Living with a cat should be a hugely rewarding and positive experience for both owner and cat; with benefits including a strong social bond, mutual affection and companionship. However, this is not always the case. Cats are subtle creatures, they tend to conceal stress and anxiety so as not to appear vulnerable. But this can make it difficult to spot problems until they are quite far advanced. Problem behaviours can get better or worse over time, but they rarely disappear completely without some expert help. Finding a qualified behaviourist is a responsible step towards helping you and your cat re-establish that happy and harmonious home. But it is worth making sure you are consulting a professional with expertise in the subject.
How do I know if my cat needs a behaviourist?
Some problem behaviours in cats are obvious: aggression towards other cats or humans, or house soiling, for example. But stress in cats can start very subtly, often with small changes to your cat’s usual behaviours or daily routines. It might even be that your cat is ‘just not right’, or is spending more time asleep than they used to. The definition of a ‘problem behaviour’ is subjective, and based on your assessment of your cat, their wellbeing, and their needs. You know your own cat best.
Behavioural or medical?
If you have become aware that there is something not quite right with your cat, it can be confusing as to whether they need to see a vet or a behaviourist. It is always advisable to take your cat for a full veterinary health check first. This is because they can both examine your cat for signs of illness or disease. And they may also be able to point you in the right direction for a qualified behaviourist.
Some medical conditions in cats can cause symptoms that may seem behavioural, or just plain odd! Any disease which causes pain, such as arthritis, is likely to increase defensive behaviours, such as hiding away or even aggression. Cystitis can be a cause of urinating in the house. And even conditions such as an overactive thyroid can cause behavioural changes such as hyperexcitability or aggression.
Your vet will discuss your cat’s behavioural changes thoroughly with you, perform a full examination of your cat, and may want to run some tests such as a urine sample analysis. If your vet feels that the problem is solely behavioural, they may be able to signpost you towards a recommended behaviourist. It is important for vets and behaviourists to work together, as many conditions can have both medical and behavioural symptoms and management strategies.
Finding a cat behaviourist
If your vet is unable to refer you to a behaviourist, or recommend you one, you may have to find a behaviourist yourself. This can be a daunting task, as the term ‘behaviourist’ is not protected. Meaning that anyone can call themselves a ‘cat behaviourist’, even if they do not have the correct knowledge or skills to properly help. Taking advice from someone who doesn’t have the proper knowledge to help may just make things worse.
When looking for a behaviourist, bear in mind these points:
- Qualifications – they should have undergone extensive behavioural training and gained an appropriate qualification.
- Experience – if the behaviourist sees many types of animals, check that they have experience with cats.
- Approach – only use someone who approaches behavioural cases using positive training methods. Punishment and negative reinforcement only make stress in cats worse, cause more issues than they resolve, and can be distressing to cats.
A good place to start looking is the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC). This is a group of professional behaviourists who are fully qualified. And they have been assessed by the Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) to meet their high standards. The ABTC has a register of qualified behaviourists and is recommended by various animal welfare charities and veterinary behaviour organisations.
What will a cat behaviourist do?
A good behaviourist will start by taking a full history of your cat’s problems. They will ask a lot of questions, going right back to kitten-hood, or whenever you acquired your cat. And they will go through their usual routine and behaviours, their environment and how anything has changed. Some of the questions may seem irrelevant. But it is really important for the behaviourist to have a full understanding of your cat’s personality, routine and home environment.
Your behaviourist will then discuss with you some potential causes of the unwelcome behaviours, and some management strategies for how to proceed. They will likely supply you with a written plan as well as chatting everything through with you. It is good to keep in close contact with your behaviourist as you begin to implement changes, so that the plan can be altered if need be.
How much does a cat behaviourist cost?
The cost will depend on where you live, whether you see a behaviourist remotely, in a clinic or at your home, and what package they offer – written plans, follow up consultations or phone calls etc. Behavioural changes can take time and patience, so having a long-term plan as well as some short-term changes is essential. Some insurance policies will cover behavioural work, so remember to check your policy if your cat is insured.
Behavioural problems are distressing and difficult to manage, for both cat and owner. Finding qualified, professional advice is essential, so that you and your cat have the experience and support that you need to move forward.