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Published: Sunday, 8/12/2012

Understanding cats' natural instincts can head off problems

ASK THE VET

For the 84 million people in the United States who are lucky enough to be allowed in the house with their feline roommates, there have been great strides taken to better understand what makes cats so intriguing and unique. However, a number of myths about cats still persist and understanding their natural behaviors will help avoid problems because behavioral issues are the No. 1 reason cats are surrendered or euthanized.

Cats are an independent species and in the wild are solitary hunters spending most of the day looking for small prey. However, as pets they are doomed to spend their lives with pack animals like humans and dogs. This doesn't mean they are not social, but rather have a different set of guidelines. Dogs and people like to seek out interaction and attention. Cats prefer shorter and more frequent visits on their terms. People are surprised when cats jump on a lap and then after being petted for a period of time, turn to bite and run off. This is simply a cat displaying normal behavior. It's not personal; it is just that you have reached the limit of her social contact for the moment.

They are very territorial animals that in their natural environment use methods that we find objectionable such as urine and scratching to mark home turf. Cats are easily litter trained, but it helps to understand that in the wild they would use a fresh, clean area to void every time. They are incredibly fastidious and our version of a clean litter box rarely matches theirs. For this reason daily scooping of the box is needed. Pack animals naturally have communal latrine areas, so having multiple dogs go outside in a shared area is normal behavior. Forcing multiple cats to use a common location brings them together in a territorial behavior that goes against their innate instincts.

Often people will say they have multiple litter boxes and with a little further questioning I find out the boxes are all in one spot in the basement. By understanding the territorial function of elimination in cats, it helps to realize that is only the equivalent of one box.

Scratching is another way they announce an area is theirs. By providing vertical and horizontal posts near where they spend much of their time, you can avoid inappropriate destruction of furniture and doorways. Remember they like to stretch up high so their calling card is most visible, so short posts may be inconspicuous to us, but they are of little value to your feline roommate.

Keeping their nails short is also a simple way to avoid damaging behavior as well. Training your cat to sit for a nail trim is a simple process and while it may not be her favorite thing, she will tolerate you for the three minutes it takes. Your veterinarian can show you some tips. Also be warned that if you take away a major way in which a cat marks its territory, she may be more inclined to resort to her other methods like urinating or defecating if a new threat or need arises.

By taking some time to understand the unique nature of felines, you can avoid many frustrating problems. Cats bring a very distinct joy to people's lives and by seeing the world through their eyes you can give them every opportunity to live rewarding, healthy lives.

In my opinion, required reading for everyone who shares his life with a cat should be The Indoor Pet Initiative (www.indoorpet.osu.edu) by Dr. Tony Buffington. It has great sections on behavior, health, and solving problems that may arise.

Questions for Dr. Gary Thompson can be emailed to askthevet@theblade.com or mailed to The Blade, Attn. Ask the Vet, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660. Dr. Thompson regrets that he cannot answer individual letters.



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