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Episode #3—Cat Behavior Specialist Interview with Lizzy

Episode #3—Cat Behavior Specialist Interview with Lizzy

Dr. Leslie Brooks: Hello everyone, this is the My Lovely Feline Podcast with Liz and Leslie, and today we’re going to interview Liz and delving a little more into, “What exactly does she do?” We always say she’s a cat person, and she helps troubled cats, so I want to learn a little more about her myself and hopefully that will help us all learn a little more about cat behavior in general.

So, thank you for letting me interview you today, Liz.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the guest(s) and/or host(s) and may or may not reflect the views or opinions of My Lovely Feline.

 

Liz: [laughs] I feel like you’re trying to get even now. That’s what I think this is about, after I asked you all those questions.

Leslie: Well, the first question will be super easy. I know sometimes I have a hard time explaining to people what I do as a veterinarian, and so the first question is: What exactly do you do? Not your day job that pays you the big bucks, but what do you do with the cats. What do you do?

Liz: I am a foster, but I tend to specialize in cats that have behavioral issues, mostly cats that are shy or fearful or aggressive – that’s where I tend to focus my efforts.

Now I do have other cats I take on for one reason or another, like I have one with allergies that you and I have talked about before, but I try to just focus on the behavioral ones.

I feel like they’re very underrepresented in the foster community, not because of anything anyone’s doing, but they’re not as popular that people will go and foster a cat who’s aggressive or lunging at the staff in the shelter.

It’s so funny, there’s a joke that my friends have, and they said “If it’s a cat Liz will take, don’t take it. Leave it for Liz.” They make fun of me about it because I love these cats whose descriptions are like “Lunging at staff.” “Tried to bite someone.” and I’m like “Oh, gimmie! I’m so excited.”

I’ve done kittens and cats with kitty colds and little things, but I really like the hard ones that are behavioral. They take a while, and that’s one thing that’s a little difficult. When you have other cases, you can turn them around faster, the ones I take are not a quick turnaround, because impacting behavior takes time.

Lelise: So how long is the cat usually in foster with you?

Liz: I would say, an average 2-4 months. Every now and then I’ll get one that turns around super duper quick, and sometimes I have some that are really tough and they take longer. I would say 2-4 months.

And just so people understand who don’t foster, that’s a pretty long time. A lot of people like to take kittens when they’re small and once they hit 2 or 3 pounds, they adopt them out.

They have a plan and they know how long they’re going to have an animal. With behavior cases, you really can’t say. It’s sort of impossible. 

Leslie: When they’re done being fostered with you, what happens to them?

Liz: I work with some nonprofits in the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania area, and they help me list the cat and find a home for it. It is a challenge because the cats that I rehab are not a fit for everyone.

If feels weird saying that, but it’s true because a lot of them have, littler triggers or they don’t do well with loud noises, and if they don’t do well with noises they won’t do well with a dog or with kids, so things like that can make it a little challenging, but I’ve been very fortunate in the fact that I’ve met amazing adopters, even potential adopters who were just awesome, and I feel very blessed and lucky to have had that experience.

There are people out there who are willing to give these cats a chance, who might not be 100% what everyone expects. They are rehabbed when they leave here, they are in really good shape, but they still have idiosyncrecies, kind of like people. 

Leslie: So have you ever had a person who adopted a cat from you after you were fostering it and working with it and then they reached back out and say, “We can’t keep it”?

Liz: Yes, I’ve had that happen. I’ve had that happen twice. The first time, it was just a mismatch. I actually didn’t participate in the adoption, so I’m wondering if maybe, you know, the people who were doing the matchmaking didn’t make clear how high energy this cat was, so they ended up returning the cat because he was so high energy and running after people.

But he was high energy; you have to play with a cat like that, like a young male, you have to play with them. That’s just how it is. He got readopted pretty quickly. Then the other one is my cat Lucy, who I ended up adopting after a failed adoption.

Leslie: Gotcha, so some people might end up calling it like, a failed foster?

Liz: A foster fail. People say, “It’s not a fail though.” and I’m like, “But it kind of is. You fostered, and you kept the animal, and that’s not what you’re supposed to do.”

She was returned, and you know it just made sense at that point. I consulted – she had a behaviorist; she had a vet who did acupuncture for her – I consulted them both before I made my decision and I told them what happened with the return and it just made sense.

It was the right thing to do because she’s been through so much, that the trust is built with me. It’s not necessarily what I wanted because I wanted her to go to another place and enjoy herself, but it seems her trust is with me and we shouldn’t mess that up at this point, so I decided to keep her.

And it was the best thing for her, really.


Leslie: What has been your most rewarding case, would you say? Or maybe if there’s not just one, I feel like we always say, what’s your best … what’s been the most rewarding cases you’ve had?

Liz: There’s two. One is Lucy, because even though she wasn’t adopted, the growth she’s had since she got into foster care is amazing. I was so nervous. So, basically what happened was she was at the shelter and no one could touch her. She had flea allergy dermatitis, which is an allergic reaction to flea bites. She was surrendered by her owners.

She looked so bad that the staff thought she’d been burned – that’s how bad her inflammation was. There were sores on her and wounds, and it was all from scratching, because when they have that allergy, you know, they scratch everywhere and they cannot stop.

So, I got her and I could not touch her, and all she would do is stare and growl with these big pupils and growl even if I wasn’t near her, and in my head I was like, “What am I going to do with this cat? I can’t even touch this cat.

She hates me. She’s probably going to murder me … what am I going to do?” It was a very slow process, controlling the flea allergy first, we got her on some steroids to take down the inflammation because she was scratching so bad. Then she had pneumonia, so we had to work with that, and then it was really me just working with her. 

I, eventually, after a couple months, saw a behaviorist on my own because I was like “I feel like I’m not doing something right.”

And I was so nervous to see this behaviorist. I was so nervous she going to look at me and be like, “What are you doing?” And she had read over everything – so when you go to a behaviorist you provide written documentation, you provide pictures, vidoes, all that – so she looked over everything ahead of time, and I sat down with her, and I was holding my breath, and she said, “I cannot believe the progress you’ve made with this cat. It actually does not even make sense, so I’m not going to tell you you can’t do anything, and you really have a gift.”

And it just lit me up, I was so happy, and then she helped explain all the things I had been seeing with Lucy, and her problems. 

So, when a cat is abused or neglected, which we know at least she was neglected because of the flea issue.

She was an indoor cat and was surrendered completely infested with all the sores and everything. Neglect is a form of abuse in animal welfare. We know she was neglected and no one knows how long that was going on.

The behaviorist explained that Lucy’s behavior was because she was still decompressing from whatever traumatic event she had been through and she had impulse control aggression.

So her way to feel safe is to control everything, which is why she was so aggressive. She was trying to control me and my movements so she felt like she was in control.

Once that was explained to me, and that Lucy’s brain is literally in fight or flight most of the time because the hypothalamus is overdeveloped and that’s what gets triggered by little tiny things that you and I would be like, “That’s not even a big deal,” but Lucy notices it.

Once the behaviorist explained all of that, I researched and I read more and I felt like I understood Lucy better. It sort of clicked with me with cats that have aggression and how to work with them. 

Which led into a cat named Sunshine who I got from New York City who had been through multiple fosters and owners, was very aggressive. I was able to work with her throughout the pandemic, when we were on lockdown. She was recently adopted and she’s doing awesome in her new home and she has her quirks but her adopter knows that and her adopter works with her.

I was very honest and direct about her situation. She was similar to Lucy but it wasn’t as bad, because she’s younger.

She was found abandoned on a Manhattan street. The carrier was taped up and she was stuck inside. They pulled her out and she was completely matted in the back because she was so overweight she couldn’t clean herself and they had to shave it off.

So once again, you’re looking at a case where this cat’s been neglected clearly with overfeeding, and she’s not going to trust people that much because something bad happened to her, and sort of building that trust and working with her and finding out what her triggers are, where her boundaries are.

And because of Lucy, I helped Sunshine, and when I saw how Sunshine was acting in the beginning, I told them immediately, she has impulse control aggression, I recognize it from Lucy, I know what to do, she’s probably always have a little bit of triggers, but because she’s younger we’ll be able to control a lot of it, and she’s doing awesome. It’s a really long answer to your question, but I hope I answered it.

Leslie: No, those are really good stories. Yeah, because whenever I hear you or someone else talk about working with animals with behavior issues and trying to break down all the nuts and bolts of it, peeling that onion down to the center to find out what the root cause is and getting to that, and then you build the trust and you know it’s not like you fix them, not that animals or people need fixing, but you figure out how to help them the best. 

And I’m gonna get on a soap box here, because I can’t help but find relevant to social issues and how sometimes we are more forgiving of animals and understanding and empathetic of them. Like I alway hear owners say, “Oh he must have been abused or he must have been neglected, because he has these issues.”

Or I always hear the stories of the animals and admire people like you who take the time to work with them, but then I feel like we don’t always do the same with are fellow humans and try to get to the people who might have those … impulse control aggressions because of their history whether being abused or neglected not only from their family but from their communities. I love hearing about this and drawing relevancies and I hope we can learn from people who work with animals, which you almost think it’s more complicated than working with people with behavioral issues because animals can’t talk to you.

Liz: I did consult a psychologist about Lucy. I know it sounds crazy, but I said, “I need to know what you see in humans that I can pull from this situation?”

And what she said was and it’s the same thing, if a child, and I’m not going to go down a dark road, I’m just going to be real quick about this, if a child experiences something that’s neglectful or some sort of abuse and they’re really young, if it’s bad and for a prolonged period of time when they are in an important part of development, when they’re older, they have no trust of anyone, and every person has to start at zero and you have to build trust. So she was saying, it’s the exact same with Lucy.

Lucy has no trust, nothing, but I’ve built it over time, so she has trust with me, but if she meets a new person, it’s going to start over again, and I think that’s why the adoption failed.

I thought that she’d be away from other cats, who she hates, and she’d have her own space and she’d be happy, and she was not at all, because I underestimated the trust piece with me.

I didn’t think that it was me and the trust with me … I thought she’d be okay if no other cats were there, and I was wrong. But I thought that was interesting from the psychologist’s point of view.

Leslie: Yeah.

Liz: The other thing you bring up which I think is important is some people, always go to this animal must have been abused or neglected, blah, blah, blah. And that is not the case.

Sometimes there’s other things at play. The one thing, we know Sunshine and Lucy because of how they were found that they were neglected, and I can say with Sunshine, I actually know when there’s been physical abuse because of how they respond if you bump into them or something – it is excessive. It’s not just, “I’m scared.” You can see them almost arch back and prepare and grip down.

Once you see it, you can identify it. But just because a cat is shy or fearfully does not mean there was necessarily neglect or abuse in their past. It just doesn’t. I think there’s a balance there of having a lot of understanding but also not over-victimizing them too.

And the other thing I always say is if all I did was talk about how awful Lucy’s life was, how would that benefit her? You know, I can’t do anything, so we need to work on things now and progress now, and yeah, she’s weird, but that’s how she is.

Leslie: [laughs]

Liz: She’s a weirdo. My friend was over yesterday and Lucy’s rubbing against my legs and then hisses at me for no reason. That’s what she does. It’s hysterical. And my friend said, “She’s purring and hissing,” and I said, “That’s her. That’s just how she is.”

Leslie: Before I ask your next question, I just wanted to ask you if you’ve heard of this and then let our listeners know.

There’s this website called Zoobiquity.com. It’s this whole research program started by a human physician, and she started working, helping gorillas at a zoo, I think, because she’s a cardiologist and she was helping do echocardiograms on their hearts.

And she began to see all the relevancies and similarities between the animal world and how they socially interact and how they have all the same health conditions as the human world.

Anyway, it’s a great website, and she has a book out and it kind of ties in everything you just mentioned with the similarities between animals and people, socially and emotionally.

And I also wanted to ask you, in addition to the most rewarding cases, what has been your most difficult, complicated cases, or maybe even any failures. I know you mentioned Lucy as a foster failure, but has there been anything worse than that, where the cat had to be put down or something like that.

Liz: Fortunately no, however, I feel the need to say this, I have a very hard case coming at me this weekend.

And I’m nervous, and part of the condition of me taking it was, if this is as bad as it seems it is, we’re gonna have to discuss quality of life for the animal and for anyone who would be around the animal.

And so people understand, it’s basically, you can’t take a cat who’s attacking and put them anywhere. You think, “Oh, just put them outside.” Well no, because they have feeders, so the feeder can get injured.

Or “Put it in a barn,” but there’s animals there and they can get injured and people who live there and take care of the animals.

When you have something, it’s called idiopathic aggression, when it doesn’t seem like it falls into any specific category and you can’t find the specific reason, you really have to assess what’s going on.

The cat coming this weekend has already bitten six people, so I’m kinda nervous.

Leslie: Wow. Were these bad bites where they had to get antibiotics?

Liz: He only did not break the skin one time. I would assume antibiotics.

Leslie: Yikes.

Liz: I’m nervous but I talked to them about it, I said, “Look, there’s going to be limitations here. We have to have that conversation and if he goes after me too much, you know, how many people are we going to let this keep happening to before we try to figure something out.”

And he is somewhere now with a team of behaviorists and they still don’t know what to do, so it’s not a lack of effort on anyone’s part, everyone’s trying to help him. And it sounds like he has that real sweetness to him, but then he has this other side that comes out, and they can’t figure out why that’s coming out. 

So I will be the millionth person to study this cat’s behavior and hopefully I can figure it out. I have a plan.

The plan is he has never had a single, same person work with him; it’s been different people because he’s at a sanctuary, so in that environment it’s different people throughout the day.

The problem with that is there are too many variables, so at least with me, it’s just me, so if I still can’t figure out what’s going on without all those extra variables of people other cats in the space and trying different training techniques, then I mean I don’t know … I’m not saying it’s not going to work, but I’m nervous. Six people’s a lot.

Leslie: Are you going to pull out the cat gloves? Do you have any cat gloves?

Liz: No, I will not use them which you can tell by looking at my hands. I probably should. I have some very playful ones right now, and you know, if you don’t cut their nails, they’ll get you when they play.

Leslie: Good luck.

Liz: Sometimes I use a towel. I had to use it this morning to get a cat in the carrier. He didn’t want to go for his dental – don’t blame him.

Leslie: Well, good luck with him. I hope it goes well. Sounds like this might be one of the four monthers or more.

Liz: Uh, yeah, he could be a six month or eight month situation. We’ll see. I’m nervous. I have all the notes and I know what they’ve done, and I can build off of that because history is so important.

And a lot of times, with an owner’s surrender you don’t have that so at least in this case I have professionals who have been taking notes on everything so I have all the information already.

Leslie: What kind of advice do you have to a cat owner, who’s struggling with a cat’s behavior and deciding if they need to relinquish it to a shelter, or how they get in touch with you maybe? Maybe we can talk about that at the end.

But what kind of advice do you have for cat owners deciding to relinquish a cat or possibly to euthanize a cat related to behavior issues? Whether that’s aggression, litter box issues, scratching, or other things?

Liz: I would say, one of the most important things that’s challenging for people to do is really take an honest look at the environment and see if there’s something lacking. Because there’s something lacking doesn’t mean someone isn’t a good pet parent.

Are you playing with this cat every day? Are you showing this cat affection? Are you brushing them or doing things that show grooming? And the reason I say this is they groom each other as a way to bond, so if you aren’t doing any sort of grooming, that can have a negative impact on them.

Lack of play can have a negative impact on them because they have too much energy and they’ll take it out on other things, people, objects, excessive crying sometimes.

The first thing is to do that: Be honest, what is this enrichment like for this cat. And then if you want to improve your relationship, it does take effort, it’s not an overnight sort of thing.

You can’t just, “Okay, I’ll play with it every other day, and that’s all I have time for,” you can’t do that. If a cat is already having problems, you’re going to need to work with them every day, that’s just how it is, for a period of time until you can work through it. Be very committed, be very patient, and have the time for it. 

If you think you need to relinquish an animal, I’m going to highly recommend that you try to find a family member, a friend, someone in your community, a neighbor first.

The reason I’m going to say that is there are so many animals in rescue organizations, so many animals in shelters, it’s not like, “Okay, I surrender my animal to the shelter, it’ll be fine, they’ll find another home.”

You could surrender your animal and they get sick at the shelter, and they get an upper respiratory infection, which is super common in shelters because they’re stressed out. They can die from that. If they’re in a bad situation, they can die from that.

You really want to try everything you can to avoid putting them in any shetler situation.

And I only say that because I know people have good intentions, and they think when they bring an animal to a shelter, “Oh, they’re good. They’re fine.They survived, great!” It’s not like that, because there’s just so many animals there, illness can happen, depression can happen, so I would say shelter surrendering should be your absolute last resort, and you sort of have to accept if you’re choosing that route, something bad could happen.

And if you’re not okay with that, then you shouldn’t take that route, because you want to feel confident, if you’re giving your cat to someone else, that they’re going to be in a good environment. 

So I would say, do everything you possibly can – friends, family, friends of friends, look at Facebook groups, and if you’re going to do that, it’s okay to ask people a lot of questions.

That’s what we do too in the foster world when we’re rehoming an animal. Ask them questions, and it’s important too to charge something, because it increases the commitment level.

You don’t need to charge $100, but 25-50 bucks, something to make that a real commitment when you’re rehoming an animal, because if someone sees free, anybody can be like, “Oh, I want a cat, yeah.”

Other options are to work with your vet. Talk with them about things you can do. Maybe they know something that you haven’t seen.

Make sure there’s not a physical thing. If there’s something wrong with their teeth for instance, they’re going to be jerks, they’re uncomfortable.

That’s an easy thing you can talk to your vet about.

Talk to them about possibly putting them on some anti-anxiety medicine and know it’s not an “easy way out” or overmedicating an animal, it’s a way you may be able to keep an animal and build a stronger bond and maybe your animal will be more comfortable because whatever’s bothering it, maybe they’ll feel better if they’re on some sort of medicine. That’s an option. 

If you’re really, really committed, maybe you can go to a behaviorist. The behaviorist is going to ask you ahead of time as I mentioned, pictures of everything, video of the behavior, layout of the house, pictures of where the litter boxes are, food bowl, EVERYTHING.

You’re going to have to provide all that information to get a really good assessment because all that stuff matters. You know, where the litter box is, can be the entire problem.

You can have a covered litter box and that’s the problem. You don’t see it because you’re used to it. That’s another option people can take.

Something else, we’ve talked about it before: Don’t feel bad about what you’re doing.

I think it’s important to say this just isn’t working out or this animal isn’t the right fit for my home or I’m not the right fit for this animal or say, “Maybe I haven’t been doing everything I should,” or maybe “I don’t have the knowledge to fix this problem.” That’s all okay. Not saying, “Oh I’m an awful person because blah blah blah…”

No, don’t even go there. There’s a problem, talk to some professionals to see if you fix it. If you can’t fix it or don’t have the time to fix it because people sometimes have situation – they’re moving, they’re pregnant, someone has an illness – try to rehome an animal with someone you know. I would highly, highly, highly, highly suggest avoiding the shelter.

And I foster for one. It’s just not where you want your cat to be. If you don’t want to own the cat anymore, that should be your complete last resort.

Leslie: What if someone’s deciding between euthanaisa and the shelter?

Liz: The only time I would recommend euthanasia is what I mentioned before, idiopathic aggression, so there’s no discernable reason why the cat is being aggressive, the cat is being unpredictable and it’s a quality of life situation. Otherwise, scratching can be taught. Litter box issues, although frustrating, most of those resolve in a new home – that’s just statistically what behaviorists have seen.

Not to say there’s something wrong with your home but there could literally be anything in your house setting your cat off and you don’t know. If it’s between euthanasia and a shelter, unless your cat has been violently attacking multiple people, I would not choose euthanasia.

So maybe the last, last resort is euthanasia.

Here’s another thing. If there’s something really wrong with the cat too, they may notice at the shelter as well. If there’s a major problem. It tends to happen with dogs more than cats, but sometimes there’s a wire that’s not connected right. I’ve yet to see a cat where that’s the situation.

I’ve had cats people told me were crazy, and I take them and they’re not. Different environments change things, different people, all those things matter and add up. And I ask people, “Well did you do this and this?” “Yeah, I do all of that.”

And I’m like, “Well do you do exactly …” “Well, not really.” With cats, you have to be very precise with what you’re doing because they notice everything.

Leslie: What would you want people to understand prior to getting a cat? Because people are always like, “Cats are so easy. You don’t have to always get someone to watch after them if you leave town for two days.” You know, so, I think they’re kind of the go-to easy pet.

But they’re not all easy, and they still require a certain amount of care and work. What would you want people to know before they decide to adopt a cat or buy a cat or save a cat.

Liz: They’re not pillows. They are living things. I think sometimes people think, “Eh, they’re fine with whatever.” And I think the other thing to remember is they don’t always show how they’re feeling. They’re very stoic and they don’t really have the ability to make facial expressions.

So a lot of what they do shows in their behavior or they’re body language. If you’re going to get a cat, keep in mind they’re amazing, they’re independent, they’re so funny … they can be like a person and they have little quirks and certain things they don’t like or they do like, and you have to be aware of that.

They live for a pretty long time, so make sure you’re in it unless you adopt a senior cat where you know you’ll have less time.

Average cat lives 14-16 years. You’re going to have them a long time. If you do not have the time to spend with them each day, at least 20-30 minutes, it’s not the right animal for you. I say that because if you don’t spend that time with them, it could lead to behavior issues and then we’re having the conversations we were just talking about. It’s not a set it and forget it – like I said, it’s not a pillow.

And the more you do with them, the more engaged they get, the more they enjoy people, all those sorts of things. 

Leslie: Yeah, that’s great advice. Absolutely. 

Liz: People always say when they come over to my house, “You’re cats are so friendly.” and I say, “Well, why wouldn’t they be.” “Cats aren’t friendly.” And I say, “Yeah, they are.” My cats are out at parties, even the old man, he’s 16 and he’s out too. 

Leslie: And we might have talked about this before, but I think cats are just misunderstood. That’s why I love them.

Liz: Yeah, they are, and then I had my female cat, my white cat, Dolly, she acts like I never feed her or give her attention, and people come over and she’s crying and carrying on like she’s starving to death and she gets no attention. And that is not true.

She gets plenty of attention. You would think this cat is starved because she sees a new person and she’s belly up and crying and rubbing against them and kneading them.

Leslie: Thank you so much, Liz. I learned a lot from you and learned a lot more about what you do.

I really appreciate that you do this; this is not your full-time job, you take this on as a side thing just because you want to help, so thank you.

You said you do this for shelters near you, is there a way someone could get ahold of you if they were like, “I need someone to foster this cat and help it.”

Liz: At this time I only work directly with nonprofits, and the reason for that is they help with medical expenses with cats, and even though I do behavior, you’d be surprised what things crop up.

I really only work with them because that’s a backing that I need for medications and visits, flea preventative … some of them have teeth issues that you don’t even know about.

If you are in the New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Philly area, if you’re a nonprofit and you have a behavioral case, we can certainly talk, and I have a waiting list, and I can put you on the list if you have a kitty you really want to come here.

I just had two recent ones on the list come, so I try to move through them as much as I can and if you are interested, you can email me at My Lovely Feline, it’s liz@mylovelyfeline.com.

I don’t have any space right now, just to be clear. The inn is full, because my Saturday cat will be #11 and we cut it off there. No more.

Leslie: Alright, thank you, Liz. That’s it for this podcast. We’ll see you guys all later.



Podcast Hosts:

Dr. Leslie Brooks 👩‍⚕️
Veterinarian

Elizabeth Italia 🙋‍♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist

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