By Duncan Strauss
If someone has the temerity to refer to herself as “The Cat Whisperer,” as Mieshelle Nagelschneider does—even using that phrase for the title of her new book—it kind of invites merciless mocking, no?
For one thing, The (insert word here) Whisperer has become so ubiquitous that it’s hurtled well past hackneyed territory and is zooming toward the county seat of ClichéVille. For another, the phrase often feels so lofty, brushing up against full-tilt arrogance, that even as bragging rights go, it can be profoundly off-putting.
Just one little problem with all that grousing in this case: Nagelschneider is a veteran cat behaviorist who really does command unique skills and a magic touch when dealing with felines of all stripes, and her book is a winning guide so chock full of information and insightful strategies that even lifelong cat lovers may walk away newly enlightened.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, she was nuts about animals as a kid, felt a powerful kinship with them, even if, back then, there wasn’t yet a feline focus.
“Well, I grew up with dogs, really,” Nagelschneider explains in a March 20 Talking Animals interview, devoted partly to discussing her new book, The Cat Whisperer: Why Cats Do What They Do—and How To Get Them To Do What You Want.
“I’m [also] a dog person–horses, dogs, all of that. As a young child, I would pretend I was an animal and I thought I did really well at pretending I was a cat. And then I learned this when I studied animal cognition: If you want to understand animal behavior, it’s really important—if you want to help an animal with their behavior, you need to look at the world through their eyes…get into the mind of the cat.”
Based on the informational horsepower generated by her book and by The Cat Behavior Clinic—Nagelschneider’s consulting service that helps people worldwide solve behavioral problems and other issues with their cats—it appears her vision through cats’ eyes is highly acute, and her immersion into the minds of cats is complete.
To arrive at this rarefied position, Nagelshneider embarked on a lengthy journey, worked diligently, kept pairing academic study (including a stint at Harvard) with hands-on experience. And she began that journey some two decades ago bearing lots of hands-on animal experience—she grew up on a farm in Central Oregon, extending a long line of family farmers—and a preternatural gift for understanding and improving critters’ behavior.
Especially if those critters were cats, as she recognized in a light bulb moment not long after starting a job 22 years ago as a veterinary technician. “Working with the vets,” she recalls, “I got so many calls from people [seeking her guidance on cat behavior]. I had a call from one woman, in a humane society parking lot, crying, about to give up her cat. I had to choose, and I actually had to quit my job working as a vet tech. It really ended up becoming a race to save lives. It wasn’t creating a business—it just kind of happened that way.
“And I didn’t know half then of what I know now, so it was really a race for me to learn everything I could. And I don’t think there even was online back then,” she says, laughing. “There was a lot of experiential work. I did my best, and I was pretty good at it back then. There wasn’t really much out there—lots of dog behavior books, but not much out there at all for cats. So I’m hoping people will get a lot out of my book. I think there’s a lot of good new information in there. So many of these behavior issues can be solved”
Part of the triumph of The Cat Whisperer—talking about the book now, not the woman– is that it serves as a clear, practical primer for how a huge array of those behavior issues can be addressed. Indeed, the book is laced with down-to-earth advice and carefully-explained gambits for dealing with everything from aggression to yowling—often employing her C.A.T. Plan (Cease the unwanted cat behavior…Attract the cat to a desirable behavior or location…Transform the territory).
But Nagelschneider makes clear in the book, as she also did in our Talking Animals conversation, that litter box issues occupy the top spot in the pyramid of pussycat problems.
“Some of the most upsetting behavioral problems that people come to me about,” Nagelschneider writes in The Cat Whisperer, “are those related to urination and defecation outside of the box.” (If you want to make an “outside the box” joke here, be my guest. I have a column to write.) Deeper into the book, she writes
Unwanted elimination is a serious but preventable problem. Experts estimate that between 40 and 75 percent of all cats with behavioral problems have an elimination problem. It is the number one complaint of cat owners and the number one reason millions of cats are surrendered to shelters each year, and even killed.
So, it seemed essential to ask her to discuss the complex world of litter boxes. “The most common consult I conduct is definitely litter box issues, urine outside the box being the biggest one,” she answers.
“Defecation outside the box, there are a few special things to know about that. Very different why they do that, when it’s just defecation outside the box. But as for litter box number—and I picked this up over the years, reading books—generally, we say one box for each cat, plus one more.
“So if you have a three-cat household, you would have four boxes. That’s a general guideline—it’s not that you have to have that. And it’s not so much the number, though the number’s important. But the location is really important, too.
“Out in nature—and this is what I help my clients think about—cats don’t share a latrine site on Third & Maple. There are latrine sites everywhere. North, east, south, west. So we want to create something like that in the home, because when cats reach social maturity, they begin looking at their environment through a territorial lens, and want to structure their social hierarchies so they’ll ‘time share’ everything—food areas, hunting grounds, latrine sites.
“So you can have the correct number of litter boxes in, let’s say, your laundry room. But you get a cat that’s moving into social maturity—between the ages of two and four years—and all of a sudden, they might decide to carve out their own litter box resource under the dining room table.”
(Note to self: check under the table when going over to that house for dinner.)
Continuing to address the possible causes for litter box/elimination problems, Nagelshneiger notes, “We always tell everyone, ‘Go to your vet,’ because there often are urinary health issues that haven’t been caught, that will fly underneath the radar, even after a diagnostic test.
“So some times, you may need to go back and really make sure that everything is ok. So we see a ton of that. But of course you can remedy that problem and then you’ll have that habituated behavior left over, the unwanted behavior and where that’s happening.
“Also, a box that isn’t clean enough. Sometimes if a box is too clean—doesn’t smell enough like urine or stool, a cat really won’t be drawn to it. But, generally, we say cleaning the box—couple of times a day. Cat’s cannot see in total darkness—that’s a myth [that they can]. They have to have a little bit of light to see well. So sometimes we say, add light. Sometimes that can make the biggest difference.
“Covered boxes—where in nature would we see cats urinate or defecate in a hollowed-out log. I suppose they could, but generally they like that good escape potential, in case a predator or competitor cat came along. There are some food-based litters out there—corn or wheat litters. Again, instinctively, when are they going to choose food to urinate or defecate in? Or something that smells like food? So we say, try and stay away from those types of litters, too.”
Armed with that sort of expertise, and 20-plus years of experience, Nagelschneider regularly offers consultations through her Cat Behavior Clinic, often by telephone. “We’re doing consults everywhere,” she says, “all over the world: Greece, Malaysia, India, everywhere, cat lovers everywhere—cat problems everywhere. That we don’t deem problems, but cats behaving as cats will.”
Providing a glimpse into how such a consultation works, albeit an abbreviated glimpse—and for free!—Nagelschneider fielded a fistful of calls from Talking Animals listeners, asking about cat behavior problems in their homes.
This included questions about a kitten that doesn’t like to be held: a common issue, often about socialization, she told the caller; before the kitten squirms to put her down, you put her down, trying to hold her a bit longer each time…
…An elderly woman—“married almost 61 years”—whose cat was experiencing ongoing anal gland difficulties, had the glands removed, the cat was now beset with defecation problems too hard for the woman to clean up at her age, so she intended to have the cat euthanized. Polite as Nagelschneider was, you could hear she felt this was a drastic solution, urging the woman to discuss this more specifically with her veterinarian, assuring her there likely are non-euthanasia remedies here…
…Another caller asked a combo question, partly about their five cats and some litter box issues, and partly with younger male cats among the brood urinating in inappropriate places, like the kitchen counter. Nagelschneider inquired about various aspects of the cat quintet, with her questioning—and ultimately her proposed solution—focused on territoriality.
This was hardly surprising for anyone who’d read The Cat Whisperer, which cumulatively makes the case that darn near everything in the cat world pivots on felines being extremely territorial.
“They don’t like to fight out in the wild,“ Nagelschneider explains, “but it is often a matter of survival, trying to structure their social hierarchy and survival out in the wild. We call it a social-ranked dominance hierarchy, and their ranking fluctuates. You have an alpha cat or even a more high-ranking cat.
“They will time-share hunting grounds, inside cats will time share different areas inside the home, so when one cat is at the top of the cat tree or at the food bowl at 9am, they’re the high-ranking cat at that particular location. If you have another cat come along at noon, they’re high-ranking cat in that area.
“That’s why we preach the ‘Land of Plenty,’ to decrease territorial thinking. If there’s not enough to go around, if food sources are scarce—or even if you have 10 food bowls, but they’re all in the kitchen, it’s still just one location, and you’ll have friction. Not necessarily in the kitchen, but sometimes later in the day: ‘You went into the kitchen too many times, and now I’m going to beat you up.’ …They’re more territorial than dogs–they’re not pack animals, so they do have to survive really well on their own. In order to do that and protect their surroundings, they become territorial”
That represents just the tip of the territorial iceberg, and other important hunks of that iceberg are addressed in expansive fashion in The Cat Whisperer, and certainly came up a few other times in the Talking Animals conversation, including a brief discussion on the most effective technique for introducing a new cat to one or more cats already living in a household.
As we were wrapping up our cat chat, I wanted to shoehorn in a few moments on the subject of declawing, a subject to which she devotes a section in her book, under the pithy and telling title “DECLAWING—UNNECESSARY AND INHUMANE.”
Declawing is a tragically misunderstood practice—just as “declawing” is a misnomer of epic proportions—that I’ve long sought opportunities to illuminate on Talking Animals whenever possible. I mentioned this on-air to Nagelschneider (including that we’ve spoken a few times over the years with Dr. Jennifer Conrad, a veterinarian who founded The Paw Project, which devotes itself to educating the public about declawing), and asked her to briefly address the declaw procedure.
“You’re amputating the first joint,” she says. “It’s painful, of course, and some of these procedures don’t heal very well, and can cause even more problems. But the real issue is that clawing behavior can be directed toward the areas we want—you don’t have to declaw these little house cats…we’re just worried about our furniture getting scratched up. It’s very sad. I hope it’s banned, everywhere.”
I responded by pointing out that declawing is banned in numerous countries and several California cities, then read a passage from The Cat Whisperer in which Nagelschneider quotes esteemed veterinary behaviorist (and past Talking Animals guest) Dr. Nicholas Dodman, describing the immediate aftermath of the declaw procedure:
The inhumanity of the procedure is clearly demonstrated by the nature of cats’ recovery from anesthesia following the surgery. Unlike routine recoveries…declawing surgery results in cats bouncing off the walls of the recovery cage because of excruciating pain…Declawing fits the dictionary definition of mutilation to a tee.
Made you ponder for a moment that perhaps Nagelschneider should expand her practice just enough to improve the behavior of humans who would foist this sort of pain and suffering on their own cats.
If so, I can suggest a new moniker for her.
The Anti-Declaw Whisperer.
Click here to go to the Talking Animals interview with Mieshelle Nagelschneider