Feline Enrichment for the Real World

What is Enrichment?

At Pet Harmony, we talk about enrichment all the time, but if you’re a new cat owner, or just recently joining us, we need to define enrichment. It’s more than just Kongs and toys. Enrichment, as described in episode one of our all-new podcast, is “meeting all of an animal’s needs in order for them to be physically, behaviorally, and emotionally healthy enough to perform species-typical behaviors in safe, healthy, and appropriate ways.” Go listen to Episode 1 of Enrichment for the Real World for more on that!

So, like canine enrichment, feline (cat) enrichment needs to be specific to them. Just because something works for a dog, doesn’t mean it will work for a cat — and just because a certain activity helps one cat, doesn’t mean it will work for another. We need to provide cat-specific enrichment to have a healthy cat. When our cat is healthy, our relationship with them is so much better.

Typical Feline Behavior

Anytime I am trying to figure out what species-typical behaviors are, it is important to research the species. When we know what an animal usually does, we can give them ways to meet those needs that don’t compromise their physical, emotional, and behavioral health — or our own.

A brown tabby cat high-fives its parent.

Here are some behaviors cats typically perform:

  • Dig around in loose substrate in order to urinate and defecate.
  • Bury or hide their urine and feces in said substrate
  • Groom or “bathe” themselves
  • Scratch on things
  • Jump and climb
  • Hang out in elevated spaces
  • Hideout in small spaces
  • Eat multiple small meals in a day
  • Follow a hunting cycle of stalk, pounce, eat, groom, sleep
  • Bat small objects with their paws, sometimes causing them to fall

Notice that I said these are some things cats typically do. Not all cats do all these things, and I also didn’t list all the things cats do. These are just some very interesting areas that can become problematic for your home if your cat doesn’t have an outlet.

How Do I Provide Enrichment for a Cat, and Why Does it Help?

If your cat is performing a species-typical behavior in a way we don’t like, we can offer activities we do like. Even if they seem unrelated, they may still reduce stress as well as behaviors we don’t like.
Here are four easy enrichment ideas to try with your cat:

  • Provide multiple, desirable elevated spaces for your cats, and train them to use them. Buy or make a tall cat tree, or install cat-friendly shelves. If they weren’t in your house, elevated spaces available to them outside are: the tops of cars, roofs of houses, fence lines, trees, and rocks. Small, three-foot-tall scratching posts with beds attached do not make good elevated spaces for cats.

A brown and grey cat tree nearly touches the ceiling in my house. It is near a window for prime sun bathing and birdwatching opportunities.

    • Why? Access to high spaces has been proven to reduce stress-related behaviors in cats. It also gives them somewhere to run to that small children or dogs cannot reach. Providing these spaces and training your cat to use them will also make them less likely to use your furniture to get up high and knockdown cups, vases, or other valuable objects. (Be sure to provide appropriate elevated spaces in places your cat commonly goes onto undesirable surfaces — give them a spot in the kitchen where it is okay for them to watch you cook, for example.)
  • Simulate hunting through play. Cats are ambush hunters. That means that they hide, stalk, pounce, and attack their prey. Unlike dogs, who are opportunists by nature, wild felines rely on hunting to survive. Eating dry kibble from a bowl just doesn’t cut it for most cats! Try lots of different toys to see which ones they fancy. Make the toy act like prey: sometimes it is slow, sometimes it is quick… sometimes it hides… sometimes it hops! The more it moves like a little bird or mouse, the more likely your cat is to love it. Most cats love a good teaser toy, like the ones pictured below. Or, if they are like my cats, they may also appreciate a good game of fetch. Be sure to put out meaty treats for them to eat when they finish playing. I like to use freeze-dried raw treats like PureBites. I just drop them into their bowls or on their cat tree at the end of a play session.

    • Why? When their little hunter instincts aren’t being used in play, they might be used on ankles, hands, and other pets in the household. Being given appropriate outlets for their hunting instincts can notably decrease aggression in cats.
  • Provide multiple scratching surfaces throughout the house. There are many types of scratching surfaces available for your cats. There’s cardboard, jute, and carpet, to name a few. Cats like to scratch in areas they like — in the living room, in the bedroom, etc. Try providing different types in the areas they like to scratch most. If your cat has a positive reaction to catnip, you may choose to use it to attract them to the scratchers. You can also drop a favorite treat each time a cat uses an appropriate surface. Some cats like scratching vertically, some like scratching horizontally. Try both. A common deterrent for cats using their provided scratching posts is when the post moves when they scratch it. So make sure the scratcher you’ve provided is tall enough for them to stretch and scratch, and heavy or secure enough that it won’t wobble too much.

Brown kitten scratches on black scratching post.

    • Why? Well, scratching is a stress reliever for cats, just like chewing is for dogs. Not providing them with this outlet is likely to get your furniture and carpets ruined — or, if we have punished scratching too severely, the stress may come up as other undesirable behaviors, like urine marking or increased aggression.
  • Provide foraging opportunities for your cat, especially just before bed. You can use fancy cat puzzles like the one pictured below, or you can simply provide cat-friendly food or treats and place them around their space at different levels and in hidey holes. Cats will use their keen senses to hunt out and find the treats. It takes some time for some cats to get used to it, and we can help you shape this behavior in your cats.

A grey tabby cat uses her nose, paws, and brain to get her favorite treats from a treat puzzle.

    • Why? Sniffing out food and eating small meals are both excellent ways to tire out a young cat and reduce stress in all ages. You will probably sleep better when your cats get to hunt out some especially tasty goodies just before bed, and it is another way to help them gain confidence with their cat furniture.

There are, of course, tons of other ideas to try with your cats. I haven’t even touched on many categories of enrichment. These four tips address many feline-typical needs, and I’ve found them to significantly decrease behaviors we might find annoying in our feline companions.

Now What?

  • Try doing one of these things for your cat — just dropping a few tasty treats on an unused cat tree or rearranging the top of the bookcase to be cat friendly can go a long way!
  • Don’t go too over the top. Introducing too many of these things at once won’t just stress you out — it may also stress your kitty! Try one thing at a time, and use trial and eval to figure out which things work for your cat. And don’t be afraid to return or donate toys that your cat doesn’t like.
  • Work with a qualified Behavior Consultant if you need help with your kitty. These things might help, but we can also hone a plan specific to your cat! If you’re ready for a professional, you can work with us here.
  • Join our free Facebook group, “Enrichment for the Real World

Happy Training,
Amy

“That’s Not Scary!”

If you’d prefer to listen to this blog post, click here.

We don’t get to choose what a learner thinks is scary

My dog Maya is friendly, generally. She wants to meet other dogs, but she doesn’t always want to play and isn’t a good match for big groups. She will correct other dogs when she finds their behavior annoying and isn’t always quick to forgive, which is why she does best in a small group, where someone can monitor and help her. I would label her as dog-tolerant most days, and occasionally dog-selective when she’s tired or stressed. (To read up more about dog sociability, check out Allie’s blog about it.)

I was once walking her around my apartment complex. I had her on-leash, because THOSE ARE THE RULES, when she noticed a bunch of other dogs running around off-leash. I knew they would be there, so I had her on a long line, to prevent her from feeling trapped if a dog came up to see her. Several of the dogs came over to greet her, all play-bows and curved bodies. Maya reciprocated, whining with excitement. Then a mini-Aussie went to sniff her bum, and Maya flipped around excitedly to sniff the dog back. The mini-Aussie (let’s call her “Sadie”), was startled and began to trot away from Maya. Her head was down, nubby tail tucked, ears back, and the whites of her eyes showing. On top of that, she was actively avoiding Maya. I called Maya back, which she was too excited to respond to, so I used the leash to prevent her from continuing to chase the frightened dog.

“Oh, let her,” her mom said, referring to Maya’s rude greeting, “My dog needs to get used to it.”

“Maya can be a bit of a bully to shyer dogs, though, and I don’t want to encourage her.” I said, feeling sad for the little Aussie. “Plus, if I let Maya keep bothering Sadie, she can become more fearful, and feel like she needs to correct Maya, who may not take it well since she is on leash.”

“But I want her to play with other dogs,” she said.

What Sadie’s mom wanted was valid– It’s fun to have a friendly dog who likes being around other dogs and who you can take everywhere, but most dogs just aren’t that way.

By telling people her dog needed to just “get over it,” she was likely exposing her dog to lots and lots of situations in which she didn’t feel comfortable, and learning that people and other dogs don’t back off when she shows them how she feels. 

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen someone say something like that about their fearful or shy dog, and it certainly won’t be the last, but it sticks with me because it was SO obvious that her dog was afraid, and the answer was that she would just “get over it,” which is so, so, hurtful, and can often lead to other issues.

 

So, what’s your point?

My focus today is on fear in animals in general. Even if something is normal to us, even if something is COMPLETELY harmless, we cannot ignore it if our pet finds it absolutely horrifying. Although I do not think I’ve ever heard anyone say it, it feels like when animals are afraid of something we feel they “shouldn’t” be afraid of, we tend to think inwardly that they don’t have a right to feel that way. Unless we essentially validate their fear, back off, and help them slowly get used to the “scary thing,” our animal is most likely going to continue to fear that thing. When fear isn’t properly addressed, it can lead to learned helplessness, reactivity, and even aggression.

Time after time, I see videos of animals on the internet, where people show off what their pet is seemingly illogically terrified of, by laughing as they panic about it over and over again. I’ll admit that I have sometimes laughed at these videos. It is humorous, from a human perspective, to see a cat lose its mind and panic after it turns around to see a cucumber placed behind it. But what I do not find amusing is that everyone else wants to  do the same thing to their cats. Scaring animals isn’t funny. Cats and small dogs are seen as unpredictable jerks because of people forcing them into uncomfortable situations, ignoring their stress signals, and attempting to FORCE them to see that what they find terrifying is anything but.

Scarier to me is when well-meaning trainers dismiss an animal’s fear. A puppy is cowering, snapping, and biting at other puppies in a playgroup. “It’s okay, he’ll get over it.” A dog is sent to daycare to overcome its fear of other dogs and absolutely REFUSES to go in the kennel, so it is forced in. (This case is especially maddening for me because that dog is less likely to make progress on its fear of other dogs if she is stressed to be in the crate in the first place. See Trigger-stacking.) Or what about the dog who is forced to walk around Petco when it is obviously absolutely TERRIFIED of the tile floor? It’s true that all of these situations are actually safe. But the safety of the animal, as opposed to its perceived security, are different. An animal who is safe (ie, won’t be injured or endangered) but doesn’t feel secure (freedom from care, anxiety, or doubt) can develop behavior issues. See this post about Safety vs. security.

The point is, you do not get to choose what your pet thinks is scary.

Although I do not think I’ve ever heard anyone say it, it feels like when animals are afraid of something we feel they “shouldn’t” be afraid of, we tend to think inwardly that they don’t have a right to feel that way. It seems like because we KNOW the thing isn’t really scary, that the animal is just being silly or stubborn.

It is our responsibility to take care of our pets. And making an animal do something repeatedly that it is uncomfortable with is likely to make things worse, rather than better. Remember that forcing an animal to interact with a scary thing is likely going to force them into fight/flight/freeze mode, so if you’re restraining your pet, and running away is not an option, you have essentially given your pet two options, FIGHT or FREEZE. No one wants to get attacked by their own pet(fight,) and forcing your animal into the freeze response can also lead to learned helplessness. So, is it really fine? Spoiler: no, it isn’t. 

 

So What Should I do about it?

As I said, it’s natural to laugh when your cat is terrified of a sock he didn’t see there the last time he ran by you. So go ahead and laugh it off, but PLEASE don’t try to duplicate the experience to get a video of it or to entertain houseguests. Instead, let him run away, and later, try to help him see that new things aren’t scary.

This is a time-lapse video I made of a counter-conditioning session I did with my dog and cat and our hand-held vacuum. Do you see how my cat slowly becomes more comfortable around the vacuum? Do you see how my dog starts to stay by it, only going away when I toss away a treat? Do you also see the moment Sylphrena (the cat) decides that it’s too much and wanders off? 

The vacuum is not going to physically hurt my pets, but they do not feel secure around it. It makes strange noises and sucks up hair and smells, which make them feel comfortable. So even though the vacuum is harmless, I can still work to help them feel secure.

So I set up learning experiences and help them feel better by pairing the scary thing with things they like (freeze-dried liver treats). But you can’t be doing this all the time. You need to give your learner a break, or you might witness the results of your trigger-stacking. (The more your animal is exposed to stressors in a short period of time, the more likely he is to over-react to any other stressors in his life).

You may also want to think about your own expectations. Sure, it’s great to have a confident dog or cat who isn’t afraid of random things or doesn’t try to bite when we force them into a kennel but remember to work smarter, not harder. So give your pet regular opportunities to interact with novel things in a pleasant, non-threatening way.  Proper use of counter-conditioning and desensitization may take a long while, but it’s less likely to result in negative fallout.  

Animals can be afraid of weird things, but often if we just take some time to help them, animals can learn to tolerate, and sometimes even enjoy things they were once fearful of, just like us. So be compassionate of your cat’s fear of the vacuum and your dog’s fear of the crate. It’s easier to have patience with their learning process if we do.

 

Now What?

Happy Training,

Amy

Making Training Real – for Sessions and for Life

What is training your animal like every day? Is it always fun? Is it always a walk in the park? Or do you feel overwhelmed by the goal of achieving “perfect dog mom of the year?” Maybe your life is so hectic that it makes it hard to fit training in? Maybe there is something else that makes it hard for you to take the things you know you should do with your dog, and put it into practice. 

Like many of you, I have had pets my whole life. I had hamsters, gerbils, fish, mice, rats, cats, dogs, frogs, and probably more. But as a child, if I slipped up on something, or if I made a mistake, my parents would take care of it, and it didn’t usually bother me a lot. And when it did, I usually felt like it was not my fault entirely. Our dog didn’t receive training, and our yard remained unfenced because my parents wouldn’t pay for it. As a kid, there was really very little I could do about it. I just promised myself that when I was an adult, I’d do things right. 

Training Sessions

Then, you become an adult. And with Adulting, comes a lot more stuff you didn’t plan for. Like me, you may have had some mental or physical health issues become more prominent. We have jobs and significant others; maybe even children and church or club responsibilities. There are dishes to do, laundry to fold, and mouths to feed. So, sometimes, even training for five minutes a day can seem INSANELY overwhelming, especially if you are neurodivergent like me, and find caring for your OWN needs somewhat frustrating.

That is all terribly disheartening, I know. Please, give yourself some slack! You have done your homework! You are here, reading the Pet Harmony Blog, and doing the best you can with the knowledge you have. We’re all busy, and many times the thing stopping us from being truly efficient in helping ourselves and our dogs is making the time to do so. 

Break it Down

One of, if not THE most important part of any training plan is breaking things down into smaller chunks so that the learner can progress with as little stress as possible. So, if we’re talking about making daily training a realistic goal, and bringing training to real-life situations like Allie brought up in her past post, “Bridging the Gap Between Training Sessions and Real Life,” you need to TRAIN YOURSELF. That’s right. Sit down, and break the training plan into manageable chunks for yourself. Look at your goals, and don’t simply think about your pet; think about yourself. What parts of your training may not fit into your life the way you hope it might?

Is it hard to figure out when to practice your Flight cue with your reactive dog? What is preventing you from doing it? If it is time, think about your daily routine, or even your weekly schedule, and Think about times in your REAL life when you might need it, or when you will be reminded of it. 

For example, I should trim my pets’ nails once a week. Unfortunately, in the past, I really only thought about it when Maya stepped on my foot, or when Sylphrena (my cat) scratched Maya when trying to play. So… not as often as I should. What I realized is that I could set up another cue for myself. I decided that every time I saw Maya’s claws, I would try to remind myself to clip her nails. Every morning, I sit on the couch for a bit to drink some water and take my medicine, and Maya loves to sit next to me and snuggle while I wake up. So, I put the nail clippers and an old peanut butter jar full of treats next to the couch. Now, we play the bucket game a few times a week to get her nails done.

 


Ways to Shape Your Own Behavior:

Making training a regular part of your life can be tricky. Forming new habits is hard. So, there are a few things you can do to help it be easier:

  • Attach it to an existing behavior. For example, every day, you eat breakfast and feed your dog. If you do a bit of training with your dogs’ food or some tasty treats just BEFORE feeding them, then you will be more likely to remember.
  • Replace an existing habit with this new one. Let’s say you have a dog who barks, lunges, and is generally no fun to walk. You can make your training session happen when you used to walk your dog. You can make training more tiring with play as a reward. Tug, fetch, or a flirt pole can work as an option for many dogs. OR, you can break up the training session with play breaks! So you might do sit, down, reward; stay, walk away, come back, treat. Then, release your dog and run around with them, or play a game with them. Having play as a part of your training sessions can be a rewarding option for many dogs and owners. 

  • Set reminders on your phone, or on other devices you see frequently. Make sure you set them to go off at a time that you should have time to do it. 
  • Track your sessions. This is a way to reinforce your future self!! It can help you feel accomplished, and I don’t know about you, but when I feel good about something, I tend to do it more. You could go as far as to make a training journal, or just write a checkmark on your calendar for each day you did train.
  • Find a support system. Having someone to talk to about your goals helps to hold you accountable. You can find this with fellow dog owners, your trainer, supportive family members, or even online groups, like our Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues Community on Facebook.
  • Finally, find a way to make treats easily accessible. The more accessible they are, the easier it will be to start training in any moment. Use old peanut butter jars, or buy reusable jars and stash them in convenient places: by the door for your house if you have an excitable greeter, By the back door if you want to work on things outside, or even stash a few in your pockets. (Caution, please make sure that you take all the treats out of your pockets and stash your dirty clothes in a place that your pup cannot easily access to prevent them from chewing holes in all the places your treats have been!)

 

Now What?

Once you make training more of a part of who you are every day, I find that most people have an easier time incorporating training into their lives in a less formal manner. For example, now that I have treats next to my bed, I can toss her treats during a thunderstorm, or when a visitor knocks on my door at an unexpected time. These are not planned training sessions, but if I hadn’t set myself up for success by planning and practicing for them, then it would never have happened. 

Invisible Fences: Expectation vs. Reality

If you prefer to listen to this blog post, click here.

 

Cultural Fences

I lived in southern California for many of my formative years. There, almost everyone had a fenced backyard. If you had a dog, they were behind a fence in the backyard. When they weren’t, they were in the house or on a leash. I am certain there are people who let their dogs walk off-leash in California, but I didn’t see them often. I did see that if animals were roaming about, they were quickly picked up by animal control. In a crowded, suburban neighborhood near Los Angeles, there is not a ton of room for roaming dogs. 

When we moved to northern Utah, hardly any of our neighbors had fences. There is definitely an appeal to seeing rolling green lawns and pretty little gardens for blocks and blocks. Yet, there existed a problem: dogs. 

People in this new neighborhood still had dogs, but they let them out with little to no supervision. Without fences, they would of course wander off to poo, pee, and play in other peoples’ yards. There are many stories of friendly neighborhood dogs. There are also stories of damaged property, scared livestock, and dog bites.

This is why there are leash laws and “dog at large” laws. So most dog owners agree that their pet should definitely stay in their own yard. What they don’t always agree on, is how to do it.

Fencing Woes

There are, of course, many solutions. Each solution has its own benefits and drawbacks. Today, we will focus on “invisible” fences. This can refer to any number of devices connected to a collar on your dogs’ neck that use sound and/or electricity to keep your dog in your yard. Why might you choose this option over traditional fencing?

  • Your neighborhood has a certain aesthetic. Sometimes this is from the city level or a Homeowner’s Association. Fences may not be allowed, or only very specific or expensive fencing.
  • Your budget doesn’t include the expense of a fence.
  • Your dog is digging under, slipping through, or jumping over your fence.
  • Your property has boundaries that make a regular fence difficult. This might include extensive trees, rough terrain, or water features.
  • Your dog escapes through the gate when you open it.
  • You want your dog to be able to use both the front and back yard.

These are valid reasons. I can understand why you are considering it, if it seems to coincide with your needs.  

And, why not?

It does seem like a good idea. You still get to see your neighbor, the HOA won’t come down on you, and your dog won’t escape from the yard anymore. You just set up the wiring and slap the collar on your dog, and now each time he tries to run out of the yard, it will give a warning tone. If he continues to try, it will give him a quick static shock. Will this effectively “punish” the behavior, so your dog will stay in your yard?

Well, if the static shock is painful enough, yes. It will not work if it doesn’t cause the dog discomfort. However, she may not enjoy her time outside as much as you’d hoped. Remember, dogs learn by association. So they don’t always learn what we hope from aversive experiences like a static shock.

Other things that may happen with an invisible fence:

  • Another animal or person may walk by. Your dog will run up to them, expecting to greet them, but instead feels an unpleasant shock around his neck. New people or animals become a predictor for discomfort. 
  • Your dog may become fearful of or reactive to strangers or other animals
  • Your dog may develop a phobia of sounds like the warning tone of the collar
  • If your dog gets excited or determined enough when a cat or another animal walks by, he may PUSH THROUGH the shock to chase it. With the excitement gone, he may not want to go back across the barrier to get shocked again. He may be stuck outside of the yard.
  • Other animals may go through the boundary of your invisible fence and your dog will be trapped inside it. This can result in anxiety or injury.
  • When the batteries on the collar go out, your dog may go back to going under, over, or through the fence. 
  • Most, if not all static shock collars come with a warning to not use them on animals younger than 6 months old, or below a certain weight. 

Many, if not all, of the consultants here at Pet Harmony have seen an animal affected by one or more of these drawbacks. 

Playful Puppy or Scared Dog?

In one of my former neighborhoods, a neighbor had a huge, open backyard. I would often walk by with my dogs and work on their loose leash walking. One day, there was suddenly a pointer puppy in their yard. He ran towards us cheerfully, with his bum wagging and his body curved. Then, suddenly, he stiffened, lifted a paw, and whined, backing away from an unseen barrier. He eventually ran and hid behind the house. I was able to see the effects of the invisible fence as time went on. A few months later, I could only walk by on the other side of the road. The now-adolescent puppy would rush the boundary, barking, growling, and snarling at me and my dog. He had learned that passersby meant that he would experience discomfort. His reactivity was his way of trying to control the situation. If he scared people away, then he didn’t get shocked.

A german shorthaired pointer rushes towards the camera

I also worked with a very timid chihuahua. Joey was leaving little urine marks all over his owner’s home and property. He would tremble at the sight of new people, and didn’t want to eat in the boarding facility I was working at. We started trying our regular confidence-building activities with clickers and treats. The moment he heard the “click” of the marker, he flinched, and ran to the end of his leash, pacing and panting heavily. Upon further digging with his pet parents, we found they had an invisible fence at home. The clicking sound predicted the shock of leaving the boundary. We were able to increase his confidence over time, but he is still afraid of that noise.

What Can I Do?

If you currently have or are thinking of using an underground or otherwise “invisible” fence, consider other options. You can try staying out with your dog while they are out. That way, you can reinforce desired behavior, and teach them alternatives to undesired behaviors. If your dog is still working on improving their recall, take your dog out on a long leash to let them stretch their legs or potty outside. Find local dog parks or daycares to let your dog run and play, if they are dog-friendly.  Enroll in a dog sport like barn hunt or agility. Work on improving your indoor enrichment activities; it may surprise you how effective indoor nose work or puzzle feeders can be in helping your dog to manage their energy better. If possible, install a physical fence. It will keep other animals out and, with supervision and training, will keep your dog in. 

An open field is not the only way to exercise your dog. You may be surprised at how little space you need to keep your dog healthy and happy.

A longhaired German Shepherd standing in a fenced yard. There is snow on the ground.
A physical fence is a great way to keep your dog safe.

There is only so much we can learn without experience. If you are experiencing guilt or if you are feeling angry about this post, that is okay. Take a step back, calm down, and know that we are here for you. You can only act on the knowledge you have, and you can only behave in ways that have been reinforced for you. We sometimes act on what seems to be a faster solution to our problems rather than what is best for our situation. That is human, that is normal. There may even be cases where none of the fallout is evident, and the animal may even seem to be thriving. It is important to remember that a quiet, still dog isn’t always a happy dog. This can be a sign of learned helplessness, and it is not a sign of a healthy animal. 

Now What?

 

What Owning a Cat Teaches You About Agency

Why Cats?

I love cats. Cats are regal, majestic creatures. They defy the laws of science by filling any container they curl up into. They purr, and rub on you, and curl up on your lap to snuggle. I have had cats from the time I was small. I cannot remember meeting a cat I didn’t like, though I’m sure I have. 

I once saw a meme that made me laugh out loud. It said:
“What if the Internet is filled with cats because dog people go outside?”


So, if you’re here on our website, then you are obviously a cat person. 

 

While that may not be true, it is true that if you follow Pet Harmony, you probably care a lot about your pet. You might have a pet whose behavior puzzles you. You may feel frustrated by the behaviors your animal is displaying. I promise to relate my experience with cats to dogs- and to other species, as well.

Cats get a bad reputation. I have heard many people describe cats as jerks. They’re not loyal like dogs. They make their own decisions. They never consider what you need. They’re independent, and they don’t really need us. Cats are lazy and prefer humans to dote on them like the feline gods they are!           

After getting my first two dogs, and becoming a dog trainer, I’ve met many people and dogs. Often, people are happy with their dogs, only wanting to prevent future problems with a new dog. Just as often, however, I’ve run into people who are frustrated with their dog’s behaviors. Since I have been a dog trainer for quite a few years now, I’ve noticed a trend among people unhappy with their dogs. They tell me:

“He never listens to me.”

“She only minds when she wants to.”

“He won’t stop getting on the counter!”

“She nips at me when I try to make her do things.”

I understand those feelings. I know it is frustrating to think you got a man’s best friend, just to find they won’t listen to you, destroy your house, steal your food, or even hurt you. Those feelings are totally and completely valid. When I hear these things, what I understand from it is basically this:

Their dog is acting like a cat. Well, a stereotypical one, anyhow.

 

Cats Are a Lesson in Consent. (And Agency)

What I mean when I say that their dog is acting like a cat is really that their dog has opinions. Their dog has things they like and things they dislike. Their dog likes some things better than listening, especially if they don’t understand why they should listen. Dogs are very social creatures. They descend from creatures that worked together to bring down large prey. Wild felines, however, are usually pretty solitary. What that means is though both wild canids and wild felines are individuals with wants and needs, our concept of “dog-ness” includes a certain level of “clinginess” and working for its “master” (which is a strange use of words we can get into another time). We expect dogs to appease us. However, our society’s concept of “cat-ness” is usually aloof and independent.

What a cat really needs, as well as any pet, is agency and consent. Agency is the ability to have control over certain outcomes in your life. This can usually come in the form of choices given to an individual. Consent is the ability to assent to or approve of something, especially something that is happening to oneself. Each of these creates a sense of freedom in the animal. Trapped animals lash out, bite, and scratch. An animal that is given agency will feel more secure, and less likely to lash out. 

Why Agency? Check out Allie’s excellent post about it, here, or read about it in Emily and Allie’s book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World.

How do I give my pet a sense of Agency?

Give them choices. That doesn’t mean that you open every door and window and take out any safety measure for your pet. It means you offer them choices that don’t endanger your pet or anyone in your home. If your cat (or dog) doesn’t like to be out when new people are over, make them a safe place to hide away from people until they leave. They may surprise you and come to observe the new person. Don’t pick them up and force them to interact. This is removing their ability to control the situation and thus limiting their choices. If you let them choose when, how, and if they want to interact, don’t be surprised if you find they are more willing to come out in the future. Conversely, if you force them to interact with someone, they may become more reclusive in the future.

When we brought home my cat, Sylphrena, she was 6 months old. My husband and daughter had limited experiences with cats, and were upset that she didn’t want to be held by them, but would (often) allow me to hold her. At first, I wasn’t sure why. After watching the way they held her, I realized why. My daughter and husband would often hold her tighter if she struggled to get away. This would result in a teenage kitty tantrum: scratches, bites, and occasionally growling. Obviously, she didn’t like it, but they couldn’t understand why she would let me hold her.

When an animal allows me to pick them up, I give them the choice to leave, by pulling my hands away, while still on level with the animal. If the animal runs away, so be it. Should they choose to stay, I try petting them and see if they settle down to snuggle. Then I can put my arms back around them. If they start to struggle again, I let them go. In this circumstance, I am both giving my pet choices, and allowing them to consent to being held (or not).

Allowing Sylphrena to feel safe by giving her the choice to leave really built her relationship with me. She knew I would let her go if she wanted, and knew she had agency if I tried to hold her. She wasn’t trapped.

 I taught my family how to help her feel secure and safe by allowing her to make the choice whether she wanted to stay (or not), and over time she has become more trusting of my husband and daughter.

 

There are little things you can do every day to give your pet agency and let them consent:

  • Petting consent tests (for any species)
  • Making different textures and types of chews and toys available (for many animals)
  • Sensory areas with pet-safe plants and textures your pet loves. (I will likely be making another blog specifically about this after I make one for my pets!)
  • Allowing your pet the choice to move away from other people or animals (do not force them to say hello!)
  • Making different textures available to scratch on for kitties
  • Having multiple litter boxes available in different areas for your cat (you can even provide different litter options to see what they prefer)

Many times, if we just look at what our pet is telling us with their body language, we can see what they really need or want– and if we can safely provide them with the agency to do that thing, we can improve their quality of life– and, in most cases, our own as well. Because a content and healthy creature doesn’t feel the need to lash out.

 

Now What?

  • Learn more about your pet’s species-specific body language, so you can tell if they like something or not.
  • Find one way to allow your pet more agency in their life
  • Research and prepare your home with appropriate furniture or enclosure requirements unique to your pet 
  • If you’re not sure where to start, try our free Facebook group, Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues Community.
  • If you now want to own a kitty, or are just looking for another, check out this article on how to prepare your home for a new kitty!

Here’s an excerpt:

Bringing home a cat is an exciting time for the family. They provide laughter, companionship, and can even teach little ones about responsibility. However, preparing your home for a kitty can bring about some uncertainties and renovations to ensure your cat is well taken care of and comfortable in your home.

To help you get started, Redfin reached out to 14 cat experts, from Seattle, WA to Ottawa, ON, including us. Here is our best advice on how to prepare your home for a kitty. Check out How to Prepare Your Home for a Kitty: 14 Tips from the Pros.