Inappropriate Peeing, Spraying, Toy Obsession And Leg And Hand Nipping

Herding Cats Column - Cat Behavior questions and answers with Wendy Christensen

Q: I tried just about everything and cannot get Chloe, my 13- month-old calico, to stop peeing on my scatter rugs, especially the one by the kitchen sink. She will go anywhere, though. I caught her this afternoon in the computer room. We had her checked by the Vet and she doesn't have a urinary tract infection. We have bought all kinds of products but nothing seems to work. My husband and I have grown to love her but I can not tolerate her behavior.

A: You would not believe how many questions I get about cats who mysteriously urinate on scatter rugs, bathmats, kitchen mats, etc. I, too, was mystified by this (my own cats did it, too) until I discovered that the "non-skid" backings and coatings of many, if not most, such rugs and mats include an ammonia-like component that, especially when damp or wet, smells exactly like cat urine.

If your mats and scatter rugs have a latex or other non-skid backing, the odor may well be calling Chloe, telling her that "this is an OK place to go." After all, it smells just like a litter box! Even if you thoroughly wash the item, that smell will remain, as it is actually part of the backing. So I now just avoid using such "non-skid" mats and rugs. I use thick, reversible mats, and scatter or throw rugs with woven or burlap backs. Or, just plain bare floors, which I've come to prefer for many locations in the house anyway.

Also, be aware that many of the rubbery "rug backing" pads and mats sold to help keep non-latex-backed rugs from sliding and skidding also have that ammonia-like smell, and will draw the attention of urinating felines. You can keep small rugs from skidding by securing them with strips of rug tape or carpet tape, a wide, two-sided removable adhesive tape. Don't use any more than necessary to secure the rug, as some of these tapes also carry "that scent."

I had a funny, related experience last summer. I was doing a lot of work in the yard and had bought some excellent waterproof gardening gloves with a rubbery, textured gripping surface. When I wore them while working in some wet grass and weeds, I suddenly started smelling cat urine. "Could the cats have peed on my boots?" I wondered? "My hat…?" I was puzzled until I realized it was the gloves! It just hadn't occurred to me, but the rubbery material obviously had a large amount of the ammonia-like chemical. It was a powerful reminder that odors from unlikely and unexpected sources can easily influence cat behavior and lead to a lot of owner frustration before the cause is revealed.

Q: My cat seems to not want to pee in her litter box. I took her to the vet about a month or two ago and she is healthy. We had moved her litter box into a different room but at first she had no problem using it or finding it. But now for the last month or so she has been reluctant to use her litter box for peeing. She poops in her litter box just fine and we clean it out once a day and at the very most every other day but still she won't go to the bathroom there. We have not changed furniture or changed her food or changed anything around the house that might cause her to do this. I read that punishing is not good for cats and we try not to punish her as frustrated as we might get.

A: First of all, she must be peeing somewhere! Where? Right next to the box? In the corner of your closet?

I suspect that something about the new location has convinced her that she wants separate boxes for urinating and defecating. It's a very common phenomenon among cats. That's why I always suggest two litter boxes, even for a single cat. (My standard rule for groups is at least one box per cat plus at least one extra.) If she's peeing right beside, or near, the box, this is almost surely the case. However, if the box's new location is in a bathroom, perhaps next to a non-skid throw rug or bathmat, she may be peeing on that in preference to the litter. (**See above.)

It's a fact that punishment not only doesn't work with cats - it's almost always counterproductive. (I suggest you read my latest book, "Outwitting Cats," for more about this and other cat behavior topics.) It's also a fact that when litter-box problems crop up, adding an extra box helps surprisingly often. So, add a second box and let me know what happens.

I'd also take the cat back to the veterinarian for a re-check. Explain what's been going on. Your cat may have developed a urinary tract problem since her last visit; such problems can come on very quickly.

Q: My little cat is a 1 1/2 year old spayed female. She sprays just about everything. Any time something is moved, any of the surrounding trees and bushes, she even has gotten me and my husband. She also likes to chase my other cats. As long as they face her and put her in her place, she will back off. But if they turn away from her, or especially walk or heaven forbid run, she chases after them. She is the youngest and smallest, but is trying to be the most dominant.

When I see her spraying, I let her know I disapprove by clapping my hands and/or stomping my feet and tell her no, bad kitty. She knows I don't like that behavior, but she just runs off to the next object and sprays that. When I see her agitating one of my other cats, I try to get her attention on me, so maybe she will leave them alone, but if the other kitty runs, she is right there after them! These are all barn kitties and Pixi does not like it when one of the other cats comes into "her" barn. She gets very defensive. But otherwise, and especially to me, she is the sweetest little, loving cat.

A: I'd suggest, as a first step, a complete vet checkup. Tell your veterinarian what's been happening and for how long. Ask him/her to specifically check for inflammation in the bladder (as well as for the more common urinary tract infections). Bladder inflammation (also called cystitis) can be a chronic issue in some cats (I have 2 with it). It causes spraying, out-of-the-box urination, and general crankiness because it's so irritating and even painful.

In either of my "problem cats," spraying right in front of me, conspicuously, generally means she is quite uncomfortable and wants help NOW.

If inflammation is the problem (the bladder will feel small and hard), ask your veterinarian about the fairly new anti-inflammatory drug available for use in small animals. (The generic drug name is meloxicam.) My two girls are both on a small daily dose of this and it has done wonders for them.

Even if your cat is suffering from cystitis, she's also probably formed bad habits with regard to spraying. So, you'll have some behavior modification (not to mention cleanup) to work on.

Q: I've not heard of this before, but maybe you have. We have a 3-year-old spayed female. She seems to have a doll. It's a "weasel"-one of the ones that come attached to a ball that rolls around the floor when you turn on a switch. A couple of years ago she tore the weasel off the ball and has been carrying it around by the nape of its neck. We find "baby" over by the litter, or by the food, or laying on the bed. As she carries it, she meows quietly. We haven't decided if the "baby" is crying or if she's talking to it. We've seen her put the weasel in the litter pan and take it right back out. She seems to be a very smart cat. Do you think we're right in thinking that she has a doll?

A: Congratulations! You're a grandma! Your cat is a MomCat... or at least, she thinks she is...

Female cats, even if they're spayed, sometimes get it into their heads that they're mothers, raising kittens. They'll pick up small, soft items -- "kitten substitutes" -- from around the house, carry them around in their mouths, protect them as if they were real kittens, and even try to "nurse" them. This may be caused by the scents of hormones and pheromones wafting in from non-spayed cats outdoors, or it can be triggered by the light and changes of Springtime -- peak season for kitten-birthing.

Fuzzy Weasel is your cat's "kitten." She vocalizes to it, as MomCats do with their kits. Adult cats generally communicate with one another mainly through scent and touch; they meow and vocalize with us verbal humans. But MomCats and kittens share a vocal language of purrs, squeaks, hums, mews and other calls.

In the wild, a MomCat will move her entire litter to a new nest several times during their first few weeks of life. This is to insure that the nest where her kittens are is always clean and fresh, with no odors or other clues to attract predators. Carrying Weasel around and protecting it is your cat's way of moving her "kitten" and making sure it's safe.

I find this charming and also enlightening, as it shows how basic maternal behavior can be, even in a creature who's never experienced pregnancy or motherhood. It's clearly a very important and meaningful activity for your cat. It may diminish over time, or she may keep it up, and even add other "kittens" to her litter. So, if you start missing socks and hankies and other small, soft items… well, you know where to look. You might want to obtain other similar small, soft toys and leave them out and available - and see what happens.

Q: I have 2 male cats, 9 months old. This morning they sprayed my bedroom closet; it's awful and I guess I was under the misinformation that if they didn't go out and are not around other cats they won't do this. Wro-o-o-o-ong!! Anyway, I'm making arrangements to have them neutered, but it may take a week to do so and I anticipate them spraying every day… I am close to desperate.

A: Yes, intact (un-neutered) male cats spray. They spray a lot. They spray a particularly odoriferous variant of cat urine. They spray whether other cats are around or not, whether they go outdoors or not. The behavior is driven by sex hormones and other sex-related chemicals. Breeders who keep "stud males" (intact toms used for breeding) almost always keep them housed in separate quarters, away from the human residence and the other cats.

Neutering male cats usually stops all or most spraying behavior, as well as other physical signs and behaviors that appear in sexually intact cats. Be aware that it may take a couple of weeks after the neutering for the hormone levels to decrease sufficiently so that the spraying is extinguished or curtailed.

In the meantime (before the procedure and for awhile afterwards), confine your boys to a separate, uncarpeted, easily-cleanable area, like a bathroom, laundry room, etc. Put in there everything they need (litter boxes, scratching post, toys, food water, etc.), and visit often to play and just talk so they don't think they're being ignored. Play a radio or CD player (talk radio or classical music is good) to keep them company.

Make sure the area they're in is non-carpeted, and includes nothing like upholstered furniture, mattresses, or anything else that would be difficult to thoroughly clean and deodorize. Washable throw rugs and bedding are fine, IF you keep them as clean and odor-free as possible.

Once they're ensconced in private digs, clean up ALL the areas in your house where they've sprayed. You can probably smell them, but don't count on it. Use a hand-held black light (like "Stink Finder") in dark rooms to find all the "marked" spots - they will glow yellowish-greenish in the dark. It's important to clean all of these THOROUGHLY with enzyme cleaner, or they will still be smellable to cats, and the message will be "It's OK to pee here." NOT what you want! If there is urine in carpets, be sure to clean the backing, padding and flooring underneath, too. (My latest book, "Outwitting Cats," has a large section on effective cat cleanups.)

While they're away being neutered, thoroughly clean up their quarters, using an enzyme-based or other odor-removing cleaner made specifically for dealing with cat urine odors. Be sure to get walls, fixtures, floors, etc. If you've included washable beds or old towels, you need to use a laundry additive to get the odor out. (Ordinary laundry detergents can't remove the odors completely.) I use "Febreeze Laundry Odor Eliminator" (it comes in a dark blue jug). After much experimentation, I found it to be the best at odor removal.

After the neutering, return them to their private quarters for at least a week and keep a close eye on them to see when/if the spraying diminishes or (with luck) goes away. Clean up all spraying as soon as possible with your enzyme cleaner. The idea is to keep all urine odors confined to the litter box, so as to not get your cats into bad habits.

If there is still some spraying after 2 weeks, talk to your veterinarian about possibly trying a short course of a behavior-modification medication to get them "over the hump" in eliminating the behavior, as it may have become a habit that persists even after the hormones are no longer there driving it.

Q: My cat is a tom that has been neutered. I don't have a problem but I just wondered when I pet and love my cat his reaction is to nip my leg or hand, not hard, but I was wondering if you could help me understand that.

A: Many cat owners think of these soft bites-while-petting as "love bites." But it's not a good idea to encourage this behavior, or to encourage your cat to think of ANY kind of biting (even soft "love bites") in connection with petting and affection. It can turn dangerous - cats have very sharp teeth and strong jaws, and cat bites can become seriously infected.

Cats are highly sensitive animals, and are especially sensitive to touch. They're very easily over-stimulated. When a cat is over-stimulated, his natural reaction is to use his weapon systems (teeth and claws) to terminate or mitigate the source of the stimulation - even if it's pleasant over-stimulation, like petting from a loved person.

Here's some advice from my latest book, "Outwitting Cats" (The Lyons Press, 2004). The situation being described is a tummy-petting session that has resulted in claws wrapped around your arm, or teeth starting to clamp down on your hand, but it applies equally to any situation of affectionate over-stimulation.

"Don't panic, don't yell, and don't get mad. And don't move. Remember -- your cat's over-stimulated and any movement -- especially trying to snatch your arm away -- will stimulate him further and make him dig those claws in even deeper. Instead, very slowly press your arm towards him. This should momentarily confuse him. (Prey doesn't move towards a predator). Let him calm down until you feel the claws retract. (Try not to squeal in pain.) Disengage your arm s-l-o-w-l-y. It may take a few tries before he's calmed down enough to let you go. Be patient!

If you know for sure your cat enjoys tummy rubs, wait until he asks for one by rolling over. But don't start with his tummy! Touch the back of his head or other "neutral" spot. Then, slowly move your hand around, paying close attention to his mood and reactions. When he's on his back he's very vulnerable, and self-defensive instincts can instantly trump friendship. Keep a close eye on his eyes, whiskers and ears for clues that he's had enough. Watch for these warning signs:

  • body tenses up
  • pupils narrow
  • skin along his back starts to twitch and ripple
  • tail starts to lash
  • ears flatten
  • claws or teeth (or both) sink into your arm (Oops! too late!)

If you notice them, stop at once. Give him some quiet time to settle down.

Keeping tabs on your cat's body language will help you see when he's started to become over-stimulated. Stop before he starts in on the love bites. Whatever you do, don't yell or punish him. Quietly terminate the interaction by getting up and leaving the area. If you let him continue to bite, he is likely to become more intensely stimulated and the bites may become harder - because he's getting positive feedback from you. Not a wise idea."

Q: We have an American Short Hair, female, about 2 years old who has brought us more love and laughter than we ever dreamed possible!!

She will get certain toys and put in or very near her food dish! These toys usually are furry mice or feather toys. This is a very cute behavior, not anything bad, just cute. We have wondered about this many, many times. Any ideas?

A: I may be going out on a limb with this; be aware that many other behaviorists would disagree with me. I think this kind of behavior may be a form of "symbolic communication."

I had one cat who did this kind of thing all her life. If dinner was late (because we were out, for example), we'd come home to find one furry mouse in the food bowl. If we were even later, there'd be two mice… And the few times we were VERY late getting home (like after a long drive), there would be three. This cat also ran what clearly were decoy strings - she'd place furry mice on several stairs leading to the cellar. Then, she'd sit on the top landing and… wait.

I had another cat who consistently dragged small, soft toys and drowned or dunked them in her water bowl.

I think some of this kind of behavior is sending messages that are intended to communicate something to us. What, I'm not entirely sure.

Another theory? I have one male cat who likes to drop a few furry mice in the dry-food bowl, where his face and mouth can rub against them as he eats his crunchies. Does this give him more of a "feel" of eating small, furry prey? I don't know… I would LOVE to be able to read kitty minds and find out, though. Interestingly, this is a very sweet, but also highly predatory, male cat who has never lived outdoors (though we do get the occasional mouse indoors).

Your cat could be doing something like adding her own contributions to the meal by bringing her "just-caught prey;" or perhaps she likes the feel of feathers on her whiskers while she eats. Or, she might be trying to thank you for the meal, or suggest that more natural foods (birds, mice!) would be more appreciated. Or, she might have a strong inborn maternal streak, and be bringing extra food for her imaginary kittens.

I find this kind of cat behavior absolutely fascinating. Thanks for the report, and Purrrrs to you and your kitty.

Announcement from The Cat Herder: I got the VERY best holiday gifts this year: two new kitties for my herd, bringing our total to 11. Prince Syvert the Bold, and his sister, Hazel-Marie, were feral babies, adopted from Monadnock Kitty Rescue & Adoption in Jaffrey, NH, December 6, 2005.

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