25 Sep 2022

Dr Zazie Todd - more ways to make your cat happy

From Sunday Morning, 10:25 am on 25 September 2022

So many people loved Jim Mora's first conversation with Dr Zazie Todd the animal behaviour expert agreed to come back.

The author of Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy answers listeners' questions about cats.

a cat's face

Photo: Inge Wallumrød / Pexels

Zazie says she grew up feeling like a cat person, became a dog person as an adult and now considers herself to be both.

"They do fill slightly different roles in your life but they both make lovely companions… I love both, I can talk about both forever, actually."

In her first interview, Zazie reiterates that the better you understand and meet your cat's needs, the happier they'll be.

Principles of play

It's very common for young cats to be bitey in play and tempting to let them bite your hands and feet. Be aware that if you allow this when they're kittens, though, they will keep doing it.

When playing with your cat, Zadie recommends watching their body language to make sure they're not getting overexcited.

"Maybe their skin will be rippling or they'll suddenly be staring at your hand or their tail may be twitching just a bit more… if you recognise those signs you can give them a toy so that gets bitten instead of you and maybe stop the play."

How to stop a cat from catching birds

To discourage this, Zazie recommends getting your cat a wand toy and regularly engaging them with it.

"The research showed that when people do make that time the cat is less likely to catch prey and bring it home.'

Wearing a 'Birdsbesafe' collar doesn't bother most cats and has been shown to be successful at lowering attacks, Zadie says.

A high-protein diet can also help deter a cat from bird-catching, according to recent research.

Fetching and gift delivery

Some cats enjoy a game of fetch like dogs do, but it's not very common, Zadie says.

We don't yet understand why they sometimes bring items to their owners.

"It could be that they feel safe bringing this thing that to them is precious and special and dropping it at your feet. Or it could actually be intended as a gift for you because they think very highly about you and they care about you."

Cats and other animals

One of the fascinating things about cats is how varied they are in their social behaviour, Zadie says.

"Some don't like other cats, some enjoy hanging out with other cats, dogs or whatever animal is in the neighbourhood."

Some female cats after they nurse kittens can extend maternal instinct to other animals, such as a puppy.

Cats and other cats

If you have two cats that don't get on, look at the environment and make sure they don't have to share resources at all, i.e. their food, water bowl, bed, litter box and scratching post.

"Make sure all of those things are spread out and each cat has their own access to them … make sure each cat has plenty of time with you without having to compete with the other cat."

You can help your cat avoid other cats they have conflicts with by letting them out at consistent times of day, Zadie says.

"It's quite interesting the way that cats can time-share like that."

Some research suggests that pheromone-release devices such as the FELIWAY can help cats chill out.

"That's a plug-in you can use and it will help the cats get on with each other. That can be part of the solution, as well."

Cats and dogs

If you're going to have both it's best to get the cat first, Zazie says.

Make sure you have lots of areas in the house where the cat can be safe and a puppy can't go.

"If possible, show the cat in advance something that smells of the puppy like a blanket.

"Don't force the cat to interact with it, let them come and smell it if they want to and give treats.

"Aim to have a really slow and gradual introduction so by the time the cat sets eyes on the puppy and is in the room for the first time they will feel like they know him."

Taking your cat for walks

Walking with your cat will be much easier if you start when they're a kitten, Zadie says.

"If you want to train your cat to walk on a harness and leash, carry something comfy they can climb into if they are scared.

"A cat's response to something frightening is to hide and you would want them to hide in your backpack so they can stay with you."

Use treat training to break the steps of walking down into small sections, .ie. give them a treat for approaching the harness then putting their head into the harness.

"Do it in slow small stages and give them lots of rewards along the way."

She recommends practising leash-walking at home and then in your yard before going out in the street.

Cats and toilets - not a great idea

While cats can be trained to use human toilets, Zazie doesn't recommend it.

They don't like to get wet and as they get older, toilets become more hazardous.

"It's very helpful for our cat if you're monitoring what's going out of your cat and into their litterbox.

"If your cat is peeing more than usual it could be an indication of a medical problem."

The ageing cat

By the age of 13, cats are getting up there, Zazie says.

As they get older they often become more affectionate with people but if you're seeing negative changes in behaviour don't assume it's just age. There could be medical issues contributing.

"If the cat is miaowing in the night it's not necessarily normal ageing - a vet could help."

Slow blinks as communication

Cats are known to exchange slow blinks with other cats they are friends with and also with humans, even strangers.

"Make sure you're lifting your bottom eyelids not just bringing your top eyelids down. That's very similar to what a cat would do. Most likely your cat is going to do a slow blink back at you.

"It's a lovely sign of friendship between you and the cat."

Dr Zazie Todd previously wrote the award-winning book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She blogs at Companion Animal Psychology.


Dr Zazie Todd on the science of making your cat happy

Dr Zazie Todd on how to train your cat

How to speak cat

A cat behaviour expert answers your feline questions

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