INTERVIEW:

Expert Opinion: Certified Cat Behavior Consultant vs. 'Puss In Boots'

on November 04, 2011 by Marilyn Krieger
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pussinbootsexpert.pngI've met cats that have aspects of Puss in Boots' personality, but not the full thing in one cat. Remember, this is a cat who is outside all the time and I mostly work with indoor cats who don't go off and have lots of adventures. But I've met cats with his purr and his ability to win people overpeople just respond to them. I don't want to say they manipulate, but I do think there is some operant conditioning that gets people to feed them, and if they look really cute and sweet they can perhaps get people to give them whatever they want. These cats I call the Attention-Seekers. Highly intelligent cats.

Cats all have their individual personalities, and a lot of it can be genetic or environmental or how they've interacted with the people and animals around them. All the cats I see have distinct personalities. Some breeds are known for having different personalities, like Bengals and Savannas have extreme personalities-they'll do things that make you think they have a sense of humor. But it wasn't clear what type of breed Puss is.

But it was very obvious that Puss in Boots was a whole male. He was quite the little, you know. Male cats have a tendency to wander. Especially whole males. I do believe in spaying and neutering, and I do believe in indoor-only catsbut if that was true, you wouldn't have the story of Puss in Boots, would you?

I really enjoyed that Puss in Boots was a hero. Unfortunately in so many cartoon movies, cats aren't the hero. They're not portrayed very nicely. Don't get me started. There are a lot of myths about cats and they don't flatter them. Some movies portray cats as being tricky, manipulating. I suppose it goes back to the Middle Ages when people associated cats with witches. Witches, or really, herbalists, were usually women that lived alone. And people were confused about that, and that their companions were often cats. You could say that's the dawn of the crazy cat lady stereotype.

I train cats, and I also train them to stop doing unwanted behaviors. I use positive reinforcement, clicker training. Remember BF Skinner, a behaviorist in the '30s, discovered the principles of operant conditioning. Animals repeat behavior when they're reinforced for it. So you need two things: a treat, something they love. For people, that might be money. Different motivators. And then a tool that does the same thing every time it's activated. I use a clicker. You pair the clicker with the treat and that becomes communication, that they know that you enjoy what they're doing. You can teach them anything: shaking hands, jumping through hoops, and communicate when they're using the scratching post right. What happens with all animalsnot just catsis they enjoy what you're doing. It strengthens the bond with the person and it's fun for the cat because it's reinforced with treats and affection. But they're not doing it to please you. That's more of a dog thing. They're doing it because they enjoy doing it.

If Puss in Boots was a real cat, I'd probably be asked to train him to stay at home more. You never want to force a catyou want the cat to want to stay at home. So you'd increase the environmental enrichment, make it very interesting indoors, give the cat lots of interactive toys. Make outdoor areas that are safe for the cat with cat fencesthese are not electric fencesto keep cats in and other animals out. Nowadays, it's so dangerous to let cats roam the way that Puss does: you have not only diseases and cars and other animals, but people stealing them.

A lot of people think that cats can't be trained, that they do whatever they feel like doing and their behavior can't be changed. That's not true. But unfortunately, a lot of cats end up surrendered in shelters because of fixable behavior problems. Notice I'm not saying bad behaviors. There's usually a reason for a cat to engage in whatever behavior, whether it's not using the litter box or scratching the furniture. Even a cute little phrase you hear today like, "Dogs have owners, cats have staff," in that common vernacular you have misinformation of what cats are about.

Puss in Boots really wants to please his mom, that woman who rescued him, he really loves her. I loved that aspect of ithe was very, very bonded to her. Again, there are many out there who think that cats are only independent, and that they're not as friendly and warm towards people as dogs. Does a cat see his rescuer as his mom? It's hard for me to anthropomorphize, but I know that cats form very strong bonds with their people. They're thrilled by the consistency, the wonderful food, the warmth, and they're grateful for that. I shouldn't even say gratefulthat's anthropomorphizing-but there is that strong bond.

In my practice, I've seen cats suffer from separation anxiety and griefa lot of grief-when their favorite people go off to school or when somebody dies. A lot of them go into a deep depression. Like when Puss in Boots is separated from his mom, he wants to see her again. And when he does towards the end, his human mom tells him that he needs to surrenderand he does, for her. You can see when he looks at her how bonded they are with each other.

Another thing I liked about the movie was that he hand the companionship of Humpty Dumpty. Even though Humpty Dumpty wasn't that nice, he still felt that for honor, he had to help him out. Cats can be social-they're solitary hunters, but otherwise, they can be quite social. They can bond with other animals. As for eggs, well....maybe eggs with great facial expressions.

There were so many things in the movie that were typical cat that were truly fun to seethey must have had a cat consultant or somebody who knows a lot about cat behavior. In the Glitter Box, the way they were dancing like they were kicking litter, I thought that was terribly cute. The way the cats were so expressive: the way they moved their whiskers, ears and tail. When Puss first met Kitty Softpaws, the way they walked around each other and approached, was very cat-like. The way Puss in Boots would dilate his eyes and everyone would fall in love because he looks so adorable, and when he was thrown in prison and was really dejected, his ears were downthat's exactly how a cat would look when he was depressed.

Another thing I do want to say is that Kitty Softpaws was declawed, and there was this little comment in there about how cat people aren't always so nice. Love that. I was really happy to see that. Being a behaviorist and coordinating Bengal Cat rescues in California, there are so many cats who've been declawed. And it's pathetic and terrible that there are so many veterinarian that do it. West Hollywood and, I think, Berkeley, are some of the only towns in California that have passed laws against declawing. So I'm glad they got that in in a film that's going to be seen by millions of people.

She was embarrassed that she was declawed. In real life, a cat wouldn't be embarrassed because embarrassment is a human emotion. That was anthropomorphizing, which of course they have to do. And frankly, in this particular situation, I'm glad they did because it added to the reality that declawing is bad. It adds stress to their lives. Cats I've found that have been declawed can have inappropriate behavior patterns: inappropriate elimination or aggression. She had that aggression. Because claws are like having a gun in the closet: you know it's there even if you don't use it. And you never declaw a cat who goes outside, but there you go-Miss Kitty Softpaws is outside. In one of the scenes, they showed that she was going to fall because she couldn't hang on to something because she was declawed. So there you go.

When they were jumping into the clouds, I was like, "Oh my god, I hope they don't fall." That was one thing I didn't like about the movie: I don't want people to think that cats can fall from long distances and be okay. People think they'll land on their feet and that's not always trueand even if they do land on their feet, they can end up with a lot of broken bones. But in the movie, Puss looked invincible. He was never truly harmed, whereas in real life if a cat fell those distances, jumped off those roofs or that cliff, the cat would die. Cats are fragile. They're not these strong creatures. They can't just be thrown around. Cats aren't superheroes-you can't throw them off a seven-story building and expect them to be okay.

I've had cats all my life. And so has my mother and my grandmotherit goes all the way back. Our family came to San Francisco in 1849 and they always had catsthere's an old daguerreotype of a cat perched on one of my ancestors. I read everything I could about cats, and even when I worked in other fields, I helped my friends with their cats. When I became laid off from my hi-tech job, I decided to become a cat behaviorist and I joined the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants in 2005. Some people think it's a little strange, but more people think it would be a fun profession to go in to-and it is.

In order to join, I had to satisfy six core areas of competency: general knowledge of animal behavior, then the science of your specific species-I studied cats, but we also have dogs, horses parrots-then behavior science, assessment skills, counseling skills, biology, and social systems assessment. On top of that, there's a minimum of three years and 1500 hours of counseling experience, and 500 hours of coursework, seminars on things related to our core area of competency and the ability to communicate. And then I have to continue to take 30 education units every year in order to maintain my credentials. To become an associate member, it's just 300 hours of consulting and then three of the six areas of core competency.

I have car magnets on my car for my business, The Cat Coach. And it happens a lot that I'll park my car, go to Whole Foods, and when I walk out somebody will be there saying, "Oh, I have to tell you all about my cat!" Complete strangers want to open up and tell me about their catsthey just come up to me and start talking. "My cat is urinating outside of the boxwhat do I do?!" and I'll say, "Here's my card."


Marilyn Krieger, Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and owner of The Cat Coach, LLC® and thecatcoach.com solves cat behavior problems through on-site and phone consultations for all cat breeds. Marilyn works directly with clients as well as through veterinarian referrals. Her recently released book, Naughty No More! focuses on changing unwanted behaviors through clicker training, environmental management and other positive reinforcement based methods. Additionally, Marilyn writes the monthly behavior columns for Cat Fancy Magazine and the weekly behavior columns on www.catchannel.com/experts/marilyn-krieger/default.aspx

In addition to consulting and writing, Marilyn teaches classes and lectures nationally on cat behavior. She frequently guests on television and radio programs, providing valuable tips and insight on how to improve cat behavior. Marilyn has appeared in two seasons of Animal Planet's Cats 101.

Marilyn is certified through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants where she co-chairs the cat division and is a former member of the IAABC Board of Directors.

For more information about Marilyn, please see her site: thecatcoach.com

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