Common Communication Breakdowns
By Pam Johnson-Bennett
Feline Behaviorist and author of "THINK LIKE A CAT"
We love our cats and do everything we can to create loving and happy homes for them. They become members of the family. Why then do so many cats end up being relinquished to shelters? The answer: behavior problems. Many of these problems are due to a communication breakdown between the cat and the guardian. So many behavior problems could be corrected or avoided altogether if we understood a little more about how cats communicate.
There are three forms of communication used by cats: vocalization, body language and scent.
Most of us understand the vocalization part just fine. We know exactly what our cats mean based on each particular meow.
Is there a human out there who doesn't instantly recognize the "feed me" meow?
Body language becomes more complex but most of us soon learn to understand the various postures our cats assume to communicate whether they're scared, happy, content or defensive.
They use every part of their body to display their emotion - from the position of the ears; the size of the pupils; the fanning out of whiskers; to the movement of the tail. Cats really have astered the art of body language.
Then we come to scent communication and this is where most of us either throw in the towel in defeat (and also to clean up the cat urine on the carpet) or we prepare ourselves for a heartbreaking battle of wills against our feline companions.
How Do Cats Use Scent Communication?
Cats are equipped with scent glands on their paw pads; on their cheeks; on the top of the head; and of course, the area that causes guardians the most concern: urine. There are also two little anal glands on either side of the rectum that release a liquid to mark the cat's stool with a specific identifying scent. So from head to toe, scent is a very important form of communication.
Scent glands release pheromones. These are chemicals that provide information about the cat. In the wild, scent is a crucial form of communication because it reveals information about one cat to another without having an actual confrontation. In the wild, it's an extremely important survival tactic. Scent is used to identify members of the same colony, define territory, announce sexual readiness, learn more about unfamiliar cats in the area, or as a form of covert aggression.
In terms of covert aggression, a cat may choose to spray to see whether her opponent will back down or whether she'll have to actually engage in a physical confrontation. With an indoor cat, scent plays just as vital a role.
Friendly vs. Not-So-Friendly Pheromones
When thinking about scent communication, draw an imaginary line that divides your cat in half. The scent glands on the front half could be labeled as the quot;friendly" pheromones. These are used when a cat is marking familiar territory that she considers the heart of her nest. These pheromones have a calming effect. You probably have seen this many times when your cat rubs her cheek along the kitchen cabinet, the doorway to the bedroom, the leg of a chair, or even on YOU. This form of marking is very reassuring and calming behavior that reflects the cat's sense of security.
Then we come to those pheromones at the back end. Oh boy! Pheromones released during spraying are related to stress and excitement. There's nothing calm about those pheromones. When a cat sprays it's done under stressful circumstances.
Common Reasons for Spraying
First, it's important to know that both male and female cats spray. Here are some common circumstances under which a cat may spray:
- Sexual maturity in intact males
- The addition of a new cat, baby, dog, or spouse in the home
- The sudden appearance of a strange cat in the yard
- A move to a new home
- The disappearance of a cat in a multi-cat household
- Change in family due to death, divorce, child going off to college, etc.
- Feline hierarchical disputes
- Territorial boundaries
- Any perceived threat
Recognize Spraying vs. Indiscriminate Urination
There's a difference between the two and it's important to be able to identify them.
Spraying is usually done on vertical objects. A cat will first back up to an object (ex: the wall, stereo speakers). He may knead the ground with his front paws or tread with his back paws. His tail will also start twitching. A stream of urine is then sprayed on the object.
The reason spraying is so effective from a cat's point of view is because it puts the urine right at nose height for any other cat walking by. Very efficient! Some cats do spray horizontally though (for example, on a guardian's bed). The urine will be in a thin stream as opposed to a round puddle.
Indiscriminate urination is usually done on horizontal objects. There are many reasons why a cat may urinate outside of the litter box but the one thing you must rule out first is any potential medical cause. There are several underlying medical reasons such as lower urinary tract disease, and they must first be ruled out before tackling this from a behavioral standpoint. It's not uncommon for a cat to associate the litter box with the pain he feels upon urination. He might seek out other areas, thinking it won't hurt so much in a different location. Also, an irritated bladder creates a constant sense of urgency so the cat may not make it to the box in time.
Once the cat gets a clean bill of health, here are some other reasons for indiscriminate urination:
- Dirty litter box
- Aversion to litter substrate
- Not enough boxes for the number of cats
- Discomfort getting in and out of box
- Negative association to due medical condition
- Abrupt change in litter brand or type
- Aversion to the type of box (covered, electronic, etc)
- Addition of another cat to the household
- Move to a new home
- Change in owner's schedule
- Addition of new family member (baby, spouse, dog)
- Change in food or feeding routine
Fight Pheromones With Pheromones
(EDITORIAL NOTE: written prior to availability of Feliway Plug-Ins)
Once you've identified the cause of the problem, how do you help your cat over his anxiety?
Behavior modification. Create a more secure, calm environment for your cat. An important part of that involves changing his association with the areas he had been targeting for spraying or inappropriate elimination.
Remember how we talked about the friendly pheromones? Cats reserve those for their "inner" nest. Cats don't urine-mark where they facially mark because it would convey two totally opposite messages. So, the key is to change the cat's mindset about the target areas.
Feliway is a behavior modification spray that contains analogues of feline facial pheromones.
By spraying Feliway on the spot where the cat has eliminated, he will think he was the one who facially rubbed there. Each cat will interpret the pheromones in Feliway as his own.
Feliway is available at pet supply stores, on-line, through mail order catalogs, and at your veterinary clinic.
Once dry, you won't be able to perceive any scent from objects sprayed with Feliway but your cat will detect it and that's what counts!
Clean the area where the cat has urinated with plain water. Don't use detergent because the chemicals may inactivate the pheromones in Feliway.
Spray one squirt of Feliway over the area twice a day for 30 days. Natural cat pheromones fade after 24 hours so by spraying Feliway twice a day, you're ensuring a consistent level of pheromone output.
Since the facial pheromones have a calming effect on the cat, don't just spray that one spot, but rather, create an environment of calm.
Spray prominent objects in the rooms your cat occupies - most particularly where he seems the least at ease. Spray 8" up from the ground and 4" away from the object. That puts the pheromone at a cat's nose height. Use Feliway on table legs, chair legs, entrances to rooms, corners of couches, etc. By doing so, it creates a network of calming pheromones. This way, if your cat walks into a room with the intention of spraying on the far wall, he'll encounter the Feliway pheromones every few steps. BY the time he reaches his intended target, his level of anxiety has hopefully lessened enough to where he longer feels the need to spray.
Feliway should be stored at room temperature. Also, it only takes a quick little spray for each spot - don't overspray.
After 30 days, evaluate how your cat is doing. You may choose to use it twice a day for an additional 30 days or you may be able to go down to once a day. Eventually, you can spray every other day, then 2 or 3 times a week.
Combine the use of Feliway with other forms of behavior modification to create a total treatment plan. For example, play with your cat in the areas where he has eliminated to further create a more positive mindset about those spots. You can also feed your cat in those areas.
Use Pheromone Therapy To Solve Other Problems
Feliway was originally created to treat urine-marking behavior but it can be used for various other behavior problems as well.
In addition to not urine-marking where they deposit facial pheromones, cats don't tend to scratch where they facially rub. Spray Feliway on areas where your cat is inappropriately scratching, such as couches, chairs,doorways. Since scratching is a natural and vital behavior in cats, provide an appealing sisal-covered post as an alternative. Make sure the post is sturdy and located in a convenient area. If your cat prefers horizontal scratching, provide a corrugated scratching pad.
If there's tension in your multi-cat home or you're about to introduce a new cat to your resident kitty, use Feliway to help ease the stress.
Spray Feliway in the common areas of the house twice a day. This can help keep the lid on mounting tension, especially if there are contested areas in the home. It might prevent a hierarchical dispute from escalating into a spray-war.
In addition, make use of vertical space to ease tension. Provide a multi-perched cat tree to create more vertical territory. Spray the corners of the tree with Feliway once or twice a day for the first week or so.
Remember how I said cats are creatures of habit? Well, imagine how overwhelming it must be for a cat to move to a new home!
When you make a move, set up one room for the cat initially before allowing her access to the whole house. This 'safe' room will let her get her bearings. Spray Feliway on objects in the room about 20 - 30 minutes before placing her in there. This will help the room feel more familiar to her. Then, before you let her out to investigate the rest of the home, spray Feliway on prominent objects and doorways so she won't feel so overwhelmed. Here's an extra hint: when you're doing your packing, spray the corners of those packing boxes with Feliway.
NOTE: the only area you don't want to spray Feliway is around the litter box (remember, cats don't eliminate where they facially rub).
If your cat hates being put in her carrier and going for a ride (what cat doesn't!), spray Feliway in the corners of the carrier 30 minutes before placing the cat inside.
When going to the veterinarian, bring the bottle of Feliway along and give the exam table a quick spritz before taking kitty out of the carrier.
For boarding or hospitalization, leave a bottle of Feliway with the instructions to the staff to spray the corners of the cage once or twice a day. Many veterinary clinics already do that for cats that are hospitalized or boarding but if your clinic/boarding facility doesn't, ask them to.
When I worked in a veterinary hospital, I noticed that the hospitalized cats seemed to acclimate to their surroundings much more quickly after I had used Feliway.
They didn't tend to hunker down and hide as much.
Fear or Dislike of Strangers
Does your cat hide when company comes? Or does he stand his ground and growl when the neighbor visits?
Here's an exercise to help address those problems. First, have an interactive toy (fishing pole type) handy. Ask a friend to visit and have her spray her shoes or pant cuffs with Feliway. Invite the friend in and have her sit quietly on the couch. If your cat tends to run and hide, casually go to him and conduct a low-intensity interactive play session. Don't drag him out from under the bed or try too hard to entice. The message you want to convey is that all is ok in his world. Then, go back to your guest. If your cat comes out, he may walk over to the guest and sniff the Feliway. If you do this exercise a few times a week, your kitty may become less afraid and learn that guests aren't threatening.
If your cat takes an aggressive stance when company comes, have the guest (with the Feliway-sprayed shoes) casually come in and sit down. She should totally ignore the cat. This gives your kitty a sense of control and time to do his "scent investigation". You can also use your interactive toy to create a positive distraction.
If your cat dislikes your new spouse, have him/her spray his shoes or socks with Feliway during the "getting to know" you phase. Your spouse should also be the one to engage your cat in daily interactive play session with a fishing pole toy to help create a positive association.
Other Household Disruptions
I keep a bottle of Feliway on-hand to use on the furniture after parties or whenever someone has been in my home that might cause my kitties to feel stressed. I have a big holiday party each year and my cats are kept in the bedroom during the noisy event. After the last guest leaves, I spray Feliway around before letting the cats out of the bedroom.
Spray any new piece of furniture you bring into the home to help make it more familiar to your cat.
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
our cat is a master of communication. Between his vocalizations; body language; and use of scent, she's telling you what she needs and she feels.
Create a secure environment through the use of Feliway and behavior modification so you and your kitty may avoid future communication breakdowns.
****If you are having trouble with any of these behavior problems in your cat, please remember that some behavior problems may be caused by illness in your cat. It's always best to eliminate illness as a cause before trying behavior modification. Please call your veterinarian for an appointment if your cat has had a sudden change in behavior.