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Norwich Bulletin - 2/28/2011

Good Cat/Bad Cat

There are no bad cats. There are only cats. Spraying, scratching furniture, not using the litter box, stealing food from you plate, sleeping on the table and being active in the middle of the night are what cats are all about. This is total cat behavior and if you take on a cat, or two, or three, you must acknowledge that some of these undesirable traits may rear its ugly head and you will have to deal with them.

Some wonít bother you and others like not using the litterbox, need to be dealt with. So what needs to be done in order for everyone to live in harmony, is that a way must be found to allow your cat to express its basic kitty nature in a way that is acceptable to you and your family. Here are some suggestions and steps to take to do this.

Before any habit can be changed, you must first find the cause of the behavior. For instance, all of us humans who bite fingernails, know that it is a nervous habit. Before we can let our nails grow, we have to figure out why we are nervous and then, how to relax enough to stop biting. Sometimes we canít (I for one had to get fake nails in order to stop biting mine).

It's the same with our cats. The first thing we must establish if the cat is frequently not using the litter (and it is not declawed), if the cat is overly aggressive or has a compulsive behavior, is to make sure there is nothing physically wrong with your pet. A trip to the vet for a thorough check up is warranted. Once you are certain there are no physical ailments, you can begin to work on changing the undesirable behavior.

Many times we are actually the cause of the behavior. When a cat learns that certain behaviors get their owner's attention, they will perform that behavior whenever it wants attention. The example that best comes to mind is when your cat wakes you up at 4 am and you feed your pet so it will leave you alone and you can get some sleep.

Eventually this becomes a pattern and whenever your cat is hungry, he will simply wake you up. In order to change the cat's behavior (which is now habit), you have to change your behavior first. When kitty wakes you up in the middle of the night, take him and put him out of your room and close the door - you may listen to him cry for a night or two, but eventually he will learn that if he wakes you up, his "reward" is to be separated from you and the comfortable bed.

If you cannot close your door for whatever reason, buy or borrow a large carrier and put him in the carrier if he wakes you up. Have a small litter box in the back of the carrier but no food. The cat will learn that it is put into a less than perfect situation if he wakes you up at night. Cats are pretty smart and it should work pretty quickly.

Punishment does not work. For instance, yelling and squirt guns are not lasting behavior modifications. What this does is teach the cat which behaviors you don't want to see. The cat will know you are the one with the squirt gun. Therefore, when you are not home, the cat will happily scratch the furniture, sleep on the table and roam the counters. When you are not home, the cat will refrain from the undesirable behavior because it doesn't want to get wet, not because it associates the behavior with doing anything wrong.

My husband and I are guilty of using the squirt gun when we are eating and want the cats to stay off the table. When we put the pink squirt bottle on the kitchen table the cats keep a wide berth, but when we are not around, the table is fair game for them. For us it works because we just want them to leave us alone when we eat.

Now letís take scratching the couch. Scratching is a pleasurable sensation for a cat and not only does he get to scratch, but if you run to stop him, he is getting attention too. The answer is to make the couch less appealing. Apply double sided sticky tape, heavy plastic or aluminum foil to the sofa's accessible surface. When your cat tries to scratch it will hate the stickiness or feel of the plastic or foil on its claws.

Supply a nice, quality scratching post covered with catnip and put it next to napping and eating places. Praise your cat whenever it uses the scratcher and once it always seeks out the scratcher, you can remove the products from the couch. If the cat eventually goes back to the couch, do it all over again. After all, how many tries did it take you to stop biting those fingernails or quit smoking (or are you still trying)?

Another problem behavior is improper or non use of the litterbox. Wild cats deposit urine and feces to mark their territory. While most domestic cats will happily use their litterbox, some pets may be suffering from anxiety, over protectiveness of their territory or they may be unhappy because the litterbox is not clean enough, has been moved or the type of litter has been changed.

There are several things to try here - if your cat is not altered, you should do so immediately as 80% of improper elimination ceases once a cat is spayed or neutered (providing it is not declawed). If the litterbox is dirty, too small or if you moved or changed the type of litter - you will need to do some housecleaning and go back to when things were okay.

Also more litterboxes are a good answer because they will stay cleaner longer if you are at work all day. Make sure the location of the litter box is private and kids and dogs do not have access to it easily. When you cleanup the soiled area, do not let the cat see you do it because they may decide that it is a brand new game and want to do it all over again.

If your cat's sharp teeth and claws bite and scratch you because they feel threatened or they like playing rough, you will need to stop this behavior as quickly as possible. Many times cats are put into rescue because of this even though the original cause was that the owners played rough with them when they were kittens.

If your cat becomes agitated during petting or play, stop immediately and walk away. If your cat grabs you with teeth or claws, say "Stop" or "Ouch" put do not pull away or try to grab your cat. Hold still as this is a signal that you have had enough.

Just a little extra training can turn your kitty into a mannerly feline. Use positive reinforcement training methods (food or play rewards go a long way in making your cat want to do something for you). And above all, don't give up on your kitty.

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