Mind of the Cat: 02/05

Is Muffy Too Mischevious For Your Taste?

Many years ago, I attended a lecture devoted entirely to the topic of products designed to stop pets from engaging in various behaviors. Since that time, products continue to appear on the market. How can a person tell how well these gadgets work? And, even more important, when is it appropriate to use them?

Under ordinary circumstances, most products marketed for use in pets are fundamentally safe. That said, what exactly are ordinary circumstances? For that matter, is there any such thing as an ordinary cat?

I am sure that you dont consider your cat to be ordinary. (If you did, you probably would not be reading this column!) So, first and most important, you must understand the way your cat reacts when presented with various stimuli. A given product might cause one cat no more than a moments hesitation while causing another cat to head for shelter, reluctant to move about the house lest the enemy reappear. It would be inhumane to subject a timid cat to such a stimulus in the name of teaching. All aversive products must be used with great care in cats that are fearful.

There are two basic strategies used to stop cats from engaging in unacceptable behavior. The first is to prevent it from the start. The second is to interrupt the cat as she begins to perform the inappropriate act. In either case, the ultimate goal is to have the cat learn that a particular behavior is unacceptable.

Lets go over some examples, starting with the use of a mild deterrent. Most cats are very sensitive to odors, so the presence of potpourri or air freshener – particularly one with a citrus base – may be enough to keep your cat out of that guest room youd rather she didnt adopt for herself. Similarly, a safe, commercially available repellent can be applied as needed.

Use Common Scents!
A word of caution about using a new scent in the home: If it offends your cats keen sense of smell, he may respond by depositing a scent of his own instead of by avoiding the area. That is, a cat may urine-mark in an attempt to disguise an overwhelming odor, so keep it mild and be prepared.

Tactile objects offer a different repellent strategy. Cats have sensitive pads, and are generally particular about keeping their feet clean and dry. When they encounter unpleasant surfaces, such as double-sided sticky tape, they will often turn around and find a new place to walk. Similarly, hard, pointy surfaces do not make comfortable resting spots. Mats that are covered with nubs may be placed on furniture to encourage a cat to seek another seat.

For the less sensitive cat, or for a behavior that is dangerous to the cat or to another pet or person, a device that interrupts or punishes a behavior may be in order. Such devices must be used with care and consideration. Any casual use of punishment runs the risk of being inhumane. It is important to learn the motivation for a behavior before attempting to correct it. If a behavior is based on anxiety, punishment will not be the appropriate course of action.

As already mentioned, it is essential that punishment only be intense enough to interrupt the behavior, not to send a cat into hiding. Once the behavior is interrupted, you should be ready to provide a suitable alternative behavior. Otherwise, the cat may simply choose to perform another unacceptable behavior.

Many aversive products are available commercially. For example, there are motion sensors that emit a sound or spray when a cat enters the designated area, and other devices that actually cause mild discomfort when touched. Before using any such product, it is best to discuss its use with a certified behaviorist.

If you have a pet peeve with your cats behavior, first consider the reason that your cat engages in the behavior. Then, think of a behavior that you would tolerate in lieu of the unacceptable behavior. And finally, carefully consider your cats personality to be sure that any intervention you try will be safe and well tolerated.