How To Keep Your Cat Happy At Home - With Dr Monica Grau
Is your cat constantly scratching furniture, running around the house, or generally feeling anxious or stressed? Our #CatChat superhero Monica is here to help!
In the latest of our #CatChat series, the fantastically knowledgeable Monica Grau answered all your questions about making the perfect happy home for your feline friends.
Our Cat Behaviourist, Monica Grau
Monica’s dream, since she was very young, was to be a vet and have her own cat - and now she’s achieved both! Originally from Barcelona but now living in London, Monica is a Vet Surgeon, a cat behaviourist, and cat-mum to Oreo and Fluffy.
On her website and through her Instagram account, Monica helps cat owners create the best lives for their furry friends, through advice on nutrition, toilet training and socialisation. Monica’s love of cats is infectious (not that we need more excuse to love cats!) and we were delighted that Monica could join us for our #CatChat and share her expertise.
Before we dive into your questions, we had some of our own to ask Monica to get to know her a little better!
What do you love most about what you do?What I love the most is being able to help cats and worried owners, it is very satisfying.
How did you get into being a cat behaviourist?It is a bit funny, you might be expecting me to say it was my dream since a young age. But it wasn't! My dream was to become a vet, and once you're in the veterinary world there are many paths you can choose. I've been working with animals, from exotic pets to cats and dogs, for many years and I slowly discovered that, although I love all animals, I prefer to work with cats. And then... I realised that nobody understands them, as they are very good at hiding their feelings, and I'd like to be the one giving the voice to the voiceless.
What are the most commonly observed behaviours/actions that could be dangerous for pets?
Household dangers, for me, are too common and too risky: - Open window in a high flat: cats are curious in nature, and curiosity killed the cat. Unfortunately, it is a very common emergency. - Toxic plants: such as lilies. - Household elements: such as human medication, or cleaning products. These are a few things that we could easily improve, and many cats wouldn't be in danger. Education is crucial.
Related post: 'Cat First Aid'
What is most challenging about what you do?I'm like a psychologist, but for cats. So, I'm trying to read cats through their owner. If an owner is cooperative, it is more probable that we can solve the problem. Behavioural problems are very slow and need much work at home on the part of the owner; you can't cure a behavioural problem just by giving a tablet or injection.
What is most rewarding about being a cat behaviourist?Emotional suffering is so so sad for me. Misunderstood cats feel so miserable, and nobody is realising that. So, being able to make them happy is so rewarding. It changes their lives.
What's your number 1 tip for new cat owners?
Be responsible. Information is the key, that's why I started in the blogging world too. Do thorough research before acquiring a cat. Call vets, cat shelters, ask friends with cats... It is 15-20 years of commitment, and cats need much more time and effort than is commonly thought. But, the reward of having a cat is so big!
Related Post: 'What Have You Always Wanted To Ask A Vet? CatChat With Dr Alex Avery'
Your cat questions answered
Q: We have lots of scratching posts & mats in the house, which our cat uses - but he is also destroying our dining chairs & furniture! What can I do to stop him scratching in the wrong places?
Monica Grau: Scratching the wrong things is a very common problem - but often easy to solve!
Cats scratch to mark their territory, trim their nails and stretch. Marking their territory is the most important and cats will mark their territory where they feel they need to: busy locations of the house, places where the family spends a lot of time, visible locations, etc. Hence why the living room and sofa often fall victim to their scratching! For stretching, cats look for a sturdy, stable space - tall enough to fully stretch and with a material that lets them leave visible marks (again, sofas and soft furnishings are a favourite!).
So, if we know why they choose these places to scratch, we can offer them a better option: a sturdy, large, well-located scratching post. We can encourage scratching there with Feliscratch (special feline pheromones), catnip and with wand toys. We can try to redirect the inappropriate scratching when it occurs, moving the cat over to the scratching post instead!
There’s a full post about this here - try these tips, and your cat will be scratching in the right places in no time!
Q: I’ve got two cats: a brother and sister who are 1.5 years old. The girl sleeps through the night, but her brother wakes me up multiple times a night! Is there any way I can get him on a schedule like his sister’s? And is there anything I can do to increase the girl’s confidence? She’s quite timid and overshadowed by her brother’s boisterousness.
Monica Grau: If your boy cat isn’t neutered, his sleep schedule can be related to is hormones - however, as you have a boy and a girl, I’ll assume he is neutered!
Cats are crepuscular animals, meaning that they are most active at sunset and sunrise. Knowing this, we need to encourage them to exercise during these times so that they can regulate their energy levels. Just like people, some cats are more active than others! It might be a good idea to increase his exercise to get him more tired, especially before bedtime. It’s also a good idea to start a routine before bedtime, so that he can predict what is going to happen. You could try cleaning litter boxes, playing to get him tired, then feed him a good meal, then it’s bedtime. If you can, try a puzzle feeder during the night to ensure he can eat little bits throughout the night - many cats wake up their owners because they’re hungry!
Also hugely important is that you don’t give him the attention he asks for during the night! If you do, he’ll expect this every night. If you can (or want to), you can progressively close your bedroom door to keep him out.
In relation to your girl cat, we do need to accept that each cat has its own personality! Just like people, some are more outgoing and some are more shy. If being shy is just who she is, then that’s completely fine. However, if being shy is affecting her progress or making her unhappy, there are some things you can do to help her out.
Cats like predictable environments with elevated hiding spots to help them feel more secure. You could also try feline pheromones too. If you’ve got children at home, it can help to explain to them that they should try to be quiet and gentle with your cats - to cats, children are the height of unpredictability!).
Shy cats do need time, but hopefully with her brother around she will start to come out of her shell a little more!
Related post: 'How To Stop Your Cat From Waking You Up'
Q: Every time we leave the house or my cat can’t see us (because we’re in the shower or behind a closed door), he gets upset and complains. What can I do to deal with separation anxiety?
Monica Grau: Separation anxiety is a very common problem, poor little kitty! As a general rule, you’ll need to put in some work to help him - but it’s not too tricky to improve!
You’ll need to start rewarding the cat when he’s in a different room without you. You should give him things to do while he’s alone (mental stimulation, e.g. from toys or hidden treats) and make sure your home has plenty of entertainment, including scratching zones, elevated shelves, hiding places etc. You can also try using feline pheromones, which can help!
I’ve got a full post on separation anxiety here - hope it helps!
Q: I have an 11-year old fixed male cat who has orphan cat syndrome! He has bonded strongly to me, but doesn’t really want to do much with anyone else. The problem is that he tends to get aggressive when he feels threatened, especially at the vets and with men. He will hiss and fake strike at me too, when he’s agitated. He has chronic respiratory issues and is on a daily inhaler, which I’m sure doesn’t help. My concern is that he needs to become more comfortable with the vets. My vet has said to only bring him in when he has acute problems, as he gets so agitated, but I’d like to find some way of desensitizing him to things like the vets, but I’m not sure how to do that. We’re also working through a redirected aggression incident with my roommate’s cat, who was the initial aggressor. We’re working on reintroducing the two - but I’d really like some advice on how to bring his aggressive fear reactions down and help him to be more relaxed!
Monica Grau: I’m sure this situation is very distressing for you and your beloved cat! From what you’ve said, there are a few separate problems at play here:
Socialisation problems, resulting in fear and aggression
Trips to the vets (again, fear and aggression)
The fight with the other cat
For the vets, there are many things you can start working on to make the process less stressful for your cat:
Cat carrier training: introducing this into other areas of your life can help to reduce the association of the carrier with the vets, and make sure your cat is less stressed from the outset on a trip to the vets
Car trip (or bus trips - however you usually get to the vets!) training: again, to reduce the initial anxiety your cat feels on a trip to the vets
Vets training: you can start small, by just visiting the vets’ building and saying hi, then leaving, and then progress to going in, leaving the cat alone in the consultation room, and then leaving, etc.
You might want to consider visiting a different vet clinic, ideally one that is accredited cat friendly and fearless. These clinics only work with cats, meaning that there aren’t dogs around, the clinics aren’t as busy, and they spend more time relaxing the cat before any consultation. You could also consider home visits, where your cat can stay in his own environment and avoid the stressful vets altogether.
When it comes to fear of men, it’s important to let the cat choose where he wants to be: if he wants to be in another room, let him be there rather than forcing him to socialise. It would be ideal to have a man visit your place perhaps a few times a week, to start getting your cat used to there being a non-threatening man in the house.
This being said, fear-aggression situations often require daily psychogenic medication for a long time. There are many options here and there certainly is hope, so don’t give up!
Q: We have a new kitten! How can we help him feel secure and welcome? He runs away from me a lot!
Monica Grau: Without knowing the full details of your situation, this is a tricky one to answer! But, there are some tips you can try. If there aren’t any other animals at home, you’ll find this a little easier. If there are other animals, keep them separated for a few weeks! If you have a big home, it’s best to keep him closed in a room or just in zones of the house, giving him everything he needs (food, water, litter box etc). Be patient with him, as a new home is very strange and everything is new! Give him time and space - if he doesn’t want to be touched, don’t force him.
Start creating a daily routine that you can keep forever, including feeding times, playing times, resting times, etc. Cats love predictable situations!
If there are children in the house, you’ll need to start getting him used to them too - very slowly, giving him time and space! Feline pheromones can also help to relax him too. Good luck!
Q: How do I know if my cats are playing or fighting?
Monica Grau: Very interesting question! Here are some questions to think about:
How is their relationship in general? Do they groom each other? Do they sleep touching each other? Do they spend time together? If your answers are yes, they are likely to see themselves as in the same social group and therefore friends. If you answered no or hesitated, they might just be tolerating each other and possibly fighting.
Can you hear sounds when they are playing? If you hear sounds such as hissing, growling, or loud meows, it doesn’t seem like a game - and you should try to stop them!
Who starts the interaction? If they’re playing, they’ll be constantly changing roles - it won’t be the same cat chasing and the same cat escaping each time. In fighting, there’s one who starts chasing and the other always escaping.
Body language is very important here. In a real fight, you would never see any belly - if you do see your cats’ bellies, they’re being friendly with each other. If all their hair is standing on end and they look scared, it’s likely a fight.
Q: I have two foster kittens who are about 4-5 months old. They have their own room with water, food, litter box, beds, blankets and toys. I’ve also got a Feliway diffuser plugged in. They are very well-behaved - but are absolutely terrified of me! They’ve been here two weeks and have made zero progress. I spend hours reading in their room, I’ve never tried to pet them or pick them up, and have also tried playing from a distance with their feather toy - but nothing seems to work. I hear them playing together when I’m not in the room, but how can I help them overcome their fear of people and socialise them?
Monica Grau: It’s so great that you’ve fostered kittens! Socialisation in kittens happens between 2-7 weeks of age, which is super short! If they didn’t see or have contact with people during this period of time, they didn’t have proper socialisation. Social learning is “open” up to 3 or 4 months old, but the hyper-sensitive socialisation period is between 2 and 7 weeks old.
These kittens need time - a lot of time. And you are doing it right: being in there reading but not trying to touch or do anything, keep encouraging their playing and delicious food coming from you. However, even if you can get the kittens socialised to you, they’ll likely have to go through the same process when they move to their forever home. It might be best for them to be placed in a larger environment (perhaps a farm) where they can avoid human contact if possible. The kittens should have a behavioural profile done before doing to a forever home, so that they’re not put in situations where they’re unhappy.
Keep doing what you’re doing - you’re doing the best things for them!
Q: My cat is never 100% relaxed. She seems to have been born anxious! How can we help her not to jump at every noise she hears?
Monica Grau: Oh no, poor little girl! If there’s a specific sound that she reacts to (such as fire alarms or the doorbell), you can slowly introduce this sound using videos and rewards. If you feel that it is every loud noise she gets scared of, it’s a bit more complicated. But, it’s important to try not to “reward” her response: for example, if she hears thunder and gets scared, try not to pet her or give her a treat, as you’re rewarding her fear. It can also help to give her safe hiding spaces around the house and try ambient music or noises to hide unusual sounds. Feline pheromones can help, but if none of this works she might need specific medication from the vets to help!
Q: How can I retrain my cat to sleep in his own bed at night and not wrapped around my head?! He’s also making heaps of “biscuits” on my head first before he calms down… I have two 3-year old cats - Max and Lucy. Lucy sleeps in her bed or at my feet, but Max sleeps on my head!
Monica Grau: Aw, that is sweet - even though it can be annoying! To solve it, you’ll need to offer something better than what he’s got now. You can place this new bed very close to his favourite part of the bed (near your pillow, maybe on your bedside table?), leave something that smells like you there, and encourage him to go there to make biscuits instead! You could also use a bit of Feliway spray half an hour before bedtime! The most important thing is trying to offer something that has everything he is looking for and more! Good luck!
Our next #CatChat...
Thanks to Monica for her time in this #CatChat! We’ve loved hearing her advice for making happy homes for our cats, and have certainly learnt a lot!
If you’re interested in our next expert CatChat, make sure you’re following us on Instagram to be the first to hear… We’ve got some awesome experts lined up and we can’t wait to chat with you all again!