Kittens appear to adopt their owners as parental substitutes. The owner’s presence stimulates patterns of behaviour a kitten would display to its mother – such as crying for food or seeking warmth from the owner’s body. A positive response to these interactions encourages the kitten to repeat them. As a consequence, the behaviour becomes reinforced and continues to be exhibited throughout the cat’s life. However, this only applies if the process of becoming familiar with humans (socialisation) starts at the right age.
Kittens are most responsive to socialisation between 2 and 7 weeks of age. Failure to provide adequate opportunities to interact positively with people during this time results in fearful reactions to the presence of people in later life. The degree of sociability varies in relation to the amount of interaction given. A minimum of one hour handling daily between 2 and 7 weeks of age results in a confident kitten. If a kitten is to become truly sociable with people, it has to react with a variety of people, otherwise, its ‘affectionate’ behaviour will remain specific to the few people it is accustomed to.
During this optimum 2-7 week period, it is also important the kitten become familiar with its environment. The richer a kitten’s experiences, the greater its ability to cope with the unfamiliar. Kittens frequently remain with the breeder beyond 7 weeks of age, so it is the breeder who is responsible for providing adequate socialisation and environmental experiences. New owners must be aware that kittens that have been raised with little human contact are likely to be unfriendly and fearful. These include kittens reared in out-buildings or farms or those raised in catteries. Kittens that experience only a limited exposure to different environments are less able to cope with life’s challenges.
Once you have your new kitten at home, you must continue to reinforce the socialisation started by the breeder. For at least the first year, you must continue to broaden your kitten’s range of experience by gradually introducing it to new things and a variety of people.
Cats that have lacked early life experiences can be predisposed to:
This can result from lack of early socialisation or a traumatic experience can cause a previously well-adjusted cat to become fearful. Bonding can be established or re-established by associating the owners with things that the cat values and the kitten expects from its mother.
A useful technique is to stop feeding your cat set meals and to give it it’s daily food ration by hand on a piecemeal basis throughout the day at floor level so as not to threaten the cat. Gradually increase your handling during feeding sessions. The increase should be within your cat’s tolerance level. Feeding in this way brings a pleasant association with your presence.
If your cat is fearful of visiting strangers, asking visitors to follow the following advice should help too, over a period of time, alleviate the problem.
Bringing another pet into the house carries the risk of upsetting a resident cat. This process is best done in stages and slowly.
If possible identify the reason for your cat’s fear and have it removed. e.g. arrange a garden time share with owners of rival cats, or wait until the road works in your street have been completed. You could then use the treatment for fear of inanimate objects and implement it in your garden. The basket should be placed under the edge of a bush to help your cat feel secure. Gradually build up the amount of time your cat is exposed to being outside.
To develop your cat’s sense of security, you can groom it daily with strips of cloth and place them in the garden to take its scent outside. Similarly, feed your cat its meals in the basket placed in the garden. When you feel that your cat is ready, accustom it to wearing a collar and lead and take it for regular walks around the garden.
Spraying small amounts of urine on vertical surfaces by entire and neutered males and females.
Deliberately defaecating in strategic places.
Leaving scent from pads tends to be generalised and not specific to one or two locations.
Scent marks are not a way of marking territory to deter others in the way that dogs use them. The motivation is a cat’s need to enhance its sense of security in its environment. A frequent feline response to stress or conflict is to distribute its scent. This is acceptable outdoors, but not indoors.
There are two main categories of trigger factors:
The only treatment is to make your home more safe and secure. Identify the cause of the marking behaviour and, if possible, remove it or desensitise your cat to it. If your cat’s insecurity is caused by a rival cat outside, chase it away as often as possible, arrange a garden time share with their owners, keep external doors and windows shut, and block your cat flaps. If you are moving house, put your cat in a cattery during the move and then initially confine it to a small area of the house so making it feel secure. Increase access to the rest of the house slowly.
Feeding the cat in places where the cat has marked will often inhibit spraying and middening, and make food seem abundant reinforcing the sense of well-being.
Cleaning soiled areas using an enzymatic odour eliminating cleaner removes the smell rather than just masking it with an odour eliminator (thus discouraging the cat from spraying the area regularly).
Grooming your cat with a cloth every day and then wiping it on vertical surfaces around the house at cat height transfers your cat’s scent enhancing his sense of security. This can also be achieved using man-made pheromone sprays.
Provide your cat with warm comfortable bedding to increase his sense of well-being.
Don’t punish the cat for marking behaviour – this will confuse it, make it insecure and aggravate the problem.
In difficult cases involving nervousness, short courses of drugs can help support behavioural modification.
Cats allow themselves to be stroked, but its capacity to cope can become exhausted. This can be due to the amount of time it receives the attention or because the area of its body which is being stroked makes it feel vulnerable. To avoid this, gauge your cat’s tolerance level and stop petting it before it is reached. In this way, its capacity to cope should improve on each occasion. Increasing your cat’s dependency should cause expressions of kitten-like behaviour, improving his tolerance threshold and reducing the sense of conflict. Avoid stroking vulnerable areas such as the stomach.
This is caused by either over-encouragement of kitten behaviour, lots of handling during nursing when unwell, or insecurity in old age. The situation can be aggravated by an owners response to attention seeking behaviour if it is favourable or unfavourable.
Typical symptoms include exaggerated kitten behaviour such as suckling, following owners around the house calling for them and becoming anxious when left unattended.
To deal with this problem ‘cool off’ the relationship between you and your cat. Don’t allow your cat to sleep with you, ensure that for a portion of the day you are separated from your cat by a door. Only interact with your cat when you initiate the contract. This encourages the cat to have some emotional independence. If your cat is over-attached to one member of the family, the others should take responsibility for feeding and petting. If it is only you, use an automatic feeding machine to overcome dependency.
To further improve your cat’s independence provide it with novel items to stimulate investigation and toys to stimulate chase and predatory behaviour. If possible, encourage your cat to spend more time outside.
Sometimes cats do naughty things in front of owners because it is guaranteed to get a reaction. If a cat feels it is being ignored, it may spray near or on the owner, or perform an act of wilful destruction or engage in over-grooming. Frustration due to the stopping of stroking, not letting the cat out, or missing normal feeding time may cause attention seeking behaviour. Attention seeking behaviour must be stopped without the owner’s interaction as this would simply reward the cat. The owner, or a person close by, has to punish the cat as it prepares to perform the behaviour and in such a way that the cat doesn’t know who is punishing it. i.e. “An act of God”. This is often best achieved using a squirt from a water pistol.
Occasionally ignoring or walking away from the cat’s attention seeking behaviour will be sufficient. In this situation, spraying is not due to insecurity so surreptitious punishment or ignoring the cat will not aggravate the situation.
Some cats will rush out of hiding places to bite their owner’s ankles as they walk past. This may be an expression of hunting behaviour. One approach is to exercise your cat’s hunting instincts by playing games with toys several times daily, this should help it from being a frustrated hunter. Alternatively, increase your cat’s opportunity to hunt outside as this problem is more likely in cats confined within the home. If you are still being ambushed, carry a toy with you about the house, and throw it in front of you to draw the cat out. Don’t attempt to frighten your cat off as challenging it may excite it or provoke defensive aggression.
Some cats become aggressive if approached by humans or other pets – this is likely to be a fear response. Occasionally a cat finds that its defensive aggression is so successful that it takes it one step further and realises attack is the best form of defence. This explains why some cats chase off attacking dogs.
The best approach is to desensitise your cat to whatever causes fear and apprehensive behaviour.