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Reconcilable Differences

Using behavior counseling to keep cats in their homes

Changes in litter box behavior are a common indicator of cat distress. Shelters and rescues can help owners solve problems before the bond is threatened. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

by Joyce Friedman

What if you were told that one person has the power to stop dozens—maybe even hundreds—of cats from entering your shelter or rescue each year? Too good to be true, right?

Wrong. The HSUS pet retention program Pet Help Partners (PHP) has had significant success in New York City keeping cats with families who had considered relinquishment due to behavior issues.

And you don’t have to be a “crazy cat lady” to make it work. “I never really understood cats; I was more of a dog person,” says PHP’s client services manager and cat behavior counselor Matt Wildman. But in 2010, when Wildman joined the PHP team, the need for more cat behavior expertise became apparent. PHP already had an excellent certified cat behavior consultant, Beth Adelman, but “we were referring more calls to her than she could handle,” says Wildman. The behaviorist began mentoring him, providing books and articles on cat behavior and leading him through a range of cat behavior cases. “Soon I was handling large numbers of calls from frustrated cat owners, many on the verge of relinquishment.”

In one case Wildman handled, two middle-aged cats, Mufasa and Sarabi, weren’t seeing eye to eye. Confident Mufasa was bullying Sarabi, and their shared litter box didn’t help matters: Sarabi quickly learned to avoid the dangers of the box—where Mufasa might attack—and began urinating on her owner’s bed instead. The frustrated owner was on the verge of surrendering at least one of the cats.

Then there was Sweet Pea, who had once been a loving cat with no behavior issues. But she’d recently frightened and confused her family by hissing and growling at them and urinating around the home.

PHP stepped in to help, giving Musafa and Sarabi’s owner information about the importance of multiple open litter boxes, which provided more than one exit, and about interactive play to reduce their stress. The tips allowed the cats to coexist. Their owner had been heartbroken at the thought of giving up the cats, and was delighted to see the change in their behavior.

Wildman’s conversations with Sweet Pea’s owner revealed that her behavior issues stemmed from the arrival of a new couch, the size, smell, and newness of which had Sweet Pea freaked out. Wildman’s suggestions for stress and fear reduction—including calming time in a separate room, use of interactive play, and a sheet with the comforting smell of her people to temporarily cover the new couch—enabled Sweet Pea to return to her sweet ways in a couple of days.

“Assisting cat owners and cats comes down to a simple fact,” Wildman explains. “Once you understand the importance of a safe, secure, and stimulating home environment, resolving behavior issues is often just a matter of determining how the cats’ needs are not being met and then making recommendations for how the family can better meet those needs.” PHP successfully used behavior counseling to keep more than 90 cats in their homes in 2013.

Behavior counseling is nothing new, but many shelters and rescues think they lack the time and resources to do it. However, if cat behavior problems are a significant source of relinquishment and returns to your organization, it’s worthwhile to invest time and energy in a front-end project that can keep cats in homes in the first place. Why rehome—or worse, have to euthanize—a healthy cat with a loving family and an entirely solvable behavior problem? Free behavior counseling to keep cats in their homes offers a life raft to reduce the influx of cats, so organizations can focus resources on those most in need. What’s more, phone-based cat behavior counseling is a task perfectly suited to volunteers; they don’t even have to be in your facility to do the work.

Now that’s the cat’s meow.

The HSUS’s interactive Cat Answer Tool has detailed information on common cat behavior issues, and is a good learning tool for budding cat behavior counselors and a helpful resource to cat owners. Visit humanesociety.org/catanswertool to get started. For upcoming training on cat behavior counseling and strategies for creating a pet retention program, go to animalsheltering.org.

Joyce Friedman is program manager of Pet Help Partners at The HSUS.

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