7 questions for "Good Cat!" author Steve Dale

Steve Dale wears a lot of hats: columnist; TV, radio, and podcast host; certified animal-behavior consultant; and e-book author. He's recently come out with a pair of books on pet behavior, including "Good Cat! Practical Answers to Behavior Questions," via the e-publishing division of TMS.

Somehow, Dale made time to speak with Shine Pets last week between hosting "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute," blogging for ChicagoNow, appearing on Animal Planet shows, and serving on the boards of the CATalyst Council and the Winn Feline Foundation, among others. Can you really clicker-train a cat? Do you take your cat to the vet often enough? And what would Dale make a part of his "Hippo-cat-ic oath"?

Dale – who in 2012 will become the youngest person ever inducted into the Dog Writers Hall of Fame; did we mention he has a ton of accomplishments? – talked to us about all this and more last week.

Shine Pets: You have a bunch of funny quotes in the book; one of my favorites is an owner saying, "I want to enjoy my cats, but they're so annoying." Which really made me laugh, because I feel the same way about my own. But it spoke to a larger question, I thought, about living with cats and the basic nature of cats. You mention elsewhere in the book, for instance, that "Cats climb: get over it." Do you get the feeling sometimes that people are in denial about who cats are and what cats do?

Steve Dale: I think it's a combination of factors. I think that we forget…usually it's five, ten, fifteen years between when you [last] got that kitten. And kittens, and for that matter puppies, are their own unique beings. And depending on your perspective, they're a lot of work, a lot of fun, or both. And…they do things. And they do things that sometimes make us laugh; they do things that might be in danger to themselves, if we're not careful; and they're active! And then of course what they do is they're really active and then they sleep; they're really active, and then they sleep some more; they're REALLY active! And then they sleep even more.

And we forget, because our adult cats and dogs may not be that way, and what's more, oftentimes we get a kitten after an older pet has passed away. So, the animal is aging, and aging and aging, but it's not going to happen overnight, so we sloooowly gradually sort of become accustomed to the dog not needing a three-mile run, or the cat not bolting all over the house or climbing on as many things, and we say, "Oh, I've finally taught my cat not to climb." No, your cat is 18.  And then eventually that animal passes, and you get a very young animal, who is acting perfectly normal, for a kitten – so I think part of it is that we simply forget.

I think unrealistic expectations are certainly a part of it. Cats climb. And [you should] get over it. And people sometimes expect our pets to fit into this mold created either by our own expectations, which may not be realistic, or another pet. So: "Fluffy never did that, now you're doing that." "I've had dogs or cats my whole life, and they never did fill-in-the-blank. And now this kitten, or dog, is doing that." And I hear all the time, all the time, all the time from people whose expectations sometimes need to be adjusted.

I feel like there's this expectation from, like, cat-food commercials that cats are like extremely low maintenance, but –

Well, I think you're right about that; I think that's a huge issue. So here's what's happened. I don't know that I'd blame the cat-food companies for this. Just because of a whole lot of talk that cats are low maintenance – there's some truth to that, depending on how you define "low maintenance," because their needs aren't as great, they're more independent than dogs. I think that's one of the reasons why cats have become, in fact, the most popular pet in America.

So now you've got all these people who have cats; they were sold on the idea of having a cat because you need to do less with a cat; and I think that for some people it's gone the other way. So they get a cat, they think, "Well, all I have to do is put out a litterbox, and when I'm home I'm home, when I'm not I'm not." They only have one cat; they don't have another cat, they have no dogs, they just have a cat, they're working from 8 AM until 5 PM, and then after work, oh, they go for drinks or out to dinner most nights – and/or, if they're stay-at-home moms or working moms, they're busy driving the kids, you know, the soccer moms and all that, they're essentially never home. And no one is paying attention to this poor little cat!

And cats do need…they're still domestic animals, and they do require our attention, and it's a play session, or two, a day. I mean, you don't have to go outside and toss a tennis ball, like for many dogs, or the kinds of things that Border Collies need, you know, where they actually require a job. But [cats] do need our attention; they need some of our focus, and they more you give them, the more they'll give back to you.

I do believe that some behavior problems are created by people who feel, "Well, it's a cat; I don't need to pretty much do anything except put out the food" – not at specific times, just leave it out all the time, which is not the right way in my view to feed most cats – "and put out a litterbox, and I'll try to scoop it every day if I can." That's not enough. That is "low maintenance," but that's too low.

Right. It's not "no maintenance." I think there is a tendency to sometimes think of cats as – I don't know. Décor with feet?

Well put. Yeah, I agree with you. I absolutely agree.

Along those same lines, do you think that people tend to be too attached to the idea of cats as untrainably independent? Because when I was reading your book, my initial reaction to the idea of clicker training was, "Pfft – good one," but the issue is that I am too lazy to retrain a 17-year-old cat who thinks he's a Russian poet. Do you get that reaction a lot, to the idea of clicker training or training a cat at all: "That's just not what cats do"?

Absolutely. Not as much as I did, but yes, absolutely right, and you know, I love the cats that do agility. I mention in the book about a group of cats that actually play musical instruments and tour around the country – I love I love I love I love when there are demonstrations that cats can learn, and when you think about it, that's been going on forever, because cats have been in TV commercials forever, and in movies here and there, and those cats obviously have been taught how to walk across a set, or how to sit on command, or how to do whatever they need to do.

I believe that a cat can be taught pretty much anything that a dog can be, except in some cases a cat can do it better. Teach a dog to walk a tightrope? I suppose it can be done; if you have a small dog, and the tightrope is only an inch off the ground, I'm sure it can be done, but with a cat that can be done easily because of the nature of what cats are, and they like to be up high, so in some cases you can teach things to a cat that in fact would be very difficult to teach to a dog. The way in which they learn is really pretty much the same; learning theory is across the board, very similar, whether we're talking about fish, whether we're talking about dogs or cats.

One difference is, though, that dogs will work hard to please us – not always, but most dogs, they come that way, it's what dogs are predisposed to do; I think cats are not given enough credit for that, however. I think cats will oftentimes, if you have the right relationship with the right animal at the right time, they will oftentimes work just to please us, but I also don't think there's anything wrong with working and expecting something in return. After all, we're the same way. So you probably…well, you might, but I'm thinking if you weren't paid, maybe you wouldn’t work. Or maybe not as hard. And most people go to a job, and perform expecting to be paid, and if payout happens to be in little bits of tuna or moist cat food, well, I don't think that's unfair – and cats can learn, I mean, they're really really smart.

This is probably asking you for another generalization, but – jokes aside about cats being SO smart that they've trained us to think that they can't be trained – it seems like you repeat a bunch of times in the book, "You may not think this works but it does, you're just gonna have to stick with it." Do you think most people just give up too soon on these processes? For example, introducing a new cat to the household; moving litterboxes around and acclimating cats to new environments; and even training them to sit and roll over and stuff like that. Would you say that people sort of try it, but then they give up too soon and they're like, "Oh, I can't train my cat"?

Well, we're talking in a way about two different issues. One is training your cat to do things, and whether to jump from one chair to another, or to jump on top of your shoulder on command, or to sit or roll over, that’s one thing. And your cat isn't doing it, it's a matter of a lack of communication, and/or a lack of your skill, maybe; or a lack of motivation – you know, you're not providing a good enough treat. And you know what, there are individual cats that just don't want to do X, Y, and Z, just like there are individual people who might not want to do things.

When we talk about a cat who is inappropriately eliminating, for example, you mentioned missing the litterbox, and then training quote unquote the cat back into the box, that's a whole different thing. And that really isn't training, so much, as you being Sherlock Holmes as a cat owner, to figure out what's going on. And the first thing you need to do is to rule out a veterinary issue, because a whole lot of times, and I do mean a whole lot of times, the explanation, at least in part, is medical. So if the cat is drinking more because this cat is diabetic, or borderline diabetic, but I've not seen the veterinarian to know that, or has onset of early renal failure, or whatever – and the cat's drinking more, therefore the cat's gonna have to urinate more, but if you only have one litterbox and it's all the way over there, then the cat's just not gonna make it. That could explain, easily could explain, right? Why the cat's not hitting the litterbox.


You could use all the clicker training you want, or all the behavior methods I can possibly give you, and this cat is still not gonna consistently do it, until we get a handle on the physical problem. Now, once you do that, then the cat may indeed be entrenched in going on the carpet, for example, just because it's easier, or just because it feels better, or for whatever the reason is for that individual cat. Now you have to readjust the cat from a behavioral perspective.

But if the cat is inappropriately eliminating, I wouldn't even use the word "training" in my conversation with the person whose cat is doing that, but rather, talk about why the cat might be doing that, and after the veterinary examination, then I have a thousand questions to ask, which have to do with litterbox placement, how clean is that litterbox, how often is the litter changed, is the box uncovered or covered, are there other cats in the household, might there be dogs or children, and on and on and on.

Let's subtract litterbox from the equation, then, because that's one where you have to go to the vet first, and there's a bunch of other issues there, but for something like…they're jumping on the counter. Or they're jumping on the table when you're eating.

Sure, sure.

Something which is just cats going where the food is, or liking to climb or what have you. Do you find that with an issue like that, what you recommend, people are just like, "Well, that's too much trouble," or they don't stick with it for long enough…

Yeah, sometimes. It's a combination of things. Sometimes people don't quite understand what I’m trying to tell them; sometimes they don't stick with it; sometimes no matter what you tell them, they still don't want to bother doing it, so if I say, "All right, your cat's jumping on the counter – you need to make the countertop less appealing, that's how you do it, and then provide another place [for the cat to climb]," well, no matter what you say, no matter what you do, for whatever reason, they're just not willing to provide that other place. Well, then maybe I'm not gonna be able to fix the problem; maybe I will, but maybe I won't, because you're not really following what I'm trying to tell you to do.

In other cases, it's the family dynamics – so if you have two little kids, maybe you can, somehow, keep them from putting food leftovers on the counter, which is further motivating the cat to go up there. If you have eight kids in the house, good luck, you know. It's also what the family is able to do – being consistent is really important, and if that message is inconsistent that the cat is getting, obviously if someone is actually feeding the cat from the counter, or feeding the cat from the table when four other people in the house aren't looking, well…there isn't much I can do, because you’ve got someone that's reinforcing the cat to do it. I need everyone in the family to buy in, and I need people to the best of their ability, and to the best of the family's dynamic, to be able to follow the instructions, and sometimes understandably that's hard, like that eight-little-kid example. There's going to be one little kid, if you have eight, that leaves food on the counter once in a while.

Switching topics just slightly. If there could be – let's call it a "Hippo-cat-ic oath" for cat owners, a thing we all had to sign before we got a kitten or adopted a cat, what three things would you like to see on that?


For example, "I will not declaw, I will not let my cat live outside," that kind of thing. What are the top three things you wish cat owners knew and practiced, universally.

I love that question.

Take a minute, if you need it.

No, no, I know number two and three, because you said them, so you made it easy for me. But number one is this. Which most cat owners do, but not everyone does, and that is, respect your cat for what your cat is. Cats are like second-class citizens in some ways. They're the Rodney Dangerfield of pets – even though there are more cats than dogs in America, more cats are relinquished to shelters than dogs; fewer cats are adopted from shelters than dogs; numbers on what I'm about to say are really squishy because there is no one data source, but it seems that cats are more often abused – animal-abuse cases – than dogs; and cats visit the veterinarian less than half as often as dogs. And when they go, we're willing to spend on average more money on our dogs than our cats.

And cats, if we don't like the fact that they've missed the litterbox once too many times, or they're scratching on the furniture or for whatever reason, are more likely not only as I mentioned to be relinquished to the shelter but just to be, "Okay, I'm tired of you. I open the door, and out you go." We don't do that with our dogs at all, pretty much. "I can't afford you anymore; goodbye." The dog usually at least goes to the shelter; the cat, maybe, but maybe not, because people assume the cat can survive on his own or her own for the most part.

I think that somehow elevating the status of cats is important. So that would be number one on the list, is respect your cat. And again, the vast majority of cat owners do, but if everybody did, all those comments I just said? I wouldn't be able to say! So if everybody did, then more cats wouldn't be relinquished to shelters, and more cats wouldn't be euthanized, and all those things I rattled off, I wouldn't be able to say 'em.


But unfortunately I can and they're all fact. So that would be number one. Number two – and that's the most important, and involves two, three, and four, and two, three, and four are kind of a tie. Two would be to see our veterinarians as often as need, which in my world is for preventative care, twice a year. All cats and dogs need that. For dogs, we don't do it either, but we're closer than we are in cats. And a surprising number of people don't feel that their cat needs veterinary care. I can give you a percent on that; according to the Bayer usage study that was released last year, it's over 50 percent.



Think their cats don't need any vet care at all? Or don't need any preventive care?

"If I knew I could prevent problems, I would take my cat to the vet more often." Fifty-six percent [would go to the vet]. "If I was convinced it would help my pet." Fifty-three percent. "If I really believed my pet needed an exam," forty-nine percent.

So people are unaware, somehow, that their cat needs to see the veterinarian, and I think that's true for dogs too, surprisingly – as a preventative. Now, it's more true for cat owners than for dog owners, and for people that have both cats and dogs, their dogs tend to go to the veterinarian more often.

Now, it's not only that people are unaware; it's two things. Getting the cat there. Carrier training, desensitization to the carrier is huge. If you happen to get your cat as a kitten, it's real easy to do; if you have a cat that's terrified now as an adult, it's fixable, but it takes effort to do. But it can be done. Getting them there, I mean, how often – you know, the person takes out the carrier, and then the cat is in the next county.

[laughs] Yeah.

And then you have to run all over the house trying to grab the cat by the tail, stuff that cat – and by now it's spread out, all four legs – into the carrier, and you hear "RROW RROW" all the time you're doing it, you feel guilty if you've managed to do it, on the car ride there you hear complaining all the way there. There's a good video up at the CATalyst Council website; I've got some information on my website on how to desensitize and counter-condition. But that's huge. So, if we can desensitize them to the carrier, if we can make people aware of the fact that they benefit by preventative care – and then the third thing is the other reason why I like the idea of training cats.

How do you tell if your cat is sick, even when your cat is? People tell me all the time, I know if my cat is sick, well, no you don't! For two reasons. You might, but by the time you know, your cat's probably really sick. And cats are really expert at masking illness, more so than dogs. Dogs sometimes do, but oftentimes they tell us they're not feeling well; cats rarely do, so even the most observant cat owner sometimes doesn't know – and some of these cat diseases are silent! You know, kidney disease. Yeees, at some point, if you put the clues together, if you know cats well enough, or when it gets really bad and the cat stops eating – but when it first is sort of early onset? Your veterinarian can tell. Diabetes is another; yeah, there are some symptoms, and as they increase, it means the diabetes has gotten really bad.

But for the most part, you oftentimes can't – cardiomyopathy. Yeah, your cat could drop dead, of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy; or your cat can throw a clot, with a thrombo-embolism, and, and, yeah, you'd know then, when your cat can't move, and is screaming in pain – but to some degree it's a silent illness, and unless you have a stethoscope at home and know what to listen for, and who can do blood work at home? You know? So going in twice a year is usually helpful.

The other thing that's usually helpful is understanding at least the subtle signs of illness in cats. What are they? There are lots of resources, including a thing I wrote that's on the CATalyst Council website, actually – a cat-care guide, and we list I think ten subtle signs of illness. But getting the cat to the veterinarian is huge, for me. I know we would save lives if we did that – catching illness early can do that. Preventing illness.

So, you may not notice that your cat's getting a little wider, a little wider, a little wider, and is even overweight – or may not understand the implications of an obese cat. So if we can get some weight down in cats, as one example, we could lower the number of diabetes in cats. In fact, the number of preventive illnesses in cats and dogs is on the rise, illnesses that could and should be absolutely prevented. And that's gotta change. I mean, there's no reason for that. Flea infestations in cats and dogs are up! You have these products that can do the job, but they're choosing the wrong products, consumers are, by not going to the veterinarian; they're just picking and choosing based on TV ads, or what happens to be in front of them at the counter at the store they happen to go to. That's not the right way to do it.

So that's number two. Regular vet care.

Number three would be exactly as you said – let's keep 'em indoors, life is safer indoors, they live longer indoors. If you have a cat that's been outdoors its entire life, and you're heroic enough to take this cat in and this cat screams every day at the door, "I wanna go out, I wanna go out, I wanna go out" – I still say, in the best of all worlds, yeah, let the cat out, but get cat fencing in your yard, which protects so that the cat cannot get out and the predators cannot get in. That costs money, so I understand [why people don't want to do it]. Try to leash- and harness-train, if the cat is willing, so it's a way to get out safely, and if that doesn't [satisfy] the cat, okay, maybe. But let's start out with all the cats that we can possibly keep indoors, keeping them indoors. I can run through the litany of reasons, which depending on where you live in this country includes everything from other diseases from cats, to alligator attacks. By the way, the number-one predator: cars.

And then finally, what you say about declaw – yeah, you're absolutely right. There are exceptions, so: if you have an autoimmune disease, or are undergoing cancer treatment, and your doctor tells you, even though I may personally disagree with that doctor – your doctor tells you, okay, no cats unless they're declawed, I suppose, fine.

But overall – and you know, there are people that say, "I'm gonna declaw the cat, [but] at least I rescued the cat from the shelter." You really didn't need to declaw the cat. Let's have an open mind about this. More and more countries all over the world are banning it. Declaw is an amputation, let's call it what it is – that's what it is. I don't like laws that mandate, because there are always exceptions, so I don't think we need to make it a law, and if we change culture we totally don't need to make it a law; I know the culture is changing.

That was going to be my next question, actually. I feel like there's much better awareness of what declawing really is now, but can you speak about whether we've seen a decrease in the procedure?

I don't know if anyone has numbers to indicate that there's been a decrease in the procedure; I can tell you I get fewer questions for my newspaper column about "do I declaw or NOT declaw."


I don't get any fewer questions about scratching, but I do get fewer questions asking me that question. I think that, due to stances some of the veterinary organizations here have made, that declaw is now less frequently offered as an automatic, spay-declaw two-for-one kind of deal –


You have your cat spayed, neutered, in most cases, now, and I hope nobody is going to say, "By the way you need to declaw." I hope nothing is mentioned about that? That behavior question should be asked at veterinary visits, and my hope is that veterinarian will say, all right, here's some information where you can teach your kitten to scratch in all the right places, at the very beginning. So the problem never develops, and declaw never becomes an issue – and also here's how to cut your cat's nails, and when you start as a kitten, this is one reason why I loooove those kitten classes so much, when you start as a kitten, either training the cat to scratch at the post, and/or the client understands how to cut the cat's nails, then for life you have a cat who says, "Fine, cut my nails," and "Fine, I'm gonna scratch here."