Q&A Secrets from a decade of cat whispering

The Globe and Mail

Mieshelle Nagelschneider of Seattle opened her cat behaviour clinic in 1999 ( thecatbehaviorclinic.com), and her book, Through the Eyes of a Cat, is due out in early 2011 from Bantam Dell, an imprint of Random House Publishing. In an e-mail conversation, she shared some secrets from a decade of cat whispering.

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Would you say demand for your services has been steady since you opened your clinic in 1999, or increasing - and if increasing, by how much?

I'm seeing more and more clients in the U.S. for sure, but even more surprising is the interest I'm getting from Canada, the U.K., Brazil, Singapore, France, Japan and Australia. Cat-behaviour consulting is such a new and still small discipline that no one is tracking statistics on client demand, but I think it's safe to say that demand for cat behaviour advice is increasing and will only continue to do so. And I think there are several reasons for that.

First, the number of cats is increasing as they've become the most popular pet in North America - simple math. An even bigger influence, I think, is The Horse Whisperer, Dog Whisperer, and all the TV shows making cat owners more aware of the idea of niche pet behaviourists. It wasn't long before clients and the media began calling me the Cat Whisperer, and I'd like to think the public's interest will only continue to grow, and for the most important reason of all: There's a huge void in the public's understanding of cat psychology.

There are thousands of dog training services in North America, but only a handful of cat behaviour services. There are only 40 or so veterinary behaviourists in North America who consult with pet owners, and even they see mostly dogs.

I shudder every time a client tells me she's been applying alpha-dog concepts to her cat, or that her vet told her medication is the only remedy.

What are some of the most common problems people bring to you?

Urine marking and litter-box issues are the most common issues. Next are inter-cat social issues, and then the different kinds of aggression. These are the issues that get millions of cats avoidably euthanized each year. That's tragic, because these issues are easily solved if you find the right help.

The majority of feline behaviour issues are not true "behaviour problems" in the sense that people usually mean it. They're part of a cat's natural behaviour repertoire - it's the owners who have issues with how their cat is naturally reacting to the environment the owner has set up.

On the flip side, what's one of the most unusual cat challenges you've faced?

While there are no cat behaviour issues I haven't seen before, I would say the greatest challenge is getting owners to change their own behaviours. Cat behaviour is usually quite easy to change. The most challenging cat issues are those that develop due to improper socialization of the kitten during the critical socialization period between three to eight weeks. Examples include chronic shyness or fear-based aggression.

What is the most common mistake people make when they have a behaviour issue with their cat?

The five most common mistakes cat owners make with their cats are:

1) trying to use dog training methods or concepts like the "alpha cat;"

2) failing to understand normal cat behaviour and therefore failing to set appropriate expectations;

3) engaging in totally counterproductive and inhumane reprimanding or punishing;

4) assuming their cat is behaving out of spite or vengefulness;

5) turning to unnecessary medication before they've consulted an expert cat behaviourist

It seems like there are a lot of TV shows, books and mini-celebrities (Cesar Milan, for example) devoted to dog training issues, but not so much for cats - even though cat behaviour can sometimes be much more inscrutable or challenging than dog behaviour (at least to me). Do you think there's a need for more understanding of and attention to cat behaviour?

There is a desperate need for more cat behaviourists, and more public understanding of cat psychology. In my study at Harvard, I was the only cat person in the class. It was clear that learning about dog behaviour was more sought after. Luckily, animal behaviour is a growing field and more and more people are inquiring about how to become cat behaviourists. The recent publisher interest in my book - I must have talked to 16 or 18 publishers - and the calls I keep getting from producers signify a real shift, too.

But I think the biggest impact could be made in the veterinary schools. It's a no-brainer that the psychology of the world's most popular pet should be part of the required veterinary curriculum. My heart jumps at the lives that would be saved if the most prominent and numerous experts that cat owners see - their vets - were highly knowledgeable. As it is, medical vets are not able to give comprehensive advice to cat owners on behaviour. In fact, I routinely consult with medical vets who are having issues with their own cats.

Cats relate to us very differently from the way dogs do. Dogs are into pleasing the owner, but with cats it's all about what's in it for them. Cat owners who reprimand and scold their cat will make behaviour issues worse and even create new issues.

It's a common misconception that cats cannot be trained. They can, and very easily. Look at tigers jumping through hoops at the circus, or the Russian Cat Circus. But the issues I deal with are not training issues, but behaviour modification and re-educating the owner on how cats think.



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