Cat Reintroductions via Online Consultations
I did more virtual cat behavior consultations in March, April, and May of 2020 than I had done in my previous four years of consulting. I feel that I’ve really improved regarding being efficient at getting and giving information! In this article, I will share some tips on planning the virtual consult and coaching the client, in particular during the reintroduction of two cats who were previously separated due to conflict.
Setting up the consultation
Spending more time on planning for a virtual consultation than I do for an in-house consultation is important. Compared to in-home visits, I feel I need a better plan for getting what I need to know from the client, and a clearer understanding in advance of what I may need to do: I’m not able to look around, or interact with the cat and figure it out as I go. This means I need more information up front, so I know exactly what I want the client to show me at the consultation.
A key factor in any cat behavior issue is the cat’s environment. I find that asking for a floor plan of the client’s home ahead of time is very helpful. It doesn’t have to be to scale. It can be a rough sketch that the client takes a photo of and emails. But I have been surprised how often I get a beautiful, professional drawing! Often, the client has one from when they purchased the house. I tell clients that if providing a sketch is too difficult, a written description of their house will do. But I have always at least been sent a sketch — I think the clients realize that the better the information they send, the better service I can provide.
I ask clients to send me the floor plan and intake form at least two days before our scheduled consultation (I also ask for payment in advance for virtual consultations, just as I do for in-house consultations). I’ll also ask if they have a laptop that can be walked around to show me their house — a phone doesn’t show nearly as much. For re-introductions of cats with a history of aggression towards each other, a laptop is needed. It gives a wider view and can be easily placed on the floor to view at least one cat, perhaps both.
I ask the client to indicate on the plan:
- Where the cats’ resources are — food, litter boxes, favorite pieces of furniture, etc.
- Any parts of the house that are off-limits
- Where the windows and doors are
- Favorite nap spots
- Where the cats sleep at night
- Where the problems occur. Where do the cats spray? Where do the cats tend to aggress?
It’s especially useful to have this information about where the problems happen upfront. If I see that a cat sprays near the back door, I will want to see that door. If it has a window in it or near it, I will ask the client to let me see out that window. And I will have either asked to have the consult when it is light out, or have asked for a photo of that view. With the floor plan in hand during the consult, I can write notes directly on it.
Coaching the owner
For all consultations, I want the client to show me both close-up views and distant views of the cat’s resources. I don’t only want to assess the litter boxes, scratching posts, etc.: I want to see them in context with the rest of the room.
For reintroductions, the client and I discuss which rooms might work best for the cats to interact in at that stage of the process. I then look at the floor plan, and discuss where I want the laptop and what I want it to be looking at. I have them set the camera down, usually on the floor, before we bring in the second cat. I let them know what I can see, and what I cannot. I will put them in charge of reading one cat’s body language, and telling me what that cat is doing as things progress.
Because tails are so easy to assess, I always go over tail position: up or up and curled is friendly, straight out is relaxed, and low and tight to the body is tense. I also explain tail lashing – is it slow and incomplete, or rapid and using the entire tail? I explain more subtle cues by observing each of the cats, and telling the client what I see and what it means. I am coaching the client on signals their own cat is sending. This helps me explain any mixed signals by putting them in context. Now the client is prepared to let me know what a cat I can’t see is doing, which is important for a reintroduction.
Reintroducing two cats with a history of aggression
By far, reintroductions are the most challenging consults to do virtually. I study the floor plan and the intake form to know where I want gates, and if I want them stacked. And I ask the client to show me how secure the gates are by pushing on them as I watch.
If the cats have been very reactive, I might not even start the reintroduction in the first consultation, but rather have them train the behaviors we will cue the first time one cat sees the other. My go-tos are turn when their name is said, and stationing in a cardboard tray or on a mat. Since the cat remains in a limited area for this training, it is straightforward when I observe it virtually. For more information about how I work on reintroductions between cats, see my article in the Summer 2020 IAABC Foundation Journal.
If the cat is shy, a virtual consultation is actually better than in person, since I am not scaring the cat by my presence. I’ve only had one cat who ever took any notice of me on the laptop, and he just came over and sniffed it, then ignored it. If he had been disturbed for long, I would have had the client do the re-intro with the laptop in position and a quiet YouTube video playing as homework, so that the cat got used to hearing voices coming from it.
The biggest difference between in-house and virtual consultations is not being able to easily see both cats. You must always be thinking about the angle you want the camera relative to the cats — you will only be able to clearly see one at a time, at least in the early stages of the work — and you must also rely on the client telling you the body language of the cat you cannot see.
An example: Sassy and Tiger
Let’s take as our example a female cat, Sassy, who was aggressing toward the new male cat, Tiger. This will illustrate how I coached a client and had him set up his laptop. I began the reintroduction by having the client set up his space so that Sassy could look at Tiger through a gate from the hall, and Tiger could have his head in a bowl of food in a room, with his back turned to Sassy.
The first time we set up the gate, I wanted the laptop to be far enough back and behind Sassy so that I could see her as she approached the gate. I also wanted to see Tiger through the gate as he was eating. This is where working with the client on understanding camera placement and figuring out how to get their laptop into the best position is important. I asked the client to especially keep an eye on Tiger, and block his view if he picked up his head and looked at Sassy. The client had already set up the gate, and closed each cat in a room. The client then set up the laptop, fed Tiger in a room, left that gated door open, and then opened Sassy’s door. Around the corner of the hall she came — I had told the client in advance to close the door soon after Sassy caught sight of Tiger’s rear end.
I then assessed how calm Sassy appeared so that I could decide whether to stay at that level of exposure, go to counter-conditioning, or back up to an easier look — farther away or having the door only partly opened and then closed. I also discussed her body language with the client as it was occurring.
Eventually I asked for the laptop to be set up at the gate, looking at Sassy, so I could see her face as she looked at Tiger’s rear end. I had a good look at Sassy’s expression and body tension and language. I could adjust the amount of time she was allowed to look, or the distance, depending on the circumstances. I asked the client to let me know what Tiger was doing as we did the reintroduction. Eventually, we let him look at Sassy. At that point, I sometimes was looking at Tiger, and told the client to tell me if Sassy was sitting, standing, or walking, how she held her tail, and if there was a lip lick or tail lashing — this is where the foundational work with clients comes in: By this point I could trust him to give me accurate observations of his cats. This case is still ongoing.
Reintroductions without the gate
The hardest part of a reintroduction to do virtually is when you are no longer using a gate. I deal with this by limiting the area in which the two cats are allowed to interact. One way to do this is to shut off bedroom doors, and sometimes stack gates at one end of the hallway. The more-timid cat will be in the hall on the side that is not blocked, so that they can leave if they choose. I instruct the client to block the other cat from following with a bath towel. But I add hiding places and vertical space to the hallway using boxes, and chairs draped with a towel, so that either cat can hide or get away from the other, yet be accessible to the client, and so that hopefully the cat with the ability to exit the hallway will choose to stay in view, as there are plenty of tools to use to limit contact with the other cat. If that cat chooses to leave, then we end the session and reassess. Perhaps they had interacted a bit, and simply left. Then we might continue with this process as homework. But if they ran due to fear, we will have to make changes.
Another setup I have used is to block off exits from a living room, and make sure that the cats cannot get under the sofa, where the client could not reach them if they were both under there and aggressing. Again, I have the client set up boxes and make tents with chairs. Before either cat is brought in, I have the client set up the laptop to view the area I want to see. Perhaps I will have the client playing with both cats here. Again I will tell the client where I cannot see, and put them in charge of telling me what is going on if the cats venture to those spots. Regardless of the setup, I give the client a maximum amount of time they are to allow to have the cats in the room or hall. And I instruct them to block the cats’ view of each other if there is mild tension, and to block their view and end if the cats are very tense.
Planning ahead is the biggest difference I see with virtual consults. The need to know ahead of time what you want to be looking at takes planning, so studying floor plans and intake forms is helpful. Also, clearly telling the client which cat they are in charge of reporting to you on body language, what to watch for, and what to do is important. The client won’t necessarily hear you saying “shut the door,” and you certainly won’t be able to walk over and shut it yourself! But an advantage is that the client is going to physically do that reintroduction step at the consultation. This sets the client up well for doing their homework. And since you have coached the client about video angles, they ought to be able to send you some great videos of the homework. So, although there are challenges, especially for a single client working with two cats, there are advantages as well.
Patience Fisher owns Patience for Cats LLC, a cat behavior business based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is an associate-certified cat behavior consultant through the IAABC. She holds a bachelor’s in biology, a diploma of feline behavior science technology, and is a certified veterinary assistant. Visit her on Facebook at Patience for Cats.