When I was in veterinary school, I rotated through the behavior service. It’s an elective, and interestingly enough not a particularly popular one; more’s the pity for that. What percentage of relinquishments come on the tail end of a behavior issue that wasn’t properly handled? (Answer: A whole lot.)
Vets tend to avoid behavior stuff for a multitude of reasons:
- It’s time consuming to work through a behavioral issue.
- It’s complicated. Changing behavior isn’t nearly as simple as prescribing some ear medications.
- It’s frustrating to put so much time and effort into something with no guarantee of results.
When a client presents a dog with a behavior problem to me, I give them general advice and then steer them to a trainer with more experience and expertise. Deflect! But when the patient is a cat, that is much harder to do.
Cats are Extra-Special
When it comes to felines, inappropriate elimination is by the far the biggest behavioral complaint we see. Veterinarians are often the first ones frustrated owners consult when their cat is peeing or pooping all over the house, and our ability to help all too often runs the gamut from non-existent to middling to apathetic.
Back to the behavior service: At the time, the clinicians were participating in a clinical trial to address a variety of antidepressants to help pets with marking issues. I watched the veterinarian delve into the interview process, and the overriding sense I got was this: Geez, this is complicated.
First, we have to rule out medical causes of inappropriate elimination: diabetes, renal failure, and cystitis, to name just a few.
Then, you have to differentiate marking behavior from inappropriate elimination (elimination outside the box, but without specific indicators of marking.)
Then, well, god speed. Here’s the 15 pound manual, have fun. Get a blacklight, clean the house, change the litterboxes, inject carpet pads with enzymatic cleaners, use upside down sticky mats, use Feliway, use citrus candles, do litterbox trials, get 15 litterboxes, give up your job, resign yourself to being a crazy cat person, rinse, repeat.
As we laid out the course of attack for the poor souls taking part in the clinical trial, you could see the defeat in their eyes as they realized just how much work this was going to be. The process of getting inside a cat’s head and trying to figure out exactly what their issue is is just about as complicated as you would imagine. It pretty much stinks (har har.)
I get it more than I want to
Perhaps in an effort to make me more empathetic, the universe has gifted me with a pee-er of my very own.
Apollo has really ramped up his marking behavior this past year. He has marked just about every room in the house. The baseboards are actually warping a bit from either the pee, the vigorous scrubbing, or both. I have tried just about every tool I can think of short of Prozac (which is next on the list), but I have to admit, yes, this does put a dent in our bond.
Yes, taking on a cat is a responsibility. No, I’m not going to get rid of him. But I understand why people do. I don’t condone it, but I understand. It’s humiliating to have someone over and be greeted by the unmistakeable whiff of cat urine by the front door, one of his favorite places to squat. It’s disheartening to not be able to get a handle on a behavior that is ruining your home.
So I understand the frustration. I’m right there with you. I’ll be talking more about it, for sure.
A new resource! Hooray!
In the meantime, I was really happy to hear that my friend Caroline has launched a new site solely dedicated to litterbox issues: The Happy Litterbox. No two cats are the same when it comes to this, which is the agony and the challenge when trying to prescribe a solution.
Her site aims to help by being a resource for frustrated owners everywhere with a central place to come for tips, tricks, and advice.
The key is getting to people early, and helping them through some of the easier-to-address issues before they lose it out of frustration and dump their cat at the shelter. So thanks Caroline, I’ll be reading along. I look forward to the day I can tell you Apollo is over his rude indiscretions and our own litterbox is happy once again.