Search This Blog

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A discussion with the animal behaviorist.

Cornell University is the proverbial gold standard for veterinary medicine. It's affiliated animal behaviorists are vets - they have their veterinary degrees and then go through a master's program in animal behavior. All told, they have nine years of post-high school education to bring to a problem, so I felt I was in the best possible hands.

Dr. Albright called me exactly on time. She had clearly reviewed the questionnaire I had sent. Our conversation was free form - there's only so much I could put in the questionnaire and I added as much into the discussion as I thought would be helpful.

The first major "aha!" area came to light when I referenced that Rufus and his brother, Feats, were bottle-fed cats. Dr. Albright said that there has been a great deal of research on "orphaned" kittens and their ancillary issues.

In the wild, cats live with a pretty defined social structure. There is one mature adult male in a clowder (group) of cats. There are typicaly several adult females who are related. The remainder of the clowder consists of immature males and females. The adult females are solely responsible for the rearing of the young cats. In essence, a cat learns how to be a cat - and how to be a proper memeber of a clowder - from its mother. Kittens who lack a mother's nurturing, comfort and teaching develop demonstrable problems as they mature, and apparently, Rufus is no exception.

So we've basically decided, at this point in the conversation, that Rufus' orphan status as a kitten is likely the cause of his behavior issues, which have intensified as he has matured (he's now 3 years old).

I then talked about Rufus' woolsucking behavior, which is common with orphaned kittens. Dr. Albright basically told me that this is a sign that Rufus feels some level of stress. But she cautioned me not to construe that with needing to reduce environmental stress on Rufus. Rather, she equated it to the human habit of fingernail biting. As long as the woolsucking doesn't beomce pica - where the cat ingests fabric or materials - it's not dangerous and furthermore can't be stopped. I don't care that Rufus woolsucks - but it makes me sad that he does it as a self-comforting activity due to some level of stress. :(

We then went on to the specifics of the attacks on Bella, and I let her know as well about the incident of hair pulling with Feats. We talked about how and when each cat (or cats) joined the family, how they were integrated, what their overall demeanor is and the like.

All told, we spent 90 minutes on the phone that day. Dr. Albright gave me specific guidance about what she thought I needed to do not only for Rufus, the aggressor, but also for Bella, the victim.

1. Bella needed to go to the vet and get a medical issue ruled out as a cause for Rufus' aggression.
2. Bella needed to be tested to see if she could go on a specific medication, buspirone.
3. Buspirone is commonly prescribed to victim cats.
4. Rufus needs to go on fluoxetine. Start with a low dose, 2.5mg. per day and work up as needed in 2 week increments.
5. Bella and the other cats need to be physically and visually separated for two weeks (minimum).
6. Starting immediately, feeding habits have to change. Rather than feed twice daily and leave food down to be snacked on throughout the day, food has to become more reward and less granted. Feeding multiple times daily in 20-30 minute increments and then picking food up was suggested as ideal.
7. Once the separation period is concluded, Rufus is to be placed in a dog crate at feeding time. Bella is to be brought into his line of sight. They are all to be fed for 30 minutes and then Bella removed and all food removed. As cats are calm and feed without aggression, Bella's dish is to be moved closer to Rufus in 1 ft. increments. The goal here is for all household cats to associate Bella with something really good - food. Whenever Bella appears, food appears.
8. Starting immediately, I am to start clicker training Rufus so that I can redirect bad behaviors to good ones using the clicker.
9. Starting immediately, I am to get Rufus used to wearing a harness. I am to start slowly and do something he likes while he's wearing it (the whole harness thing is hilarious - I'll try to get and post some video on that).
10. Once Bella and Rufus (still in a crate) can eat next to each other without anxiety or aggression, I am to put the harness on Rufus and attach a tether to it and start feeding outside of the crate.
11. Once feeding time is consistently calm, I am to start letting Bella and Rufus out together with Rufus on the tether so that I can prevent an attack.

LOTS of stuff to do. I've decided this weekend that I'm going to start with the medication first. I don't want to turn Rufus' world upside down with a lot of change at once - medication, changes to feeding routine, etc. I want to phase each major item in when it makes sense. So the fluoxetine starts for Rufus on Tuesday of this week. Saturday, I'll change their feeding habits and the two week clock will start ticking. I'll start Bella on the buspirone as soon as she is medically cleared to receive it.

I'll post as things develop - I have a LOT to do. These little cats are my family and my responsibility. Right now, I rotate them every two hours (except at night) - three cats in the bedroom, Bella out. Bella in the office, three cats out. It's frankly exhausting, but it keeps everyone safe as I get my hands around the problem and begin to address it.

Wish me luck!


  1. Wishing you luck and sending you all hugs!

  2. Thanks - we need it! My cats are literally insane!!

  3. The information about orphaned/bottle-fed kitties is interesting.
    Many years ago I'd taken one of my females to the local SPCA for spaying. A man was there, heavily bandaged, signing over his cat for quarantine and eventual euthanasia. She'd attacked him without provocation. The vet was asking about the cat's background and the man said he'd bottle-fed the cat from about 5–10 days of age—he was her only home. The vet said that the cat did not understand boundaries, she'd had no role model other than a human who could not teach her proper cat behavior.
    It was so sad this kitty lost her life because of human error, and that the man didn't even ask about or try any behavior modification or medication.
    I will file away the "introducing a new cat" information away. So obvious ... yet I never thought about the positive reinforcement with food. Heaven knows the way to a cat's heart is through his/her tummy!

  4. CaliGirl - yep. They say that one of the most prominent reasons cats are surrendered are behaviorally-oriented. It's a shame that the vet couldn't recommend medication and behavioral therapy. :(