Decoding Cats

by Steve Dale, CABC

“Cats wave a flag when there’s something wrong,” says Amy Pike, DVM, DACVB, CABC, and one of the authors of Decoding Your Cat. “Well, that is from the cat’s perspective.  The cats are 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 notice the changes, they often don’t know where to go for help.”

In the cat world, people often call themselves “behaviorists” without having any credentials.  Many only know what they do because they read books like Decoding Your Cat – but at least they know something. Others literally may depend on reading tea leaves or checking a cat’s horoscope.

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

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

Of course, those expectations, however unrealistic, and the fact that cats don’t bark or require walks, per se, are reasons they’re incredibly popular. “We don’t write about damaging cat training, as we did damaging dog training,” says contributing author 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.”

Albright is referring to enrichment. “Enrichment should no longer be considered a nice option for clients of indoor cats,” says Albright. “I actually prescribe enrichment all the time. I have a handout; I circle what’s right for that individual cat. We talk about what individual clients can do and meet them where they’re at. I actually tell clients to set times and have reminders to ensure that they do it. I talk about how cats can be taught to play fetch; 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.” (Incidentally, moose scent is hardly a good idea for all cats).

Pike adds, “Technicians (and nurses) have so much invested when it comes to communication and education – and it’s worth the time investment to address, 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 feeding device for the cat to seek and then manipulate to get food from.”

Enrichment is about meeting a cat’s hard-wired needs. Albright brings up a new area of study, “Enrichment releases the neuro chemical brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). At least that’s the case in rodents, humans and limited studies in dogs. BDNF serves as a sort of natural anti-depressant,” she says.

Another important objective is to help clients be more aware that a change in behavior may be a result of a medical issue. “Every day when I was in general practice, people said ‘give me the Prozac.’ Clients want a magic pill that doesn’t exist,” Herron says.  “And because the Internet says the problem is behavioral, it must be. So they add litter boxes for the cat with kidney disease, that’s fine except that 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 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,” says Pike. “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, and we can do something for that cat.”

“I’m so glad that 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.