Individuals who work with companion animals exhibiting ‘problem’ behaviour are known by various titles, including pet behaviour counsellors, pet behaviourists, veterinary behaviourists, behaviour consultations and even pet psychologists.
Whatever the term used, all reputable behaviour consultants in the UK work only on referral from veterinarians. Other countries have their own rules regarding the profession so your veterinarian will be able to advise you. Any behaviour consultant, if charging a fee for advice given, should have the appropriate professional indemnity insurance.
In the UK, for example, there are various associations relating to pet behaviour counselling, for example the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors or the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology. Experience and qualifications are important and your veterinarian should be able to recommend someone whose work is known. Some veterinarians and veterinary nurses or technicians have an interest in cat behaviour so you may be referred to someone within your own veterinary practice.
Many behaviour specialists work predominantly with dogs but this doesn't necessarily mean that they will not be helpful to your cat; many multi-species practitioners are extremely effective. However, it is important to work with someone with particular interest and experience with cat patients. Most behaviourists will make house visits but others may be based at a university or college and offer an in-house clinic where clients will be expected to take their cats. Many cats would find any travel away from their territory stressful, so it is often possible (and more desirable) to work with the behaviourist alone using video footage, photographs and floor plans. Your cat’s environment is a major factor in the development of any problem so it is vital that the behaviourist is fully conversant with the layout of your home and the surrounding area.
All pet behaviour specialists should be trained appropriately to convey their feelings of empathy and understanding and their appreciation of the consequences of 'problem' behaviour for the owners and their families. If you are with a good practitioner you should feel that the person is listening to you and certainly isn’t judging you in any way for your current situation.
Cat behaviour counselling is, arguably, an art form and each practitioner will have their own 'artistic interpretation' of the science. Prior to the consultation you will probably be asked to complete a pre-consultation questionnaire, which will be studied, together with the vet’s referral and your cat’s medical history, before you meet. The questionnaire will cover information regarding your cat (or cats), the people in the household, other pets, the environment, lifestyle, diet and the nature of the problem behaviour. Keeping a diary of the problem behaviour or taking video footage prior to the consultation will aid the behaviourist in reaching an assessment. The reality of most cases, once explored in depth, is that there are multiple presenting issues.
Once the behaviourist has reached an assessment, a programme of change will be put in place for addressing the problem behaviour. You may be asked to employ a number of different interventions including changes to the environment or to the way you interact with your cat, 'behaviour modification' techniques (such as desensitisation), the use of synthetic pheromones and maybe even some form of drug therapy. There is rarely any direct ‘training’ involved and most programmes focus on changes that alter your cat’s perception of the environment and social situation. The programme, if skilfully devised, will be practical and specific to your circumstances.
There is a large amount of behavioural advice on the Internet and you may be tempted to work at a DIY solution to your cat’s problem behaviour. A great deal of the advice available is, despite being well intentioned, inaccurate and sometimes irresponsible and you may risk making the situation worse rather than better. You may also have considered taking free advice from various sources but, once again, this may not be from appropriately qualified individuals and you may risk causing harm and delaying the time when you can get professional advice for your cat’s specific circumstances. If you are concerned about any aspect of your cat’s behaviour the first person to contact is your vet.