Welcome to Pet Detective, a new column where The Globe’s Amberly McAteer will find answers to the health and behaviour problems of our four-legged friends. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org (All questions will be published anonymously.)
My cat is a bully. Sometimes, he intimidates my other cat, who is bigger in size but just hides in the corner. A few times a month, the big cat can’t eat because the bully is guarding the feeding area. I’d like them to be friends. Advice?
Trade them in for dogs. Next question?
No, I jest – but full confessions: I’m a dog lady through and through. I’ve never quite understood the draw of cats: They don’t seem to need friends – human or feline. Sure, I’m useful as a temporary scratching post – or a cushion – but most cats go about their business on their own terms. I can only imagine how futile cats are to each other.
I recently read the phrase “Dogs have owners, cats have staff” on a hand-painted wood sign, hanging in a kitchen. (You know the kind – with a plaid backsplash and an ornate rooster hiding somewhere nearby.) Tacky and trite, but true: Cats don’t need people, or each other, to be happy. Honestly, I’m confounded that you’d want or expect your feline superiors to be friends.
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Keeping the peace is definitely a household challenge for Barbara Fletcher of Toronto, my former boss and cat enthusiast. “No, don’t call me that,” she laughs. “I’m not a cat lady!” (Though her posts on Facebook would tell you otherwise).
“Separating them seems like the simple answer, but we don’t have doors in our loft,” Fletcher says of her cats who came as a “bonded pair.” Brothers Noel and Liam are named after the Oasis front-men, and are just as scrappy as their rock namesakes.
“You know how dogs like to play-fight? Our cats like to fight-fight.” Sounds tense in the Fletcher house. But the brothers, as we spoke, were napping together “in one big pile of fur.”
Still, Liam is prone to wrapping his mouth around “poor little Noel’s neck” and often won’t let his little brother eat; it’s a household problem, and one Fletcher says she doesn’t have a solution for.
So I asked the best vet I know – mine – to weigh in. “We have the odd situation with our clinic cats – they’re territorial by nature,” says Dr. Mark Dilworth, partner at the Beaches Animal Hospital in Toronto. He says there are many options – “calming” diets or even medication – but he agrees with me: Acknowledge you have cats as pets, and they probably won't be besties any time soon.
“If they’re tolerating each other, be glad for that,” he urges. “Don’t expect them to be friends, that’s asking a lot.”
But Guadalupe Bermejo, a professional cat behaviour consultant in Longueuil, Que., tells me we’re not giving felines enough cred (spoken like a true cat lady).
“Cats get a bad rap. Every time you see a picture of a cat it’ll be napping or looking out a window,” she says. “But cats, just like dogs, need activity and interaction. These bully cats sounds like bored cats.”
So your first task, she says, is to spice up the routine: They need equal opportunity for both mental and physical challenges such as agility tasks (think vertical climbing walls), clicker training (apparently it’s not just for dogs) and prey toys (like a fishing pole or laser).
Like a French, feline-inclined Cesar Millan, Bermejo tells me cats need these exercises before you can address their behavioural problems. “Cat owners have the responsibility of mental stimulation – kids get homework time, dogs get walks, cats need to feed their prey drive.”
And just like a good parent, time outs will work wonders: “Separate the cats at feeding time – that’s a must. A different feeding station for each cat should ease the tension.”
Bermejo says to resist giving extra attention to the bullied cat, which will “only reward his victim mentality.” Don’t be a helicopter parent, either: “Stay out of it and only intervene when things get heated.”
Unlike me, she’s a firm believer that your felines will stop being so, er, catty. “Of course they can be good friends. Of course!”
“Cats aren’t the problem, it’s the humans who need work.” Sounds perfect for a crafty wooden sign.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org (All questions will be published anonymously.)