Toward the end of Ghost, Oda Mae Brown and her sisters are frantically trying to escape the villains by pounding on neighbors’ doors to let them in. There’s so much shrieking and commotion that you probably didn’t hear one neighbor protest, “The cat don’t like visitors. She’ll pee all over.”
I laughed when I heard it, or read it – I only noticed it when I was watching the DVD version with captions. (I don’t know how I lived without captions, but that’s another column.) I feel that woman’s pain, because our cat Gus (see photo) … well … eliminates inappropriately, to use the polite and technical term. He pees on the couch and shits on the rug, to be colloquial.
Why such a sweet and loving cat would do such a thing baffled us. Finally, in frustration, we did what normal people do in that situation. We called in a cat behaviorist. Actually, to be truthful, if we were normal people, we would have surrendered him to the humane society, because “inappropriate elimination” is the number-one reason that cats get surrendered.
Marilyn Krieger, the behaviorist we consulted, has made it her goal to reduce – or even eliminate (pardon the expression) – that statistic. She’s doing this through her work and through her book, Naughty No More!. She consults in person or over the phone on a variety of behavioral issues, not just ours.
Though she started out as a computer interface designer, Krieger turned to her present line of work out of pure selfishness: one of her six cats started peeing on her head when she was asleep. (And you thought you had problems.) Krieger started studying cats, their evolution, and what made them tick.
According to Krieger, Gus was misbehaving because he was “stressed.” What this cat has to be stressed about, I have no idea. We can’t love him any more than we do. He has cat beds all over the house, including one on my desk, where he sleeps during the times he’s not trying to get between me and my keyboard. He has a brother, Bandit, to keep him company. He has three litter boxes all over the house and a big backyard to boot.
Didn’t matter, insisted Krieger. It turned out that after almost 20 years of having cats as adults, we were doing everything related to the cats’ toilet habits wrong.
Privacy. Somewhere along the way humans have projected their own neuroses about being watched on the toilet to cats. It turns out cats don’t want privacy in the litter box. They want to be able to see potential predators when they’re in a vulnerable position. That’s why Gus was going in the living room – it’s a big open room and being on the couch gave him a great vantage point to keep an eye out for danger.
Litter. Forget crystals, forget clumping, forget shredded paper. Cats evolved from desert
animals (oh, yeah, domesticated in Egypt 5,000 years ago – makes sense). They like sand. Krieger recommended a brand we’d never heard of.
Litter Box. You know those little 15″ x 18″ boxes? WAY too small for a cat’s comfort. Krieger recommended boxes that looked like the basin of a wheelbarrow. Much to our surprise, Petsmart had them. Oh, and they have to be scooped every single morning. (Hey, who the heck’s being retrained here?)
Location. We had litter boxes in the laundry room and the upstairs bathrooms. Too enclosed. This was the part where I almost balked at Krieger’s advice, because it almost seemed like the cure was worse than the disease. Her recommendation: one box in the master bedroom, one at the top of the stairs, one in the living room, in addition to the ones we already had, because cats don’t like change. After a while, we can retire the ones used less frequently.
So after spending a couple hundred dollars on a consultation, we trotted off to Petsmart to spend even more on new boxes, new litter, and new toys, because, oh, yes, the cats need to be entertained, even if Daddy works at home all day long. She even pooh-poohed (pardon the expression) the cat-specific deodorizer we were using and instructed us to get by mail-order something called Anti Icky-Poo.
She also recommended – after a good spraying of Anti Icky-Poo where he would occasionally defecate – finding an activity Gus loved and doing it there, in order to re-condition his attitude about that location. Gus has long silky hair – we think he may have Ragdoll or Maine Coon in him somewhere – and loves being brushed. So that’s where he gets brushed each morning now.
Krieger recommends patience and makes no guarantees, other than if you don’t give your cats choice and stimulation and positive reinforcement, they will continue to misbehave. Sure enough, though Gus was clearly disturbed by our absence in Ohio recently, and showed it to his babysitting grandmother, the situation was improving before we left and there has been no inappropriateness since we returned.
Frankly, we’re relieved. Pardon the expression.