Interview with Marci Koski of Feline Behavior Solutions
2 March, 2017
We were excited to spend some time talking to the wonderful and knowledgeable Marci Koski of Feline Behavior Solutions, She took some time to answer some important questions about cat behavior.
First of all, why did you specialize in cats and not dogs?
I really do love all animals – dogs, cats, fish, lizards, insects, and other critters (just look up peacock spiders and tell me they are not adorable – I dare you!). I find all of them so fascinating, and that’s why I studied so much biology and ecology when I was in school. However, I’ve had cats my entire life, and I can’t imagine not being around them. I think what I find intriguing about cats is that they are so connected with their wildness. They are very different than dogs – dogs have been domesticated for tens of thousands of years, whereas cats have only really lived with people for about 9,000 years. And I don’t think the term “domestic” applies very well to kitties – our house cats are still very similar to their wild relatives: tigers, lynx, cougars…you name it. I love living and working with animals that are so instinctual – in some ways, it makes them easier to get to know!
As a behaviorist, is there a fine line between medical issues and behavioral issues? How can you tell the difference?
This is an important question. Some behavioral issues are the result of the cat’s living environment and whether their physical, social, and emotional needs are being met or not. For example, if an indoor cat doesn’t get any play time and is bored all day, she will either find things to occupy her time (which often results in destructive behaviors like scratching, digging, or knocking things over), or she can get stressed which can cause litterbox issues or aggression.
However, many medical issues can result in behavioral problems. So, whenever a prospective client contacts me about their cat not using the litterbox or if her behavior has suddenly changed and she’s aggressive to her humans, I ALWAYS recommend that the cat gets checked out by a veterinarian first. Because if the behavior is a result of an illness or physical condition, it’s not going to be corrected no matter what kind of behavioral advice I give – it’s always good to rule out medical causes first! My rule of thumb is that any change in behavior should trigger a trip to the vet, who may then recommend a cat behavior consultant like me if a medical cause can be ruled out.
We know some cats are shy, but how can you tame a very aggressive cat?
There are many types of aggression in cats, and the causes of aggression can be quite varied. For example, redirected aggression (when a cat suddenly acts violently towards his cat or human buddy as the result of seeing something else disturbing beyond his reach) can be resolved quickly and relationships can be back to normal in a matter of hours to days. However, a cat who is generally aggressive to humans because he was not properly socialized as a kitten or was raised feral, will likely be a cat that you’ll have to be careful with for his entire life.
There are all sorts of scenarios between being temporarily aggressive vs. perpetually aggressive. It is definitely possible to work with an aggressive cat to desensitize him to known triggers (like if the cat is afraid of hands or feet and strikes out at them), but in many cases, an acceptance of the cat and an awareness of his triggers is critical. I never say that we can “cure” aggression because there may always be some sort of trigger that can set off that instinctual behavior to protect or fight out of anger or fear. But I’ve known some very sweet cats who have had aggressive tendencies – they just needed to find the right guardians who were patient enough to learn their personalities and triggers, build trust, and be willing to let a peaceful relationship evolve.
Some cats are night time howlers. Any tips to help them quiet down?
Yes! Night-time howling can be one of those issues where a trip to the vet may be necessary right up front, since howling can indicate pain or disorientation, especially in older kitties. However, night-time vocalizations can also be caused by other factors. Territoriality can be an issue, so make sure to get your male cat neutered! I recently had a client whose cat would get up in the middle of the night and pace from window to window, howling; he was acting territorial due to other cats that he had seen outside. Blocking the windows with opaque film helped nip that problem in the bud! And, making sure that your cat is tired at night is a good thing to do, too, so give your cat a good workout right before bedtime followed by a small snack or meal; this will put her into the hunt-eat-groom-sleep cycle. She’ll get more sleep, and so will you!
What is the best way to stop cats from destroying our furniture? Is there really a way to stop them once they have already started?
Of course! You don’t have to have a living room full of shredded furniture if you have cats, and you certainly should not declaw your cats as a solution (declawing is a painful and unnecessary procedure, and may actually cause more problems – both behavioral and physical – in the long-run). The best thing to do is 1) make any current scratching surfaces (like your couch or chair) unattractive to scratching by covering the scratched area with double-sided sticky tape, and 2) provide an appropriate alternative to scratching. You’ll need to experiment to find out what kind of scratching surface your kitty likes best: vertical, inclined, or horizontal? Sisal rope, carpet, wood, or cardboard? If you get a vertical scratching post, make sure it is tall and sturdy – at least as tall as she can reach up, and stable enough so that it doesn’t move when used.
To encourage your cat to use the scratching surface, put it near the scratched object (i.e., your couch or chair) and use catnip, or dangle a toy or treat over it so that your cat reaches up to scratch it. Reward and praise your cat for good behavior! She’ll soon catch on, and you can gradually move the scratcher to a better place in the home, and remove the sticky tape from your furniture.
I know you are a big advocate for adopting cats as am I. What do you think is a good age for a small child to be responsible enough to interact with an adopted kitty? Maybe an older cat would be more appropriate?
Great question! I think this all depends on the personality of the cat you want to adopt, and how responsible the parents will be towards teaching children how to properly interact with the cat. In terms of personality, it’s really hard to know what you’re going to get if you bring home a kitten, so yes, I’d recommend an adult or older cat since you know what you’re going to get – their personalities are already established. Some cats are completely mellow and don’t mind being petted by toddlers who might not have a very gentle touch…but even in this situation, parental supervision is a must.
If you’re going to bring home the average cat (not overly cuddly but not aggressive, either), your child MUST be old enough to read body language signals and you must teach your child what those signals are, and what to do when the cat indicates she’s had enough. Parental oversight and guidance is key to ensure that both the cat and children in the home develop a happy and safe relationship with each other. I definitely advocate for pets in the home because having pets teaches children about empathy, and can create a kinder world for everyone to enjoy.
How many cats do you have? AND do they all live harmoniously and act perfectly?!
Ha ha ha! I have five cats and they range in age between 7 and 18 years old. And no, they have not always acted perfectly (but humans aren’t perfect, either)! Cat behaviorists are just regular people, with regular cats, lol. Right now, everyone seems to be getting along pretty well, but Abbey was being picked on by Momo and Oliver (who are littermates, with Abbey being the outsider), and all three are the same age. Oliver and Momo weren’t even letting Abbey downstairs – she was basically living in our bedroom! But things have really improved over the last couple of months, and it’s great to have all five cats hanging out in the living room these days when we’re watching TV. And yes, we’ve had some litterbox issues, too. But that was completely resolved as well. I couldn’t imagine life without cats – each are so unique and I have different relationships with each of them. Plus, they make great co-workers, except for when I’m trying to work and they’re hungry. But even then, they’re so cute that I really can’t complain!
Dr. Marci Koski is a certified Feline Behavior and Training Professional with her own cat behavior consulting business, Feline Behavior Solutions. Her mission is to keep cats in homes and out of shelters, and improve the relationships between cats and their people for long-term health and happiness. Please contact her for a consultation for you and your cats at Feline Behavior Solutions.