Skip to main content

Russian clown Yuri Kuklachev’s troupe of felines in the Moscow Cats Theatre can do handstands and balance on balls: proof that you can actually train a cat.

You can't flick through your cable channels these days without landing on a show dedicated to disobedient dogs. If Rover barks too much or Spot bites the hand that feeds him, chances are you can find answers in any number of TV programs, books and even movies.

But really, dogs? Are they that hard to figure out? Feed them, pet them, throw them a Frisbee, call it a day.

Cats, on the other hand - now there's a challenge. "Dog Whisperer" Cesar Millan can soothe a pack of snarling Rottweilers in seconds, but I have a feeling one bitter house cat could break him like a dry Milk-Bone.

Story continues below advertisement

Few experts go where dog trainers fear to tread. But cat psychology is a real field that fills a need for desperate owners. And feline behaviour experts know the stakes are high: Cats are the most popular domestic pet in North America, and behaviour issues are the No. 1 reason owners surrender kitties to humane societies and animal pounds.

Carole Wilbourn, a New York-based cat therapist, has been working on feline problems since the 1970s. The issues have remained basically the same, she says: aggression, timidity, destructive tendencies and not using the litter box are top complaints. What has changed are owners' attitudes. They're more likely to seek her out pro-actively - getting advice before moving with a cat, or introducing another pet into the household. And they're less embarrassed about seeing a cat shrink.

"People still have a hard time calling me, but it used to be harder before," Ms. Wilbourn says.

Cats can be more challenging therapy patients than dogs, she says. "Because a dog wants so much to please. A cat is, like, 'Maybe. If I'm happy, then you're happy.' "

From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. Humans have shaped the evolution of dogs more than any other species. Even when they misbehave, dogs are hardwired to please people. Cats, not so much.

But it's a mistake to think that cats don't care, says Pearl Kam, founder of Gentlecare Natural Pet Products in Port Coquitlam, B.C.

As part of her holistic treatment of cats, dogs and horses, she often uncovers emotional issues beneath the physical problems, she says: especially in felines.

Story continues below advertisement

"Most people think dogs are the social animals; but cats, when they live with you, they want to be with you," Ms. Kam says. "They do need that bond."

Difficulties often start when the owner takes a vacation or starts working longer hours, she says. "When they get ignored, and they don't get their hugs and kisses, yeah, they get pissed off."

And cats are quick to anger, Ms. Kam says. "Cats won't take as much crap before they get behaviour issues. Dogs can have a lot of damage before they show you anything. Cats will show you early on."

But frustrated owners looking to lay blame should take a long, hard look in the mirror, says cat behaviourist Mieshelle Nagelschneider of Seattle. "The majority of feline behaviour issues are not true 'behaviour problems,' " says the author of Through the Eyes of a Cat, due out in 2011. "They're part of a cat's natural behaviour repertoire. It's the owners who have issues with how their cat is naturally reacting to the environment the owner has set up."

Issues often go unsolved, Ms. Kam says, because most cats live indoors, unlike dogs. If your pooch lunges like a maniac when you take it on walks, that's an issue of public safety that must be dealt with. House cats don't present such concerns (even though urine sprayed on a new couch may seem like a matter of life and death).

So will naughty cats ever get their moment in the media spotlight? Not likely. Ms. Wilbourn points out that dog misbehaviour tends to be more telegenic: barking, jumping and running in circles makes for better TV than a cat glowering under the bed, silently plotting its revenge for your late work nights.

Story continues below advertisement

Even for the experts it takes longer than half an hour, minus commercial breaks, to unravel the mysteries of the feline mind.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to