The Mind of Your Cat: 01/03

Question: I’m writing to you concerning a friend of mine. His roommate just moved in with a cat that digs in every plant in the house. Do you know of anything that may deter a cat from digging in potted plants? Any help would be great.

Answer: Imagine the scene. The home is clean, the carpet plush. And the quiet cat is resting on the sofa. The cat lives strictly indoors, yet muddy pawprints can be distinguished upon the beige carpet. And this is not the first offense. Such behavior may not be tolerated, and the cat, which is simply being a cat, may soon find himself homeless.

Is this little digger misbehaving? Not exactly. Cats routinely scratch soft surfaces. That is precisely the behavior we encourage when the scratching takes place in the litter box. It appears the cat that spends plenty of time scratching his kitty litter may be particularly comfortable with his litter and may be less likely to seek other, unacceptable surfaces for elimination.

But why scratch the soil? In many cases, cats simply prefer potting soil to kitty litter. These cats do not merely scratch but actually eliminate inside the planter.

Play behavior is another possible reason for a cat to dig in soil. The cat may spot a shiny bit of material, or a twig or root, and may begin to scratch in an attempt to engage in object play. And of course, the act of scratching or digging may simply feel good to the cat. Many of the behaviors that we interpret as pleasurable for a cat involve the use of the paws. Regardless of the reason, scratching is usually normal feline behavior – normal but socially unacceptable.

Suitable Substitute Behavior
With that in mind, rather than simply trying to imagine ways to deter the behavior, you should try to discover the likely motivation and offer the cat a suitable substitute behavior. Before saying no, no, no to our cats, consider this: If the cat is prevented from engaging in this normal behavior, what might he do instead?

Will we be comfortable with his new choice? Thus, we need some alternative ideas that we will find acceptable. Lets not leave it up to our cat to do the planning.
So, consider the cat that is using the soil for elimination. Does this cat still use a litter box for most elimination? If so, a second litter box might be placed near the plant. If the cat still chooses the plant, then a suitable repellant can be placed on the plant itself.

For the cat that appears to be playing in the soil, toys may be placed near the plant. The toys should be rotated regularly. They may be hidden in various locations to assure that the game remains interesting.

And for the cat that simply seems to enjoy scavenging in soil, a single plant may be offered on a washable surface, and the other plants in the home may be made aversive.

Make Area Unappealing
What specifically can be used to deter digging? Some cats do not appreciate digging in stones. Large marbles or stones may be placed on the surface of the soil –  be sure that the items are large enough that they cannot be swallowed.

Some cats are sensitive to certain odors. Placing citrus rinds in the soil may discourage a cat from spending time near potted plants. The pot can be sprayed with a citrus-based product that is safe for cats.

The surface around the plant may be made aversive by encircling the area with double-sided sticky tape or carpet runner placed with the nubs pointing up.

Devices are available commercially that may be used to startle a cat as he approaches or reaches into the plant. Guidelines must be followed to assure the devices are used safely and humanely, and that they are appropriate for your cat. These devices should be used only under the direction of your veterinarian.

Just a reminder: Many houseplants are highly toxic when ingested. Such plants should be placed out of reach of all cats, even if the cat does not appear interested in gnawing on them!

What about the special needs cat? You know, the cat that learns which behaviors trigger his family members to respond. This is the cat that might ever so gently push a plate onto the floor or walk off with a hairband while someone is dressing.

This cat is likely to engage in behavior that results in his special person rushing toward him. He is particularly likely to dip his paw into a plant when a person is nearby but otherwise occupied. Try this test: Leave the room and notice whether the behavior stops. If so, then your cats digging may reflect an attention-seeking behavior. In order to encourage your cat to change this strategy, you may need to create a new strategy of your own for interacting with and attending to your clever cat.

As with any behavioral concern, it is essential to learn the reason for any unacceptable behavior. A successful treatment strategy will prevent the undesirable behavior, address the cats underlying motivation and, when possible, offer an alternative behavior that will be acceptable to both you and your cat.