Re-homing for problem behaviour – a risk that sometimes works - Veterinary Practice
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Re-homing for problem behaviour – a risk that sometimes works

FRANCESCA RICCOMINI delighted with her Christmas present, discusses some of the factors involved in dealing with house-soiling cats and how to avoid creating obstacles which exacerbate the problem

JUST before Christmas in a consulting room at a local veterinary surgery, a plain tabby of middle years sat on the table.

Despite her nondescript appearance and dull, rather matted coat, what this unwanted cat was doing superbly well was “selling herself ”. Sociable, bunting proffered hands, approaching without apparent fear, it would have taken a very hard heart indeed to remain un-enchanted!

Why was she there? This relinquished pet was just another casualty on the problem behaviour scrapheap. However, the traditional “good fairy” was, it seems, close at hand because this fortunate cat is the patient of a caring clinic, where the ethos is to move heaven and earth to find suitable homes for “re-cycled” animals.

And a certain veterinary behaviourist just happened to wander in for a quick, non-committal glance at the noticeboard!

What brought her there?

The problem was the commonplace, but sometimes terminal, issue of house soiling precipitated by the presence of another cat in the home; the assumed solution being re-homing as an only cat.

Could it really be so simple? Well, frankly, there was only one way to find out. Naturally a degree of professional knowledge and relevant experience seemed to be an advantage but still it was with some trepidation that I left next day – having “prepared a newcomer’s sanctuary” – with a borrowed carrier and one very anxious feline.

It is, of course, helpful with any behaviour programme if the domestic layout easily accommodates the necessary requirements. Here again, Fate seemed to smile. Without being able to set up the environment in just the right way to promote appropriate behaviour, even the most uncomplicated problem can become too challenging to easily resolve.

With this particular condition, having, for example, a cloakroom, second bathroom or rarely used spare bedroom that can be “sacrificed” as a dedicated feline latrine area is a tremendous asset.

It is not impossible to work around space and design difficulties but having the ability to offer truly cat-friendly facilities and start as you mean to go on sets the cat up to succeed when it comes to exhibiting acceptable elimination behaviour.

No matter how favourable the conditions, though, with house soiling many owners of indoor-only cats – whether this is a long-term lifestyle or a temporary stage – slip up with the actual provision of litter trays.

Some cats will not pee and poo in the same one; some will not use an already soiled tray. So two at least are needed for an individual, more when a home contains multiple cats.

Tray design is also important, especially where providing a private, secluded location is problematic, while litter is another issue where individual choice should always be considered.

With “re-homed” cats, it’s good, where possible, to find out what has previously been used – so I left the surgery with a carrier clutched in one hand and a bag of litter in the other.

Naturally the cat may have used what was on offer but would prefer another type. Consequently, I am currently conducting a preference trial – whilst hoping on grounds of economy that both are acceptable, this now being a well-stocked household!

Cleanliness and access

Additional factors requiring attention include cleanliness and access. Some owners are surprisingly cavalier about removing faeces and patches of urinesoaked litter but this is an essential routine that needs to be established early together with a regular, reasonable timetable for cleaning the actual trays.

After all, we avoid dirty lavatories so why would cats – often valued for their fastidiousness – be any different?

For any pet cat, continuous, unrestricted access to its litter tray might seem so obvious that it doesn’t need mention, but when people are used to closing a particular door, either to the room now used for the feline latrine or one between the cat and its loo, accidental obstruction does sometimes occur.

And unfortunately, once a cat has found an alternative location in which to relieve itself, a vicious cycle of inappropriate behaviour is often established that can subsequently be difficult to break.

When the individual comes with a history of inappropriate elimination the stakes are altogether higher. Post-it notes used as a visual warning to residents and guests alike can be invaluable in ensuring unencumbered access and harmonious household relationships.

But it’s also essential to remember that obstructions take many other less obvious forms. Social gatherings inadvertently positioned between cat and latrine can prove disastrous but the list of potential deterrents is long and includes noisy cleaning activities, workmen, playing children, too-loud audio-visual entertainment and even window cleaners.

Owners sometimes place “room perfume” units that make whooshing sounds near litter trays. Cats can find them scary and house soiling may well result.

What else is needed?

Anticipation, planning, care and sensitivity are all essential when it comes to preventing feline house soiling. And when rehabilitation programmes seem to be going well, it’s also essential not to get overconfident and open up too much of the home all at once.

Touch wood, we’re doing fine but two areas are still “out of bounds” except under supervision and when the newcomer is left unattended, although no longer confined to a tiny area – that lasted all of 24 hours! – she is only allowed to roam freely around one or two easily examined rooms.

Pride, they say, comes before a fall. So it is with crossed fingers that I report so far things are going well. In fact, it appears that far from being the problem pet the previous owners encountered, this cat with a chequered past is little short of the perfect animal companion!

Something that makes one wonder how much effort, if any, was actually directed towards resolving the original difficulties, sorting out the environment and defusing the communal feline tension and why, if the other cat was “the bully”, it was the victim that was sacrificed.

Chances are we’ll never know but one thing is for sure. I have acquired the sweetest pet imaginable – a plain, little cat maybe, but quite the best Christmas present ever and a really lovely start to any new year.

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