What should you do if your cute little kitten grows into a stalking beast that sinks its fangs into your flesh or leaps up to the counter to pee into a teacup? Some cat owners shout at their misbehaving felines or swat them on the nose, but punishment can teach a cat to view its owner with fear, and do nothing to remedy the biting, scratching and peeing outside the box. To stop bad cat behaviour, you could medicate the animal or, worst-case scenario, euthanize it. Or you could do what many vets are doing with their own badly behaved cats: you could heed the advice of an Oregon woman, Mieshelle Nagelschneider, a.k.a. the Cat Whisperer.
Nagelschneider is a former veterinary technician whose uncanny ability to communicate with cats is known to cure the toughest cases—cats that claw the living room drapes, pee in their owner’s shoes or defecate on pillow cases. In her new book, The Cat Whisperer: Why Cats Do What They Do—And How to Get Them to Do What You Want, Nagelschneider promises a cure for nearly every behavioural cat problem; medication is rarely needed, and change takes place in about 30 days. “Cats who have never groomed another cat will lick away at their buddies—and grow all the closer. Cats who have slept apart will curl up next to one another. When I do a follow-up visit,” she writes, “in place of a battlefield I walk into a feline Eden . . . There’s no hissing, fighting or attacking.”
Nagelschneider, a farm girl whose parents raised goats and cows, discovered her talent for taming brutish animals at the age of 4 when she cut out a pair of bunny ears, disguised herself as a rabbit and hopped into a corral where a lone, ornery bull was penned. Her parents had warned her: the bull charged anyone who came near it. Somehow Nagelscheinder knew not to look the bull in the eyes, she explains in the book. She averted her gaze as she reached up to pet the fur on the bull’s head. When her parents found her, the bull was lying beside her, allowing her to caress its neck and head.
Next, Nagelschneider worked her magic on the feral barn cats. She discovered that by blinking slowly she could coax a cat from a water pipe that was about to flood. “Slowly blinking and looking away is a powerful form of cat communication,” she explains. A blinked-at cat feels relaxed and reassured.
Nagelschneider, who runs the Cat Clinic in Oregon and has made thousands of house calls for cats with special needs, says that most of the unwanted cat problems are the result of an owner doing something wrong. For instance, one reason a cat might pee outside the box is that some cats prefer two boxes: one for urine, one for feces. Buy two boxes, change the litter daily and you’ve solved the problem. If your cat likes to pee in the bathtub, a shallow pool of water left in the tub will discourage this behaviour. Another reason a cat might soil outside the box is that the cat requires medical attention. A constipated cat or one suffering from a urinary disease may associate the pain it’s experiencing with stepping into the box. It may even growl at the box—and quite often a cat will decide it’s time to try a new area, like the carpet or a closet.
If you catch your cat scratching or wiggling its tail poised to spray the upholstery, there is no use reprimanding it. “You might as well scold a squirrel,” writes Nagelschneider. The best way to correct unwanted behaviour is to interrupt it with a technique she calls an “Act of God.” Toss a Ping-Pong ball at the cat. The cat will stop scratching, chase the ball, and never know who threw it. Other “Acts of God”: remotely turning on loud music if the cat gets too close to the stereo, or blasting the cat with compressed air from a motion-sensitive canister installed on the counter.
Playing with your cat is crucial to its confidence and happiness. Interactive toys, like wands with feathers, can make your cat feel it’s stalking and catching prey. “Wave or twitch the toy several feet away from your cat. Don’t wiggle the toy in your cat’s face. Real prey moves away.” Play helps release feel-good chemicals in your cat, she says. “A bored cat is a cat that will sink its teeth into your ankle.”