Behaviour For Your Cat

A few fundamentals

Cats were once described as asocial animals, but this is no longer regarded as true. Although very different from dogs, cats also need interaction and most importantly, your loving attention! When you bring a new kitten or cat into your home you’ll have to decide whether your pet will live strictly indoors or will be allowed outside. There are advantages and disadvantages in both cases. Free-roaming cats are prone to more illnesses and have a much shorter life expectancy, as they can be hit by cars, attacked by other animals and exposed to internal and external parasites such as fleas, worms and ear mites. Conversely, if your cat never ventures outside you must provide him or her with physical and mental stimulation, including interaction with you, exercise, scratching posts and a clean toilet area. Whatever decision you make, following a few simple guidelines to direct your cat’s behaviour can ensure that harmony reigns in your cat-loving household!


Make sure you have a post that’s up to scratch
Scratching just comes naturally to cats. An instinctive activity that begins when kittens are five weeks old, scratching allows cats to leave chemical and visual signals that, among other functions, serve as “messages” to other cats and animals. However, what’s entirely normal for your cat can become a big problem for you if they start scratching your carpets and furniture. If this happens, you can cover or remove the tempting object or use vinyl nail caps that are glued to the cat’s claws. Unfortunately, these caps must be replaced approximately every month and some cats do not tolerate them. Therefore, an easier, more practical solution is to provide kitty with a special scratching place, usually a post, of their own. As befits the feline reputation, you may find that your kitten or cat may be slightly picky about what kind of scratching post he or she will agree to use. 

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Not all commercially available scratching posts are equally attractive to all cats. 

Posts that some cats might find acceptable have sisal, cardboard, wood or wood composite surfaces. 

Some cat owners have found that making their own posts, whether from soft logs, tree stumps or a piece of 2 x 4 wood covered in sisal or another material with a longitudinal weave does the trick. 

The most important characteristics of a post are that it be taller than the cat when they stand on their hind legs, sturdy enough not to tip over and located in a prominent, easily accessible area. 

A board about 15–20 cm wide by 30–35 cm long attached to a wall can also work well. 

Whatever its construction, the scratching post or board should not be changed as long as your cat is still using it. The more scratched and awful looking, the more your cat will love and use it—instead of your furniture!

Playtime helps keep your cat healthy and happy
Make sure your kitten or cat has lots of opportunities for interesting, challenging play that will satisfy their natural instincts and provide them with much-needed activity. Find toys that bounce or flutter—there are many available—that they can pretend to “chase,” “hunt” and “capture.” Some cats love to chase moving spots of light, whether they’re produced by mirrors or flashlights. You can also attach a ball of aluminum foil to a long string and tie it to your belt or waist. As you move about, your cat will have a great time interacting with you while trying to “catch” the ball. Just be sure to make the string long enough that kitty doesn’t accidentally catch your leg! You should try to have at least one daily, 15-minute interactive play session with your cat, especially if he or she is often left alone.

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Cats appreciate clean facilities, too!
Cats are fastidious creatures, so providing your pet with a clean, easily accessible toilet area will help minimize any litter problems. Cats generally prefer unscented, soft-textured fine litter. Some cats like to urinate in one box and defecate in another so the ideal number of litter boxes is one box per cat plus one. Therefore, a two-cat household should have three litter boxes placed on different floors or in different rooms. Don’t put litter boxes next to noisy equipment such as washing machines – cats prefer quiet. Scoop out faecal matter (and urine if you use a clumping litter) daily. Wash boxes with water and mild dish soap once a week if you use non-clumping litter or once a month if you use the clumping type. Elimination outside the box can occur for several different reasons, various medical conditions being the most common. If you suspect your cat might have such a condition, consult your veterinarian for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Spraying or urine marking
Spraying, or urine marking, is a normal behaviour in cats with intact sexual organs, as well as in desexed cats. In fact, as many as 10% of castrated male and 5% of spayed female adult cats spray regularly. Spraying is often associated with the presence of other cats (both inside and outside the home) or other stressors, such as changes in the cat’s environment (a new roommate, pet or baby, or perhaps a change in the amount of time the cat is left alone), that can cause anxiety. Spraying may be the way your cat communicates their anxiety. Treatment is available—ask your veterinarian.

Diane Frank, DVM
Diplomate ACVB

Behaviour For Your Dog

Good communication builds good relationships
Just as between people, good relationships between dogs and their owners are based on good communication. Dogs communicate between themselves by means of body signals. It’s only natural, then, that they’ll use the same method to communicate with people. Your responsibility as a pet owner is to learn to interpret such signals. Doing so will enable you to teach your puppy or dog the appropriate way of telling you what he or she needs or would like, whether it’s food, to be let out, to play or to receive some loving attention from you!

Good behaviour should be rewarded
Parents often don’t remember to praise their children when they behave well, yet will never forget to tell them when they do not. We tend to do the same with our pets. We ignore them when they are quiet and well behaved and pay them attention only when they behave inappropriately. It’s always best to do the reverse and praise and reward a desired behaviour, and ignore the unwanted.

Social skills aren’t just for humans!
One of the most important lessons your puppy or dog should learn is that they must sit before interacting with you or any other human. You can easily teach a puppy or even a mature dog to sit. Dogs learn at any age, as long as lessons are repeated often enough and teaching sessions are short and fun.

Step 1
• To begin, take a very special food treat like a small piece of cheese, and hold it between the two fingers of a hand.
• Place this hand close to the front of your pet’s nose.

Step 2
• Raise the hand above their nose and then backwards. Your pet’s head will move to follow the treat.
• Eventually, your dog will sit, because it will be more comfortable.

Step 3
As soon as they do, say "sit" and give your pet their treat. As a dog always connects what they are doing with what you are doing at the same time, they’ll associate the action of sitting with the word "sit" and a reward at this stage, the food treat.

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Unwanted behaviour should be ignored...
Dogs, just like humans, are social animals and need interaction with others, so withholding your attention is a very effective passive punishment. For example, if your dog jumps up on you, cross your arms, turn your head away and remain absolutely silent until they stop jumping. Don’t try to push them away, look at or talk to them. They'll interpret any of these actions on your part as attention, or even play. When your pet does finally sit, reward them with your undivided attention and a treat of some kind. 

If, in the past, you allowed your puppy or dog to gain your attention by barking or jumping up on you, you must realize that if you subsequently decide to ignore such behaviour, your pet will only try longer and harder to regain that attention. An analogy in human terms would be a person who presses the button of an elevator whose doors do not open. He or she will press the button repeatedly, before giving up and walking down the stairs. To success-fully change your dog’s behaviour, you must ignore—and outlast—all their efforts.

...Or interrupted
Dogs do react to eye contact. Call your puppy or dog by his or her name. As soon as they look at you, you should give them a special treat. Repeating this simple exercise at any time will teach your pet that it is worthwhile to pay attention to you. In fact, calling your pet’s name is an effective way of interrupting, and thus eliminating, unwanted behaviour. Making an unusual sound is another way of interrupting. Once your dog is paying attention to you, you can ask them to come or sit.

Play takes training, too!

Puppies and dogs need to exercise and play and to have contact and interaction with both people and other dogs. They should be taught to play with toys only and should learn that human hands, feet or any other body part are not toys. If your pet grabs a hand or foot, either intentionally or accidentally, such behaviour should be interrupted either by withholding your attention (ignoring them) or by making a high-pitched “ouch” sound. As soon as they let go, offer a large toy and resume playing.

Diane Frank, DVM 
Diplomate ACVB

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