You Don’t Have to Live Like This — You Can Get a Trainer For Your Cat
Tips to help you find a legit behaviorist (according to a veterinary behaviorist).
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You love your cat, and your cat loves you back (as long as you don’t make it a big deal, OK?). But, some days, it feels as if your kitty is writing a thesis titled “How to Push My Parent to the Edge of Mental Wellness.” The vet can’t find a single medical reason that your cat refuses to use the litter box, scratches up the furniture, sucks on fabric, or grooms nonstop. Your next call: A behaviorist.
An initial online search turned up behaviorists with qualifications ranging from “loves cats” to veterinarians who are board certified in veterinary behavior.
“The word ‘behaviorist’ isn’t well regulated,” says Dr. Maggie O’Brian, veterinary behaviorist and managing partner of Southeast Animal Behavior & Training. “There are no rules about who gets to call themselves a behaviorist.”
You need help to deal with unwelcome behaviors, but you don’t want to spend a ton of money on a behaviorist that doesn’t have the knowledge or skill to address the issue. The fact that there are zero regulations means that it can be hard to know who to call to help you deal with cat behavior issues.
Here are some tips to help you find a legit behaviorist.
Start with Credentials
You’ll undoubtedly stumble on a number of websites for behaviorists who mention “extensive experience working with cats” but their experience, while important, is no guarantee that their approach is based in science or best practices. In fact, a behaviorist who lacks the know-how to treat feline behavior issues could make the problem worse, according to O’Brian.
Looking at credentials can help you determine who invested in advanced education and training to understand and treat cat behavior issues.
DACVB: This credential is awarded to licensed veterinarians who got an additional three years training in animal behavior and passed a board exam to become Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Veterinary behaviorists are held to a set of professional standards as well as state and local laws for veterinary medicine.
Here are a few other credentials to consider (this list is not exhaustive):
International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC)
The organizations have search functions to help you locate a behaviorist near you. Your veterinarian may also be able to recommend a behaviorist.
Veterinary behaviorists undergo rigorous education and training, but certifications or membership in professional associations are no guarantee that a behaviorist has experience or skills to treat your cat’s behavior issues. It’s important to do your research before handing over your credit card number for a session.
Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Behaviorist
Tell me about your skills and experience.
Have you had other clients with similar issues and what was the outcome?
Can you explain the possible root causes of the behavior?
What do you recommend as a treatment plan?
Can you provide references?
O’Brian notes that you should feel comfortable with the responses the behaviorist provides and be on the lookout for red flags like big promises to fix an issue quickly.
“We don’t know how cases are going to go until we start treatment plans,” O’Brian says.
Take your time finding a behaviorist you like and trust; someone who is willing to answer your questions and offer detailed information about their approach to treating behavior issues ensures that you (and your cat) will have a positive experience.
“If your cat has a long history of [a behavior] it’s going to be a much longer road,” says O’Brian. “We can definitely still help if it’s been going on for a long time…but the earlier you can tackle behavior concerns, the better.”
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Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelance writer who shares her home with an embarrassing number of rescue dogs and relies on four feral cats to patrol the barn. When she isn’t refilling food and water dishes, Jodi writes about animals for Scientific American, Sierra, WebMD, AKC Family Dog, Living the Country Life, and Out Here.