Moving a cat and dealing with her needy behavior
April 15, 2008 3:35 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for tips on how to move house with a cat (I'm moving tomorrow!). It's going to be a 4 hour journey in a car, with a cat who hates traveling (she breaks out of a her secure cat-box) and gets very stressed (cries and pants). Also, I want to try to address her behaviour issue, if anyone has the time to look inside and read her background info (sorry for the lengthy notes).

I have had my cat for 4 years. I think she is about 9. When I 'acquired' her she had poor eyesight but it has been slowly getting worse and I think she in now pretty much blind. She is, however very happy and amazingly adaptable. I offered to look after her for a weekend for my ex-boss, but when the boss returned and heard about how much I'd fallen for the cute cat, she said I could keep her. In her previous home she wasn't allowed upstairs or on the furniture and she was shut in the dining room overnight. I don't think she had much love or attention. My ex-boss didn't even think to tell me she had bad eyesight. At my flat she had the run of the place - sleeping wherever she likes and getting loads of love and attention. I didn't set any ground rules as I didn't realise I would be keeping her (and I guess I didn't think it would be necessary).

10 months ago I moved to my Dad's house, with my cat. She has adapted pretty well, although the 6-hour car journey was stressful. She hated being in the secure cat-box and managed to break out and she cried and panted - I was quite worried about her. Tomorrow's journey will be 4 hours in the car and the vet is going to give her an injection an hour before, but does anyone have any ideas of how to make her more comfortable/happier? I won't keep her in the box, she will probably be on my lap, but hopefully fairly sedate.

Behaviour problem:
For the past 2 years I have been working away a lot so not seen my cat very often. Having got used to this, she is now very happy to see me when I'm home and doesn't leave me alone. This isn't a problem, apart from when she wakes me up at night wanting attention. I pet her for a minute, hoping she'll settle, but she doesn't (she's always very restless). Even if I throw her off she keeps coming back and it takes her a long time to quit trying. She has always done this, even before I started working away so I don't hold out much hope of this behaviour changing once we settle into the new place. I always give in, for various reasons, but something's gotta give!

I'm starting a more stable job and my cat and I are moving into a shared house. The current house-sharers are happy to have her there and my bedroom is on the ground floor, so I'm not too concerned about how she'll settle in as she is amazingly adaptable, considering her sight problems.

Does anyone know how I can get her to leave me alone at night? I can't stand the thought of never getting a full night's sleep without a wet cat's nose in my face! Plus my boyfriend doesn't cope too well with my needy cat and won't come and stay if she wakes him up at night!

I don't want to shut her out of my bedroom. There is only a small living room and kitchen on the ground floor, other than my room and I want my space to be hers too, so she feels happy and secure. Plus if I shut her out she'll start crying and I'll give in!

All help and advice is appreciated! Thanks.
posted by Happycat79 to Pets & Animals (15 answers total)
I had a cat that never got over the horror of car trips, though he was always happy to get into the car after the vet. The yowling, drooling and panicky shitting always made for an entertaining trip, poor guy.

The best thing we did was to let him out of his cage, and he could see out of the car, but that did leave a risk for him getting in the way of the driver. Sedation by the vet is most likely going to be the kindest thing, but you might still get that reaction, just in slow-mo.

My cat did settle down if the trip was longer than about 20 minutes. I can't say he liked it, but for a 4 hour trip I think she'll probably get used to the idea that she's not in peril and maybe relax a bit more. Just talk to her and hope she takes it easy. Good luck!
posted by tomble at 4:05 AM on April 15, 2008

This is a cat that is exhibiting clear signs of having been abandoned once, twice - too many times to count and now is seeking to make up for the disconnect with what you are viewing as clingy behavious. It's as if the inner gauge registers *empty* and the instint is to frantically grab, grab, grab for safety, security and to fill the empty well inside of her. She is simply running on empty reservoirs. ie - is not receiving enough to make her content. Night time seems to be a trigger for her - makybe a throwback to her memories of being shut away for the night's duration and therefore is then seeking to *refill* during those hours that are most critical for her. Number 1 - get her a friend. second cat. This might sound horrific to you but she could use some relief, fun and companionship.

If you still do not want to opt this route, you will have to find a way into her mind and being - and this is via getting down to her level. It is major touch - deep tissue massage, playing with her, brushing her and generally speaking to *her*. Not at her. To her. Tone of voice is crucial because she relies heavily now on sound to compensate for loss of sight.

Travel - I'd put catnip rubbed into a flannel blanket in the carrier. No boxes. Make sure she has a window she can feel cool breezes through and hear you speaking to her. Boxes will only cause her to freak out. I have a soft Sherpa carrier that is excellent. It's light - you can open the zipper a small way to stroke her and there is little risk of her running away. I'd tend not to go with an injection, it will just make her feel like shi*t - rather I'd go with Rescue remedy, catnip and even some valerian root thrown in for good measure for her to sniff and roll around in. I'd keep YOUR mood upbeat, good energy so that she can pick up on it. The more stressed out you are, so will she.

Night time - the second cat will take care of this. But also you will see that if you tell her no - in a firm voice - and *shhhhhhh* this will snap her out of her *clingy - needy trance*. You will find that with your brushing her, speaking to her as mentioned above in the evening hours before you retire will help alleviate a lot of the stress she will be feeling later on during the night. Work your ways up to night time - in increments - so that night will not be a time for trying to fill herself up from that empty space inside.

best - watercarrier
posted by watercarrier at 4:08 AM on April 15, 2008

If you can, try and get hold of a large travelling cage to use whilst your transport her. Your vet may have one you can borrow. These make travelling a bit easier for cats as they can move around, use a small litter tray and also have access to water. There's also a travel version of Feliway available, Feliway Transport (calming, feline pheromones to spray around the car/cage before you set off - your vet should stock it) It's always risky having a cat loose in a car. What starts off as a calm, sedated animal, snoozing on your lap, can in a few moments turn into hell on a plate (cats sometimes fight a sedative) - not only will it be more stressful for her, but trying to restrain a cat whilst your vehicle heads towards that oncoming traffic is not to be recommended (even if you aren't the driver) Seriously. Take a break for about 20 minutes after 2 hours of travelling, just having a little while without the engine running gives cats a chance to chill.

As for the restless behaviour at night. It's always a good idea to establish if there is a physical cause for changes in behaviour first. Give your cat a chance to settle for a few days, then get her a check up at the vet. Given her age, the restless behaviour may be due to hyperthyroidism (common in older cats and treatable) It can cause elevated blood pressure too which in turn can cause eyesight problems. A vet exam with a blood pressure check and a blood panel, should clarify what is happening. If she has the all clear and no physical cause is found, then it's going to be a case of refusing to respond to her when she bothers you, avoiding all eye contact, all petting at night. Don't get into any punishment or water spraying, it's likely to make her more restless and insecure. Some Feliway diffusers and spray around your new home should increase her feelings of security too and cause her to seek you out for comfort, less. Don't forget to make sure she has all her own bedding and toys at her new home. A house move is a very stressful time, particularly for animals, who have little idea of what is happening, so it may not be the best time to instigate behaviour training.

Good luck!
posted by Arqa at 4:14 AM on April 15, 2008

PS - you might enjoy this - if only for the laugh. Apparently many people all around the world have nocturnal cats. :) Good luck on moving and with all the rest.
posted by watercarrier at 4:22 AM on April 15, 2008

You know, my cats are about the same age as yours and I've had them since they were kittens-- and they have exactly the same behavior at night. I'm not sure if it really is a result of abandonment fears but rather just a default cat behavior for many of them.

I lock them out of the bedroom. As Arqa says you might want to let her settle in for a while before your try something like that.

On the travel-- mine hate the car, too. I've given them drugs but that just makes them meow in a lower register. The shot might not make her go to sleep. I hope you're not driving with her on your lap? Sounds unsafe-- be careful.
posted by miss tea at 4:30 AM on April 15, 2008

You might some useful stuff here.
posted by jontyjago at 4:51 AM on April 15, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice so far, it's all great.
Watercarrier - I can't get another cat as she can't cope with them! I think maybe because she can't see them until they're right up close cos she freaks out, probably thinking they are a predator or something. If she even smells another cat she starts hissing and getting extremely defensive, so another cat is not an option. She doesn't seem to get used to being around other cats, or their smell so I wouldn't risk it for the stress it causes her.
I do give her tonnes of love and attention when I'm with her. I realise she probably relies on me for security so I try to make her feel as loved as possible.
miss tea - I won't be driving, but thanks for the concern! On the previous my Dad drove and although I realised it was potential disaster having her roaming about it was much less stressful than trying to contain her.
The cat-box I mentioned is a 'carrier' - it lets air through, but she can't cope with being trapped in and gets very stressed. It has a metal gate and somehow she managed to break out of it during the last journey - she must have been very determined as it wasn't flimsy or broken!
I will look into the injection-alternatives and the pheromones.
posted by Happycat79 at 5:30 AM on April 15, 2008

This sounds weird, I know, and is totally unscientific, but I swear it helps. Play classical music at a low volume in the car. I transport animals for rescues weekly, and when I have a yowler, classical music usually calms the beastie.* Try for something without a lot of violins. Sometimes I turn the bass up and the treble down, so it's almost a soothing rumble. (Sometimes jazz has the same calming, sleep-inducing effect, but unfortunately it also has that effect on me, the driver. Whatever you do, avoid thrash metal, as that gets everybody all worked up.)

And a wire carrier so kitty can see you might be better than a box.

Please rethink carrying kitty on your lap. It can be dangerous for you both. That said, I've done it myself, so whatever works.

*I fully admit that it's likely the music is actually working on ME, in the sense that it calms my nerves so the yowling doesn't bother me.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:33 AM on April 15, 2008

Given your cat's unease in the car and the probability of unpredictable behavior, I don't think you should drive with her loose. When you're in traffic or travelling at highway speeds, it could be disastrous if she gets down around the pedals... and that's a certainty if she's in your lap and you have to stop short.
posted by carmicha at 5:34 AM on April 15, 2008

When I take my cat in the car (longest has only been about an hour, though). I try to put 'his' towel in the bottom of the carrier so he has a familiar scent and something to make the cage a little more comfortable. I usually talk to him sweet and play some soft music. I also try to position the carrier so he can see me. (even if your cat is blind, they're very good at sensing that you're there, scent, sounds, etc.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:32 AM on April 15, 2008

Talk to your vet and get her some downers for the drive. Seriously.
posted by fusinski at 7:48 AM on April 15, 2008

If you're going to be sitting in the front seat, or yikes, driving, definitely don't carry the cat in your lap, for the same air-bag-danger-related reasons small children are relegated to the back seat. Put blankets or old flannel shirts or towels that smell like you in the bottom of the carrier. Don't forget to stop often to let your cat drink water and use litter.

I second the soothing music option -- that has worked for a couple of my cats over the years (though others seem not to care one way or the other). And conversely, raucous music, which many drivers enjoy to help them stay alert on long drives, is almost always a mistake for cats, so be wary of that if someone who loves hardcore or vigorous jazz or experimental classical is helping you move.

Maybe the vet injection will make a difference; I've had mixed results with kitty tranks. Keep in mind some cats will just cry and pant the whole time they are in a moving car, no matter what you do (in my experience). I've been through a couple hellish long-distance moves (10+ hours in one case from Ohio to Connecticut) myself, so I sympathize.

For the evening behavior problems: first, try searching AskMe for other ideas (the nighttime cat issue gets asked a lot) but in short start by thinking about whether you are *rewarding* and thereby reinforcing the behavior inadvertently with what you're doing (cuddling and petting). Giving the cat its fill of petting earlier, or exercising the cat with a toy mouse on a string or other pet toy, in the hour before bedtime, sometimes works. Providing the cat with a nice cozy, comfortable bed that is not yours is often a good option (like this, though I am not endorsing the site the image is from, just giving an idea; you can get this sort of bed at nearly any pet shop or dept store). Consider other environmental factors that might be exciting the cat (e.g. noise from housemates or neighbors might wake the cat even if it doesn't bother you, there might be mice or squirrels in the house you don't notice). Re the bf side-issue, well, not trying to be harsh, but how someone reacts to a pet is often a good compatibility tester in a new relationship if you are a pet person. Good luck with the move.
posted by aught at 8:26 AM on April 15, 2008

Suggestion (may not work, but may be worth trying):

Build or acquire a good cat bed, and place it next to yours. Have it on the same level as yours, within arms reach, and make sure it's stable and easy to climb up to (steps for arthritic cats). Then train the cat to love it. Put the cat on the cat bed, immediately pet her a lot, then remove her from the cat bed, and then don't pay any attention to her for a little while. Repeat periodically.

The idea is that the cat bed becomes a favored place, a second-best substitute for you, and if you're lucky, that will be adequate. So at bedtime, she settles into her favorite spot, which also happens to be near you; if she wakes up, she's still in her favorite cozy spot, and can hear you close by. She's reassured, everybody is happy, life is good.

Note: the training could take a lot of time, and it might not work. (Using this theory, I trained a needy cat to sit next to me, on command, rather than right in the middle of whatever I was doing.)

If the behavior truly is needy (or affectionate) behavior, then negative reinforcement usually doesn't really make anybody happy. Channeling the behavior can work, though.

[re Sherpa carriers: cats can chew through them]
posted by coffeefilter at 11:17 AM on April 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

[re Sherpa carriers: cats can chew through them]
posted by coffeefilter at 11:17 AM on April 15 [+] [!]

Having crossed the Atlantic, moved 8 times in the course of 5 years and have transported countless cats to and from places on buses, taxis and on foot - the Sherpa I have is in phenomenal shape. I had the carrier on my lap for an 11 hour flight - my cat was very comfortable and showed zero interest in chewing it. I think you'll find that a cat who is incredibly stressed out or has been left to its own devices for a very long period of time will resort to destructive behavior. i've not witnessed it ever myself - but I'm sure there are cats who have been pushed over the edge to the point of no return. At any rate - the carrier is superb and I'd recommend it in a flash.
posted by watercarrier at 7:06 AM on April 16, 2008

[re Sherpa ... ]

I like them a lot, too, for the reasons you mention (though I prefer hard-sided as offering more protection for the cat).

But the cat in question breaks out of a secure cat carrier when traveling, so if sedation / calming fails, a Sherpa may not contain her either, and she'll end up loose in the car, in a state of panic.

Anyway, the move's already happened, or is happening now.

P.S. - that is the best cartoon I've seen in a long, long time.
posted by coffeefilter at 10:17 AM on April 16, 2008

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