Cat whisperer. I get called this on a daily basis. Am I a cat whisperer? Is anyone in this field a whisperer? Absolutely not.
Ever since Cesar Millan hit the TV screen with his popular show, The Dog Whisperer, so many people now claim to have the special talent that enables them to figure out the feline mind (or the rabbit, frog, gerbil or ferret mind for that matter). The problem is that in this unregulated field anyone can claim to be a cat expert, cat whisperer, cat therapist, cat psychologist, or cat counselor. Anyone can put up a website, make claims about their expertise and post testimonials but how do you know their expertise is valid? The problem is you don’t. If you’re having a behavior problem with your pet and your family life is in crisis because of it, you may be enticed by claims of “guaranteed” results or lots of testimonials on the website (that may or may not even be real), but a wrong choice may result in making the behavior problem worse.
Start at the Veterinary Clinic
If you’re in a position where you feel you need professional help with a cat behavior problem, how do you go about choosing the right expert? The first place to start is at your veterinarian’s office. I know it doesn’t sound as glamorous as consulting with someone who claims to have some sort of special rapport with cats and ability to “whisper” to them, but many behavior problems can be the result of an underlying medical problem. This happens more often than you’d think. An examination by your veterinarian should be your first step. You’d be surprised how many times a litter box problem is due to lower urinary tract disease, renal failure or diabetes, just to name a few. I’ve seen lots of cases of aggression as well where the cause turned out to be medical such as periodontal disease, spinal pain, abscess, hyperthyroidism, arthritis, and so on. So don’t skip this step even if you’re convinced the problem is behavioral or your cat may needlessly suffer.
When you visit your veterinarian, be as specific as possible about the behavior the cat has been displaying. Sometimes when the veterinarian asks how often the litter box is cleaned the client may be embarrassed and not tell the truth. That doesn’t help the cat and could seriously delay solving the problem. When the veterinarian asks questions give as honest and complete of an answer as you can.
Do Your Homework
Behavior modification is a powerful tool and if done correctly, is an effective way to change unwanted behavior. Behavior modification is science-based and there’s no magic about it. A trained, professional expert can explain to you how and why the process works and the science behind it. An ethical professional will not “guarantee” results because much of the success of behavior modification depends on client compliance and the specifics of the individual case. A qualified professional also won’t give you a promise that all behavior problems can be “fixed” in a short amount of time. Every case is unique. Your neighbor’s cat with the same behavior problem may take twice as long to correct as your cat’s issue.
Look for Qualified Experts With a Track Record
The best way to protect yourself from the multitude of so-called experts is to ask your veterinarian for a referral to a qualified behavior expert. Certified Animal Behavior Consultants are certified through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists are certified through the Animal Behavior Society. Veterinary Behaviorists are certified through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
Anyone can put up a sign or a website and claim to be an expert so the best way to protect yourself is to choose someone who has proven that they have documented experience in their field. Even if you choose someone who isn’t certified, make sure that person is truly an expert in cat behavior and has a track record that involves more than just shameless self-promotion. Is the person you’ve chosen recognized by colleagues in the field as a professional? Your cat can’t speak for himself so he’s counting on your to find a qualified professional and not someone who is viewing the current popularity of animal behavior consulting as a ticket to fame and fortune. Those of us who have been in the business for many years know what’s really involved in dedicating our lives to animal welfare. If we were looking for the fast track to fame and fortune, this would not be the chosen career.
What to Expect
- Don’t hesitate to ask the behavior professional you’re considering about his/her background. Is this someone who has demonstrated true expertise in their field or someone who has put up an impressive website and claims to be good with cats because they’ve had many cats in their lifetime? Is website advertising misleading or does it accurately reflect factual information about the professional’s level of expertise? Lately, I have come across some websites with very misleading claims. It breaks my heart for the cats.
- Certified experts must adhere to strict ethical guidelines established by the specific certifying association. They aren’t permitted to make claims outside of their area of expertise, they must respect your confidentiality, not judge or blame, not make a medical diagnosis (unless they have a veterinary degree as well) and not promise guaranteed results.
- You should feel comfortable talking with the behavior expert and also be comfortable with the proposed behavior modification plan. In order for behavior modification to be successful, it must be a plan that fits your abilities, schedule and lifestyle. A qualified professional will work with you to establish a customized plan to fit you and your cat. There is no one-size-fits all behavior modification plan.
- The behavior expert should provide an explanation of why the proposed behavior modification is being chosen and the science behind it.
- Whether you’re doing an in-home consultation, in-clinic consultation or telephone consultation, you will need to fill out a detailed behavior and medical history questionnaire. Even if a question on the form doesn’t seem relevant, fill out the form to the best of your abilities to help the behavior professional put all pieces of the puzzle together.
Remember, the first step is to visit your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical problem. Your veterinarian may then refer you to a qualified professional.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.