One of my dreams is to become a cat behavior consultant. As such, it is my pleasure to share the following interview with Dr. Mikel Maria Delgado. A Certified Cat Behavior Consultant, Mikel worked as a full time Cat Behavior Specialist at the San Francisco SPCA for several years before co-founding Feline Minds. She has a PhD in Psychology from UC Berkeley, where she studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships. She has presented research on human attitudes about domestic cats, among other topics. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
ALLISON: Tell me about your cats.
MIKEL: Right now we just have one 15-year old cat, Clarabelle. Our other cat, who was Clarabelle’s bff, Beanie, died last year of large cell lymphoma at the age of 14. We are mostly likely going to let Clarabelle live out her days as an only kitty (unless she takes to one of our foster kitties!). Clarabelle is a real charmer, friendly, playful, funny and smart. She loves sunbathing, her heated bed, being held, and taking walks in our yard with her Kitty Holster.
ALLISON: What interests you about cats?
MIKEL: I’ve been drawn to cats as long as I can remember. I just find them fascinating and beautiful. But I’m also drawn to them because they are misunderstood and sensitive to their environments. I love that they are a bit mysterious and often need time to trust, and that they are just “semi-domesticated.” I appreciate that wild side!
ALLISON: Share a highlight from your work with animal welfare groups.
MIKEL: I have a soft spot for animal welfare groups because that is where I got my start. I am currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, where I work with Drs. Melissa Bain and Tony Buffington. I’ve been very grateful to be able to put together a research program that utilizes cats in their homes (where they are happiest and behave like their normal selves). Local shelters have helped me promote my research project to recruit local participants from their adopters, which has been great.
Most recently, I’ve been working with rescue groups who focus on orphaned neonatal kittens, including the Orphan Kitten Project at UC Davis (a veterinary-student run organization that focuses on getting these kittens into foster homes and then adopted) and Kitten Central. Their foster caretakers have been very kind in giving their time and careful attention to their “bottle babies,” and helping us collect health and behavioral data on them so that we can better understand how to take care of this special population.
ALLISON: Why did you become a cat behavior consultant?
MIKEL: My desire was sparked once I started volunteering at the San Francisco SPCA. It was a life-changing experience to say the least! It was so heartbreaking to see how difficult it was for some cats to adjust to the shelter environment, and even more heartbreaking to see that behavior problems were often what led cats to the shelter in the first place. I made it my goal to learn more about cat behavior and the human-cat relationship to help cats stay in homes.
ALLISON: What training was involved?
MIKEL: I ended up at the SF/SPCA for almost eight years, first as a volunteer, then as staff in the Cat Behavior Department. I was trained by more senior staff on temperament testing/assessing cats for adoption, behavior modification, adoption counseling, as well as doing phone consultations for people who called our “hotline” for behavior help with their cats. So, there was a lot of on-the-job training, and I also just became a sponge for information about cat behavior – reading every book about behavior I could find, and going to training and behavior-related conferences and workshops.
In 2008, I left the shelter to start Feline Minds. My business partner, Dilara Parry, and I realized that we could do more to help cats and their humans during a home visit than through the hotline and wanted to offer that service. Since then I’ve also obtained a PhD in Psychology, where I spent several years researching animal behavior and human-animal relationships, and now I work at UC Davis in addition to consulting. I’d say training is a never-ending process – there is always more to learn – whether it’s a good way to explain a technique to a client, or about the latest research about animal behavior and behavior modification.
ALLISON: Describe a typical consulting session.
MIKEL: I have an intake questionnaire, so I come to a consultation prepared and with some additional questions and avenues I want to explore about the client’s concerns to help me make an accurate assessment. We’ll start with just introductions and getting more details about the behavior concern. If the cat isn’t fearful of strangers, I might interact with the cat–but I always leave that up to the cat. At some point, I’ll want a tour of the environment and the set up of the cat’s resources. We might do some clicker training, or playtime, or work out some changes to the environment. Then we spend the last time during the consultation going over specific recommendations and I’ll answer any questions the clients might have before we wrap up.
ALLISON: Share a lesson you’ve learned about working with animals.
MIKEL: As soon as you think you know everything about cats, they will do something to surprise you!
ALLISON: Share a lesson you’ve learned about working with people.
MIKEL: Most people who hire a consultant for help are committed to their animals and want to help them. However, people are also often a bit lazy, or overwhelmed, or don’t know how to provide a safe and stimulating environment for their cat. My job is to provide them with a plan that is do-able and effective for both them and their cat. This can be a challenge because sometimes people have so much work to do and you need to give them a solid starting point.
ALLISON: Give a tip to anyone who might want to become a cat behavior consultant.
MIKEL: If you want to become a cat behavior consultant because you like cats more than you like people, you will probably NOT enjoy the experience. You will work MUCH more with humans than you will with cats, and it can be challenging at times. Having good communication and people skills is a MUST.