Dr. Marci Koski
Certified Feline Behavior and Training Consultant
Our guest, Marci Koski, is the winner of the Women in the Pet Industry Network’s (WIPIN) Woman of the Year 2017 Advocate Award. She has received specialized and advanced certificates in Feline Training and Behavior from the Animal Behavior Institute and holds a doctorate in Fishery and Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University. Now, she has her own consultation business, Feline Behavior Solutions, and teaches people about their cat’s needs and how to meet them.
Hi Marci, it’s wonderful that you’ve given us this opportunity, we are delighted to ask you a couple of questions. So let’s begin!
You have an amazing background and we can see you’ve always loved animals. Could you explain a little bit about your college career choices and the Animal Behavior Institute?
Yes, I’ve always loved animals! But when I was younger, I was actually quite torn about what I wanted to study. I also loved art so I was looking into attending art school, but I ended up originally going to university for a degree in communications (I think I was hoping for a career in broadcasting – radio or TV). After a semester I decided that I wanted an adventure, so moved across the country and left school for a couple of years. I can’t tell you how good that decision was for me – I entered the work force and taught myself all about computers and various programs (and I even got to accomplish my dream of becoming a published cartoonist!) during those two years. It gave me a chance to figure out what I really wanted to do, and that was to study biology. I loved ecology, so I majored in biology with an ecology emphasis at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. It was a smaller university and that gave me an opportunity to really get to know my professors and work on some independent research projects. After graduating, I decided to immediately move on to a Master’s program in Ecology at Colorado State University. I studied kokanee (a form of land-locked sockeye salmon) and focused on aquatic ecology. From there I stayed at CSU for my PhD in Fishery and Wildlife Biology, working on modeling aquatic food webs. I really enjoyed the process of learning, and my classes were a lot of fun because I got to learn a little bit about everything (not just aquatic ecology). My research is where things got very specialized, and that wasn’t quite as fulfilling for me, as I enjoy being a “generalist”, lol!
What made you focus your professional career on cats?
After graduating from CSU with my PhD, I worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species biologist. I was involved with projects that ranged from butterfly conservation, to protecting small song-birds, to preserving habitat for species of concern. It was interesting, but after a few years I was moved into a supervisory position where I managed a team of several biologists; my life became more about sitting in front of a computer reading reports and working on budgets than doing things I felt were beneficial for wildlife conservation. And when I was involved in the science aspects of recovery, it was quite common that politics outweighed the decisions that science supported. That was the most frustrating thing about my job!
I knew I had to make a career change so I did a lot of soul-searching. I went back to something that I’ve loved my entire life – cats! I decided that I could help cats and people, and see the results of my work almost immediately, which would be much more fulfilling for me, personally. I did some research and found the certification programs at the Animal Behavior Institute. I learned A LOT about cats through the coursework, and I’m quite happy with the education I received through the programs I was involved with. ABI also had a field-hours requirement for certification, and I fulfilled that by volunteering with two animal rescue organizations; Furry Friends (a very small all-cat rescue) and the Humane Society for Southwest Washington (a much larger operation). I’m still involved with both of those groups today, and being involved with animal rescue has greatly influenced my desire to help animals and their people live better lives together.
What’s the mission of your business, Feline Behavior Solutions?
The mission of Feline Behavior Solutions is to keep cats in homes and out of shelters. I work with people who are having issues with their cats – issues that have often resulted in people surrendering their cats to shelters or simply abandoning them or tossing them outside for good. These issues include house-soiling, aggression, destructive behavior, and other problem behaviors. It’s so important to understand what your cat needs to have a happy and fulfilled life, and that’s what I help cat guardians with – understanding their cats’ needs so that they can provide them with an environment that satisfies their biological, emotional, and social requirements. Sometimes it just takes one little change to help a cat switch over to a different way of doing what it’s programmed to do – a way that is acceptable to both cats and humans. In that way, everyone is happier, less stressed, and can enjoy living together!
A lot of people usually have more than one cat … What are the main things people have to take into account when introducing new cats to their families? Is aggression between cats common?
That is a great question! Probably 75% of my clients have cats who don’t get along, resulting in aggression and other problems (such as house-soiling). That’s not to say that cats can’t get along quite well together, because many of them do! People must understand that when you bring home a new cat, your resident cat may feel threatened; the new cat represents an encroachment on the resident cat’s space, resources, and access to the family. In short, it’s all about territorial security (or lack thereof). So, people must be very thoughtful when it comes to bringing a new cat home. First, I highly recommend that people bring home a cat who is similar in personality and energy level to the resident cat – if you have an older cat who is mellow and likes to relax, don’t bring home a rambunctious kitten who just wants to play all the time! Look for a mature cat with a similar energy level. Gender doesn’t necessarily matter, particularly after cats have been spayed or neutered; I really see it more as how the personalities are going to get along. Just imagine how you would feel if your housemate brought home a new person to come live with you in the house and you had no say in deciding who it was – how would you handle the situation? I’d probably not want the newcomer to touch my stuff, and it would take a while to get to know them (and then like them, if the personality was a match). Know what I mean?
That brings up the second thing – it does take time for cats to get to know each other, so I highly recommend doing a slow introduction in a space where the cats are safe and secure. First you’ll work on introducing the cats through scent, then visual exposure, then supervised visits. It’s important to pair each interaction (including scent) with good things that both cats like so that they will build up positive associations with each other. Too often people rush the introduction process and cats feel threatened; the introduction process is supposed to let the cats get to know each other and learn that there is no threat. And if things are going well, reward neutral or positive interactions! At first, keep interactions short and sweet – it’s ok to end interactions after just a couple of minutes – ending on a good note is MUCH better than letting things go too far and ending a session after a scuffle. So, if you’re thinking about bringing a new home, have a safe space set up for the new cat ahead of time and be sure to know about the slow introduction process and how it will be executed in your home. Being prepared is key to having happy cats!
Doing a lot of research, we see owners tend to punish their cats—like spraying water or yelling—when they don’t behave the way they want. We think that’s not the way to educate them about what to do or what not to do… What’s your take on that?
Oh goodness, just say NO to the squirt bottle! Cats really don’t do well with punishment that includes something they don’t enjoy (like most animals). While it may be tempting to yell or clap or use a squirt gun, please don’t! Those things may get immediate results, but over the long-term, they can really backfire. Those types of punishments, when done consistently, create a negative association with the cat’s guardian, which can result in fear and anxiety. The guardian is supposed to have a loving and protective role with the cat, teaching her how to navigate the environment in a way that rewards good behavior. The more you reward a desired behavior (like using a scratching post, for example), the less you’ll see undesired behavior (like scratching a piece of furniture). If you simply punish your cat using scary or startling methods, it erodes the cat’s relationship with you, and the cat will just learn to do those things when you’re not around. So, positive reinforcement is usually the way to go! Train your cat what you do want her to do – understand the need that she is trying to fulfill, and provide her with an appropriate way to meet that need.
Also, you know what they say… “First change yourself, then change the world around you” … Now swap “the world” with “your cats”. Is it true that sometimes the owner is the one who needs to change their behavior? Have you ever dealt with clients with this kind of problem?
This is absolutely true! I’ve had clients who report that they haven’t seen the cat’s behavior change, but when I ask what they have done to resolve the problem, they can’t give me good evidence that they’ve changed anything. Cats respond to their environment and how they are treated. As guardians, we are responsible for the cat’s environment and how we treat them – if we don’t change something, who else is going to do it? Cats don’t change their behavior in response to non-changes, lol! Further, cats are so sensitive to how humans feel. They know when we are angry, stressed out, sad, happy, relaxed, etc. They often mirror our own emotions. So, if we are stressed about our cat’s behavior (or something else), our cats respond to that! I’ve definitely had clients who have needed to manage their own stress levels so that they could start interacting with their cats with an attitude of fun rather than obligation. Cats know when you’re just going through the motions! If you’re having fun, your cat will too.
People tend to say “It’s really easy to have a cat, you just need to give them food, one toy and you’re set”. What would you say to people who want to adopt a cat or already have cats and think like that?
That really makes me sad for those cats. Cats, in their most basic form, are tiny, predatory, carnivorous beasties who are both predators and prey. They are programmed to hunt, kill, play, hide, and survive. Yes, they are adorable and do like to sleep, but they are not supposed to sleep all the time and just hang out on your couch between snacks you put in their bowl and trips to the litterbox. They need environmental enrichment so that their bodies and minds stay healthy and alert! I think that boredom is the most common issue that indoor cats face. Boredom leads to stress, and stress leads to behavior issues, whether it’s just knocking stuff off of shelves because it’s fun, or house-soiling because of anxiety or a stress-related medical issue. Playing with your cat is SO important and cats need daily opportunities to hunt, explore, and relax in safe places. They’re not just easy, convenient pets – they are quite complicated and have needs just like the rest of us.
Can you tell us a little bit about your pawesome support staff?
Ha ha ha – yes, I have four kitties who work with me at Feline Behavior Solutions. Samantha is the matriarch, and is the mother of Oliver and Momo. Samantha is about 11 years old, and Oliver and Momo are both 10. They are a little tribe – Oliver and Momo still stick to their mom like glue, even though I think that sometimes Samantha would like her space! Abbey is also 10 years old but is not related to the other three. She spends a lot of her time in the office with me, silently supervising me (judging, really) from the top of the bookshelf or sitting in the window watching squirrels. I’ve trained Abbey to do some things like come, sit, fist-bump, high-five, and spin; we’re currently working on stationing with a mat. She’s quite clever! My cat, Jesse, passed away last year at the age of 19 and I’m sure he’s keeping an eye on all of us.
If you woke up tomorrow and found out you switched bodies with a cat, what would be the first thing you would do?
Ooooh – fun question! I guess it would depend if I were an indoor or outdoor cat. Generally, I would probably have a nice big stretch, then scratch on whatever scratching surface was closest, since that’s what cats like to do. Then I would look for something tasty to eat. I think I would also enjoy jumping up on things – I’m amazed at how high cats climb up things! I used to enjoy rock climbing, so heights are pretty exciting to me; cats are just so agile and sure-footed, and I love the way they jump from object to object.
Now, let’s do the big cat talk. What’s your favorite feline outside of domestic cats and why?
I love ALL the cats, lol! It’s hard to choose just one, but I guess I’m pretty enamored with the clouded leopard, which isn’t necessarily a big cat, but a smaller feline who lives in rainforests of southeast Asia and China. Its coat is strikingly beautiful, but that’s one reason for its decline – it is hunted for its fur, unfortunately. It’s a rare and secretive creature that is threatened by habitat loss as well. The clouded leopard is also a very skilled climber – it can go head-first down tree trunks, and crawl along branches with its back towards the ground! They have shorter legs and long tails, which are reminiscent of our domestic cats, which is just another reminder of how closely related our own kitties are to their wild cousins.