Earlier this month, we launched our new “Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Mikel Delgado” segment. Once a month, we’ll post a reminder for you to post your questions for Mikel. She’ll answer as many of them as he can each month, and I’ll publish her answers in a subsequent post.
is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant at Feline Minds, offering on-site consultations for cat guardians, shelters, and pet-related businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area, and remote consultations around the world. She is currently completing her PhD in Psychology at UC Berkeley, where she studies animal behavior and human-pet relationships.
Maine Coon hates to be picked up or have his paws touched
I recently adopted a part Maine Coon cat. Loki throws a fit whenever I pick him up. He also hates having his feet touched. This is a problem because he needs his claws clipped and also his ears need to be cleaned twice a month. At 13 pounds 2 ounces he is way too big to fight.
I don’t know his background but I suspect he was adopted out and then returned because of this. The shelter was rather tight-tipped about his history. All they said was that cats don’t like to be picked up. Well, duh. Then how do they expect me to clip his claws and clean his ears at home?
At first I used to wrap him up in a blanket. I didn’t like manhandling him and pretty soon he started to avoid me, so I stopped that. I used Calm Down, but it zoned him out too much. I like gradual and gentle methods of changing his behavior. I want him to know that being held is not something he should fear. Do you have any suggestions?
I do have some suggestions! I would recommend starting to get Loki used to handling using clicker training (or positive reinforcement training without a clicker). If you’re not familiar with training, I think Sarah Ellis and John Bradshaw’s new(ish) book, The Trainable Cat, is a great place to start, as well as Marilyn Krieger’s book on clicker training, Naughty No More. The idea is that you will let Loki know that certain behaviors (such as letting you handling his feet) will lead to very wonderful rewards (whatever he absolutely goes nuts for). Training is exactly what you are looking for – a gradual and gentle way to change his behavior.
That said, I would also minimize handling and treatment to only what is absolutely necessary. I’ve never had to clean my cats’ ears – so I’m wondering why Loki would need his cleaned this frequently. I’ve seen situations where “excessive” grooming on the part of the human can cause stress and aggressive behaviors in their cats, so keep the nail trims and cleaning to a minimum. If he is amenable to vet clinic visits, perhaps a tech could trim his nails some of the time while you work on the training. Finally, for cats who don’t like to be picked up, there is really no “showing them” that being held isn’t unpleasant. Only pick him up when absolutely necessary and respect that he may not enjoy it. Some cats do love to be held but it sounds like Loki is not one of them!
Cat chews on electric wires
Dear Ms. Delgado
I live in Argentina where there is very few information about cats behaviors. I receive every day The Conscious Cat so I was lucky to meet you virtually.
All my life I have had cats since I adore them. Now I have a beautiful and sweet 4 year old calico, and I really need your wise assistance. She likes to bite wire of any kind and every night we have to disconnect all our wires and keep them out of her reach. Even so we are very scared that at any moment when we are distracted she might bite a wire and die. We love her very, very much. To lose her would be the most painful situation and of course that why I address to you.
I have made other consultations without finding a solution, so imagine how important it is for us to receive your advice. I thank you in advance for all you could do, and let me express my admiration for all you do and have done for our nicest friends. I would be eagerly awaiting your kind advice. (Hebe Martorella)
Hebe, nice to meet you virtually as well! You are justified in being concerned about your kitty’s behavior. Wire chewing can be dangerous both to the cat (electrocution and intestinal blockage are two risks) and the humans (frayed wires can cause electrical fires). A situation like this usually requires a two pronged approach. Assuming she has no health issues that are making her want to chew on non-food items, cats usually chew due to lack of other things to do. I recommend implementing a regular routine of interactive play, as well as making sure that your cat has plenty of other things to keep her occupied, such as food puzzles, solo toys, and perches where she can watch birds out the window.
The other part of addressing this issue is management. Cords can be wrapped in protective PVC covers, which are available online and in computer stores. Sometimes just bundling the cords is enough to help them lose their appeal, but other people even spray bitter apple on the cords to make chewing on them unappealing. There is also a citrus infused cord protector, the Critter Cord, available online! It is also possible that your cat gets attention from cord-chewing (one way to know – if she only chews cords when you are around – as opposed to chewing even when you are not at home – then attention may be reinforcing the behavior) – another reason to ramp up the enrichment.
How to keep cats off kitchen counters
Hello. I would like to ask about alternatives to keep my cats out of the kitchen counter. Thanks. (Ligia Caldwell)
ah counter-surfing. Cats love it, humans hate it! But why do cats love it? Usually for a few reason – first of all, for cats, being up high is fun. Add the bonus scraps that can sometimes be found in the sink or can be snatched away while the human is preparing food. Many cats enjoy “helping” their humans and being in the center of activity, and the kitchen is often the heart of the home.
Step 1: Give your cats a perch in the kitchen where you can give them treats for sitting there instead of the counter (clicker training is great for this). This gives your cats many of the things they find appealing about your counters: height, food, and attention somewhere that you’re okay with them being.
Step 2: Make sure to not leave any temptations in the sink. Cover the sink with a large piece of wood (such as a cutting board) if need be.
Step 3: I recommend “environmental correction” for times you can’t be watching – cover counter space with pieces of cardboard or place mats with double sided carpet tape on them. This will make it less fun to walk all over counters. You can also use the motion-sensitive compressed air cans as well. This means the “punishment” comes from the environment, not you! You get to be the good cop!
Cat is more interested in play than cuddling, plays rough
I have a one year old rescued calico who had been declawed. Poor Sedona! Cat is not a lap cat but sleeps at the foot of my bed. She follows me around the house. But touching her is dangerous. I tried to brush her in December and ended up in ER. She likes to grab my lower forearm and chew on it. She seems very bored as she cannot play with toys in her paws. My arm is her toy. Being elderly with thin skin, wow, it tears easily. She has a few toys but does not like them. She likes bendable straws the most. I gave her two balance bracelets that she carried around. She loves carrying things. Anyway, she destroyed both bracelets with her teeth. I have no clue what type toy she likes. Dangling things frustrate her, she cannot grab them. I always have had sweet, loving cats. She is loving in her own way. Just very unhappy. She has windows to look out of…and things to jump on. 7-9 pm she gets super restless. Help! She wants me to be her fellow cat. I miss my lap cats very much. They were older. I hope she mellows out. I think I am doing something wrong. Thank you. (Patti Zentara)
I’m sorry you’re having some struggles with Sedona. She is a very young cat, and young cats are often much more interested in play than cuddling. I’m sorry to hear she was declawed, we know that many declawed cats have issues with pain (including phantom pain) in their paws, so it might be worth checking her for any complications from the surgery. The Paw Project is a great resource for vets who are specialized in helping diagnose these complications.
There’s no particular reason (aside from pain) that being declawed should prevent Sedona from being able to play. Many declawed cats enjoy batting at, grasping, and chasing toys. They have muscles in their paw that still allow them to scoop and grip. I’m wondering if you haven’t quite found the right toy or right moves to get her excited. Remember that for cats, play is about predation, so anything you can do to move more like a bird or bug or mouse will be more enticing to her.
The most common mistakes I see people make are touching the cat with the toy, or waving the toy around with no strategy. Remember, no bird would walk right up to a cat and poke them in the face! Act like you are hiding, wounded, flying briefly then landing, and let Sedona have time to stalk before pouncing.
Food puzzles might be another way to keep Sedona busy! She might enjoy playing with those just as much if not more than other types of toys!
Finally, you mentioned that touching Sedona is dangerous. Our skin thins as we age and many folks are on blood-thinners which can make cat bites and scratches more troublesome. Try to avoid petting her for now and try safer interactions (interactive toys, reading to her). I know you miss your more cuddly cats but Sedona may never be that cuddly…or she might become more affectionate as she mellows out. But you may have to accept her as is and find other ways to show your love for her. It sounds like enjoys being with you and sleeping on your bed. I think if you try some new play techniques and experiment with toys, you will find your relationship will grow.
Hi Mikel, is a weepy eye on a cat something to be concerned about? Like teary, not colored discharge. (Patricia)
I am not a veterinarian and this is definitely something that is not a behavioral issue. So please call your veterinarian about your cat’s eye discharge! I hope it’s nothing serious.
Should we get a third cat, and does gender matter?
Hi Mikel. We have 2 rescue cats, 1 male, 1 female, both approximately 3 years old. We got our female 3 weeks before our male. They get along well. She is the dominant one, though not overly. We have been thinking about getting a third rescue and wondering if the sex of the third could/would matter. If our female is the more dominant one, should we lean towards getting a male? Does it even matter? Is it more about ‘how’ everyone is slowly introduced? We really have enough love for another but are a little trepidacious as our family has a great balance currently. (Tami)
sometimes it is better to not rock the boat! That said, we all love cats and we usually would love to add one or two more to our families. Just know that the addition could tip the balance in one direction or another, and could change how your cats relate to one another. Keep in mind that cats don’t have a “strict” hierarchy per se, their relationships tend to be much more flexible than one “dominant” and one “submissive” cat.
My experience is that it’s impossible to predict almost anything just based on the sex of the cat. I’d instead focus on the personality match and history – looking for a cat who has a successful past with other cats is a bonus, although not a necessity. Then – yes, you are absolutely right – the HOW is more important than the WHO. If you have the space, patience, and time to integrate a third kitty – the bonus is you are saving another life! – then I say go for it.
8-year-old cat is spraying
HI Mikel. I have a male cat, Kitty Cat, and he is about 8 years old. He has been spraying. I have had many cats and have been through this before but always so perplexing. I think it is behavioral and have tried the pheromone wall plug-ins and Feliway sprays. He is an indoor cat although we have a screened in patio which basically allows him outside as well. Nothing new has changed in home. We do have a dog and another cat but they have been together for years. I have made a vet appointment but usually find out there is nothing wrong with him. (Lynne Wyre)
Lynne, sorry to hear that Kitty Cat has started spraying. It sounds like this is a new behavior – in most cases there is a reason for these changes in behavior, even if we don’t know what it is. First of all, I am going to assume that you mean he is spraying on vertical surfaces and not urinating/puddling. They can mean different things so it is important to distinguish between the two.
Urine spraying is (unfortunately) a normal cat behavior. They generally use it to mark their presence in a territory. In homes, we often see spraying in response to anxiety over territory. Sometimes more resources throughout the home (including litter boxes) can help because it allows the cat to mark their turf in a positive way. Make a map of where he is spraying because sometimes that can tell you more about why your cat is spraying. Sometimes adding larger litter boxes in the most commonly targeted areas can redirect some, if not all, of this behavior.
I would look at whether there are any animals outdoors that have started coming around, because that can trigger spraying behavior. Check both inside and outside your home with a black light and clean up urine marks (Kitty Cat’s and potentially those of any outside cats) with a good enzymatic product, such as Anti-Icky Poo.
I’ve seen a lot of cases where cats who spray improve more quickly on an anti-anxiety medication. This is something you will need to discuss with your veterinarian. If the cat’s life or the client’s sanity is at risk, I would recommend exploring this option sooner rather than later, as many medications take some time to fully kick in.
Affectionate, playful, otherwise well-behaved cat is spraying
I have four male cats, all indoor-only, aged 1 year, 3 years, 8 years and 10 years old. They all get along very well with each other and they all get along well with me and my wife. Our second youngest one, Little Bill, is extremely affectionate and loving and playful and silly and very easy going. But he also has this extremely obnoxious habit of spraying – he will back up to a wall or a door or a cabinet or a piece of furniture – and for no reason, stand there and with back end right up against whatever it is and spray, all the while looking like he’s in a trance-like state, with his eyes staring out blankly, until I scold him or shoo him away to get him to stop if I catch him in the act. He uses his litter box regularly and normally, and is in every other way a wonderful, sweet, adorable and well-behaved cat. I’ve taken him to our vet, and have had tests run on him to see if there was anything wrong, but as far as the tests have revealed and the vets can tell, he’s perfectly healthy. What could be causing him to do this – on a pretty regular basis? (JD)
Sometimes it’s the sweetest, friendliest, “easy-going” cats that are the most anxious about their resources (which includes territory and human attention). As I mentioned already, spraying is part of the normal behavioral repertoire of cats. We are very fortunate that spaying and neutering usually eradicates this behavior. But not always.
I would take a hard look at where he is spraying (make a sketch of your home and mark those locations) and what that tells you. Do you have plenty of resources for a 4-cat household? Litter boxes, feeding stations, vertical space, scratching posts? Sometimes you can change the nature of a cat’s relationship to certain areas after thoroughly cleaning up the spray by offering scratching options, play, and treats in those areas. But some cats will just move on to another area to spray if you haven’t addressed the root cause of the spraying in the first place. More enrichment and exercise are stress-reducing, but some spraying cats need more pharmaceutical assistance, for which you would want to talk to your vet.
Why is Kitty Kitty so mean?
Dear MD. We share a cat called Kitty Kitty with a neighbor, so half of it is ours. Our half likes to play ruff and bite and scratch my wife who is brave enough to pick him up. I just stare at him and once in a while pet him with a leather glove on. Why is he so mean? We feed him and buy him jerky by the pound, but still he acts like a cop dog attacking a man in a training camp. What can tranquilize this T-REX in fur? Kitty Kitty is fixed but still sprays in the house once in a while. He is not a street cat so He get flea spray or collared. We both us and other half owner’s take good care of Mr KK. When will he slow down and be nice? Your picture looks very good, I am proud that you found something that you like to do. We love you take care, (Uncle Louie and Nanci.)
Hi Uncle Louie and Nanci!
Thanks for the kind words about my career choices and picture. Family reunion online!
As far as why Kitty Kitty behaves the way he does – I would encourage you to not see his behavior as mean, but as learned “bad habits.” Rather than trying to pet him or pick him up, try engaging him with a feather wand or other interactive toy, so he can take that rough energy out on something besides your hands. Sometimes cats have been previously played with using hands, and have learned that when someone touches them, it is going to be rough. Those cats can quickly go into a defensive mode and often bite and scratch quickly. For some cats, that is the only way they know how to play. The best way to work with this behavior is to stop engaging with them in a rough way. This helps them learn they can bite and scratch toys, but that hands will always be gentle.
Cats also do better with handling when they call the shots. Let him come to you and keep petting brief. If he really loves those jerky treats, sneak in one or two gentle pets while he gets the treats. Focus on areas that most cats enjoy petting, such as the cheeks and forehead, and avoid typically sensitive areas like the lower back and belly.
Spraying can be complex, but see my responses above about some ways to start teasing it apart and working on it!
Resident cats want nothing to do with new rescue
My sister adopted a male feral kitten named Seri. Seri is in his own room and has been reaching out to the two adult resident cats, who want nothing to do with him. My sister has tried to feed all the cats by Seri’s door (two gates, one on top of the other), but the two residents won’t have any part of it, even if their favorite foods are served. Seri is still too skittish to be held, so my sister wouldn’t be able to get him back