Skip to content Skip to navigation

A new learning curve

Cat behavior counseling course helps jump-start surrender prevention programs

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2015

Mouse wasn’t mean, just a little misunderstood. But her owner might have unnecessarily relinquished the kitten to a shelter if Tara Sannucci hadn’t been available.

Sannucci, pet retention and special projects coordinator at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in New Jersey, spends part of each workday taking phone calls from owners whose pets aren’t behaving. Her job is to help them resolve problems that might otherwise lead them to surrender their companions.

One call came from a troubled owner whose adopted 6-month-old kitten, named Mouse for her tiny size and grey hair, was wrapping her front paws around her owner’s arm and kicking her.

“It sounds like she is engaging in play aggression,” Sannucci recalls telling the owner.

Sannucci inquired about the amount of interactive playtime the kitten was getting at home and the types of games she was playing with the family.

The owner tried playing with Mouse a few times a day as Sannucci had suggested. But it wasn’t until a young nephew visited her for Christmas—and was all too happy to romp with the kitten—that Mouse was able to play for more than an hour a day, allowing her to properly burn off some energy. The nephew’s visit inspired the family to devote more time to interacting with the kitten after he left. As a result, Mouse’s play aggression came to an end.

“Cats are hunters by nature,” Sannucci explains. “They need playtime to burn all that energy off.”

The St. Hubert’s helpline averages two calls per day, and about half of those are related to cat behavior issues.

Sannucci established the helpline last year after completing an online cat behavior counseling class offered by Humane Society Academy (HSA), an educational program run by The HSUS. Designed for staff and volunteers at animal welfare organizations, the 10-week class includes information on how to implement a cat retention program, with models for a community helpline, a shelter help desk and an adoption follow-up program.

About 100 people have taken the course since it started in 2014, while 120 are scheduled to take it this year, helping HSA realize its goal of spreading cat behavior counseling and pet retention strategies to shelters and rescues around the country.

The Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Washington state started offering cat behavior workshops after Stephanie Renaud, who supervises the shelter’s “Cat City” adoption center, took the HSA course. Free and open to the public, the PAWS workshops have proven popular. When PAWS, which offered four workshops last year, announced its fourth Cat Behavior 101 training event on its website this year, it reached the maximum of 70 people within 24 hours, prompting staff to create a waiting list.

“People are excited to learn about cat behavior,” Renaud says. “There’s an increasing trend of people being more engaged with their cats in that way.”

Renaud says one of the most important lessons she leaned from the HSA course was how much impact playtime has on the behavior of a cat.

“If it’s not the solution, it can be a huge part of it,” she says.

Spreading Prevention

The HSA course grew out of Pet Help Partners (PHP), a New York City-based pet retention program run by The HSUS from 2009 to 2014, which provided free and reduced-cost counseling and other resources to clients on the verge of relinquishing their pets.

Matt Wildman, himself the proud owner of four cats (Pablo, Bert, Lucy and Patrick), is pet care issues manager for The HSUS and instructor for the HSA cat behavior course. He estimates he has successfully counseled more than 250 cat owners in the past two years.

The PHP helpline occasionally received calls from other cities, he says, but most of the calls came from cat owners in New York. The HSUS wanted to expand its focus to helping cats and owners nationwide.

The HSA course “is a perfect outcome of what we achieved in New York City,” Wildman says. “This year, we are expecting many shelters and rescues to implement cat retention programs or enhance their current programs because of this course.”

Wildman believes the cat behavior course has been successful because it empowers participants to think beyond the walls of their shelter or rescue to assist owners who are thinking of surrendering their cats.

“There is this tremendous craving for knowledge about cat behavior amongst rescue and shelter staff,” he says. “This course fills what had been a vacuum in the area of professional development.”

Sarah Matisak, senior shelter services coordinator for The HSUS, agrees that the field is moving toward progressive tactics such as retention programs to prevent pets from becoming homeless.

For many, it’s a new strategy, Matisak says. “It’s being more proactive and less reactive than ever before.”

Find out more about the Cat Behavior and Retention Course.

About the Author

Vincenza Previte is the former Bilingual Media Relations Specialist at The Humane Society of the United States. Fluent in Spanish and Italian, Vincenza is passionate about human rights issues and wildlife conservation. She holds an M.A. in international relations.