Thursday, August 17, 2017

Behavior Case Files: Milo's Marking Problem

I had a great opportunity a few weeks ago to do my first in-home consultation on a cat. My friend Besty who is also a PAGO volunteer was having an issue with her cat Milo house soiling. Milo was urinating on furniture on occasion. I offered to go over and help Betsy out and see what was going on with Milo.

What is the behavior problem?
Milo has been urinating on the sofa in the living room and upstairs sofa and chairs.

Can you tell us about the history/status of the animal?
Milo is a 2-year-old neutered DSH. He was neutered at 8 weeks.  He has a clean bill of health and no medical cause has been found for his house soiling. Milo was adopted by Betsy when he was a 2-month-old kitten along with his sister Millie.

Where it is being kept, is it with a family, in a shelter, somewhere else?
Milo is kept with Betsy in her home. Betsy lives with her husband, her two teenage children, and her father. Betsy also has 2 older dogs (Lucy and Minnie) who were acquired before Milo and Millie and 2 other cats she rescued as feral kittens (Bubbles and Maggie) a year after acquiring Milo and Millie. Bubbles and Maggie are now a year old.

Important Background Information:
When going through my questionnaire with Betsy, she indicated the house soiling problem started when she brought the feral kittens into the home a year ago. She said she hasn’t seen any aggression between the cats, but when Bubbles and Maggie sit near or next to Milo he gets up and walks away. She also indicated the problem had increased in frequency since remodeling her home and bringing in new furniture. Betsy said she had caught Milo in the act a few times and always had a crazed/funny look on his face.  At one point during this consultation, Betsy called for all of her cats to come over for a treat. All the animals gathered around Betsy front and center, except Milo who cautiously approached her from underneath the coffee table. Betsy has plenty of litter boxes in the home several on the bottom floor and some on the second floor spread out through various rooms. Milo does use the litter box mostly except the times on occasion she sees him going on the furniture.

My Assessment:
I’ve determined that Milo isn’t urinating on the furniture, but rather spraying/marking. This was evident to me based on when the problem started when the new kittens were brought into the home, the location of the urine on the furniture, and the "crazed" look Betsy described when she caught Milo in the act. He prefers to avoid the new cats, he is cautious and insecure around the other animals, and the problem escalated when the home was being remodeled bringing in new and unfamiliar smells. This all points to me that Milo is insecure about his territory. Additionally, he feels insecure about his place in the household among the other animals and that's manifesting itself in this marking behavior.

Build Milo’s confidence so he feels more secure in his surroundings and his place in the household ceasing his marking behavior.

  • Clean Milo’s hot spot areas with an enzyme cleaner to completely remove the urine preventing Milo from associating that area as a marking spot.
  • When bringing new furniture into the home rub a towel on Milo and then rub the towel on or leave the towel on the new furniture allowing for Milo’s scent to be transmitted there making the new furniture more familiar to him.
  • Use Feliway or Milo's own pheromones (from a towel that has his scent) and place that on his marking spots.
  • Have one-on-one play time in Milo’s hot spots areas using a wand/teaser toy and going through a prey sequence twice a day. I think separating Milo from the other animals during the one-on-one time with Betsy will not only help him re-associate those former marking areas but build his bond with Betsy and his confidence which will make him more secure of himself and his place in the household.
  • Incorporate clicker training in Milo’s hot spot areas and by teaching him “high five” and offering him a high-value treat (cooked chicken or turkey) further associating that area as a play/food area rather than a marking one!
  • Bring more vertical territory into the home in the form of cat trees or cat-friendly shelves. Also, bring more cat beds into the home. Milo may feel like he has to share a lot of his space with the other animals and would benefit from having more options to get away and have space to himself.
  • Plug in feline pheromone diffusers into the home to help diffuse any potential passive aggression/anxiety/tension going on among the other animals.
Betsy will implement these recommendations consistently for over a two week period. I will then follow up with Betsy to check on Milo's progress.

Milo marked one of the chairs upstairs the day after I came for his assessment. Since then with Betsy following through with all the recommendations Milo has not marked any furniture in two weeks! Milo is benefiting from solo play time and now has associated his former marking areas as the place where his training paw game takes place. He now waits for Betsy on the chair to play the paw game with her!

Future Goal: 
My future goal for Milo would be to build more camaraderie between him and the other cats in the household. My recommendations for this is to encourage allogrooming between the cats by scent mixing. Betsy could use a brush to brush the other cats and then use that brush on Milo. This would help create a group scent between all the cats. Betsy could also incorporate training with the rest of the cats as well as finding an activity like food puzzles all cats can play with together.

That's all for meow 😻,

Thursday, August 3, 2017

There Are No Quick Answers In Cat Behavior

Hello Kitty Cat Friends,

This is some what of a personal reflection and cat behavior related post in one. This is something that while I'm in the process of becoming a feline behaviorist I'm encountering more frequently. I'm actually honored and flattered I encounter this, but it's not always easy.  Many people want quick and easy answers to cat behavior or cat behavioral problems. The problem is there isn't such a thing as a quick and easy answer when it comes to cat behavior. Cat behavior is very complex and complicated!

I love when people ask me questions. I want people to continue to ask me questions because I love to help and problem-solving. The difficulty comes when people ask me very broad questions without any background and want an immediate and simple answer. Here are some examples of questions I get regularly.

"Why does my cat pee outside the box?"
"What cat should I adopt that will get along with my cat at home?
"Why does my cat play aggressively?"

These are great questions, but they're not questions I can answer without an assessment or answer in only a few minutes. I wish I could answer questions like these on the spot. I feel a lot of pressure to do so because I don't want to let anyone down or give people the impression I'm a sham and don't know anything. Then again, if I could give you a quick and easy answer I wouldn't be doing my job because that wouldn't be the best answer for your particular situation.

Behavior is very complex. It's the same across all species. Cats all have different temperaments, history, home environments, and etc that contribute to their behavior. It's important that I know all of that information before I ever could answer those questions or provide recommendations. There is a questionnaire I've written up for future clients and one I've used when doing a behavioral assessment for a friend's cat. My questionnaire is any where from 50-100 questions long dependent on the type of behavioral issue I'm addressing.

Yes! That's a lot of questions, but every single one of those questions is so important for me to ask to identify a trigger for the problem. When I did a full assessment with recommendations for my friend it was a 700 word write up. When I have scenarios to do treatment plan write ups for in my current course they sometimes take 1-2 hours to write up and are usually 700-1500 words.

To give you more perspective,

  • Inappropriate elimination happens for a slew of reasons. A medical evaluation would always be my first recommendation, but the litter itself, the litter box, the location of the litter box, the cleanliness of the box, the number of litter boxes, if there are any recent changes to the home or routine, if the cat is declawed, the cat's relationship with other cats in the household, and more are all potential contributing factors to an inappropriate elimination issue. I would need to know every single aspect of that to be able to identify a problem.
  • What cat to bring into your home with someone's current cat would require me to know the temperament of the current cat, why you want to bring another cat into the home, if the cat has been exposed to other cats, what is their current cat's reaction to change/new people/new smells and etc. Additionally, in assessing their current cat I'd have to assess the temperaments of cats the owner is interested in to find possible matches.
  • Play aggression would require me to learn the background socialization of that cat, at what age was the cat acquired, does the owner know the cat's previous history, how does the owner currently play with their cat, how often is the owner playing with their cat, does the owner play rough or allow the cat to play with their fingers and toes, and more.

I'm not writing this to discourage anyone from asking me questions or from a lecturing standpoint. I want you to ask me questions! I love to help, but please understand that I may need more information to help solve your problem and I'll definitely need at least a day or more to process that information, do an assessment, and formulate recommendations. Some situations might require an in-home consultation so I can assess the cat and the environment myself. I want people to have a positive relationship and experiences with their cats and cats with their humans. That isn't possible unless I'm as thorough as possible.

I also need to give myself permission that it's OK to say "Great question. Let me get back to you on that".  I don't need to feel like I'm letting people down or deceiving people by not providing immediate answers and feedback. We're our own worst critic and it's definitely hard for me not to feel like I need to fix every problem in front of me right then and there. I'm working on it!

That's all for meow 😻,

Thursday, July 20, 2017

What is it like studying at the Animal Behavior Institute?

Hello Kitty Cat Friends,

As many of you know and I've stated on this blog I'm in the process of completing the Animal Behavior Institute's Feline Training & Behavior certification program. I've received a lot of questions asking what I'm specifically learning and what the learning process is like there. I decided I'd answer this question in a blog post for those who are interested just out of curiosity or might consider doing a program through them.
The Animal Behavior Institute is accredited and all professors have either doctorates or master degrees in behavior, conservation, or veterinary medicine. The Feline Training & Behavior certification program requires your completion of 3 courses (9 credits) as well as 40 hours of field work. All course work is done online. The required courses are Feline Training, Feline Behavior & Enrichment, and Feline Health & Nutrition. The entire program costs $3,555, but you can pay by the course, which is $1,185.

The Animal Behavior Institute has a quarter semester system. Each course is 10 weeks, but not every course is offered in every quarter. Currently, I'm taking Feline Training as it was the only course in my program offered in the summer quarter. Feline Behavior & Enrichment and Feline Health & Nutrition are both offered in the fall so I will take those then. That would mean I could receive my certification by December. My 40 hours of field work I'm doing obviously at the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando.

My current course Feline Training started about a month ago. This course is taught by Dr. Chalcraft who has a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology and has done behavioral and enrichment work with cats, chimpanzees, and gorillas. The text required for this course is The Cat Whisperer by Mieshelle Nagelschneider and Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pryor. This is our class schedule on what we'll be studying each week and the assigned readings.
Each weekly learning module consists of assigned reading, a quiz, and a discussion post component. There are also additional suggested readings and/or videos to watch regarding that weekly topic. The weekly discussion component is my favorite aspect of the course. The discussion component is often a scenario presented by the professor where the students have to explain how they'd assess and address that situation. Then the student would have to provide feedback to another student's response. The professor then would provide feedback to the student's response asking for clarification and/or challenge the student on how they'd do something different if one of the aspects of the scenario changed. My professor copies and pastes my response and adds in her feedback/questions in a different color. Here is an example of a recent discussion scenario, my response, and my professor's feedback. You can click on the photos below to enlarge them so they're easier to read.

 What I like about this learning process is it's very applicable and you have to be a critical thinker. This isn't a course where you parrot back what a book says and you've learned the material. You have to think for yourself and use your instincts. Understanding cat behavior isn't a cut-and-dried thing. Cat behavioral issues can be very complex and you have to look at a variety of angles to identify a problem and come up with a treatment plan. This is certainly a course/program where you need to have a natural ability in understanding cats and experience working with a variety of cats to succeed.

I spend about 3-6 hours a week working on this course. There are weekly deadlines to submit discussion responses and complete quizzes, but otherwise, it's very flexible. You need to be self-driven and comfortable with independent study. So far, I'm really enjoying this learning process. I appreciate being able to see other student's perspectives and receive feedback from the professor. In just 4 weeks I've been able to expand my knowledge and apply it when working with cats at the shelter. I still have 6 more weeks of this course and 2 more courses in the fall so I know I'll be gaining so much more.

I hope this helped answer some questions and give people an idea of what a program like this is like. From what I gather, the other courses are in the same format just different material. When I start those classes in the fall I'll do posts on what the material is like in those courses.

That's all for meow 😻,

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Shelter Case Files: Soldier

Hello Kitty Cat Friends,

I'd like to start a new feature on my blog where I feature a cat at the shelter that has behavioral issues or concerns and how I assessed and addressed them. I started my feline training and behavior certification program a few weeks ago and am starting to incorporate the news skills and information I learn to help cats at the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando. This new feature will allow me to start developing my training/behavior plans and refine my skills over the course of my education. There will be some cats I will come back to these posts and update their progress as their issues could be more involved and time-consuming to address.

Let's start out with my first cat!
Name: Soldier

Age: 6 months

Breed: Domestic Shorthair (brown/black tabby)

Location in Shelter: Blue Free Roam Cat Room

Reason For Being At Shelter: Cannot Keep

Assessment: Soldier is a young and active kitten. He was placed in a free roam room which houses some older more dominant personality cats. In a home environment, these cats would have been introduced slowly, but that is not possible in a shelter environment. Some of the older cats are intimidating to Soldier and have attempted to show their dominance causing Soldier to become timid, reclusive, and submissive.

Goals: Cats do not reach social maturity until ages 2-4, so at 6 months Soldier is at a critical age for social development. It's important for Soldier to develop confidence, especially at this age so he is comfortable to move about his territory without being intimidated by the other cats.

Method: Play therapy. I will be utilizing play therapy using a wand toy and going through a prey sequence with Soldier. A prey sequence is manipulating the wand toy to mimic live prey by moving it in a scurrying motion along the floor, catching Soldier's attention. This will allow Soldier to stalk and eventually chase the toy. Then I will manipulate the toy by giving it some height in the air allowing Soldier to catch, bite, and "kill" the prey/toy. This prey sequence will allow Soldier to assert his dominance by utilizing his natural cat-like behaviors building his confidence.

Results: I spent approximately 30 minutes doing a prey sequence with Soldier with play therapy. He initially was hesitant to play with the toy as other cats in the room were sitting near him and staring him down. After around 5 minutes he started to engage in play. He stalked the toy and eventually began to freely chase and jump after it. The other cats definitely noticed Soldier's confidence in play and got bored and walked away from him. Soldier ended the play by grabbing the end of the wand toy and dragging it to another spot in the room. He "killed" his prey! I rewarded Soldier by giving him some treats.

Follow Up & Recommendations: I returned the next day to find Soldier roaming about freely in the cat room no longer being bullied or bothered by the other cats in the room. We did another prey sequence play therapy session and I left shortly after. Soldier was adopted later that afternoon. If Soldier had remained at the shelter I would have continued play therapy with him as well as started to incorporate some clicker training skills with him. Overall, I'm very happy with what I achieved with Soldier in the short time I had with him. I saw him become a confident and comfortable cat after being timid and fearful. It's those breakthrough moments that give me so much joy and I hope Soldier has a happy life ahead of him!


Saturday, July 8, 2017

Adoptable Cat Caturday

Happy Caturday 😺!

Here are some of the adoptable cats I got to know better this week at the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando. I've linked their adoption profiles to their information. I'll be updating this along with the other Adoptable Cat Caturdays as these cats get adopted!

That's all for meow 😻,

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

DIY Knotty Spider Cat Toys

Hellow Kitty Cat Friends,

One of the things I'm always trying to brainstorm is affordable and easy to make cat toy ideas, especially for the shelter. It's easy to buy some toys for your own cats, but when you're having to entertain 60+ cats in a shelter cat toys you buy can get expensive. Also, many DIY cat toys are time-consuming, supplies are too costly, or they're not practical for cats in a shelter. I came across this Knotty Spider cat toy video by Friskies and thought these would be great to make for shelter cats as well as your own cats at home. I did adapt the directions and supplies a bit as plastic milk jug rings used in the video are not as easy to accumulate if you're making a ton of these shelter cats. I also am using wider felt strips to save time so you're able to make more at a faster pace.
What You'll Need:
- 6-inch pipe cleaners or 12-inch pipe cleaners cut in half
- Soft felt squares, felt sheets, or fleece
- Scissors
- Dry catnip or catnip spray

Step 1:
Create a circle with the pipe cleaner by twisting the ends onto each other making sure any sharp pieces are tucked under and not sticking out.  It doesn't need to be a perfect circle as you'll be covering it with felt anyways.

Step 2:
Cut felt or fleece into approx. 6in x 1in strips. They don't have to be precise you can eyeball it.

Step 3:
Tie and double knot each felt strip around the pipe cleaner circle.
Step 4:
Continue to tie and double knot felt strips around the pipe cleaner circle until no visible pipe cleaner is showing.
Step 5:
Sprinkle some dried catnip or spritz with catnip spray.
Step 6:
Give to cat to play with.
The use of the pipe cleaners and the wider felt strips allow for you to make an endless amount of these. Pipe cleaners are really affordable and easy to buy in bulk and the wider cut strips will save you on time. If you're just making these for your own cats feel free to follow the Friskies video instructions.

These are really fun and easy to make. I like to turn on Netflix and make these as I watch my favorite TV shows. You can get creative with these and do different color schemes or whatever floats your boat!

That's all for meow 😻,

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Does My Misbehaving Cat Need A Friend?

Hello Kitty Cat Friends,

This is a question I hear time after time at the shelter. Someone has an adult cat that is acting out in terms of being overly active, destroying the house, and/or playing aggressively and they think a playmate will help curb their cat's unwanted behaviors. These people have not intended to add another cat to their family, but think their cat needs a friend. This does seem like a logical solution in our own human minds because the thought is the unwanted behavior will cease because the cat has a playmate to take it out on. That's the problem though we're thinking like humans, not like cats!

Please take note that I'm talking about to adult cats here, not kittens. We'll talk about kittens and playmates in another post!
First and foremost it's my rule of thumb that you shouldn't add another cat into your home unless you want another cat. When you add another cat to your home you're adding more to your budget which is something you should always consider before adopting any animal. If you want to add another cat to your home this is a different scenario. I will be writing a post on proper cat introductions in the future, but let's get back to the topic at hand.

Cats are very territorial. Cats territorial drive kicks in when they reach social maturity which is between ages 2-4. When adding another cat into a home with a socially mature cat you're going to be exacerbating your problem, not fixing it. You started out with a cat who is understimulated and play aggressive, but if you add another cat into this scenario your cat's territory is now threatened on top of it's other stressors. Cats who are territorially insecure may start to spray to mark their territory, urinate/defecate outside the litter box, and/or become more aggressive to you or the new cat! You've also changed their daily routine and their environment by introducing new foreign smells from another cat. Cats are creatures of habit too and can be resistant to change. Yes, cats are complicated! This is all a recipe for disaster and especially not wanted if you didn't want to add another cat to your home in the first place.

When people share with me that their cat is destroying their house and aggressive during play my first question to them is if they have "catified" their house? Cats need scratching posts, cat trees, cat safe spaces, and more to be able to engage in their normal cat behavior (hunting, stalking, hiding and etc). My second question to them is are they actively playing with their cat every day (using a teaser toy etc)? Usually, the answer is no to one of these questions or both.

Cats need outlets for mental and physical stimulation and if you're not providing that your cat will find other undesirable ways to get that energy out. If you have an adult cat who is engaging in these behaviors make sure to invest in cat furniture and play with your cat twice a day for at least 10 minutes each time. The solution is usually you need to put more into your cat not add another cat into the mix. Try these methods consistently for a month and then re-evaluate. If you still find your cat isn't getting what they need, then you might consider adding another cat, but only if they are introduced slowly and thoroughly which I will explain in a future post.

No, a misbehaving adult cat doesn't need a friend especially if you do not want another cat. You're not solving your cat's behavioral problems but adding another cat, you're adding to those problems. Cats who are understimulated and play aggressive need more from you in forms of "catification"and play therapy, not another cat impeding on their territory. Buy them some cat furniture and spend some time playing with them. That's what they need and they'll love you for it!

That's all for meow 😻,