Mikel Delgado is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant at Feline Minds, offering on-site consultations for cat guardians, shelters, and pet-related businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently completing her PhD in Psychology at UC Berkeley, where she studies animal behavior and human-pet relationships. Mikel also blogs about animal behavior at catsandsquirrels.com. Mikel lives in Berkeley with her boyfriend, Scott, and their two rescue cats.
Why did you become a cat behaviorist?
I’ve been obsessed with cats for as long as I can remember! In 2000, shortly after one of my cats passed away, I started volunteering at the local animal shelter (the San Francisco/SPCA). I was particularly attracted to working with shy cats and cats who were having difficulty coping with the stress of being in a shelter. I couldn’t believe it when I found out that the SF/SPCA had a whole department dedicated to cat behavior!
I immediately signed up, borrowed all the behavior books in their library, and started volunteering there every free moment I had. I loved the experience of helping shelter cats become ready for adoption. I was also fascinated by the effects that pets have on humans – both good and bad – what broke that bond and led cats to end up in the shelter, and conversely, what attracted people to the cats they adopted.
I distinctly remember sitting at the dinner table one night after volunteering and telling my partner Scott, “I want to be a cat behaviorist.” He replied “You should go for it.”
About a year later, the SPCA had an opening for a Cat Behavior Specialist. I’d been volunteering so many hours that they offered me the job! I quit my other job (in Human Resources at a health food co-op) to follow my passion to work with cats, and haven’t looked back since.
What kind of training did you go through to become a cat behaviorist?
When I started at the SF/SPCA, I was mentored closely by the other cat behavior staff. There was a lot of reading involved, and I attended seminars and conferences on animal behavior when I could. Our job description was pretty broad: the largest component was assessing shelter cats to identify whether they were ready for adoption or needed more experienced volunteers to work with them first (such as cats who were fearful or prone to biting). We had a free behavior helpline that received over 100 calls a month for help. We trained staff and volunteers on cat behavior basics, we counseled people adopting shelter cats with behavior issues, and we offered public classes and produced educational materials related to cat behavior. It was a good mix of hands-on work with challenging cats and challenging humans!
In 2008, my co-worker, Dilara Parry, and I left the SPCA and founded Feline Minds together so we could offer in-home consultations. Two years later I started my PhD (and I’m finally almost finished!), so I’ve been balancing running a business with my academic work.
What are the most common problems cat guardians call you for help with?
Litter box avoidance and difficulties between cats are definitely tied for first place. Keeping humans up at night and attention seeking behaviors, such as meowing or knocking things off shelves would be next. Then we get a fair amount of calls for help with aggression toward humans, transitioning cats to indoors only, difficulties medicating, fearful behavior, and integrating cats with dogs.
You offer both in home consultations in the San Francisco/Berkeley area, and remote consultations. How do you approach an in home consultation?
The most important thing to me is building rapport with the client. I want them to be comfortable and honest with me as we discuss the situation. Fixing the behavior problem is a team effort that involves me, the client, and the cat. Clients fill out an intake questionnaire before the visit, so I come prepared with questions. We always start with just sitting and talking, I get more information about the situation, and start formulating a plan in my head.
I always let the cats come to me, so I interact with some cats more than others. I might observe where they are hiding and their body language, but it’s counter-productive to pull them out of hiding if they are fearful of strangers. It’s most important for me to see the environment, and what types of enrichment and resources the human has provided for their cat. The rest of the visit is spent going over specific recommendations, and I may demonstrate techniques (such as clicker training, how to get their cat to play, and managing introductions between cats). Every client gets a written summary and handouts, and I follow up with all of my clients to see how things are going (and to get their feedback).
How do you approach a remote consultation?
A remote consultation presents a few different challenges: there’s no face to face contact, and you’re either talking to only one person in the home, or you’re on speaker-phone. Even with Skype it’s less of a connection than meeting in person, but it is a little better. I have clients send me photos, videos, maps of their home to help me see the “big picture” but I always worry about what I might be missing – what I can’t see or hear or smell!
I remember one in-home consultation I did where the cats were clearly stressed out by the amount of sage-burning and essential oil plug-ins that were running in the home. These smells didn’t seem to bother the client but I could barely breathe and left with a headache. That’s an important detail I might have missed during a remote consultation!
Are there any problems you cannot address with a remote consultation?
If someone has no other resources available to them, then I feel like a remote consultation is better than no help at all. People may have gone through information on the internet and “tried everything” but they often need an outside perspective to help them take a systematic approach to solving a problem. Video, photos, and the layout of the home can certainly help make a remote consultation more effective, and I’ve helped people remotely with pretty much every type of behavior issue you can think of. That said, dealing with aggression between cats is probably my least favorite type of problem to address over the phone! If people are local, I always recommend an in-home consultation.
Tell us about your toughest case.
One that comes to mind is a client who had contacted me for help with their cat’s spraying. By the time I made it to the appointment a week or so later, the couple had already made a unilateral decision that the cat (who prior to that had been indoors only) was going to live outside. They had bought him a feral outdoor hut and had already moved him out. It was difficult because I had gone there thinking I was going to help them solve a problem, and instead they wanted validation for their decision (which I disagreed with). It broke my heart to think of this cat living the rest of his life outdoors without giving him a chance to change his behavior. Regardless, the difficult cases are not about the extent of the cat’s behavior “problem,” they are usually the ones where the humans are not willing to change their behaviors or where the bond between client and cat is clearly already broken.
Tell us about your most rewarding case.
It’s hard to pick just one! Anytime there’s a quick fix, it’s great. The client is happy, they’re sleeping through the night, the cat is using the litter box, all is well. I’ve also met some really amazing people who love their cats so much! Those are the rewards for dealing with some of the tougher cases that are not always a quick fix. However, even though the tougher cases are usually more work, and more follow up with clients, when you get them to resolution, it is absolutely the best feeling.
I had clients recently whose cats had been BFFs until something scared one of them – after that, they could not be in each other’s presence without breaking into a terrible fight. When I worked with the cats in the home, we were doing some introduction techniques on either side of a baby gate, and honestly, the whole time there was a tiny frowny face in the back of my mind. I knew the chances of getting these cats back together anytime soon were slim based on how these cats were behaving. There was a lot of fear, and a lot of aggressive posturing. But the clients were dedicated to working the plan, and it took a few months, but then one day they sent me a photo of the two cats cuddling and that made my day!
Tell us about your own cats.
Currently, I have two 13-year-old rescue cats, Beanie and Clarabelle. Beanie was a feral teenager that my business partner (and dear friend) Dilara trapped. Beanie needed a lot of rehabilitation, and I’d say it was about a month before I could take off the gloves when handling her! Now she is very sweet, but shy and mostly only attached to me. We adopted Clarabelle almost a year later; she was on the “kill” list at a local shelter for having an upper respiratory infection (which never needed treatment). Dilara pulled her from that shelter during an intake trip and transferred her to the SF/SPCA: it was love at first sight. Clarabelle is a real clown, an ambassador cat who likes to check out visitors and loves attention. The two of them get along really well; they spend a lot of time cuddling, and they make me smile every day. And I’d say overall, they are pretty well-behaved! I also care for an outdoor feral, the Town Crier, who I trapped and neutered in my back yard last year. So far I can’t get too close, but he shows up every day for breakfast and he loves catnip!
For more information about Mikel Delgado, and to schedule a consultation, please visit FelineMinds.com.