Our aim is to provide humane education regarding environmental enrichment to enhance the life of all captive animals.
A good way get your cat to take a pill is to teach your young cat or kitten to take soft treats out of your hand. Do this several times a week and if that youngster ever needs to take medication once she ages, she will gladly take the treat with the pill hidden right out of your hand! Makes the task of medicating your cat much easier, and it's a rewarding experience as well.
Cats kept exclusively indoors live longer, healthier lives than outdoor cats. If you allow your cat to go outside, he might come into contact with wild animals who carry parasites and disease, as well as other outdoor cats who may fight with him, greatly increasing his risk of getting feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Your cat might encounter predators, like dogs, foxes and coyotes, who could seriously harm or even kill him. He might be hit by a motor vehicle. He might be exposed to poisonous substances like lawn chemicals, antifreeze and rat bait.
Because of these and other dangers awaiting the outdoor cat, it's estimated that a cat allowed outdoors in the United States lives an average of one quarter as long as a cat living exclusively indoors. Keeping your cat indoors is the best way to prolong his life. Of course, cats don't understand that they're safer staying indoors, and some cats will do everything in their power to escape. This is especially true of indoor cats with a history of going outside.
Your cat can learn to be happy indoors if you provide him with an enriched environment and give him opportunities to be by himself. However, if you have a cat who keeps trying to escape, it's vital to make sure he isn't successful! Cat-proofing your exits and deterring him from hanging around the doors are essential management steps for you to take.
If you read our articles on Cats Who Play Rough and Predatory Behavior in Cats, you'll find a common theme in the treatment or management of these behavior concerns: providing environmental enrichment that lets your cat engage in natural behaviors. Here are suggestions that can fulfill your cat's need to engage in predatory behavior:
Provide toys that your cat can throw around himself and toys that require your participation, such as those you wiggle and dangle from a wand or stick. Move the toys in such a way that they mimic the movements of a rodent or bird.
Provide your cat commercially available "cat videos." The most popular ones show close-ups of birds and small rodents.
Position bird and squirrel feeders outside windows where your cat can observe animals coming and going during the day.
Please see our articles, Enriching Your Cat's Life and Cat Toys for more great ideas and information on keeping your cat busy and happy.
Another need a cat has that can affect his welfare as an indoor cat—and affect whether he attempts to escape outside—is alone time. We recognize this need in ourselves but don't always consider it when thinking of our pets. But cats actually have a greater need for personal space and alone time than people do—it's their nature. Under natural (feral) conditions, they avoid each other for the most part. Cats' territories are large, and although they often overlap with other cats' territory, cats have sophisticated chemical social signals, called pheromones. They leave these as information for the other cats so that the cats can "time-share" certain areas—meaning they can use the same area, but at different times so that they don't run into each other. These signals help inform other cats about where and when the cat was in the area. Over time the signals can even tell cats when a cat will likely be back so that others can be sure to be gone by that time.
To meet an indoor cat's social needs, you'll want to provide him enough space to be comfortable and enough perching and hiding places to be alone. If you have more than one cat, you should also have multiple feeding areas, and at least one more litter box than the total number of cats you have. (In other words, if you have three cats, you should have at minimum of four litter boxes). The boxes should be in different areas rather than lined up next to each other. Your cats should also have enough high perches so that one is always available to everyone. Perches can be purchased as indoor cat "trees," but they can also easily be created by emptying spaces on book shelves and window shelves.
Lastly, use a pheromone diffuser in an area or areas where your cat frequents. Synthetic versions of cat pheromones that are released when cats rub their faces on things (like Feliway®) can reduce your cat's anxiety. If possible, use the diffuser until your cat's escape attempts diminish.
Teaching Your Cat to Walk on a Leash
Besides indoor enrichment, another approach to meeting your cat's needs while keeping him from running loose outdoors is to take him on safe outings. One option is to train your cat to walk on a leash with you. Do this by first teaching your cat to accept a harness (collars, even break-away collars, generally can create problems for cats and are less secure than cat harnesses). When teaching your cat to accept his harness, work with him once a day, or once every other day, following these general guidelines:
Buy a harness and an oversized collar for your cat. The collar should be large enough to fit over your cat's shoulders and around his chest. (The collar is just for these exercises. Your cat won't actually wear it. It's just much less scary to a cat than a harness can be.) Prepare some extra special treats for him, like tuna, chicken bits or salmon. (Vacuum sealed salmon can be purchased in small bags in the grocery store near tuna). Don't give the treats to your cat unless you are working on teaching him to accept his harness and leash.
Bring the harness, the collar and the special treats over to your cat.
Let the cat sniff the collar and harness. Offer him treats as he does this.
Lay the collar against your cat's neck, offer him a treat and, as he's sniffing the treat, remove the collar and let him eat the treat. Repeat this until you can snap the collar very loosely on your cat for just a moment while he's sniffing or eating the treat.
Next drape the collar over your cat's shoulder, across his chest and down between his front legs, diagonally like a seatbelt. Always introduce the new feel of the straps while the cat is sniffing or eating his treat, and always remove the collar immediately. Work until you can snap the collar on him diagonally over his shoulder, draping down between his front legs.
Once your cat accepts the collar, discard the collar and teach him to accept the harness using the same gradual process, always accompanied by delicious treats.
Once your cat accepts his harness, allow him to wear the harness—under your supervision—until he can wear it for five minutes at a time. Be sure to give him periodic treats during this time. Once he can tolerate five minutes happily, teach him about being on a leash.
Take him to somewhere familiar inside where he feels comfortable. Put the harness on him and then hook him to the leash. If he moves away from you, wait until he gets to the end of the lead and then quickly—before he panics—call him to you and give him a treat. Continue training for a few days until 1) he doesn't worry when on the leash, and 2) he has begun following you.
Note: If your cat doesn't like treats, is afraid of the collar strap or reacts to any part of the training with fear or attempts to leave, it's best to avoid training him to walk on a leash. On-leash outdoor excursions are not as valuable in increasing your cat's welfare as is avoidance of stress.
For more information, please see our article, Teaching Your Cat to Walk on a Leash. And to learn more about how to best teach your cat new behaviors, please see our articles,Training Your Cat and Clicker Training Your Pet.
Creating a Secure Outdoor Enclosure
A secure outdoor enclosure allows your cat access to the exciting sights, sounds and smells outdoors, enlarging his home territory. Enclosures for cats should be completely enclosed, such as a screened-in porch, or constructed so the cat can't climb up the walls and jump out. Walls should be at least seven feet high and should not be accessible to trees or climbing vines. In addition, the top of the wall should be capped with a fence ledge that angles toward the interior at least one foot, as an added deterrent for jumping and climbing cats.
Cat Proofing Your Exits
Even if you do a great job providing enrichment for your cat, if your cat has been allowed loose outdoors in the past he'll likely try to get outdoors on his own again.
First Things First: Check Windows and Doors
Check the security of your windows and doors. Check that your doors latch securely and that the springs are taut so that the doors close quickly. Be sure your window and door screens are not tattered. Tattered screens invite cats to attempt escape.
Encourage the Family to Watch for Escape Attempts
Be certain that all family members watch for your cat and any attempts he could make to escape. However, remember that children are easily distracted by friends and activities and may not be able to always keep the cat from escaping. It's helpful to practice with children and show them how to leave the house without allowing the cat out with them. Teach them to watch for the cat, to open the door slowly, and to turn back toward the house as they close the door behind them—with your cat inside!
Deterrents at Doorways
A cat who is given outlets for his natural behaviors through environmental enrichment will gradually accept and indeed enjoy his life inside his home. But before he adjusts to this lifestyle change, it can be helpful to set up humane deterrents to discourage him from trying to get out. (Keep in mind that using noise-making deterrents can be stressful for your cat.) Here are some suggestions:
Noise maker Keep a can, half full of pennies and properly sealed, in a convenient spot next to the doorway. Encourage family members to lift the can and shake it each time they leave the house regardless of where the cat may be. Your cat will learn to associate the unpleasant sound with people leaving, and so he'll stay away from the door.
Water spray bottle Keep a spray bottle in a convenient spot next to the door. Have everyone pick it up before they open the door. When the door is open, if your cat approaches, squirt or mist him, whichever seems more unpleasant to him.
A motion-activated sound alarm Radio Shack sells a variety of motion-activated alarms. The downside of using one of these is that it will go off whenever anyone goes near the door, unless they make an effort to step over the infrared beam.
SpraySentry™ Cat Deterrent System This is a device that detects movement within several feet and delivers a short burst of compressed air to deter the cat. This, too, has the pitfall of activating whenever anyone goes near the door.
ScatMat® A ScatMat delivers a startling but mild electric shock when touched. The mat can be set in front of the door as a deterrent. Many cats who have been allowed outdoors will learn to jump over the mat, so your vigilance is still necessary even when the mat is present. Placing two mats side-by-side may be more effective.
The word "compulsive" describes the repetitive, irresistible urge to perform a behavior. Most compulsive behaviors are normal activities, such as eating, grooming, moving around or sexual behaviors, but they occur in the wrong contexts and to such an extent that they interfere with normal functioning. The most common compulsive behaviors in cats are wool sucking or fabric eating (a form of pica) and excessive licking, hair chewing or hair pulling (called psychogenic alopecia). When performed compulsively, these behaviors can be harmful to a cat. Cats who eat fabric can suffer intestinal obstruction, and cats who over-groom can develop skin wounds. Sometimes a cat becomes so compelled to engage in a compulsive behavior that it interferes with her ability to lead a normal life and impairs her relationship with her pet parent.
What Causes Compulsive Disorders?
Compulsive behaviors often develop when a sensitive cat is frustrated or stressed. Initially, the cat performs a displacement behavior. She wants to do one thing but she can't, so she gets frustrated and does something else. For example, when a cat sees another cat outside the window, she might want to attack—but she can't get out, so she performs a seemingly irrelevant behavior instead, like licking herself. If stressful situations like this happen repeatedly, the cat may continue to engage in the displacement behavior. At first, she'll do it only in stressful situations, but she may eventually do it even when there's nothing frustrating going on. At this stage, the behavior has become repetitive and compulsive.
While it's not been confirmed, some experts believe that kittens who were weaned too early might be susceptible to developing compulsive disorder later in life.
Facts About Compulsive Disorders in Cats
Cats are usually less than two years of age when they develop compulsive disorders. Kittens may be as young as three to four months old when they start wool sucking, for example.
Although any cat can develop a compulsive disorder, Oriental breeds, such as the Siamese, are particularly prone to developing them. It's likely that the breeding practices necessary to create and maintain these purebred cats also concentrate genes associated with compulsive disorders.
Female cats are more commonly affected with psychogenic alopecia. There is no known sex bias for other compulsive disorders.
Compulsive disorders occur most often in cats who live exclusively indoors, presumably because indoor cats get less mental stimulation and physical exercise. Indoor cats are also more likely to face stressful situations, like fighting with other cats in the home.
Significant disruptions in a cat's life, like moving to a new house, home remodeling, or the addition of a new pet or family member to the household, can cause stress and trigger the development of compulsive behavior.
Check with Your Veterinarian First
Don't assume that your cat has a compulsive disorder just because she's licking herself or eating non-food items. Some medical conditions can cause these behaviors, so it's crucial to have your cat thoroughly examined by her veterinarian before doing anything else. A cat who licks herself excessively might be suffering from allergies or fungal infections, or she could be experiencing pain in the area she licks. A cat who eats non-food items, such as fabrics, could be suffering from a nutritional deficiency. If you have more than one cat and they all share a food bowl, it's also possible that your cat simply isn't getting enough to eat.
It's important to understand that behaviors originally caused by medical problems can become compulsive. Your cat might continue performing a behavior, even after you've resolved its medical cause.
Identifying the Cause
Once you've ruled out medical issues, the next step is to figure out what's causing your cat to feel stressed and, if possible, get rid of it. Some of the most common factors that contribute to the development of compulsive disorders include the following:
1.Separation anxiety, particularly if someone in the family is absent for a lengthy period of time, or if a person or pet in the family has died or left the home
2. A new person or pet in the household
3. A move to a new home
4. Restricted access to the outdoors
5. Inadequate social or environmental stimulation due to an exclusively indoor life
6. The presence of cats outside the windows of the home
7. Loud or high-pitched noises
8. Attention seeking
Obviously, some of these factors can't be eliminated or avoided. However, if you can't remove the source of your cat's stress, there are still ways to help her cope.
Helping Your Compulsive Cat
If your cat reacts to a specific sight or sound, you can expose her to the thing that upsets her at such low levels that she remains calm. At the same time, you'll be associating the thing with something your cat enjoys, like treats or play. For instance, if she gets stressed when you play the piano, start by teaching her that she gets tasty salmon every time you play a very quiet tune. As she demonstrates that she's comfortable with this, take several weeks to gradually expose her to louder music. Each music session should be accompanied by her favorite foods. For more information about this kind of procedure, please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning.
Cats who are stressed by the presence of other cats outside the home can be discouraged from watching out windows. Remove your cat's favorite resting spots by windows, and make other places more appealing. If necessary, cover the windows with curtains, blinds or even an opaque material like cardboard. Please see our article, Keeping Cats Out of Your Yard, to learn about ways to deter outside cats from coming around.
If your cat lives exclusively indoors, enrich her environment so that she has plenty of things to do. Make sure you have structures for climbing and perching, bird feeders, fish tanks or Kitty TV for watching, and interesting toys for playing. Spend 10 to 15 minutes at least once a day playing interactive games with your cat. Some cats even enjoy a daily walk outdoors on a harness and leash. (Please see our article, Enriching Your Cat's Life.
Some cats engage in compulsive behaviors because they get attention from their pet parents. It's important that you don't unintentionally reward your cat with attention when she's engaging in a compulsive behavior. If you do, she might learn that eating fabric, for example, makes you follow her around everywhere, or that licking herself makes you come over and stroke her. It's best to interrupt your cat without interacting with her. Simply remove the item she's chewing, or clap your hands to distract her from licking.
If your cat is having a hard time adjusting to a dramatic change in her life, such as a move or the loss of a family member, medication might help her. Anti-anxiety medications, such as fluoxetine (Prozac®) or clomipramine (Clomicalm®), are often helpful in treating compulsive disorders. Please see Behavioral Medications for Cats for more information and Finding Professional Help for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.
Specific Tips for Fabric Eating and Wool Sucking:
1. Keep desirable items out of reach, and prevent your cat from going into rooms where she can access bedspreads or curtains. If she sucks or chews specific items, spray them with a deterrent to make them taste bad. Please see our article, Using Taste Deterrents, for information about products designed for cats.
2. If your cat sucks or chews but doesn't ingest fabric, provide furry mice and soft toys as acceptable alternatives. If your cat eats fabric, provide toys made of rubber or plastic. Scatter the toys in areas where your cat would normally go to look for fabric items.
3. Some cats will chew on fresh catnip and cat grass as safe alternatives to fabric. A few even like to eat lettuce and green beans.
4. Some cats enjoy chewing pieces of thin rawhide lightly coated with fish oil or cheese spread. Others prefer to chew on raw chicken wings. Make sure they're raw—cooked bones can splinter and choke or injure your cat. Only give your cat rawhide or chicken wings when you're able to closely supervise her.
5. Use your cat's feeding times as enrichment opportunities. Hide small dishes of her food around the house so she has to hunt for them. You can also see if she'll eat from a food puzzle toy. You can use toys made for small dogs, such as the KONG® or the Tricky Treat™ Ball. Alternatively, you can make a toy by punching holes in an empty toilet paper roll. Make the holes large enough for the pieces of kibble to fit through. Cover one end of the roll with tape, dump some kibble or other semi-hard treats inside, and then cover the other end, too. Set the toy down in front of your cat and roll it so that she sees the food fall out of the holes.
6. Speak with your cat's veterinarian about feeding her a high-fiber, low-calorie diet. She'll be able to eat more of this kind of food, which will keep her occupied for longer periods of time.
Can a Compulsive Cat Be Cured?
It's often not possible to completely cure compulsive disorders in cats. However, behavior modification, drug therapy and changes to your cat's environment can be effective in reducing the frequency and intensity of her compulsive behavior, making it more tolerable for you and for her. It may help you to keep a daily diary of your cat's behavior so that you can see whether your efforts are helping. If they are, seeing it on paper will encourage you to continue with the treatment program.
What NOT to Do
Do not punish your cat for engaging in compulsive behavior. Punishing her will increase her stress, and she'll probably do even more compulsive licking, sucking or chewing as a result.
It's usually not helpful to physically prevent your cat from engaging in compulsive behavior. For example, making her wear an Elizabethan collar probably won't work. While restraint can be helpful in the short term to keep your cat from harming herself, it's important to find a long-term solution to address the source of the underlying anxiety.