Bengal cats and kittens
This morning as I was driving my teenaged daughter to school with her red velvet cupcakes to share with her friends on her last day of school in 2017, we noticed that some had tipped and all the icing had slid off them. Already cutting it close for getting to school on time, we had to turn around and head back home to replace the cupcakes with extras we had made for ourselves (thank goodness for extras). This situation would have been upsetting to the former “2016” me – running late is bad enough, but having to turn back home for something forgotten or to change a coffee-stained top on the way to work for example, used to really set me off for a bad start to the day in the office for sure. The “2017” me, however, smiled. I turned up the radio, backed up the car and off we headed for home to fix the situation. It was smiles all the way back to school, with a happy girl heading into the front doors with her treats in hand (being late is really not the “be all, end all” in the BIG scheme of things after all, is it?) 😉
This had me thinking on the way home of all the things I am so thankful for as 2017 draws to a close. I am thankful most of all for my family: for a husband who supports me emotionally and financially in my somewhat fanatical, expensive fascination with bengals; for my children, who know and accept no other life but one surrounded by the love of each other and our animals in a slightly chaotic (but super fun!) home; and last, but definitely not least, for a truly amazing mother who has basically raised our children for us while we were both tied up with long work days and commutes five days a week all these years. I am especially thankful for free choice – with the support of my family, I chose to leave the daily ritual of my 20+ year legal career earlier this year, taking a leap of faith and leaving a steady paycheque behind to be home full time with my teenagers and bengals. It has been the best year of my life and the best gift I have ever given myself or my family. I have loved every second of cat and kid chaos, school drop offs and pick ups, mid day vet trips, early morning figure skating practices, hands-on sick days when the kids aren’t well, leisurely grocery shopping at 11am rather than rushing through the store on the way home from work, lunch with my best friend at noon on a Thursday, just because we feel like it – and tipped cupcakes ;)
These are just a handful of the amazing gifts that I have been given in 2017. I am so thankful for all of my friends and family, nearby and far away, and for all the new adventures that lay ahead us for 2018.
I have historically been one of those people who has done my very best to steer clear of turning to any sort of chemical treatment or medication for an animal – or human, for that matter. In my mind, there are so many things to try first, that medications rarely seemed to be worthy of consideration.
In the past I have worked with cat owners (more often than not, these people are actually not even my own kitten clients) who are faced with behavioural issues ranging from a lack of socialization or shyness to peeing outside the litter box. I have written an article specifically about proven litter box training methods and litter box correctional training for those experiencing off-site peeing. I have also written an article about properly introducing a new kitten or cat to your home so that he becomes a confident, well adjusted member of the household. I have helped re-home cats from other breeders (I'm a bleeding heart - all cats deserve a second chance in my mind), who were peeing all over the house, or exhibiting other hard-to-live-with behaviours. I truly believe there are many ways to avoid or reduce a cat’s stress that do not include drugs. It is my opinion that ALL of these undesirable behaviours have their roots in stress.
Both of the articles mentioned above are aimed at reducing stress in the animal and calmly dealing with behaviours that may have arisen from poor kitten socializtion, improper initial introductions, or house training. Neither of these articles touches on medications however, (outside of natural pheromones or zylkene – milk protein – to help ease anxiety naturally).
All of that said, I have learned something new recently that is opening my eyes (and mind) to the potential value and effectiveness of drugs in certain situations. Some of this is due to recent conversations with pet owners and information they have been provided by their vets and some is due to my own research and a sudden recollection of my own past experience.
I had honestly never heard of the use of Paxil for a cat until just recently when a past kitten client wrote to me exclaiming how it has literally turned her life (and her cat’s life!) completely around over night. Her cat had been regularly peeing outside the litter box and with a new baby arriving, this had become understandably problematic. My first question after speaking with her was, “What IS Paxil??” Paxil (paroxetine) is an oral drug that is used for treating depression. It is in a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class that also contains fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa), and sertraline (Zoloft). This sounds scary, I know. Basically, it has been shown that Paxil may help with an imbalance between neuroticism and extraversion. Neuroticism is characterized as being inclined to have negative emotions such as anxiety, hostility, self-consciousness, impulsivity, and sensitivity to stress. Extraversion refers to being inclined to have positive emotions, assertiveness, and gregariousness. Your cat may simply be “off balance” between these two emotions. Just as a person can be off balance, it stands to reason that so can an animal, right?
All of this still seemed hard for me to swallow when I was first looking into it. I mean, really, you would want to get to the root of the problem rather than mask it with a drug, correct? And would the poor cat have to be on this drug for life? What are the side effects?? I have always believed stress or negative emotions in the household are the root of nearly all poor behaviour exhibited by the reactive pet, and consequently these are what need to be addressed. After further reading and research however, I suddenly began to draw a connection to a personal experience in my immediate family. Why had I never made this connection before??? There might just be something to the use of Paxil for a stressed/reactive cat.
As a young child, our daughter presented with some difficult and disruptive behaviours. At first, we assumed she was simply “shy” and socially awkward. But then we realized that she was literally incapable of speaking anywhere outside of our home. We took her to doctors and therapists who all agreed she was extremely shy but gave us hope she would outgrow it in time and that nothing physical was wrong, so not to worry. As caring parents, we protected her from social situations and shielded her from the embarrassment of potty accidents (another reaction to her stress) by keeping her home from sleep overs, etc. After speaking to other parents, her issues seemed common enough – they assured us that these were just childhood issues that she would “grow out of” in time, as their children had.
Well, she didn’t grow out of them – any of them. Her anxiety and extreme shyness worsened and continued into her early teen years. We began to worry about how she could possibly ever manage in a world outside our home, where people would not know how to deal with her muteness or other physical issues related to the obvious stress she was experiencing. We began to feel helpless and eventually sought specialized psychiatric help for her.
After seeing two different psychiatrists, we were finally introduced to a wonderful woman who put a name what we had been dealing with our daughter’s entire life: Selective Mutism. The specific label and treatment plan that were given to us for our daughter are not of importance here. What is important is that at the beginning of her (successful!!) therapy, our daughter was given fluoxetine (Prozac). Like Paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine affects chemicals in the brain that may be unbalanced in people with depression, panic, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive symptoms. We were reluctant, but in order to work with this psychiatrist and her somewhat extreme therapeutic technique, it was a requirement.
Since we were assured that fluoxetine was needed ONLY at the beginning of her therapy, in order to reduce her stress enough to allow her to open up to the therapy and take part in her treatment plan, we agreed. Once her stress levels were reduced with the use of the fluoxetine, she opened up fully to the therapy (which included verbal social interaction with strangers in controlled settings, and other things which we never thought would ever be possible for our daughter!) and the medication was discontinued. This whole process took only a couple of months!
My thought is that perhaps a similar short-term drug protocol could be followed for cats and other pets who are having behavioural issues related to stress. What if adding Paxil to the processes outlined in my articles about litter box re-training and introduction of pets could work for those handful of situations that don’t respond successfully to the protocols? It could help families who are at their wit’s end and thinking the only available option is to surrender their cat. For some families, pets with extreme behavioural issues can cause stressful situations including arguing, and other serious family disruptions. In these situations, the pets nearly always suffer the worst imaginable consequences. What if a drug like Paxil could help alleviate the cat's bad (reactive) behaviour and offer some respite for a stressed family, allowing them to more successfully implement the necessary training/correction techniques? I am thinking that we often jump too quickly to rehome a “problem pet” without taking into full consideration the potential ramifications of uprooting and rehoming him. When considering the consequences that an abrupt change in domicile could have on the pet, doesn’t it seem important to first look into the potential short-term help of a drug like Paxil? For me, this definitely provides some food for thought if nothing else…. I will be discussing this more fully with my vet to get a better idea of side effects related to short and long term use and will provide more information as soon as I have it.
My last post touched briefly on car travel with your bengal kitten. This morning I was reading a pet magazine when I came across a related idea that I thought was worth sharing. I'm always advising clients to leave their kitten's pet carrier available at all times in the home as a safe place or "bed" for their kitten. It helps immensely when it comes time to run them to the vet, or take them out in the car. If they are used to and comfortable with their travel crate, then it makes sense that it will lower their stress when traveling in it, right??
Well this morning I came across an ad in the magazine I was reading that is related to my idea of using the travel carrier as a safe place or bed and I thought I'd share! This "pod shaped" bed is a great idea in that it looks and feels just like a regular cat bed and then when you want to travel with your cat you simply zip the top onto it and go. Of course, a pet carrier is the same idea, and to be truthful, some cats prefer the "den-like" safety of a fully enclosed space like a pet carrier, so really either idea would work, but I thought some people might like the style and shape of this pod bed a little better. Maybe a Christmas gift idea for your kitten??
So, you've got your new kitten home with you and you're very excited to start doing all of the fun things that attracted you to bengals in the first place: taking him on car rides, and out for walks on his leash! There are some important steps to follow prior to attempting these activities. You can "make" or "break" your kitten's fondness for his harness and for these activities, depending on how you undertake his introduction to them.
Wearing the Harness
If you adopted your kitten from our cattery, you know that we send all our kittens home with a kitten sized harness (made by Copper Paw Designs). This is to encourage you to take your kitten out for some adventure and exercise. If this is done early on and often, your kitten will enjoy outdoor walks for a lifetime.
There is definitely a procedure to follow however, to ensure that he takes kindly to the harness right from the start. The first step is to train your kitten to feel comfortable in his harness in the comfort of your home. This is done by placing the harness securely on your kitten and supervising him as he wanders around the house and gets used to the feel of it. At first he may seem wary, may try to struggle out of it, and may even "tip" over, appearing to be immobilized by it! This is completely normal - it feels weird to him - almost like he's been put into a straight jacket. Give him time to get used to the feel of it. The best way to do this is to distract him with play - wave his feather teaser wand and encourage him to walk and play while wearing the harness as he normally would. Once he begins to play he will soon forget that he is even wearing the harness. Leave the harness on him for about a half an hour at a time - while he is closely supervised. This should be done a couple of times a day over the course of a few days prior to attaching the leash and venturing out of doors with it.
Once he is comfortable, you will know the time is right to take the next step.
Time to head out the door!
The first rule for heading outdoors with your kitten is always carry the kitten out the door rather than walk him out. Walking the kitten out through the door teaches him how to walk out and may encourage escape attempts. Hold your kitten close with his harness fitted securely on him and his leash held firmly in your free hand. Pet and talk to him and cuddle him as you walk out the door with him. This will offer him encouragement and help him to feel secure. When you get outside with him crouch down to his level and allow him to leave your arms rather than you setting him down. This will help him build up his confidence and not feel like you are deserting him. He needs your reassurance that it's safe and fun and nothing scary is going to happen.
Let him sniff and explore while you simply focus on keeping him untangled (!). We recommend a retractable leash to allow for some length of leash for free roaming during this first phase of leash training. After a few exploratory trips out of doors, you can embark on attempting to train your kitten to walk along side of you, but this will be the topic of another post. For the moment the goal is to focus on getting your kitten outside for some exploration and perhaps ready to travel in the car to more exciting locations for walks.
Often times a car ride is necessary in order to get to a location where you can walk your kitten - a park, or a pet friendly neighbourhood with lots of walking paths, etc. You've probably had the chance to get a good feel for how your kitten reacts to car rides from your initial car ride home from our house when you came to pick him up! If your kitten was ok with the car ride (ie did not screech or cry the whole ride home) then congratulations, you are blessed and will have a much easier time teaching him to enjoy travelling than is typical. The more typical scenario is that your kitten probably cried during the entire car ride home and you had to talk him through the adventure and provide lots of distraction and reassurance the entire trip. This is all completely normal. It will take many car rides with your kitten to desensitize him to the unusual stress of it. Always keep the harness and leash on your kitten while in the car (if he is not otherwise safely contained in his pet carrier) and have a second person riding in the car with you who is free to supervise the kitten and help him feel comfortable during the ride. This will help ensure that he doesn't get underfoot - talk about distracted driving!!!
There are also some other things you can try which will help alleviate his stress during the car ride. One of those things is the use of an all natural product called Zylkene. You can pick this up from your vet or on Amazon. It's usually a little bit less expensive at the vet and the vet can ensure you are giving a correct dosage. Give this to him for the first little while during the car training endeavor as it will help to alleviate some of his stress and allow him to more calmly take in the adventure and fun of the car ride. Bengals are by nature open to new and exciting adventures and once your kitten's stress level is lowered, this will allow his natural sense of adventure to kick in so he can enjoy the process more.
Zylkene is an all natural milk protein and is not harmful or addictive in any way - it's more like a supplement. It helps a TON. We use it for airline travelling and car trips with our cats when we go to shows or on vacation with them. It's also useful for transitioning kittens to new homes. It will lessen his anxiety and help his true personality to show through during the transition until he's settled in and familiar with everyone and everything, including car rides.
Remember that harnesses, walks and car rides are all new to him. Everything - even your home and family - are new to him so it's understandably a very stressful time. You should start by just letting him adjust to his safe room and then get used to your house before rushing into taking him out for walks or in the car. Baby steps with your new baby will ensure a balanced and well adjusted cat down the road.
Carmen Klassen, Owner of Jewelspride Bengals