The cat whisperer

Will she be the next TV star animal trainer? She certainly had the right diagnosis for my cat Thompson, a biter.

Published March 19, 2008 11:27AM (EDT)

Once when my cat Thompson was a kitten, I called my sister. I was near tears. "I think I understand how shaken-baby syndrome happens," I said, my voice cracking. Luckily she talked me down from my agitated state before things got ugly.

Thompson has always been challenging. He spent his kittenhood with me in a tiny Greenwich Village studio. During that first year, he spent most nights sprinting laps around the apartment, punctuating each loop by pouncing on my face. After a few hours, usually right around the time I was easing into REM sleep, he'd jump to the top of the microwave and press the quick-start button with his little gray-and-white paw. I'd awaken to the soft whirring hum and glowing light emanating from the kitchenette; in my haze of sleep, I thought aliens had come.

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. He pads clumsily back to bed, tucks his head under my chin and stares up at me with an expression of pure, unwavering love. He purrs, so happy he drools, until we both fall asleep.

Thompson's nearly 7 now, and we've moved on from that speck-size studio to a large Maine loft that we share with my husband and our dog. Much in our lives has changed, but the biting has remained a constant -- one for which I've become adept at making excuses. Yes, Thompson has the jaw force of a puma, but he never uses his claws. So I simply stocked up on Band-Aids, bought red bedsheets that would mask the bloodstains, and resolved to suck it up and take the bad with the good.

And then I discovered the Cat Whisperer.

OK, so that's not really her title. Mieshelle Nagelschneider is a cat behaviorist who is in no way affiliated with Cesar Millan, the trainer-star of the television phenomenon "The Dog Whisperer." Nagelschneider is, however, working with a major television network to develop an upcoming cat behavior show of her own. She can't reveal too much about it yet, since the network people are still hashing out the details. Alas, it probably won't be called "The Cat Whisperer." But given that there are 13 million more pet cats than pet dogs in this country, she may very well be poised for Cesar Millan-style fame and glory.

Assuming, of course, that cats can be trained. And plenty of people, including me, were skeptical. Dogs wag and slobber and will do just about anything to please us, whether it's chasing down a tennis ball 27 times in a row, or dragging an unconscious master from the crackling flames of a burning bedroom. Cats, if you're lucky, might sit on your lap and purr. Our feline companions don't exactly have a reputation for malleability.

Think again, Nagelschneider said. "You don't use the same techniques on a cat as you do on a dog, but they're definitely trainable," she assured me the first time we spoke. "Cats are motivated by what's in it for them."

Nagelschneider, now 37, studied psychology in college but never finished her degree. She worked as a veterinary technician and cat sitter and, over time, developed a protocol for modifying cat behavior. In 1999 she officially opened her Cat Behavior Clinic, in Portland, Ore. Nagelschneider has six cats of her own, not to mention three dogs and what must be one very anxious cockatiel.

Nagelschneider has boned up on behavior theory, flying across the country to take animal behavior classes at Harvard. She estimates that over the years, she's consulted with tens of thousands of clients, mostly by phone. Nagelschneider is no pet psychic, and she doesn't necessarily need to meet a cat in person to diagnose its problem. Her goal isn't to train cats, per se, but to teach their owners to get inside the minds of their feline friends.

I started my consultation by filling out a questionnaire about Thompson's behavior and home environment. I described in detail his two main issues: the biting, of course, and also his need for attention. In the hour or so I spent filling out the form, Thompson jumped onto my desk and lap no fewer than five times. I finally shooed him away long enough to send off the questionnaire, and scheduled an hour-long phone call with Nagelschneider for later in the week.

In the meantime, I wanted to find out what scientists might say about the behavioral experiment I was about to embark upon. Could a middle-aged cat really change his stripes? I called up Stephen O'Brien and Carlos Driscoll for some insight into the feline brain.

O'Brien and Driscoll research the cat genome at the National Cancer Institute's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity. Last summer, they published a report on the origin of domestic cats in the journal Science. "Cats are actually fairly well trainable," Driscoll told me.

In their study, Driscoll and O'Brien concluded that domestic cats evolved from the wildcat Felis silvestris in the Near East, probably around 10,000 years ago. The way they see it, cats domesticated themselves. Wandering humans were settling down in the Fertile Crescent and establishing agriculture. Cats were drawn to the settlements to feed on mice that had shacked up in the grain stores. Natural selection favored the tamer cats, which could take better advantage of the spoils produced by our budding society. "They chose humans at the right time and the right place," O'Brien said.

Driscoll took the comparison a step further. We artificially selected dogs to be useful to us; they guarded our homes, hauled our sleds, retrieved our dead ducks, and, in the case of poodles, allowed themselves to be pruned like hedges for our amusement. But we didn't select cats to be useful to us. They were selected by nature to use us. "It's best to think of cats like mice or cockroaches or pigeons," Driscoll said, the weed species of the animal kingdom, thriving wherever humans traipse in and muck up the environment.

OK. Listen, Driscoll. Thompson may be a pest, but that's my pet you're comparing to a cockroach. Before I could defend my poor kitten, though, Driscoll distracted me with another important difference between Felis and Canis. "Cats are a strange domesticate. They're the only domestic animal that, in the wild, is solitary," he explained. "All other domestic animals live in groups in the wild, [and] people harnessed their natural proclivity toward following along."

So now I know what I'm up against: a solitary hunter who doesn't play nicely with others, and who, for thousands of years, has been evolving a skill set designed to take advantage of me. But at least my foe is predictable. According to Nagelschneider, most cat behavior problems fall into one of a handful of predictable categories. Not surprisingly, some of her most frequent complaints involve cats that take issue with the litter box. (When Nagelschneider mentioned the cat that urinated at night on his sleeping owner's face, Thompson's problems suddenly seemed very minor indeed.) In any event, aggression is also fairly common, and Nagelschneider has turned around her fair share of violent cats. She was optimistic that Thompson could be fixed.

On the day of our consultation, Nagelschneider called right on time. She was friendly and easy to talk to, but also professional. She got right down to business, running through a laundry list of potential explanations for Thompson's toothiness. He might have been taken away from his mother and litter mates too early, before learning appropriate social boundaries. He might be acting out to assert his territorial dominance, or to satisfy his prey drive, or because he doesn't like the way we pet him. Or he may just be genetically predisposed to aggression. 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. "He may be worrying excessively," she explained.

She tried to soften the blow. "It's not unusual," she said. "I had a client once with a cat actually named Jekyll-Hyde." Regardless, I felt horrible. I'd failed as a mother. Part of me wanted to ring up the vet and get him on anxiety meds, stat. But Thompson is already saddled with asthma medication that he must take every other day, puffed from a human-variety inhaler through a bonglike plastic tube. The treatment is highly amusing to observers, but much less so to the cat; I wasn't eager to pump him full of kitty Xanax on top of all that. I committed to boost his confidence the old-fashioned way.

It wasn't going to be easy, but Nagelschneider would be there to help me through it. Her $165 fee included the initial one-hour phone consultation and four weeks of regular e-mail follow-up. If we followed her instructions, she said, we should begin to see results in two weeks. It was just like whitening my teeth or using new wrinkle cream. I'd have to be patient, but I should know in a few weeks if the whole thing was a big waste of time and money.

Reprogramming Thompson would require a multifaceted approach. We'd already admitted we had a problem, so I figured the hardest part was out of the way. Next step: detox. For five days, we had to stop petting him completely. No scratching his ears, no dragging him into my lap to keep me warm while I watched "Project Runway." Once Thompson felt confident he could trust our touches, we'd slowly ease him back into petting.

Next up, reinforcing Thompson's good behavior. Nagelschneider suggested I buy a little clicking device, which I found at the local pet shop. It was originally designed for teaching dolphins, but has since become popular among dog trainers. Every time Thompson did something good, I was supposed to mark the behavior with a click of the clicker, then feed him a treat.

While I understood the overall concept, it wasn't so easy figuring out what "good" cat behavior was. It wasn't like I was training him to roll over or to sit. So I clicked for anything that wasn't bad. If Thompson was sleeping on top of the washer-dryer instead of bugging me at my desk, I'd click. Lounging in the sun, click. Kissing the dog, click. It didn't take long for him to figure out how to earn a much-adored Whisker Lickin's Dreamy Duo, and soon he was licking his lips in anticipation each time he hopped onto his cat bed.

We'd covered how to get Thompson to trust us again, and how to teach him what behaviors we liked. Our next step was more hands-on: We had to make Thompson feel like the successful predator that he is not. At least once a day, but preferably twice, we must trick Thompson into believing he's successfully slaughtered a small animal.

I tried a variety of toys for this process, but soon zeroed in on the perfect tool of deception: Da Bird. Just a bunch of feathers on a string tied to the end of a wand, it appears no different than any other cat toy. Yet when Da Bird flies through the air, its neon feathers rustling, Thompson is instantly and utterly mesmerized.

The idea is to mimic a hunt sequence. I start by fluttering Da Bird energetically as Thompson darts frantically around the room. As the hunt drags on, Da Bird loses steam, and I let Thompson catch it more easily. As the toy's end draws near, I tug lightly on the wand a few last times -- Da Death Throes. Finally the toy stops moving, and Thompson sinks his teeth in. When he does this, he actually makes a low, guttural growling sound I'd never heard before. At this point, I feed him a handful of treats. Satisfied and satiated, he flops down and goes to sleep.

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."

Guilty. I'd spent years shrieking "no" whenever Thompson attacked, but had done virtually nothing to assure him of his self-worth. Of course, I certainly hadn't intended to raise my poor, innocent kitten to be a wheezy, anxious cat with a pitiable self-image. Scientists know little about how the ancestral Felis silvestris lives in the wild, and I'd argue that few pet owners realize what's going on in the minds of their cats. Nagelschneider hopes her show will give second chances to troubled cats. I don't know how cooperative her feline clients will be under the bright studio lights, but I hope her show succeeds.

Because the thing is, her method worked. We started to see a difference in around two weeks, just as Nagelschneider predicted. Now, just over a month later, Thompson almost never bothers me at my desk while I'm working. After almost seven years of weekly, if not daily, stealth attacks, I have been free of bite wounds for more than four weeks.

I admit that Thompson isn't completely cured. If I pet him too long, he might try to bite (though it's more of a warning, without the wide-eyed intensity he once possessed). But by and large, for the few minutes of effort we must make each day, the change in his behavior is striking.

When I began this experiment, part of me wondered if I'd miss the scrappy old Thompson. I need not have worried. He's still the same cat, charming and strange and overflowing with character. He still chases his tail, stalks water droplets in the shower, and enjoys lying on top of the washing machine for a hearty shake during the spin cycle. He's just a slightly upgraded, nicer -- dare I say, more confident -- version of himself.

And this is where the story might have ended, had I not gone out of town for three nights. Although my husband dutifully engaged Thompson with Da Bird, the attention did not, apparently, make up for the fact that I had abandoned him for a long weekend. My first night back, as I was climbing into bed, I saw him lurking in the shadows. His ears went back, his eyes grew wide. Fortunately we had a coin-filled Diet Coke can stashed near the bed. I lunged for the can and jingled it just in time, startling Thompson only milliseconds before his fangs made contact with my flesh. I escaped unbitten, but barely.

The lesson, I suppose, is that we have to remain vigilant. I consider it a minor setback. After only a month, I have seen marked improvement in Thompson's behavior. Buoyed by progress, we'll keep clicking, keep birding, keep assuring Thompson that he is a capable and valued member of the household. Confident cats are made, not born, and we have more esteem to build.

By Kirsten Weir

Kirsten Weir is a science writer who lives near Portland, Maine.

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