Breaking Bobby's Bad Habits

#cats

We adopted Bobby on Memorial Day, about seven weeks ago. In Goodbye Numbers I talked about how Numbers and Tiggy were never able to integrate — we’ve spent the last five years with one of the rooms in our house always closed off so that the cats could be separated, and we rotated, or “site swapped,” the cats daily.

We thought the issue was mostly with Numbers. She was rescued from an animal hoarder and was always nervous and guarded resources (food, people) aggressively. As soon as she saw Tiggy she would instigate a fight. Tiggy, on the other hand, seemed able to cohabitate with new cats — we fostered two male cats briefly, for a couple months each, in the time that we had Tiggy and Numbers, and the new cat always stayed on the Tiggy side of the site swap, and there were rarely issues (I can’t remember any big fights).

So we were optimistic that Bobby and Tiggy could successfully integrate. Indeed, we did not want to end up with a situation like Numbers and Tiggy again where the cats had to be permanently separated — we agreed that was not good for the cats or for us, and we discussed it and the possibility of having to re-home Bobby with the shelter before we adopted him.

Bobby’s initial introduction to our household seemed to go well. We put Tiggy away in the bedroom before we brought him into the house, and we brought him in his carrier straight into study, closed the door, and let him out to explore the room. For the next few days we kept Bobby in the study until he started to show more confidence, and then we began site swapping them. It took Bobby about a week, maybe a week and a half, to start eating normally. Once he had been consistently eating every meal for a few days we started feeding him and Tiggy on opposite sides of the study door, gradually moving the bowls closer to the door and eventually cracking the doors so the cats could see each other as they ate. Then I bought a magnetic screen and taped it up around our door frame — it’s kind of like a mosquito net where two bits of screen meet in the middle and connect via velcro so you can walk through it and it will close behind you. I wanted to install an actual screen door, but I couldn’t find one that fit without modification, and things were going well enough that I thought it wasn’t worth spending the money on when I could get the velcro screen for $20. With that installed we started feeding the cats with the door open, with just the screen between them. It seemed to go well. They didn’t hesitate to eat around one another, and it was easy to redirect their attention back to the food or a toy if they started to stare. That was until one day, about four weeks after we’d started the introduction process, when Bobby pounced on Tiggy through the screen and it turned into a nasty fight. We were back at square one — Tiggy was afraid to even walk by the door of the study now, and Bobby, if anything, seemed emboldened by the experience.

In addition to his issues getting along with Tiggy, Bobby also has issues getting overstimulated and directing that energy into biting and hitting people.

So we decided last week that we needed to re-evaluate what we’ve been doing and come up with a new plan. We met with a veterinary behaviorist on Thursday, and this is the plan we came up with.

Background

Bobby

Bobby is a 2-5 year old tomcat, neutered. He was neutered a couple days before we adopted him, about 7 weeks ago. He is very intelligent and inquisitive, and quick to pick up things like clicker training and food puzzles. He gets overstimulated easily and will hit and bite. Bobby started the fight with Tiggy a couple weeks ago.

Tiggy

Tiggy is an 8 year old spayed female calico. She gets scared easily, and has difficulty with puzzles — she tends to give up if she can’t immediately get the food out.

The re-introduction plan

Develop a schedule to feed them 5-6 times a day together

We were feeding the cats three meals a day — two meals of wet food in the morning and evening, and a meal of dry food for lunch. We had only really been doing the feed-at-the-study-door routine for the evening meal.

The new plan is organized around changing this feeding and socializiation period, and is multifacted.

1. All meals must be fed together

We want each cat to associate the other cat with positive emotions, and to develop a “colony scent” where they always smell each other when they’re eating. We’ll start by feeding them on opposite sides of the study door like before. We’re replacing the velcro screen with two baby gates stacked on top of each other and a sheet draped over them. When the cats are comfortable eating right up against the closed door, we’ll start feeding them with the door open but baby gates in place, and slowly start raising the sheet as they get comfortable with it so they can see each other while eating. Eventually the sheet will come off, and once they’re comfortable with that we’ll remove the gate.

2. Feed them more often

The more frequently we can get them interacting in a positive way, the faster they will acclimate to each other. Especially since Jami and I are both home full time now, we are going to feed them as much as possible. Cats also like consistency, so we’ve developed a schedule where we’ll feed them six times a day at the same times each day. I’ve set up notifications in Google Calendar to remind me.

3. Give their meals with a variety of food puzzles

This will have two benefits: it gives the cats something to focus on aside from each other, and it slows down their feeding so that they get to spend more time interacting in a positive way. We have two kinds of food puzzles already, two egg-shaped toys that you fill with kibble and the cats bat around to get it out, and an adjustable “maze” that the cats have to reach their paws into to pull the kibble out. We ordered three more kinds of puzzles on Amazon that should be arriving next week — our goal is that each cat will get a different puzzle every time they eat.

4. Feed them on scent blankets

Or pillowcases, in our case. We have two old pillowcases labeled “Smells like Bobby” and “Smells like Tiggy.” Before each feeding session we will rub it on the appropriate cat’s cheeks and lips to pick up their scene, and then feed the other cat on top of it.

Clicker training

The New Hampshire SPCA had already started clicker training Bobby using Jackson Galaxy’s Cat Pawsitive program.1 We tried continuing that training after we adopted him, but admittedly slacked off. We are re-starting his training by focusing on targeting,2, 3, 4 and then teaching him to go to a mat.5, 6, 7 We’ve bought a bath mat from Amazon that is going to be Bobby’s dedicated mat.

The training should help us to redirect Bobby’s energy when he gets over-excited.

We’ve also started targeting training with Tiggy too.

We’re still trying to work out a schedule for this because we’re not sure what the frequency should be. We’ve been doing 2-3 5 minute training sessions per day with each cat. We’re not sure if this is enough or not — we emailed the behaviorist for guidance.

Medication and pheromones

Tiggy is already on Prozac. We’ve started giving Bobby an L-theanine supplement called Anxitane at the behaviorist’s recommendation. She thinks it might take his edge off.

We had one Feliway multicat diffuser that I’ve been rotating in and out of the study and bedroom, depending on where Bobby was (the diffuser followed Bobby). I’ve learned this is not the right way to use the diffusers though, and was probably making it ineffective. The diffusers need time to saturate an area — they need to be left in place. We’ve ordered more diffusers and now have three running full-time throughout the apartment. The whole place should be saturated with pheromones.

Develop metrics to monitor progress

We want to develop a set of metrics that we can use to measure progress: it will help us give better info about where the cats are at to our behaviorist, and it will help us know when it’s time to move to the next step in our progression (opening the door, raising the sheet, etc.).

We’re going to use Kassler and Turner’s Cat Stress Score8 to code each cat’s behavior during feedings. I’m going to write weekly progress reports where I look at the last week’s data to get a sense of what’s going on.

Footnotes

1 http://www.thejacksongalaxyproject.org/About-Us/Programs/Cat-Pawsitive.

2 Jazzy Cat nose target follow. https://youtu.be/CnRk8Q_EegM.

3 Teaching Your Cat to Target. https://youtu.be/vXMAt_YOGno.

4 7. Teach the First Behavior: Targeting. https://youtu.be/c5RsAXsZvI8.

5 Jazzy mat self control.avi. https://youtu.be/NafTWGsuYBw.

6 Cat Burger-lar Karen Pryor Canis Film Festival finalist 2009. https://youtu.be/ua5VmYTpZKA.

7 Smokey. https://youtu.be/cWw2tOJ9ZSY.

8 Cat Stress Score (pdf). https://www.maddiesfund.org/Documents/Resource%20Library/Pet%20Behavior%20Solutions%20-%20Cat%20Stress%20Score.pdf.