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Pam’s Story

Pam Johnson-Bennett

I am frequently asked how I got started in the field of cat behavior consulting. I get countless calls and emails from people wanting to know how to fast-track to this career or how to become a “cat whisperer.” There are no whisperers. Whispering implies some kind of magical or mystical ability to read animals and communicate with them. The legitimate field of cat behavior is based on sound science and logical, proven behavior techniques. Many people are claiming to be whisperers to just about every species since the popularity of Cesar Millan’s TV show but true experts in the field of animal behavior rely on their knowledge, continuing education, vast experience with cats and science-based techniques.

I also get asked about who inspired or mentored me. I doubt anyone would want to take the route I took to be a cat behavior consultant. Nowadays, there are so many educational opportunities and the field is regarded with respect. When I began learning about cat behavior in the mid 1970s, there wasn’t a seminar to be found on the behavior of cats. And as for a mentor? Sadly, there wasn’t one. I didn’t know anyone doing the job I was thinking of doing. The idea of going to someone’s house with my notebook (this was the pre-technology age) and bag of cat toys to try to figure out why the cat was not behaving as expected was a ridiculous one in the eyes of most people. The bad part about not having a road paved for me was that I made many mistakes and felt very lonely. The good part was that I had no idea how difficult a road it was going to be so I wasn’t worried about failing. My career was driven by my passion for cats.

Going it Alone

When I officially began my career in cat behavior consulting in New York in 1982, there was no such thing as a cat behavior consultant. You could find a dog trainer on just about every corner but the idea of anyone taking the time to go house to house and help people figure out the minds of their cats was laughed at. Very little literature was available on cat behavior and training and certainly no one was foolish enough to think they could actually earn a living counseling owners in their homes on how to change their cats’ behaviors. I was constantly advised to change my profession to cat sitting or cat grooming. During lean times, I did do quite a bit of that as well in order to keep the rent paid and the lights on.cat closeup

Making Mistakes

When I first adopted cats in the mid 1970s, I knew absolutely nothing and there wasn’t much information out there to help me. I quickly became a bad cat parent. I made so many mistakes it brings tears to my eyes now just to think about it. I always tell my clients during consultations that I can relate to their frustration because I have been there. I understood dogs but cats confused the heck out of me.

My veterinarian at the time actually advised me to euthanize my cats and start over again with another cat. His reasoning was that there were so many cats in the world who needed homes so why waste my time with bad cats. I stared at him in shock. I then went home and cried… and cried. I realized that if my cats had all these behavior problems it was because of me. I had made so many mistakes and it was time to correct them. I didn’t know it then but I was about to begin a journey that would change my life. Although there was very little information on cat behavior, I figured if I read any book, magazine or published paper on psychology and behavior I could find (whether that be child psychology and behavior, marriage counseling, dog training, you name it) I would be better off than I was at that moment. This was before the internet so I actually had to physically go to libraries, veterinary universities and veterinary clinics. There was no such thing as sitting at your computer in your pajamas and surfing the internet. In those days, we had to actually brave the weather and trudge to a separate location to get a book or read transcripts.

When I wasn’t working at my day job or researching, I could be found volunteering at every veterinary clinic, shelter and rescue facility within 40 miles of my apartment. I attended as many veterinary conferences as I could afford. I also did something that ended up being the greatest learning tool of all… I observed and learned from the cats themselves. I stopped looking at them as animals who were misbehaving and started looking at them as animals who were behaving normally. It was my job to figure out how to set things up that would encourage them to behave in a way that would make everyone happy. It became about what the cats needed rather than what I expected of them.

 

Is There a Future Here?

As I began making progress with my cats, friends and neighbors started commenting on how well-behaved and happy they seemed. One day a friend asked me to work with his aggressive cat. As a favor to him, I agreed. The behavior work I did with his cat was successful and then other friends began asking me to help with their cats as well. I was delighted to share what I had learned and help my friends’ cats.

Ironically, when it was time to take my cats back to the veterinarian for their annual check-up, he was astounded at their behavior. He wasn’t sure what to make of their successful “transformation” so he asked me if I wanted to try working with some of his clients’ cats. I agreed. He was impressed with the results and called me one night to ask if I could do any behavior work with a troublesome cat he had just recently adopted. I jumped at the opportunity.

Even though I was finding myself keeping quite busy doing behavior work with the cats of friends and neighbors, I had never thought of this as a potential career. I had been living in New York and working as a relatively successful singer/songwriter. I made my living at night as a musician but engaged in my passion of helping cats with behavior issues during the day. I thought I had an iron-clad plan. I was wrong.pam johnson-bennett

Within a few months I started getting calls from all over town with cat behavior requests from total strangers. My veterinarian had started talking to other veterinarians and my friends were also spreading the word. I tried to squeeze in as many cat behavior sessions as possible while still working hard at music. Being the stubborn girl I was (and still am), I wasn’t ready to hang up my guitar. Then one day, while rehearsing for a show, someone had tracked me down at the studio and stood in the doorway crying about a cat. She said her husband was about to have the cat put to sleep and would I please come over and help? I walked back into the rehearsal room and informed the band members that I had to leave. It was at that point I realized my music career didn’t mean as much to me as helping cat parents with their cats’ behavior problems. Without fully realizing what I was about to undertake, I started working with cats full-time. I had no idea what to charge because no one had done this before. If there was ever a person flying by the seat of their pants it was me.

Me, an Author, Really?

As my days were filling up with cat behavior consultation appointments, I happened to do one session with a friend of a book publisher. When that client told her publisher friend about this “cat lady” in New York, I was approached about writing a book about cat behavior based on my techniques.

For those of you who have only known computers, my first few books were written on a typewriter. Late at night my neighbors would hear that repeated “tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, DING” for hour after hour. Then off I would go to the local print shop to have a photocopy made. Those were my Flintstone years of book writing.pam johnson-bennett cat behaviorist

Somehow a local journalist found out about what I did for a living and wanted to write a story about me. He followed me around from apartment to apartment as I did my consultations. If he thought my career was weird he was at least polite enough to not let me know that day but the story written was less-than flattering. The tone focused on what a bizarre career choice I had made and why would anyone want to spend money trying to get inside their cat’s mind anyway? Well, I had heard that even bad publicity was publicity none-the-less because once that story was printed I started getting more calls from local media. I was booked on a local television show, followed by a number of radio shows and then more TV followed. I wasn’t sure if I was becoming a celebrity or an oddity. Regardless, my mission was to educate cat owners about cat behavior and any way to spread the word was ok by me. I was willing to endure the ridicule and snickering if it meant more people would learn about cat behavior. With every television or radio appearance or print interview I never knew whether the outcome would be positive or a joke but I was willing to take that chance.

Live and in-Person

In addition to the work I had been doing as a consultant making in-home visits, I received a few requests to speak at veterinary conferences, animal welfare functions, shelters and veterinary clinics thanks to the handful of veterinarians who found value in what I was trying to do. Cat behavior had never been a major topic at any of these events before. Veterinarians were not learning about behavior yet; veterinary conferences didn’t have behavior tracks. I was excited and scared to start presenting my information and demonstrating my techniques to veterinarians, technicians and other professionals in the animal care field.

Think Like a Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett

Goodbye New York, Hello Nashville

Up until 1989 I was a die-hard New Yorker. I loved to travel but I could never imagine ever wanting to leave the excitement of living in New York City. While on tour for my first book, I stayed several nights in Nashville for book signings and fell in love with the city. Ironically, Nashville is “Music City” and I had given up my music career but I felt a tug on my heartstrings that this is where I needed to be. I had been starting to enjoy a steady business in New York but it seemed as if Tennessee and the rest of the southern states were still far from understanding cat behavior and training. I moved to Nashville. After hearing story upon story about how people were just tossing their misbehaving cats outdoors (or worse), I knew I had to do something. I set up camp in Nashville and began introducing myself to the locals. To help with the drastic drop in my income I needed to find a day job. After numerous attempts at other traditional jobs, I eventually became a veterinary technician. I viewed this as an important opportunity to learn more about veterinary medicine and to get more hands-on experience. My first day on the job, I was put in charge of poop clean-up. I don’t know whether I was given this job because I was the “Yankee cat expert” or whether it’s common practice to see how much poop the new girl can shovel without vomiting into the poop bucket. Either way, I spent 9 hours shoveling poop in the clinic’s back yard, scrubbing dried poop off stainless steel boarding cages, mopping up diarrhea from hospital cages and of course, deftly getting rid of any accidents that clients’ pets had in the waiting room.

At the end of my first day on the job, while smelling quite fragrant after being so intimately acquainted with animal excrement, I still had two behavior clients scheduled for in-home consultations. By the time I got back home, showered and put dinner on the table I literally fell asleep with the fork in my hand.

The next night, while driving to a client’s house (and getting lost in the process – this was pre-GPS, remember), I heard a couple of local radio personalities talking about a “cat shrink” who had come to town. Unless there was a tremendous coincidence and another cat behavior consultant had moved to Nashville, I figured they were talking about me. Their discussion turned to mean-spirited mockery and they had quite a good time at my expense. I pulled over to the side of the road and started to cry. My career was something I took seriously and I worked hard at presenting a very professional image (if you disregard the smelly poop day) and I was being laughed at on one of the highest rated radio shows in town.

I sat in my car for a long time and felt sorry for myself. It was there, on the side of I-24 near Hickory Hollow that I made a decision. I could either let people get the better of me with their jokes or I could put on my big girl pants (it’s a southern expression, sorry) and do the job I came here to do. I chose the latter. I’d like to say that I never felt sorry for myself again when people made fun of my career, but that wouldn’t be honest. I had many down moments the first couple of years in Nashville but I stuck it out.

Big Business

Despite what a couple of radio personalities joked about, Nashville opened its arms to me and my career was back on track. In addition to a busy consultation business, I began getting requests for endorsements from companies. I became the spokesperson for Febreze when it first launched. My job was to do national media interviews to talk about how the product could help with pet odors.2015blueblannerslider

I was also asked to be the behavior expert for Friskies and have been touring and writing for them for many years. I was part of their original “Dream Team” when they wanted an ultimate cat habitat designed. Together with designer Frank Bielec (designer from the TV show “Trading Spaces”) and Lou Manfredini (the home repair expert from the “Today” show), we created a walk-in habitat that was the ultimate in environmental enrichment before anyone knew what environmental enrichment was. Friskies enlisted me to also be the spokesperson for their shelter grant program. They awarded grants to 10 in-need shelters around the country. We also created and unveiled a prototype cageless shelter in New York at Northshore Animal League. It was a wonderful opportunity to help shelters learn about creating cageless environments where groups of cats could co-exist and stand a better chance of being adopted out in pairs. The cageless environment also allowed the cats to play and interact so potential adopters could see more of their personalities. I was honored to be a part of that program.

One of the highlights of my association with Friskies was that I had the chance to do countless national media tours with those famous Friskies cats who appear on their commercials and also in movies. The tours centered around turning an ordinary room into a feline-friendly environment. Through an entertaining performance we were able to show audiences how easy it is to train cats, create more stimulation and strengthen the human/cat bond. What I loved most was that after the show, people would come up and ask if the cats in the show were “special show cats” that had been bred for training. People were amazed to learn that the cats were former shelter kitties.

Books by Pam Johnson-Bennett

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I was the behavior expert for Friskies for over a decade and was proud of how they focused on better understanding cats and their behavior.

My writing has additionally involved being the behavior columnist for Cats Magazine, The Daily Cat and Catster. I also spent a number of years as the resident behavior expert at Yahoo, ivillage, Shine and Cat Fancy’s Cat Channel.

Many years ago I was also asked to join a fledgling organization called the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and to create and run a Cat Division for them.  As founder of the Cat Division I also served as the chair for 8 years. I served on their Board of Directors for a time as well and became a VP of the IAABC.

One of the most meaningful aspects of having been fortunate enough to have a successful career is the ability to volunteer and dedicate time to incredible organizations that work so hard to improve the lives of animals. I served on the American Humane Association’s Advisory Board on Animal Behavior and Training and on the American Humane Association’s Feline Health and Welfare Forum. I’m currently on the Advisory Board of Tree House Humane Society and also worked with the Winn Feline Foundation. For quite a number of years I’ve also been a regular lecturer at the Best Friends National Conference. I often feel as if I live out of a suitcase because of my hectic lecture schedule, but I’m happy the subject of improving the lives of cats is now so well-received.

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Psycho Kitty Television Series

I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to share my knowledge with so many more cat parents through the Animal Planet UK and Nat Geo Wild television series, Psycho Kitty. 

I’m very thankful to everyone who has supported my work along the way. When I first wrote the book Think Like a Cat, I was just writing from my heart and didn’t realize how the techniques I created would become the standard for so many other experts in the field and that “Think Like a Cat” behavior modification would garner such attention.

So as I sit at my computer and look at the dizzying amount of information now available on cat behavior, it leaves me with a bittersweet feeling. I’m so thrilled great and innovative information is reaching cat parents, but I’m sad to see how many so-called cat experts are focusing more on their own desire for fame and not on the most important goal – the animals who depend on us to be their voices. 

Although my road to in the field of cat behavior consulting had more than its share of bumps, I have loved every moment of it. My goal in counseling cat parents, writing books and doing media appearances has never been to become famous. My goal has been, and still is, to help people understand what goes on inside the furry little heads of those beautiful, intelligent, loving, loyal, graceful creatures known as cats.

My sincere thanks to all my clients and to everyone who has purchased a book, attended one of my lectures or watched me on television. My sincere hope is that it somehow made life better for your cats.

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4 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your story and for following your hearts desire. I share your love for cats and desire to help people understand them better. I am so thankful to have found out about you and excited to learn that you live in my state and only 50 minutes away! I would love to hear you/meet you at a local speaking engagement. After reading your story, I am definitely buying your books. I’ve read several cat behavior books, but have never found ‘the one’ that I feel is written by someone who truly understands the heart and mind of these mysterious creatures. I look forward to hearing what you’ve learned about them.

    • Belinda, thank you for your very kind comment. I’m so glad you share my love for cats and the desire to educate people about behavior. I’ll be speaking at an event near you in the spring. I’ll be part of the Lecture Series at the Farm at Natchez Trace in Franklin on May 20th. If you attend, please be sure and come up and introduce yourself.

      Pam

  2. Thank you for sharing your full story with us!I’ve been fortunate enough to know your work and communicate with you via some message boards for quite some time. You have definitely helped me to understand my cats more and enabled me to pass on this love and knowledge to my friends. It is a wonderful feeling to help friends understand why their cat is doing what it is doing, not out of spite or anger, but because of lonliness or longing.
    Thank you!

  3. Lisa Fernandez

    Hi Pam,

    I read your story and I am so happy that you are able to teach so many people how to make life better for their cats. So many people get animals for the wrong reasons and they really don’t take the time to figure out what their cat or dog really needs. I have had cats since I was 8 years old and I will be 40 this year and I learn something new about them every day. I started volunteering at my local humane society about 1.5 years ago and I work with the cats. I have seen the need for people like you more than ever now that I am in the shelter environment. I have a full time job selling medical supplies, but I have been thinking about how I can become a cat behavior consultant because my love in life has always been animals, but I have a passion for helping cats that are misunderstood and labeled as “unadoptable” or “bad” cats. I do not think there is such a thing as a bad cat. They are very sensitive creatures and they just need people who will understand what they need and let them have what they need. I have been reading many books and I am going to get your book, Think like a cat, today.
    Do you have any advice for certain classes to take or certifications that are out there for this field?
    My experiences may make me a qualified, but I know people want to see credentials. I can’t figure out how to get started yet. Thank you for all you do. It is all about the animals.