COLUMNIST: Is your cat bad? The problem might be you

When I started working with cats almost 25 years ago, it was purely out of self-interest. My own cat had recently passed away. I decided to volunteer at a local animal shelter to get more hands-on feline time.

There was plenty of instant gratification to be found at San Francisco's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals--cuddling with purring cats and playing with frisky kittens. These individuals had no problems finding new homes.

But there was another population at the shelter. They were the cats who were not coping well with the transition to shelter life--the ones who had lost their homes and were now hiding and hissing and didn't want to cuddle--the "behavior cats," as they were called. When I learned about them, I realized my calling at the shelter was not to meet my own needs, but to meet theirs.

There was no instant gratification from these animals, but working with them ended up being the most rewarding part of the shelter experience. Their rehabilitation requires a hefty amount of patience and time (not to mention gentle handling, treats and play). The good news is that we were consistently able to find them new homes where they could blossom.

But it's not just finding a cat a home that matters; we must ensure that they stay in those homes. Cats often end up in shelters because of behavior. Fear, aggression or house soiling can be intolerable for humans. I became motivated to learn everything I could about cats so that I could help keep them out of the shelter, so I decided to become a cat behavior consultant.

I've worked with hundreds of cat owners and seen it all: couples breaking up or sleeping in separate beds because of their cats; folks afraid to have guests over because their home smells like cat pee; sleep-deprived humans with a cat who keeps them up all night.

I realized that even though many of these people had lived with cats their whole lives, they often didn't know much about the species. Cats have instincts to scratch, climb, hide, hunt and eliminate in a clean space. They can be territorial and wary of newcomers. These instincts can cause conflict when we don't give our cats acceptable outlets, such as sturdy scratching posts, cat trees, hiding spots, and clean litter boxes. And when we try to introduce them to another pet too quickly, the fur may literally fly.

Although cats can't directly tell us what's bothering them, we can learn a lot by carefully observing them. From there, we can better interpret what a cat's behavior is saying, and as a result, have a better relationship with the animal.

When I started on this path, my only goal was to help cats. That's what gets me out of bed every morning and what gives my life meaning. It took me a little longer to realize how much this work helps humans, too.

Mikel Maria Delgado is a scientist and writer based in Sacramento.

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