It is a truth universally acknowledged that, in the twenty-first century, pet cats do indeed require the services of shrinks. These experts come in the guise of ‘Pet Behaviour Counsellors’, ‘Veterinary Behaviourists’ or even ‘Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourists’, all highly qualified to provide a service to the veterinary profession so that cats that have got a screw loose or have lost the plot can be put back on the straight and narrow. The emerging profession is a bit of a minefield, as it remains unregulated and falls foul of well-meaning individuals who set themselves up in this capacity with nothing more than a lifetime spent with their own cats and a copy of any one of a number of guides to understanding cats. The one you are reading will do the job better than most.
Ironically, although by now you’ve gathered that the cat is a bit of an enigma, most of the behaviour that is ‘treated’ is actually perfectly normal. The rest of it usually results from something the owner has inadvertently taught the cat to do or because the hapless creature has emotionally combusted due to the erratic and unpredictable relational demands of a neurotic human being. Every now and then, however, the cat is actually well and truly as mad as a bat.
You will need to know a few things about employing the services of a cat shrink:
1. Any owner should seek advice from the vet first – many odd behaviours have their origins in physical rather than mental illness.
2. All good behaviourists will only work on referral from a vet and tend to have a better cat pedigree than the average Persian.
3. The internet can be a source of incredibly poor advice about what to do if your cat behaves badly. Be the voice of caution.
4. The longer an owner leaves a problem (they all hope it’s going to go away), the more difficult it will be to resolve.
You can save cat lovers hours of tedious trawling of the internet by giving just one example of the quality of guidance and advice available regarding the management of ‘pica’ (see later in chapter): ‘Scatter frozen day-old chicks on the carpet if your cat eats your sweaters.’
The following pages contain the briefest of summaries of the most common behavioural problems that concern owners sufficiently to seek help, and which bluffers therefore need to know about.
AGGRESSION TOWARDS HUMANS
This has numerous causes and motivations, but the danger is that an owner can end up in hospital after being on the receiving end of a cat’s bacteria-laden teeth (or even dirty claws). From the cat’s perspective, it isn’t necessarily guilty of malevolence. Aggressive behaviour can often result from fear, playing (albeit a little roughly), or redirecting an attack that was really intended for an external agent (such as the cat outside the window).
You can safely (and sagely) advise the owner on this basis:
Scream and thrash your arms about. Easier said than done as it hurts like hell, although it will hurt even more if the cat thinks you’re fighting back.
Punish by smacking. Pointless, as this will merely be seen as a counter-attack and the cat will frequently come out ahead.
Give as good as you get in an effort to ‘show who’s boss’ by attempting to connect human foot with cat bottom. Same outcome as above and everyone knows who the boss is in the relationship anyway.
Attempt to re-home before seeking expert advice. There might be a simple explanation for the aggressive behaviour, and getting help might enable you to avoid passing the problem on to an unsuspecting new owner.
Visit the vet to rule out a medical or pain-related cause. This will always be the first step in any strategy for dealing with aggressive behaviour, and it will show that you know your stuff.
Ignore the cat and do not approach it. Threatening behaviour is frequently neutralised if ignored.
Wear protective clothing. Depending on the degree of fear that an owner experiences in the presence of their aggressive cat, you can recommend anything from stout footwear to gauntlets, goggles and helmet. If you feel really creative, and a little mischievous, you can always advocate the strapping of rubber-backed bath mats around the legs as an effective anti-cat-attack device. Or you can go one step further and suggest that they invest in a hockey goalkeeper’s padded suit, complete with Hannibal Lecter mask. However, it’s not a good look.
Keep the cat out of the bedroom at night. This might be stating the obvious for most, but you would be surprised how many people, despite being periodically lacerated, feel guilty about denying their pugilistic cat the right to sleep on the master bed.
Anxiety, you will point out gravely, is a very common emotional state for many owners and cats alike. Some cats are scared of people, dogs, noises and life in general (often with good reason). This can be very frustrating for owners who simply want an uncomplicated cat that can give and receive affection. Anxiety makes that all a little unlikely.
Think love will be enough. Say this with compassion as you gently confirm that love does not always conquer all.
‘Flood the phobia’. This is a term for a technique employed in human behavioural therapy, the underlying theory being that a phobia is a learned fear and needs to be ‘unlearned’ by exposure to the thing that you fear. It is also sometimes known as ‘exposure’ therapy. The problem with using this technique with cats is that they are cats. You can’t reason with them or rationalise their fears so to attempt such a thing would be largely pointless.
Pussy-foot around the house. Ironically, this is the worst thing an owner can do as it makes them look cunning and therefore dangerous. Wholly counter-productive.
Reassure the cat. If an owner reassures the cat every time it jumps at the doorbell or a car outside or a dropped saucepan lid, it will think it was right to be scared. This is not really the message you want to get across.
Always ignore scaredy-cat behaviour. This is seen as odd advice by some, but focusing on an anxious cat often makes it more anxious. Anxious cats love a ‘cloak of invisibility’, the sense that they are actually not being seen at all rather than ‘ignored’. This works on so many levels so, if in doubt, suggest ‘the cloak’. Real experts will know what you’re on about.
Behave normally. If a cat is ever going to get used to the habitual chaos of family life, it has to see it as it really is.
Use synthetic pheromones. It really sets you up there with the ‘experts’ when you start discussing pheromone therapy. There is a synthetic version of natural cat pheromones that are secreted from glands around its face and head. They signal familiarity and security to the cat and therefore have a calming effect. For the product to work properly however, it is often necessary for it to be part of a wider range of treatment, and you will get some admiring glances if you add a caveat to that effect.
Increase stimulation. In this context it means ‘play’, so ensure you get that distinction across. Anything small that is fur or feather and moves will do nicely if wiggled in front of the cat. Please ensure that the object is not alive or dead. Use a cat toy, or a ball of wool.
Scratching in this context isn’t something done to relieve an itch, but what cats do to keep their claws in razor-sharp condition. A cat will lean against a vertical surface like a tree or, if the owner is very lucky, a scratching post designed for the purpose, and scratch downwards, removing the worn outer husk of its claws revealing sharper, new ones underneath. You will establish your expertise if you note that it is also a form of territorial marking (leaving a scent secreted by glands on the paws) and that it exercises the muscles of the forelimbs. Sadly, it also ruins antique chaise longues, carpets and other expensive household furniture. You could save your cat-owning friends a fortune by recommending the following:
Throw things or shout. The cat will then start scratching even more destructively in secret just to prove a point.
Use aerosol repellents designed for the purpose. These smell absolutely disgusting and will only be effective if they are used repeatedly, at which point the whole family will be looking for alternative accommodation.
Buy a short scratching post. Many pet stores sell short scratching posts because they take up less shelf space, but they are largely useless unless the cat is about six inches tall.
Provide the right number and type of scratching posts. The right number would be at least as many as there are cats in the household. The right type would be as tall as possible, covered in sisal rope and absolutely rigid, as there is nothing worse than a scratching surface that doesn’t resist when a cat pulls against it.
Use effective deterrents. You can safely recommend low tack double-sided adhesive tape stuck over the scratch-damaged area, making sure you emphasise that the tape be ‘tacky’ rather than something that the cat will adhere to permanently. You can also recommend the use of Perspex sheeting, which is the least exciting surface to scratch, if not exactly high in aesthetic appeal.
HOUSE SOILING (INAPPROPRIATE URINATION AND/OR DEFECATION)
This is a big one. You may not be aware of it, but the nation, behind closed doors, is awash with cat urine. A cat’s stress seems to travel direct to its bladder or bowel with disastrous consequences. You could be a saviour with a few well-chosen nuggets of advice.
Rub its nose in it. An old wives’ tale; utterly pointless.
Smack the cat. To emphasise again, this only makes the problem worse.
Bleach the soiled areas. In pursuit of destroying 99% of all known germs, this is a common technique, but usually only encourages the cat to return to a spot which smells even more like a toilet.
Use malodorous or other deterrents. Scattering orange peel, tin foil, newspaper, plastic sheets, pine cones and pepper, as recommended on the internet is pointless and just exacerbates the problem as the cat finds somewhere else to urinate instead.
Put soil in a litter tray. Messy, and it doesn’t work.
Do nothing. An option chosen by many as they silently enter denial. Try to encourage them to seek help.
Visit the vet. This lesson is well learnt. House soiling cats can be sick cats.
Provide an indoor litter tray. Always a good solution for those cats who are too scared to pee outdoors because of a new cat in the area. Just don’t fill it with garden soil.
Get extra litter trays. The gold-standard recommendation is: ‘One tray per cat plus one extra per cat positioned in different locations.’ It’s all about tactics that cats employ when they don’t get on…but you don’t need to know more than this. Just give the impression that you know that house soiling is often tactical.
Get a second litter tray for single cats. Some refuse to visit the same cat lav twice.
Change the litter substrate (always say ‘substrate’ – much more impressive than saying ‘litter’) to a fine, sand-like material. You then remind anyone who’s interested that all cats share a common ancestor with the African Wild Cat.
Remove litter liners and litter deodorants. Cats can be fussy and plastic that gets stuck in the claws and the lingering essence of Alpine Meadow are not conducive to a good bowel motion.
Clean the soiled areas. There are products created specifically to remove all trace of cat urine – it’s big business.
Ask the vet for a referral to a cat behaviour counsellor. A good cat shrink should be on speed dial.
In an ideal world, all cats would love each other and never fight with their neighbours or siblings. This is of course never going to happen. How many times have you heard: ‘Fluff and Fang just don’t get on. Never have, and never will.’
‘The mathematical probability of a common cat doing exactly as it pleases is the one scientific absolute in the world.’
Lynn M. Osband, cat expert
With over 9 million domestic cats in the UK, high population densities and an increase in multi-cat households, disharmony reigns in many homes and neighbourhoods. Cats in the same house either fight, avoid each other, spray urine in the toaster or are guilty of other anti-social behaviour. This is hard to live with and those people who are victims need your help and advice.
Get uptight. Stressed owners increase the tension in the home and therefore the risk of conflict between the cats.
Use arms or legs to break up a fight. It seems obvious, but people try this and get hurt. Feel free to save the day with a blanket, broom or large cushion. Regarding the broom, this is not for clubbing the aggressor over the head; just push it slowly but firmly between them.
Divide the house and separate the fighting cats forever. It is a strategy for the terminally desperate, and family members frequently end up showing allegiance to their favourite cat and living apart in the same house. Strange but true. Cats can have this effect on people.
Put them both in cages and place them side by side to get used to each other. How would you feel if you were incarcerated in a cage next to the individual you hate most in the world?
Shut them in a room and let them get on with it. Tempting, but ill-advised.
Keep calm. This is going to test your reserves of patience.
Provide sufficient ‘resources’ to prevent competition. Remembering the litter tray provision, you can apply this to other important cat stuff, known as ‘resources’, such as food and water bowls, beds, scratching posts, hiding places and high places to which frightened cats can retreat.
Don’t get involved. It’s a cat thing; let them sort it out, unless things take a turn for the worse, in which case get out the broom – see above).
Cats groom with their tongue but they sometimes overdo it and become obsessive, removing their fur, skin or even tail by over-zealous non-stop washing and chewing.
Automatically presume it’s ‘stress’. It could be but it’s more likely to be medical – once again you can enforce the ‘see your vet’ rule.
Punish the cat. Isn’t it suffering enough?
Knit him something fetching (on the basis that a jumper may stop the cat getting to its skin). No, don’t even think about recommending this course of action.
Ensure effective flea control. Fleas are miserable little parasites that infest the cat and make it itch, however regular its washing regime is. A good bluffer will recommend a trip to the vet and not the pet food aisle in the supermarket for the necessary products.
Pica is an eating disorder that means consuming something with no nutritional value that isn’t and never has been food. It affects humans as well as cats. Favoured delicacies for the susceptible cat include wool, rubber, plastic, leather and cardboard. This is a bit of an Oriental breed thing and is a form of compulsive behaviour that drives a bored cat to chew and swallow expensive pieces of clothing.
Punish (you know this by now).
Lace the item in question with offensive flavours. This is a long shot, but worth a try. Obnoxious substances that won’t harm them include eucalyptus oil or ‘bitter apple’.
Increase stimulation. These cats need to hunt so whatever is needed, short of letting mice loose in the house, is worth trying.
Change the diet. It’s reasonable and responsible advice to suggest they might need a high-fibre diet; it makes you sound knowledgeable and it won’t do them any harm. It might even work.
Consult a cat behaviour counsellor. This can escalate into a life-threatening disorder that needs a genuine expert.
A word of advice regarding disputes between cats in the neighbourhood: do not get involved. Sympathise and appreciate the difficulties for the respective owners but these cases can get nasty, and far worse than ‘your kid’s bullying my kid’ scenarios. The wise cat bluffer beats a hasty retreat.
Urine spraying is normal marking behaviour for a cat, but pretty unpleasant when it is directed into an electrical socket or a car’s ventilation system. It should all happen outdoors, but sadly some cats get in such a pickle about safe and unsafe boundaries that it can creep indoors too.
Rub its nose in it or punish. No harm in reinforcing the message.
Attempt to reason with the cat. It sounds crazy but a surprising number of people will resort to this tactic.
Use orange peel, tin foil or plug-in air fresheners as above. It just creates an unpleasant odour when combined with the urine and confuses the cat even more.
Visit the vet to rule out urinary tract disease and get a referral to a behaviourist (yes, there’s a theme here).
There is a plethora of potential problems that owners may find concerning, however most of them can be ‘fixed’ – but probably not by you. They don’t need to know that though. Just provide a convincing analysis, then recommend seeking expert help.
CAT FOLKLORE FROM AROUND THE WORLD
• Some people believe that cats are able to see the human aura, the energy field that surrounds each of us. So if you find one staring fixedly at you, that might be the explanation. Either that, or it’s planning to spray on your foot.
• If you dream of two cats fighting, it foretells illness or a quarrel.
• If you kick a cat, you will develop rheumatism in that leg (not to be encouraged).