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Voice of the expert: Elizabeth Italia 💁‍♀️

Voice of the expert: Elizabeth Italia 💁‍♀️

Elizabeth Italia
Founder and Kitty Consultant at Liz's Kitty Boot Camp

Liz is a professional writer, whose passion is helping cats and kittens become their best selves. She spent much of her childhood studying and socializing outdoor working cats and kittens at her grandparents' business. Now, she fosters felines for ACCT Philly, Philadelphia's open-intake shelter, with a focus on behavioral cases. Her home is referred to as Liz's Kitty Boot Camp, and it's where hissy, shy and sick kitties undergo amazing transformations. She shares her experiences on social media and her blog, Tails & Tips.

Hello Liz! Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to interview you! We’re really excited.

Could you please tell us about your journey? How did everything start?

As a child, I would spend a lot of time at my grandparent’s home. They had a textile business close to the house, and always had outdoor working cats. I would be outside with the cats nearly all day – even in the rain. Many of the cats didn’t get a lot of attention from my grandparents, so I made it my mission to tame them all. A handful of them were not really socialized, and I would work with them to the point that at least I could pet and play with them. The cats were not fixed (I was a child and didn’t know better at the time), and they’d have kittens throughout the year. I’d spend long times acting like a detective and following a new skinny mom to the location of her babies. I named all of the kittens, and never repeated a name. I was not allowed to have pets at home, so going to Mom Mom’s and playing with the cats was my favorite activity.

When did you decide to foster and specialize in feline behavior cases?

I started volunteering at a satellite location for Philly’s intake shelter, ACCT. I’d visit, scoop poop, brush fur, and play with the cats. There were two white cats, male and female, siblings who had been there for a while. The female was extremely aggressive, and I really felt that she was the reason the two kept getting looked over. I decided I would come in every day and play with her to drain her energy, and help build a positive association with people visiting her kennel. After about a week, I came in, and someone who worked there show me a video of the cat rubbing against her and allowing pets. She had never done that, and I was so excited! After a few more weeks, she and her brother were adopted and there were no behavioral problems in the home. After that point, I started focusing on the shier or moody ones. This eventually turned into fostering, and once I found out there was a section of the shelter called TTA for Time To Adjust cats that needed foster care, I was hooked!

What were some of the challenges that crossed your way while trying to pursue your passion?

There is a large emotional toll when working with animals that are suffering from illness or behavioral challenges. I get very close to these animals, and I feel a lot of the things they’re feeling. That can be extremely draining. When they are sick or are having issues, I am physically and emotionally impacted. I need to frequently remind myself, and I always verbally say directly to every cat, “You are safe and you are loved.”

Behavioral cases also will make progress, but have small steps back during the progression, because that’s how progress works. It’s easy to get exhausted, but I remind myself that slow progress is still progress. Sometimes, I just have to stop the training or work we’re doing, walk away, do something else, and come back to it refreshed.

Another challenge that always exists is people putting limitations on cats with behavioral challenges. “She will never do that.” “Because XYZ happened to him, he’ll not able to do that.” History matters, but just like with people, you can’t limit the animal to what’s happened to them. I always say, if all you’re doing is living in the sad story, that’s not helping the cat. It’s okay to acknowledge it, but you don’t know what the cat is capable of until you try. I do not assume things about any cats until I meet them and start interacting with them. I’ve seen amazing growth from animals that had rough backgrounds and tough personalities. I love being surprised by how they overcome obstacles and sharing their success story to inspire others. 

Can you tell us one of your most rewarding experiences?

ACCT had a tuxedo cat named Tiger that was suffering from some of the worst flea allergy dermatitis (FAD). They initially thought she’d been burned because her skin was so red. She had wounds all over her body from scratching herself. I thought once she healed, she’d be good to go, but her personality was excessively aggressive. I remember sitting on the bathroom floor crying, thinking, “How am I going to save this cat if I can’t touch her?” I treated the FAD and she healed, but there was still something off. Her aggression was very unpredictable. 

I renamed her Lucy (a joke because I felt like she was Lucifer), and started trying all different tactics to get her to trust me. It turns out, she suffers from impulse control aggression, which is a result of an overdeveloped hypothalamus in the brain, likely do to neglect and/or abuse. She goes into fight or flight very easily because that’s just how her brain works – it isn’t her fault, she needed it to survive in the past. Now, she loves people, goes on walks, runs on a cat wheel, goes to acupuncture, and is overall very happy. She still has her moods and quirks, but I know it’s the result of what people did to her, and we work through them together. When she’s mad, she actually self-regulates her anxiety by jumping on her cat wheel, sprinting, and hissing at the air (basically managing her anxiety better than most people I know). She continues to teach me so much every day, and I actually officially adopted her this year for my birthday☺

What is one of the most misunderstood things about cat behavior?

Overall, many people expect them to act like dogs, but their social structures, communication methods, and physiological compositions are completely different. Cats are extremely sensitive, and instead of viewing us as owners, they view us as another cat, like a sibling or mother. I always tell people who don’t understand it to think of cats more like people. Do you want someone you’ve never met touching you without an intro? How would you feel if another person suddenly appeared in your house without warning? What would your reaction be if you were relaxing and suddenly someone started making loud noises? When people think about cats like that, it clicks a little more.

What are some of the litter box basics that every cat owner should know?

  1. Clay litter is preferred by most cats. That doesn’t mean you can’t try other ones, but just know you may have to use clay.

  2. Use boxes that are the right size for your cat. Older cats especially like to be able to fully turn around in their boxes.

  3. Multiple litter boxes in the same room are viewed as one box to your cat. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but just keep that in mind.

  4. Keep the litter box clean, but don’t get overly obsessive with scooping constantly. When your cat uses the litterbox, they leave their scent which helps them claim the space and feel secure.

  5. Uncovered poop does not mean your cat doesn’t know how to use the box. That cat is stating that they are in charge. In the wild, they do this to communicate turf to other cats. Submissive cats will bury.

One of the common problems people seem to encounter is that their cat pees outside the litter box. Why does that happen and how should they react to it?

Why this happens:

There are so many reasons. As always, you have to run out anything health-related – and that doesn’t just mean it’s related to the bladder. They could have something else wrong, and the peeing is just to communicate there is an issue.

Please spay and neuter your cats! That’s the top reason for inappropriate peeing.

Older cats also do it because they are arthritic and sometimes it’s uncomfortable to go in and out of the box. Talk to your vet about how to make them comfortable. I give my oldest Cosequin, a joint supplement, which helps. He’s also a standing peer, so I put a puppy pad outside of the litter box just in case he has bad aim (which he does haha).

Declawed cats will also pee outside of the box. Many of them have chronic back and paw pain, and even with soft litter, they can have issues. If you have a declawed cat, try different things until you figure out what works for them, and be patient. It’s not their fault.

If there are no health issues, it’s a sign of insecurity. Cats pee outside the box for territorial reasons. They feel threatened, and want to claim the space to communicate that it’s theirs. This could be because of a change in the household – a new pet, family member, new furniture (I told you, they’re sensitive) – or even an animal outside, like a stray cat. Most strays are hunting and roaming around 3 a.m., so you may not even know you have one, but your cat will smell it.

How to react:

I know it’s frustrating. You want to scream and yell. Try not to. Remember, your cat is doing something that instinctually makes sense to them. Yelling at them is just confusing. Instead, take a deep breath, and try some of these:

  1. Use an enzyme cleaner (and follow the instructions) to clean the mess. 

  2. Make a commitment to increased playtime and attention. This includes brushing, ear cleaning, nail trimming or any other activities you do with your cat. You need to work on building confidence. This is crucial if there’s a new baby or new pet in the home.

  3. If there’s a new person in the house, have the new person take over feeding and playtime responsibilities. This will create a positive connection between the newbie and the cat.

  4. Consider adding a litterbox close to the area where the incident occurred. Even if it’s not ideal, it can be a great temporary solution while your cat is dealing with their insecurities.

  5. Reward your cat for the RIGHT behavior. If they use a box, give them treats and praise right after.

  6. If you see your cat about to squat or lift their tail, pick them up and take them to a box. Many times, you intervening will help them.

  7. Try a pheromone spray or diffuser like Feliway, or a calming collar. They don’t work on all cats, but are def worth a shot.

  8. If the peeing is excessive and you’ve tried a bunch of things and can’t figure it out, consider consulting a behaviorist. Make sure to take pictures and videos of your entire residence and where the litterboxes are, and the offenses happen. The behaviorist will need all of that info, and documentation is so helpful if you have to reference it down the road.

Some cats change their behavior due to medical conditions. When a cat suddenly changes her behavior due to circumstances outside health, do you think it’s possible to reverse that and go back to “good” behavior in a short period of time? 

It depends on a lot of other factors, but the short answer is in most cases, YES!

Although to us it seems sudden, we have to be honest with ourselves and look at the recent history with the cat. There are usually little indicators that something is amiss that we don’t notice because we have a lot of other things going on. Cats' brains also don’t mature for a few years, so kitten behavior, for instance, really isn’t an indication of how their personality will be set.

I’ve seen positive behavior changes in as little as a few weeks or as long as a few months. Sometimes, you can’t completely reverse the behavior (like I said, there are lots of factors), but you can definitely modify it so it’s better for everyone in the home.

We just discovered Tobie on your Instagram. Can you please tell us about her story and her evolution?

Tobie was an emaciated stray calico cat a friend of mine found. I went to her house just to look her over and give suggestions for rescues to take her to, but as soon as I saw her, I knew I had to help. She was infested with fleas, and I suspected flea anemia. My friend and I immediately bathed her, and I pulled off probably 150 fleas. They were almost like ticks – they were biting her so hard. I took her to the ER to get blood work, and minus the anemia, her bloodwork was normal. The first day or two were going to be iffy because her body condition was so bad (1/9; all skin and bones).

The key to her recovery is slow but consistent eating, and she’s doing a great job managing her food intake. I’m able to leave out a decent amount, and she eats it as she wants it. I was so upset by her body condition, I started taking daily progress pics and posting on IG and FB to help ME cope. It’s amazing to see her body change each day – she’s gaining weight, and her fur is increasingly floofier, with the colors more vibrant. Her eyes are brighter, and she just looks so much better than when I met her. 

Given that she was on the street and starving, I’m keeping her in my bedroom so she has the security of human attention overnight. She’s a huge snuggler, and we really should enter her into a baking contest, because she’s probably the best biscuit maker in the world. She started playing yesterday and my heart melted. Tobie still has a long way to go, but she’s made huge strides so far. There is still a chance of an underlying illness, but we ruled out kidney disease and since she’s gaining weight, I’m hopeful she just was having issues surviving on the street. 

Let’s say I just got a cat, tell me the most important thing I must know about my new family member.

She will likely be nervous/skeptical of her new environment for a week or two, until her scent is throughout the house (cats mark by rubbing on things), and until she gets used to your scent. I always recommend starting in one room, and then expanding after the 1st or 2nd week – it keeps the cat from being too overwhelmed. Also, feed at designated meal times to get the cat on a schedule, and teach her that good things happen when you’re around. This will be the key to starting your relationship on the right foot. It’s also a good idea to frequently brush her. Grooming is what cats do to each other to show affection, and it’s important that you play a part in that too.

If you switched bodies with Tobie right now, what would be the first thing you’d do?

Well, I’m Italian, and I love food, so I’d most likely eat too much and then tell myself it’s okay and I deserve it 😊

What's the funniest or quirkiest thing you've seen a cat do?

One time, I had sauce with shrimp cooking on the stove. I came into the kitchen, and there was a random piece of tomato on the floor. Then, I heard VICIOUS growling and saw my cat Beaker  pretending a piece of shrimp was alive. He was batting it around, growling, and throwing it up in the air. He’d even crouch and do the butt wiggle and attack. He eventually ate it. I was so mad because I didn’t even want to think about how he got the shrimp out of piping hot sauce, but it was so funny, I couldn’t stop laughing.


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