Aint Misbehaving

Dr Mew Visits an Animal Behaviorist

If you dont clean up your act, youre going to see the animal behaviorist! How many times have we cats heard that threat!

Not me, of course – perfectly behaved gentleman that I am – but from my post in the Feline Health Center at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, I do occasionally hear that some feline brethren are not exactly living up to their humans expectations. So, I paid a telephonic visit to a noted animal behaviorist (Suzanne Hetts, PhD, a Denver specialist who writes a column about canine behavior problems in our sister publication, DogWatch) to learn what the profession has to offer.

My telephone consultation was not very unusual, Hetts says. Most of her cat-behavior work is done by phone or by home visits. Traveling is so stressful to most felines that their behavior – or misbehavior – isnt natural in the environment of a doctors office. A home visit sometimes is best, she says, because she can see for herself the cats world, rather than relying on the humans description.

The most common feline behavior issues we deal with are cats that dont use their litter boxes, spray-marking around the house, cats that fight with other cats in the house, and cats that attack humans – in that order, Hetts told me.

At least Im not common, but my particular phobia did come up later in the conversation.

Trapped in the litter box
In the case of litter box misuse, the animal behaviorist will want to know where the cat is eliminating inappropriately, to use a polite term. If the cat is messing on a pile of soft clothes or the carpet, Hetts says, that could be a clue that the errant animal prefers a kinder, gentler type of litter granules. Or, if the mess is made in an open space, whereas the litter box is in a confined area or has a cover over it, perhaps the cat feels trapped or vulnerable, Hetts suggests. Sometimes simply moving the litter box to a different place – where the cat can see whats going on around it and feels protected from surprise – is all it takes. Thats why we try to get people to see things through the cats eyes.

What a cat sees to make it spray-mark with urine is another puzzle, Hetts says.

There may be conflicts with other cats in the family or cats it sees passing by outdoors. There may be too many visitors to the house or some kind of general emotional arousal, she says. If there is a clear trigger, we try to eliminate the cause or try to change the cats reaction so that it no longer perceives a territorial threat.

Cat-to-cat aggression is a tricky problem to treat, Hetts says, and the problem often starts when a new cat is introduced to a home that is owned by a longtime resident feline. The way you introduce a new cat is really crucial. People tend to rush things, and thats where the trouble starts.

Biting the hand …
The same people who expect cats to fight can be horrified when – surprise – we cats attack them. Aggression against people is more often seen in younger cats less than two years of age, but it can begin at any time, Hetts says. And there are almost as many theories for the cause as there are spots on a Bengal. If the aggression is play-motivated and it comes from the only cat in the family, then the human is the default playmate. Sometimes we can redirect the play to a more appropriate object (than a human hand or head) such as a dangling toy or a motorized mouse to pounce on.

So far, you have talked about behavior modification, Doc. How about some pharmaceutical medication for what really ails us?

Medication can be helpful in certain kinds of problems, Hetts says, thinking of anti-anxiety drugs for cats that obsessively spray-mark their territories. But medications alone are seldom the solution, so they are often combined with behavior modification.

And what is the most unusual behavior problem you have encountered in cats?

How about those sissies that are afraid of thunder? I asked bravely, not wanting to admit that I become terrified when I hear even faint rumble in the distance.

Ive only treated one thunder-phobic cat, and he had survived a tornado so his concerns were understandable, Hetts says. More often, it is dogs that are afraid of thunder, she noted.

My biggest fan
Probably the most unusual phobia was the cat that wouldnt come into a room where the owners had installed a new ceiling fan, she says, and she could have been talking about me. I mean, have you ever looked at those things from a cats vantage point? Ceiling fans flail around, over our heads, making a breeze we never asked for. Who knows if theyre even installed properly. They could come crashing down at any moment!

The prescribed treatment was for the humans to cover the fan blades with a cloth. Then they gradually exposed the blades and finally, when the cat lost its fear and returned to the room, they were able to start the fan. Case closed.

Her own cat, Hetts says, loves to watch the ceiling fan go round. I have to have a talk with that cat.

The biggest public misconception about animal behaviorists, Hetts says, is that they are animal trainers, and that people can just drop off unruly pets for a behavioral overhaul and come back in a month. Rather, animal behaviorists develop a treatment plan that the pets human caretakers can successfully implement.

The other misconception Hetts says, is that we are pet psychics.

Somehow, I already knew that.