Owners’ absence makes this cat’s marks go hither and yonder
Letter from a reader: My name is Regina, and I live in Montrose. I read your column sometimes in The Daily Sentinel.
I told my daughter that I would help her with some research for a problem she has with a cat. She hasn’t had any luck with this issue, and I think she needs a cat behavior specialist.
This beloved cat is a 1 1/2 years old, neutered male that she got about a year ago at the pound in Fort Collins, where she lives. He seems to be part Maine Coon.
The problem is when she leaves town, even for a weekend, he pees on her beds and her upholstery. She’s covered them with plastic and he still manages to get through it; my guess is he claws it and makes holes. He started this once when he was sick and under a vet’s care, and now he does it only when she’s gone overnight.
He is very attached to her and is kind of afraid of most people. When she leaves, she usually has someone check on both of her cats and leaves them with ample litter, food and water.
She has another male adult cat and the two cats get along well. They go in and out when she’s there but are confined to the house when she leaves. Even if she wanted to leave them out when she’s gone, she can’t because the squirrels eat the cat food immediately.
She doesn’t want to lock this cat in a bathroom because she feels that would be wrong, and I think it might increase his anxiety, too. She also hasn’t found any clues searching the Internet.
I’m sure that you’ve heard this problem before. Do you know if something can be done for it? If you don’t personally know how to remedy this, can you refer someone to us who might help? Her vets don’t seem to have any suggestions.
Response: Cats are undoubtedly an interesting species establishing their own parameters while coexisting with humans. The independent nature they portray is actuality a facade for their unusual dependence on their owners. The bond they develop with their caretakers is deep. It is comprised of trust, love and affection, usually exhibited on their terms.
Cats typically establish particular routines and are reluctant to accept changes immediately. With patience and subtle influences however, owners can eventually transform misbehavior. You have to think like a cat.
The first clue revealed in your letter determined that the little guy is disgruntled at his owner’s absence. Often pets will communicate displeasure through intentional acts in order to divulge discontentment.
Male animals have a built-in instinct to “mark” their territory to establish their domain. This young cat is conveying his annoyance to your daughter. However, I assume she either works or attends school, so there are time periods during the day when he is left alone. His misbehavior reflects a deeper frustration.
You mention the cats are allowed outside when she is in town but are confined to the house when she leaves. Undoubtedly, this is contributing to the dilemma. And an unfamiliar human entering their home to check on them seem to be creating conflict in the young cat’s serene existence. His rebuttal is to mark his territory on an area he feels is compromised: the bed. He probably relates the bed to special time spent with your daughter.
So how do you change this behavior?
My first thought is to close the door to the bedroom. Simple enough, right? But chances are he will just find some other object to “mark” or shred.
Covering the bed in plastic is a temporary fix that apparently isn’t working so well. She might try using a heavier plastic material he can’t tear as easily such as carpet protection plastic with little sharp plastic protrusions on it. This material is fairly inexpensive and can be purchased in small rolls and laid out on the bed. Creating an uncomfortable situation might stop him from peeing on the bed, but he may look for alternative areas to display his displeasure.
Confining the cats to a bathroom or laundry room possibly could contribute to worsening anxiety. They may associate the confinement with punishment and unleash even more misbehavior.
I think there are better alternatives to this dilemma, though.
I suggest your daughter utilize the same person to check on the cats each time she is away. Friends and family are always positive choices as they typically are more familiar to the cats. A next door neighbor can be convenient, especially if the cats are friendly with them.
However, it can become burdensome asking others to check on the cats, especially if your daughter travels frequently. She might consider interviewing some pet sitting services. Pet sitters usually come into a home once or twice a day, feed, water, clean litter boxes and offer other services, such as bringing in the mail or changing lights. Make sure they are bonded and insured.
The key is going to be finding someone who the cats trust and feel comfortable with and who is available each time your daughter travels. Having the same alternative caregiver will ultimately reduce the tension the cats are experiencing, but it may take some time to build that relationship.
Ideally, once a relationship is established with the alternative caregiver, allowing the cats outside for a period of time during the day will preserve their normal schedule.
I would wait to do this, however, until the cats and substitute caregiver have developed a bond. It is not worth the risk of having one or both cats disappear. If you can keep the cats’ routine as normal as possible, even during an absence, you will have much happier cats.
Felines are sensitive creatures. Learning to understand their complexities can be difficult, but working through these challenges will ultimately benefit your relationship.