Thursday, April 5, 2012

The 7-Day Cat Project

Last month, our friends asked us if we would house and cat sit while they were on a weeklong vacation. They are friends who are also neighbors, and who own an absolutely beautiful, enchanting woodlot a stone-throw away from our house, and we have permission to explore whenever we like. Our house sits on a measly and boring 1-acre lot, theirs on about a 100 and is surrounded by crown land. The property is, so to say, our own private off-leash hiking trail, and it was easy for us to say yes because it is so close and we’re often there anyway. In fact, I was happy that we’d have the chance to be useful and reciprocate their generosity. But being there anyway also meant that Will would be in tow – and prior to that week I had little information how she'd behave in close proximity to a kitty.

The Background:
Will never lived with a cat since we own her, almost for 10 years now. She might have had cat experience in her third foster home she left when she was 5 months old, and she occasionally sees one roaming outside.
Will knows the property and associates it with pleasure.
Will also knows our friends, and in all likelihood smelled the cats’ scent on them, and also on us whenever we come home from having dinner at their place. Although she was never inside their house or encountered the cats, I hoped that there was enough familiarity to prevent that the novel components would overwhelm her.
Will is a drama queen, but her default is shutting down, not aggressing.
She is soft-mouthed and has great bite inhibition. Although she does chase squirrels, the occasional hare and yes, also a roaming cat every so often, she does so half-heartedly, playfully, without the determination of a predator. Therefore, I didn’t expect her to zone in on the cats with the intent to kill. In addition, Will differentiates between in- and outside. Born feral and imprinted by the great outdoors, she has always been much more confident there, and cautious whenever surrounded by walls.
Will seeks information from me when she is in doubt or in conflict, and follows my prompts.
I am in tune with her and can read her like a book.
She has been exposed to many new situations throughout her life: traveling with us, moving across country, meeting new people and dogs. Although she was never inside that particular house, she’s been in the homes of other friends. So, a new experience in itself is familiar, and following me into an unknown to her building is as well.
Will trusts me explicitly, I believe because I proved to her time and again that I am trustworthy; that no matter what, I have her back and our relationship with each other won’t change. Socializing is important, but equally important, if not more so, is the relationship between dog and owner. Ideally a dog should have both: exposure to novel situations and trusting a person’s decision. It is critical, because it is impossible to socialize to all eventualities a dog could be faced with in a lifetime.
Our friends’ 2 cats are exclusively kept inside the house. One, Mandrake is very social and knows me – I always play little training games for cat treats when we visit. I anticipated that he’d appear pretty much right away. The other, Hunter, is feral-like and would probably stay out of sight the whole week.
The cats are used to a dog. They lived with a female German shepherd until she died at the ripe old age of 13 a couple of years ago. There was no animosity between the cats and their dog; they got along marvelously.
I know a lot about dogs and behavior, but nothing about cats’ idiosyncrasies.
Based on all of that, and with our friends’ consent, I decided to bring Will into the house.
This is how the 7 days unfolded.

Day 1 – A Saturday, which means that hubby Mike was able to join us. Because it was the first day we expected Will and Mandrake to encounter each other, the extra set of hands relaxed me. If need be, I could get Will out the door while Mike would scoop up Mandrake and out of harms way. Will waiting outside was a viable alternative for the whole week.
As predicted, shortly after we entered Mandrake gracefully mosied down the stairs, but instantly stopped in his stride the moment he saw us, perhaps not expecting US when he heard the door opened, and probably stunned to see Will, who he focused on; and she on him, but neither animal made a move toward the other. Will’s mouth clamped up, but her body wasn’t tense and she was continuously switching between looking at me and Mandrake, instead of visually locking on the cat only. Not a bad initial moment.
The first thing I did was clean the litter box in the upstairs bathroom, and I took the leashed Will with me. A cat’s litter box is scent-sensory overload; information in large print, and I thought it might help Will to make sense of it all. Using her nose is something she loves, and I also let her sniff the cat toys, and water and food dishes, but didn’t allow her to help herself to anything, including “food” from the litter box.
Mandrake followed in a 4-5 feet distance. I closed the bathroom door to lock him out while I cleaned to prevent that he and Will would be cramped into a small space. After we were done, Will followed me back downstairs and because she ignored the cat, I dropped the leash. So, that was about 5 minutes in. Mandrake followed the leash, sniffing the far end, so 6 feet away from the dog. I don’t know anything about cats and was surprised that he, too, was collecting intelligence through his nose, and obviously also understood that even though Will looks-wise somewhat resembled the dog he lived with, that she was a different one.
Back downstairs, Mandrake lost interest in the leash and zoned in on his food dish, meowing for more and looking at me to supply it. What a clever communicator. I complied, and also handed Will a few pieces, while repeating Mandrake’s name. My aim was that by explaining that it was “Mandrake” litter box, “Mandrake” food, and “Mandrake” treats she could have a few of, that she would learn to associate the word with the cat and feel good about both.
We ended the morning with me tossing Mandrake’s favorite treats across the kitchen and living room floors for him to pounce after, while giving Will a few for an impeccable down stay. Chasing cat treats is his favorite game, and I hoped it would alleviate anxiety he might feel because his people were gone. It was also one more opportunity to reward Will, with the goal that she’d begin to feel that not just the outside woodlot was great news, but inside the house, including the cat, was too. And it had one more benefit: With Will safely leashed, I was able to get an idea how she’d react to a cat that is animated. She didn’t try to chase, and I felt it wasn’t because she was leash-wise. I thanked her with verbal praise – and one last cat treat.
(To get a clear indication how a dog reacts to cats, the dog must see the cat in motion: running, pouncing and jumping. So, for example during a shelter assessment it is not enough to have a cat in a crate or the arms of a person. A dog who is unperturbed by that could react differently in a home where cats do cat things.)
What an awesome first day. No fletching teeth, no growls, no snaps and a brilliant kitty who was curious about Will, but at the same time cautious and keeping his distance.
But Will did have a poop as soon as we got back outside - a sign that she was stressed.

Day 2 – Sunday, and again Mike accompanied us. We told Will that we’d visit Mandrake as soon as we entered the property, and several times during the walk up to the house. Will knows the cue “find” to locate something or someone, and loves that game, and we said “Find Mandrake” to create some anticipatory happiness.
The cat showed up within seconds of us entering. Will was on leash, and we followed the routine of the previous day, except Mandrake insisted on supervising the litter box cleaning, which put dog and cat in a very close space. I let him hang with us for a little while, but then gently encouraged him out the door and closed it behind him, and thus rewarded Will for a relaxed down-stay beside me with creating space for her. As soon as I opened the door Mandrake scooted back in, seemingly not at all worried about being close to Will. He followed us down the stairs, tail high, purring and rubbing himself against me, but also strutting much closer to Will than the day before.
Back downstairs, and like the previous day, Mandrake vocally bugged me to renew his food. Will already had a clue what I was about to do, and having had a taste of yummy cat kibble the day before she followed me excitedly, with a wagging tail and open mouth smile, to the pantry. What I wanted to foster, that cat sitting was great, was taking shape.
I gave her a few pieces while we stood next to Mandrake, watching him eat. No longer than a couple of minutes later he switched his interest from food to Will and sniffed her butt - and I was again surprised to discover a cat exhibiting a behavior typical for dogs – and then proceeded to rub alongside Will’s legs and her chest, purring loudly.
I watched Will like a hawk for any changes in her body language, not at all sure if she was ready to take the relationship to the next level. Although her body stayed fluid, her mouth clamped up, which was my cue to change the situation.
Out came the cat treats. Tossing one would drive Mandrake away from her playfully and release pressure, but because the brief body-touch moments didn’t provoke an intense reaction, I mixed in a few tricks both animals knew so that Will would become increasingly more comfortable with an affection-seeking Mandrake. We shot a little video clip you can see here. I admit it is not stellar quality, but hope you'll enjoy it anyway.
Day 2 finished on a high note, but Will had another poop once outside, and excitedly danced around. Despite the treats, she was happy to leave.

Day 3 – Monday, and our first day without Mike, but I felt confident that we could swing it no problem without his extra set of eyes and hands.
Mandrake, too, was more confident and greeted us at the door the moment we walked in, seemingly knowing when we’d be arriving. Cats like routine, our friends explained before they left, and they were right. I would pay special attention to predictably being on time for the rest of the week.
Unlike the previous 2 days, the kitty ignored me and bee-lined straight for Will, rubbing against her, then sniffing her butt, then purringly weaving in and out of her legs with every step she took. I know that space infractions are an issue for Will, like they are for many herding dogs, and I kept a close eye on her body language, but she stayed fluid, mouth open and relaxed, and alternating between sniffing Mandrake’s butt and moving away from him. I dropped the leash to give her more leeway.
Again, we did the litter box first, and again I closed the door, locking Mandrake out for a couple of minutes and thereby giving Will space.
Food, treats and training games happened the same way as the day before, in the same sequence, but because Mike wasn’t there it was up to me to feed the birds outside, which required opening the garage and patio doors. I asked Will to follow me, not feeling quite comfortable enough yet to leave dog and cat unsupervised. Will complied without question, and Mandrake cooperated as well and didn’t even try to dart out the open door. That was one of my worries: that he’d read me correctly as a cat-dense human and escape. But he didn’t.
More purring, weaving and rubbing against Will for the remainder of our time there, and I was beginning to think that perhaps Mandrake needs a dog.
More excited yipping and bouncing from Will once we were back outside, but no stress poop this time. The encounters with the cat-kind were becoming less difficult for her.

Day 4 – Mandrake appears to be resource guarding. He – they (I hope that Hunter eats as well when we are not there), is a messy eater and there are kibble crumbs all around the food dish Will was eager to hoover up right after we entered - I unclip her leash now, but every attempt she made Mandrake blocked. He literally pounced on the fragment Will sought out, hovered over it but didn’t eat it. He just didn’t want her to have it, the little brat-cat. I know dominance is a word to be avoided in some circles, but situational dominance is the only explanation I can come up with for Mandrake’s behavior in that context. He was relentless, and Will let out a little growl. For the first time she told the cat to knock it off, and gave me valuable information that she couldn’t deal with the situation. I solved the problem with giving Mandrake new food, collecting the pieces myself and hand-feeding them to Will. Two content animals – and the only growl for the rest of the week.
So, feeding was what we did first on day 4, and then we cleaned the litter box. On the way down the stairs, Mandrake again weaved in and out of Will’s legs, crisscrossing in front of her, and I wondered if he was socially affectionate, or controlling; making a “my house my rules” point. If the latter is true, it indicates social dominance as well, but he was purring doing it, so I don’t know. In any case, behavior floats my boat and I was intrigued and fascinated observing Mandrake – and Will who tried to step around him. She seemed relaxed again, tolerating a bit of an obnoxious Mandrake, but I still took her outside with me when I fed the birds. She was happy to come along, sniffed where the deer had been, and tolled around to get some squirrels moving.
We ended our visit with more tricks for treats, and I taught Mandrake a new word: Pass auf, which is German for “watch it”, and was meant to alert him that another treat was about to come flying. So, he had to lose his focus on one treat, sharpen his senses, and locate another I threw out. He learned quickly.

Day 5 – Nothing new happened. Perhaps I should have titled this post “The 4-Day Cat Project”. Nothing, except Will pointed out barf hidden the folds of a blanket on the sofa I would never have found. Thanks Will – it allowed me to clean it up before it started to stink up the house.

Day 6 – Mandrake and Will are very fluid with one another now. He is given her space, and Will is super relaxed without needing to be reminded. Mandrake is still resource guarding the food fragments, but Will doesn't try anymore to snatch them up and instead waits until I collected them to give to her. They are meshing so nicely that I felt I could leave them unsupervised for a couple of minutes while feeding the birds. I was correct: peeking in the window confirmed that Will was not at all stressed, and Mandrake completely safe.

Day 7 – And our last one. I’ll miss our time with cool-dude Mannie. Will Will? I am not sure how she feels about cats now? She might envy them, though. The jumping power, the treats he gets that obviously taste better than anything she ever had before, and the fact that he has unlimited and unsupervised access to the litter box.


  1. Love the video Silvia, both sure look calm and relaxed. Interesting your observations and comments about kitty's intentions regarding control and dominance. I do know that cats can purr for many reasons and even when stressed and in pain (maybe it's like the dog tail wag, and depends on the context??) and that many dog signals are opposite signals for a cat.

  2. Interesting that cats can purr for many reasons. Didn't know.

  3. I took a Cat home as well on a trial. I wanted Freyja to have a friend around the house. The cat was here and seemed very comfortable and relaxed but eyed the dog quite a bit. Finally I was on the bed with the cat and frejya came in, head low, very slow doing her best to show she wasn't a threat. The cat watched and start moving towards her on the bed. Freyja froze, bowed her head and looked away. The cat moved closer and closer, then suddenly wacked her on the nose with her claws then moved away. Blood dripped off Freyja's nose even though she didn't move or make a sound. That was the end of the cat...(who got a nice (dog free)home with an SPCA volunteer the next day)

  4. I think Tristan that a cat's body language from what I understand is opposite of a dogs. So a low head and slow movement in cat language translates to "I'm stalking you and I'm getting ready to pounce and attack." What would appear to be a dog play bow in cat language would be "back off you're making me uncomfortable and I'm either going to flee or attack."