Why There's No Such Thing as a Bad Cat
This Cat Behavior Alliance duo has a message for all cat owners - there are no bad cats, and there's a reason for everything your cat does.
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It’s day 4 of Cat Extravaganza Week 2022, and today’s guests are the dynamic duo of Rita Reimers and Linda Hall, owners of the Cat Behavior Alliance
BFFs Rita and Linda met while working for weight loss and exercise guru Richard Simmons, and eventually went from Sweatin’ to the Oldies to a cat sitting business, to certified cat behavior consultants
Some of the topics covered in my interview with Linda and Rita include understanding that cats have a reason for every curious thing they do, why it’s so important to allow feline family members to have a say in the matter, and how to help anxious cats chill out and aggressive cats redirect their energies
It's day 4 of Cat Extravaganza Week 2022, and today my interview guests are Certified Cat Behavior Consultants, cat moms, and BFFs Rita Reimers and Linda Hall. Rita and Linda work as a team in their business, the Cat Behavior Alliance. The following are some of the highlights of our discussion, but I also encourage you to watch the full interview linked above, because these ladies are not only experts in cat behavior, they're also hilarious!
From Sweatin' to the Oldies to Cat Sitting
Before getting into the cattitude adjustment business, the ladies met while working for exercise and weight loss guru Richard Simmons of "Sweatin' to the Oldies" fame. Linda ran his website, and Rita was associate producer of his Sirius XM show, "Lighten Up with Richard Simmons."
At the time, Rita was also involved in several other endeavors, including running a cat sitting business.
"I had just gotten this promotion," she explains. "I was making six figures working for Richard. I custom ordered a BMW straight from Germany. I had just started doing cat sitting on the side and was ramping that up.
I took a vacation to Maui in April 2006 and said, 'How can I screw up my life? I know, I'll go home and quit the six-figure job, keep the $12 an hour production job and the cat sitting business that only has about five clients right now.' So yeah, that's what I did."
As their friendship grew, Linda confided in Rita that she had four cats (an excessive number, she thought), only to learn that Rita had 17!
Fast forward several years. Richard Simmons was retiring, and Rita heard through the grapevine that Linda would be laid off. At that time, Rita had owned her Just for Cats Pet Sitting business for about 15 years and she was trying to develop a membership site for her behavior counseling clients. Rita called Linda and asked if she'd consider coming to work for her running her website. Linda's response was, "When do I start?"
"The problem was that Just for Cats Pet Sitting took up so much of our time that Linda never got to do what I hired her to do until several years later, because we grew by leaps and bounds," says Rita. "We didn't have a life. It was very difficult."
There's a Reason for Everything Your Cat Does
The feline behavior problems Linda and Rita deal with include litterbox avoidance, anxiety, and aggression. And although they're both certified through the animal behavior college, Linda feels that "the greatest education on the planet is watching Rita with 19 cats." She's very attuned to feline body language, and Linda realized it was the key to her success.
"The big breakthrough was the first time she taught me that a slow blink means 'I love you,'" says Linda. "How rewarding is it when someone tells you they love you? Clients realize, 'I've had this cat in my house who acts very aloof, but he's telling me he loves me? This is so exciting!'
If you bring someone into your home from another country who does not speak your language, you're going to have a really tough time. I liken it to parents of autistic children.
Autism is a big passion of mine, and I watch how they do everything they can, they give them the iPads and the sound boards and all these things to reach them. To have a real relationship and communicate with their child. That's sort of what we need to do with our cats."
The onus is really on us as guardians to understand that "bad" cat behavior is always a symptom of an underlying problem of some kind. There are no bad cats, and no cats actively trying to ruin the lives of their humans, but many people see it that way.
"Something I researched recently really stuck with me," says Linda. "Approximately 3.2 million cats a year are surrendered to U.S. shelters. Now, that's not including rescues, or the cats that just get tossed out the door, which we've seen plenty of. Of those 3.2 million cats, 42% are surrendered for behavior issues.
So, we have over 1.3 million cats given up every year that could have been helped. We feel we can help 99% of cats with behavior problems. About 530,000 cats are euthanized each year, and those with behavior problems are often the first to go."
Linda tells the story of Jazzy, her parents' cat, who suddenly began peeing on their bed. Linda asked her mother if Jazzy had been to the veterinarian recently. He had. Next, she asked if they'd changed the cat's litter recently. They had. They switched to a brand that was easier for Linda's dad to carry. Linda told her dad they needed to switch back to the old litter.
As it turns out, Jazzy was declawed by his previous owner and had extra-sensitive paws as a result. He didn't like the new litter, so he found a more comfortable place to relieve himself.
"Do you know how many people would have sent that cat to the shelter, and all they had to do is switch back to their old litter and the problem was solved," asks Linda. "He didn't want to step on the litter because it hurt his feet. It wasn't his fault."
Why Allowing Your Cat to Make Choices Is so Important
The fact is that very few cat guardians allow the felines in their lives to make choices for themselves. Everything's decided for them, from the food they eat, to the litter and litterbox they use, to how often it gets cleaned. It's difficult for humans to think about things from their cat's perspective, but it's very important to learn about and try to accommodate their preferences whenever possible.
For example, when a cat decides to relieve herself in the bedroom instead of in her litterbox in the bathroom, it may be that you need to either move the litterbox to the bedroom or put a second box in the bedroom. It may not be ideal for you, but you're allowing your cat to have a say in where she potties.
As cats get older, they may have trouble going up and down stairs, which means you'll need to have litterboxes on each floor. If the boxes are deep, with high sides, you may need to replace them with boxes that are easier for your reduced-mobility cat to get into and out of. The goal is to allow your cat some "say" in such matters, and to be attuned to changes in your kitty that require changes in her environment.
Tips for Helping Anxious Cats Chill Out
Recently, Linda's daughter, Nikki, and her four cats moved back in with her after her husband died from Covid-19, and all the kitties (Linda's and her daughter's) were struggling with the change. With Rita's help, Linda tried several different approaches to calm the environment in her home and came across Cat Faeries, which sells a 100% natural calming agent called Convivial House Cat that helped quite a bit.
Then they found Two Crazy Cat Ladies (watch for my interview with them later this week) and their product, Cat Calm, and added it to the mix. They also used Music for Cats and Relax My Cat, which offers both music and sounds that provide mental stimulation.
Both Linda and Rita also recommend Feliway diffusers in situations where the problem is occurring in a particular room or location in the house, because their reach is rather limited. An alternative for a very anxious cat would be a Feliway collar.
"The first step is to disrupt the anxiety cycle," Rita explains, "then try to find the root cause — the source of the anxiety."
Ideally, we have time to plan for situations in which we know our cats will feel anxious and take preemptive action, but as in Linda's case, it's not always possible or practical.
Why Punishment Is Pointless
"Never use a water bottle to spray your cat," says Rita, "and I'll tell you why. For one thing, you must be there when the cat does something 'wrong' so you can react, which requires perfect timing, which almost never happens.
For another thing, after a while the cat's simply going to learn not to do that thing while you're around and may even start getting aggressive towards you or fearful of you because he associates you with the water bottle. So, unless your cats are in the middle of a bloody knockdown drag out fight that you absolutely must split up, I advocate getting of that water bottle, don't use it at all."
When you have a cat who's escaping out the front door regularly, or scratching your sofa, or some other dangerous or destructive behavior, according to Linda:
"Number one, you have to make what they're doing unappealing to them. You can't convince a cat they're wrong. You can't punish your cat into submission. If I holler at my dog, my dog's like, 'I'm so sorry I broke your heart, I'll never do it again,' and my cat's like, 'What is your problem?'"
Linda sometimes uses a product called PetSafe SSSCAT Spray Deterrent & Repellent for Cats & Dogs. It has a sensor and if a pet walks past it, it releases a burst of air.
"This will work," says Linda. "It's not my favorite thing in the world, but it will work. I use two-sided tape; they make it in sheets. When I see a cat is scratching my sofa, I peel off a sheet and put it on the sofa. It's not horrible looking. It's just a little shiny. But when they touch that sticky surface, they don't like it.
Then step two is you have to offer the cat something else, for example, move a scratching post right there by the sofa and over time, you can slowly move it back.
I have an escape artist cat. Rita and I have been on the phone a lot about it. He needs a lot of stimulation. I've bought extra cat cubbies and cat shelves for him to go be in his own space, and cat shelves and windows where he can watch outside.
I've bought all kinds of toys that move when he hits them and toys that move on their own. I've spent a lot of money, but so far, so good. The idea is to provide lots of things to keep escape artist cats stimulated."
Rita adds that you can also train an escape artist to "Go to place" using a clicker and a wand dipped in moist cat food. Maybe the kitty has a favorite perch on the cat tree, so you lead her to it using the wand and the clicker, repeating "Go to place" or just "Place." Once she's connecting the words with her perch and a treat, you can give the command and treat when you're ready to leave and then slip out the door.
Techniques to Tame Aggression in Cats
Aggression in cats is a common behavioral problem, but it's important, if a kitty suddenly becomes aggressive, that you make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out an underlying disease or painful condition.
Rita and Linda recommend some of the same things for aggression as they do for anxiety, such as Convivial Cat, Feliway, and music in the background when kitty will be home alone. Rita also recommends following the natural rhythm of cats in the wild. They hunt and catch their prey, they eat, they immediately groom themselves to remove the scent of their meal to deter predators, and then they snooze while their protein meal is digested.
Rita suggests playing with your cat (which is a substitute for hunting) in the morning before leaving for work, then leave while she's eating, and she'll naturally finish the steps in the routine on her own. Then have another play session in the evening either with her dinner meal or treats before bed, which should reduce or eliminate nighttime antics. She has named this routine PEGS (Play Eat Groom Sleep) so it's easy for people to remember the steps.
As for cat toys, Rita's favorite is the Cat Dancer, but Linda has just discovered a new favorite. It looks like a mouse and moves around on its own (if it's charged and turned on) in an unpredictable fashion. It's a good toy for multiple cat households and kitties who like to chase things.
String toys (e.g., fishing pole toys) are a hit with some cats, as are catnip toys (or silver vine toys, if you can find them, for kitties who don't respond to catnip).
Learn More About Rita, Linda and the Cat Behavior Alliance
There are many options if you want to find out more about Rita and Linda and how to contact them. Their website, which is a wealth of information, is the Cat Behavior Alliance, and they have both Facebook and Twitter pages. They also do a show on Pet Life Radio called 19 Cats and Counting and a YouTube show called Let's Talk Cats where they are "a lot more candid than we can be on a radio show on someone else's website," says Rita.
"I think the most important thing for any pet parent is understanding how cats think, because everything they do is out of instinct, and you can't change that," Linda explains. "We domesticated dogs over 20,000 years ago. Cats were domesticated between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago. So, they're not as far along as dogs, and we didn't technically domesticate them.
People started living together in the fertile crescent. They cooked, which attracted rodents, which attracted cats. The people appreciated the cats and treated them kindly, but it was a coexistence. The cats didn't 'belong' to the people, didn't help with their chores, didn't pull their sleds, or help them hunt food.
And to this day we coexist with cats. You can't convince a cat to do what you want it to do. You must change the situation. And it can be done. It's all doable. You just must be willing to work on it. This is something that people really need to understand. There's no magic pill. We're going to give you the plan, you're going to have to put it into practice, and you're going to have to do it consistently before you see the results."
If we're going to commit to a lifetime of loving a cat, we must love them on their terms. It's not about forcing our rules on them, it's about accepting them as they are. And because we're holding them captive in our homes, we need to make it as good as we can for them, because their well-being is our responsibility.
Healthypets Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own veterinarian or doctor. Dr. Karen Becker cannot answer specific questions about your pet's medical issues or make medical recommendations for your pet without first establishing a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. Your pet's medical protocol should be given by your holistic veterinarian.