Cat Body Language | Cat Behaviorist Specialist | Cat Whisper
My Life Among the Animals
Mieshelle Nagelschneider – Excerpt from my book with Random House Publishing, The Cat Whisperer, feline science behavior book.
My Animal Family
I come from a family steeped in animal life. My uncles on my mother’s side were cattle ranchers and trophy-snagging rodeo riders. My great aunt and uncle on my father’s side were both horse stunt riders, like their parents before them. They all loved their horses. Their grandson and my cousin, Tad Griffith, now works closely with animals as the owner of a stunt and production company in Hollywood.
In my hometown of Redmond, Oregon, my Aunt Vicki has long raised Toggenburg goats, the oldest known breed of dairy goat, which hails from the Swiss valley of the same name. Aunt Vicki also had real pet cats, the kind that lived in the house. While the goats thrilled me, the cats – indoors, for Bastet’s sake! – made me bitter with envy. Every Sunday our family would visit Aunt Vicki’s house and I would spend the entire time playing with the cats. One of her cats, Elsie, didn’t like to be stroked or held. My older cousin Samantha would remind me, “That Elsie’s a biter, Mieshelle.”
But I found that you could indeed pet Elsie—just not for very long. You had to pay attention and watch for certain responses that indicated she had had enough. So I would pet her for a while, but stop before I saw her ears go back or her tail flick. Samantha bragged to everyone that I had the magic touch with Elsie, but I knew I was just petting her in the way she liked, and stopping before she got agitated. It was my first lesson, at the age of 5, that you can’t make a cat do what you want, but you can change your own behavior slightly to get a result that will make both of you happy.
On The Farm
I always felt a little introverted and shy around other children. But luckily I was let loose to run with the animals on the farm our family lived on, in the high desert of Central Oregon, and they became my companions. I found the animals much more interesting and easy to get along with than my much older brothers or the other children around me. And how many people have a wild hummingbird for a friend?
Yes, I really did! I first remember being aware of it when I was about four and I kept hearing a fluttering in my ear, like a vibration, as I walked around outdoors. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a bug or bee, but others told me the creature, iridescent and green, was a hummingbird. It would fly over me and in front of me and hover for a bit like it was trying to tell me something. After a while, it would zip off, only to return again, making that odd sensation in my ear.
My dad used to tease me because a hummingbird followed me around, which embarrassed me because I was sure he thought it was ridiculous. But one day I heard him bragging about me and the hummingbird to some visiting relatives, and I realized that there was something special about what had happened.
My father was a gruff, hard-working man. The only time I saw him show emotion, no, melt, was in the presence of animals. Maybe that’s partly why I came to love animals too. Dad kept all the kinds of animals you’d expect to find on a family farm, and when I say he kept them, I mean he could not bring himself to put any of them on our dinner table.
He and my mother had both grown up on cattle ranches where raising animals for meat was simply what you did, but he grew too attached to the calves on our farm to turn them into table-top beefsteak, even though he’d bought them for that purpose. So ten calves grew into ten cows, and those cows simply became among the largest of my pets. What we really had was not a working farm, like the one our next-door neighbors had, but a large petting zoo.
Of course we also had horses, Missouri Fox Trotters. I learned to love horses, and to ride at a young age. We had a Rocky Mountain horse named Sinbad who’d been given to my father because he was supposedly “no good.” He had an injury to his hoof so it was uncomfortable for him to run. Dad decided that made him safe for me. A horse is a fantastic introduction to the world of animals. As any horse person knows, the big animals have a special, palpable sort of consciousness. I can stand next to a horse and feel the energy of a sentient heart and soul.
We had two sheep – I organized picnics with them. The geese and the ducks and I sat in the dog house together, and I swam with them in their dirty pond (much to my mother’s distress). The chickens needed me to spend time with them, too, and I climbed on the roof to crow with the rooster.
Then there was the enormous bull in a corral next to the house. No one could even go near him without being charged. My parents warned me many times to stay away. Even the dogs were terrified of him. But I felt sorry for him. So I hatched a plan: I would hop hop hop into his corral like a bunny. And he wouldn’t be afraid or bothered at all. We had bunnies in our barn, after all, and he’d seen them, and I knew no one could be afraid of or angry at a bunny.
It wasn’t so much that I was a lunatic. I was four.
First I took some paper and drew two bunny ears, which I colored pink as the inside of a bunny ears. Then I cut them out and asked my mother to tape them on. “I need to be a bunny,” I said, already savvy enough to speak to my mother only on a need-to-know basis. “How sweet,” she said, and taped the bunny ears to my hair. I also knew I had to be a white bunny, like the ones in our barn, so I mashed several handfuls of cotton balls into a tail which I attached to my white ballet leotard.
It was a nice, warm summer’s dusk when I crawled through the bars of the bull’s corral.
Careful not to look directly at him, I stayed low and hopped around the perimeter, as bunny-like as could be, while he regarded me warily. Just going about my rabbity business. And then he stood up and walked over to me. I stopped hopping. His massive head blocked out the sun. His big nose reached down to me. His giant, light-pink wet nostrils flared and pinched, flared and pinched. He snorted into the dust. And then I reached up and patted the fur at the top of his nose.
It was utterly exhilarating.
When my parents found me, I was sitting in the dirt at the animal’s feet, stroking his head and caressing his neck and throat. The family lore of “Mieshelle and that bull” would echo in my ears throughout my childhood, instilling in me my first sense that I had a special gift and passion. Of course my parents were horrified. But why did I have to play with a big old dangerous smelly bull? Because my parents wouldn’t get me a cat.
Unfortunately, the animals on whom I most wanted to deploy my special gift were cats – the one animal we didn’t have on our farm. That’s why, when I was four, I used to sneak across the street to a house where our neighbor ran a daycare service for children who were around the same age I was. I wasn’t going there to play with the other children; I went to play with our neighbor’s Siamese cat. Eventually the daycare owner told my mother that I could no longer come and play with the cat for free; my mother would have to pay for my being there, just like the rest of the parents did. But my mom was a stay-at-home mom and she didn’t think it made much sense to pay for me to be allowed to pet the kitty across the street. She told me that I was no longer allowed to go to the daycare lady’s house.
So I began camping out in the woman’s driveway. Sometimes the willowy Siamese would see me through the window and come outside to receive my petting. I used to bring a brush that belonged to my Barbie doll (which I’d quickly abandoned as uninteresting) and the cat would purr and knead on me until finally I was not allowed to sit on the driveway anymore either.
One night, when I was four-and-a-half, my mother handed me the phone. “Come here to the phone, Mieshelle. It’s Santa Claus.”
Standing in my nightgown, I took the phone from her.
“What do you want for Christmas?” a voice said.
“I want a cat.” I clarified that. “A real cat.”
“You want a real cat?” said the voice, amused. This was already annoying.
“Yeah. A real one.”
“Oh,” he said, “I think you want a stuffed cat.”
“I don’t want any more stuffed cats. I want a cat that purrs and eats milk.”
“I don’t think your mother would want a real cat in the house.”
“I want a real cat.”
It went on like that for some time. Then, seeing no progress, I hung up on Santa.
For Christmas I got a large, pink, stuffed cat, a sad product of a misbegotten union between a domestic short-hair and the Pink Panther.
Not at all what I wanted, but now that my Dad is gone, I wish I had kept that stuffed cat.
My campaign for a real cat continued for several years, and remained fruitless. One year, after my mother had enrolled me in the Blue Birds, the little-girl wing of the Camp Fire Girls, we were all given autobiographical scrapbooks whose pages had blanks we were to fill in.
There was one page called “All About Me.” My page read:
My Best Friend is: My cat
What I love to do the most is: Play with my cat
The first thing I do when I get home from school is: Play with my cat
If I could be anything I would: Be a cat
I’m not making that up. But I still didn’t have a cat, a very sore point for me. I would soon, however, embark on a secret cat-taming project involving the feral cats in the canyon behind our house.
Cheshires in The Canyon
Like a lot of little girls, when I was a little girl, I wanted to be Snow White. But not because of the prince. I wanted to talk to the animals. Lucky for me, our house sat on the edge of a shallow canyon, lush and green, with a nearly level floor, and that canyon was my haven to explore. The canyon was teeming with wildlife – deer, coyote, rabbits, butterflies and hummingbirds, and of course our own pets, dogs, horses, rabbits, sheep, and calves wandered there too. The neighbor’s white peacocks visited daily. They were all my friends.
Occasionally, I saw cats in the canyon. For me it was like spotting a unicorn – something rare, rarely seen, and unpossessable. These feral cats were really what drew me to the canyon. They popped their heads out from behind rocks and trees, and then, like the Cheshire Cat in the Alice in Wonderland coloring book that my father and I colored in together, they vanished just as quickly. And like the Cheshire Cat when he was invisible, they watched me from the dark places.
One day, I got an idea. I’d throw a tea-party like the one in the Alice story, and I would invite the Cheshires of the canyon. So early one June morning, just after my fifth birthday, I gathered up all my plastic teacups and plates, a tablecloth, my stuffed animals, and a stack of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and descended into the canyon, where I sat atop a flattish volcanic rock by a small stream. On each of my plastic plates I put a morsel of PB&J that I cut with a pink plastic knife, and then the stuffed animals and I sat there, looking at each other, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did.
I ran back up to the house to get some milk. Maybe that would be the draw. As I was heading back down the trail to my rock, I saw a buff-colored shorthaired cat sitting at one of the plates, eating some of the peanut butter and jelly. A cat! As soon as he spotted me, he bolted and ran away.
But I knew I was onto something.
Over the weeks that followed I learned I could get closer to some of these flighty tea party guests – the ones who were more relaxed – if I remained at a distance until they gradually got used to me. But I also learned that some cats are more reactive than others and I couldn’t get closer to them without their running off. In time, as they got used to my presence, even the highly reactive cats would not run as far and would return more quickly.
Looking back now, I’m sure that together we were discovering the behavior modification techniques of counter-conditioning and de-sensitization. Counter-conditioning pairs something attractive, such as food, with a negative stimulus (such as the presence of a little girl) in order to change an animal’s negative feelings about the stimulus into something more positive. As the weeks went by, I learned that tuna fish sandwiches were the sandwich of choice; that milk bested Kool-Aid in all taste tests; and that as long as I made no sudden moves, I could sit and dine with my striped and whiskered friends with relative ease and the happy certainty that no one would run off.
A year later we moved away from the canyon to a new house in the country. I missed my Cheshires and I renewed my campaign for a cat of my own. “What about all those cats in the barn?” my father grumbled one day. They were feral, almost as wild as the canyon cats, but after what I had learned from the Cheshires, I decided I could make even better friends with the barn cats, if I just paid attention to what they liked. This was the beginning of several years of close observation. I copied their behavior; I tried to put myself into their heads and see the world through their eyes; and soon I felt that the barn Cheshires were becoming my family.
If I got to the feral kittens early enough and played with them, I could make some of them quite friendly. I was about eight years old when neighbors noticed how friendly my barn cats were, and started asking me if they could adopt one or two as a pet. I even caught my dad cuddling one of the cats I had socialized.
One morning, when I was eleven, I saw a young gray tabby cat crawl into a ten-inch irrigation pipe in our yard. I knew I had a small window of time before water would surge through those pipes, as it did daily. Crisis! I called, whispered, dangled a leaf, patted the ground – I tried everything to lure the little cat out, hoping to save its life. Nothing seemed to work. Then, without really thinking about it, I made eye contact with her, closed my eyes briefly, wishing for her to come out, and then opened my eyes again.
And the cat blinked back at me, slowly.
I blinked again, slowly, and immediately the little cat came tumbling out of the pipe. She allowed me to move her to safety, and only a few minutes later the water came rushing through the pipes.
My parents saw how happy I was and to my amazement they let me keep her. I named her Curly for her curious little spiral of a stump tail. Many years later, I heard the experts say that slowly blinking and then looking away is a powerful form of cat communication, but by that time I had long known that a cat that blinks slowly at another is feeling content and relaxed. The blinked-at cat, in turn, interprets this as meaning she is not in harm’s way. Blinking can immediately reassure a cat and relax a tense situation. I still use this technique today, when a client’s cat won’t come out from under the bed.
The Veterinary Office Years
I was in seventh grade when I got my first glimpse of a world in which you could be with animals all day and even get paid to do it. My friend Jamie asked me to help her take her cat to a vet’s office. In the exam room a woman came in to take Shadow’s temperature. She was very impressive. “How long did it take you to go to vet school?” I asked her. “I’m not a vet,” she said. “I’m a vet tech.” A vet tech, or veterinary technician, would become for me a kind of ideal, but from my vantage point of twelve years of age, it sounded impossibly far away.
The years passed quickly, however, and when I was 19, studying psychology at a college in Portland, Oregon, I got a job at a veterinary office. Though all the other vet techs were more experienced than I, it soon developed that when no one else could get a cat out of its cage, or hold it still while blood work was being done, the vet would call me.
By touching a cat’s body or just reading its body language, I could feel how a cat was feeling and sense what he was communicating – and I adjusted my touch accordingly. The clients as well as the vets began to ask for me to be the one present in the exam room with their cats. I was able to calm cats who would not let anyone else close enough to inject them with vaccine or trim their nails. Clients also began to ask that I pet-sit their cats when they were out of town.
For the next several years, I learned to do surgical prep, assist during surgeries, take X-rays, trim nails and give vaccinations, administer sub-cutaneous fluids, perform dentals, draw blood and run tests, and fill prescriptions. At the two clinics I went to next, I was named Head Vet Tech and to my responsibilities I added the ordering of all pet products, anesthesia, office supplies, medications, and training new vet techs.
Over time, more and more of the vets’ clients asked me to watch their pets while they were on vacation. I would eventually make many thousands of house calls for cats with special needs. Then came the day that started me on the path to creating a job that filled a big vacuum — taking care of cats with not just health care needs but behavioral ones too.
That day I happened to answer a call that came in to the vet’s office. It was from a woman, in obvious distress, who was driving in circles around the parking lot of the local Humane Society. “My cat’s in a crate,” she said. “I have to give him up.” She began to cry.
“Why do you think you have to give him up?” I asked.
“He’s been urinating in the house for over eight years,” she said. “My husband said either he or Tedd would have to go. I’ve been to every vet around, they ran tests on Tedd, I did what they told me to do.”
“Can you do something for me?” I said. “Can you park and let Tedd out of his crate?”
She pulled over and let Tedd out of his crate. Soon he was purring so loudly I could hear him through the phone.
“Now he’s curled up in my lap purring and kneading my leg,” she said. I could easily imagine it. Kneading is soothing to cats. It’s a behavior that begins in nursing, when a kitten rhythmically pushes and pulls its forepaws against the mother’s teat, both to push the queen’s skin away from the kitten’s nose and to help stimulate milk flow. Cats ever after associate kneading with happy feelings. And cats purr not just when they’re content, but when they are under stress and want to soothe themselves.
Now that she could clearly see and feel what was at stake, I asked her what she had done to stop the problem. She said she had followed her vet’s advice: she’d added another litter box. Where had she put it? Right next to the original. Were there any other cats in the house? Yes, there was Arnold. Had she noticed Arnold sitting on any of the pathways to the litter boxes? Yes, in fact: he often sat in the hall right outside the mud room where the cat boxes were located.
Bingo. Adding litter boxes hadn’t addressed the real issue, which was Arnold’s territorial competition with Tedd for limited resources and the locations of those resources. I suggested she spread the litter boxes out, have three, not just two, and ideally put them in separate rooms. I strongly recommended that she clean the smell from the areas where Tedd had been urinating, and told her the best way to do that. And I offered her a number of other suggestions that you’ll be privy to in the following chapters. The woman thanked me and hung up the phone.
A week later she called back to say that for the first time in eight years, Tedd was happily using the litter boxes. A few months later, the woman stopped by the vet’s office and asked for “the girl who saved my cat and my marriage.” When the vet techs looked at me, she ran over to me and hugged me, telling me that Tedd was completely reformed and that Tedd and Arnold were even getting along wonderfully for the first time.
That’s when I knew it was time to choose between my job at the vet’s office, and the work I was doing on the side, caring for cats in my clients’ homes. I was spending so much time fielding clients’ questions and tending to their cats that I felt I was working two full-time jobs. And the second job was something nobody else I knew was doing. So, in my early 20s, I quit my “real” job and began to work for myself. I never again worked for anyone without four legs and the ability to purr.
The Cat Behaviorist: Filling a Void in Feline Behavior Expertise
I was able to help Tedd’s owner because of what I had learned caring for the cats in my client’s homes. It was my habit to visit my clients’ houses once or even twice every day. Sometimes when I showed up on the first day I would find the litter box packed high with feces and urine clumps, and I would immediately clean it out, and keep cleaning it every time I visited. When the clients returned, they’d thank me for cleaning the box, thinking, I guess, that I had only saved them some labor. But a few days later they’d call to report, “Hey, my cat stopped pooping outside the box!” That’s how I learned how important a clean box is.
I learned a lot of other things during my pet-sitting days, often by trial and error. Ever since I was young I’d been unable to watch a cat without asking myself, “If I was a cat why would I have done that?” If a cat was urinating outside the box, I’d ask, “Why would she want to do that? Poor access? Too obese to get into the box? Intimidation?”
I watched and made connections.
I also got to be very good at reading cats’ body language. I could immediately tell if they were stressed, and began to understand whether they were stressed about something in their environment, one another, or both. While I was nominally providing in-home cat care, I became something of an interior decorator. I made minor changes to each client’s house to suit the needs of the cats (I made even more changes when a client left on an extended trip). And the cats stopped exhibiting behavior issues.
When the owners came home, and saw to their surprise the positive changes in their cat’s behavior, they became fiercely loyal to me. Over the years, I had in effect conducted a longitudinal study of thousands of cats, keeping track of which changes in their environments affected which behaviors.
Take the Maine Coons that had defecated outside the box for over a year. Despite my suggestion, the owner had refused to separate the cats’ litter boxes from their food. “They really like their food in the bathroom with the litter boxes,” he insisted. My instinct told me otherwise. I also recommended that he give his big cats more and bigger litter boxes, but he never got around to it. Then he went away for three weeks. In the feline utopia I set up for his cats, not once did anyone eliminate outside of the box.
“What did you do?” he asked on his return.
“I followed my own advice.” After that, he did too.
I didn’t always understand exactly what may have initially caused the cat’s problem. But I nearly always proved that it was largely environmental. Change the environment, change the cat.
Many of my clients reported that their cats were aggressive. They said their cats would nip them or chase other cats. Others reported that their cats hid, were “shy” or “timid.” But when I got a chance to re-arrange the cats’ environments as I’m going to teach you to do here, they were calm, happy, and utterly friendly toward people and toward other cats.
“I don’t know what you did,” they’d call me up to say, a few hours after they returned home. “This is not the same cat I left here. She’s so confident and so friendly, so affectionate and loving. What did you do?”
I even got cats to play. A shocking number of clients solemnly informed me that their cats didn’t play, and some clients would even illustrate — by wiggling the cat’s toy in its face. But cats appear to have evolved to view anything that hurls itself into a predator’s face as inedible, so in order to get a cat to play, you have to make the toy appear to be fleeing the cat.
Then there were the clients who would instruct me, “They eat off the same plate.” When an ownerBut if I noticed that the cats seemed to be competing at the food bowl, I’d ignore the instruction and feed them separately. When the owners returned, they’d always ask, “Why are the cats sleeping together? They’ve never done that before. And what did you do to make them stop fighting?” By eliminating the competition between them, I’d resolved the hostility, too.
I’ve now spent nearly two decades making house and phone calls to solve cats’ behavior issues, affording me invaluable experiential information. In the last 19 years, not counting my childhood observations of feral cat colonies or my own cats, I’ve logged about 33,000 hours observing cats and investigating clients’ reports of their behaviors. That’s the same number of hours a psychologist would log over 22 years while listening to patients’ self-reports (as opposed to the more useful witnessing of their behavior) for a prodigious thirty clients per week, 50 weeks a year. I’ve invested some time, that’s for sure. I’ve even worked with wildcats like African Servals and Bobcats.
The Cat Behavior Clinic
The Cat Behavior Clinic is devoted to researching and solving cat behavior problems in person or by phone. Since I opened the clinic, I have worked with thousands of clients and vets from all over the world. My success rate on behavior issues – success meaning total or partial improvement — naturally depends greatly on whether my clients follow my instructions, but when they do, it’s near 100% for most behavior issues, and well over 90% for even the most intractable.
Most of the vets I’ve had the pleasure to work with are fantastic, dedicated people. But behavior issues aren’t their specialty. Going to a non-behaviorist vet with a behavior problem is like getting psychiatric advice from your general practitioner. In fact, I’m often sought out by vets who have behavior issues with their own cats. The first piece of information they invariably give me arrives apologetically: “I didn’t get much training in animal behavior, you know.”
Few if any veterinary schools even offer a course specifically on feline behavior. I’m amazed at this state of affairs. The instincts and behavior of the world’s most popular pet remain a mystery to the caregivers who could make the biggest difference in lives of cats and their owners. Even most animal behaviorists specialize in dogs.
Cat owners live in an informational vacuum. The fact is, there are only several dozen people like me, trained in feline behavior, in North America. Even many of these “behaviorists” are vets who actually specialize in the occasional medical conditions that cause behavior issues. It’s time behavioral medicine was integrated into the curriculum at every veterinary college, especially for feline behavior. The good news is that while the field of cat behavior is relatively young, it is, finally, here.
I’m now privileged to help clients all over the world with their cat behavior issues, and I love my work, because I still have a fierce love for animals and I know by experience that most behavior issues can be easily solved.
You can read Mieshelle’s whole story, and learn her breakthrough behavior techniques, in her new book, The Cat Whisperer (with co-author Cameron Powell). www.catwhispererbook.com