The Cat That Feared the Couch

The Cat That Feared the Couch

Dr. Ernie Ward reminds us all why cats sometimes misbehave due to environmental changes. Visit Dr. Ernie at or on Facebook.

This appointment was going to take a while.

Mrs. Smith (not her real name) calmly stroked her purring feline as she continued raising her voice toward me.

“I don’t care what you think, Dr. Ward. I change her litter box quite enough! Frieda tells me when it’s time to clean the poo-poo pail and I empty it promptly.”

Frieda was having, as Mrs. Smith put it, “bathroom problems.” Veterinarians refer to urinating outside the litter box as “elimination disorders” or “inappropriate elimination.” It was going to be challenging to find anything Mrs. Smith would agree with me about during this visit.

“I haven’t changed her food, her litter, or her bowls. Frieda’s routine has remained the same. I haven’t traveled recently, had houseguests, or entertained friends for the past month because of the smell and stains. Either fix Frieda’s problem or I’ll find someone who can.” She smiled a smile that said she meant it.

Elimination disorders typically fall into two broad categories: physiological and psychological causes. Physiological disorders include conditions such as bladder infections, kidney disease, pain, hormonal disease, or bladder stones. Psychological or behavioral problems can be much more complicated. Cats can suddenly develop an aversion to the texture, smell, or even color of their litter. They may begin to dislike the location of the box or become frightened and avoid the room altogether. It can take a considerable amount of sleuthing to reveal the root of many behavioral causes of inappropriate elimination. Because Frieda’s diagnostic tests had come back normal, I needed to pull out my best Sherlock Holmes if I was going to solve this case.

A thought struck me. “How often do you entertain friends?” I asked.

“I’ve hosted a weekly bridge game for over ten years. That’s why I bought the new den furniture. It’s a shame I haven’t been able to show it off to the ladies.”

“Tell me more about this new furniture and where the den is located relative to Frieda’s litter box.”

“I bought the most beautiful couch you’ve ever seen. When Jim was alive he would’ve never approved. I replaced the couch we’d had for almost twenty years. I must admit I was sad to see it go because it was where Jim and Frieda would take their afternoon naps. I moved the new couch just outside the hallway that leads to the laundry room where I’ve always kept the litter box. I think it helps to make the den look bigger.”

Maybe I was on to something. “Does Frieda still nap on the couch?” I asked.

“Heavens no! She seems very upset with me for getting rid of ‘her’ sofa.”

Now for the hard part, “Mrs. Smith, I want you to bear with me for a moment as I offer a hypothesis on what may be causing Frieda to urinate in the house. Many cats tend to be creatures of habit; that is, they like a specific routine. As silly as it may sound, moving a new couch into her normal route to access the litter box may be causing her to avoid it.”

Mrs. Smith stopped stroking Frieda. She fixed me with a steely stare. “Are you saying my new couch is why Frieda is peeing on my rugs and bed?”

I nodded my head.

Her face relaxed and her voice chimed cheerily, “That actually makes sense. I’m not going to get rid of the couch; it cost too much.”

We discussed moving the couch, using a facial pheromone product, relocating the litter box, and adding another box. She agreed to move the couch and to pheromone treatment.

Two weeks later I called Mrs. Smith to check on Frieda. “It’s a miracle Dr. Ward! She hasn’t had an accident in almost a week! I actually caught her laying on the couch yesterday!”

Elimination disorders in cats can be a diagnostic challenge. Once medical conditions have been ruled out, it’s important to thoroughly evaluate your cat’s lifestyle. Most cases will improve by adding a larger, uncovered litter box in a quiet, less-trafficked area and using facial pheromones. Other times you have to move a couch.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Christopherson Column: Money can buy happiness? Yes, it’s $20 a jar

You can’t put a price tag on happiness, it’s said. But can money, in fact, buy you happiness?

Maybe not actual happiness, but if it gets you out from under the couch in a dark basement, that’s worth a few bucks, is it not?

Around 20 bucks a bottle, to be precise.

“If this doesn’t change your cat’s behavior, I want to see him, quickly.”

That’s what the veterinarian said when we brought our new Siberian husky puppy in for some initial vaccinations and told him that introducing the canine to our human and feline-occupied dwelling had thrown our cats for a loop.

One of our two cats actually rolled with the change fairly well. In human years, apparently he’s in his mid-80s, so he probably sent out some sort of animal vibe that humans are unable to sense when he first went nose-to-nose with the new arrival that made it clear to the pup that this particular lilac Siamese cat was not about to change his ways for anyone.

But the other cat, about twice as big as the two-month old puppy when we brought her home and possessing claws big and fierce enough to probably tear her entire nose off with one vicious swipe&mldrwell, that was another story.

It all reminded me of a phone conversation I overheard my wife having with a friend not too long ago. They were mostly commiserating as a way to boost each other’s spirits almost a year into the pandemic. The friend has multiple underlying health conditions, so staying a safe distance from others has been paramount for her for many months. But she’s been vaccinated now and seems to have a bit of a spring in her step.

The conversation turned to the stigma surrounding mental health struggles that was already slowly evaporating in society before the pandemic struck, as more people come to realize that no one enjoys perfect mental health and sometimes people simply need help, whether it’s talking to a professional or taking a pill to better balance your body’s out-of-whack chemical system.

“Everybody needs some help sometimes,” my wife said at one point during her phone chat with her friend, and that’s what stuck with me.

Everybody, including animals, it would seem.

Our 20-plus pound, seven-year-old cat that our sons rescued from a giant, gnarly bush in our neighborhood when he was maybe six weeks old basically shut down when the pup arrived. A big cat, he never stopped eating, but he was afraid to venture to some of his favorite water dishes in the house and I feared he was becoming dehydrated. I brought a dish of water to him on one of the many days he’d shoe-horned himself under the basement couch for hours on end and the amount he lapped up and the enthusiasm with which he did so alarmed me.

When the vet heard this, he offered a potential remedy: Feline pheromones. They come in baby-food sized jars, in liquid form, and you screw a contraption onto the lid and plug them into a wall outlet. The liquid diffuses into the air and – Presto! – calms your teetering-on-the-edge cat.

Each tiny jar costs around 20 bucks and lasts for a month. We were encouraged to buy one for the main floor and one for the basement. I was dubious, at best.

Then, about 12 hours after we plugged both in, it happened. My wife and I were playing some music one evening while engaged in a series of intense, even heated games of smear (a card game) in the dining room, when our reborn beast of a cat jumped onto the table, meowed and then flopped over right on top the cards in the middle of the table. I scratched his neck and his purring seemed to make the whole table vibrate.

Fast forward to today and we’ve ordered four more jars, enough to keep the cat sane for another 60 days. Is he hooked? A pheromone addict? Will he ever be able to relate to the dog, which now outweighs him by around 10 pounds, without altering his state of mind?

There’s time to address those questions later. All we care about for the time being is that he hasn’t wedged himself under the basement couch since we first plugged those little jars in.

Whether your stress is pandemic-inspired or puppy-induced, everybody needs some help sometimes.

The 4 Best Cat Repellent Sprays For Furniture

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Cat parenting is a delight, except when your feline starts tearing up your furniture or jumping up on an expensive sofa. Luckily, with a little time and the right tools, you can teach your cat to modify unwanted behavior— trust me, I've personally had success! The best cat repellent sprays for furniture use sound, pheromones, or strong fragrances like citrus or lavender to safely deter kitties from using your furniture as their own personal scratching post. The should also not stain your upholstery and be nontoxic. Every cat is different, though, and since you can't ask them to tell you what they like (and they wouldn't tell you, anyway) you'll want to understand how the different types of repellents work to find the one best suited for your cat.

  • Pheromones: Pheromone sprays mimic the natural, calming chemicals produced by cats, putting them at ease. Products with these chemicals are best for felines exhibiting poor behavior due to stress, like a recent move or if they are new to your home. Bonus, these sprays also come in handy on long trips and vet visits.
  • Sound: The sprays that use sound work by startling your cat, with a light hissing noise released by the can. If you have a jumpy cat, there's a chance could be traumatic for them, but a boisterous kitty with nerves of steel might be the perfect candidate. Most of these types of products are handheld, but if you have a night owl who rips up upholstery while the rest of the house is asleep, a repellent with a motion-sensor that emits the hiss on its own is extra convenient.
  • Smell: Cats' sense of smell is highly sensitive and there are certain scents that may be pleasing to humans but are a total turn off for your pet. My cat, for example, hates the smell of citrus. Other natural scents cats tend to dislike are lavender, rosemary, thyme and eucalyptus. Again, since your animal's taste can vary, not all scents will deter all kitties, so success is not guaranteed, but if you've noticed your cat grimace at your lavender oil diffuser, it's worth giving it a try.

No matter which of the options you go with, the best cat deterrent sprays will also be safe for other animals in your house, and should not leave any stains behind on your couch. However, keep in mind that some are not recommended for leather or suede, so read product recommendations and directions carefully before using.

One of the main reasons cats scratch or curl up on furniture is because they don't have any other options. Using a spray to deter current behavior, in conjunction with providing other alternatives like a scratching post or a comfy cat bed, increases your chances of success and just as importantly, will keep your cat happy. My cat's plush bed is set up next to the couch, so he can still feel like we're together but I don't have to take a lint roller to the couch cushions.

Read on to find the right tools from Amazon to make cat training a breeze!

The Cat Who Came Back: Patches, Believed Killed In Mudslide, Shows Up 3 Years Later

The Cat Who Came Back: Patches, Believed Killed In Mudslide, Shows Up 3 Years Later

Patches is reunited with Norm Borgatello, her late owner's partner, at the Animal Shelter Assistance Program in Santa Barbara County, Calif., on Dec. 31. Jillian Title/Animal Shelter Assistance Program via AP hide caption

Patches is reunited with Norm Borgatello, her late owner's partner, at the Animal Shelter Assistance Program in Santa Barbara County, Calif., on Dec. 31.

Jillian Title/Animal Shelter Assistance Program via AP

A calico cat named Patches had belonged to Josie Gower, one of the 23 people killed in the mudslides that hit Santa Barbara, Calif., in January 2018. Patches was thought to have died too.

"We had kinda lost hope," Briana Haigh, Gower's daughter, told NPR. Her mom's several cats had slept in her garage, which was destroyed during the disaster.

But in December, Patches was found alive and roaming around the same area she disappeared in.

"It's a nice thing to hear that, after that many years, you can get a little bit of joy out of something that was quite horrific," Haigh said.


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"I mean it's obviously not as bad as losing the house and Mom, but it was pretty horrific to actually lose them as well, that kinda connection to her," Haigh said.

Just weeks ago, Patches was taken in by the Animal Shelter Assistance Program, a local shelter in the Santa Barbara area. Staff say they were able to identify her because of a microchip registered under Gower's name.

"It's a great mystery to us about where she's been for the last almost three years," said Becky Morrill, a staff member at the shelter.

The shelter got in touch with Haigh, and soon after, Gower's partner, Norm Borgatello, was able to take Patches back home with him. Borgatello had been living with Gower before the mudslide occurred.

He was reunited with Patches on New Year's Eve.


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Morrill, who was present for the emotional moment, said the cat approached Borgatello immediately and recognized him.

"I think Norm was a little teary we were a little teary. I don't think Patches cried, but she was happy," Morrill said.

"It was a great moment and very poignant, right, because it's both a wonderful reunion but a reminder of a very terrible loss for Norm," she added.

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Since returning home together, Patches follows Norm around the house and likes to curl up behind him on the couch.

To Haigh, the cat's reemergence is like getting a piece of her mom's home back, calling it "a nice end to 2020."

"I think it just warms the heart a bit," Haigh said. "I know my mom would be really happy. And I think it is quite strange that it came about right before the three-year anniversary."

"Almost like a little message from Mom," she added.

Judy Woodruff:

Finally tonight, amid these difficult times, we wanted to acknowledge the outpouring of interest in the furry creatures who keep some of us company on and off camera, and to those pets who are becoming part of the "NewsHour" family on social media too.

It started with a crawl, viewers writing in about feeling reassured and intrigued by seeing our correspondents' beloved cats in the background as they report from home on the "NewsHour" every night.

To some, the background became front and center in their mind, overriding the news at times.

One viewer, Paul, wrote: "My wife and I get ready for the 'NewsHour' Wondering, will William Brangham be on? Will the cat be on the sofa? Will it be awake? Will the PBS logo obscure it?"

And to Lisa Desjardins, viewer Craig wrote: "My cat was watching your cat dig into the crack in your sofa, and he pointed out to me that he felt your cat was getting treats, and it's just not fair to other cats."

So we wanted to reveal now what there's been a clamoring for.

William Brangham:

Judy Woodruff:

William's cats are all rescues, 10 year-old Pepper, the TV star, and also Tiki and Sugar, who don't gravitate to the limelight.

William Brangham:

Judy Woodruff:

There's also Macy the dog, but she isn't allowed into the interview room because she's a barker.

Lisa Desjardins:

Judy Woodruff:

Like William's, he's a rescue cat. He is a southpaw, jabs with his left, like his namesake, Rocky Balboa.

The crawl of mail led to an onslaught, dozens of notes, and then followers on social media naming their rescue shelter pets for some of our on-air team.

Erin Carlstrom on Twitter: "In the midst of all this chaos, please meet Connor Woodruff. Thank you bringing sanity to our home every 'NewsHour.'" And Scott tweeted: "I wanted to name him after my NewsHour favs too, but I went a little crazy. His full name is Snoopy Desjardins Alcindor-Woodruff."

Some viewers grew concerned when the cats were hiding. One wrote in all caps: "WHERE WAS THE BRANGHAM CAT TONIGHT?"

And then the fans went wild. Some accounts popped up on Twitter purporting to represent the cats themselves.

We'd be remiss if we didn't give a shout-out to the dogs and cats of the "NewsHour," seen here on our Zoom editorial meeting call, and supporting our staff behind the scenes.

As American poet Linda Pastan wrote: "Into the gravity of my life, the serious ceremonies of polish and paper and pen has come the manic animal, whose innocent disruptions make nonsense of my old simplicities, as if I needed him to prove again that, after careful planning, anything can happen."

We hope that a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes life of the broadcast makes you feel more a part of the "NewsHour" family. Thank you for watching.

You have got to love — you have got to love all these pictures and these animals.

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