Your Well-Behaved Maine Coon

Learn the secret to solving your mischievous Maine Coon's toublesome habits.

By Don Vaughan

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Maine Coon Cat has Outstretched Paw
Sometimes, a cat's natural instincts can cause conflict between him and his owner. Thankfully, some simple solutions can allow our cats to be themselves without being destructive.

The key to effective training is to start early, says Colleen Currigan, D.V.M., owner of Cat Hospital of Chicago. “It's important to begin behavior training when kittens are fairly young, around 8 to 12 weeks of age, and continue as the kitten grows into adulthood,” Dr. Currigan explains. “For owners who acquire an adult cat, behavior training can begin any time.”

Pamela Reid, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist and vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Behavior Center in Urbana, Illinois agrees. “By the time the average kitten ends up in a home, it's perfectly capable of learning a great deal — it's never too early to start.”

Furniture Scratching
Cats love to scratch. It's a natural and necessary behavior that provides great benefit to our pets by allowing them to stretch, exercise, mark their territory and shed the dead outer layers of their claws, notes Adam Goldfarb, issues specialist for companion animals at The Humane Society of the United States in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Problems arise when a cat turns its attention to your furniture or drapes instead of more appropriate objects.

Redirection is the key to both preventing and stopping this very common misbehavior, Goldfarb says. “Give a cat many appropriate scratching options so it won't even think about scratching the couch,” he advises.

Most cats will quickly redirect their energy onto a scratching post or box, but it may take some trial and error before you identify the kind of scratching surface your pet finds most appealing. Some cats like carpet; others prefer sisal or cardboard. If one type of material doesn't work, try another, Goldfarb says.

Lisa Siegrist of Annandale, Virginia, found herself having to address inappropriate feline scratching when her Maine Coon, Tigger, started sharpening her claws on Siegrist's favorite piece of furniture. The solution, Siegrist found, was an inexpensive cardboard scratching box. “Tigger loves to go to town on it,” she says. “It's an easy diversion for her scratching impulses.”

If your cat persists in scratching furniture despite the presence of a scratching post, make the furniture undesirable by placing double-sided tape, aluminum foil or other material over the areas your kitty finds most attractive.

“A clear, plastic carpet runner can be effective,” Reid says. “Flip it over so the little knobs are sticking out. Your cat will find that it doesn't feel good anymore and will want to try something else.”

Reid speaks from experience on this issue. She let her cat, Carmen, have her way with the family's first sofa because it was a hand-me-down and Reid didn't care. But when she and her husband bought a new sofa, she knew it would be necessary to change Carmen's destructive behavior. She did this by placing plastic sheets over the arms of the new sofa and offering Carmen a more attractive alternative.

“For the rest of her life, Carmen never scratched another sofa,” Reid says. “Simply by making the new sofa unacceptable, she seemed to learn that not only was that sofa off limits, but so was any sofa.”

Counter Surfing
Countertops, appliances, and tall furniture are appealing to cats because they provide an unobstructed view of their environment and put them at eye level with their owners. However, jumping on countertops and tall furniture can be dangerous, because cats may accidentally knock items to the floor, find it difficult to get down or unintentionally jump onto a hazardous surface — such as a hot stove.

To prevent this behavior, Goldfarb suggests limiting your cat's access to a specific area via a baby gate or other blockade. If that doesn't work, follow up with a gentle form of aversion therapy. “Using a water gun or squirt bottle may work in some cases,” Dr. Currigan says. “However, if you're not around to squirt at the time the ‘crime' is committed, applying wide, double-sided tape on the counter may, in some cases, also be effective. If the cat exhibits the behavior in your presence, you should firmly reprimand the cat by clapping your hands or yelling at the cat to get down.”

Cats often jump on counters seeking food, Dr. Currigan adds, so never leave food out unattended. Doing so will only encourage your pet to misbehave. “Be persistent and be patient,” Dr. Currigan advises. “I'm working on this problem right now with my 1-year-old cat. He is challenging me to the max, but time and patience are working, slowly but surely.”

Because cats truly enjoy climbing, it also helps to provide a more suitable, three-dimensional space to accommodate that need, Reid notes. Options range from a ceiling-high cat tree to a window perch that gives your pet an exciting view of the world outside.

Play Biting
Regardless of age, cats love to play. Unfortunately, it's a short jump from a playful, kittenish nip to a painful, blood-drawing bite. Play biting is a common complaint, but it's not impossible to correct.

“Biting happens because that's what cats do during play,” Reid says. “Kittens see us as playmates, so it's natural for them to display these behaviors with us.”

Biting is also a survival skill, adds Goldfarb, noting, “It's not always easy for kittens to distinguish between acceptable play and overly aggressive behavior, so you'll often see this kind of play-motivated biting in young, active cats.”

Kittens that stay with their mothers and littermates for eight to 12 weeks learn that aggressive biting is inappropriate because their siblings tell them so, crying out and often refusing to play if a brother or sister bites too hard. For humans, correction can be a little more difficult.

Reid warns against frightening a kitten when it bites during play because reacting loudly or aggressively can result in defensive reactions. “You don't want to create a cat that's afraid of you,” she says. “It's better to redirect by offering your pet a toy to play with every time it starts to play with your hands,” Reid says.

Reid recommends against using the glove toys that have balls dangling from the fingers because that encourages the cat to play with your hands, which is what you don't want.

“Redirecting play-aggressive tendencies onto more suitable objects, such as toys, shows kittens where it's appropriate to bite, and also helps them burn off energy, which in kittens seems almost limitless,” Goldfarb says.

Stalking and Attacking
Equally annoying is stalking and attacking, an aggressive feline behavior that can cause serious injury to the victim if left uncontrolled.

Like play biting, stalking and attacking can be prevented by teaching kittens at an early age to play with toys rather than human body parts. “Use interactive toys, such as fishing pole-type toys with a feather on the end, instead of letting the kitten play directly with your hands and feet,” Dr. Currigan advises. “The focus should always be on an object that's moving away from you.”

Reid also advocates using toys to redirect aggressive stalking and attacking. “Identify the areas where it's most likely to happen — there are usually two or three places in the house where a cat likes to hide and pounce,” she says. “Keep toys strategically placed in those areas, and as you walk by, throw something that will be more exciting to the cat than your feet. It's likely that the cat will focus on those toys rather than go after you.”
If that doesn't work, Reid suggests using a squirt bottle every time the cat attacks. Eventually, it will come to learn that pouncing leads to an unwanted squirt and cease the behavior.

Stalking and attacking can be especially dangerous if the victim is very young or very old, Dr. Currigan warns. To prevent injury to all, she strongly encourages adult supervision whenever a kitten or cat interacts with a child.

Nighttime Shenanigans
It's easy to forget that cats are nocturnal by nature. In fact, it's almost as if they lead two separate lives — what we see them do during the day, and what they do at night when we're sleeping. Problems result when those nighttime activities include loud yowling or demands for play or food.

“One important aspect of prevention is to develop a schedule that includes playing with the kitten or cat in the evening hours so by the time you're ready to go to bed, the cat will be relatively tired,” Reid says. “Sometimes a nighttime snack can help, too, because most animals want to nap after eating. Try to be proactive. If your cat still cries or whines for attention, simply ignore it. After one or two times, it's unlikely the cat will continue. Just remember that if you pay attention to the cat at that point, you're asking for trouble because every time a behavior is reinforced, it's more likely to occur again.”

If unwanted nighttime activity is already an established behavior, getting your Maine Coon to stop will be more difficult, Reid notes. Ignoring it is still your best option, but it's likely the problem will actually get worse before it gets better. “In this case, I believe management is the best way to go,” she says. “Actively tire out the cat with a lot of play before bedtime, and if you can, delay its evening meal until just before bedtime.”
Sudden, unusual nighttime activity or vocalization should be evaluated by a veterinarian, Reid adds, because thyroid problems in cats can lead to overactive behavior.

Don Vaughan is an award-winning freelance writer. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Nanette, and their cat, Rhianna.
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