My Cat Does Weird Things. Why?
January 29, 2008 1:31 PM   Subscribe

Cat-filter: Can cats go in reverse? Why does our cat compulsively sit on my laptop? How does the groomer trim his butt fur and nails without getting scalped? Is there a way to treat his dry skin?

After some advice from the community we adopted a feral FIV+ cat last year. He is the greatest of cats, and we love him dearly, but he puzzles us occasionally and hoped the great hivemind could help elucidate some of his more odd mannerisms.

For example, we've never seen him walk backwards. If he wants to back up, he often just falls over and rolls onto his feet in the opposite direction. Do cats walk backwards?

Also, he sits on our laptops all the time. My partner just set his laptop down to come and check out my question, and the cat is already lounging on the keyboard. He also does this with a little less alacrity with books that are open and being read. Why does he do this? He also sits on laptops when they're not on or being used.

Next, he is a bit of a ferocious wild thing when we try to clip his nails. First time with a cat that it has been a problem. We gently but very firmly hold him down (it is a 2-3 person job) and cut his nails but he hisses, growls and tries to bite the whole time. We definitely aren't hurting him. We took him to a groomer the first time and the groomer told us that he was "a peach!" and "the easiest cat to groom, EVER!"

How is the groomer pacifying our savage beast? Ditto for butt fur- we try to trim it because our cat doesn't groom "down there" and he goes nuts when we try to do it, but the groomer had zero issues with it. How do you give your cat the lion cut on the butt he so desperately needs?

Finally, he's got dandruff, mostly on his back, and pretty thin fur up there. We got him a humidifier, and the vet says that he isn't allergic to anything (common causes of cat dandruff are fleas and parasites), we don't have new carpeting and he isn't sunburned. Should we moisturize him? Use olive oil (which I use for *my* dandruff) on him occasionally? Any ideas?

Thanks for any thoughts about any of the above!
posted by arnicae to Pets & Animals (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your laptop is warm. That's why they sit on it.
posted by mrbugsentry at 1:39 PM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'll answer with experiences from my own cat.

Walking backwards: My cat does this but really only if I'm trapping him or otherwise forcing him out of something (i.e. the pantry) by putting my foot in front of him and slowly moving it back towards me. He will revert to a walking-forward position as soon as he has room to turn around.

Sitting on things: My cat sits on anything that "doesn't belong". If I'm sorting through papers to throw away and toss them on the floor as I sort, he'll lay on the pile of strewn papers. He naps on my coat when I put it on top of my chair. He hops in boxes and crawls in paper bags that I put on the floor for him. He'll lay on a towel that I've left on the floor. If it's not normally there, I can almost guarantee that he'll be on it soon.

Grooming: My perspective is that the groomer is a new place, outside of the comfort zone. The cat is wary already, and doesn't put up too much of a fight, not knowing what will happen next. My cat is also quite a good groomer customer, but god forbid I try to do anything myself but brush him. When my kitty needs a butt shave, he goes to the groomer.
posted by at 1:40 PM on January 29, 2008

I only try to clip their claws when they're sleeping. They put up less of a struggle that way. If you've ever accidentally clipped them too close and drawn blood, they will fight you tooth and (ahem) claw next time. Probably the groomer, being more experienced, has no such association.

As far as the laptop/book question: cats are anti-literacy. They are strongly opposed to humans gaining knowledge through books and computers, and thus seek to deter us at every opportunity. Either that or they're attention whores.
posted by desjardins at 1:40 PM on January 29, 2008 [8 favorites]

My cat likes my laptop because it's warm. He likes my books because they're getting attention, and if he sits on them, he gets attention.

I give him a bath once a month or so for his dandruff. I use the Allergroom shampoo I got from the vet. It has moisturizers and stuff, I think.

Cats will walk backwards, but seem to prefer to turn around and go forwards.

Is the groomer using one of those muzzle-mask things? If the cat's eyes are covered, then (in theory at least) they freak out a lot less. There's also a way to hold a cat by the scruff (like mom cats carry kittens) while it's laying on its side, and then hold the hind legs so that they can't move. My vet used to do that for my other cat, when she got her shots.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:42 PM on January 29, 2008

My cat has a hilariously dainty back-up walk she uses, for example, when she walks into the room before she realizes the dog is there. You can practically hear the "plink-plink" sound effects as she does it. Most cats I've known were quite capable of backing up, so I think this is unusual to your cat. I'd love to see video of your kitty's fall-and-roll maneuver -- it sounds funnier than backing up ever could be.
My cat also likes to sit on my laptop. I think there are 2 (or maybe 2 1/2) factors at play: 1) it's warm. 2) it's in the way. 2.5) because it's in the way I end up petting her. She also sits between me and my book whenever possible, or on the newspaper if I'm reading that. Your boy is totally normal on that front.
posted by katemonster at 1:43 PM on January 29, 2008

@ desjardins: I've never drawn blood when clipping his nails, and he totally freaks out when I clip while he's sleeping. I kinda feel guilty because it feels like he'll associate sleeping with being traumatized, so we just hold him down and do it when it needs doing.
posted by arnicae at 1:46 PM on January 29, 2008

We have a very minimalist household, no rugs, very few pieces of furniture. Occasionally, because we have tiny minds and are easily amused, we place one sheet of paper on the floor and wait for a cat to enter the room. They are driven to sit on that paper, even if it is in an inconvenient spot. We call this "cat furniture".

Our two cats will walk backwards but only under the circumstances describes. They don't like it, and will grimace at us.
posted by b33j at 1:48 PM on January 29, 2008 [18 favorites]

Do cats walk backwards?

In my experience they do, but are very uncomfortable about it. I've mainly see cats do it when they crawl into a small space (such as the gap between a dresser and the wall), get stuck, and can't turn around.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:55 PM on January 29, 2008

Our cats walk backwards whenever we get it into our heads to adorn them with collars. They slip back into forward gear when the collars are removed (they are chipped and indoor-only, so the collars are optional). Sticking a hat on either of them makes them run backwards. I have a chicken hat that I put on them occasionally for s & g's.

Nthing nail clipping and fur trimming while sleeping. Sneak up on him when he's dozing on the laptop, the heat makes 'em sluggish. Three claws per nap is a good rate, one entire paw if you are lucky.

I'd leave the dry patch alone, anything you put on there is likely to trigger a licking spree and continue the thinning cycle. You could add some oil-rich foods to his diet (salmon, not french fries), especially if he's mostly eating dry kibble.
posted by jamaro at 2:01 PM on January 29, 2008

A lot of this varies by cat, honestly.

That said, cats, being incredibly flexible, tend in my experience to turn around tightly rather than back up; not sure I've seen the tumble and get back up move, but as I say behavior varies quite a bit. Laptops are warm, and are the focus of your attention -- cats want both of these things all the time. Resistance to nail cutting is another one of those things I've found to vary greatly among cats I've lived with; some are blasé, some resent it but don't resist very strongly, some go into wild convultions and/or slash mode. (For future reference, if you ever get a kitten it helps to gently hold their paws occasionally to get them accustomed to this sort of thing.) You're wise to be wary of creating negative associations that would make the clipping more difficult -- cat psychology definitely works strongly that way. I've had cats with dandruff before, but never done much about it. I would check with a vet before using any oil or lotion on a cat because there is an odd array of things that make them sick, or worse, hurt their kidneys and liver (random example, anything with garlic or onion in it can really mess up a cat, not that what you suggest has those) and anything you put on their skin or fur will get licked intensely.

Props to you for adopting a feral cat and making it work.
posted by aught at 2:03 PM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

They do walk backwards BUT only as a last resort. I have seen cats walk out on thin ledge and then backup when they realize they can't turn around.
For the dandruff, try to switch to premium food. Princess had s smidgen of dandruff in the back when I adopted here but after switching to Nutro Natural Choice it was gone.
Groomer versus home, new environment versus "I don't put up with any s**t in MY house"
posted by Ferrari328 at 2:18 PM on January 29, 2008

I wrap my cat in a towel before clipping her nails, then put the weight of my upper body on her to immobilize her while leaving my hands free to pull a paw out of the cat bundle one at a time for clipping. This minimizes damage to me, but also seems to cut down on the help-you're-killing-me yowling. Maybe it's what Green Eyed Monster said about covering the eyes, but in my head it's always been the swaddling action that calms the beast.

In addition to laptops and books, I learned as a child that cats will sit on any board game being played.
posted by Mavri at 2:24 PM on January 29, 2008

Cats hate having to walk backwards because they use their whiskers and eyebrows as sensors, and if they can't sense what's in their path, they get a bit panicked. But they will do it if they have to, and, yes, there is no funnier sight than a cat wearing a party hat running backwards. I am going straight to hell.

I can just about clip the nails on my two cats, by sort of leaning on them and grabbing a paw at a time, but I can only do the front paws.

One of the cats needed her butt fur shaved a couple of years back when she was really fat, but the vet had to do that using electric clippers, with me holding her, when she was having her annual checkup. The shocked look on her face the first time she went outside and lifted her tail, exposing her 'Brazilian' to the air is probably the highlight of all my years of cat-ownership.
posted by essexjan at 2:26 PM on January 29, 2008 [8 favorites]

Dandruff: Nthing premium food. Also the occasional can of sardines (drain the oil first) or salmon.
Groomer vs. home: It's all in the attitude. The groomer has confidence that he/she can handle your cat. This makes the cat feel relaxed. You have to believe the cat will cooperate. The proper attitude is "Oh don't be silly! You LOVE to get your nails clipped!"
posted by Enroute at 2:30 PM on January 29, 2008

Oh, as for the dandruff, try brushing the cat every day with a soft brush (not a comb or a dander-removing tool) and giving him a small portion of tuna in oil, all mashed up together, once a week.
posted by essexjan at 2:31 PM on January 29, 2008

My cats used to lose it about claw trimming, but a few applications of the Klaw Kontrol Bag and they now vastly prefer to sit still for me than to be rendered immobile by The Dreaded Bag. I think they've just done the math on that one. As for backing up, ours will both back up, but generally only when they have to, or to "escape" something (collar, tshirt, etc). Sitting on stuff - that's a cat for you. Dandruff - if you can get some more oil into the cat's diet. We already feed a good food but one of ours gets a little flaky. If you're already using a good food, try some oily tuna . . .they generally have no problem eating some fish, and it fixes the flaky skin issue.
posted by Medieval Maven at 2:31 PM on January 29, 2008

I always figured cats sat on laptops and books to ensure if the potential user of the items were to sit down to use them, they would instead be forced to pet the cat.
posted by schroedinger at 2:43 PM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

@Ferrari328: El Gato gets Evo, which is the primo-est primo cat food available, supplemented by evo wet food. It's great stuff, made out of 100% human grade food and 95% meat. No grain filler, here. I don't think it is that.

Thanks for the reminder about the licking cycle and oiling the cat, guys. I'll slip him some fish on a more regular basis.
posted by arnicae at 2:45 PM on January 29, 2008

The short answer to your title question is, "Because it's a cat."

To be slightly more helpful, I have a cat who continually needs nails trimmed (once one grew right over into the pad, which necessitated a vet visit) and mostly hates being touched. We wait until she demands petting, then I hold her down with my chest (sort of an extended hug) and vigorously scratch her scruff and head, which she loves, and which distracts her while my wife clips as many nails as she can in the 15 seconds before the cat squirms out of my grasp. We toss a few treats afterwards to provide some kind of Pavlovian counterbalance to her hatred of being clipped.

This hideously complicated process is repeated every few days, so that after about a week every nail is trimmed, at which point the process begins anew.

Your mileage will vary.
posted by Gortuk at 2:52 PM on January 29, 2008

Our cats are fairly young and we've been doing this most of their lives; so this may not entirely apply - but we've had good luck "Scruffing" them to cut their nails. One of us holds the cat dangling slightly by their scruff and supporting most of their weight with the other hand while the other of us clips.
If we don't dangle them enough they fight back - but if there is a bit of tension on the scruff, they submit.
We don't seem to get too many dagger-eyes afterwards either although they do always get treats.
posted by heh3d at 3:08 PM on January 29, 2008

For nail-trimming, make it a habit to play with the cat's paws when it's sleepy and relaxed. Eventually press gently on each pad until the nail sticks out. Do this enough and it might eventually learn to associate having its paws touched with pleasant sleepy-time purring. I've done this with my cats since they were small and they let me clip their nails without putting up any kind of a fight, but this may depend on the cat in question.
posted by agent99 at 3:50 PM on January 29, 2008

...Olive oil in you laptop is going to suck. Don't do that to him. Or yourselves :)

Give him fish (oily fish) or if you're inclined fish oil caps ect. - you get the idea. (Google any ideas you have just in case they are bad. With the odd thing.. you'd be surprised.)

And I am also interested in your pet groomers technique?? It could be something as simple as a confident reassuring manner, swiftness and some neat little snippers. Or some other kind of awesome thing that I must have! Maybe they are some kind of 'Cat Whisperer'... (in which case they deserve a punch in the face :) for being so smug to you!) ...ask them :)
Seriously though ask them how they do it? And then post it :)

I sneak up on my kitties, but I'm always poking about when they're sleeping. (And have done since they were born. It's so much easier to look at things and check for ticks and stuff when they're sleeping!)
Until they hear the *snick*, they just dismiss it. "Ah, that must be the help - performing routine maintenance... WTF!"
They get used to it :) and don't suspect a thing...
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 3:57 PM on January 29, 2008

Are you clipping the claws to protect furniture? I don't clip my cat's claws and we are both happier. Fortunately, she only seems to scratch things that I don't mind having scratched.
posted by Maias at 4:01 PM on January 29, 2008

For Dandruff, two of the cats I've had really LOVED olive oil. Not sure why but it may have played a part in the whole dandruff thing. I didn't give it to them knowingly at first but once the smelled it, you would've thought it was catnip. The two cats I have now don't get dandruff (at least so far. One is completely white but has a shiny coat and the other one, a medium hair tortie, is meticulous with grooming so I haven't seen any dandruff)
As far as cats walking backwards, my last cat (before the two I have now)would always do what I called the kitty moonwalk whenever she entered a room where I was doing my nails. As soon as she smelled either the nail polish or the nail polish remover, she would literally moonwalk out of the room. I wish I caught it on video it was the funniest shit!
posted by Hydrofiend at 4:20 PM on January 29, 2008

There's something called the Klaw Kontrol bag which a long time ago I went "hm" and stuck it on my "to buy in that far-away decade when disposable cash isn't going towards more important stuff" list.

No idea how effective it is, but supposedly it's a variant of the "wrap a towel around them" tip.

My cat walks backward only when retreating from something he thinks is a threat; perhaps that's why your cat doesn't like that particular movement.
posted by WCityMike at 4:28 PM on January 29, 2008

@ Maias: We clip his nails because he is incredibly aggressive at certain times of the day, notably afternoons, and goes straight from playing to carving gouges in our legs in a heartbeat. He also "stalks" us which can be a bit scary- imagine having a 18 lb cat do a puma on you, leaping and biting/clawing just above knee level.

My partner has reasonably painful/deep scratches from him about once a week. We don't care about the furniture- he may have whatever he likes, he just can't have sharp nails to scratch *US* with.
posted by arnicae at 5:31 PM on January 29, 2008

Instead of repeating the answers above:


I can has Cheezburger - You can has laptop

Forgive me, Jesus
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:40 PM on January 29, 2008

One of the cutest things I have ever seen a cat do was use sidewalks. Our cat adopted us, and refused to be converted to an indoor cat. So, she lived outside until her retirement at age 17, and lived another 5 years inside. Anyway, she seemed to prefer the sidewalks over walking on the lawn, even if it was out of her way. Always makes me smile...

Dittoing letting her eat healthy oils. Also remember that cats have a higher body temperature than we do, so they are always a little chillier than we are. Another cat I know of likes to sit and stare at the radiator because she likes the feeling of the heat on her face.

Grooming tip- roll her up in a towel like a burrito, leaving the face and necessary limb out. Are you sure you are doing it right, using the right tool? I think agent99 has the answer for this.
posted by gjc at 8:48 PM on January 29, 2008

1. My family's two cats will walk backwards when they don't have a choice (usually when stuck behind a couch), but they rear up a little so they only have to walk backwards with their back legs. The inspiration for rear-wheel drive?

2. Cats.

3. You keep mentioning you hold him down when you clip his nails. Are you literally pressing his body down against a table or something, then trying to do it?

I've been trimming my family's two cats' nails since they were kittens, so they're totally fine with being scooped up and cradled on their backs while I give them manicures (it's a two-person job; one for the scooping and cradling, one for the clipping and raspberry-blowing). And yeah, certainly their total accustomedness to it is key, and I'm not suggesting this position specifically, but I think being held down would be stressful for any cat.

You might also want to look into Soft Paws, which would at least mean you (or your groomer) could play got-the-paw once every 4–6 weeks instead of every 1–2 weeks.

4. Our fatty gets dandruff occasionally. With brushing every day or two, it goes away. You have to be gentle and cautious when you're introducing a brush, though. Ours loves the way the brush feels but will freak out when he sees it -- the strong, sharpish wires are perfect for getting through to his undercoat, but when he was young and investigating the brush, they were less forgiving to his curious nosing.
posted by booksandlibretti at 9:47 PM on January 29, 2008

b33j - Tiny, easily amused minds think alike. The 'cat furniture' trick worked perfectly! All three of our little monsters fell for it. Pictures pending.... /derail
posted by Space Kitty at 10:50 PM on January 29, 2008

We used to "stretch" the cat when clipping nails. One person picks up the cat with a good handful of scruff at the back of their neck, grabbing the rear legs about mid-way between paw and hip from the rear. You want to thread your fingers between the back legs to cushion the leg bones. Keeping a good grip on each end and stretch the cat out on his side on a flat surface. Your forearm will support his back. Some cats tend to go limp at this point, others may need to be stretched until the cat can no longer twist his body. This does not cause harm or pain to the cat.

The second person moves in with the clippers. After the nail clipping session, give him good rubs under his jaw and tell him how wonderful he is.
posted by JujuB at 11:01 PM on January 29, 2008

The only times I've seen any of my cats walk backwards is when in a tight space they can't turn around in, or when backing away rapidly from a collar or hat. (I'm pleased to see I'm not the only person who has put a hat on her cat.)

One of my cats dislikes having her nails clipped to the point where I usually just get the groomer to do it. All groomers report that she is perfectly behaved and docile. Like you, I am mystified. The only thing I can think of is that familiarity breeds contempt. She is familiar with me and therefore contemptuous of my efforts to clip her needle-like claws. I think she is intimidated by the groomers.

I am seriously considering getting the Klaw Kontrol Bag. Not only do I seriously think it would help with the claw clipping, but the pictures on the website made me laugh out loud.

My black cat has terrible dandruff sometimes, but it seems to have been mitigated by changing their food to one that is anti-hairball. (More oil in it? I don't know.) I've tried giving the cats fish oil but they won't go near it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:59 AM on January 30, 2008

Re: Cats, books and laptops

Cats can't read and they don't want you to, either.
posted by Jade Dragon at 5:50 AM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

@booksandlibretti: we tried it the gentle snuggle way before. That earned me a slash across my cheek that I can still see a line from. He goes nuts. I've never had this issue with a cat before. And yes, I literally hold him down with a towel around his head and my arm pressing him to the carpet.

We ordered a Klaw Kontrol Kag- ah! Bag! I got too involved with the "k's!" last night. Hopefully that will help. We're really not being mean people, he goes absolutely apeshit when we don't contain him.

Also, he loves his Furminator. He gets defurminated daily with no impact on the dandruff.
posted by arnicae at 8:57 AM on January 30, 2008

No, no, no.

My mother always insisted that cats were perfectly literate. They just read with their butts.
posted by lauranesson at 9:53 AM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, arnicae, I wasn't suggesting you try to snuggle him and do it gently -- like I said, it only works with ours because they've been used to it since kittenhood, so there's no way it'd work for him. But if your cat starts in a standing position, then you're pushing his body low to the ground, I think it's going to be hard for you to extend his legs the way you need to without causing him pain. Maybe I'm just envisioning it wrong, but it sounds really awkward.

The wires on the Furminator look short -- long enough to get the fur out, obviously, but maybe not to reach the skin underneath? I don't think removing the fur is why brushing works for our cat's dandruff; I think our brush works because its longer bristles scratch/stimulate his skin. I'm just guessing on that one, though.
posted by booksandlibretti at 3:06 PM on January 30, 2008

@booksandlibretti: we roll him over on his side so envision a cat in a blanket rolled over on his side with his legs extended. Seems to work best. Our cat is probably between 3-6 (vet says it is hard to tell with feral cats) and we only adopted him last fall. We're working on training him, but clearly it isn't as easy when you get an adult cat.

Interesting suggestion on the brush. I think we'll try the fish routine for now.
posted by arnicae at 4:22 PM on January 31, 2008

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