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Too narrowly focused, redundant; Emphasis on managing multi-cat households, elimination, spraying
on February 9, 2013
This review is based on a pre-publication copy: some illustrations are missing, incomplete "Endnotes" (footnotes + references), Index in progress, ... Page numbers may change.
This is an uneven book. If based on just the first part, I wouldn't recommend it, maybe even recommend against it. However, starting around page 130, the book becomes more and more worth reading, and by page 200 the density of useful advice is such that I would definitely recommend if your problem falls within the focus of this book (details follow).
Litter box and spraying issues dominate the book. This is not surprising because this is what is most likely to be serious enough to drive people to hire a professional behaviorist.* What is surprising is the paucity of useful anecdotes I would have expected the author to have acquired during such consultations. The result is prescriptive advice on these topics that doesn't go much beyond what one is likely to have encountered in run-of-the-mill books on cat care. And that advice is repetitive. It isn't until late in the book that I encountered non-trivial treatments of other issues.
The book's coverage is also heavily oriented to the interactions of cats within a household.** The author lives in a household with six cats and three people and many of her accounts seem to be of households with more cats than people. My experience is that the quality and intensity of interactions between cats and their people is very different in households with no more than one cat per cat-person (my situation and bias), although what is cause and what is effect is debatable. Although the book's title and description imply a close connection between the author and cats, what is actually written felt very detached, almost clinical. Similar to her describing lodgers rather than family members.
The author's attitude about cats falls into the school of "cats just are" and "cat have staff" and regards those who see their cats as engaging in various intelligent behaviors as anthropomorphizing. I have a background in cognitive sciences and have had a series of tightly bonded cats (one at a time) and strongly disagree. This attitude may be a turn-off for some readers, but the bigger problem is that it severely limits the book in suggesting how to approach and understand a problem behavior. And although some of the promotions of the book indicate that its approach is to help you get in the mindset of the cat, there is very little of that. The dominant approach is prescriptive advice for owner. FYI because the presentation style of the advice may influence how well you absorb it.
The book gives the very useful reminder that in the wild, cats are prey as well as predators and that considerably shapes their behavior. But then the book fails to provide more than a scattered perfunctory treatment of what that means. Similarly, the book provides statements about the importance of play that are no better than perfunctory. You will likely find as-good or better in most cat-care books.
The treatment of territoriality is a decent introduction, but less than I hoped for. It gives an interesting anecdote of a client who put tape down the middle of a hallway eliminating conflict between cats passing each other (pg 165). But there is no follow-up of similar tips, much less any intuitions on why this might have worked. The book only briefly mentions that some cats see people as key territory. My experience is that this is often a major issue.
Why my negative reaction to the first part of the book? If you have already have a cat and have read another cat-care book, I suspect that the value-added of this portion is not enough to justify the investment in this book (time and money). If this is your first cat-care book, it may not be effective making its points -- it doesn't have enough organization, discipline and efficiency. Exception: It drills home about the importance of litter boxes: number, cleaning and distribution.
What is different about the latter portion of the book: It is organized more like what you would expect from a professional consultant: lists of alternatives, example analyses, action plans, ... But this is useful only if your situation falls within the focus of the book.
My rating of the book is based on asking how helpful this book would have been to me or to various friends who were having cat problems. Unfortunately, those problems were poorly addressed in this book. That wouldn't have been a mark down for the book if its description had let me know whether it was a good fit.
* Elimination problems are 40-75% of problems leading to a behaviorist (pg 172).
** In a household with cats, average is 2.5 (pg 128)
---- Examples ----
My current cat is a rescue who was well socialized in the sense that he immediately bonded to me, but he came with such a severe biting problem that he was being written off as unadoptable. Although the book's suggested treatments are not that different from what I did, its different explanation of the situation might have caused me to give up on him. His biting during petting was not from being over-stimulated (the book), but rather his insistence on grooming me -- those bites were just too-rough grabs that you see when cats groom themselves or others. However, the book claims that cats don't do things to please their people. Based on the book, a reader would likely have classified the rest of his biting as "status-related aggression". However, my diagnosis was that this is a very small part, and it was not dominance (I'm the boss of you), but rather trying to communicate boundaries. Most of the biting seemed to be driven by anxiety: memory of his abandonment and reaction to pending separations. The book discourages you from thinking in these terms. My cat is also very high energy, needing lots of exercise and play, and some of the biting was him trying to provoke play. Yet the book associates play aggression only with kittens, and my cat is a 4 year-old adult and I have seen it in even "senior" cats.
The neighbor from whom I got my current cat asked me to look at another "biter" that she was fostering. He was very friendly, but would bite almost immediately upon being petted. Again, the conventional diagnosis was that he was "over-stimulated", but this time what it was was under-stimulation. I picked him up and started giving him a vigorous head rub and he relaxed into my lap with a deep purr. No problem. Even after an extended petting session. Further experimentation confirmed that when petting wasn't strong enough he was using grabbing with his teeth as a prompt. If you have watched cats grooming each other, this is one of the behaviors that you see. As a cat owner, you need to know to distinguish biting from grabbing with the teeth, but this part of cat behavior is not part of this book.
There are a range of claims in the book that are contrary to my experience. Some are harmless, for example, that cats are purely solitary hunters (pg 126). This is mostly true, but I know of multiple instances of biological brothers that routinely hunt together. Then there was the claim that cats don't become territorial until they are adults (age 2). My previous cat was adopted as a 4-month old kitten ("raised underfoot" from a neighbor's litter) and within a week it was challenging older, larger cats using aggressive threat displays that I associate with territoriality (these instances were harmless because I had the kitten under very close supervision). How the reader of the book might have diagnosed the situation? I have no guess.
The book cautions against using a laser pointer for play because it frustrates the cat by denying it a kill-bite. While I know some cats for which the kill-bite is integral to play, I know many more for which it isn't. There are some cats that focus on "counting coup" -- they charge the lure and barely touch it with their paw or mouth before darting off to set up the next attack on it. Other cats focus on simulating using their paws to stun the prey, either a hard landing or a rapid combination of swats. And many cats that do a combination of these. I would have expected the book to give a sense of the diversity of such play.
-- Douglas B. Moran