Skip Ribbon Commands Skip to main content

 

The Kitten has arrived

Independent but rewarding

There are many aspects of feline behaviour which make cats ideally suited to life in the modern world, with owners being busy and working long hours. The cat’s reputation as an independent creature is well deserved and for many owners this characteristic is often appealing. Although some cats are happy to cope with periods of separation from their owners and will happily amuse themselves when human company is not available, cats are actually a social species and enjoy company. Most cats also respond well to positive interaction with their owners when it is available. The cat offers affection and companionship whilst retaining its right to live its own life and respecting the independence of its owner.

Maximising the benefits of the cat-owner relationship

In order to maximise your role as a good owner, it is important to look at life from a feline perspective, understand their behaviour and appreciate how their different perception of the world needs to influence the way we care for them. Their enhanced sense of hearing, smell and touch, coupled with their innate desire to hunt, makes them a unique species with very specific needs. Note: not all cats will hunt and most learn their skills from their mother so they tend to specialise in what they hunt.

 

Social behaviour

Although most cats appreciate and value human company, some cats do not have a fundamental requirement for it, and it is therefore very important that kittens are given adequate and appropriate socialisation with people if they are to become rewarding pets.

The most important time in a kitten’s development for learning to interact in a social context with other cats, people and other domestic species (including the dog) is called the socialisation period. It occurs when the kitten is still very young (around 2 to 7 weeks old).

It is possible to enhance your kitten’s socialisation once your kitten comes to live with you, often at 2 to 3 months of age. Kittens who have received a good foundation of human interaction at an early age will adapt more quickly to life in a domestic environment.

A good way to socialise kittens is to handle them regularly at a young age. Lifting, touching, and gently restraining them is the best way of preparing them for the sort of contact which owners will want with them as adult cats. When this sort of handling is carried out by a number of different people, kittens have a better chance of accepting human contact rather than just tolerating humans or interaction with a specific individual.

If you have any concerns about your kitten in terms of socialisation, or you have noticed any behavioural problems, such as hiding whenever a stranger appears or showing fear reactions towards you or the environment, do not hesitate to consult your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinary behaviourist if necessary. Treatment will be much more effective if started early.

Training

The independent nature of the cat leads most people to assume there is not much they can do to manage their cat’s behaviour and they may not even consider trying to train their cat.

A good reference to help is Training Your Cat written by Dr Kersti Seksel (registered veterinary specialist in animal behaviour). However, cats do need to learn how to behave and common examples of training include teaching kittens to use the litter tray or a cat flap, introducing them to travel in a cat basket or cage and training cats to respond to your calls.

In addition to specific training, kittens also need to learn how to control their own behaviour and limit potential injury to others. Part of this process involves learning that the use of teeth and claws are not acceptable when interacting with owners and other pets or people, and it is therefore important not to encourage their use during play by using human body parts such as fingers or toes. Play should be directed to appropriate toys instead.

Teaching appropriate behaviour from an early age is always preferable to punishing unsuitable behaviour, which can run the risk of seriously damaging the cat-owner relationship.

The importance of territory

Cats are territorial creatures and in order to be content in life they need to be secure within their home and feel comfortable and at ease within their wider territory. The centre of the cat’s territory (often termed its core territory) is where the cat will engage in feeding, playing and sleeping activities. This part of their territory should be very secure and free from other cats. It can even be the case that different cats within the same household will not share their core territory and it is important to consider providing distinct areas where each individual can feel safe and secure. Unless they are litter-mates or young kittens when introduced into the household many cats will share the territory available much as human flat mates do (e.g. separate resting areas) rather than as a family where resources are more readily shared.

Cats live in a three-dimensional world and one very useful way of increasing the space that is available to them is to offer high-up resting places. Being high up helps minimise stress for the cat. Right from the very first day you should give your kitten a secure core territory and allow it time to rest undisturbed by the children, the dog or any other members of the household.

Successfully providing a secure and appropriate territory is a critical part of preventing behavioural issues.

Cleanliness

Cats are generally regarded as being very clean creatures and their fastidious nature endears them to many people.

Being much easier to train in the ‘house training area’ gives them considerable advantages over the puppy in the eyes of many owners and is a significant factor in their popularity. This reputation is a well founded one, so it is all the more disappointing for a cat owner to find their cat is not being clean. Avoiding problems related to house training relies on providing your cat with access to suitable toileting facilities and the indoor cat will need to be given a litter tray. Outdoor cats may use the litter tray from time to time and most kittens will need one in the early weeks of life when access to the outdoors needs to be restricted. Outside cats may also need to use a litter tray at other times throughout their lives either through illness or other circumstances, so it is important to make sure your kitten is familiar with the litter tray.

It is important that your cat can access the litter tray at all times throughout the day and night, since many cats are nocturnal creatures and will often use the litter tray during the night. The location of the tray must be acceptable to the cat, as must the type of litter used. Very minor alterations to the litter facilities can often lead to problems of house soiling. The first thing to consider if urine or faeces is found in inappropriate places, is why are the litter facilities not acceptable? You may need to source a litter tray that your cat finds acceptable and also try different types of litter until your cat accepts one.

It is very important for the litter tray to be maintained in a hygienic manner and cleaned or assessed regularly (i.e. every day), but it is also important for your cat to build up an association with the tray. Excessive handling and movement of the tray, especially in the early days, can lead to some disruption and confusion. The location of the tray is also important. It needs to be away from playing children and the dog so the cat feels secure when using the litter tray. It is also essential to have at least one litter tray per cat plus an extra one in a different location so that your kitten is always able to use one when it needs to eliminate.

Litter trays should be large enough so that the kitten (and later cat) can move around comfortably and dig properly. Generally a litter tray needs to be at least 1.5 times the length of the cat (including its tail).

If your cat begins to deposit urine or faeces in unacceptable locations, it is important to differentiate between disease and behavioural causes. Clues might be toileting posture, whether or not they use the litter tray, and preferences for certain locations/surfaces. If you do have any problems then it is important to seek veterinary attention at the earliest opportunity as the earlier these problems are diagnosed the easier they are to treat. In about 30% of cases it may be that your cat has an underlying medical problem such as cystitis or feline lower urinary tract disease.

Hunting for fun

One very common misconception amongst cat owners is that feeding the cat more food will protect the birds and wildlife from the hunting cat. But in fact the motivation for hunting has nothing to do with the cat being hungry. Cats are solitary hunters and if they waited until they were hungry before they tried to detect and dispatch prey they would run a very high risk of dying from starvation. Prey may be unavailable when hunger strikes. Instead the cat is ready for the kill at all times and when movement and sound combine to trigger their natural instinct, even the best fed and pampered pet will not be able to resist the desire to pounce. It is best to try other means of preventing hunting if you are concerned, such as restriction of the cat in its environment, bells on their collars, and other play toys for distraction etc that allow the cat to use its natural instincts in a more acceptable manner. Confining your cat indoors or in an outdoor run or enclosure may be the best solution to prevent your cat from hunting.

Importance of play

Play is a vital outlet not only for feline hunting behaviour but also for mental stimulation. Cats need to be offered small rapidly moving targets on which to practice their eyeing, stalking and pouncing skills. They should also be given the chance to catch some of these items so their toys must be suitable for the purpose e.g. toys on strings or poles.

In the wild, cats can spend many hours a day hunting (depending on age), and so play indoors for cats needs to reflect the importance of this activity time. If you make the decision to keep your cat indoors, you will need to provide your cat with the appropriate amounts of activity time as well as toys that will provide sufficient mental as well as physical exercise to keep your cat happy.

A lack of opportunity to hunt imaginary prey can result in the cat showing predatory behaviour towards any available moving objects in their environment, including their owner’s hands, feet and ankles. If you encounter this problem it is important to reassess your home through feline eyes and to see if you are providing the right sort of stimulation for your cat.

If problems persist, do not hesitate to discuss them with your veterinarian. Referral to a veterinary behavioural specialist may be required.

Scratching for pleasure

As a member of the cat family, your kitten needs to scratch as a way of making itself feel comfortable in its home territory as well as a way of shedding loose claws. Providing a ‘scratching post’ at an early age will help to divert this activity away from expensive furniture. There are many different types of scratching posts/apparatus available (i.e. vertical, horizontal, material etc) so it is worth speaking to your veterinarian about what may be suitable for your kitten and your home environment.

The most important things to remember are that the scratching posts are stable, are placed in an area that the cat wants to use as well as of a material that the cat finds attractive. Cats love to shred the material so when the scratching post becomes worn and torn it is probably most meaningful for the cat.

Territory marking also occurs when your kitten rubs itself up against you and furniture. It is marking you and the house by means of its facial glands, with the calm familiarity of its own pheromones.