Category: cat

Autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (AD-PKD)

AD-PKD is an inherited condition (passed from parents to their kittens) that can cause progressive kidney failure in cats. The disease has become particularly common in Persian and Exotic Shorthaired cats. In the future it may be possible to eliminate this potentially fatal disease by careful breeding from unaffected individuals. To assist in this International Cat Care has set up a register of AD-PKD negative cats from these breeds in the UK.

Autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (known as AD-PKD) is an inherited condition that can cause severe kidney failure in cats. The disease causes small, fluid filled holes (cysts) to form in the kidney, and these gradually get larger as the cat gets older. As the cysts get bigger the kidneys are unable to work normally and kidney failure will eventually occur, but the time course of this is very variable.

The disease is caused by an abnormal gene. All cats with the abnormal gene will develop the disease but because the signs of disease usually do not develop until the cat is adult it is possible for a cat to breed extensively (and pass the disease on to its kittens) before the affected cat becomes ill. It is therefore essential to screen breeding cats of high risk breeds for the presence of the gene before they are used for breeding.

Cats with PKD have progressive kidney disease that will ultimately lead to kidney failure. The disease cannot be treated but if your cat does develop renal failure, there are some treatments that may help to improve its quality of life. Sadly the disease is ultimately fatal. The only way to prevent future cats suffering the same fate is to make sure that affected cats are not allowed to breed.

PKD is an inherited disease passed from parents to offspring in the genes. The affected gene is an autosomal dominant gene, so it affects both males and females; only one of the parents needs to have the disease for it to be passed onto some of the kittens, and all cats that inherit even a single copy of the affected gene will be affected by PKD.

PKD is a very rare condition in breeds other than those that are, or are related to, Persians and Exotic shorthairs. Persian cats throughout the world appear to have an especially high chance of having PKD. Recent figures show that 1/3 of Persians cats in the UK are affected, and numbers are similar throughout the world.

Other breeds, related to Persians, are also at high risk of the disease. The disease is common in Exotic shorthairs, with 3 in 10 testing positive for PKD. Other breeds which may have imported the PKD gene through previous outcrosses with Persian cats include British shorthairs, Burmillas and possibly Maine Coons.

Cats can be screened for the presence of disease before they start to show signs of kidney failure. Breeding cats from the high-risk breeds should be screened for AD-PKD before they are used for breeding. If your cat belongs to one of the breeds at risk of AD-PKD then it may well have come with some sort of certification from the breeder and if both its parents are free of the disease then it will not have disease.

If your cat is in a high-risk breed group and its parents have not been tested then you can arrange for a gene test to be done. The test uses DNA extracted from a swab taken from inside the cat’s mouth, or from a blood sample. Cats over 10 months of age can also be screened for the disease by ultrasound scanning.

The gene test for ADPKD involves collections of cells from the cat’s mouth, or from a blood sample. The sample is then sent to one of the accredited laboratories offering the gene test. There are two accredited laboratories in the UK (Langford Veterinary Diagnostics and the Animal Health Trust) and many breeders also use the lab in the USA where the test was developed (Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, University College, Davis, California).

In order to qualify for entry on the AD-PKD Negative Register cats must also have an identification microchip, the number of which must be recorded by a vet on the submission form which accompanies the sample to the lab.

Ultrasound scanning can be used to identify the kidney cysts. If the cysts are large they can easily be identified by routine scanning (just like pregnancy testing in humans) and this is useful in cats with advanced PKD, e.g. those that have enlarged kidneys, or that have already developed renal failure. A small patch of fur will need to be clipped so that the ultrasound can get good contact with the skin.

Pre-breeding screening requires a more specialist approach as the cysts are likely to be very tiny and hard to identify. The scan must be done by a specialist ultrasonographer using a very high definition machine. Cats must be 10 months old before they can be given a certificate to say that they do not have PKD, because the cysts may be too small to detect before this time.

To qualify for entry on the AD-PKD Negative Register the cat must be scanned by an approved ultrasonographer and must have an identification microchip which can be read at the time of scanning so that its identity can be checked.

For breeding cats the ultrasound test for PKD must be done by a specialist ultrasonographer (so that you can be sure that the result is accurate). If you would like your negative cats to be included on the AD-PKD Negative Register your vet will be able to refer you to an accredited specialist.

If you are not planning to breed from your cat, your own veterinarian may be able to scan your cat and tell you whether or not your cat has large kidney cysts.

Reputable breeders of Persian and Exotic shorthaired cats will have all their breeding cats tested for PKD. If both parents are free of disease the offspring will all be unaffected. Occasionally a breeder may need to have a litter of kittens from an affected cat, and in this case it is predicted that a proportion of the kittens may be unaffected. The kittens can therefore be gene tested to identify which of them have the disease, and which have not.

International Cat Care runs an AD-PKD Negative Register listing cats that have been verifiably tested to AD-PKD and have been found to be negative.

International Cat Care (formerly the Feline Advisory Bureau – FAB) has all the up to date information about the disease and the AD-PKD Negative Register. For further information contact:

International Cat Care
High Street
Tisbury
Wiltshire
SP3 6LD
United Kingdom

Tel: 01747 871 872
Fax: 01747 871 873
Email: info@icatcare.org
Web: www.icatcare.org

Stress in cats

A number of factors can cause cats stress. Such factors include moving house, a new member of the family (a new baby or a new animal joining the household) or something of shorter duration such as a visit to the vets. It is important to be able to recognise both potential stressors (things that cause stress) and the symptoms of stress in order to help prevent and alleviate it and keep cats happy.

Cats can show their stress in a number of ways but there are certain key signs to look out for in your cat’s facial expressions and body posture.

  • When a cat’s pupils are very large they indicate that the cat is aroused and that arousal may be due to stress associated with pain, fear or anxiety.
  • A cat that is stressed for a short time (e.g. from a startle or the approach of an unfriendly cat) may raise its back in an arch, flatten its ears and erect its fur.
  • A cat that is stressed for longer periods of time (for reasons such as living with a cat it does not like, or an inability to cope in a boarding cattery) may not groom and have a scruffy looking coat or may appear dull and lifeless, often curled up with its head pressed closed to its body.

Cats tend to express their stress either actively or inactively depending on their temperament. An active type cat that is stressed will often vocalise excessively and if confined (e.g. in a vet cage or boarding cattery) may attempt to escape or spend long periods of time trying to gain attention. Conversely, an inactive type cat often exhibits stress by being as quiet as possible and trying to find a place to hide. It may hide its head or whole body under its bed or hide somewhere within the house.

Cats that are stressed can often change their feeding and toileting patterns. They may withdraw from eating or eat excessively and they may start toileting outside of their litter boxes.

Many factors can cause stress and what one cat may find stressful, another may not. However, cats are often stressed by a change in their lifestyle, routine and/or environment. Examples include:

  • a visit to the vets
  • a stay in a boarding cattery
  • a new baby
  • other cats in the neighbourhood
  • building works or renovations to the home
  • a new pet.

For sensitive cats, something as minor as a new piece of furniture or a change in position of the litter tray can be stressful.

In some extreme cases cats can pull their fur out (or more commonly groom an area so much the hair is removed) when they are stressed. However, there are a number of medical reasons why a cat may over-groom or lose its fur including skin complaints and allergies. If you notice your cat is losing fur or has bald patches, take it to the vet for an examination. Cats may also groom very little or stop completely if they are stressed, therefore any change in normal grooming should be monitored and reported to your vet.

There is a lot of debate on the topic of welfare of the indoor only cat. If a cat has to be kept indoors only (e.g. due to a disability or living close to a busy road), it is important its behavioural needs are met in order to prevent it getting stressed. Foraging games, interactive play, hiding places, scratching posts, high walkways and vantage points at windows are all important ways of enriching the indoor environment in an attempt to prevent stress.

The first step would be to put your cat’s carrier in a nice safe quiet place in a room in your current house that your cat spends lots of time in. Place your cat’s favourite treats and toys in the carrier to encourage your cat to use it. Building the association that the carrier is a nice place will help your cat cope with the journey to the new house. Synthetic pheromone sprayed in the carrier 30 minutes before travelling may also help with the journey.

Once at the new home, confine your cat to one room initially until he or she is confident and secure and the unpacking has finished. Make sure you take the cat’s old bedding to the new house so he or she has something that smells familiar. Alternatively, placing your cat in a cattery while the house move takes place means the cat does not need to experience the stress often associated with packing and unpacking homes.

There are a number of things that may stress your cat about a visit to the vets. It may be going in the cat carrier, travelling in the car, waiting in the waiting room where there are strange smells and sights (and even dogs) or it may be the actual vet examination itself. It is common for a combination of these events to stress a cat.

In order to try and make the visit as stress free as possible for your cat, leave the cat box open in the home at all times. Try making it a positive place by putting food and toys in there. A synthetic pheromone spray can be sprayed in the box 30 minutes prior to travelling to help the cat cope during the journey.

Travelling time and waiting time are both known stressors to cats so don’t make any extra stop offs to or from the vets. At the vets, place the carrier high up if possible and try to keep in an area of the waiting room away from dogs.

Stress is a part of life for all animals but too much can cause behavioural and medical problems. Within the home there are a number of things that can be done to try to minimise stressors. These include providing:

  • Adequate numbers of litter trays for the cats residing in the home (general rule is one per cat plus one)
  • Plenty of places to gain food and water (separately) within the home
  • A choice of places to rest (up high, away from the hustle and bustle of the household)
  • Opportunities for your cat(s) to express hunting behaviour (through play and foraging games)
  • A secure home. Make sure no neighbouring cats can enter your cat’s home (a magnetic collared cat flap or microchip scanning cat flap can help prevent unwanted cats in the home).

Yes, if you think your cat is experiencing stress, the vet should always be your first point of contact. Not only can the vet check for medical causes of stress, they can advise you on further help if the problem appears to be behavioural.

Cats do not have the complex emotional social groups that people enjoy. While company may make a person feel less stressed, this isn’t necessarily the case for a cat. Adding another cat to an environment where the existing cat already feels stressed is only likely to heighten the stress the cat is feeling.

Spraying: urine marking in the house

Cats are usually meticulous in their toileting habits and seldom soil or mark indoors. It is not surprising that when your cat does do this you may be upset and unsure about what to do. Understanding why cats can sometimes soil in the house may help to tackle the problem. In most cases this occurs because the cat is anxious or unsettled.

Your cat uses both urine and faeces (droppings) to mark its territory. This gives information to other cats about the sex, age, state of health, etc. of your cat and warns them to keep away. It is also reassuring for your cat to be surrounded by its own familiar smell.

When a cat is scent marking with urine it does not squat. A spraying cat stands up facing away from the object it is marking and squirts just a few drops of urine backwards. The tail is raised vertically and the tip will probably flick from side to side. The reasons for a cat spraying indoors (using urine as a marker) are quite different from those that make it urinate indoors and it is important to differentiate between the two.

All cats, male or female, neutered or un-neutered are likely to spray outdoors. Un-neutered animals are far more likely to spray. Having any cat neutered will reduce the risk of problems but spraying may still occur for emotional rather than sexual reasons.

On some occasions a fully housetrained cat causes problems, not through spraying but because it has decided to use somewhere other than its litter tray to go to the toilet. This usually means that it is not happy using the litter tray. Cats are choosy where they relieve themselves and like somewhere clean and quiet. If the litter is dirty, the tray too close to the cat’s feeding or sleeping area or in full view of the rest of the room your cat may refuse to use the tray. Sometimes you just need to put in a deeper layer of litter or change the brand used. This behaviour is quite different from spraying.

Indoor spraying occurs due to psychological disturbance in your cat. Your vet may want to check your cat for various conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, bladder problems, etc. which may cause it to urinate in the wrong place at the wrong time, but these diseases will not make your cat spray.

It is only natural to be annoyed when you find that your cat has soiled inside your home. But shouting at your cat or rubbing its nose in the mess will not stop it happening again. Your cat will not understand why you are upset. It is likely that your cat sprayed because it was frightened or insecure, so punishment will only make this worse.

Cats usually spray against a vertical surface at the entrance to the house or room – door frames are a favourite spot. They can mark anywhere such as pieces of furniture, curtains or household equipment. Sometimes cats will mark any unfamiliar object which has been brought into the home and occasionally even people may be sprayed!

Rub down the affected area with a damp cloth and then use a biological odour eliminator. Your vet will be able to recommend a suitable product. Standard disinfectants are not very useful. Some contain ammonia (a normal constituent of cat urine) and this will make your cat think that another cat has marked over its spot and may encourage it to re-spray the area.

Unfortunately the smell may persist for up to 4 weeks despite your best efforts at cleaning. Using a natural cat scent spray (pheromone) in the area may make your cat less likely to spray there again. These scents can be detected by cats but cannot be detected by people.

When the area is clean move your cat’s feeding bowl nearby as cats will not spray near their eating area. Make sure the food bowl is filled with dry food (not canned food which will go stale). Remember, unless the reason for spraying is removed your cat may simply start spraying elsewhere.

If you can find out why your cat is spraying there is a good chance it can be stopped. This may need thorough detective work by you and your vet.

  • Perhaps an aggressive new cat has moved into the area and your cat feels threatened?
  • Could a rival cat have come into your house through your cat flap?
  • Have you bought a new kitten or a dog, or is there is a new baby in the house?

Sometimes it helps to give your cat the security of having a small territory completely to itself. It is sometimes useful to shut off the cat flap and let your cat in and out yourself – this way your cat will feel that its indoor den is secure and safe from intruders. Keep its bed, litter tray and water bowl in a room where it can feel safe.

Treating areas where your cat spends a lot of time with a pheromone (natural cat scent) may make your cat more relaxed. Let it out regularly for food and give extra affection (even if you already give it plenty) but watch it carefully. Once the problem is controlled you can reintroduce your cat to the rest of the house gradually, room by room.

Sometimes your vet will suggest drugs to tackle the anxiety that is causing your cat to spray. These drugs may help in the short-term but it is vital to work out the underlying reason why your cat is unhappy. If the problem is complicated or persistent you may need the help of an animal psychologist (usually called a pet behavioural consultant). Your vet will be able to put you in touch with one.

Scratching in the house

Claw scratching is a normal feline behaviour. However, the occurrence of this behaviour indoors can be very unpleasant for the owner as it can cause expensive damage. Scratching indoors may indicate that the cat does not feel completely secure in its surroundings. In order to stop this destructive behaviour the owner must first understand why their cat is scratching in the house.

Cats scratch objects for two reasons:

  • to maintain good condition of their claws
  • to leave a message in that location.

When the claws are dragged down a surface a smell, which is unique to the individual, is deposited on the surface. This scent and the visual signal of the scratch marks and discarded claw husks provide a strong message to other cats, as well as to the cat itself.

Noting where your cat is scratching may give clues as to the reason for the scratching behaviour.

Many cats have limited or no access to outdoors and therefore have to maintain good claw condition inside the house. For this function, a cat will find one or two suitable scratching sites and use only them. Cats prefer to scratch on tall, sturdy objects that have a vertical weave; unfortunately in many cases the back of the sofa fits the bill far better than typical commercial scratching posts do!

Cats that particularly enjoy their owners’ attention or those who are under-stimulated in the home might also learn that whenever they scratch the furniture or wallpaper their owners interact with them, but when they use their scratching post they are ignored. Consequently, they continue to scratch on inappropriate surfaces as a way of getting attention.

However, if the scratched areas are widespread throughout the home, and in areas of conflict, like doorways and windows, it is more likely that the cat is scratching for communicative reasons as a result of feeling insecure in these areas. The most common reason for this type of scratching is the presence of another cat; however, other environmental changes can also lead to this behaviour.

If your cat is scratching furniture or wallpaper to maintain its claws, you should cover the scratched surface with thick plastic sheeting to prevent the cat from scratching there. Then place an appropriate scratching post directly next to the scratched area. Ideal scratching posts have a heavy base to provide enough resistance when scratching, are tall enough to allow the cat to fully stretch out while scratching, and have a vertical weave to allow the cat to drag its claws downwards without snagging.

You can encourage your cat to use this new post by placing tasty food rewards on it and praising your cat whenever it uses the post. Once the cat is consistently using the new post the owner can gradually move it to a more convenient location and remove the plastic sheeting from the protected surface.

If your cat is scratching furniture as a marking behaviour then you must first identify what is worrying your cat in this part of its territory and remedy this. Simply preventing your cat from scratching is inadequate; because this behaviour is an expression of your cat’s anxiety.

You may be able to work out what is worrying your cat from the locations it is scratching in, e.g. if your cat is scratching internal doorways or other areas where household cats have to pass each other frequently then the ‘scratching’ cat might feel threatened by the others. However, if the cat is scratching external doorways and window frames then it is more likely to be worried by something outside, such as a neighbouring cat coming into the garden.

You must deal with your cat’s anxieties in order for it to feel more secure in its surroundings and to permanently stop its motivation to scratch the furniture. In addition to reducing your cat’s stress, you can also encourage scratching on an appropriate surface. Cover the scratched area with a protective material and place a more appropriate scratching surface next to it.

Scratching is a natural behaviour that cats should be allowed to exhibit. Shouting, or otherwise reacting to a cat, when it scratches furniture can actually cause the cat to scratch more frequently as it becomes more anxious in its environment or because it learns that scratching is a successful attention seeking behaviour.

This advice will deal with most cases of indoor scratching; however, in some cases the problem is too complex for owners to address without help. It may then be necessary to ask your vet for a referral to a clinical behaviourist.

Noise phobias

If your cat is afraid of loud or sudden noises life can be miserable for both of you. Thunderstorms can become a major trauma and unless you live in a remote part of the country there is almost no way of avoiding fireworks. These loud sounds can turn your pet into a nervous wreck. There are some simple tips to make the whole experience more bearable for you both, but to find a solution to the problem you will need to seek some expert help.

Cats that are fearful of loud noises and unusual sounds can show a range of behaviours that vary from one individual to another. It is likely that the cat will display a fearful posture with the body hair erect and the ears flattened back. Some cats will quickly flee to a safe spot that may be behind or under a piece of furniture.

It is possible for some cats to display aggression when their owners try to coax them from under the bed or retrieve them from their hiding spot. There are times when the aggression is directed towards another cat in the household.

Noise phobia simply means an unnatural fear of noise. Fear can be difficult to gauge in animals and is based on observation of body postures. A fearful cat will show an increase in heart rate, often pant and possibly urinate and defaecate inappropriately.

Fleeing or hiding are instinctive, and protective postures are adopted. The cat tries to make himself as small as possible, cringing close to the ground with the ears flat against the head and tail tucked under the body. Defensive aggression may also be exhibited but whether an animal fights or flees depends on its genetic make up and also the perceived threat and environment.

Fear is a normal reaction in many situations. If your cat has been scared on one occasion, perhaps when caught outside during a thunderstorm, it can lose confidence in its immediate environment and become withdrawn and display behaviours akin to the human condition of agoraphobia (fear of open spaces).

The reason why some cats are fearful of noises whilst others appear to be almost ‘bomb proof’ usually relates to their early environment. A cat that has been reared in a noisy and stimulating environment (such as the home) up until the age of 7 weeks, has been sufficiently exposed to a range of stimuli to make it less likely to develop fearful behaviours as an adult, particularly if they are homed into an equally challenging environment.

Cats that are reared in a quiet or secluded setting, such as a cattery, and not homed until the ages of 10 or 12 weeks of age are more likely to display fearful and nervous behaviours as an adult as they have not received sufficient exposure to a range of sounds. Phobias may be the result of just one exposure to a particularly intense stimulus or gradually build up as the result of continued exposure.

There are, of course, genetic factors that can predispose a cat to display fearful behaviours but these cats would display a generalised fear of all stimuli, not necessarily just sounds.

If your cat displays a fearful response to sounds, you must be aware that your responses can inadvertently worsen the behaviour of your pet. If the cat is aggressive when it is frightened and you try to punish the cat to prevent the aggression occurring in the future, the cat may become increasingly aggressive on subsequent occasions.

At the other extreme, if you try to comfort and reassure the cat then it will gain nothing long-term as your actions may induce aggression from the cat as it tries to withdraw. As a general rule, it is better to allow the cat to withdraw to a small, dark place that appears safe and offer rewards in the form of food, interactions or play when the cat reappears so that they learn to overcome the fear more quickly in the future.

A cat that is feeling insecure within its home may respond more adversely to sounds so it is important that the cat’s security is assured by providing raised platforms, feeding little and often, as well as the use of an appeasing pheromone signal (such as Feliway©) that can ensure the familiarity of the home environment.

Time should be spent identifying the sound that elicits the fear response and finding ways to distract the cat or teaching it to respond differently.

In some cases, the cat can be desensitised to the sound by exposing it to a level of the stimulus that does not cause a response. This can sometimes be achieved with the use of a sound recording that is played at a low volume, but the owner may need to consider creating similar noises themselves. The low volume sound needs to be combined with a positive experience, such as feeding, for the treatment to have any benefit. With time, and as your cat gets used to the noises, the volume of the sound is increased.

In some cases, your veterinary surgeon may suggest trying some medication to aid progress by reducing the level of anxiety displayed by your cat. If you are concerned about any aspect of your cat’s behavior seek help from your veterinary practice. All behavioural problems are most easily dealt with if they are faced up to at an early stage. If your vet is concerned they may wish to refer you to a specialist animal behaviourist.

Firework fear

Although it appears to be rare in cats as compared to dogs, it is thought that they can often be afraid of fireworks. It is not surprising that animals are scared of fireworks since they are very loud (up to 150 decibels). Sounds this loud can be physically painful as well as inducing fear. Fear behaviour in cats is often more subtle (e.g. retreating and hiding) and may go unnoticed. However, hiding is an adaptive response for cats and allowing them to hide when they are stressed can make them feel better.

Problems with noises are grouped under the general term of noise sensitivities. A sensitivity is an extreme reaction that does not return to normal baseline levels or reduces more slowly than a standard response would, but which does not rise to the level of a phobia. Noise sensitivity generally occurs in response to loud and sudden noises such as thunder, fireworks, gunshots, etc. Animals exposed to such noises may show anxiety or fear responses.

Fear can be difficult to gauge in animals and is based on observation of body postures. A fearful animal will show an increase in heart rate, cower, and possibly urinate and defaecate in a stressful circumstance. On the other hand, pets may show withdrawal behaviour, being less active and hiding.

Fleeing, hiding and heightened reactivity are instinctive responses during which the animal may view approaches (including from their owner) as potential threats and so react aggressively when they would not otherwise do so. The likelihood of an animal perceiving something as a threat, and how it responds to that threat, depends on its genetic make-up and the stimulus from the environment. Your pet may learn which events predict the future onset of the noise that frightens and start to react to these events. This causes them to show fear responses earlier with repeated exposure. In phobic animals the fear response becomes extreme.

Fear is a normal reaction in many situations. Pets, when they are frightened, may become aggressive (fight reaction), run away (flight), stay still (freeze), or display appeasement or attention seeking behaviours (jumping up, licking, pawing at owner). Fear can become self-reinforcing and rather than helping your pet to learn that he or she can survive multiple exposures, they can actually become sensitised to the fearful stimulus.

Sometimes fear results from a traumatic experience related to exposure to the noise, in other cases there are less direct associations that become learned, for example being told off when they react. In some cases, the continuous, unpredictable repetition of sudden loud noises favours the development of the sensitivity.

Fearful responses can also result from any significant sounds that the pet has not encountered during its early development.

It is important to remember that all animals should be watched for untoward reactions to noise and any reactions that do not diminish on a second exposure should be evaluated. Early treatment of these is more likely to have a favourable outcome. Animals may be at particular risk of developing noise sensitivity if there are other stress-related behaviour problems or some form of physical disease, since their unease may decrease their level of tolerance to any unpleasant event.

Finally, be aware that your behaviour can influence your pet’s response as well. It is essential to stay calm at all times.

To help your pet you should immediately adopt measures to avoid further worsening of the condition in conjunction with starting treatment.

Restriction of the problem

There are some methods to help your pet in the short term, to prevent worsening of the problem until treatment can be effected. These routines will need to be continued during the specific therapy, and some of them should become part of the normal routine with your pet (e.g. avoiding involuntary reinforcements).

Avoid fireworks

If your pet is afraid of fireworks, you should try to avoid exposure to this situation. Being exposed to the cause of our fears with no chance of escaping can be very traumatic and it is likely that the problem will get worse. For this reason try to keep your pet inside the house if you know that fireworks are likely to be let off at a certain time – if your cat is allowed outside call him back before fireworks start.

Avoid involuntary reinforcement or punishment

Your behaviour can also influence your pet. If you try to comfort or soothe your pet, you may involuntarily encourage fearful behaviour. On the other hand, punishment may increase your pet’s fear. Ideally you should try to ignore your animal, once you have provided him with a secure place to stay. If however, it is too hard for you to ignore your pet when he is afraid, you can try to provide some distraction.

Try to be jolly and engage yourself in some activity that is very likely to interest your pet. Use a jolly voice and try to catch the interest of your pet without directly addressing him, you can then reward him after he has joined you and keep him engaged by playing games. The idea is that he chooses to join you without any direct encouragement from you, since this means he has changed his emotional  response.

Mask the noise

During the firework sounds keep your pet in a room with the curtains and blinds shut or a windowless room. You can try to mask the external sounds by providing plenty of background noise at a fairly high volume (although you should be careful if your pet is uncomfortable with loud noise). Compositions which have slow tempos and less complex arrangements (such as instrumental solos) can have a calming effect on animals.

Provide a safe haven

The safe haven is simply an area, a rug, or a bed where your pet can feel safe and secure. You should appreciate that it is not a bolt hole where your pet tries to hide until the fearful event is passed. It is rather a place where your animal spontaneously decides to go because it feels good, and is something that helps your pet to successfully cope with his fears. For this reason, the safe haven should be a confined area, with no previous negative experiences (e.g. if your pet tends to hide in one corner of the room, you can choose the same room but set the safe haven in a different corner).

You will need to build up several positive experiences associated with the safe haven in advance of any risk period. You can choose a new bed and put it in a crate (but only if you are sure that your pet likes to rest in crates). You may want to cover the crate with a blanket or place it under a table (this depends on your pet’s preferences for small confined places). The safe haven should be located away from windows.

Once you have the safe haven set up, you can teach your pet to use it. Initially you may encourage your pet to go into the safe haven by luring him with toys or some food treats. Your pet’s meals can also be given here. You can also hide toys and treats in the safe haven for your pet to find there (this will encourage him to visit the place when you are not around). You can also give chews or food toys for your pet to work on when it is there.

Every time you see your pet in the safe haven he should be allowed to relax there with treats tossed over to him if you like, but no direct contact. With time you may make these additional rewards less frequent, since the place itself has become an area for relaxation.

It is important that potentially unpleasant events are never associated with the safe haven; therefore, should you need, for example, to give medication it is important that you do it elsewhere. In the same way, if children or other animals bother your pet, you will need to teach them to respect this area or keep them at a distance using baby gates or doors flaps. The idea is that this is a place where your pet can be in control. Placing the safe haven in the room least exposed to the sounds will also help your pet to cope.

Pheromones

Pheromone therapy has proved useful for management of some behavioural problems as part of a behaviour modification programme in conjunction with counter-conditioning. Your vet may suggest that you consider this as part of the programme of control of your dog’s fears.

Diet and supplements

There are some veterinary diets and some specific nutraceuticals which may be used to help your pet feel generally more calm. The principle behind these products is that they contain chemicals which have a natural calming effect on pets. Although they are not medications, always use them under your vet’s guidance, especially if your pet needs specific diets or attention regarding food intake because of medical conditions.

There is no evidence that homeopathic remedies have a specific positive effect on firework related problems, and their use might delay the use of more effective interventions, so they should not be considered harmless. However, certain herbals have been found to induce calmer behaviour in dogs and can be use as a general help. But if you chose to give these products to your pet, it is important that you always use them under your vet’s direction. Indeed, these substances may have severe effects on your pet’s health if not appropriately utilised.

Medications

For some pets with a severe fear the only immediate solution is a short course of calming medication at the time the noise is likely to happen. These drugs should be given before your pet becomes upset for maximum efficacy, i.e. before the feared event starts. You should not be concerned about giving the medication when you are not sure whether the noise will occur or not, as it is better for your pet to have taken the medication on a false alarm than for him to experience another traumatic cycle of events without medication.

Always discuss medication issues with your vet and only use treatment under their guidance. If your pet has a particular problem your vet may wish to refer you to someone who specialises in treating behavioural problems for further advice.

Resolution of the problem

While the previous advice is very important to avoid worsening of the problem, they will not bring a resolution on their own as your pet will still be afraid whenever there are fireworks. Also, their fear may put your pet at risk of developing other behaviour problems and the stress can have a negative impact on their physical health. Therefore you will need to do something to make this fear go away.

Behaviour modification

Treatment for fireworks fear is mainly based on a type of behaviour modification called desensitisation and counter-conditioning. Desensitisation is the process of teaching your pet to be less sensitive to sudden loud noises. Counter-conditioning means to swap the fear response with a new feeling that is not compatible with the fear (e.g. play or the pleasure of eating food).

The basic principle is to let your animal experience the noises in a situation where he does not feel afraid, and at a volume that does not cause fear (this can be so low at the beginning, that you cannot hear anything yourself). He is then rewarded for being relaxed. Once your pet gets used to this process the level of noise is gradually increased, but only to a level where he still feels confident. If he is ever afraid of the noise the level is reduced until he feels safe again.

Ending each lesson in such a successful way and avoiding making your pet feel scared is a critical point – behaviour modification cannot occur if your pet is distressed and in most cases medication to calm the pet is required to facilitate the acquisition of new behaviours. Training sessions should always be short and regular to help get a positive outcome.

Pheromone therapy has proved useful for management of some behavioural problems as part of a behaviour modification programme in conjunction with counter-conditioning. Your vet may suggest that you consider this as part of the programme of control of your dog’s fears.

Medications

In some animals the fear of fireworks is so marked that pets may need medication to calm them so that they are able to learn during the behaviour treatment. These drugs are not intended to be used in the long term, they just help your pet to cope while you carry on the behaviour modification. Your vet will advise you on the best treatment for your pet and you should not give your pet any medication without consulting your vet.

Having a noise sensitivity is no fun for your pet and can be very distressing for you. Fears can get worse with time and they will not often go away unless you do something about it. In the first instance consult your vet who may refer you to a specialist for further advice.

Remember that there are strategies which help prevent the problem.

Selection of your pet

Selection is the first step involved in the prevention of behavioural problems. Some traits of temperament are inherited, but parents can also influence their offspring through their own behaviour. If you have any reason to think that your kitten is at particular risk of developing a noise phobia you should contact your vet immediately if they show any sign of noise sensitivity.

Stimulation during early life

As said, it is important that, during their early life, pets are exposed to the stimuli that they will encounter later in life. It is important that these first experiences are positive, so that it is less likely that future negative experiences leave a strong effect on your pet.

Nevertheless, given the other features of firework parties you should not try to take your pet to a firework display as the noise can be too loud and the other experiences too traumatic for your pet.

Destructive cats

Does your cat scratch at the furniture, chew your belongings, dig up your plant pots or steal food? If the answer is yes, your beloved pet might be trying to get your attention, creating its own fun, or expressing anxiety. As there are many reasons for destructive behaviours, you must first understand why your cat is being destructive if you are to stop it.

Feral domestic cats spend, on average, 8 hours hunting every day and therefore spend a lot of their mental and physical energy engaged in getting enough to eat. In contrast, pet cats get their food in a bowl, and often spend very little time getting it.

Because hunting is such an important activity for cats, those that have free access to the outdoors often engage in hunting activity even though they also get fed by the owner. Domestic cats that don’t go outside or have restricted access to the outside are therefore unable to show their full range of normal behaviours and may become inactive and depressed, or show signs of frustration. Cats may express their frustration through destructive behaviour.

Many owners react to their cat’s destructive behaviour by chasing them, squirting them with water or distracting them with a toy or food. This might temporarily stop the cat’s behaviour, but may actually reinforce the behaviour in the long term. Cats soon learn that if they are destructive their owner engages in an even more exciting game with them. In cats where this learning occurs, their destructive behaviour can become a strategy for gaining the owner’s attention.

To prevent cats becoming frustrated you must keep their environment as stimulating as possible. Try to replace all the things that your cat would do if it was outside – providing opportunities for play, maximising the use of three-dimensional space, and making it ‘work’ for its food.

Play is a great way of using up a cat’s energy and you can encourage your cat to use its natural hunting instincts by providing toys that stimulate stalking and chasing behaviour. Objects that are small, have a complex surface texture and move will be of most interest to cats. Independent play is good as it means that your cat can do things when you are out or busy, e.g. toys can be hung up in front of windows so any draught causes the toy to move about and get the cat’s attention.

You should also play with your cats as much as possible, e.g. with fishing rod toys. Toys should be changed regularly to keep them exciting. Do not play with your cat using feet or hands as this may encourage inappropriate play, where the cat will use the teeth and claws on parts of the human body.

You can also make feeding time more active. Giving cats their dried food in puzzle feeders instead of in bowls means that they have to work to get the food out. Puzzle feeders can be bought from pet shops, or you can make your own by cutting holes, just bigger than dried cat biscuits, in a small plastic drinking bottle and filling it with dried food. As the cat taps the bottle across the floor bits of food drop out.

Alternatively, you can hide bits of food inside scrunched up pieces of paper around the house so that your cat has to search for and then manipulate them to get to the food. To get a cat used to this idea start by placing the dry food just next to the bowl and gradually increase the distance of the food from the bowl until it is eventually scattered throughout the house. Making your cat work for food like this will means they will spend much more time ‘hunting’ for food, rather than just eating straight from a bowl.

Cats also love to move around in three-dimensions (on all levels), so try to make your cat’s environment more exciting by providing shelves at different levels that they can jump onto. Most cats enjoy climbing and jumping and will spend a lot of time on elevated areas, which they use as vantage points from which to survey their surroundings. Being able to escape to a high place is especially important for cats in households containing more than one cat.

Constructions ranging from simple scratching posts with a shelf to complex structures with lots of shelves, beds and scratching posts will satisfy a cat’s desire to climb, jump, scratch and rest. Cats also like to explore and hide so giving them boxes, even cardboard ones, will provide extra stimulation and comfort.

Scratching posts should have a vertical grain as cats prefer to run their claws down the thread rather than across it. The scratching posts must also be tall enough to allow the cat a full stretch and be steady enough not to topple over when leaning into it. If the scratching posts fulfil these criteria then hopefully the cat will not feel the need to scratch the back of the sofa!

Scratching is a normal cat behaviour and is used for both marking and sharpening nails. However, some cats scratch the furniture or perform other destructive behaviours as a result of anxiety. Therefore, simply providing a more stimulating environment might not be enough to stop a cat from scratching.

Punishing a cat for being destructive will not necessarily stop the destructive behaviour. It is more important to address the reasons why the cat shows the behaviour in the first place. Punishment might also damage your relationship with your cat and cause anxiety when you are around.

Some punishments might even be rewarding for the cat; an under-stimulated cat might find it fun to be chased around the house or sprayed with water! Similarly, other techniques such as distracting a cat with a toy or food will only reward the destructive behaviour and teach the cat that being destructive is a good thing!

Cat behaviour

Cats are very special creatures and, despite the best efforts of humans, are not that far removed from their wild ancestors. They have a large range of behaviour patterns and a secret language of their own. So whilst we bring them into our homes and try to tame them they do tend to continue to know their own mind and ‘do their own thing’! Understanding why they behave the way they do can help you develop strategies to persuade your cat to do things the way you want.

Dogs are probably easier to train than cats because dogs are keen to please their owners. Cats, on the other hand, are highly motivated by their own pleasure. The key to cat training is to make sure that you make whatever you want your cat to do highly rewarding.

Behaviours that you don’t want should be unpleasant for the cat. Punishing cats does not work – they will just learn to misbehave when you cannot see them! Some cats misbehave to get attention and this attention is a reward that encourages your cat to continue this behaviour.

Cats are naturally very clean and litter training is easy in most cases. After feeding or waking take your kitten to a clean litter tray. When your cat gets to the box, scratch the litter to get her interested. The litter tray must always be kept clean so that your cat learns it is a great place to be. If your cat uses the tray let her know how pleased you are.

Many owners find it difficult to get used to the fact that their cute pet is also a cruel hunter. It is especially difficult to live with a cat that insists on bringing prey home. Hunting is a very strong instinct in cats and they will continue to chase and catch prey even when they are well fed. Kittens instinctively use hunting behaviour in their play and as they get older they develop the techniques through practice.

You will not be able to stop your cat hunting unless you keep them indoors all the time. Fitting a bell on a collar may reduce the number of animals that your cat catches.

Claws are an important part of the armoury of cats in the wild. They use them for hunting, fighting and climbing. It is important therefore that the claws are kept sharp and in good condition. Scratching conditions your cat’s claws by removing the old layers of the nails.

Cats may scratch at furniture in order to keep their claws sharp but usually you can teach them that this is unacceptable behaviour by making the experience unpleasant, i.e. by shouting when they do it. However, you will need to teach your cat where they are allowed to scratch and provide something for the purpose such as a scratching post.

Cats may also scratch furniture in order to mark it and define their territory. If your cat persists in this behaviour you may need to get some advice from your vet to help you deal with it.

Basic training for cats

Thousands of cats end up parting company with their owners every year, often due to behaviours that the owners consider problematic: such as scratching the furniture, jumping into places that owners would prefer them not to (e.g. the baby’s cot) and scratching and/or biting their owners. Basic training with your cat may help prevent such problems and improve your relationship with your cat. For a long time, many people thought it was not possible to train cats, but in fact they can learn in the same manner as dogs.

As with all animals, the best way to train your cat is through the use of positive reinforcement. This means giving your cat something nice when it performs a behaviour you like, and ignoring any unwanted behaviour.

The cat will learn to associate the desired behaviour with something rewarding and will therefore be more likely to perform that behaviour again. If the undesired behaviour has no positive consequence, the cat is less likely to repeat it. In this way, we ‘shape’ our cat’s behaviour to suit us.

A good place to start is to train your cat to perform a very simple task such as ‘sit’.

Using one of your cat’s favourite food treats, move the food over their head and as their gaze follows the food and their head moves back, their rear end will naturally lower into a sitting position. At this point give the food to your cat while it is sitting.

Move position so that the cat follows you and releases from the sitting position and try again. We often need to reward approximations of the behaviour we want (i.e. taking baby steps towards the desired behaviour). So if the cat does not sit on the first try, give it a helping hand to the correct behaviour by initially rewarding when it lowers its back end.

When the cat is reliably sitting when you use the food as a lure, you can begin to add the verbal cue ‘sit’ just as the cat is sitting. It will then begin to associate the word ‘sit’ with the action.

Every cat is different and each will prefer different activities and it can be a fun task finding out what your cat likes best. Consider whether your cat is motivated by food? Does he or she like certain treats such as special cat biscuits, prawns or small pieces of ham for example? If he or she is not very food motivated, what about a favourite toy or game? Do they enjoy playing with a fishing rod toy with you? Or do they like to be groomed?

Carrying out your training sessions when your cat is hungry or motivated to play or be groomed will help successful training by keeping the value of your reward high. Using a variety of rewards can also help.

Teaching your cat to use a target is often useful. This means teaching your cat to sit or stay or place a paw or nose on a certain object or location. Gradually increase the amount of time your cat stays with the target before the reward. The basics of targeting can be used to teach your cat not to jump on worktops (but sit on a target mat instead on the floor) or to enter the cat carrier (by placing the target mat inside the cat carrier).

You can train your cat to do many fun things. This will be mentally and physically stimulating for your cat, which is of particular importance for indoor-only cats who live in a more static environment. Such training tasks can include ‘fetch’, ‘paw’, ‘beg’, and even navigating mini agililty courses set up in the home.

While kittens and younger cats may learn certain tasks more quickly than older cats, it is never too late to start training. The important thing to remember is to keep training sessions short (no longer than a few minutes in the first instance and building up to a maximum of 10-15 minutes). Kittens and older cats are likely to have shorter attention spans and different cats will have differing tolerance to the length of training.

The most important thing to remember is always end the training session on a positive note, when your cat is still interested. Do not exhaust them. Integrate your training into your daily routine and make it as fun as possible.

No force is used during positive reinforcement training, therefore your cat is free to walk away from the training at any point. If your cat does abandon the session, the treat you are offering may not be appealing enough or your training session may be too long. Try changing the treat to something of higher value (e.g. tuna, prawns, ham, a more active toy) and remember to keep your sessions short.

A cat that is actively engaged in training may vocalize in a positive manner for the reinforcer (purr or miaow), will exhibit relaxed body language and will orientate its gaze towards you.

Aggressive cats

Living with a cat that loves nothing better than to ambush your legs, or attack you when you try to stroke it can be very unpleasant and often extremely painful! Treatment of aggressive behaviour can be very successful; however, it does require understanding of why the cat is motivated to show aggression.

The two main reasons for aggression to develop in cats are because of fear, or because they have learnt an inappropriate way of interacting with their owner. Fear aggression is a defence strategy, which occurs when the cat is feeling threatened. Play behaviour can be termed aggressive when it is directed at an inappropriate target, e.g. human hands and feet.

In order to learn that different situations are ‘normal’ and ‘safe’, cats have to experience them very early in life. Things that are not encountered early on will be more likely to be scary to a cat when it encounters them later in life. Cats that were not well socialised with people as young kittens (between 2 and 8 weeks of age) will be less likely to approach people and may feel threatened by contact with people.

Other cats may become fearful due to a bad experience with people later in life. Individual cats can feel threatened by different ‘levels’ of interaction with people, e.g. one cat might feel threatened by a person approaching, while another enjoys close contact but feels threatened when picked up.

If a cat shows aggression and the person moves away or puts them down, then that aggressive behaviour has been successful. Consequently, every time a person approaches and the cat shows aggression, the aggressive behaviour becomes increasingly established as a successful response to this ‘threat’.

Aggressive behaviour is often sudden and unpredictable and can include attacking people by grabbing them with claws and biting them. Sudden movement such as passing feet, or occasionally high-pitched sounds may trigger this behaviour. Generally this type of behaviour in adult cats develops through inappropriate play behaviour in kittens.

If owners allow kittens to play with their fingers or feet; the kittens will grow up thinking that this is the normal way to interact with people. This behaviour is further reinforced by the reaction of the ‘victim’, such as running around screaming; the movement and noise reinforces both play and predatory behaviour in kittens and adult cats. In addition to the excitement of the play, some cats find this behaviour a very successful method of getting attention from their owners – it certainly gets a response every time!

Aggression can also arise from frustration or ‘re-directed’ aggression. The latter occurs when a cat becomes aroused by something, e.g. another cat, but is unable to attack it and takes this aggression out on the closest moving object; commonly the owner.

Rarely aggressive behaviour is caused by a medical condition (such as seizure activity), and sometimes an underlying medical condition (such as high thyroid hormone levels) makes aggressive behaviour more likely. Cats in pain show a defensive response to being touched, which may appear aggressive.

If your cat is aggressive through fear you must be careful not to appear threatening to the cat when you interact with it or approach it. This will prevent further reinforcement of the aggression so that your cat learns that it can relax around people. Then it is possible to start a ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme’ using food rewards.

Place some tasty food next to your cat’s hiding place then sit far enough away that your cat will tolerate your presence, and venture out to eat the food. Slowly your cat will learn to associate your presence with something good. In very small stages, the food treat should be moved closer to where you are sitting so that your cat is encouraged to approach. Finally try to stroke your cat once before giving it a food reward then gradually build up the number of times you stroke your cat.

Cats that are poorly socialised to people are unlikely to ever become cuddly lap cats, but by following this programme the cat will learn to tolerate the presence of humans instead of being fearful and showing aggression if approached.

To stop cats from playing aggressively owners must change the consequences of the aggression. Because these cats find the reaction of their victim (screaming and running around) so rewarding they are likely to continue the behaviour. Therefore, you must not reward ambushes by being exciting, which means ignoring the cat’s attack.

You may need to wear protective clothing at all times in the house so you do not get injured and can easily ignore the attacks. You must also stay perfectly still when your cat is playing aggressively and must not talk to, or even look at it, as the cat may find any response rewarding. Your cat will soon learn that it no longer gets a response by pouncing on you so will gradually stop the behaviour.

You should also start to use your attention as a reward for good behaviour; praising your cat when it is playing with its own toys or in an acceptable fashion, e.g. with fishing rod toys. In this way the cat’s aggressive behaviour can be redirected onto more appropriate targets.

Environmental enrichment puzzle feeders, climbing and hiding spaces, and scratching posts may also help to reduce this behaviour by occupying the cat’s time in a more constructive way.