Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
We recently got a cat. His name is Buddah and we got him in July of this year. He is a large cat, not a purebred but probably part Maine Coon from what I have been told. He is just kind of black and gray striped. Anyways we are having some issues with Buddah. First of all, the vet told me to put him on a strict diet. He was 25 pounds (about 11 kg) when we got him. He is only to eat 2/3 of a cup of food, per day. I give that to him but he meows, gets under your feet and nearly trips you on the stairs. I usually listen to him whining pitifully by his food dish and finally give in and give him a little more.
The day we got Buddah home, he saw the neighbor’s cat and got attacked by her. He was scared hiding, and meowling pitifully. Now that he’s more used to our home, he runs for the door if I open it, and if the neighbor cat Sassy is anywhere nearby he takes off chasing her. He has now done this twice, and I gave him a stern talking to, and a smack on his bottom, and sent him straight back in the house. If he caught Sassy he could truly hurt her, as she is a tiny eight-pounder with no front or back claws. Buddah has no front claws but he does have the back and he is much, much bigger than poor little 16-year-old Sassy. And Buddah is much younger at only two years old.
Also, when we first got Buddah he was very gentle with our 2- year-old son. Now if Simon gets too rough, Buddah has developed a bad biting habit. I don’t want to get rid of Buddah; everyone, even Simon who gets bit a lot, loves him, but I am at my wit’s end with it all and have contemplated, in my darker moments, sending Mr. Buddah back to where he came from. What can I do, short of sending him to live with someone else or back to the pound?
Siouxsie: Okay, Carla, first things first. Let’s talk about the diet. Coon cats and coon-cat crosses are on the large end of the cat breed spectrum. But even for coon cats, 25 pounds is definitely overweight. Obesity in cats can lead to diabetes, heart problems, excessive wear on the joints resulting in arthritis, and so on — just as it can in humans. It’s very important that you adhere to your vet’s instructions on dieting your kitty.
Thomas: It’s a well known fact that cats will respond to diets with all sorts of acting out, including food theft and meowing pitifully in an attempt to tell you that you must have forgotten to feed them their required amount of kibble. But you have to stick to your guns and feed him only what the vet told you to feed him.
Dahlia: You can help keep Buddah from acting out by dividing his ration into more, smaller meals. This may trick him into thinking that now he’s getting fed three meals a day, so he must be getting more food! Another technique is to buy or make treat-dispensing toys; these will allow him to exercise and act out his hunting instincts … and be rewarded with food.
Siouxsie: If you use treat dispensing toys, make sure you decrease his food ration accordingly. All the exercise in the world won’t help Buddah to lose weight if you’re giving him extra food.
Thomas: My Fat Cat is a small and easy-to-read book written by Martha Garvey, which gives a 10-step plan to diet your cat down to an appropriate weight. We’d recommend her book for extra tips on helping Buddah — and you! — to cope with his diet.
Dahlia: Now, on to the aggression issue. This is clearly more serious in terms of whether or not Buddah is going to be able to stay with your family.
Siouxsie: First of all, your neighbor has no business letting a completely declawed, geriatric cat run around outdoors. Declawed cats have no defenses and they can’t climb trees to escape when other cats (like Buddah) or dogs chase them. At age 16, Sassy is the equivalent of 84 human years old! She may be sassy, but she’s definitely not as spry or resilient as she used to be.
Thomas: Buddah’s defenses are limited, too, even though he’s only declawed on his front paws. Our general recommendation is that declawed cats (front only or front and back) should be kept indoors only. If they are allowed outdoors, they should be under supervision or in enclosures.
Dahlia: There is some anecdotal evidence that declawed cats are more likely to bite than non-declawed cats. Because a declawed cat has lost his first line of defense, he may more quickly resort to using his teeth. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
Siouxsie: What it does mean is that you and the rest of your family need to learn how to relate to Buddah in a way that doesn’t make him feel threatened. Cats generally become aggressive when they feel they need to defend themselves from intrusion or pain.
Thomas: Small children need to be watched closely as they play with and handle cats. They need to be taught to “be gentle with the kitty” and to learn what the cat’s body language is saying about how they feel (happy, annoyed, scared, relaxed). Cats can’t talk, so children need to learn what the cat is saying without words. This will prevent bites and other injuries.
Dahlia: Mama’s done this with her little nieces. When they come over to visit us, Mama stays with them as they play with us and she shows them how to pick up and hold us properly. She also will tell them things like, “You see how Siouxsie’s ears are down and her tail is twitching? That means she doesn’t want to be petted that way.”
Siouxsie: This kind of teaching has made the little humans much better feline servants. They understand us better, and we like them better now that they’ve learned important things about the way we communicate.
Thomas: Taking time to play with Buddah using “thing on a string” toys will help him relieve some of his pent-up energy. It’ll also give him the chance to use his biting skills on things he can’t hurt. We’d recommend a couple of 10- to 15-minute play sessions a day. Not only will this help Buddah to bond with you, it’s great exercise that will help him lose weight!
Dahlia: When it comes to disciplining cats that bite or attack, it’s very important that you don’t use punishments like a smack on the bottom. We cats do not respond well to physical discipline! First of all, if the punishment isn’t associated immediately with the action, then it just seems like a random act of violence. That can really harm your cat’s relationship with you.
Siouxsie: The best trick is to understand what triggers Buddah to bite, and what kind of behavior he does just before he bites. That way, if you see that he’s getting that “look” in his eyes, or you know something has happened that’s going to make him want to act out some aggression, you can distract him with a toy.
Thomas: If Buddah does bite you or your son, say “Ow!” in a hurt voice and put him down on the floor. Don’t throw him or hit him, just do “Ow” and down. That way he’ll learn that biting results in negative results.
Dahlia: We’ve described this technique more in depth in an earlier column. It works very well with training kittens, and it can also be used to retrain cats with biting problems.
Siouxsie: We’d also recommend that you read Pamela Johnson-Bennett’s book Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat, Not a Sour Puss. This book goes into depth about many common behavior problems, including biting, and it’s a great asset for anyone who shares a home with a cat.
Thomas: It’s going to take patience to train Buddah out of his biting habit, but it can be done. You’re also going to have to retrain yourself and your son about how to play with Buddah and understand what he’s trying to say to you.
Dahlia: Cats that get sent back to the shelter because of behavior problems have a really hard time finding new homes. Shelter staff don’t have the time to work with individual cats the way an individual or a family can. So we’d encourage you to make a diligent effort to get Buddah out of being a biter. Make sure you ask your vet or shelter staff for other ideas about how to keep Buddah from biting, too. Good luck, Carla; please let us know how things turn out!