few corrections, and the squirt gun method often produces long-lasting results. Booby traps are another means of correction useful for preventing misbehavior in your absence.
Ask your veterinarian and/or consult the book list for information on the use of mousetraps, deodorants, alcohol or perfume, aluminum foil, empty soda cans, motion sensors, and mothballs as aids to behavior correction.
Be sure to provide your cat with sufficient diversions at home. A bored cat is a cat who gets into trouble. Continued correction will never result in a “perfectly behaved” cat if you fail to provide permissible entertainment.
Many commercial cat toys are good, but be sure to inspect them well before assuming they are safe. All cats’ toys should be big enough so that they cannot be swallowed (even with difficulty) and sturdy enough so that they cannot be torn apart and eaten. Avoid string and thread and also balls of yarn, as many cats unroll them and chew on the strands. Cats often swallow these materials, which can cause serious gastrointestinal problems including intestinal obstruction followed by perforation. A patch of fresh catnip, catnip-stuffed toys, paper bags, empty thread spools, stuffed socks, and bones that can be chewed on but not swallowed are good inexpensive toys that many cats enjoy. A cloth- or carpet-covered cat “tree” is more expensive, but is often immediately adopted as favorite perch and scratching area instead of your furniture. (For more information about scratching posts,)
AGE TO GET A KITTEN
If you have a choice, probably the best time to bring home a new kitten is when he or she is between eight and ten weeks of age. Although a critical period for socialization has not been firmly established for the cat as it has for the dog, there is ample evidence that kittens who do not receive normal contact with other cats when young (before six weeks of age) tend to develop abnormal behavioral patterns such as extreme shyness or aggressiveness and may never relate well to other cats. By waiting to bring your cat home until he or she is eight to ten weeks of age you allow time for proper social interaction with the littermates and the mother, while still acquiring a kitten young enough to be able to adapt well to you and to the new environment in your home.
HANDLING IS IMPORTANT
Although this period of socialization to other cats is important, of equal importance is proper socialization to people. Since it has been shown that cats between the ages of three and seven weeks handled daily by people are generally much less aloof and more willing to accept restraint than those who have not been handled, be sure to choose a kitten that has had lots of interaction with and attention from people. Continue to handle your new kitten for at least an hour a day when you bring him or her home.
Playing with your kitten with toys is not enough. Stroking, handling the feet, head, ears, and mouth and teaching your cat to accept (and even enjoy) gentle restraint is very important. Cats with naturally more confident personalities will blossom with this sort of handling even if their early socialization could have been better, and those with more timid or aggressive temperaments can usually be significantly rehabilitated with time and patience.
GIVE YOUR CAT A PLACE OF HIS OR HER OWN
Unless you want to share your bed with your cat, give your kitten a place of his or her own from the first night with you. Get a cat bed or use a cardboard box and line it with a clean, washable towel or blanket. Place this bed in your cat’s special area. If your kitten does not yet know how to use a litter pan, it is probably best to choose an area that is large enough to contain your kitten’s bed, his or her food and water dishes, and a litter pan. Try to provide some significant distance between the litter pan and the feeding area. Cats prefer to eliminate away from feeding areas and will usually use the pan more consistently and effectively if it is not placed near the food. Enclose the kitten in his or her special place at night and whenever you are not around to provide supervision to avoid elimination accidents and accidental injuries. A large dog-sized shipping crate is ideal to use as a temporary enclosure, but a small room will work as well and is better when your kitten grows larger and becomes more active. A room provides plenty of space for indestructible toys, safe climbing objects, and a scratching post, all of which are necessary for proper release and channeling of a normal kitten’s activities. Be firm and consistent with any arrangement you choose in order to avoid encouraging any mischief- making habits and to reserve your bed for yourself. It’s easy to take a charming, tiny kitten to bed for a few nights; it’s just about impossible to keep an adult cat off a cozy bed once he or she has claimed it.
Because cats are instinctively fastidious about where they eliminate, housetraining (housebreaking) the average cat is usually very easy. Often a kitten will already be using a litter pan when you first bring him or her into your home. If not, you will probably be able to train your cat to use one very quickly.
Get a smooth-surfaced pan (plastic or enamel-surfaced ones are best) that can be easily cleaned and disinfected or use disposable litter boxes.
Newspapers or chemically untreated sawdust or wood shavings are sanitary materials to use for litter, but commercial clay, silica, or cellulose litters are best. They are clean, absorbent, tend to reduce odors, and most cats seem to like them (especially litters with a sandlike texture). Line the pan with the litter material, then put it in a place easily accessible to your cat but not directly adjacent to food or water bowls. If you have a kitten be sure he or she doesn’t have to go too far to find the litter pan at first and be sure the sides of the pan aren’t too high to climb over easily, or you may have trouble with housebreaking. If your cat doesn’t use the litter pan correctly from the start as most cats do, you can help teach the proper behavior by placing the kitten into the pan after eating, when he or she awakens, and after play. Give praise when you see the desired result and
administer correction if elimination begins in the wrong place by saying “No!” sharply and firmly and placing the cat back in the litter pan to finish.
If you choose to allow your cat free access to the outdoors, you can use the litter pan to teach your cat to eliminate outdoors. Once your cat has become accustomed to going in and out, move the litter pan gradually from its original site toward the cat’s usual exit. If at any time during this procedure your cat does not use the pan, move it back to the last place where it was used for a day or two before continuing. In a few days your cat should be using the pan right next to the exit. Then move the pan to a place just outside the exit and then to the selected outdoors spot for elimination.
After your cat has been using the pan outside for a few days, remove it entirely. Most cats will continue to choose to eliminate outside. Cat feces in the garden can be a human health hazard, however. If your cat uses your garden as a toilet, wear gloves while gardening or at least wash your hands and fingernails thoroughly afterward. Children, whose habits tend to be less sanitary than adults’, should not play in areas where your cat may bury stools.
Remove stools from the litter pan daily. This is best accomplished with a spoonlike litter strainer that can be purchased at a pet store or supermarket. If you use disposable litter pan liners or completely disposable litter pans, discard them at least every fourth day. Otherwise, wash the litter pan thoroughly at least every fourth day. (Do this outdoors or in a sink not used for washing dishes or bathing.) Use hot water, detergent, and chlorine bleach, then rinse the pan well and allow it to dry before replacing the litter. Do not use disinfectants containing phenol (carbolic acid), cresols, resorcinol, or hexylresorcinol; they can be toxic to cats. Also avoid products containing ammonia; these may smell like urine to your cat and discourage him or her from using a pan because it doesn’t smell clean. If this cleaning schedule is not sufficient to keep odors at an acceptable level, baking soda is a safe product to try. Place a layer of it equal to about one third the weight of the litter in the bottom of the litter pan each time you change it.
LITTER BOX PROBLEMS MAY CAUSE HOUSE SOILING
Sometimes a litter pan acceptable to you won’t be one acceptable to your cat. Most cats do not like wet or dirty litter pans and will begin to eliminate in abnormal places when dissatisfied with their normal toilet area. So be sure to remove litter from the pan and replace soiled with fresh material whenever it becomes wet, even if this occurs more frequently than your normal cleaning schedule. The ideal schedule is to empty and clean the litter box daily. It is also important to have at least one litter pan per cat if you have two or more. In fact, it is a good idea to have two litter pans even if you have just one cat, since it has been shown that feral (wild) cats rarely urinate and defecate in the same place.
Elimination in abnormal places may also occur when the litter pan is clean and dry. Sometimes this is because you have changed litter material after using one kind for a long period of time, or sometimes the cat has developed a preference for a material such as carpet instead of cat litter. If you must change brands of litter do it gradually by mixing the new kind with the old since abrupt changes will induce as many as 50% of cats to begin to urinate (and/or defecate) outside their litter pan. A change from normal use of the litter pan to house soiling may also be caused by psychological stress. Be sure the litter pan is located away from heavy traffic areas and that your cat has not developed a behavior problem caused by separation anxiety, conflicts with other pets, or harassment by children. Since cats do not like to eliminate where they eat or sleep, confinement to a small room or a cage often encourages the use of the litter pan instead of another site and can help calm a cat that is disturbed by others in the household. Illness can also cause problems with housetraining. For more information.