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This is certainly a topic of discussions with every behavior consult, but especially in homes with too few litter boxes or when the litter boxes provided are all in one room. An inappropriate elimination problem is often the result of too few places to eliminate so the cat will simply choose a place in the house that seems acceptable to them. Adding an additional box or two can quickly resolve such issues.
Because cats are a species that is both predator and prey and because the act of eliminating is one of their most vulnerable moments, litter boxes must allow the cat to feel safe while using them. This is precisely why hooded litter boxes, automatic litter boxes, and boxes placed in dark, dank, dead end areas are found to be unappealing and even frightening to a cat.
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Most cats prefer to eliminate in a location that allows them to visually see if a predator or even a rambunctious littermate is about to approach and attack. If given the choice a cat would rather eliminate in the middle of a vegetable garden and be able to see all around them versus using a cave-like environment. This usually helps provide a visual aid one can relate to. This is also why so many of the litter boxes on the market today do not appeal to cats. They are too small, often covered, or have some sort of gadget or contraption that makes noise, moves or does some other scary thing a cat would rather not experience while eliminating.
Stressing the importance of these feline specific preferences is key to preventing a problem before it starts! I was the only feline behavior consultant attending this year's American Animal Hospital Association conference, as far as I knew. I wasn't a vet, nor a tech.
After the four days, I left with a notebook of interesting bits I could pass on to my clients, yes, but also confirmation that feline behavior was still low on the vet's priority list. The "feline track" was small compared to the one for dogs.
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The lecturer, a vet-behaviorist, admitted there was "too little known about cats. It's either sex or stress. If it's sex, castrate 'em.
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Drug 'em. It's a common attitude. After speakers' talks on non-medical feline matters, at several conferences, I asked the same question: How can we get more vets to use behavior consultants?. Nobody had answers. In true displacement gesturing, I metaphorically scratch my head in frustration.
Vets prefer dogs. According to Dr. Cats being most popular domestic pet in the US, it would be financially viable to consider a more cat-seductive practice, yet almost half aren't interested in adopting even those Guidelines for their clinics. In an admittedly unscientific survey, I asked 31 vets at the AAHA conference if they used cat behavior consultants. Twenty-nine said they didn't. I've asked many vets here in Arizona that question. The vast majority said no.
Why not? Many explained, "We don't think about it. A few said, "I can handle that sort of thing. Fact: most cats are dumped at shelters—and killed—or just plain dumped, because of behavior issues, not medical ones.
Lessons in Stalking: Adjusting to Life with Cats - Dena Harris - Google Books
You could be hard-pressed, looking for "feline behavior" as part of DVM curricula. Most vets have admitted they'd gotten "one or two lectures" in their three-year program. No classes in feline behavior, but perhaps one or two in animal behavior. An online look at what some of the major vet programs offer: some prominent universities have behavior clinics; however, there is only one general animal behavior course in its three-year program, and it's an elective. Another has three courses, two of which are elective. They have a course every year in raptors, swine and goats.
How much of these courses cover, specifically, feline behavior? Department spokespeople: "We don't know, but if the professor is covering dogs, horses, and other animals, it would be little. The assumption is, you can learn more in graduate and postgraduate work; after the DVM has been achieved. The American College of Vet Behaviorists has a respected program for vets, as one example. There is no feline behavior journal.
No feline behavior lecture at the American Board of Vet Practitioners conference in the Fall, nor at other conferences coming up this year. The vets who feel they don't need a behavior consultant would benefit greatly not only for their clients, their clients' cats, but for their clinic credibility, if they change their minds. My clients tell me that when they mention their cat's problems to the doctor; on soiling inappropriately, for example, they get general advice: "Change litter.
Clean around the box with an enzymatic cleaner, or move it.
Is it due to box issues or stress or hormonal issues, if there's no medical cause? Makes a difference in terms of treatment. Aggression toward other house pets? Or Feliway. Good behavior consultants understand cats' issues that exasperate the owner. They know how to help and advise through protocols and suggestions, learned through years of personal and clinical experience. They can answer questions and solve issues that many vets can't. Spraying, soiling, scratching, avoidance, aggression toward people or pets…the reasons behind such behavior, the triggers involved, learning about as much background as is possible, learning the home and outside layouts, relationships between cat and owners, family, more.
Strong experience in reputable institutions can replace academic training, if that's all there was…if there was so little. TV programs and web blogs about cats excluding the cute picture-laden ones have never been so hugely popular as they are now. Sure, there are good tips on the internet, but there's also a lot of simply wrong advice. Still reading about using vinegar to clean boxes?
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Pushing the cat's head down onto the urinated-upon surface? No blog, website or column can solve every case; how many cats are "relinquished" because a net tip didn't solve the problem? If a vet couldn't solve a behavior problem, are cats dumped, too? A jazzy site and a claim to be "an expert" isn't enough. One so-called "professional animal behavior association" outside the US isn't even credible among true experts, from my understanding.
Sure, homework is needed, as it would be for any profession.
I never pretend to be a vet, but recommend the client check with the vet first, to rule out possible underlying medical issues. That vet should also be able to recommend a good behavior consultant if the cat is physically healthy. People should examine the background of any professional who's considered. Those certified in animal behavior should have a lot of experience in specifically feline issues. There are also superb, renowned behavior consultants who are not certified, but have had enormous wealth of experience, written for good journals, participated in major projects and programs sponsored by responsible institutions.
How To Stalk Animals (And Not Get Caught!)
I hope this is a sign of more to come, that feline behavior is taken every bit as seriously as canine and equine. Vets, vet-behaviorists and behavior consultants need to share. We could learn so much from each other.