Pet feature: Dealing with cattitude


One woman pleaded for help getting her two cats to stop fighting. Another begged for advice on dealing with a 20-pound, food-obsessed feline.

A third simply wondered whether her kitten was too young for catnip.

“I just didn’t want a cat on drugs,” she said.

Bored cats, biting cats, cats not using the litter box. And for an evening in Brunswick, a trio of cat experts offered to explain it all.

“Any amount of education that allows people to understand that little foreign exchange student that’s living in your house can help,” said behavior consultant Jo Jacques.

For three hours Thursday, more than 100 people packed a meeting room at the Curtis Memorial Library for the Coastal Humane Society’s presentation “Cat’itude: Unraveling the Mysteries of Cat Behavior,” with Portland cat veterinarian Debra Givin, Portland-based animal behavior consultant Karen Campbell and Jacques, a Massachusetts-based animal behavior consultant. The women have been doling out animal advice individually for years. This was the first time they appeared together. 

Although Givin, Campbell and Jacques have different jobs in different locations,  they routinely encounter owners with the same problems: cats scratching the wrong things, cats being aggressive, cats meowing incessantly, cats not getting along with each other, cats going to the bathroom where they shouldn’t. They’re issues that often land cats in animal shelters. They popped up a lot on Thursday.

And then there were the more unusual problems, like the cat kleptomaniac who constantly brings home neighbors’ gloves and other items. 

“I have a tub full of other people’s clothes now,” the cat’s owner said. “Have you ever heard of that before?”

“Well,” Campbell said, then paused. “Not quite that.”

But whether the problem was common or unusual, the experts’ advice was often simple: clean the litter box more often, play with the cat more, divert the cat’s attention. The women urged owners to think about what their cat wants and why it’s doing the things it’s doing. 

“They don’t understand cat behavior. They think the cats are doing it out of spite. They think the cats are big fat jerks,” Jacques said.

They encouraged owners to rule out physical problems — illness can cause a cat to go to the bathroom outside the litter box, for example — then consider the situation from the cat’s point of view. The aggressive cat may be bored. The older cat who can’t get along with the new kitten may be put off by the youngster’s high energy level. The cat who refuses to use the litter box may not like the scented litter, may not like the hood that covers the box, may not be able to get to the box because the family’s other cats have bullied them into staying away.

“We need to pay attention to what cats are telling us way before they’re spraying on the walls,” Givin told the crowd.

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“They don’t understand cat behavior. They think the cats are doing it out of spite. They think the cats are big fat jerks,” said Jo Jacques, a Massachusetts-based animal behavior consultant. 

Have a cat problem? Here are some tips from the experts:

Cat goes to the bathroom outside the litter box

• Get the cat checked by a vet. There may be a physical problem.

• Scoop the box at least once or twice a day. Clean the box completely at least one a week for clay litters and every six to eight weeks for clumping litters.

• Change litter type and boxes. Cats don’t like scented litters or covered boxes. They also don’t like litter box liners because the plastic can get caught in their nails when they scratch.

• Maintain at least one box per cat, plus one.  Put at least one box on every level of the home and don’t cluster boxes all in one area.

Cat scratching furniture or flooring rather than the scratching post

• Place scratching post near doorways. Cats like to scratch as they enter and exit a room.

• Try different types of posts. Some cats like vertical posts, others like horizontal. Some refuse to scratch certain material.

• Create an environment that deters cats from scratching the furniture. Place double-sided tape on popular scratching spots, for example, since cats won’t like the way the tape feels. Cats don’t like the smell of eucalyptus, so a sprig may keep them away from the furniture altogether.  

• Be careful about reinforcing bad behavior by picking up, playing with or chasing the cat when it scratches the furniture.

Cat acts aggressively toward people

• If a cat grabs your arms or ankles, freeze. Movement provokes its predator/prey instinct.

• The cat may be bored and trying to work off excess energy. Play with it by throwing a toy up and down the stairs or darting a laser dot around the room. Toys your cat can play with on its own, such as balls on tracks or toys that dangle from doors, are also good. 

• Cat may be fearful. Never be rough or loud with your cat. When petting, try using your fingers to stroke the back of its neck rather than a patting the top of its head.

Cat meows obsessively

• If this is new, get the cat checked by a vet. It may be sick, injured or cold.

• If the meowing is sudden and insistent, the cat may be trying to tell you something.

• Cat may be stressed or bored. Try to work off its excess energy.

• Cat may simply be talkative.