Q. We have a 3-year-old siamese cat who is very vocal. He cries and yowls for something to eat whenever we are in the kitchen and does not shut up until we give him something. This has become very annoying. We have tried to teach him not to do this by squirting him with water from a water pistol. He does run away as soon as we show him the water pistol and we do not even have to squirt him anymore. But a minute later he comes right back again and does not give up until he gets something to eat. Is there any other way that we can deter him from doing this? -- Jane Wills, Northport
A. The problem is that you are using punishment to stop the behavior of an animal. In animals, punishment causes fear, stress or sometimes even aggression as it is hard for the animal to understand exactly what the punishment is for. Your cat has no idea why you are spraying it with water. It only has learned to fear the water pistol and has attributed it to just another inexplicable thing that the humans do in his little world.
The best way to modify such behaviors in animals is with extinction. You just have to withdraw all interactions with the cat whenever he yowls for food when you are in the kitchen. The reason it works is because the cat decided for itself that there is no point in wasting his valuable time by yowling for food when it does not get it what it wants. I would even advise you to feed the cat in a different room of the house so that there is no confusion.
Of course, this all sounds fine in print, but it is very hard to do in practice. The whole family has to join together to ignore the cat when he is yowling, and it takes many weeks to accomplish this. If you ignore the cat for 10 days and then on the 11th you give in and feed it just to shut him up because you are talking on the phone or some other reason, then you are back to square one. Your cat is only 3 years old, and Siamese live a long time as a rule, so it’s wise to apply yourself and invest the time and patience needed to make the behavior become extinct.
Q. We have three cats that are always indoors and they all get along well. One is 5 years old and we got two kittens over the summer. The problem is that the older cat seems to be teaching the other two to open the cabinets in the kitchen. He always did this and we thought it was cute. He would just open a cabinet and crawl inside and go to sleep there. But now we see the younger cats opening the cabinets and they pull out bags of bread and other foods and scatter them across the floor. The cabinets have very strong hinges and we cannot imagine that they learned this through trial and error. How do we stop this? -- Shelia Rosenberg, Roslyn
A. I doubt that the older cat consciously taught the younger ones to open the cabinets, but the kittens did learn for themselves through what I call observational learning and what a scientist would call social learning. This always fascinates me as it is not a behavior that is taught or learned through trial and error; the behavior is performed spontaneously in its complete or near complete form after the animal has observed it being performed by another member of its social group. It is almost like one generation passes a talent down to another, just like in human culture. I am not sure if this is mimicry or actual problem solving. Dogs have been proved in laboratory situations to mimic human actions but to my knowledge this has yet to be proven with cats. At any rate, the problem is that your groceries are all over the floor. I would suggest using the same kind of locks that you put on cabinets to keep babies out of them
I would also give the cats some kind of other enrichment that mimics the fun they have by going through the cabinets. A big cat tree with those carpeted tunnels on them is great, and even a simple thing like a few cardboard boxes with holes cut in the sides and half filled with crumpled newspapers is a great substitute for playing in kitchen cabinets.
Q. We got my son a baby guinea pig for Christmas and we are very happy with him. On his back feet he has three toes that seem fine, but on each foot is a very small toe that is loose and floppy and does not seem to work at all. Is this a big problem? -- Tom Nelson, Huntington
A. Guinea pigs typically have four toes on the two front feet and only three on the back, so those extra toes on the back feet that you see are vestigial toes that we call dew claws. Dew claws that occur on the back legs of any animals serve no purpose and usually cause few problems, but you have to keep a close eye on the nail since it tends to overgrow quickly and needs to be trimmed periodically by a groomer or vet.