On Cats and How I Learned to See Through Their Eyes
[Mowgli] grew up with the cubs … and Father Wolf taught him his business, and the meaning of things in the jungle, till every rustle in the grass, every breath of the warm night air, every note of the owls above his head, every scratch of a bat’s claws as it roosted for a while in a tree and every splash of every little fish jumping in a pool, meant just as much to him as the work of his office means to a business man.
—RUDYARD KIPLING, The Jungle Book
YOU MAY BE READING THIS POST JUST BECAUSE YOU LOVE CATS and have an interest in them. Or maybe you’re at your wit’s end with your cat, who just sprayed your partner’s expensive new shoes, or has been urinating outside the box, or destroying your brand-new couch. You’ve tried everything. You feel guilty. Have you been shouting at your cat? Even spanked or thrown things at your cat? You may worry that you’ve mistreated your cat, that she will never learn to behave, that you will have to give up your partner or even the love of your life (that is to say, your cat). But I’m going to help you understand your cat, why she does what she does, and, in most cases, what you have been doing to cause or exacerbate the problem behavior, so that you and your cat—or cats—and the members of your household can live happily together. I’ll give you the same easy-to-implement solutions that I’ve been giving my own consulting clients for twenty years.
The changes I recommend will help you, your cat, and the people in your life to coexist peacefully. If you have more than one cat, I will show you how to help them live more happily with one another. Cats who have never groomed another cat will lick away at their buddies—and grow all the closer. Cats who have slept apart will curl up next to one another. Your cats will blossom into the creatures they were meant to be—more confident and gregarious, more relaxed and secure—more catlike. My clients tell me that the cats I first met or heard about during their consultation with me are, as a result of it, not the same cats they have now. When I do a follow-up visit, I can see that it’s true. In place of a battlefield, I walk into a feline Eden. The cats are either lounging in their separate time-shared locations or are curled up next to one another. There’s no hissing, fighting, or attacking.
I’m also going to show you that there is a behavioral cure for nearly all cat behavior problems, that medication is rarely necessary, and that euthanasia, too often resorted to, should be reserved for the rarest of cases. In short, I am here to tell you that in most cases, help for your cat can be highly effective, natural, humane, and lasting. Oh, and on average, change takes about thirty days, which means that sometimes it may take longer than a month and sometimes less. Ready?
Let’s begin with the case of Susan and Nada.
Nada was a small, silver tabby cat who had licked a deep wound into one of her legs. She lived in a mansion in a wealthy suburb of Seattle—a sprawling modernist building painted a glossy off-white, and perched on the highest hill around. When Susan opened the door for me, I saw that the minimalist aesthetic continued indoors: vaulted ceilings, huge and nearly empty white-walled rooms, and carpet in a grassy green color. There was a couch in the giant living room, and nothing else. Even before I saw Nada, I knew that she was probably one very understimulated cat.
Like all supposedly “domesticated” cats, she was, as I’ll explain, still essentially a wild animal, and yet she was now a kind of prop in the minimalist vision of an owner with clear ideas about how some humans, at least, might like to live. I was reminded of the Tom and Jerry cartoon called “The Push-Button Cat,” in which a manufactured Mechanocat is advertised this way: “No feeding, no fussing, no fur.” That is, no cat. The only human being who could understand Nada fully would be one who had done time in solitary confinement.
When Nada finally padded in, she was dwarfed by the cavernous space. Nada was a little shy at first, but soon warmed up enough to approach me and rub against my shins. I knew what she was doing: I’m going to place my scent on you (and hold on to some of yours) so I’ll feel more comfortable. If I didn’t trust you as much as I already do, I’d be rubbing that chair leg over there instead, to soothe myself.
I reached down to pet Nada’s cheeks. “Thanks, Nada,” I said.
We watched as Nada walked to a far suburb of the living room. Susan and I made small talk. When I looked at Nada again, she had plopped down to lick her hairless, inflamed leg. Susan looked at me and shrugged. On the phone, she had described Nada’s damaged leg as “raw meat,” and she wasn’t exaggerating. Nada, with her sandpapery cat tongue, had licked a four-inch spot on her thigh into an open wound. Susan had taken Nada to a vet who had told her that the problem was not a medical issue—there was no food or skin allergy involved. The problem was behavioral. Poor Nada was exhibiting a classic compulsive behavior, overgrooming.
Cats frequently overgroom themselves (or chew or pull out their hair) in an exaggeration of the self-washing that cats will perform in order to feel better in stressful situations. It’s one of several kinds of compulsive behaviors engaged in by cats who experience repeated or continuous stress from frustration (I want to but I can’t) or internal conflict (I want two mutually exclusive things). Like humans, who overeat or indulge in other forms of addiction, cats tend to displace their anxiety into activities that temporarily relieve that anxiety. Most of the time overgrooming creates an area that’s nearly bald or covered with peach fuzz—sometimes a small area, sometimes the cat’s entire chest and stomach—but only rarely an actual lesion or wound, like Nada’s. Hers was the worst case I had ever seen. And now it was up to me to figure out why Nada was so stressed, and to deal with it before she did permanent damage to her leg. I just needed to apply what I knew about cats—what you’ll soon know, too—to the environmental triggers that Nada was responding to and help to direct her attention away from the overgrooming behavior.
Surveying the Zenlike home, I began to collect clues. I noticed that there was not one cat toy in sight. (There was almost nothing in sight.) In general, the house appeared to have been set up without any of a cat’s interests in mind. Also, as Nada sat down to lick her leg, Susan cooed at her and went over to pet her soothingly. When I asked Susan to play with Nada so that I could see how the two of them interacted, I realized she didn’t understand how to properly play with a cat. Using a wand, she snapped the feather at the end back and forth at dizzying speeds, always out of Nada’s reach. (To learn how to properly conduct the all-important prey sequence, see Chapter 5.) Perhaps the most significant clue came when I learned that Nada’s overgrooming had begun after the family adopted another cat. He and Nada hadn’t gotten along, so the two cats were now kept on separate floors.
Each clue to the source of Nada’s problem gave me information about what had to be changed—not by Nada but by Susan. Because the tense relationship between the two cats was surely causing Nada a lot of stress, Susan needed to help the cats learn how to get along with each other. To keep Nada’s mind and body occupied, give her ways to relieve her stress, and build her self-confidence, Susan would definitely need to deal with the near-total lack of environmental stimulation available to Nada, and change the frustrating way she played with her cat. Susan also had to stop giving Nada attention whenever she saw Nada licking herself.
Luckily, I was able to show Susan how to see the world through her cat’s eyes. Once Susan became aware of how she had contributed to Nada’s problems, she scrupulously followed my three-part C.A.T. Plan for behavior change, creating a more stimulating and entertaining environment for Nada and the other cat, and playing with them in more effective ways. Susan also followed the reintroduction plan along with the important group-scent technique I explain in Chapter 4, which is designed to bring two unfriendly cats back together so they can have a fresh start at becoming good friends. Within weeks Nada had become a much happier cat, and within a few more weeks her terrible skin lesion began to heal properly, until it healed completely a short time later. I was able to do the work I had done with Nada, from diagnosis to behavioral treatment, because I had learned to see a cat’s life through its eyes—which you can do, too.
For me the process began very early on, at around the time I began to speak.
My Animal Family
I come from a family steeped in animal life. My uncles and grandfather on my mother’s side were cattle ranchers and trophy-snagging rodeo riders in the Jordan Valley of eastern Oregon. My great aunt and uncle on my father’s side were both horse-stunt riders, like their parents before them. They all loved their horses. Their grandson and my cousin, Tad Griffith, now works closely with animals as the owner of a stunt and production company in California.
In my hometown of Redmond, Oregon, my aunt Vicki has long raised Toggenburg goats, the oldest known breed of dairy goat, which hails from the Swiss valley of the same name. Aunt Vicki also had real pet cats, the kind that lived in the house. While the goats thrilled me, the cats—indoors, for Bastet’s sake!—made me bitter with envy. Every Sunday our family would visit Aunt Vicki’s house and I would spend the entire time playing with the cats. One of her cats, Elsie, didn’t like to be stroked or held. My older cousin Samantha would remind me, “That Elsie’s a biter, Mieshelle.” But I found that you could indeed pet Elsie—just not for very long. You had to pay attention and watch for certain responses that indicated she had had enough. So I would pet her for a while, but stop before I saw her ears go back or her tail flick. Samantha bragged to everyone that I had the magic touch with Elsie, but I knew I was just petting her in the way she liked, and stopping before she got agitated. It was my first lesson, at the age of five, that you can’t make a cat do what you want, but you can change your own behavior slightly to get a result that will make both of you happy.
On the Farm
I always felt a little introverted and shy around other children. But luckily I was let loose to run with the animals on the farm our family lived on, in the high desert of Central Oregon, and they became my companions. I found the animals a lot more interesting and easy to get along with than my much older brothers or the other children around me. And how many people have a wild hummingbird for a friend?
Yes, I really did! I first remember being aware of it when I was about four and I kept hearing a fluttering in my ear, like a vibration, as I walked around outdoors. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a bug or a bee, but others told me the creature, iridescent and green, was a hummingbird. It would fly over me and in front of me and hover for a bit like it was trying to tell me something. After a while, it would zip off, only to return again, making that odd sensation in my ear. My dad used to tease me because a hummingbird followed me around, which embarrassed me because I was sure he thought it was ridiculous. But one day I heard him bragging about me and the hummingbird to some visiting relatives, and I realized that there was something special about what had happened.
My father was a gruff, hardworking man. The only time I saw him show emotion, no, melt, was in the presence of animals. Maybe that’s partly why I came to love animals, too. Dad kept all the kinds of animals that you’d expect to find on a family farm, and when I say he kept them, I mean he could not bring himself to put any of them on our dinner table. He and my mother had both grown up on cattle ranches, where raising animals for meat was simply what you did, but he grew too attached to the calves on our farm to turn them into table-top beefsteak, even though he’d bought them for that purpose. So ten calves grew into ten cows, and those cows simply became among the largest of my pets. What we really had was not a working farm, like the one our next-door neighbors had, but a large petting zoo.
Of course we also had horses, Missouri Foxtrotters. I learned to love horses, and to ride at a young age. We had a Rocky Mountain horse named Sinbad who’d been given to my father because he was supposedly “no good.” He had an injury to his hoof, so it was uncomfortable for him to run. Dad decided that that made him safe for me. A horse is a fantastic introduction to the world of animals. As any horse person knows, the big animals have a special, palpable sort of consciousness. I can stand next to a horse and feel the energy of a sentient heart and soul.
We had two sheep—I organized picnics with them—and many different types of fowl as well. The geese and the ducks and I sat in the dog house together, and I swam with them in their dirty pond (much to my mother’s distress). The chickens needed me to spend time with them, too, and I climbed on the roof to crow with the rooster.
Then there was the enormous bull in a corral next to the house. No one could even go near him without being charged. My parents warned me many times to stay away. Even the dogs were terrified of him. But I felt sorry for him. So I hatched a plan: I would hop hop hop into his corral like a bunny. And he wouldn’t be afraid or bothered at all. We had bunnies in our barn, after all, and he’d seen them, and I knew no one could be afraid of or angry at a bunny.
It wasn’t so much that I was a lunatic. I was four.
First I took some paper and drew two bunny ears, which I colored pink as the inside of a bunny’s ears. Then I cut them out and asked my mother to tape them on. “I need to be a bunny,” I said, already savvy enough to speak to my mother only on a need-to-know basis. “How sweet,” she said, and taped the bunny ears to my hair. I also knew I had to be a white bunny, like the ones in our barn, so I mashed several handfuls of cotton balls into a tail and attached it to my white ballet leotard.
It was a nice, warm summer’s dusk when I crawled through the bars of the bull’s corral. Careful not to look directly at him, I stayed low and hopped around the perimeter, as bunnylike as I could be, while he regarded me warily. Just going about my rabbity business. And then he stood up and walked over to me. I stopped hopping. His massive head blocked out the sun. His big nose reached down to me. His giant, light pink wet nostrils flared and pinched, flared and pinched. He snorted into the dust. And then I reached up and patted the fur at the top of his nose.
It was utterly exhilarating.
When my parents found me, I was sitting in the dirt at the animal’s feet, stroking his head and caressing his neck and throat. The family lore of “Mieshelle and that bull” would echo in my ears throughout my childhood, instilling in me my first sense that I had a special gift and passion. Of course my parents were horrified. But why did I have to play with a big old dangerous smelly bull? Because my parents wouldn’t get me a cat.
Unfortunately, the animals on whom I most wanted to deploy my special gift were cats—the one pet animal we didn’t have on our farm. That’s why, when I was four, I used to sneak across the street to a house where our neighbor ran a daycare service for children who were around the same age I was. I wasn’t going there to play with the other children; I went to play with our neighbor’s Siamese cat. Eventually the daycare owner told my mother that I could no longer come and play with the cat for free; my mother would have to pay for my being there, just like the rest of the parents did. But my stay-at-home mom didn’t think it made much sense to pay for me to be allowed to pet the kitty across the street, so she told me that I was no longer allowed to go to the daycare lady’s house.
So I began camping out in the woman’s driveway. Sometimes the willowy Siamese would see me through the window and come outside to receive my petting. I used to bring a brush that belonged to my Barbie doll (which I’d quickly abandoned as uninteresting) and the cat would purr and knead on me until finally I was not allowed to sit on the driveway anymore either.
One night, when I was four-and-a-half, my mother said, “Come here to the phone, Mieshelle. It’s Santa Claus.”
Standing in my nightgown, I took the phone from her.
“What do you want for Christmas?” a voice said.
“I want a cat.” I clarified that. “A real cat.”
“You want a real cat?” said the voice, amused. This was already annoying.
“Yeah. A real one.”
“Oh,” he said, “I think you want a stuffed animal cat.”
“I don’t want any more stuffed cats. I want a cat that purrs and eats milk.”
“I don’t think your mother would want a real cat in the house.”
“I want a real cat.”
It went on like that for some time. Then, seeing no progress, I hung up on Santa.
For Christmas I got a large, pink, stuffed cat, a sad product of a misbegotten union between a domestic shorthair and the Pink Panther.
Not at all what I wanted, but now that my dad is gone, I wish I had kept that stuffed cat.
My campaign for a real cat continued for several years, and remained fruitless. One year, after my mother had enrolled me in the Blue Birds, the little-girl wing of the Camp Fire Girls, we were all given blank autobiographical scrapbooks we had to fill in.
There was one page called All About Me. My page read:
My best friend is: My cat
What I love to do the most is: Play with my cat
The first thing I do when I get home from school is: Brush my cat
If I could be anything I would: Be a cat
I’m not making that up. But I still didn’t have a cat, a very sore point for me. I would soon, however, embark on a secret cat-taming project involving the feral cats in the canyon behind our house.
Cheshires in the Canyon
Like a lot of little girls, when I was a child I wanted to be Snow White. But not because of the prince. I wanted to talk to the animals. Lucky for me, our house sat at the edge of a shallow canyon, lush and green, with a nearly level floor, and that canyon was my haven to explore. The canyon was teeming with wildlife—deer, coyote, rabbits, butterflies, and hummingbirds—and, of course, our own pets—dogs, horses, rabbits, sheep, and calves—wandered there, too. The neighbor’s white peacocks visited daily. They were all my friends.
Occasionally, I saw cats in the canyon. For me it was like spotting a unicorn—something rare, rarely seen, and unpossessable. These feral cats were really what drew me to the canyon. They popped their heads out from behind rocks and trees, and then, like the Cheshire Cat in the Alice in Wonderland coloring book that my father and I colored in together, they vanished just as quickly. And like the Cheshire Cat when he was invisible, they watched me from the dark places.
One day, I got an idea. I’d throw a tea party like the one in the Alice story, and I would invite the Cheshires of the canyon. So early one June morning, just after my fifth birthday, I gathered up all my plastic teacups and plates, a tablecloth, my stuffed animals, and a stack of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and descended into the canyon, where I sat atop a flattish volcanic rock by a small stream. On each of my plastic plates I put a morsel of PB and J that I cut with a pink plastic knife, and then the stuffed animals and I sat there, looking at one another, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did.
I ran back up to the house to get some milk. Maybe that would be the draw. As I was heading back down the trail to my rock, I saw a buff-colored shorthaired cat sitting at one of the plates, eating some of the peanut butter and jelly. A cat! As soon as he spotted me, he bolted and ran away.
But I knew I was onto something. Over the weeks that followed, I learned I could get closer to some of these flighty tea party guests—the ones who were more relaxed—if I remained at a distance until they gradually got used to me. But I also learned that some cats are more reactive than others and I couldn’t get closer to them without their running off. In time, as they got used to my presence, even the highly reactive cats would not run as far and would return more quickly.
Looking back now, I’m sure that together we were discovering the behavior modification techniques of counterconditioning and desensitization. Counterconditioning pairs something attractive, such as food, with a negative stimulus (such as the presence of a little girl) in order to change an animal’s negative feelings about the stimulus into something more positive. As the weeks went by, I learned that tuna fish sandwiches were the sandwich of choice; that milk bested Kool-Aid in all taste tests; and that as long as I made no sudden moves, I could sit and dine with my striped and whiskered friends with relative ease and the happy certainty that no one would run off. After some time had gone by, I even managed to get some of them to let me pet them.
A year later we moved away from the canyon to a new house in the country. I missed my Cheshires and I renewed my campaign for a cat of my own. “What about all those cats in the barn?” my father grumbled one day. They were feral, almost as wild as the canyon cats, but after what I had learned from the Cheshires, I decided that I could make even better friends with the barn cats, if I just paid attention to what they liked. This was the beginning of several years of close observation. I copied their behavior; I tried to put myself into their heads and see the world through their eyes; and soon I felt that the barn Cheshires were becoming my family. If I got to the feral kittens early enough and played with them, I could make some of them quite friendly. I was about eight years old when neighbors noticed how friendly my barn cats were, and started asking me if they could adopt one or two as a pet. I even caught my dad cuddling one of the cats I had socialized.
The Egyptian word for cat is mau, which means “to see.” Egyptians were fascinated by cats’ eyes, most likely because they believed that cats could see into the human soul.
One morning, I saw a young, gray tabby cat crawl into a ten-inch irrigation pipe in our yard. I knew I had a small window of time before water would surge through those pipes, as it did daily. Crisis! I called, whispered, dangled a leaf, patted the ground—I tried everything to lure the little cat out, hoping to save its life. Nothing seemed to work. Then, without really thinking about it, I made eye contact with her, closed my eyes briefly, wishing for her to come out, and then opened my eyes again.
And the cat blinked back at me, slowly.
I blinked again, slowly, and immediately the little cat came tumbling out of the pipe. She allowed me to move her to safety, and only a few minutes later the water came rushing through the pipes.
My parents saw how happy I was and, to my amazement, they let me keep her. I named her Curly, for her curious little spiral of a stump tail. Many years later, I heard the experts say that slowly blinking and then looking away is a powerful form of cat communication, but by that time I had long known that a cat that blinks slowly at another is feeling content and relaxed. The blinked-at cat, in turn, interprets this as meaning she is not in harm’s way. Blinking can immediately reassure a cat and relax a tense situation. I still use this technique today, when a client’s cat won’t come out from under the bed.
The Vet Assistant Years
I was in seventh grade when I got my first glimpse of a world in which you could be with animals all day and even get paid to do it. My friend Jamie asked me to help her take her cat to the vet. Once there, a woman came into the exam room to take Shadow’s temperature. She was very impressive. “How long did it take you to go to vet school?” I asked her. “I’m not a vet,” she said. “I’m a vet tech.” A vet tech, or veterinary technician, would become for me a kind of ideal profession, but from my vantage point of twelve years of age, it sounded impossibly far away.
The years passed quickly, however, and when I was nineteen, studying psychology at a college in Portland, Oregon, I got my first job at a veterinary clinic. Though all the vet techs were more experienced, it soon became apparent that the animals were somehow more responsive to me. When no one else could get a cat out of its cage, or hold it still while its blood was being drawn, the vet would call me. By touching a cat’s body or just reading its body language, I could feel how a cat was feeling and sense what he was communicating—and I adjusted my touch accordingly. The clients as well as the vets began to ask for me to be in the exam room with their cats. I was able to calm cats who would not let anyone else close enough to inject them with vaccine or trim their nails. Clients also began to ask if I would pet-sit their cats when they were out of town.
For the next several years, I learned to do surgical prep, assist during surgeries, take X-rays, trim nails, give vaccinations, administer subcutaneous fluids, perform dentals, draw blood and run tests, and fill prescriptions. At the two clinics where I went next, I was named Head Vet Tech, and my responsibilities grew to include veterinary hospital administration and training new vet techs.
Over time, more and more of the clients asked me to watch their pets while they were on vacation. I would eventually make many thousands of house calls for cats with special needs. Then came the day that started me on my true path.
That day I happened to answer a call that came in to the vet’s office. It was from a woman, in obvious distress, who was driving in circles around the parking lot of the local Humane Society. “My cat’s in a crate,” she said. “I have to give him up.” She began to cry.
“Why do you think you have to give him up?” I asked.
“He’s been urinating in the house for over eight years,” she said. “My husband said either he or Bagel would have to go. I’ve been to every vet around, they ran tests on Bagel, I did what they told me to do.”
“Can you do something for me?” I said. “Can you park and let Bagel out of his crate?”
She pulled over and let Bagel out of his crate. Soon he was purring so loudly I could hear him through the phone.
“Now he’s curled up in my lap purring and kneading my leg,” she said. I could easily imagine it. Kneading is soothing to cats. It’s a behavior that begins in nursing, when a kitten rhythmically pushes and pulls its forepaws against the mother’s teat, both to push the queen’s skin away from the kitten’s nose and to help stimulate milk flow. Cats ever after associate kneading with happy feelings. And cats purr not just when they’re content, but when they are under stress and want to soothe themselves.
Now that she could clearly see and feel what was at stake, I asked her what she had done to stop the problem. She said she had followed her vet’s advice: She’d added another litter box. Where had she put it? Right next to the original. Were there any other cats in the house? Yes, there was Arnold. Had she noticed Arnold sitting on any of the pathways to the litter boxes? Yes, in fact: He often sat in the hall right outside the mud room where the cat boxes were located.
Bingo. Adding litter boxes hadn’t addressed the real issue, which was Arnold’s territorial competition with Bagel. I suggested she spread the litter boxes out, have three, not just two, and ideally put them in separate rooms. I strongly recommended that she clean the smell from the areas where Bagel had been urinating, and told her the best way to do that. And I offered her a number of other suggestions that we will discuss in the following chapters. The woman thanked me and hung up the phone. A week later she called back to say that for the first time in eight years, Bagel was using the litter boxes. A few months later, the woman stopped by the vet’s office and asked for “the girl who saved my cat and my marriage.” When the vet techs looked at me, she ran over and hugged me, telling me that Bagel was completely reformed and that Bagel and Arnold were even getting along wonderfully for the first time.
That’s when I knew it was time to choose between my job at the vet’s office, and the work I was doing on the side, caring for cats in my clients’ homes. I was spending so much time fielding clients’ questions and tending to their cats, I felt like I was working two full-time jobs. And the second job was something nobody else I knew was doing. So, in my early twenties, I quit my “real” job and began to work for myself. I never again worked for anyone without four legs and the ability to purr.
The Cat Behaviorist: Filling a Void in Feline Behavior Expertise
I was able to help Bagel’s owner because of what I had learned caring for the cats in my clients’ homes. It was my habit to visit the homes once or even twice a day. Sometimes when I showed up on the first day, I would find the litter box packed high with feces and urine clumps, and I would immediately clean it out, and keep cleaning it every time I visited. When the clients returned, they’d thank me for cleaning the box, thinking, I guess, that I had saved them only some labor. But a few days later they’d call to report, “Hey, my cat stopped pooping outside the box!” That’s how I learned how important a clean box is.
I learned a lot of other things during my pet-sitting days, often by trial and error. Ever since I was young I’d been unable to watch a cat without asking myself, If I was a cat, why would I have done that? If a cat was urinating outside the box, I’d ask, Why would she want to do that? Poor access? Too obese to get into the box? Intimidation?
I watched and made connections.
I also got to be very good at reading cats’ body language. I could immediately tell if they were stressed, and began to understand whether they were upset about something in their environment, another cat or both. While I was nominally providing in-home cat care, I became something of an interior decorator. I made minor changes to each client’s house to suit the needs of the cats (I made even more changes when a client left on an extended trip). And the cats stopped exhibiting behavior issues. When the owners came home, and saw, to their surprise, the positive changes in their cat’s behavior, they became fiercely loyal to me. Over the years, I had in effect conducted a longitudinal study of thousands of cats, keeping track of which changes in their environments affected which behaviors.
Take the Maine coons that had defecated outside the box for over a year. Despite my suggestion, the owner had refused to separate the cats’ litter boxes from their food. “They really like their food in the bathroom with the litter boxes,” he insisted. My instinct told me otherwise. I also recommended that he give his big cats more and bigger litter boxes, but he never got around to it. Then he went away for three weeks. In the feline utopia I set up for his cats, not once did anyone eliminate outside of the box.
“What did you do?” he asked on his return.
“I followed my advice.” After that, he did, too.
I didn’t always understand exactly what may have initially caused the cat’s problem. But I nearly always proved that it was largely environmental. Change the environment, change the cat’s behavior.
Many of my clients reported that their cats were aggressive, nipping them or chasing other cats. Others reported that their cats hid, were shy or timid. But when I got a chance to rearrange the cats’ environments, as I’m going to teach you to do here, they were calm, happy, and utterly friendly toward people and other cats.
“I don’t know what you did,” they’d call me up to say, a few hours after they returned home. “This is not the same cat I left here. She’s so confident and so friendly, so affectionate and loving. What did you do?”
I even got cats to play. A shocking number of clients solemnly informed me that their cats didn’t play, and some people would even illustrate—by wiggling the cat’s toy in its face. But cats seem to have evolved to view anything that hurls itself into a predator’s face as inedible, so in order to get a cat to play, you have to make the toy appear to be fleeing the cat.
Then there were the clients who would instruct me, “They all eat off the same plate.” But I’d ignore the instruction and feed them separately as a matter of basic cat psychology, especially if the cats were visibly competing or looked uncomfortable eating from the same food bowl. When the owners returned, they’d always ask, “Why are the cats sleeping together? They’ve never done that before. And what did you do to make them stop fighting?” By eliminating the competition between them, I’d resolved the hostility, too.
I’ve now spent nearly two decades making house and phone calls to solve cats’ behavior issues, affording me invaluable experiential information. In the last twenty years, not counting my observations of feral cat colonies in childhood or of my own cats, I’ve logged over 33,000 hours observing cats and investigating clients’ reports of their cats’ behaviors. If a psychologist worked over a twenty-two-year period while listening to patients’ self-reports (as opposed to the more useful witnessing of their behavior) for a prodigious thirty clients per week, fifty weeks a year, she would reach a similar number. I have written this post to bring this knowledge to you and your cats.
The Cat Behavior Clinic
For the last twelve years, I’ve run The Cat Behavior Clinic, which is devoted to researching and solving cat behavior problems in person or by phone. Since I opened the clinic, I have worked with thousands of clients and vets from all over the world. My success rate on behavior issues—success meaning total or partial improvement—naturally depends greatly on whether my clients follow my instructions, but when they do, it’s near 100 percent for most behavior issues, and well over 90 percent for even the most difficult problems.
The vets I’ve had the pleasure to work with are fantastic, dedicated people. But behavior issues aren’t their specialty. Going to a non-behaviorist vet with a cat behavior problem is like getting psychiatric advice from your general practitioner. In fact, I’m often sought out by vets who have behavior issues with their own cats. The first piece of information they invariably give me arrives apologetically: “I didn’t get much training in animal behavior, you know.” Few, if any, veterinary schools even offer a course specifically on feline behavior. I’m amazed at this state of affairs. The instincts and behavior of the world’s most popular pet remain a mystery to the caregivers who could make the biggest difference in the lives of cats and their owners.
Cat owners live in an informational vacuum. The fact is in North America there are only several dozen people trained in feline behavior. The good news is that while the field of cat behavior is relatively young, it is, finally, here.
I’m now privileged to help clients all over the world with their cat behavior issues, and I love my work, because I still have a fierce love for animals and I know from experience that most behavior issues can be easily solved. Today I have nine animals (some rescues), including six well-behaved cats (Jasper Moo Foo, Rhapsody in Blue, Clawde, Barthelme, Lady Josephine, and Farsi Noir), their playmate Piccolo (a Teacup Chihuahua), a soulful Great Dane named Jazzy, and a Monitor Lizard. The pure hearts of all these animals bring me to my next subject.
What “Good Death”? The Crisis of Feline Euthanasia
It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.
—Alice, Alice in Wonderland, LEWIS CARROLL
A behavior problem, in a cat, is all too often tantamount to the pet having a terminal disease. The most common drug-based solution for behavior problems in cats surrendered to animal shelters is the drug used for euthanasia.1 “Euthanasia” is Greek for “good death” or “dying well.” I can think of few more ironic and tragic misuses of language. No death due to easily prevented behavior problems can be considered a “good death.” I’m passionate about showing cat owners how to prevent, or even stop causing, behavior problems that often lead to euthanasia.
Cats are more often killed for unwanted behavior than for any other reason. Imagine if the number one killer of human beings was not disease but behavioral problems. We’d view that as a mental health epidemic. But every sixty seconds in the United States, between four and nine cats are given the “good death.” Since you began reading this section half a minute ago, between six and thirteen more cats were killed. That’s at least 4 million, and perhaps as many as 9 million, cats killed every year.2
The Shelter and Abandonment Crisis
About 10 million pet cats are surrendered to shelters in the United States every year, or about one out of every eight. Only one out of four of the cats sent to shelters will find a home, while the other three will face the “good death.” Euthanasia in shelters is the leading cause of death among American cats. Studies suggest that one-fifth to one-third are killed because the owners cannot cure or tolerate unwanted behaviors like out-of-the-box elimination or spraying, the top two issues I deal with at The Cat Behavior Clinic. Here’s the really tragic part: Most behaviors are easily treated, especially these two.
At the time of this writing, in the United States there are 88 million pet cats (compared to about 35 million in France, Germany, Italy, and the U.K.), and there are another 40 to 70 million homeless or feral cats.3 By contrast, there are 75 million dogs in U.S. households, but relatively few homeless or stray dogs.4 The truth is, though cats now outnumber dogs in many countries, they are still not as highly valued as dogs. There are several reasons for the difference in treatment between cats and dogs. Primary among them is that during the course of over ten thousand years of domestication, dogs have learned to watch and react to every smile and scowl on a human’s face, so arriving at a mutual understanding with dogs is relatively easier than with cats. The behavior of pack animals just seems more natural to group-oriented animals like ourselves, who are also highly responsive to the body language and expressions of those around us. Both humans and dogs “live in extended family groups,” veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall points out, “provide extensive parental care, share care of young with both related and nonrelated group members, give birth to altricial [immobile]young that require large amounts of early care and sustained amounts of later social interaction, nurse for an extended period before weaning to semisolid food (dogs do this by regurgitation; humans use baby food …), have extensive vocal and nonvocal communication … and have a sexual maturity that precedes social maturity.”5
Cats, who are not pack animals, are less emotionally dependent on us, and may therefore sometimes seem less responsive to us, and so less personlike. Most owners simply lack awareness about why cats behave the way they do and how to change their behavior when necessary.6 Overcoming this lack of understanding is one of my major concerns in writing this post.
According to the American Humane Society, cat owners are less likely than dog owners to tag or microchip their pets with identification, so shelters are unable to return found cats to their owners. Whatever the reasons for the high rate of abandonment of cats at shelters, cats are more often euthanized, given up for adoption, and thrown out of the house than dogs, and far more likely for behavioral problems than are dogs. (As an aside, people also take their dogs to vets for medical care at considerably higher rates than they take their cats, which might be one reason that behavioral issues related to medical problems get habituated, instead of being nipped in the bud.) There are no lucky rendered cats: Even those sent to no-kill shelters don’t live happily-ever-after. Shelters don’t solve behavior problems, and spraying and unwanted elimination are such turnoffs for the adopting humans that “problem” cats just get recycled through one shelter and home after another.
But that’s not the only horror facing our cat population. Hundreds of thousands or even millions more each year are thrown out of houses to become strays, and, often, to die prematurely. These outdoor cats, even those still fed by their owners, may have a very difficult time adjusting emotionally and physically to outside life. They will not live as long or as healthy a life as an indoor cat. In most cases, this decision is inhumane, not to mention avoidable. It’s a terrible life for them.
It’s time for a change. Cat owners must take responsibility for their cats and for themselves. People who choose to own cats should use all means available to remedy their cat’s behavior issues. This is particularly true when you consider that the unwanted behavior is often a result of something the owner has done or is still doing—a major topic of the next chapter. Many owners surrender their pet to the shelter before even seeking behavior help.