Your cat yowls nonstop, or she lunges for every ankle that walks through your door. Some of her behavior is so troublesome that you worry about her health. You make an appointment with your cats veterinarian, who gives her a clean bill of health. But is there anything else you can do?
Luckily, there is. You can book an appointment with an animal behaviorist, a professional with an advanced degree in veterinary medicine and additional training in animal behavior. Some animal behaviorists will prefer to come to your home and observe your cat in his own environment, and then make recommendations on how to understand and modify your cats disturbing manners.
The Home Visit
Theres nothing like a smell or sight to give me the whole picture of whats going on with a cat in his home, says Jacqui Neilson, DVM, board certified by the American College of Animal Behaviorists. Dr. Neilson – who practices in Portland, Oregon – insists on doing home visits with cats because the environment plays a lot in behavioral problems in cats. This includes the cleanliness of the cats home and litter box, the noise level and the interaction with other pets and humans in the home.
The most common referral to behaviorists is regarding cats that soil outside the litter box. Referrals usually come from a cats primary veterinarian, who will first examine the cat to rule out any medical causes for the misbehavior. Before seeing the cat, the behaviorist usually requests the client to submit a detailed history of the cats problem.
The actual home visit can take an hour or two. The first thing I do is sit down with the people in the cats household and get more details on the problem, says Dr. Neilson. The next step is a tour of the house to see where the cat eats, sleeps, plays – and the location of the all-important litter box. On occasion, the cat will perform the undesirable behavior while Im on the tour, says Dr. Neilson.
Finally, Dr. Neilson examines the cat herself to confirm no existing medical problems. If she identifies one, she usually refers the cat back to the primary veterinarian for additional diagnosis and treatment.
Behaviorists use a variety of techniques for altering behavior. They may include behavior modification, environmental modification, desensitization, trust training, stress reduction and medication.
After the cats physical examination, the behaviorist discusses the steps needed to rectify the undesired behavior. Sometimes its as simple as replacing the litter with a type the cat prefers. Or it may be that the human companion needs to alter his own behavior to stop his cats aggression.
Following the home visit, Dr. Neilson submits a detailed report to both the client and the cats primary veterinarian. Clients can usually call or email their behaviorist with follow-up questions for a period of three months to a year. The most crucial period is the first month or so after behavioral treatment has started, says Dr. Neilson.
Dr. Neilson reports a success rate between 80 and 90 percent with the cats she treats, meaning that problems are resolved sufficiently to keep the cat in the home. In general, soiling problems are most successfully treated with behavioral methods. The hardest problems to treat, says Dr. Neilson, involve aggression between cats who live together.
Finding a Therapist
Your best bet for finding an animal behaviorist for your cat is to ask your regular veterinarian who is familiar with the credentials and experience required. The cost of a consultation varies, but most range from $180 to $250 an hour plus a traveling fee. If it helps you get along better with your cat, it may well be worth a try.
The success of behavior therapy with your cat depends on a good diagnosis and treatment plan. But probably the most important aspect is client compliance, says Dr. Neilson. If you dont follow your behaviorists suggestions, the chances of changing your cats disturbing behavior are very small.
Although they want their cats to change, many clients also lead very busy lives, and are often not willing or able to take the steps needed to change the cats behavior, says Dr. Neilson. For example, clients may resist cleaning the litter box on a daily basis, which may be necessary to stop house soiling. Therefore, be frank with your behaviorist, says Dr. Neilson.
If there is an intervention you know you cant comply with, you need to discuss it. There may be an alternative available to you, such as hiring someone to take care of the litter box for you.