Whenever I tell people what I do for a living there is usually only one reaction…
“You’re a what?”
Relatively little is still known about cat behaviour and even less about the existence of cat behaviourists, so I thought I’d share with you what happens on one of my consulting days.
The alarm wakes me up at 7.00am and I’m in the car by 7.45am ready for the 50-minute drive to see my latest cat client, Ronaldo and his owners Stacey and James. Ronaldo is a three-year-old male moggie and unlike his famous footballing namesake, is a small and rather nervous character.
The problem facing Stacey and James was that for the past twelve months Ronaldo had been regularly urinating on their bed.
I check that I’ve got all my documentation:
- The all-important questionnaire which I ask clients to complete and return to me prior to my visit. It contains a rather lengthy list of questions relating to the cat’s background; environment; relationships with other cats; relationships with the members of the household; the resources that are available to him and not least, the behaviour for which the client is seeking my help. Once the owners have completed it and returned it to me I’m then able to undertaken my preparatory work. I also find it useful for providing an overall structure to the consultation, even though in reality, we rarely stick to the order!
- The signed veterinary referral form. I only undertake home consultations where a vet has referred the owner to me. The reason for this is to ensure that the behaviour doesn’t have a physical cause. I don’t want to be treating a cat for a behaviour related to chewing strange objects when what’s really happening is that the poor thing is suffering from dental pain!
- The cat’s medical history. This is in addition to the vet referral form and provides me with a complete picture of the cat’s medical background, some of which could be relevant to the behaviour causing concern.
I’m 10 minutes early arriving so park up around the corner from the house – I’ve learnt that not all clients like me arriving before they’re ready! It also gives me a chance for a sugary cereal bar to give me some va va voom and stop those embarrassing mid-consultation tummy rumbles!
At exactly the time agreed I knock on Stacey and James’s front door and am ushered into the living room. I start the consultation without Ronaldo being present, which doesn’t worry me, I find it much more helpful to assess a cat’s true temperament if they’re not dragged kicking and screaming into the room to meet me! Eventually the lure of my magic cat bag, filled with exciting toys stuffed with catnip and valerian brings him into the room. He slinks slowly over to the bag and after a few tentative sniffs, disappears into its depths. In a few seconds he re-emerges with a couple of toys and starts rolling around the floor with them, whilst Stacey and James look on with complete adoration, and some disbelief! Throughout the consultation I assess Ronaldo’s behaviour, the way he responds to Stacey and James and how they interact with him. At the same time I’m making suggestions for change based on the responses Stacey and James give to my questions. When formulating a behaviour therapy programme it’s so important to take into account the owners’ feelings and preferences and make the strategies that are as practical for them as possible.
After we’ve gone through the questionnaire Stacey then shows me around the house. This gives me the opportunity to see at first hand Ronaldo’s indoor environment, where his important resources are located and where they can be moved to, if necessary, or whether new resources may be required. It also allows me to see the small but perfectly formed garden that he has access to.
At the end of the tour we reconvene on the sofa and confirm the strategies we’ve agreed on to address the behaviour. In this case, although Ronaldo had a litter tray it was an open tray located directly in front of the patio doors. To Ronaldo, this would have been like toileting out in the open and in full sight of the neighbour’s cats who were regular garden visitors. I suggested they keep the original tray in situ and purchase another, larger tray, to be placed in a discreet corner of the utility room. They were to fill it with a nice fine, unscented clumping litter, remove soiled areas twice daily and clean the whole tray out weekly with boiling water and washing up liquid.
In order for Ronaldo to stop thinking of Stacey and James’s bed as a toilet, it was important to deny him access to the bedroom at all times for an indefinite period. This was a slightly contentious strategy as Stacey loved having Ronaldo cuddle up to her at night, much to James’s obvious annoyance. In order to restore harmony to the bedroom, I suggested treating Ronaldo to a lovely low-voltage heat pad and placing it in a favoured spot downstairs where he would have access to all his other essential resources, including his food, water, toys, scratching post and litter tray. They were to create a new and consistent night time routine for him that involved a late meal in his night time area, and switching on the heated pad to signal bed time. In this way, Stacey could relax in the knowledge that Ronaldo would be enjoying his new cosy set-up, and James would be happy having Stacey cuddling him instead of Ronaldo!
Other recommendations were agreed relating to how Stacey and James interacted with Ronaldo and what other resources might enhance his environment and remove potential triggers for urinating outside his tray. Unfortunately, twelve months of cat wee soaking through to the mattress on the master bed meant it had to go!
Three hours is the typical length of a consultation for me and this one was no different. I arrive back home at lunchtime and spend the next few hours writing up the consultation report that I send to each client. This includes all the strategies that have been agreed, along with links to any products that I recommend. After I complete this and send it off to Stacey and James, I then write a report for the referring vet so they can update their records with my findings.
Two weeks later Stacey got in touch to let me know that Ronaldo had been using the new tray in preference to his old one and was loving his new heated pad so much that the minute it was switched on at night, he would go and settle on it without so much as a goodnight glance to Stacey! However, the acid test came three months later when, by accident, Stacey and James had forgotten to shut the bedroom door before leaving for work. Having bought a new mattress this could have spelled disaster! However, by this time Ronaldo was more than happy with his recently introduced toilet facilities and the bed remained unsoiled. After that it was decided that Ronaldo would be allowed into the bedroom during the day but kept out at night. This routine worked for all parties and the bed-peeing was consigned to history.