Category Archives: Creature Thoughts

Creature Thoughts: June 2020 – A Kitty’s Gotta Scratch

A Kitty’s Gotta Scratch

Featuring Tristan and Kieran

“How do I get my cat to stop scratching?” is a question I have heard quite a few times over the years. My answer? “You don’t.”

Tristan and Kieran on their cat tree. Photo © Deridre Price, 2018

That’s not a fatalistic outlook speaking. You don’t get a cat to stop scratching, because scratching is absolutely essential for a cat’s mental and physical health.

Scratching exercises all major muscle groups in the cat’s body, as well as many fine muscles of the paws, legs, shoulders, neck and back. It clears old, dead sheath tissue off of the claws, helping them to remain healthy and clean. It releases energy, diffusing that which might be otherwise channeled to more disruptive activities. It is a great stress reducer, both because of the exercise, and the fact that cats use scratching to claim ownership of their home and belongings. There are scent glands in a cat’s paws which, like the glands in their cheeks and the base of the tail that mark with scent when a cat rubs, place the cat’s own scent on their favorite items. A cat who feels like he owns his space is a content, secure cat.

What a cat-parent must do to save their home and furniture is not prevent the cat from scratching, but help him to know what surfaces are acceptable.

Providing your cats with appropriate items to scratch will go a long way toward preserving your belongings. The wide variety of scratching products on the market today means that every cat’s preference can be satisfied. Some cats like to reach upwards to scratch (couch and wall culprits). Some prefer to stretch out on the floor (carpet diggers). All cats, whether horizontal scratchers or vertical, like to be able to really stretch out.

Part of the same post, some time later. It’s better to replace a post occasionally than to replace your couch!
Photo © Deirdre Price 2020.

Avoid scratching posts and boards that are too short for your cat to reach to their full length. Make sure, whatever type you choose, the post is solid and does not wobble too much. If a cat likes floor scratching, the “wobble factor” isn’t as much of a priority. Of all the scratching options we have provided Missie, the ones she likes best are those cheap cardboard scratching boards that just lie on the floor. Vertical scratchers, however, will often not use a post that wobbles. Some cats like to use broad surfaces, so might prefer a board to a post. There is much to choose from.

Observe your cat’s preferences. He will show you just how he likes to scratch. Shop around a bit, and find just the right type of scratching surface to suit his natural tendencies. Once you have the product in hand, it is not difficult at all to train a cat to use it. Play with his favorite toy near the scratcher. Try rubbing a little catnip into it. Don’t force his paws onto it–that is uncomfortable to a cat, and you don’t want to create a negative association. If it’s a vertical post, try laying it down at first till he has discovered it. Be sure not to hide it in an out of the way spot, but set it up in an area where your kitty already likes to hang out.

If the cat has already started using an inappropriate surface, set the new scratching post up near that area. When you see the cat start to scratch the wall or couch, move him gently to the new scratcher and encourage him: “Scratch! Good boy!” Give lots of praise and maybe even a treat when he complies. Be sure to make that his favorite interactive-play spot for a little while. You can encourage him to stretch out and scratch by drawing his favorite wand or fishing pole toy along the surface. If you enjoy clicker or lure-reward training with your cat, that can be a very quick way to get the “This is where you scratch” message across.

The Felix Cat Tree company makes very sturdy, long-lasting posts. This post gets as much use as the cat tree above, but has really held up well. Photo ©Deirdre Price, 2020.

You may have to, for a short time, cover the old item or spot with something that will deter the cat, if he has already developed a habit. Double-sided tape works, or some cats will be deterred by aluminum foil. A temporary furniture throw can help if it’s a couch or chair arm that is his target. Since you are also actively encouraging and praising the cat for using the correct surface, your funny-looking deterrents won’t be there for long, don’t worry.

Whatever you do, don’t punish the cat or use a squirt bottle to deter him from scratching. All this does is make the cat wary of your presence so he won’t scratch while you’re watching. That will simply make the training process take much longer, and damage your relationship with your cat. Instead, your goal is to make his new scratching board or post the most inviting place to exercise those claws and muscles.

Every cat needs to scratch. By providing a variety of appropriate places for him to do so, you’ve created a happy cat, a happy owner, and a delightfully un-shredded home.

With thanks to my buddies Tristan and Kieran, Manx cats who live in the beautiful state of Kentucky with their mom, Dede.

News and Information

Remember that you can always follow my availability, and any changes to my schedule via the website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

If you have young animal lovers in your life (or are a young-at-heart animal lover yourself) who are looking for something to do this (rather odd and limited) summer, take a look at my Junior Handler Mysteries. Perhaps they would enjoy some fun reading.

Creature Thoughts: May 2020, Wildlife Season

Photo by Jim Long on

This year’s wildlife season brings many challenges to wildlife rescue centers and rehabilitators. The COVID-19 situation, with social distancing and limited gatherings, has meant that many wildlife centers have lost a key source of their donation income. At New York Wildlife Rescue, the organization I work with, the educational programs have had to be put on hold, and that means that a large percentage of their donations have dried up. There are many other wild animal rescue organizations, and individual rehabbers, in the same situation.

In addition to the inability to hold public events, there are more than the usual number of rescue animals coming in to the centers. This is very likely because people are home. Rather than going in to the office each day, homeowners are doing yard work, gardening, taking care of home projects and construction jobs that they now have time to do. This means that they’re outside more, and encountering wildlife in larger numbers than usual.

Many of the wild animals, babies in particular, that people are bringing to the rehabbers and rescue centers were never really in need at all. Wild mothers don’t stay close to their babies all day long. Many species leave them for long stretches at a time. This is to protect them from predators. Baby animals have little scent, while adult animals are easy for wild hunters to locate. By staying away from their babies unless it’s time to feed, the mothers keep them safe.

Wild deer only return to their fawns to nurse them, and will stay apart from them for long stretches. When you find a baby fawn laying in the bushes, or naughtily wandering about your garden, its mother is never far off … just far enough to fool the coyotes. It’s perfectly normal for a fawn to be left alone. If you interfere and “rescue” this baby, you are causing harm to both the mother and the fawn. The mother will return to find her offspring gone. The baby, in the hands of even the most skilled rehabilitator, will never be able to learn the survival skills that her biological parent could teach her.

Rabbits are another species that is often abducted. A wild rabbit only returns to the nest twice a day to nurse. A key prey species, wild rabbits know that their youngsters are much safer hiding in the nest. If you find a nest of wild rabbits, leave them alone! Keep the dog or cat indoors or behind a safe barrier, and just be patient. It only takes a few weeks before those tiny babies will be old enough to leave the nest and be out on their own … and out of your hair.

You can help wild animals much more naturally, and successfully, by avoiding them. Pay attention when you garden or mow so that you don’t disturb nests or hidden young. If you’re doing construction or cleaning and find an active bird’s nest, leave it alone and wait to do your chores. It only takes an average of three or so weeks for baby birds to leave the nest. A little patience on your part will mean that you can soon get your job done, and those babies will have the very best chance of survival. Not only is it unethical to disturb a bird’s nest, it’s against the law.(1)

It is also illegal for the general public to abduct and try to raise wildlife on their own. In a situation where an animal is truly an orphan or in significant danger (mother seen to be hit by car, animal found with obvious injuries, etc), only a licensed wildlife rehabilitator is legally allowed to care for them. You can find your local wildlife rehabbers on the web, by calling your local vets or sheriff’s office, or by contacting your state’s equivalent of the Department of Environmental Conservation.

In addition to paying attention, and respecting your wild neighbors, you can also be a significant help to those wild beings who are truly in need by donating to your local wildlife center or rehabilitator. Some centers welcome volunteers to help with physical chores. Some have critical needs lists of items you can donate. All accept cash donations, as well.

If you would like to help out New York Wildlife Rescue Center, please click the link to visit their website. There is a PayPal donation button to click, or you can send a check to the address on the Support Us page.

[1] The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a federal US law

Creature Thoughts April 2020: COVID-19 and Animals

Lion sunning himself, Jungle Habitat, NJ, some time in the mid ’70s.
©Gayle Nastasi

COVID-19 and Our Animals

Under normal circumstances, when we humans have a virus, we can safely say that our pets won’t be affected. Human colds and flu don’t infect dogs, cats, or horses. Even the old suspicion that guinea pigs can catch a human cold turned out to be nothing but a superstition.

Now, it appears, we have met a foe that can be transmitted to animals. A news report has come to light that a number of tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo have fallen ill with respiratory symptoms. One of the tigers was tested, and found to be positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. Although, as of the time I’m writing this, the route of infection has not been confirmed, experts believe that one of the cats’ handlers was positive for the virus, even though they were not showing symptoms, and transmitted it to the cats.

COVID-19 is what is referred to as a zoonotic disease. It originated in animals, and a series of mutations allowed it to be passed across species barriers. Although the exact details are uncertain, it is believed that people were first exposed through a market in Wuhan, China, where exotic species of animal were sold as food. The original animal source of SARS-CoV-2 may have been bats, though that is not definite. A similar coronavirus, the cause of the original SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, was also found in bats, as well as civet cats. Since civets are felines, this may be a clue as to why lions and tigers would be susceptible to a related virus.

Zoonotic viruses are not terribly common, but they are often nasty when they show up. SARS, MERS, and Ebola are all zoonotic diseases. And, of course, everyone is familiar with the horror of disease horrors, Rabies. However, most of these viruses have not been shown to be easily transmitted from humans to other animals through casual contact. Or, at least, there do not seem to be many studies which have looked into that direction of transfer.

MERS-CoV, another coronavirus, was also found to originate in bats, and infected humans in Saudi Arabia, initially through contact with an intermediate host—dromedary camels. While it was known that camel to camel transmission was common, as was camel to human, and the secondary transfer of human to human became a serious problem, little seems to be known as to whether humans contributed to the spread of the virus in camels.

Fortunately, the big cats in the Bronx are doing well so far. They have upper respiratory symptoms, but are responding to treatment.

There have also been a handful of reports, from other countries, of dogs and cats testing positive, but so far studies are inconclusive as to the extent at which other species can contract or spread COVID-19. None of these animals was seriously ill, and there is no definite indication to date that our pets can transmit the virus to humans.

This is, however, a new virus. There are many unknowns. In the wake of the news story about the zoo cats, medical experts recommend that, if you are positive for COVID-19, you should limit contact with your pets, just as you would with humans. Let others do your pet care if possible, and minimize contact if not. Wash your hands before and after, and wear a mask while caring for your animals.

For me, and for many of you, I’m sure, this may be a hard burden to bear if quarantined for this coronavirus. When I was so very ill, all those years ago, the ability to hug and be close to my precious Kai was one of the things that pulled me through. I can’t imagine being closed in a room, isolated from my family, and not even being able to have Ryder or Missie by my side.

But, just as we are now wearing masks in public, and practicing social distancing according to the guidelines from the CDC, we will do what we must to protect our families—furry members, included.

Stay well, my friends. We are all in this together, even though we are facing unusual levels of separation.

For More Information:

Photo Credit: ©Gayle Nastasi, 1976, Jungle Habitat, New Jersey