Cat Behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett Interview with Floppycats’ Jenny Dean
Pam Johnson-Bennett is a world-renowned cat behaviorist. She has written several books on cat behavior, including:
- Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat–Not a Sour Puss
- Cat Vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat
- Starting from Scratch: How to Correct Behavior Problems in Your Adult Cat
- Twisted Whiskers: Solving Your Cat’s Behavior Problems
- Hiss and Tell: True Stories from the Files of a Cat Shrink
- Psycho Kitty: Tips for Solving Your Cat’s Crazy Behavior
- Cat Love: Understanding the Needs and Nature of Your Cat
I was introduced to Pam’s work when a reader told me that the book, Starting from Scratch: How to Correct Behavior Problems in Your Adult Cat, was a life-saver for her newly adopted Ragdoll rescue cat. I decided to order a copy of the book to check it out. I immediately started reading it and enjoying how it was written. However, it’s not only how it’s written – it is what is written. I was learning things too!
As a result of enjoying how the book was written and also the information it provided, I wanted to see if I could get in touch with Pam to do an interview. Lucky for us – she said yes!
You can visit Pam’s Cat Behavior Associates website here. You can watch episodes of Animal Planet’s UK series Psycho Kitty (Pam is the host) on iTunes.
Jenny: Alright, today we are talking to Pam Johnson-Bennett who is the best-selling author of seven books on cat behavior. She also is the host of Animal Planet’s UK series Psycho Kitty, and is one of the most popular and sought after cat behavior experts in the world. Pam, thank you so much more joining us today.
Pam: Thanks for having me. I love talking about cats.
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Jenny: Good, so do I. And I think everyone listening likes to listen about cats. And I’m excited to listen too. I guess I wanted to start out with a little bit about your background. Did you grow up with cats?
Pam: No, I didn’t and full disclosure, I didn’t even like them when I was a kid and that was because every cat I was exposed to had not been trained real well. So they were not well behaved. It wasn’t until I was probably 19 or 20 that I first realized what I had been missing.
Jenny: Well, good. What happened at 19 or 20 that caused you to be interactive with them?
Pam: Well, I was walking in my home town. It was Christmas and I was Christmas shopping, and there was a teenage girl sitting on the steps of the church of all places in the snow on Christmas Eve with a box with two kittens. And even in my limited knowledge, I knew those kittens did not need to be out in this cold. And she said that her cat had had kittens and the mom said get rid of the kittens and she wasn’t to come home until all the kittens were gone. And she was cold and tired, and she said that if I didn’t take the kittens, she was just going to leave the box on the steps of the church. So I took them…
Jenny: Oh man.
Pam: And proceeded to do everything wrong. First of all, the kittens were too young to be taken away from their mother. And I did everything wrong. And over the next couple years with these cats, I didn’t train them. I didn’t do the right thing. I went to the vet one day and the cats were a couple years old, and the veterinarian – and you have to keep in mind this is many, many years ago – the veterinarian said let’s just put these cats to sleep. They’re rotten. There are many more cats that need homes, just put them to sleep. And that was such a wake-up call to me that oh my gosh, no, I’ve got to fix this. If they’re messed up, I did it. So I went home. And back then – now, I was a musician and I had no plans to go into cat behavior. And I went home and I went through the book stores, and of course this was before the internet so you actually had to get in your car and go places if you wanted to buy a book. And there were no books on cats. So I didn’t have any education on it. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, so I decided I’m just going to learn from the cats and figure out what they’re telling me rather than what I expect from them. And just by having them be the teachers and learning about them, and I did read everything I could, anything there was out on cats. I read dog-training books. I read marriage counselling, child-rearing. I read everything. And the cats changed so much so that when I brought them back to the vet for their next annual, he didn’t believe they were the same cats. And he then started calling me to help him with some of his client’s difficult cats. And that’s how my career started. It wasn’t a plan. It was just, I was going to be a musician and I was living in New York City and I was doing that and I was getting more and more calls from veterinarians saying oh we heard that you could work with cats and we have this client. And I realized, okay, I can make no money as a really bad musician, or I can maybe make money as a good behavior expert. And that’s how the career started. So I really owe it to those two cats because they were the best teachers I ever had. Since then, I became a vet tech and I became certified and I got all the education that I needed. But everything that really mattered came from the cats themselves.
Jenny: That’s really neat how it all transpired and came together for you. What were they doing that was so horrible?
Pam: They were doing actually normal cat behaviors, I just didn’t train them. They did everything from scratching the furniture, peeing outside of the litter box, to biting people who came over. Because, quite honestly, everything they did was my fault. I didn’t keep the litter box clean enough. I had too small a litter box. I had one litter box for two cats. I had the wrong kind of scratching post. I bought everything that I was told to buy by someone in the pet supply store who really didn’t know much about cats either – you know, the little scratching post that was covered in carpet and too soft and wobbly. When people came over, instead of creating comfort for my cat and giving my cats the choice, I would pick my cats up and go over to the guests and say, “Oh, no, don’t be afraid, here”. So anyone who’s listening, anything you’ve done wrong, I did it, I did it. And that’s why when I do my consultations, when people talk to me about things they’ve done or expectations they had or beliefs they had about cats, I’ve been there. I can totally relate to it.
Jenny: That’s good. That’s obviously helpful when you’re concerned about what you’ve been doing with your cats. Well, how many cats do you have now?
Pam: Now, I have one. We lost, a couple of years ago, three geriatric cats – a 24-year-old, and 18-year-old and a 17-year-old. And now we are with a 6-year-old cat, actually she’s closer to 7. And I have a rescue dog. And with two kids and a really busy behavior practice, right now, that’s my limit. I mean I would love emotionally to have a lot more, but I am with cats probably 12 hours every day. So I get my cat fix.
Jenny: Yes, good. So, you talked about how you got started as a behaviorist. What have been some the biggest rewards of your career?
Pam: The best thing for me is when I see children taking an interest, and I do consultations and there are young children there and they take an active role in the training. Whether they get excited about doing the clicker training where they take on the responsibility of understanding what the cat needs, that’s everything. That’s better than the TV show, that’s better than book sales, that’s everything because I know that that young child, we’re starting at an early age. All the pets that that child will have or all the animals that that child will come across will have a better life because that kid learned early on.
Jenny: Yes. I agree with that. My nephew just turned 6 years old and he loves cats, has loved cats since he was a baby. And my brother and sister-in-law don’t have any animals. But he has tons of exposure to cats because of my mom and me and all that kind of stuff. It’s been a fascinating experience for me teaching him what I know and reminding myself, oh yeah, this isn’t general knowledge.
Pam: Right, because we all tend to believe what we’ve heard. We carry the old wives tales, you know. Just like when I was a kid, the cats that I encountered as I said in the beginning were not well behaved. I was too young to realize that the reason they weren’t well behaved is because nobody trained them. And so if you can get in there with kids – my daughter is 13 now. She was clicker training our cats when she was about 6 or 7. And so that’s just a part of her life now, she understands clicker training, she understands operant-conditioning, she understands the reward system and working for food with cats. She’s going to be awesome with cats when she’s on her own.
Jenny: Yes, that’s so neat. Now, what do you use clicker training for? Do you use it on every cat that you work with?
Pam: It depends on the cat parent. Some cat parents embrace it, some don’t. But clicker training can be used for just about anything because it becomes a common language between you and the cat. The clicker then acts as the bridge between the behavior you want and the reward the cat’s going to get. So it’s a great tool. Not every cat parent, when I do a consultation, not everyone wants to get into that. So I always present it. But it’s great. I even have my son’s fish, we clicker trained him, the fish. You don’t use an actual clicker, you use a pen light and a little food dispenser. But we even clicker trained the fish.
Jenny: I wondered about that because I obviously read all about you on your website before this interview and I was like, now, how do you train a goldfish.
Pam: But you know, if you’re living and you require food, you can be clicker trained. If you have a brain, it makes sense. The fish is very smart. So we taught the fish to – I mean, we didn’t really teach the fish to do anything really important in the fish world. So I don’t think I have a career as a fish whisperer. But things like basketball. There are actually, believe it or not, little kits you can get that you put in the water so the fish can push the little basketball into the hoop. It’s kind of silly, but what it does is it shows you how to train. It shows you that if you provide the right reward, then the fish will do what you ask. And you can apply that to cats and dogs. So my cat is clicker trained. It’s a great language. It just becomes a common language between the two of you.
Jenny: Okay, well good to know. I think I was sent a clicker training device at one point to product review and it scared the holy daylights out of my cats, so I stopped using it.
Pam: Some of the clickers are very loud. So you want to pick a clicker that’s not loud or you want to keep it in your pocket. And it’s not a hard concept. It should be a lot of fun. But because it’s strange to a lot of people, it’s a different idea. Some people do get intimidated by it. But just have fun with it and it should be fun for your cat too. And if it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Jenny: Okay. Well, I will give that a second go. Things on a positive note, so my hope is this will lead to something positive – the question is, what’s one of the biggest frustrations that you’ve had as a cat behaviorist with human cat relationships.
Pam: It breaks my heart when people call me, not because they really want to solve the problem but because they’re looking for me to validate that there’s something wrong with their cat and yes the cat should be euthanized or given to the shelter. And that’s heartbreaking because every problem can be worked on. And by the time you call me, if you’re already at that point where you’ve given up, we’re not going to be able to do the work. That’s devastating, and it happens more often than you think. Sometimes we can get the owners to give it another shot and they’ll work with me, and sometimes they clearly don’t want to and the best thing we can do is rehome the cat. And sometimes the behavior problem disappears because the problem was due to the environment. But my advice is if there is a behavior problem, don’t wait until you’re at that breaking where you just can’t stand it anymore and you feel like, okay, if we can’t solve this tomorrow, this cat is going to be sent to the shelter because problems don’t happen overnight. So they can’t be solved overnight.
Jenny: I agree, and I do actually get a lot of emails from people wanting to rehome ragdolls because of behavior problems or things they hadn’t thought of going into the relationship. So I can understand that frustration in a way, even though I’m not a cat behaviorist.
Pam: And you know, it’s interesting with cats, they’re the most popular pet, we love them so much. But yet still more often than not, and I know it’s more of a case with mixed breeds than pure breds, they are impulsive decisions. And so we don’t put into the relationship what’s needed, or we either think well they’re low maintenance, I don’t have time for a dog so we’re going to get a cat. And then we put into the relationship what’s needed and provide what the cat needs and then we get frustrated and we don’t understand why there’s a behavior problem.
Jenny: Yes, yes. I agree. You know, one of the controversial things of course with pure breds is buying, not adopting. And so one of the pages that’s more popular on my site is the price of a ragdoll cat. But what I’ve tried to do is say it’s not about the initial price, it’s about the 20 year cost of keeping a cat.
Pam: Exactly, right. And there are people who I come across in my business who don’t want to spend the money to do a behavior consultation. Yes, I know I’m expensive, but I do a tremendous amount of research and spend a lot of time with you working on the problem. But they’ll say, wow, the cat only cost me $15, I ‘m not spending that money on behavior. It has nothing to do with what you spent on the cost of the cat. It is a living creature, and this is a lifetime commitment that you made regardless of price.
Jenny: Right, I concur. Have you ever had a cat that was specifically challenging for you?
Pam: I took on rehabbing two ferals, the two ferals were the 17 and 18 year olds who passed away about a year, a year and a half ago. One of the ferals tested me to the limit. Every trick I had, she wasn’t buying. It took so long to do the trust building, I wore eau de tuna juice perfume forever with this cat. But she taught me a lot about going at her pace, not at my pace. She taught me a lot of lessons that I needed about patience and how to be creative. I bought her a cat tree, and she was too afraid to go in the cat tree. So I had to come up with solutions. And I bought a silk tree and I cut the branches off and I wired the silk tree branches to the cat tree so she would be invisible in there. She taught me a lot about thinking outside of the box and patience, and it took a long time. It took 3 years to rehab her, and she ended up being the cat of my heart.
Jenny: That’s neat. That’s neat. As you were telling that story, I have one of my cats named Trig, he’s been hanging out while we’ve been on the phone. And he is challenging for me, not anywhere near a feral at all. But he just turned 6 years old and I feel like we’re starting to have some breakthroughs.
Pam: Yeah, you have that moment, and that’s what I had – this cat’s name is BB. She’s the only cat who ever bit me. It was so hard and there were so many times when I thought this is never going to work, this is never going to work. Then there was that moment. It was almost like you saw the switch go on in her head where she made the decision, “Oh, Pam, you’re not the devil, maybe this is a good thing.” And from that moment on, the trust building started, and it was worth the three years of frustration and patience to have what we had for 17 years.
Jenny: Yes, neat. I love it. I have a huge smile on my face. Now what about a client’s cat. Have you ever encountered one where you had similar frustrations?
Pam: There are cats who challenge me, yeah, but I have to honestly say it’s the family that frustrates me more than the cat because the cat is just doing what’s natural. If the cat is not using the litter box, there’s a perfectly good reason for it from the cat’s point of view. If the cat is biting someone, it makes sense to the cat why he feels he has to bite. So my frustration is less with the cats. Sometimes I wish I had an easy answer and could figure out what the cat’s trying to tell me, but it’s the family. And I say that not in a judgemental way because I’ve been there, I get frustrated. And so my frustration is that people try to rush the process. If I say take this step and don’t go to step two for at least a week and then they go there the next day or they decide, well, we’re going to skip step one and we’re just going to go right to step two, that becomes very frustrating because there’s a reason why I lay the map out that way.
Jenny: Yeah. I can also understand wanting to rush it because you just want it fixed but those things take time of course.
Pam: Yeah. Or you see a little bit of progress, like I’ll tell people if they’re doing a new cat introduction, okay, I only want them to see each other for this amount of time. And they’ll see that it’s going well, so they rush it and they’ll say, “Oh, well they were together for 5 minutes, 10 minutes and it was great, so let’s leave them together for the rest of the afternoon,” and then of course everything backfires. So I’m not a control freak, but when I tell you please follow my plan to the letter, it’s because I know that’s the way it’s going to work the best.
Jenny: Yes. Yes. What would you say are the three most common cat behavior problems and why?
Pam: Litter box problem, clearly the runaway number one. And there are many reasons for it. It can be a medical problem. It can be the litter box set-up itself – it’s either too small, too dirty, not the right kind of litter box, not the right location, or it can be an environmental issue around the litter box. The litter box could actually be just a symptom of a bigger problem. So litter box is number one. Number two would be new cat introductions. People either don’t do an introduction and they just kind of put the cats together because somebody told them one time that just let them work it out, or we have a dog mentality and we think, well, the cats will become friends, I’ve got this companion for you, you should love it. Or we do the wrong kind of introduction. And then if you don’t’ do a good introduction, you’re going to set the cats up to not be good friends. So that’s a big issue. And the third one would be aggression, whether it’s aggression toward another cat or aggression toward people. That’s a big one, and that can be a deal breaker. We can handle a lot of things, the cat peeing outside of the litter box or scratching the furniture. But boy, if the cat bites a child or a family member or a guest, that becomes the deal breaker. So those are probably the three things I get called the most for.
Jenny: Okay. What’s normally the reason why a cat you know bites an adult human or something like that? Do they bite without being abused?
Pam: Oh, yeah, they can. The thing is that cats, they don’t want a confrontation. That’s why they do the whole posturing, you know, the Halloween cat, and all the hissing and all the things they do. They want to look bigger and badder than they are so that you won’t mess with them. And so a cat will only bite you if he feels he’s backed in a corner and he has no other choice. So we don’t read body language signals. We just kind of get the cat and do what we think needs to be done. And so the cat may feel the only way to get you to stop is to bite. For example, you might be brushing your cat, and you don’t pay attention to the body language signals that it’s saying that this is starting to hurt, my patience is wearing thin, you’re brushing a sensitive area, and the cat is doing all kinds of signals, twitching the skin or lashing the tail or meowing or looking back at you or the ears are twitching and you’re not paying attention. And so then he bites. And then what happens when he bites is you stop doing what you’re doing. So from the cat’s point of view, hey that worked, that’s my method of communication, I’m going to bite. So we have to pay closer attention to how we do things, make them positive so that the cat doesn’t feel the need to bite, pay attention to the body language, and give the cat a choice. And that’s one thing a lot of times we don’t do, we don’t give the cat a choice. We put cats in together and say, okay, you’re all going to use this one litter box and you’re all going to eat from one community food bowl. And we don’t give cats choices. They have to have choices, and I’m not saying choices like a menu of food. I mean choices of where I feel safe for eating, where I feel safe for using the litter box, those kinds of things.
Pam: Or I don’t want to come out from under the bed right now, or I need a hiding place so that when you have company over, there’s someplace I can hide and feel safe. And we don’t do that. A lot of times we don’t give the cat a choice.
Jenny: Okay. I distinctly remember when I got my first cat when I was 8 years old after begging and begging and begging for it. And I was probably introduced to a cat at 6 years old. Before that, I just grew up with German Shepherds. And then that cat I got at 8 died of FIP, and then I got another cat at 10 who was the cat that, the reason why we’re on the phone today. He was the reason why I created my website. So it was basically only Ragdolls that I was ever exposed to. And then when I started getting into high school and going over to people’s houses more frequently and encountering their cats, that’s when I realized, whoa, you can’t just pet any cat. It can turn around and bite you in half a second. And I maybe pet it three times. So I’m not very forthcoming with other people’s cats, in other words, of making an effort. I always let them come up to me.
Pam: And that’s the best way to be. There is cat etiquette, and if people would follow that… And that comes down to giving choice. When two cats would meet each other, if they are friendly and if they want more interaction, they’ll go nose to nose and they’ll do nose to nose sniffing. And based on that nose to nose sniffing, they’ll decide if they want more interaction or they don’t. Well, what I do with cats is I extend my index finger. I don’t stick my finger in the cat’s nose, but I just hold it down there and the cat will either walk up to me and sniff my finger and then either move closer, rub against me, or back away. The cat then has the choice about are we going to have an interaction or not. But I never just go up to a cat just because you know the cat is beautiful and I want to pet him and just start petting or picking him up. I think that’s rude. So I try to follow the cat protocol.
Jenny: I’m laughing because I always say that, like as if my cats are talking, you’re just so rude. Yeah, but I agree.
Pam: I even do it with my cat. If she’s sitting on her cat tree sleeping or looking out the window and I have to pick her up for something, let’s say it’s time to go to the vet. I won’t just come up behind her and pick her up and startle her. I always make sure I’ve announced my presence. I come into her field of vision and talk to her so that she knows I’m there. I never want to startle her. I just don’t think there’s any reason to be rude with cats. Be a little more in the cat world in terms of how focused the cat could be. My cat Pearl sitting on her cat tree and she is focused on a squirrel outside. Well, I’m not just going to just grab her. I want to get her attention and ease her into the fact that, okay, there’s going to be a change right now. I think you can avoid a lot of behavior problems and we just stopped thinking like humans and start thinking like cats a little bit. If I were a cat, how would I like to be treated? Would I want someone to just scoop me up when I’m sleeping? No.
Jenny: Right. Well, quite frankly if I’m daydreaming and watching a squirrel as a human, I’d rather you ease me into whatever you want to address with me too.
Pam: Exactly, if you’re engrossed in a TV show and someone just came up behind you as opposed to coming into the room and saying, hey, excuse me, can I ask you a question – I just because they’re cats doesn’t mean you have the right to be rude.
Jenny: Yes, that makes perfect sense. Okay, so Psycho Kitty was a show on UK’s Animal Planet, is that correct?
Jenny: Okay, so I went to YouTube in preparation for this interview and I saw the trailers of every single episode, and they look really good. But is there a way to watch them online?
Pam: Yeah, they’re on iTunes. Unfortunately, it was not aired in the US. It was aired in the UK and France and Italy and Canada, but it did not air in the US. But it’s on ITunes, so you can get it that way.
Jenny: Okay. So I will find it on iTunes and then link to it when I post this interview for those that are listening. How was that whole experience for you, the Psycho Kitty? How did it come about and did you enjoy it?
Pam: Doing television is “fun” and I say that in quotes because what you see on TV is very edited. And so what looked like a half an hour, I spent a whole day with these people, and there’s a lot of follow up. So that’s the hard part of TV. The things that I think should have been on there, the explanations, the certain behaviors don’t make good television. So they edit it down to be the most interesting part. I love that it makes people more aware of behavior who didn’t know that cats could be trained, so that was great. But the TV experience is very unnatural for a cat, so that’s hard to have cameras in there. So that was a big concern, making sure that I could do a good household consultation and not have the cameras be intrusive to upset the cat. So that was a balancing act.
Jenny: I didn’t even think about that. They’re meeting you and then they’re meeting all the cameramen too.
Pam: Yeah, so it was a long time to get the cats comfortable. Because my first goal is, I don’t ever want to stress out the cat more than he’s already stressed out from whatever it is I’m being called for. So from the moment I walk into somebody’s house, that cats’ life should improve. It could not get worse because I have a camera crew behind me. So we worked very hard to make sure that the cats were comfortable. And there’s one episode where the cat didn’t even come down from the upstairs. Because it was too stressful for the cat, and I didn’t want the cat to be stressed. So the camera crew all stayed downstairs and the cat was upstairs.
Pam: Because I find that it’s totally wrong if you are doing behavior and you are going into someone’s house and you agitate the cat or you create more stress, and you’re not helping.
Jenny: Right. There are like a billion other things going through my head wishing that I could’ve witnessed that situation because I bet that there were so many dynamics going on almost like an airport watching. So do you watch Animal Planets’ My Cat from Hell with Jackson Galaxy?
Pam: I don’t. I don’t. I know Jackson and I’ve done a few book signings with him but I don’t get a chance to. The real reason is I’m with cats all day long doing that for a living, that when I go home at night, you know by the time I’m done with the kids and my own pets, and I get into bed at night which is usually about midnight and I turn on TV, I want to escape.
Pam: So I usually watch the Food Network. That’s the only reason is I don’t want to watch anything related to my work when it’s my downtime.
Jenny: Right. Right, makes sense. Whenever I meet with family members and stuff like that, they’re always asking me about Charlie and Trig, who are my cats, and I’m like, you know, I’ve talked about them all day, I’m good.
Pam: Yeah. Well, that’s like I’ll go to a function, a wedding or something, and people will find out what I do. And they just oh I have a question for you, I bet you’ve never had this before. And you don’t want to be rude. I want to help people but it’s like, okay, I’m off the clock. I try to be as available as possible but, boy, I really need my downtime. But I think what Jackson Galaxy is doing with the TV show, and I say that not having seen it, he’s brought a lot of awareness about behavior and the quality of cats’ lives, and that’s a good thing.
Jenny: Yeah, that’s a good thing.
Pam: Because for many years, cats have been second class pet citizen behind dogs, so people are realizing cats can be trained, and they do need a quality of life and quality space, and they are family members, a lifetime commitment. And anytime you send that message, that’s a good thing.
Jenny: Yes, I agree. And I’m glad to have the awareness now too like you did for Psycho Kitty – he probably spends all day with follow ups and what not, and we only see what’s good for TV.
Pam: Right, you only see what’s good. And also, I’m still dealing with somebody who was on the show that we still email back and forth when other problems come up. Many of my clients become lifelong friends. It’s not just a job, it’s a relationship. They’re trusting you. When you go into their house, they’re trusting you with their furry family member. And they’re having to tell you things that are very personal. And you’re going through their house, I mean I’m touring their house. I’m looking in the bedroom, in the bedroom closet. So a lot of these people become friends because there’s such a bond formed because we both want what’s best for the cat. And I cry when they cry. And I get Christmas cards from them or pictures of the cats years later. And there are many times when I go to the mailbox and I walk back up the driveway crying because someone’s told me that a cat I saw 10 years ago passed away. So it’s a very emotional field, but the rewards, oh my gosh, they outweigh everything.
Jenny: I bet. That’s neat. You had mentioned that if you go to a wedding and somebody finds out you’re a cat behaviorist, it made me think of another question for you. How is that received when you are asked, “Hi Pam, what do you do?” Do people generally know what a cat behaviorist is? And also, what kind of facial expressions do you get when you say that?
Pam: Well, nowadays because it is more popular, I get less funny looks. But when I started, I did my first house call in 1982, yes I’m that old. But in 1982, nobody was doing this. And so, that was a career that people, even my mother said, “Pam, aren’t you going to get a real career?” So if I went to the doctor and filled out my form and you write occupation and I wrote Cat Behavior Consultant, they’d always stop and go “A what? What is it that you do?” But the good side of it, even though I got a lot of funny stares, it’s that you open the door for a conversation. That, “Oh you do this for a living? That’s funny. I have a cat, he has a problem. I never thought that I could fix it.” So all of a sudden you’ve opened a door that wasn’t opened before.
Pam: So, I don’t mind the stares. I don’t mind the comments, and yes, I still get them. But I don’t mind it because out of 9 people who may laugh at me, there’s that one person whose life you change. And then if you change that person’s view of cats and how they train, or if you get them to stop thinking that the cat is behaving out of spite or stupidity or trying to get you back, then you not only change that cat’s life, you change every other cat that person will have for the rest of their life.
Jenny: That is true. That’s very true. Cool. Have you ever had a client with a Ragdoll cat that’s had a behavior issue?
Pam: I have. I’ve done several Ragdolls, and overwhelmingly they’ve been litter box issues. And a lot of the time, it’s because people want to fit the litter box to their location and not to the size of the cat.
Jenny: Yes. So in other words, a Ragdoll needs a bigger box?
Pam: It needs a bigger box. They either would, you know, we use a covered box because you know we don’t want the smell what’s going on in there. We don’t want to know what’s going on in there. We use a small covered box, and the cat can’t get in there. Or we want the box to fit between the toilet and the tub in the guest bathroom, so we have to use a small box, or we expect the cat to go through a cat flap into the closet. And Ragdolls are big cats, and that becomes an issue. So that’s overwhelmingly what I’ve found with Ragdolls. Now, there have been other issues of litter box problems due to environmental issues, whether there were too many cats, or that cat was under stress. And you know, as you know, ragdolls, their temperament is so good and they tolerate so much. So when they get stressed out, you know it’s a bad situation. So there have been those issues. But overall a lot, of it’s been the litter box set up itself. And that applies to any big cat – Maine Coon, Norwegian Forest, anything. You have to match the box to the cat, not to your location choice.
Jenny: I agree wholeheartedly with that, and also not only just one box but several, especially if you have more than one cat.
Pam: Right. The general rule of thumb is one more box than you have cats, and not to have the boxes all lined up in one room because clients will call me and say, “You’ll be so proud of me. We have 8 cats and we have 9 litter boxes.” And then I go there and all the litter boxes are lined up next to each other in one room. Well that’s basically one box. They should be scattered throughout the house so that every cat has an option for safety, so that one cat doesn’t have to pass through another cat’s territory.
Jenny: Yes. Yes, I’ve noticed that my cats sometimes, and they both do it to each other so I’m like fair game guys, they like to attack each other when they leave the box. Just sometimes, not all the time. And they both kind of get into it, then they go play. And I’m like, what in the heck man?
Pam: And the thing is if they do it evenly, if they take turns being the aggressor and it seems like it’s in play… But if it’s one cat who routinely seems to be the one bullying, or if there’s one cat who is eliminating outside of the litter box on a regular basis because he just doesn’t feel safe going down that long hallway where the other cat blocks and guards…. Again, it comes down to choice. I talk a lot about choice with cat behavior. You want to give a cat a choice. I have to use the litter box but I don’t want to pass that cat because he always smacks me. Oh I have a choice, I can go to the litter box on the other side of the house. So you always want to give them a choice.
Jenny: Okay. Now have you ever found any cat behavior issue that is sex related, that it’s predominately a female problem or predominately a male problem?
Pam: No, it’s pretty much been evenly split.
Pam: It’s personality. Behavior problems happen either because of something genetic, something medical, the environment itself, how the cats were socialized or whether they weren’t socialized at all as kittens, and how many cats you have. So it’s really driven by those individual things for me, at least in my business.
Jenny: Okay. Well, good. You just confirmed something. Oftentimes I’m asked, “You know I have a male cat, should I get a female kitten?” And I always say it’s about complementing personalities not…
Pam: Exactly. And again, we keep carrying on these things, “Oh, well if you have a male, you have to get a female.” And it is, you said it, the perfect word – complementary personality. There’s another mistake people make beyond the sex of the cat, they think well I have a really shy cat who just hides under the bed all the time. So I’m going to go get a really active cat that will just force him to play. Well, what you might be doing is setting that cat up to be ambushed all the time. So you don’t want to go on the opposite ends of the scale. You want to stay with complementary.
Jenny: Yeah. Yeah, I completely agree. That was one of things that happened when my cat Rags, the reason that I started Floppy Cats, when he was 15, we decided as a family that we would adopt two ragdoll kittens. Well, one ragdoll kitten, and thank goodness we went to a breeder who was smart enough to tell us, “Oh it’s a 15 year old cat, I’d get 2 kittens. I wouldn’t get one kitten to harass the 15 year old.”
Jenny: And it was the best decision ever. And she told us which of the two kittens would get along well with Rags, and sure enough she was right. And yes, it made our lives a lot easier because of that.
Pam: And it’s important. You know, you think about there are times when, yes, we rescue a cat or the cat finds us and we have no choice, it’s like that was meant to be. But if you right now are thinking about either getting your first cat or getting a companion for a resident cat, do your homework. Because it will really pay off later if you try to match complementary personalities and also make sure of what your needs are. For example, in the beginning of talking to, you know I said I only have one cat and I have one dog. And that is because I’m with cats all day long. I’m the mom of a 13-year old and an 11-year old, and I have a really busy life. So I know what I can give right now is just to the cat and the dog. So you have to, before you bring in another cat, look at your environment and what are you capable of doing. You know, you may want to go to that shelter and rescue that cat that was abused and needs so much work, but are you capable emotionally and are you capable at home to do the work needed? Are your kids at home expecting the perfect little kitten coming with no baggage? So just do your homework beforehand. It will really payoff later.
Jenny: Okay. Speaking of homework, your books – I was actually introduced to you
through a reader who adopted a Ragdoll wannabe, meaning that it was adopted from a shelter and not necessarily a purebred but has Ragdoll traits. And she said, “I’ve been reading this book, Starting from Scratch, and it is incredible. It’s helped me so much.” So I headed to Amazon to check it out. I am not a good reader because I have horrible reading comprehension. But I was like you know what, this book actually looks kind of interesting. And it was interesting to me from someone that wasn’t starting from scratch with cats but because I get these emails with these issues all the time, I thought that might be something to read. So I bought it and I put it next to my toilet for all those people that need to know that about me. I really enjoy the way that you write, number one. It’s very easy for me to follow, and I have learned a tremendous amount from it. So if you could take a couple minutes kind of explaining your books and maybe, like, someone that’s had cats for years, would they benefit from them and that sort of thing.
Pam: Okay. The whole purpose when I write is I want to make it as if I’m standing right next to you doing a house call. I want it to be in a way as if we’re just talking, and that was important to me that my writing style reflect the way I talk. And I also wanted to address the different aspects of living with a cat. So Starting From Scratch is a book about adult cat behavior problems, and it was for the people who, oh, I’ve had a cat for 10 years, I’ve had a cat for 6 years, we’ve lived with this behavior problem, is it too late? That’s why I wrote that book because there are a lot of us out there. We’ve had cats for so long and we’ve put up with these behavior problems because we thought well if we didn’t train early on, we’re never going to get it changed. So that was written to show that you can change those behaviors.
I wrote Cat vs. Cat because there are people with multi-cat households, whether it’s 2 cats or 10 cats or more. And the rules all change when you have more than one cat. When you have one cat, then one litter box will do, one food bowl, one water bowl, nobody has to share toys. You bring a second cat in and all the rules change. So I wanted to write a book that was specifically dealing with those unique challenges and rewards of having more than cat. Think Like A Cat I wrote to be just
comprehensive. It covers everything from deciding to get a cat, and whether you want or a kitten or a cat, all the way through to the geriatric years. And it’s very in depth and it goes into everything, because some people want one book… I just want to buy one book and I want it to cover the life of my cat, and so I wrote that.
I also have other books, I have Psycho Kitty and Hiss and Tell which were just fun books that I wrote about some of the weird house calls I’ve gone on through the years.
But what I wanted to do was write them in a way that you also learned. Because some people don’t want to just read, okay do this, do this, do this. They want to read a story, and they’ll learn that way. So I wrote those two books for that. But I try to address, I try to see what the need is out there and what isn’t being covered, and what I can supply.
Jenny: Okay. Well good, and I will link to all of those as well in the interview on the site. So we have about 5 minutes left and I wanted to end with was if I am having a cat behavior issue, can I have a private consultation with you and how does that work?
Pam: Yes, you can. I do private consultations. They’re usually through Skype, unless you’re in the Nashville area. But the first thing is if you’re having behavior problem, make sure your cat goes to the veterinarian first. I don’t do consultations unless the vet has signed off that it’s not a medical problem. And also, there are so many problems that we label as behavior problems that actually are medically caused. Your cat might be eliminating outside of the litter box because of renal failure, because of diabetes. Your cat might be aggressive because maybe he’s developed hyperthyroidism. So you want to make sure you’ve addressed that first because you don’t want your cat to needlessly suffer. Once the cat has been seen by the veterinarian, if you want a consultation with me you can go to our website at CatBehaviorAssociates.com and click on the consult or consultation page, and it’ll walk you through what’s involved with a Skype consultation. I will say, there are other certified cat behavior consultants. There are also certified applied behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists. So if possible, it’s always better to have somebody in your hometown who could actually do a house call and see the cat in person. That’s the best. That’s better than a Skype consultation. I know that takes business away from me, but you do what’s best for the cat. But depending upon where you live, that may not be an option. But if you are having a behavior problem, go to your veterinarian. Your veterinarian, if there is somebody in your area, could probably recommend. I will say that nowadays with the popularity of cat behavior, anybody can put up a website and call themselves a cat behaviorist. So don’t just be lured in by a flashy website or testimonials. Look at that person’s track record, what their education is, what their certification is, what their experience is, and make sure. Because the wrong person can make the situation worse. And I say that because we get a lot of clients in our office who have already spent money with unqualified people. Just because someone has had cats all their life doesn’t make them a cat behaviorist.
Jenny: Right. I did go to your site and look at the consult stuff, and I like that you require also a video of, you know…
Pam: Right. Because I can’t see the cat, I want to see your environment. If you can capture the behavior itself on video, that’s ideal. I want to see the litter box area. Basically a tour through your house so that I feel as if I’m there because a Skype isn’t as good as an in person. So in order for me to do the best job I can, the more information you send me the better. Plus we also send out a questionnaire that’s probably at least 10 pages long if not longer with a lot of questions that need answering so that by the time we sit down to do the Skype, I already have a lot of background on your cat. So we don’t waste that time with me asking a lot of basic questions, like how many litter boxes do you have and how many times a day do you feed your cat, those kind of things.
Jenny: Yes. It sounds very efficient and effective and I love it. Alright, well, is there anything…
Pam: It better be effective after all these years. I’ve learned how to streamline stuff. It took years.
Jenny: Well, I’m glad. That’s why you’re known as an expert in the field. Is there anything that I didn’t cover that you wanted to cover before we end this call?
Pam: No, you did a great job. I think I would just like to leave everybody with don’t live with a behavior problem. There is a solution so find help out there. And most importantly, don’t punish your cat, not matter how bad the behavior seems it is. Whether he’s scratching the furniture, whether he pooped on the floor, don’t punish. Punishment is inhumane and it’s counterproductive because cats don’t misbehave out of spite. When they do something we don’t like, they’re doing something to solve a problem. And if you punish, yell at your cat, squirt him with water, chase him out of the room, put him in time out, whatever punishment… And I know you get frustrated, it’s understandable. But whatever you do it, damages the relationship between you and your cat, and it does nothing to teach him anything. So let’s look at behavior problems from how can I help this cat solve this problem in a way that’s acceptable to both of us. Because that’s what matters most is you don’t want to damage the relationship.
Jenny: Right, right. Well, thank you very much for your time and your knowledge. I’m very excited to be able to do this with you, so thank you for doing it.
Pam: Well, thank you and thanks for the education that you provide and I really appreciate being able to share my knowledge about cat behavior.