Q&A with Pam Johnson-Bennett, Cat Behaviorist
Pam Johnson-Bennett owns Cat Behavior Associates, LLC, a private veterinarian-referred behavior practice in Nashville, TN.
We sat down with her to learn what it’s like to be one of the most sought-after cat behavior experts in the world.
Honest Kitchen (HK): So, how did you become a cat behavior consultant?
Pam Johnson-Bennett (PJB): It was totally by accident. Years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I rescued two kittens. I didn’t know anything about cats. I didn’t even like them, and I messed them up behaviorally. There wasn’t anything out there about cats. I had to learn by trial and error: reading dog books, reading child psychology books and even reading marriage books. I learned and I fixed them. I was living in New York City and I was a musician when I started realizing, ‘Hey, this is a career. This is what I needed to be doing’. I was a lousy musician, but I was a really good cat behavior expert. Later, I became a vet tech. I studied, went to conferences and became certified.
HK: What would you say is the most misunderstood cat behavior?
PJB: Probably, [eliminating outside of] the litter box. I think it’s misunderstood because people think the cat is deliberately doing it. Animals don’t sit around plotting things to do to get us mad. When you have that attitude and you’re going to punish them for it, you don’t stand a chance of solving the problem. We need to look more at what we’re doing wrong, and what we do not understand.
HK: How do you motivate a cat?
PJB: Cats are very food motivated. I think the mistake we make is, first of all, we assume cats aren’t trainable, so we don’t even bother. Then, we get upset when they don’t do what we want. The other thing is we put a pile of food in a food bowl and leave it there for the cat to eat whenever it wants. That’s an important training tool. Food is a powerful motivator. I’m a big proponent of scheduling meals because that’s what’s natural in the wild, but also to use food for training.
HK: Do you have any advice for a new kitten owner who wants a well-socialized, friendly cat?
PJB: You start from day one. Socialization time is when you’re getting the cat comfortable with being held, being exposed to different people, the noises in the house, being exposed to what it’s like to be in a carrier and go in a car. Those are all things you do when that cat is a kitten. You stand a much better chance of that cat accepting change and handling those things later in life. It’s gradual exposure in a very positive way.
HK: Why do cats ignore people who love them but favor people who dislike them?
PJB: That’s usually because cats are territorial and the person who doesn’t like cats, or is allergic to cats, will make no overture to that cat. So, it gives the cat a sense of comfort. He can go up to that person, do an investigation, check him out and not be in danger of being scooped up and hugged and kissed. Cat owners are the worst offenders of invading a cat’s personal space. In general, it’s a good idea to use cat etiquette. Don’t make direct eye contact, extend your index finger and let him come to you so that he can check you out.
HK: When should a cat owner seek out help with a professional trainer or behaviorist?
PJB: Well, the first stop should always be a veterinarian. Even if you’re sure a problem is strictly behavioral, many behavior problems have an underlying medical issue. If you feel it’s something you can’t handle or you don’t really understand, then ask your vet for a referral to a cat behavioral expert. Do your homework because a bad behavior expert can make the problem worse.
HK: If you were a cat, what type of cat would you be and why?
PJB: I would be a shelter cat. I love shelter cats. I hope I would be the shelter cat that would help other shelter cats get adopted. Like ‘follow me and do the behavior I do’. I feel people miss so much with shelter cats, and they misunderstand that [a shelter] is a very frightening experience for a cat. I encourage people to not pass by the shelter cats. It’s just a lifetime of love.
HK: You’ve written nine best-selling books and you’re the host of Animal Planet’s UK PYSCHO Kitty, what’s next on the agenda?
PJB: We’re actually working on another television project that we’re hoping will air here in the United States. It’s a little bit different than what’s out there already. I am also trying to get out another book. I’m with cats everyday with clients, and that’s my heart and soul. Working with one cat at a time and changing that family dynamic, that’s everything. The best part of this job is when you educate cat parents.