2020 Online Behavior Day

On February 8, I participated in the first online cat behavior conference hosted by the Community Cats Podcast. The conference featured two certified cat behavior consultants, Tabitha Kucera and Rachel Geller. These ladies spoke on several topics, three of which I’ll highlight here.

A registered veterinary technician and a certified cat behavior training consultant, Tabitha Kucera is also certified in feline-friendly handling by both Fear Free and the Low Stress Handling University. I have interviewed her three times: Chip the Agility Cat, Kitten Kindergarten, Why Clicker Train Cats?. In her presentations for CCP Behavior Day, she talked about the importance of meeting both the physical and mental needs of cats.

Vet-friendly visits are especially important for cats because twice as many cats as dogs never see a veterinarian. One reason people are less likely to take cats to the vet is that many cats stress out from being transported to and/or examined by a vet. According to Kucera, anxiety in cats has many negative consequences, including increased risk of injury and illness, unwanted behaviors, and the breaking of the human-animal bond. As a result of the latter, cats are often relinquished. Even when owners elect to keep their cats, there’s often lower quality medical care and poorer medical outcomes.

In Kucera’s experience as a vet technician, many cat owners only bring their cats to the vet when their cats are sick. Unfortunately, because cats are so good at hiding pain and illness, by the time they start showing symptoms their illness or injury can be advanced. Therefore it’s important to get cats examined regularly so that medical issues can be prevented before they start. Kucera offered a couple examples of health problems that need management, noting that between 50% and 90% of cats will suffer from dental issues. In addition, feline arthritis is a chronic, painful disease that 92% of cats will experience. For these reasons and more, Kucera believes it’s important for owners to develop a close relationship with their veterinarian while their cat is still healthy.

How can we as owners ensure vet-friendly visits? First, don’t wait until your cat needs to see the vet before you think about how you’ll get your cat there. It takes time to teach a cat to be comfortable with a carrier, and so it’s important to be proactive and begin conditioning as early as possible. Cats can learn to love their carrier if it’s made available to them 24/7. We can also make it more appealing to them by adding bedding, treats, and toys. Cats can learn to love the car if we take them for rides at times just for fun. Also, car rides can be made more appealing to them pre-warming the car for our cats and playing calming music.

Of course, there’s more to a vet-friendly visit than teaching our cats to love their carrier and our car. Responsible veterinarians need to do their part to help our cats be comfortable and calm. Kucera offered a few suggestions, such as the vet examining the cat in its carrier or allowing the cat to come out of the carrier on its own, using a non-slip surface such as a yoga mat on the exam table, having their medical supplies ready ahead of time, and using distractions and rewards. In addition, a veterinarian should employ friendly handling. This includes replacing the scruffing technique with petting and massages. Kucera recommended that owners look for a veterinarian trained in low-stress or fear-free handling when choosing who will care for their cat’s health.

Kucera then turned to the topic of enrichment. Kucera explained that “cats have natural behaviors and needs, and they must have opportunities to express those behaviors.” She said that an enriched environment should provide various types of scratching surfaces, outlets for predatory and prey behavior, safe places, and should respect all five of your cat’s sense.” In the context of this article, I want to emphasize the topics that I haven’t yet written about on this blog. First, with regards to safe places, Kucera noted that cats are both predators and prey. As the latter, they’re always on the lookout for danger. For this reason, owners should avoid clustering resources for their cats in one area, but rather spread them throughout favorite rooms. Second, with regards to enrichment, Kucera talked about the importance of meeting the sensory needs of cats, focusing primarily on their olfactory needs. She suggested bringing the bringing nature indoors by providing cats with safe leaves, sticks, dirt, and plants. In addition, she recommended adding safe scents to items that cats use, such as bedding and toys. Cats’ favorite scents include catnip, honeysuckle, silver vine, and valerian root. To read more about environmental enrichment for cats, check out my articles on scratching, play, and environment.

A certified cat behavior counselor through the Humane Society of the United States, Rachel Geller developed the Cat Behavior and Retention Program, which was recognized nationwide as a “model program” by HSUS. Geller has also developed a seminar called ‘Solutions to Common Cat Behavior Problems,” which she presents regularly in libraries, schools, and community centers. Since the starting her business, she has successfully resolved over 300 cases per year. In her presentation for CCP Behavior Day, she talked about the most common cat behavior concerns: litter boxes, scratching posts, cat introductions, and multi-cat households.

In the context of this article, I want to share a little information about Geller, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. In August 2017, I wrote Geller to inquire how I might pursue the field of humane education. She told me about HSUS’ Cat Behavior and Retention Program, a course which I enjoyed so much that I decided to enter the field. When I expressed concerns about the cost and time commitment, especially given my age, she shared her personal story. Like me, she got into the cat behavior field in her fifties, and also like me cat behavior was a second job. Geller recommended that I start with classes such as those from HSUS, because these would be an affordable way to get my feet wet. She also suggested ways that I could provide humane education to the community. As part of her services, she offers cat education classes to a variety of organizations, including veterinarian clinics and animal shelters. In addition, she’s developed educational videos and webinars. Finally, although she’d educated herself using information from books published by cat experts, she’d developed a lot of her own materials. If not for Geller and others like her, I wouldn’t have known how to get started in this field, or the inspiration to continue in it.

Geller’s latest accomplishment is a book called Saving the World, One Cat at a Time. In it, Geller summarizes her life story. She grew up “collecting” cats. As an adult, she worked in the field of special education, but also helped the elderly. She wrote a nursing home bill of rights that prevented nursing homes from sending challenging patients to hospitals and then not readmitting them. When she retired, she began working in the cat behavior field. One day she hopes to open her own cat shelter. In 2018, the Boston Globe featured her work with cats, which led to such a deluge of email that she decided to write a book about her answers to the questions she’s been asked most often. She ends the book by inviting readers to share their stories with her. She enjoys interacting with cat owners, which I can attest to: Geller has answered questions on and off from me since 2017.

In the space of six hours, as part of the online cat behavior conference hosted by the Community Cats Podcast, Tabitha Kucera and Rachel Geller spoke at length on the following topics: the importance of fear-free handling, cat enrichment, kitten kindergarten, and four main cat behavior issues. They also held a Q&A at the end on how to run a cat shelter program. Just one of these presentations would have been worth the $25 registration fee. If the Community Cats Podcast ever offers another conference like this one, I will again be one of the first to register. If you want to listen to the presentations from the recent conference, the recordings are available from Community Cats Podcast.

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