Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I’m planning to adopt a three-month-old tabby kitten, Holly, but I have a fish tank and a budgie cage. The kitten will live in a cat apartment but I will let her out during the day when I’m around. Will she try to eat the fish and birds and how can I teach her to not eat them?
Thomas: Well, Matilda, the good news is that it’s totally possible to teach a cat to leave a pet bird and a fish tank alone.
Bella: Especially a very young kitten like a three-month-old. Cats are very trainable at that age…oh, Bast! Don’t tell the other cats I said the words “cat” and “trainable” in the same sentence!
Tara: Don’t worry, Bella, I won’t tell a soul. Thomas! Did you know Bella just said cats are trainable?
Bella: But … but …
Thomas: There, there, dear, I know what you meant. You merely meant that cats are interested in learning new things, and that this is especially true when they’re kittens.
Bella: And we’ve got some tips for you! First of all we’ll deal with the budgie. Although cats and birds naturally have a predator-prey relationship, some birds are better at fighting back–for example, no cat in their right mind would mess with a parrot or a macaw!
Tara: And even though budgies are a lot smaller than parrots or macaws, it’s quite possible to keep a cat and keep your bird pal safe, too.
Thomas: The most important thing to do is make sure your budgie’s cage is secure and is high enough off the ground that the cat can’t get to it. If you have a large cage, put it up as high as you can and make sure there’s no room around the edges of the cage for the cat to sit and stress the bird. Make sure the bird’s cage is in an open spot, away from where the cat can climb.
Bella: It’s a good idea to keep the cat and the bird separated when you’re not around. Not only will that minimize the bird’s stress, it’ll ensure that you never come home to a disaster. We would recommend that you keep Holly in a room of her own rather than a cat apartment if you can possibly do so. She’ll be more comfortable if she has a bed to sleep in, and food, water, a litter box, and other necessities nearby.
Tara: We do understand that this isn’t always the case, so a cat apartment is a better choice than letting Holly roam freely until you’ve finished teaching her that pet birds are not for cats to eat.
Thomas: You may want to consider putting a cover over the budgie’s cage while you’re away. Not only will it keep Holly from obsessing over the bird, but it’ll reduce the bird’s stress level, too.
Bella: That said, we don’t know much about birds, so if you’re a more experienced bird keeper, you probably know best when it comes to whether or not to cover the budgie’s cage.
Tara: Both pets should be allowed in the living space when you are home, because neither cats nor birds do well with isolation.
Thomas: And when it comes to cats and birds, the best way to train a kitten not to attack the bird is by using distraction techniques, and the best distraction technique in the world is interactive play.
Bella: You’re going to want to have an interactive toy like a “thing on a string” with you at all times when you and Holly and your budgie are out in the common living space. If you see Holly even beginning to take an interest in the budgie, immediately take out the toy and play with her. Not only will this distract her, but she’ll be so happy and tired from a rousing play session that she’ll probably just curl up quietly and go to sleep.
Tara: By using distraction techniques every single time you see Holly taking an interest in the budgie, you’ll teach her that there’s a right thing to hunt and kill–and that’s her toy, not her bird pal.
Thomas: Whatever you do, do not punish Holly! She won’t understand being squirted with a water bottle–it’ll only “hiss her off” and harm your bond. This also goes–and even more so!–for any physical punishment methods like hitting or slapping.
Bella: If it’s an emergency; for example, if Holly’s at the door to the budgie’s cage and reaching her paw in, clap your hands together and say her name in a strong voice. That should distract her enough that you have a few seconds to go over and swoop her away from the cage.
Tara: Another thing you can do, and this will help with both your budgie and your fish tank, is to do clicker training with your cat. Yes, it’s a thing! And there are several good books on the market with tips about how to go about clicker-training a cat. Marilyn Krieger’s Naughty No More is a great start, and, of course, the original clicker training lady, Karen Pryor, also has a book on clicker training for cats.
Thomas: Legendary cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett has a ton of great books on cat behavior, but we think the best one for you, since you’re adopting a young kitten, is Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat and Not a Sour Puss. This book can help you in a lot of areas, not just keeping Holly away from the budgie and the fish tank.
Bella: Now, about the fish tank: First of all, a 30-gallon fish tank weighs 240 pounds, so there’s no way on earth that the cat will be able to knock it over. But we would recommend that you put the fish tank on a strong, sturdy surface that doesn’t have any room for the cat to sit next to it.
Tara: And most fish tanks have hoods, so the odds that Holly’s going to be able to dip her paws in and go “fishing” are pretty slim. However, most aquarium hoods have slots in the back to fit things like pumps and heaters. Just close off those areas with metal mesh or even duct tape. Just make sure not to cover any vents on the pump or heater!
Thomas: Cats are going to find the movements of the fish fascinating, so don’t be surprised if Holly watches the fish as they swim. If she starts batting at the tank, use the distraction technique to direct her energy in a way that won’t stress the fish.
Bella: So, we think that between clicker training and distraction with interactive play, you and Holly and your budgie should learn to get along well.
Tara: What about you other readers? Have you had cats and birds (or cats and fish) at the same time? What other suggestions do you have for Matilda to make her bird, cat, and fish happy and safe? Please share them in the comments!