Skip to main content

"Understanding Cats."

Naturalist and biologist Roger Tabor has studied house cats for twenty years. He has prepared television series on felines for the BBC and has written several books on the subject. His latest book is called "Understanding Cats: Their History, Nature, and Behavior" (Reader's Digest).

33:48

Other segments from the episode on August 18, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 18, 1997: Interview with Roger Tabor; Interview with Nicholas Dodman.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 18, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 081801np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Understanding Cats
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Is your beautiful cat, who you love, also getting on your nerves, urinating in the living room or leaving deep teeth marks in your arm? My guest Roger Tabor can help explain why. He's a naturalist and biologist who's written books about pet cats, street cats, and the history of domesticated cats.

His latest book is called "Understanding Cats: Their History, Nature, and Behavior" published by Reader's Digest. He's also written and hosted two BBC series about cats. He lives in Essex, England.

I asked Roger Tabor about training cats. You don't get cats to fetch, sit, and heel on command like dogs. Tabor says the explanation can be found in the evolutionary history of cats and dogs.

ROGER TABOR, NATURALIST, BIOLOGIST, AND AUTHOR, "UNDERSTANDING CATS: THEIR HISTORY, NATURE AND BEHAVIOR": You see, we are an animals that fits, really, in our behavior terms, partway between a cat and a dog, in the way we related to a lot of things. We are quite like a dog in many ways.

We're quite hierarchical, and dogs form groups where they go out and hunt as a group in the same way as their wolf ancestors. Therefore, it matters that when you come to the kill, you've sorted out who's top dog, second dog, and third dog, and you've sorted that out by aggression before.

And that means that you've got to have a lot of communication going on between the dog family as individuals, and they've got to know who's top and who's second. Now, that means dogs are easy to train because you are either the top dog or heaven help you, the dogs rule over you and they bully you around. So anybody who's got any sense at all trains their dog and acts, really, as an alpha male wolf towards their small wolfpack of their dog.

You can't do that with cats because the whole evolution of the cat and the dog is quite different. Dogs come -- and wolves come from this open landscape where there was prey-forming groups from which they could escape from wolves, and the wolves formed groups so they could go after the prey. So it's all about vision. It's about open landscape and it's hunting as a group.

Cats hunt in -- historically -- in much more enclosed landscapes, wooded landscapes. That's why the tiger hunts by stealth. That's why a tabby hunts by stealth, because it doesn't work to be as a group trying to hunt. Imagine, Terry, you and I and a few other people were running through dense woodland and we'd be trying to hunt after something. We'd be falling over everything. It just would not work.

So woodland hunting is about stealth. Now if you're hunting by stealth, then hierarchy is irrelevant. What do you do? Tell yourself what do to? I mean, it takes just -- it's just not on. So cats, as a unit, are the unit and they have to work things out by themselves. Dogs as a unit are the pack, and they cooperate. That's why they're much more amenable to being told what to do.

Cats, when you tell them what to do, look at us rather blankly and think: oh, what on the Earth are they on about? 'Cause they -- you know, there's no reason why they should do it for us. They go off and do what they want to do.

So, there is a real difference through their evolution as to the mindset. Unfortunately, we've been rather simplistic about this because we say about IQ tests up until relatively recently: oh, dogs do very well. They must be brighter than cats. Well of course, it's a nonsense. The evolution -- where they've come from -- is quite different.

So we really shouldn't expect to be able to train cats in the same way. And if you understand cats, you wouldn't.

GROSS: Now, nobody really expects to be able to train a cat to, you know, like fetch your shoes or, you know, do the little tricks that dogs do and things like that. On the other hand, the frustration is if you have a cat who has behavior problems, it's hard to train a cat to get rid of those problems.

Can I give you a couple of examples? Maybe you can give some advice about how to handle this. Say you have a cat who is becoming a little aggressive toward the people in the house, and biting -- not biting playfully, but biting hard.

TABOR: Yeah, you say in terms, again, Terry, of "training." And in a way, it's -- again, it's showing how -- because you're not alone in saying that; many, many people use that as a word. The only reason I'm picking up on it is because it again shows our anthropomorphic -- our human way of looking at things.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

TABOR: We're trying to say that we should train these animals out of something. Whereas really, what's happening with behavior problems is we ought to look at what's going on.

If you go back 20 years, 25 years in the U.S., exactly the same as in the UK, there were very few behavior problems in the way that we have now huge numbers of behavior problems. I mean, they aren't getting out of control in the states in the numbers...

GROSS: Is that true? That cats are misbehaving more than they used to?

TABOR: Oh, absolutely; on a huge scale. Now this is basically the problem. Twenty years ago, 25 years ago in the states, virtually all cats were indoor/outdoor cats as they now are still in Britain. Cat flaps were the sort of normal way. And there's still a lot of people in the states who do that.

But what has happened is there's been a watershed of our approach as to how we relate to the animal. Now whether it's we've become fearful of the outside world or what, you know -- that's a matter of speculation, but certainly what we do, we keep now cats inside. What we do say is well, we're frightened of cats getting killed by cars. And of course, if you're in the middle of Manhattan, nobody in their right mind would drop a cat out of a high-rise into the middle of traffic. Of course you wouldn't.

But let me tell you a little story. I was in Maine, five miles from the nearest road, and I was just up this dirt track, and I was talking to a family who were keeping their cat confined, and they had problems. And I was asking them why they were keeping them confined, and the guy said to me: oh, Roger, you would not believe the traffic we have around here.

LAUGHTER

TABOR: And I thought to myself: what planet are you on? Now, this is what's happened. By trapping, by confining cats for very good reasons, you know, there are genuine fears of accidents in some areas -- but the other big fear is, of course, health problems; that cats will get diseases. But if you go back 20, 25 years, we had cats in the states indoor/outdoors -- massively all over.

They were not dying like flies. There were veterinarians then. There are veterinarians now. We talk as if there were -- as if veterinarians didn't count. As if there were no preventative shots; and it's crazy. What we've done -- we've traded off the freedom of the cat for certainty of behavior problems like aggression, by urinating, by clawing the drapes. All of these things come together because the animals are under stress.

GROSS: Yeah, no -- so what's the connection between keeping a cat indoors and the kind of behavior problems that you're talking about, and you know, clawing the curtains, biting the people?

TABOR: It all comes down basically to one thing. If you asked your cat: would you like another -- because the other thing we've done is not just have our cats confined. We've ended up shooing more and more cats into households. If you go back these same 20, 25 years, multi-cat households were unusual. You go to any city in the states, they would be 3 percent tops.

Now, 30 percent. Now that's a big shift. Now, what we're doing is by confining a cat in an apartment to start with, we are -- we are deciding what's its territorial area, not the cat. And when you start shoving more cats inside that same area, what we're doing is shrinking down those cats' area.

Now, sure we might be doing it for good reasons, but ask the cat and it will say "no thank you." And it is saying no thank you right across the United States very loudly, because that's why we're getting the urination; that's why we're getting the aggression; that's why we're getting the clawing the drapes -- not because the cats are cross with us; not because they're being awful; not because they've got some bad habit. It's because they're under stress.

Now how stress works is if you go back to the normal indoor/outdoor situation, when you've got one cat and there's a new cat on the block next door, and where the two areas of their territories touch, and the new cat on the block is trying to muscle in a bit more, it's not that they start urinating there specifically. It's not that they start spraying there specifically. It's not that they start fighting each other more specifically, just out of bloody-mindedness.

What's happening is that's the one area of the territory that the cat doesn't feel confident in. And it's all about confidence. When your cat feels confident, it doesn't do these things. When it's feeling an edge of its territory in the wild under threat, that's why it starts marking more there.

Now in our apartments, what happens -- the more we cram other cats in, the more we reduce its area, it doesn't feel confident. It feels under stress. You only have to biochemically sample the hormone levels and you will find what I'm saying is true. These are cats under stress. And therefore, if you reduce the stress, you reduce the problem.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you this: say you're living in an apartment building where, you know -- an elevator apartment building where you can't very well have a little cat flap or open up the door and open up the window and let the cat, you know, roam free. Do you recommend that you not even have a cat because the cat's going to be under so much stress, being confined to a relatively small apartment?

TABOR: It's not for me to say. I think every owner has to look at their situation and act accordingly. What I would say is one of the things I've found from my traveling the world is that if you ever go to Amsterdam, they've got not high-rise in the American high-rise, but they've got apartment blocks there which go up to five, six storeys in the 19th century part of Amsterdam. And you find that they have a sort of long walk planks up to high-rise cat flaps on the outside of the buildings. And the cats go up and down these, and it works.

GROSS: You're kidding?

TABOR: So...

GROSS: That sounds really cool.

TABOR: So there are ways around these things. The cats run up and down these, like, trees. So there are ways around it. But let's take the assumption that you're living in Manhattan, say, where you're in a high-rise ...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

TABOR: ... and it really is a problem. You know, you can't let your cat out. Well, whether you think the cat should be there or not, it's down to you. But let's say you've decided you're going to have the cat.

GROSS: Yeah.

TABOR: And let's say you want to obviously reduce down the stress for your cat and also the inconvenience for you, 'cause if you go back through the years, cat keeping was easy. After all, that's why there are now more owned cats in the U.S. than there are owned dogs.

It's been quite simple. People have wanted an easier animal because they come back late from work and they don't know what time they're going to be there, and then the -- and they don't want all this mess. They don't want this clawing. They don't want this aggression.

So how you can do it, you bring a breath of fresh air into your apartment. And one of the simplest ways of doing that -- you know these cat gyms -- these little cat condos that cats can run up and down? I used to think these were crazy, you know. What is the advantage of having that in your house?

But actually what they're doing is giving the cat somewhere to get up. The area, the territory that you are imposing on the cat isn't just the floor area of your apartment. If you can give shelf space that the cat can clamber up on to, and is allowed to go up on to, that reduces both the territory risk, but it also at the same time gives the cat a great reduction in stress.

Getting up is what a cat natural -- when an Alsatian or a German Shepherd chases after a cat, it gets up a tree to get out of the way, and it feels safe. And if you can give your cat somewhere that it can get up and feel safe, then it will be much, much happier.

I mean, after all, we are strange, big animals -- lumbering around the place and people play music and they do all sorts of strange things. And at times, the cat, of course, will feel stressed. And if its got its own retreat; its own bolt-hole, when the stress levels really drop.

So give the cat somewhere it can get up to. But half the time, of course, Terry, we say: "get down off of there; get off that work surface; get down from the table, we're eating -- we've got guests." So the cat, we have to explain very carefully, there are areas you can get up onto and there are areas we prefer you don't.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you brought that up. I mean, most of us prefer that the cat not be on the table where we eat.

TABOR: And cats can understand.

GROSS: Well, how? I mean -- I mean, say that...

TABOR: Oh, there is a different...

GROSS: Say the cat is in the habit of being on your kitchen table...

TABOR: Yeah.

GROSS: ... or your dining room table and you don't think this is a really good idea. You know, one way of addressing the cat is to try to be really, you know, the aggressive, disciplinarian and squirt a water gun at the cat or, you know, holler at it or throw it off the table.

TABOR: Well, there's a...

GROSS: Yeah, is that a good idea?

TABOR: No. There's a difference between some of the things you're actually saying there, 'cause some of them are good; some of them are bad from the cat's point of view.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

TABOR: If you yell at your cat, remember that the cat ancestry is different from the dog ancestry. The dog -- I mean, it's a terrible thing to say -- but the dog you can be almost cruel to. But you can yell at them and say sort of terrible things to the dog and the dog will cower because it's playing the role of going into submissive postures.

The strange thing is, the cat does not have submissive postures in the same way that the dog does. Its whole response to aggression is quite different. It doesn't really know about being submissive because the way of its life isn't about being submissive. It's the sole animal against the world, if you like.

So in that sense, not only could you have problems if you corner a cat and start being very aggressive to it. That genuinely could lead to problems. But at the same time, the cat doesn't understand it. It's not part of how it gets on. What you say if you dominate a dog is: I am the top dog. And even though the dog may not like it, it will accept it.

If you do the same thing to the cat and say: I am the top cat. And start yelling at it, all that says to a cat is that you are not nice to be around. Because top cats and second cats and so on are not really the same sort of thing in the cat world, unlike the dog world. So all you are doing is lessening that.

If you bear in mind that cat society isn't about the currency of the hunt. The currency of the hunt keeps the dog world together, therefore they have to sort out their aggression before hand and they all work together as a unit. The cat, because it hunts alone, doesn't need to come together for hunting. What it needs to come together is for other things like mating and rearing young.

GROSS: OK, so...

TABOR: ... and it's all the positive things.

GROSS: So...

TABOR: So you need to enforce the positive, not negative.

GROSS: OK, so I understand what you're saying there, but I've still got this problem of a cat on a table...

LAUGHTER

... who I want off the table. Give me -- what do I do?

TABOR: Right. You don't yell at your cat, and you try to reinforce the bonding all of the rest of the time, and the one thing you do is act like God. If it's you, as Terry, standing there saying to your cat: "get off that table." Sure, the cat will get off, but you've weakened the bond.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

TABOR: And it also thinks there's no good reason why I should get off the table because I like being up on tables. It's just Terry doesn't like me being on the table. So when Terry's about, I won't be on the table. But when Terry's not here, I'll be up on the table, and so that's fine.

So you've got a double problem there: A -- you're lessening the bond with your cat, and that increases the stress; that increases the problem -- the cat will be aggressive to you; that it will spray; that it will do all of the things you don't want it to do.

So what you want to do is increase the bond; be positive and friendly and affectionate with your cat; and it has to be the finger of God. You've either got to have something like a water pistol that the cat doesn't see. That's the critical thing. It has to come like a bolt out of the blue so the cat never associates you with what's going on.

You can use tiny little bean bags as well. I mean, really small ones. But -- and they're easy 'cause if you ever tried carrying a water pistol around in your pocket, it leaks. I tell you now. But a little bean bag, you can sort of lob at the cat.

But in all of these things, it can go -- it can go so disastrously wrong if you don't do it very carefully, because the cat thinks you're playing a game. And it just can go badly wrong. So be very, very careful how you go around it.

But what you really need to do is to make sure that the cat -- what's the best way -- is to make sure that you encourage the cat to have an area that it is OK to be on. So whenever the cat wants to get up, it will automatically go to that.

And if you use these cat condos where they have some sisal string so it can do its clawing, and you -- don't just plump these things down in the corner of a room, 'cause the cat will just ignore them. But you go and play with the cat with a piece of string over it, and the cat will want to be there. And you'll find the cat will start queuing up there, and wanting to play with you there.

And so you're getting this bonding and you're getting this reinforcement over an area which is correct to go, and so you don't have to really stress it so much in the other area.

GROSS: My guest is naturalist and biologist Roger Tabor. His latest book about cats is called Understanding Cats. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Roger Tabor. He's a cat authority who has written and hosted two BBC programs on cats. His latest book is called Understanding Cats.

Well, let's get back to the biting problem. Do you find a lot of people are complaining about that when they complain about cat behavior?

TABOR: Yeah, and again, Terry, most people misunderstand rather than understand cats when it comes to biting because a lot of the things that we think of as aggression is really rough play. And if you look at one of the problems that happens with confinement of cats is that cats become bored, and that cats also don't have a release for a lot of their interests.

We -- what we're doing is not just reducing the area, we're reducing down the things they would normally expend their energy on -- running around after birds; running around after falling leaves -- all of that sort of thing.

So one of the best things you can do is genuinely, again, the cat condo and the playing with a piece of string and all of that -- a lot more play into your cat's life would actually reduce down a lot of the pent up feelings that the cat will have, which then sort of rationalizes itself as aggression towards you.

But having said that, some of the things that we see as aggression -- and for example, very often I talk to people about -- they say "oh, I've got this aggressive cat" -- and then I say "oh, fine, how do you describe?"

"Oh, it's so schizophrenic. I'm sitting there with a cat on my lap, and I'm stroking its back and it's all relaxed and we're watching the television, everything is wonderful, and suddenly it starts biting the back of my hand, and it's back feet start kicking against my arm, and what is happening with my cat?"

And of course, it's very sensible what's happening with your cat. Your cat is suddenly scared, because what's been going on is you've been stroking your cat and it's been getting into a very relaxed, quite a sexy state, because when we are with cats and we are running our hands down their back -- because you realize we stroke cats, whereas we pet dogs.

I don't know if you've stopped to think about it. We don't really stroke dogs in the same continuous way. It's because cats have a silkier fur. So we're finding -- we're almost getting into it, like saying a mantra. We just keep doing it. But it's also quite sort of sexy thing to do. We just keep going.

And stroking is something, actually, we use only with our own sexual partners. If you think about it, you don't stroke children. You don't stroke grandmothers. You -- it's always just with a sexual partner and at a pre-mating time.

Now, that, strangely enough, is what's happening with a cat as well. The cat will suddenly start going up into a laudosis (ph) position. It goes down on its front legs; its rear end gets up. So a lot of the sort of things that are going on are all quite intimate.

It's not that either of us are meaning sort of sexy things. It's just we're being affectionate, but our vocabulary is limited. So we're sort of saying -- you know how you speak to a foreigner? You speak slowly and loudly. Well, it's -- that's what the cat and we are doing to each other.

But this gets sort of sexier and sexier and the cat is rolling around, and it does something then that it doesn't normally do even with other cats -- again, unless it's in a pre-mating time. You know how when cats get together and the female is being quite flirty. She's coming into her estrus (ph) period and she's been calling, and so she's going around, and she starts rolling on her back, and it really is quite sexy stuff. And that's what the cat's doing to us.

Now what we suddenly do, which breaks the spell, is we bring our hand up towards their tummy and it sometimes goes across their face, and suddenly the cat is out of this reverie of -- it's just about to be mated; it's enjoying itself; it's quite happy and contented -- and suddenly, it's being threatened by the most aggressive cat imaginable.

It's coming over its face. And it's -- because what happens when the cat is exposing its tummy -- the only other time it does that is during a cat fight, but not just any cat fight; not just playing around slightly.

But it's the most serious of serious cat fights, when male on male are rolling and rolling, and what they do is try to get each other with a sort of grip around each other's shoulders, facing onto each other, and they rake against each other's belly and loads of fur comes out. And if they get a real kick in, one cat will fly over the other cat's shoulders; they'll crash to the ground; they'll re-form; and they'll kick and kick and kick.

And that's what the kick thinks is suddenly going on. And so it's small wonder what it does is grip us around the wrist and start kicking with its heels. It's just defending itself, and then it realizes, of course: "oh, no it's not."

Now, the simplest way to stop that happening is to get into this "oh, not it's not" -- stop. Because if you keep pulling your arm away from your cat -- you say "oh, my God, what's going on? Get off me, cat," you're pulling and you're pulling, and that's just a fight. And so the cat carries on fighting. So the best thing to do is just suddenly stop, and then all -- suddenly that it stops in the cat's mind, and it relaxes and everything is calm again.

GROSS: Roger Tabor -- his latest book is called Understanding Cats. He'll be back with us in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Roger Tabor.

He's a naturalist and biologist who's studied the behavior of pet cats and street cats. He's written and hosted two BBC programs on cats. His latest books is called Understanding Cats.

A lot of us go to animal shelters to find new pets, but Tabor says the transition from a shelter to your home can be challenging for a kitten.

TABOR: Put yourself into one of these little kitten's minds at a rescue shelter, OK? You've been there. You've been attached to your mother and you've been attached to your litter mates. And the people at the shelter haven't had enough time, because they're so overworked, to spend with you. They -- sure, they changed the litter. They're, sure, they're bringing in food and so on. But they really haven't had time because they haven't thought about -- and they need to set it aside.

And so you come through to these new people who take you away when you're weaned at about seven or eight weeks -- away to the -- to new people. And that's just at the time you're beginning to learn about other animals as enemies.

And so here you are -- you're taken away -- and we -- you know, you've got children or whatever -- you put them down, the little kitten with your children, and the kitten suddenly sees these monsters from the planet Zog coming over them, and they're saying: "here, kitty, kitty, kitty -- oh, yah, isn't he --- oh, (unintelligible)" -- and you're getting all of this going on.

And the kitten thinks: "my God, what is all this?" It's been a nice little nest. Everything's been quiet. Everything's been beautiful. And then it suddenly turned into this car -- its thumped all over the place. And then hell breaks out.

Now, small wonder that some cats don't react to us quite as well as they could. Whereas, if through this magical window in their early kittenhood, people at the cattery spent just a little bit of time -- they don't have to spend much -- just set a little bit of time aside when they go into the young kittens that are there and just put their hand down and play with the mother, allowing it, with the little kittens -- not taking them out of the nest -- then it would -- this magical transformation is so profound, that it's not just about people.

You see, this isn't a special magic trick for people. It's habituation for litter mates. But you can play games, and it's happened over the years. Occasionally, not just people who've got in during this magic window, rats have been allowed in. For some bizarre reason, a mother cat has allowed a rat in; or a rabbit in. And for the rest of those kittens' lives, they will play with those, not as if they're prey.

And it's so specific that there are certain varieties of rats that a cat will play with, as a litter mate, even in adult life, but others it will kill.

GROSS: So you're recommending...

TABOR: Now, that difference...

GROSS: ... you're recommending that if you are getting a cat from a shelter to what? To try to find a shelter where the kittens were born on the premises and the staff really loved the kittens and have been playing with them and habituating them to humans?

TABOR: "Habituation" is the magic trick. What you need to do is to say to the shelter people right early on that you will be wanting a cat, and you'll have to go along earlier to choose anyway, because it's not a sort of a sudden Dutch auction where they're all sold off at the last second. People, of course, go and put their bid in earlier than the cats can leave.

And so right early on, when you're going around and there are some newborn kittens, say: "oh, yes, I'd like that one, but I'm only going to be able to take them from here if they've been played with on a daily basis. Do you normally do that? Because it habituates the cats quite happily."

And if the people are saying "yes," then go for it. And I would ask you to think very seriously about this. I've got a couple of cats now that live with me, particularly, and they are about nine years old. But my previous cat, that was my own housecat, lived to just two weeks short of 25 years old.

Now I'm a fairly typical person in the Western world. I've been married. I'm now divorced. I now -- I have a girl friend and so on. And that's true for so many of us. We go through our human relationships now with a bigger turnover than possibly the lifetime relationship you may have with a cat.

GROSS: Good point.

TABOR: So it matters that you get this relationship right from the beginning.

GROSS: Yeah.

TABOR: And that animal will probably be there, because a lot of people like to have cats around for their children. It makes them familiar with animals. And so, again, if you want the relationship with your children to be good, it matters that you choose one. Don't just go along and think, "oh, I'm saving this cat." Sure, you can save it, but you can almost make sure it lives happily with people.

GROSS: You've made the point several times really strongly that cats need exercise, and it's great if you can let a cat out of the house. What do you think about walking a cat on a leash if you live in a kind of urban area where you can't just, you know, let the cat roam free outside?

TABOR: Walking cats on a leash is something that you can't do as easily as walking a dog because, you know, the way the dog will take the initiative and want to go forward. You can't really do that with a cat. Leashes with cats are very, very useful.

Cats will initially fight them. They don't like having something that restrains them. So if you're going to get a cat used to a leash, first of all get it used to the harness. Gently habituate it to it over a period of some days. Put it on for a little while, let the cat just walk around the apartment. Don't take it anywhere, and then take it off.

And then gradually just clip on the leash and again, don't try and walk the cat anywhere. If you gradually introduce it like this, first of all, the cat is much more likely to take to it and is less likely to fight it. So when you do go outside, you won't have a cat that sort of wants to run off and suddenly all you're left with is an empty leash.

But then when you do go out, of course, don't do it in areas that the cat's going to be frightened. Don't -- you know, you just should not think of doing it in traffic areas and things like that. Do it in quiet, peaceful areas, but where the cat is confident. Remember what you are doing is fighting nature.

You're taking a cat away from its territory, which is the home that it's built up and you're putting it down. So it's going to be anxious. It's not like a dog that gains its confidence from us as its mobile pack, and therefore is happy to walk with us.

So sure, you can walk with a cat on a leash, but it's not a confident animal. But how you can increase its confidence is if you've got a local area, a bit of park or a bit of a green area within your urban area, and that you go to it regularly with your cat, your cat will actually begin to develop, although it's devoid, separate from your apartment, it will like have a sort of secondary bit of territory. And it can gradually build up a confidence. And that's fine.

My own cats, for example, will go walking with me out of their territory, following me in sort of bits of a long narrow walk which just extends out of their territory, merely 'cause I rattle my keys. Cats are very susceptible to high-frequency sounds, much more even than dogs, and they gain the assurance of knowing where I am and will bound off to me. But I am in quite a rural area, so I wouldn't recommend you do that in an urban area.

GROSS: One last question: Are you having any problems with your cats? Or is everything really terrific? How's your relationship?

LAUGHTER

TABOR: Very fair question. My relationship with Leroy (ph), who's one of my cats, is great and always has been. He's a great, laid-back cat. He's a rescue cat himself -- came from South London and he lives in my water mill home in the countryside and loves it. He's a very -- he's a great laid-back cat. In fact, his name "Leroy" -- I didn't find him in the first instance. He was found by a Canadian friend who said he went around with a ghetto blaster and therefore just had to be so laid back. He was Mr. Cool. And he is Mr. Cool. He catches absolutely everything, and he's a very relaxed cat.

And that is one sort of cat. My other cat, Tabitha, again, loves me to bits and has a very good relationship with me, but she's a very clingy cat. And that is the other main type of cat pattern, if you like. And the reason for that is, again, for reasons that happened outside of my control, she was taken away from her mother earlier than she should have been, at about six weeks, before she was properly weaned, and as a result she is much more focused on me than perhaps is good for her. So she's much more of a paddler on my chest and she is much more of a scaredy cat.

But nonetheless, she will sort of come up and sit on me and be much more dependent. And sure, I have a good relationship with both, but you can understand why there's the difference, because of their upbringing.

GROSS: Well, doesn't her clingingness boost your ego a little bit? "She loves me so much."

LAUGHTER

TABOR: Well, if that's really what you want with a cat, you know there are ways of manipulating life to achieve what you want, yeah. But in a way, it's -- she is clingy because she's not confident.

GROSS: Right.

TABOR: And because I'm a kindly person most of the time, I don't like an animal to be clingy because it's not confident. And so if an animal feels assured, then it's a happier animal. And if she'd a been just that bit longer with her mum, she'd a been that much happier with me, and all would have been much better. And again, she wasn't that much habituated during her kittenhood, so she's a bit more nervy than she should be. But yeah, she loves me to bits and she loves where she lives and she has a great life.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: I wish you continued good relationships, and Roger Tabor -- a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for your -- for talking with us about cats.

TABOR: Terry, it's been a gas, as they say. I've really enjoyed myself.

GROSS: Roger Tabor's latest book is called Understanding Cats.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Roger Tabor
High: Naturalist and biologist Roger Tabor has studied house cats for twenty years. He has prepared television series on felines for the BBC and has written several books on the subject. His latest book is called "Understanding Cats: Their History, Nature and Behavior."
Spec: Animals; Cats; Dogs; Media
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Understanding Cats
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 18, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 081802NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: The Dog Who Loved Too Much
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: As Roger Tabor pointed out, it's hard to convince a cat to defer to your authority. It's a lot easier to convince a dog that you're top dog. But if you don't understand dog psychology, you're still likely to run into behavior problems.

My guest Nicholas Dodman directs the behavior clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. He's an expert in animal behavioral research and animal psychology. He's controversial for prescribing anti-depressants for some overly-aggressive dogs and dogs with compulsive disorders.

Dr. Dodman says that feeding time is a good time to persuade your dog that you're the one in charge. I asked him why.

NICHOLAS DODMAN, VETERINARY BEHAVIORIST, AUTHOR, "THE DOG WHO LOVED TOO MUCH: TALES, TREATMENTS, AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF DOGS": Well, food is a very valuable resource to dogs. It's vital, as a matter of fact, that, you know, if you've ever seen any of these sort of ethology films of like wild dogs in Africa, it seems that their whole life is focused around getting up their energy to go and chase their prey; to capture it; to go through their pecking order of ingesting it. Then they lie around and recover; engage in a few other pack activities. And then the next thing is their stomachs are empty, and they're off to hunt again.

So it's a kind of focal point in a wild dog's life and a focal point in a domestic dog's life. And if you show a dominant dog that you are absolutely in control of its food resource; that you don't have to, you know, be rough with the dog, but you're just -- you shouldn't be rough with the dog -- but if you just make sure the dog knows it has to respond to a command of yours before it's fed, it can make a tremendous amount of difference to the way it respects you.

GROSS: So in other words, you have to get the dog to submit to your authority before the dog gets the chance to eat.

DODMAN: Well, I like to think you have to command respect in the dog's eyes, which is a little bit different from demanding respect.

GROSS: Right, right. I put it more like a dictator, then...

LAUGHTER

DODMAN: Right. Actually, you become a little bit of a hard-nose, really, which is very difficult for some people to do.

GROSS: Well, you know, I know, you could feel like a colonizer, you know?

DODMAN: That's right.

GROSS: "You will submit to my authority." "You will bow before I give you the food."

DODMAN: That's right.

GROSS: But that's what -- what you're saying is, you know, get the dog to obey your command, and then give the dog the food; to tell the dog to sit or to lie down, and when the dog obeys, then he gets rewarded with the food?

DODMAN: Yes. Actually, there was a very interesting study by a master's degree student here at Tufts working in our center for animals, and this a -- and a very, very clever girl, women I should say, really -- Peggy Shunick (ph) -- she had engaged a study where she did sort of puppy temperament tests and divided them into various groups.

But the group who were potentially dominant, which was the outgoing, sort of forward, sort of in-your-face group of puppies -- she split that group into two, and one of the groups the owners were given no instructions about how to interact with the dog at all. They just said: here's your puppy; have fun.

And the other group, they said: we want you to do two things and two things only. One of them is we want you to make that dog sit before it receives its food, and if ever you're going to give it a food treat, make sure it sits before you give it the food treat. And that one maneuver alone in the puppies was enough to engender so much respect that those dogs did not develop dominance, whereas the other group did.

GROSS: You say that the best way to train a dog is through reward, not through punishment. What happens, though, when your dog does something really bad, like peeing on the carpeting or, you know, eating the living room couch. How do you tell the dog that that's bad?

DODMAN: Well, you have to understand what's driving the behavior, and you know, sort of the old approach to training dogs to behave differently is simply like almost a knee-jerk response. You see a behavior, like chewing the couch, and that must be punished. So essentially you're teaching "no." You're teaching "stop it." You're teaching "don't do this." And you really need to provide something constructive.

But you have to understand what the nature of the problem is. For example, a dog that's urinating on the carpet when you're out may have separation anxiety. And if you come back and you misinterpret that behavior as being malicious or vindictive and you spank the dog, you're actually adding to the problem and you're not helping that problem at all.

If you have a dog that chewed the couch because it has an anxious disorder, also that can be a problem. Some dogs have compulsive behaviors that cause them to lick and chew excessively at objects or even themselves. Punishing those dogs is not really dealing with the root cause of the problem.

GROSS: If you had your choice, would you prefer to have a dog that wasn't a dog that displayed dominant behavior -- a dog that didn't want to be top dog?

DODMAN: I guess I would certainly not choose a very dominant dog, but the thing is, if you -- you and your family, I should add, you know, happen to have the sort of personality that you just are sort of matter of fact and you sort of exude confidence and you control your dog, you can have a quite a dominant dog who will respond and adore you, and actually they're very intelligent creatures.

I mean, the dominant dog is a very smart, fast-learning dog and they've got, you know, a sort of rock iron personality. And if your personality is sufficiently elevated -- you know, your status is sufficiently high above the dog -- you personally will not have any trouble with that dog.

And dominant dogs tend not to be very dangerous outside anywhere. When they meet strangers, they're usually pleased to see them. I mean, it's almost difficult to annoy a dominant dog. But at home, they can be a pain if you don't make that pack order thing plain to them. If that's -- if your personality is OK, a dominant dog is OK for you.

GROSS: It sounds like there's certain types of human personalities that aren't well-suited to certain types of dog personalities.

DODMAN: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. I mean, we've tried to demonstrate that in studies. We did one study that I mention in my book that was using a sort of Myers-Briggs human personality profile analysis, and had borderline significance indicating that people who own dominant dogs -- I mean, it wasn't actually significant, but it was getting that way. I guess it was a trend showing that people might be the kinder -- you know, sort of people who had difficulty with dominant dogs; those who are more like Mr. Rogers than Mr. Spock.

LAUGHTER

And Spock of the Starship Enterprise would do very well with a dominant dog; and Mr. Rogers probably would have a hard time.

GROSS: Now, let me ask you, if you were living in a house with other people. Say you're married, right? You're living in a house with another person and you have a dog.

DODMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Can a dog think that, you know, that say the wife is the dominant personality in the house, and then comes the dog and then comes the husband?

DODMAN: Oh yeah. They can get any kind of order.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

DODMAN: Oftentimes, men seem to be more immune, partly because they, you know, generally speaking in a sort of traditional, old-fashioned traditional unit, the man tends to spend more time away. So when he comes in, he's more of a novelty, whereas the women who's there most of the time, and you know, familiarity can breed contempt.

Possibly also, because of men's usually larger body stature and forward body motion and perhaps deeper voice -- deep tones being sort of telling-off tones to a dog -- they have a sort of slight physical advantage in terms of that.

So often what we find is that the dog is, second to the man, but if the woman isn't careful in the family, then the dog can either get close enough to her that there are some problems, or, you know, may even supersede her, which is what we definitely try and prevent.

I had one case...

GROSS: Yeah.

DODMAN: ... where there was a dog -- the hierarchy was completely stable, with the man was around and the woman was there and the dog was there and nobody was aggressive to anybody inside that family until one day the man died, at which point the dog immediately assumed the number one position, and presumably it had been number two all along. But when the man disappeared, he then became much more -- almost sort of abusive and growling towards the woman.

And I had the woman work on a dominance control program, demanding -- oh, not demanding -- commanding respect and it worked out very well, and that completely disappeared, that aggression.

GROSS: Is there any way when you first get a dog -- when you're choosing a dog, to know whether that dog is a dominant personality?

DODMAN: Yes, I think so. I think that work that I mentioned earlier, of the puppy temperament testing, although the general word in the sort of scientific community is it hasn't been proven yet. The fact is, I believe it has been proven. It just hasn't been published -- this work that I was referring to.

And if you take a puppy who is, you know, in sort of lay language, is very, you know, outgoing, sort of in-your-face type dog, puppy, who licks you all over and bounces all over you -- as fun as that may be when they're a puppy, those ones seem to be the ones who are more likely to develop into dominant dogs later on.

And if you choose a sort of shy and retiring puppy, it seems that those ones are the ones who are more likely to develop the conditions in the anxiety and compulsive behavior spectrum.

GROSS: My guest is Nicholas Dodman. He directs the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Nicholas Dodman, and his latest book is called The Dog Who Loved Too Much. It recently came out in paperback.

One of the things you are kind of famous for now is prescribing anti-depressants for pets. When you would prescribe Prozac for a dog who was showing dominant behavior?

DODMAN: The answer is really it depends, but it depends on a lot of things. Part of it is the dog and part of it is the owner, really, in the equation, and sort of their level of desperation.

What I would normally do is if a dog came to me that was showing classical dominance -- growling over food, resenting a hand over the head, growling and disturbed when it's resting and so on -- is I would just engage a dominance control program, which is basically termed: nothing in life is free; working for a living, some people call it; or "no free lunch."

And they would work on that for a couple of months. If after two months, these people, for reasons perhaps of personality or, you know, some inability to perfect their program or just the program wasn't having a good effect on this dog, then I might suggest that we would supplement the program to give them, if you like, a pharmacological leg up in the program.

In another instance when I might prescribe it, would be if the people who came to see me were in absolute desperation and they absolutely had to see some improvement within six weeks, otherwise they'd put the dog down. Then I would pull out all stops, and that would include treating with Prozac as well as behavior modification.

GROSS: Right. That's one of your big concerns -- that a lot of cats and dogs are actually put to sleep because of behavior problems.

DODMAN: Yeah, they are. I mean, the figure ranges a bit, depending on, you know, who you read and what year it is. But you know, minimally it's sort of in the 4 million, 5 million a year range of animals that are needlessly put to sleep for behavior problems that, you know, a lot of which potentially could be addressed.

In fact, it's one of the -- it's the leading unnecessary cause of death in animals. And so take a condition like aggression, which is one of the behaviors we treat, kills three times as many dogs as cancer.

GROSS: That's amazing. Do you want to caution our listeners against giving their Prozac pills to their pets?

DODMAN: Yep. Yeah, I think it's very important that, you know, you don't start giving your own medicine in your medicine cabinet to the dog to see what will happen. It's most important that you do this under the correct professional supervision. There are a lot of sort of potential complications.

You know, for example, that some of the anti-depressants would be a bad selection in a dog or cat that was potentially prone to seizures. And there are certain medicines that don't mix well. You'd need to know about combinations and of course most dogs are receiving other medications like, you know, heartworm treatment and, you know, these days, some systemic flea treatments are quite popular.

I think it's important to know about actions and interactions, and just to take a pill off the shelf, even though it may be the same pill in terms of actually manufacturing, that you would have for a human, and give that one to the dog, you can't really do that without a good knowledge of the medicine and what it's effects are and its side-effects and interactions.

GROSS: You know the expression "you can't teach an old dog new tricks."

DODMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Is it hard to train a dog later in life, when the dog is having behavior problems?

DODMAN: Yes, it absolutely is possible to train a dog later in life, and you know, we do it every day. But it's also true that younger dogs learn faster. So I think you'd modify the old adage and say: you can teach an old dog new tricks, but it just takes longer.

There is a certain critical period of a dog's life when it absorbs like a sponge. You know, arguably between sort of four and 10 weeks; some people say between three and 12 weeks -- in the first two or three months of life, say. And they're absorbing information extremely fast at that time.

And they continue to absorb even up until the -- in a fast-learning, up until six months and sort of puberty. That's again, still fast -- not as fast. And thereafter, it sort of slows down. After maturity, which for a dog is two or three years, you're on a sort of fairly level uptake.

In fact, in that respect, they are very similar to people. We have the same kind of learning curve. We learn very quickly when we're young. It's very easy to learn a foreign language at a certain time, and very difficult to pick it up when you're sort of 50 or 60.

GROSS: Dr. Dodman, the cat expert we had on was telling us that he thought that cat behavior problems are on the rise in part because fewer people are letting their cats out. More people are living in places where they don't feel the cat would be safe to roam around in the streets. And I wonder if you think dog behavior problems are on the rise?

DODMAN: There are certainly more of them being reported, and most behavior clinics in the schools, veterinary schools, and those practices that specialize in behavior, you know, are certainly having plenty of people come to them, and the numbers do seem to be rising. But it's hard to say whether that means that the number of behavior problems is rising or whether just people's sort of appreciation of the problems and knowledge now that something can be done -- whether that's the reason for the increased number of cases.

GROSS: Dr. Dodman, do you have pets at home?

DODMAN: At the moment, I have three cats -- one very old cat, a geriatric cat who lives upstairs and keeps himself to himself; and a mother/daughter team that spend most time downstairs. I don't have a dog at the moment. My wife had one that died of liver cancer, and at the moment I have to share my neighbor's dog. My neighbor lives out the back and has a nice little border collie-cross who practically lives in my garden, and I can go out there and interact with him on a regular basis.

GROSS: Do you feel that you take on a different personality whether you're with a cat or a dog?

DODMAN: I think that probably that's true. Yes, I've never thought about that before, but you know, I'm just thinking of me sitting in the consulting room or interacting with my cats at home versus interacting with a dog, and perhaps I do become, you know, a little bit more sort of perfunctory and matter-of-factish with a dog, and sort of act as I might do with a -- you know, I know we shouldn't do this, but I mean, the differential is, even acting with my son, I behave a little bit more differently than with my daughter. I don't know why that is, but I seem to be always encouraging him to play rough games, and with my daughter I'm the other way.

So there is this differential, right or wrong, and I think maybe I am a little bit more sort of boisterous with dogs; a little bit sort of -- little bit sort of more retiring with cats.

GROSS: Are you more authoritative with dogs than with cats?

DODMAN: I think that's what I'm trying to say, yeah.

GROSS: All right. Well, Dr. Dodman, thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.

DODMAN: My pleasure.

GROSS: Nicholas Dodman directs the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. His book The Dog Who Loved Too Much is now out in paperback. His new book about cat behavior will be published next month.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Nicholas Dodman
High: Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist, is the author of "The Dog Who Loved Too Much: Tales, Treatments, and the Psychology of Dogs" (Bantam) In the book, he describes his own methods for correcting dog behaviors, such as attacking the telephone when it rings or scaring company, and he includes many stories from his own practice.
Spec: Animals; Dogs; Books; Authors; Nicholas Dodman
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Dog Who Loved Too Much
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Podcaster Chronicles Racism, 'Resistance' And The Fight For Black Lives

Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.'s "Resistance" podcast explores different aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement. The podcast has been mostly devoted to the protests that started last summer after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but it also chronicles Tejan-Thomas Jr.'s personal history.

52:30

Journalist Investigates 'Crime Story' Of The Sackler Family And The Opioid Crisis

The story of the Sackler dynasty--the family that owns Purdue Pharma, which created oxycontin, the drug marketed to relieve acute and chronic pain, that played a major role in creating the opioid epidemic. Patrick Radden Keefe's new book is Empire of Pain. It’s based in part on leaked documents and private emails that reveal the Sacklers knew about how addictive oxycontin is--before they admitted it, and they used deceptive practices to keep selling more of the drug.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue