Cats are often misunderstood by their owners.
This I learned from "cat whisperer" Rachel Geller. I became aware of Geller after my kitten Treats' behavior suddenly shifted into problematic realms — biting, scratching, random middle-of-the-night attacks. He had become a nuisance at best, a terror at his worst. My 7-year-old son, Oliver, had begged for months for a cat, and eventually I gave in, but I'd come to regret this decision.
I was told this cat whisperer could tame the craziest cats. I was skeptical at first, but why not try it?
There is no shortage of animal behaviorists, especially after the success of National Geographic's reality series Dog Whisperer, in which star Cesar Millan visits the homes of harried dog owners and teaches them techniques for improving their dogs' bad manners.
Pet whisperers come in a wide spectrum of specialties. There are whisperers for horses, small animals like rabbits, and pets who have experienced trauma.
Amy Nichols, the Humane Society's vice president of companion animals, urges people to check out thoroughly any animal behavior specialist before hiring them, because this is an unregulated industry.
"There are absolutely proven and effective training techniques that when correctly applied, can be life-changing for both the pet parent and the cat or dog, but there is a very wide range of the practical application of those techniques," Nichols said.
In our case, bringing in a professional proved to be helpful. Here's how it worked:
Geller works with cat shelters in eastern Massachusetts, and with private cat owners. She sits on the board of some cat welfare organizations. She is a bone-deep cat lover.
I told her the basics of our story: Having Treats was great fun at first, but once he hit puberty, he went crazy. He scratched furniture and our arms and legs. He bit and attacked everything from the baby's stuffed toys to our geriatric Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Treats commonly crouched in a corner, and when we'd walk by he'd spring out and grab onto a leg with his claws. We started sleeping with closed bedroom doors.
Secretly, I wanted to get rid of this cat. He wasn't a terror all the time. He could be sweet, cuddling up with me on the couch after a psychotic outburst. But I was worried he might try to attack the baby. Still, abandoning him would break Oliver's heart. So, the cat stayed.
Geller grew up in rural Maine with a menagerie of pets, but now she lives in Newton, Massachusetts.
"I have this ability to think like a cat," she told me the first time we spoke over the phone.
Common cat-related problems that she encounters include litter box issues, aggression, scratched furniture and running away from home.
Some behaviors are instinctual to cats: They like high spaces, for instance, and many crawl up onto tables and counters. Human behaviors complicate the cat's world. Leave food on the counter, and the cat will jump up there even more.
"The biggest part of my job is explaining to someone how to see the problem from a cat's point of view, and why they do it," Geller said. "Some people think their cats aren't using the litter box to spite them, because the cat is mad about something, but that's just not the case."
Geller empathizes with her clients. "By the time people reach out to an animal behavior specialist, it's usually the end of the rope," she said.
Often, she works for free, or in return for a donation to a cat welfare organization.
"I want to express to the client that I know how upsetting the cat's behavior is, but with these problems, there is usually something that can be fixed" pretty straightforwardly, she said, even by talking over the phone.
For my Treats' incessant need to bite and attack, Geller believed active playtime should help.
"Get him a fishing pole with a toy at the end," she said. "Make sure the toy is one he can really bite into. This will help curb his natural instinct to hunt."
Her other instructions included allowing the cat to "capture" the toy, and never using your bare hand to wrestle with him — it teaches the cat that skin is a toy. Having 15 minutes of active play two times a day should wear the cat out and give him the outlet he needs.
It's been almost two months now, and I can say that Treats terrorizes our family less. Although he's not the perfect companion, he behaves better when we've played with him.
"Try to think about the problem from the point of view of the cat, not from one of a human," Geller said. "In many of these situations, there is a simple solution that can make everyone's lives better, for the owner and cats."