Since the fall, I have taken on five cases involving cat aggression. For that reason, I subscribed to The Pet Professional Guild’s 2019 Summit on Aggression and Bite Prevention. “How to Speak Cat: Exploring Feline Communication and Social Behavior” was one of the presentations. Following is my interview with its presenter, Paula Garber.
ALLISON: What got you interested in cat behavior?
PAULA: In 2006, I started volunteering for my town’s Trap-Neuter-Return program for community cats and caring for several feral cat colonies. This work inevitably involved rescuing and fostering cats who were friendly, injured, or in intractable situations.
In 2010, I took in a young adult male feral cat who was being threatened by the owner of the property where he lived. I searched for a local behavior professional for assistance, but only found people who work with dogs. I worked with this cat on my own, and the socialization process was very slow and fraught with mistakes and setbacks, but I learned a lot, and he ultimately became a happy, well-adjusted house cat (he even greets visitors to my home).
This experience triggered my passion for working with fearful and under-socialized cats, which persists to this day. It is the most rewarding work I do.
ALLISON: Why did you pursue it as a profession?
PAULA: Around the time I was working with the adult feral cat in my home, the first season aired of Jackson Galaxy’s TV show, “My Cat From Hell.”. It was the first time I’d heard of someone having a career as a cat behavior consultant!
I had been working as a freelance editor for many years, and I was ready for a change. I researched the educational opportunities that were available and ultimately enrolled in the Animal Behavior Institute’s programs for Certified Animal Training and Enrichment Professional and Certified Feline Training and Behavior Specialist.
I started my business, LIFELINE Cat Behavior Solutions, in 2014 and have been a full-time cat behavior consultant since 2018. I became certified in Low Stress Handling and as a Fear Free Animal Trainer, and I’m currently earning a diploma in Feline Behavior Science and Technology from the Companion Animal Sciences Institute. I have also served as chairwoman of the Pet Professional Guild’s Feline Division since 2017 and as the director of the Cat Protection Council of Westchester since 2014.
ALLISON: Why is understanding cat communication important to building relationships with cats?
PAULA: Cats are amazing communicators, but many cat owners don’t understand what their cats are communicating or misinterpret their cats’ communication signals. This can lead to behavior problems, damage to the cat-human bond, and welfare issues.
ALLISON: How are cats different than dogs in their communication?
PAULA: Dogs live within a group social structure, as their ancestors did, whereas cats evolved from a solitary-living ancestor (Felis sylvestris lybica) and have retained many of their ancestor’s behavioral characteristics. This helps explain the differences in not only how dogs and cats communicate, but also why humans often misunderstand cats. Humans, being social, group-living animals, tend to communicate more like dogs do. Dogs are predators who tend to hunt prey of varying sizes, including species larger than they are. They are also cooperative hunters who will track and follow prey across long distances. By contrast, cats are solitary stalk-and-pounce hunters who prey on animals smaller than they are, but they are also prey themselves for larger predators. As both predator and prey, cats are inherently cautious and discriminating animals, and most of their behaviors originate from this dichotomy.
ALLISON: How important are early experiences when it comes to a cat’s socialization?
PAULA: The sensitive period for socialization in cats occurs early and is quite short, between two and seven weeks of age. During this period, kittens are especially curious and open to new experiences, and it’s the best time to expose them to everything they might experience in their lives in a positive way. Many behavior problems in cats are a result of lack of socialization during this sensitive period.
ALLISON: How important is scent to cats and communication?
PAULA: The world of scent for cats is a vital part of identifying, claiming, and challenging territory. It is also used as a communication tool in social interactions and to establish familiarity, which is very important to a prey species.
ALLISON: What research has been done regarding cats and scent?
PAULA: Kristyn Vitale-Shreve has recently done some interesting research on cats and scent:
ALLISON: What is the most important thing you’ve learned about cat communication?
PAULA: Cat communication can be ambivalent, and so it’s important to consider the individual cat and the context when assessing a cat’s communication signals.
ALLISON: Give one tip to my readers for understanding how cats communicate.
PAULA: A wagging tail in a cat often indicates a negative emotional state, not a positive one.
ALLISON: If people want to know more about how cats communicate, what resources would you recommend?
- Pam Johnson-Bennetts’ books: Think Like a Cat, Starting from Scratch
- What Is My Cat Saying? Feline Communication 101 (CD), by Carol Byrnes and Jacqueline Munera ()
- Feline Communication: How to Speak Cat and Understand Cat Behavior, by Maddie’s Fund ()