22 Jul 2016

Our Cat Behaviour expert answers your feline questions

From Afternoons, 3:23 pm on 22 July 2016

Kevin Stafford is a professor in ethology, (animal behaviour) at Massey University.

He answers some general questions about cats and answers some audience queries about their furry friends.

Here is an edited excerpt from his discussion with Jesse Mulligan:

JM: What’s the biggest problem people tend to have with cats?

KS: The biggest problem is that cats actually spray inside the house. So when things change or they get a little bit anxious they’ll often back up against something and spray on the wall or something like that. .. We’ve been treating that from a veterinary perspective for a long time. and treating is reasonably successfully for a long time. It usually means there’s something going on in the cat’s environment that’s making them anxious – like a new baby, a new cat, something like that.

JM: So you remove the anxiety and you stop the spraying?

KS: Yeah, cats spray because they’re marking their territory, they’re telling people that they’re here. But when they get anxious they spray a bit more because we theorise that they live in an aura of their own smell, so when they get anxious they life the level of their own smell – this is a hypothesis.

JM: Do cats feel emotion?

KS: Cats certainly feel pain.  And they certainly feel anxiety. I’m not too sure that they get embarrassed. Do they experience grief? A lot of people think they do, but I’m not too sure… We tend to anthropomorphise about what cats are experiencing, but whether they do [feel these emotions] or not, is another question.

Audience questions:

Carmel asks:

“Every now and again I suffer from sudden rushes of blood to the head and acquire another dependant. The last such addition to the household came in the somewhat less than svelte form of "Puss".

Alas if only her feline habits were as  pedestrian as her given name.

1. She refuses to leave the bedroom .

2. She insists on using only a dirtbox in the ensuite bathroom.

3. Use of said dirtbox will only be contemporaneous with use of toilet. i.e she will only perform necessary ablutions in tandem with a human.

4. Preferred sleeping position is on my face.

5. Attempts to limit food intake to control her expanding girth lead to shrieks of nocturnal rage. ( I've raised less demanding newborns )

Fond of her though I am, threats of a trip to the vet from which she will not return if she continues her unreasonable behaviour have, to date, proved woefully ineffective.

Your Cat Behaviouralist is my last hope.”

KS: If we start with trying to get here to reduce her girth, you could try putting here on a diet – a specific cat diet which will keep her girth down.

In regards to her refusing to leave the bedroom, you can pick her up and take her out of the bedroom. Maybe a little a little bit of telling this cat what is acceptable. So if she refuses to leave the bedroom I would pick her up and take her outside or out of the bedroom.

The fact that she uses a dirt box only in the ensuite bedroom, for a lot of people it would be a very positive thing, in a sense that it is a bathroom and a sensible place to have a dirt box.

If you don’t want this, you can retrain Puss to use a litter tray in the laundry. So put a litter tray in the laundry and a bed, maybe some food in different corners and I hope she will use the litter tray. But given that she will only go when someone is present that’s a new one on me…

So I could be inclined to retrain this cat to go to the toilet in another room in the house.

As for her sleeping on your face – a big fat cat sleeping on your face is not good, so maybe try getting her to sleep somewhere else for a while, and if she does go through these shrieks of feline rage, you might just have to put on a pair of ear muffs and grin and bear it.

Denise asks:

“Introducing Mac, 2yo male white & ginger long haired ragdoll cross.

We inherited Mac 3 months ago and while we adore him he has a terrible habit of attacking our sofas.

Mac has various scratching poles and mats, which he loves to use.  Also anytime we see Mac scratching the sofa we spray water at him immediately but all to no avail!

Any other tips would be great.

Cheers, Denise”

KS: This is a very common problem. When Mac is scratching the sofa he is either literally doing his nails or he is trying to make the sofa smell the way he wants it to smell. It is unlikely that he is doing it specifically because of anxiety… and he’s doing it and you spray water at him, he might actually find it a bit of a game. So there are several things you can do: The simplest thing you can do is buy a cheap tarpaulin and throw is over the sofa and leave it there until you’re back in the house. Take it off the sofa when you’re in the house, let Mac come along and do his thing on the sofa and then use water or your hands, or make a loud noise, or put him outside – punish him.

If you're not able to to this you could put some food in a bowl next to where he scratches the sofa, or some peppermint. If there’s food there he may not scratch, if there’s peppermint there he may not go near it. Or there is a plastic gizmo that is like a mouse trap – that you can set just beside the sofa.

Jill asks:

“Trix ,when found  4 months ago, was very thin but with swollen nipples. There was no sign of kittens but even when she moved across town to my home, she appeared to be searching and took to carrying around a soft ball which even went outside with her.  She has since had her op and inoculations and at about 18 months of age is a very affectionate moggie but the odd behaviour she displays is her tendency when sitting on a lap or chair, to suck on clothing/rug etc while "kneading".  This behaviour continues on for some time before she eventually settles to sleep. While kneading is a common cat behaviour, I've never come across the sucking (as if on a teat) before. She appears reasonably adjusted and is quite playful but unfortunately the female cat already in residence is most displeased to share her domain and there's a lot of growling that goes on. I feed them in separate places and try to be even-handed with favours and had hoped the mature cat would get over herself but not much has changed. Trix doesn't seem too fazed by the reception and initially tried to be friendly but has learned to be careful in her dealings.  Your thoughts please?

Thanks, Jill”

KS:  I think these cats will get used to one another. Trix has only been there for four months, so give it some time. They’ll end up in some détente around one another and if both of them have access to litter trays or both of them can get outside to go to the toilet it will come right. As for the kneading, it is a common behaviour, so a cat will kneed with its front paws and some of the cats that kneed also suckle. So this is not an uncommon or strange behaviour. We think it’s a bit of an obsessive compulsive behaviour and we have no idea why it happens. A common theory is that cats who are weaned early are more inclined to knee. And the best thing to do to deal with it is to play with it and to do other things. And it’s really important when you get a kitten or a cat to play with it.


Bella Photo: Supplied

“This is 2 1/2 year old Bella. She has a brother Stan. She is well fed so shouldn't need to hunt. She brings very large rats inside and deposits them under our bed. We don't often look under our bed. We need to. Sometimes it appears that said rat has been there for some time. Yesterday our poor cleaner was traumatised and had to ask our builders to remove very large dead rat for her.

How can we stop her doing this?

Oh and they both like to trash our furniture with their claws. So far they have avoided our mid-century Danish chairs so maybe they do have some manners.”

KS: One – Bella is a hero! Bella is killing very large rats. But how do you stop her from killing rats? The big thing in Bella’s life is killing rats, I’m sure she loves it. If you want to stop her doing it, never let her go outside again, or buy a special bib for Bella, or a bib, or something. The thing is this is really good stuff – good on you Bella.

How do we stop her bringing her inside? Well, a dead rat is a dead rat. If I had Bella I would be very proud of her!