Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Cat Whisperer

From comes this fascinating article about a cat behaviorist. Mieshelle Nagelschneider opened up her Cat Behavior Clinic in Portland, Oregon and has now signed a deal with a television network to show off her skills.

Nagelschneider is particularly adept at diagnosing behavior problems with cats and finding subtle yet powerful ways to encourage better behavior. She's not a pet psychic or even a trainer. What she does, and what all good pet owners can do with a little help, is understand the feline mind.

Kristin Weir, the author of the piece, writes about trying to correct her cat's behavior. Thompson's like a lot of cats we know:

Thompson grew into a wildly affectionate, completely lovable, moderately rotund adult cat. He outgrew most of his extreme behaviors, but one trait persisted. Thompson is a biter. He bites frequently and hard. As I climb into bed at night, he'll dart from a dark corner and lock his jaws around my ankle, ears back and eyes wide, like a lion taking down a wounded gazelle. But five minutes later, all is forgotten.

We see Thompsons all the time. And their frustrated owners. On occasion, we do find medical reasons for their behavior, but sometimes it is just a personality issue.

Weir describes a two week course, led by Nagelschneider, that gradually rewarded Thompson for his good behavior, and discouraged his bad behavior:

One thing that I immediately liked about Nagelschneider's approach was her assertion that we focus on rewards, not punishment. She suggested a few "aversive techniques" to try when Thompson misbehaved, but they were pretty mild -- rattling a soda can filled with quarters to startle him, or simply ignoring him altogether. "We don't want to traumatize him," she explained. "The idea is to achieve the desired results with the least amount of invasive measures possible."

This pro-active approach made sense to Alice Moon-Fanelli, a clinical assistant professor of animal behavior at Tufts University. "Cats are very responsive to positive reinforcement," she said. "Usually what happens is the pet gets attention when it's doing something wrong."

This, of course, is nothing earth shattering, but Nagelschneider does bring some interesting theories to her program. In Thompson's case, she does some quick feline psychoanalysis.

But as we discussed his habits and quirks, one theory emerged above the others as a likely diagnosis: Thompson had low self-esteem. As Nagelschneider described it, Thompson's apparent lack of confidence could explain his dizzying alternations between clinginess and viciousness. When he followed me from room to room and jumped on my desk 15 times a day, he was looking to be reassured of my affections. When he attacked, he was acting out in an attempt to control me, like a playground bully knocking the skinny kid down to boost himself up.

Like the dog whisper and horse whisperer that came before her, Nagelschneider reinforces something that we too often forget when dealing with animals. We are better pet owners when we try to see it from their point of view. Patience, attention and love will allow us to understand much about our cats.

I encourage you to read the article in full--if only to see how one scientist ranks cats as similar to pigeons and cockroaches.

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