Scratching The Surface Of Kitty Stress: Helping Felines Think Inside The Box Is A Plus For Cat Trainer
Resident Susan Johnson offered a “correction” recently to something she read in The Newtown Bee, which may be beneficial to cat owners.
In mid-February she responded to something she saw "The Top of the Mountain" — the column that is ghost written by a cat that has been on The Newtown Bee staff for many years and named for an actual cat, Mountain, once owned by the Bee Publishing Co’s Smith family.
Through an e-mail to the editor, she said, “I always read Top of the Mountain, mainly because I love cats (especially ones that can write). I do have a correction to the last column that stated ‘There’s a reason you never see Cat Obedience Training offered...’” Ms Johnson is, she pointed out, a certified feline training and behavior specialist.
“Training cats enriches the cat’s life, strengthens the bond with the pet parent, and solves behavior issues,” she wrote.
During a recent interview, she said, “I have been working in veterinary hospitals for 19 years. Cats come in with issues like urinating outside the litter box. If the vet says it’s not medical, the owners say, ‘Now what?’”
She commented, “I saw a need to find a way to know what cats are feeling and thinking so they don’t end up in shelters for behavioral issues.”
How does an owner train a cat? “The biggest problem I see is [owners] can’t get the cat to the vet. They can’t put their cat in a carrier — owners get scratched or bit trying push the cat into the carrier.
“Slow, gentle training and repetitive baby steps of getting a cat used to getting into the carrier,” could help, she said.
Offering “My approach,” Mrs Johnson continued, “carriers should be left out all the time. If you bring it up from the basement or garage, it’s cold, scary, dirty, not familiar… but if you keep it with a bed inside, and they can go in whenever they want, then by the time you’re ready for a trip, you simply close the carrier.” By then, the carrier “will smell like them, like a good place, not like the garage.”
“You train them similar to a dog — you use a treat: tiny piece of food, a favorite toy, petting; it’s a reward,” Ms Johnson said. “But with cats, it’s a short training session, so five minutes, three minutes.”
From A Cat’s Perspective
Her approach to cat training? “The best thing is a home visit so I can see what the issues are and look at it from your cat’s perspective and offer solutions.”
Ms Johnson “sees all kinds of things. I recommend training before things become a problem.” Start training as a young kitten or cat. “Get them used to taking a pill, for example, going through motions with small piece of tuna, so later, if there is a medical issue, it’s not traumatizing to the cat,” she said.
Her “biggest advice, “is to avoid feeding cats out of bowls. Let them hunt for food,” she said. “There are so many puzzle toys that you can put dry food in that they have to work at to get it out. Hide them around the house.”
For cat owners who serve wet food, she suggests: “Put it in a paper plate folded up so they have to work to find it or put it in a coffee cup on its side.”
Ms Johnson said, “I do see a lot of behavior problems because we’re keeping them inside now — they’re bored and getting into trouble. They need a job. So, that’s when the puzzle toys come into play.”
Cat owners can also work with their pets through “interactive play,” she said, like “a toy on a line that they can run after and treat it like prey and hunt it and grab it. It fulfills that need.”
Taking time to write an e-mail with additional thoughts, Ms Johnson said, “A lot of behavior issues are caused by ‘stress.’ Cats that have competition for resources (sharing a litterbox, food, water, attention from their owner) can show signs of stress.”
She said, “Some cats have behavior issues when the family moves to a new house, adds a new pet, a new baby in the house, or neighbors’ cats roaming into the yard. I’ve seen cats ‘stress out’ over having to use a new brand of kitty litter or a change in diet.”
A change in litterbox habits is one of the most common issues she sees — going to the bathroom “outside the box.”
She also sees aggression issues towards people or other pets. Solutions? “Those are complicated,” she said. It could be play aggressions or territorial. “Aggression can be managed, not cured.” She would make a house call to “see what’s happening and work for solutions to manage the aggression,” she said.
Introductions to new pets “need to go smoothly because we are building a relationship that will last for the lifetime of the pets,” she said.
She has seen Psychogenic Alopecia, when a cat pulls out its fur by licking excessively or biting. “They start licking because something else is bothering them and they are trying to soothe themselves. They create sores or lick until they’re bald.”
She said it can have a medical cause that is a behavior problem, “Because it becomes a habit.” So the cat “needs a distraction or another way to comfort themselves or occupy their time and relieve stress.”
She also addresses destructive behavior such as clawing furniture. “A lot of times, if it’s a couch,” pet owners can find an alternative. “You can get a tall scratch post for them to scratch on,” Ms Johnson said. “They’re trying to scratch and mark it, so we give them something to scratch on their own furniture.” Pheromone products that come in a spray also deters scratching.
Training is meant to “make life easier,” she said. Owners can practice “getting [the cat] in the carrier to go to the vet, giving medication, brushing teeth,” while reducing stress and combating obesity, Ms Johnson said.
Maybe an owner just wants their cat to sit, she said, “Cats can be taught to sit by holding a small treat over the cats’ nose, so he looks up. Move the treat back over his head until he moves into the sit position. Give the treat the instant that his rear end touches the ground and say ‘sit’ to label the action.
Repeat this activity “a few times. End the training session on a good note and keep training sessions short.” Repeat a few times each session in several short training sessions. “Some cats are quicker than others at picking things up.”
Cats can also be trained to “come when called, to ‘touch’ objects with their nose or paw, and they can be clicker-trained like their canine friends. The possibilities are endless.”
Ms Johnson “studied for a year to earn my certifications through Animal Behavior Institute.” She is now a certified feline behavior and training specialist as well as certified advanced feline training professional. She also attends conferences through International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.
Contact Ms Johnson at 203-770-9096.
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