DEAR DR. FOX: I brought home a cat, Pepper, from the shelter about five months ago.
She was taken right from the Baltimore city streets and had a litter of kittens with her at the time (all of which died, due to her malnutrition and extreme mastitis). She was estimated to be about 1 1/2 years old when I got her, and had already lived a really hard life, but a few vet visits and lots of TLC have done wonders. She seems so grateful to have been adopted, and is very, very sweet and loving.
I couldn’t be happier with her as a companion, but she has a few behaviors that concern me. I would like to know where these tendencies of hers stem from, and how to deal with them appropriately to make both of us a little happier:
1. She is obsessed with anything SLIGHTLY protruding from a surface in my house. For instance, she loves to remove the covers/caps off of the screw and nail holes in furniture all over my house. She has systematically removed every one of these caps/covers (numbering around 40 at this point). I will find her batting them around the house or chewing on them. Each time she removes one, I put it in a container so she won’t remove it again and possibly choke on it. My guess is they remind her of nursing. Maybe she was weaned too early?
2. She licks me a lot. Which is mostly sweet, but I also know how dirty cat mouths can be, and their tongues are rough! It started as occasional nipping (which she still does to ankles sometimes — exclusively men’s ankles), but then evolved to licking with a few light nips/chomps here and there. She mostly does this to my arms and face, especially in the morning and anytime I pick her up. Again, I think this might be related to weaning — or is she treating me like a kitten?
3. She loves chewing on electrical wires, leaves of houseplants, and lampshades. She loves knocking small cylinders (lighters, lip balms, batteries, laser pointers) off the table and chewing on/batting them around. She mostly only does these things when I am occupied with something and not giving her my full attention, especially when I am watching TV (she also loves pawing at the TV when it’s on). It seems like she is acting out and trying to get my attention through these bad behaviors, some of which are kind of dangerous.
4. She never covers her poop. This means my house smells much more like cat poop than it would if she covered it. I’ve tried a few types of litter to see if maybe it’s a texture or scent thing, but nothing is helping. Is there a way to teach her to cover it? Or is it something we’ll just have to live with? — E.S., Baltimore, Maryland
DEAR E.S.: The more people ask questions about the animals with whom they share their lives, the more it means, in my opinion, they are being especially observant and seeking a closer understanding. Not being mindful or curious leads to a more disassociated, self-involved existence and the neglect of those in need of attention and loving care. To answer your questions:
1. Many cats are very curious and dexterous, getting into anything they can, which means super vigilance to keep them safe. Give them safe, nonplastic toys. Many cats like to collect and hoard toys or carry them around like prey.
2. Licking is an expression of affection/caregiving, which can be followed by love bites and sometimes — especially in cats weaned too early — in sucking on one’s arm or earlobe or occasionally self-sucking on the tail or a paw.
3. Cats do like to chew on electrical cords, plastic bags and other plastic materials and houseplants. So hide or cover cords and get rid of cat-poisonous plants, especially any lilies. Grow sprouted grass or wheat for your cat to nibble on and offer some catnip in the evenings. More than one cat with whom I have shared my life has knocked objects off tables, dressers and shelves to get my attention, especially to wake me up. One even pulled my hair. It can be difficult for them to communicate their needs to us dumb creatures, so they must be creative!
4. In my experience, cats sometimes seem to forget to cover their feces — possibly because they are so relieved that they rush off to play after pooping. Other times, it is because they are constipated and associate being in the litter box with pain. Feral cats we have rescued have always used the litter box, tending not to cover their feces at first, possibly because of fear or because the odor helps them feel more secure. This is one reason why cats rub and mark objects around the home with the scent glands on their heads. Once these cats were settled, they usually covered their feces.
I wish for you and Pepper to adopt another cat. Two cats are happier and healthier, as a rule, than those who live with no contact with their own kind, which is arguably inhumane. Check my website (drfoxonehealth.com) for tips on introducing a new cat.
Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns. Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxOneHealth.com.