How Cat Therapists Help Solve Behavioral Problems

If your cat is acting out, you might be able to restore harmony in your home with one of these experts by your side.

By: Tambako the Jaguar
Figure out what’s causing your cat’s behavior instead of giving her up. By: Tambako the Jaguar

We have a new Merlin here — a 9-year-old Bombay I’m fostering. Like a lot of older cats who suddenly find themselves out of a home, he has issues.

It’s not surprising. He spent the past 2 years in the basement of his old home in a deep depression after his cat buddy died. Then he developed litter box issues. That’s when his people contacted Animal Friends of Connecticut.

I talked with them about ways of working through the problems. “No,” I was told firmly. “We’d like to see him get a fresh start elsewhere.”

A few days later, a miserable cat arrived at my house wanting nothing to do with anybody. He had lost faith in his own humans and didn’t think all that highly of the rest of the species.

Learning to Live in Harmony

Merlin is the kind of cat Carole Wilbourn has worked with steadily over the past 4 decades. “I usually get cats that people are ready to put down or give away,” she says.

Wilbourn isn’t just a cat therapist. She is the founding mother of cat therapy and has an international practice called The Cat Therapist. She has written numerous books and columns for both Cat Fancy and In Defense of Animals. She runs a blog called The Wilbourn Way.

“Cats have always been my teachers,” she says. “I was always ready for something new. It wasn’t like I was reading anything in particular. I was watching and listening and using all my senses so that I could distinguish what they wanted.”

But she doesn’t focus on just the cats. She does what is essentially bi-species therapy.

“If I can make the cats happier, then I can make the people happier,” she says. “If I just worked with the cat, it would never work. In order for me to help the cat, I have to get through to the guardian. As the guardian’s body relaxes, the cat mirrors that because they’re so in tune to body language and voice.”

Wilbourn does phone consultations, video chat and instant messaging, sending recordings or videos of the sessions to her clients afterward. Here are some of the things she uses in those sessions:

  • Music: She leans toward New Age, Yo-Yo Ma and mellow music in general. The music “becomes a security object.”
  • Reiki: Wilbourn discovered the healing modality after the death of her cat Orion I, and thought, “Oh, my God, if I had known about it, I could’ve soothed him. That’ll be a tool in my tool shed.” She says Reiki helps cats and their people “live in harmony.”
  • Medication: Generally, the cats that come to her are the ones “where the drugs didn’t work. Or I get a cat who hasn’t been through anything. I’ll start them on the program. Sometimes that’ll be enough.” If it’s not, that’s when she’ll look to “the auxiliary force” — a.k.a. medication.

This video shows Wilbourn helping a couple and their cat, Mingus, with music and suggestions to reduce anxiety:

What’s Causing Stress in the Home?

Some cat behaviorists focus more on the animal itself.

“My work is about the passion I have for the domestic cat as a species and the respect I have for their need to behave naturally and instinctively,” says Vicky Halls, a UK-based cat behavior consultant. “Problems can be resolved by adopting an approach that allows the cat the freedom to do just that.”

Lana Fraley Rich, known as the Catsultant, does “a thorough environmental analysis of the home…identifying any possible stressors.” She then draws up a customized plan to help resolve those problems.

Be Willing to Do the Work

Some people say only veterinarians should be consulted regarding cat behavior issues. I don’t agree. But I do think your vet is a good expert to start with to rule out any underlying health problems.

Once that’s done, he or she can point you in the direction of a reputable cat therapist. But remember this:

The best cat consultant in the world isn’t going to make a difference if you’re not willing to do the work.

“Sometimes people can’t or won’t commit because of who they are or because of their resources,” says Wilbourn. “But there are people who, as long as they feel there is a way, they’ll do it.”

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