Visiting Vet: Cats in the cradle?

Tips to keep your kittens (and grown-up cats) happy.

Littermates are more likely to get along than cats that are not related. —Ilse Orsel

I’ve been watching with both empathy and amusement the trials and tribulations of Facebook friends with their various cats and kittens. I wish all of them could have joined me and my staff at a continuing education conference we attended recently with Dr. Carlos Siracusa, associate professor of clinical animal behavior and welfare at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. In my last column, I shared some of his insights about canine behavior, promising the ailurophiles I would soon do the same for cats. So here is a bit of Dr. Siracusa’s wisdom about “decoding your cat.”

By nature, cats are “24-hour animals.” In the wild, Felix’s day goes like this: Hunt. Catch small prey. Eat small prey. Nap. Hunt. Catch small prey. Eat it. Nap. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Left to their own rhythm, cats will eat 12 or more little meals daily. This is why Felix probably bugs you for food every few hours, then eats a few bites and walks away. When you go to bed at night, young Felix, who is naturally wide awake, thinks, “This is boring.” Luckily, most cats eventually adapt to their humans’ biorhythms, sleeping along with you at night. Others just can’t adjust. These cats can drive owners crazy, racing around at midnight, jumping on their pillows at 2 am, and so on.

To encourage Felix to chill at night, try having multiple planned play sessions with him during the day. These should be short, avoiding excessive arousal, which can have the opposite effect from what you want. There are all sorts of great cat toys you can buy. Teaser wands that let you dangle everything from feathers to pretend snakes for Felix to chase. There are interactive puzzles, food mazes, electronic toys. Switch it up so Felix doesn’t get bored. After each short play period, give a clear end to the game with a small meal. Show Felix the food. Once he directs his attention there, say “game over,” remove the toy, and leave. Felix will then (hopefully) eat and nap. Just like he would in nature. Repeat several times throughout the day.

Make sure the environment provides activities for him even when you aren’t free to play. Cat trees. Things to climb. Places to hide. Check out Doc and Phoebe’s Interactive Feeder Mice — fake mice you load with dry food and hide around the house, letting Felix literally hunt for his dinner. (Don’t do this if you have dogs, obviously.) Dr. Siracusa has a great video of his own cat watching bird videos on TV, and later playing with an iPad on the floor. Yup. You can download cat iPad games for Felix, like Friskies Jitter Bug or Mouse in Cheese. At bedtime, studies suggest certain types of music can be calming. Yup. You can download tunes specifically for cat relaxation. Finally, for relentless feline night owls, program an automatic food dispenser to provide food at set times throughout the night without waking you up.

What about getting a second cat? I have a saying — the only thing more fun than a kitten is two kittens. Lots of people agree, and will adopt two kittens right off the bat. This can be a great idea, especially if you get them young and at the same time. Littermates are more likely to get along in the long run than cats that are not related, and unrelated cats of similar age do better than cats with wide differences in age. But there are no guarantees. Multiple-cat households can have a whole new set of challenges … and the more cats, the more problems. If you are lucky, your cats are best friends who snuggle together, groom one another, and never fight. But not everyone is so lucky.

Not surprisingly, cats tend to have strong opinions about one another. Because, well, cats. Living in a multiple-cat household, Felix may have what is called a “preferred associate” with whom he is perfectly willing to share space. But sometimes Felix just doesn’t like Oscar, the other cat, and needs him to keep his distance. In many cases, things can still work relatively amicably if you set up their worlds so that each cat has a “core” area that belongs to him, and him alone. Each core area should have all the resources needed. Separate food, water, resting places, litterbox, even separate toys. The cats should not have to interact at all if they don’t want to. It’s like giving each of your kids their own bedroom (bathroom, kitchen, playroom). Add one of the commercially available pheromones designed to reduce anxiety, such as Feliway MultiCat. These interventions may be enough to tame any cat-to-cat aggression, or at least ensure that it is minor and appropriate — meaning the cats read one another’s body language, hostilities are limited to mostly vocalizing, and no one gets hurt or is constantly terrorized.

If serious fights continue, it’s time for a consultation with your veterinarian. They will first rule out any medical causes, then help properly identify which cat is the perpetrator and which the target. Next, you can discuss whether medication might be indicated, and set up a behavior modification plan. This usually starts with completely separating the cats to individual core areas for a period of two to three months, until both are relaxed and feeling safe. Once this is achieved, the reintroduction process begins … very, very slowly. First, olfactory interaction, meaning you allow them to smell each other’s scent — on items, not in physical proximity. Next, visual interaction in neutral territory through a solid barrier, such as a glass door. Physical contact is only attempted once they can reliably see one another without even hissing. But don’t expect miracles. Felix and Oscar may never accept each other. That’s when it’s time to rehome one of them. “Some people just can’t live together,” Dr. Siracusa says with a shrug and a smile. “Same for our pets. Why do we expect so much from them?”