Understanding the cat code

Enrichment should no longer be considered a “nice option” for clients of indoor cats

In the last several years, we’ve seen many a dog trainer host their own TV show, some of whom espoused the use of antiquated dominance-based approaches to remove undesirable behaviors. As a result of the success of some shows, dog trainers everywhere began to market themselves as “whisperers.” Some simply hung a shingle on their doors or websites and called themselves behaviorists.

Understandably, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) was annoyed, while boarded behaviorists became concerned about the welfare of dogs trained using aversive methods. An informal conversation between sessions at a trade show with Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM (CA), led to musings about what the behavior college might to do set the record straight. The answer came to me instantly. “Write a book,” I said.

Sure enough in 2014, the college released Decoding Your Dog, authored and edited by 22 diplomates of the college. I was honored to co-edit and author the book’s introduction.

Due to sky-high sales (which I’m not sure even the publisher expected) and favorable reviews, the same publisher had no issue with allowing the college to produce a sequel. Suitably titled Decoding Your Cat, the book was edited by Meghan Herron, DVM, DACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB; and Carlo Siracusa, DVM, PhD, DECAWBM. For this book, I authored the introduction. 

Cats and flags

Decoding Your Cat is primarily geared for pet parents, offering a myriad of goals that range from busting myths regarding cats to simply keeping them
in homes and out of shelters due to abandonment. If the human-animal bond fractures as a result of behavior, no visits to the veterinarian will obviously be forthcoming.

“Cats wave a flag that there’s something wrong,” one of the book’s contributors, Amy Pike, DVM, DACVB, CABC, tells me in an interview. “Well that is the cat’s perspective, they’re waving the flag, but many times pet parents don’t notice the change in behavior because cats can be subtle. If and when the owners do seek help, where are they going?”

That’s a problem, what with all the whisperer wannabes out there.

In the cat world, people call themselves behaviorists with zero props. Some may only know what they do because they read books such as Decoding Your Cat. Well, at least they know something. Others literally may depend on reading tea leaves, checking a cat’s horoscope, or asking the dude restocking food at the pet store.

“Of course, the advice we offer is a bit more scientific than tea leaves, but it’s also practical,” Dr. Herron says.

More so than with dogs, owners believe their cat is out to get them or is being spiteful.

“Dogs have changed dramatically from their original ancestors,” Herron explains. “I have a French bull dog myself. Talk about neoteny (retention of juvenile features in the adult animal.)

“However, domestic cats physically haven’t changed a whole lot. So that means the behavioral repertoire is quite similar, too. A strong hunting instinct, a desire to scratch and climb all over things, and to perhaps do anything to feel safe. Perfectly normal behaviors for cats, but problematic for some families. When it comes to cats, our clients’ expectations are too often not what cats truly are.” 

Enriching cats’ lives

Of course, those expectations, however unrealistic, and the fact cats don’t bark or require walks per se, are reasons they’re more popular than dogs. “We don’t write about damaging cat training, as we did damaging dog training,” says Julia Albright, DVM, DACVB, associate professor veterinary behavior at University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, Knoxville. “While cats are way more self-sufficient than dogs, we’re often not fair to cats, not giving them what they need.”

Dr. Albright is referring to enrichment. There’s an entire chapter on enrichment in the book, even though it comes up it in every chapter.

“Enrichment should no longer be considered a nice option for clients of indoor cats,” Albright says. “I prescribe enrichment all the time. I have a handout; I circle what’s right for that individual cat. We talk about what an individual client can do and meet them where they are at. I tell clients to set times and have reminders to ensure they do it. I talk about how cats can be taught to play fetch and I think there should seriously be an equivalent of canine nose work for cats. I have moose scent and put that on a paper towel.”

Dr. Pike adds, “Technicians and nurses [are critical] when it comes to communication and education—and it’s worth the time investment to address, whether in person or via telehealth. Maybe have the technician teach the [clients’] kids. The favorite thing for our 12-year daughter and for our cat is to enjoy a stroller ride around the neighborhood. Or hiding the Hunting Feeder (a feeding device) for the cat to seek and then manipulate to get food from.”

Enrichment is about meeting cats’ hardwired needs. Albright brings up a new area of study: enrichment releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a sort of natural antidepressant. At least that’s the case in rodents and humans; it’s also come up in limited studies in dogs.

Another important objective consistent throughout the book is to help clients be more aware that a change in behavior may be the result of a medical issue. “Every day when I was in general practice, people said, ‘Give me Prozac,” Herron says. “Clients want a magic pill that doesn’t exist. And because the internet says the problem is behavioral, it must be. So they add litterboxes for the cat with kidney disease, which is fine except the cat still has kidney disease.”

So many clients are embarrassed to even bring up a behavior problem, or they don’t think it’s important or they don’t think a veterinarian would have any interest in a behavior problem. “I suggest private practitioners always ask, not if there’s a behavior problem, but if there’s been any change in your cat’s behavior,” Pike says. “Sometimes people may not even think about it until you ask. Or they may think a change, like an older cat no longer jumping on a counter, is to be expected. Of course, that tells us the cat may be in pain, right? And we can do something for that cat.”

“I’m so glad cats are finally receiving the attention they deserve and hope Decoding Your Cat clears up the long list of misconceptions and misunderstandings people have about cats,” Albright concludes.

Being a part of Decoding Your Dog was an honor, mostly because we elevated the awareness that veterinary behaviorists even exist as a specialty. I know that book saved dogs’ lives. I feel—as do the diplomates I spoke with for this story—that might be even truer for Decoding Your Cat. Even some veterinary processionals wonder if you can “decode cats.” While cats still hold back in some ways, they are far less mysterious than they once were. Also, my message to cat owners is that when a cat hides more often than usual, please don’t immediately run to Dr. Google assuming the problem is solely behavioral. There is very possibly a contributing medical explanation for what they are doing, so see your veterinarian. I truly believe Decoding Your Cat unravels feline mysterious and, in the process, save lives.

Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant who speaks at animal welfare and veterinary conferences. Visit his website at stevedale.tv. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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