Pam Johnson-Bennett, Queen of Cat Behavior


“Today we understand so much more about cat behavior,” says certified cat behavior consultant Pam Johnson-Bennett, “but still, cat behaviors are labeled. The cat piddles in front of you, and so many owners still say, ‘the cat is stupid,’ or ‘the cat did this to be spiteful.’ Animals don’t display behaviors because they want us to get upset, or to ruin our days; they do it because it works. Instead of looking at it from a human perspective, we have to learn how to think like a cat.”

As an example of what she’s talking about, let’s say a cat is scratching on the sofa. “That means you don’t have an acceptable scratching post, or it’s in the wrong location,” says Johnson-Bennett.

Another example is misinterpreting what cats may be trying to tell us.

“The dog sits beside us on the couch, staring at us adoringly, idolizing us,” Johnson-Bennett says. “Cats may sit near us – even in our laps – but then turn their backs to us. We say, ‘That’s insulting.’ From a cat’s perspective, it’s a compliment. But when we don’t understand a behavior, we’re quick to make a judgment.”

Johnson-Bennett is sometimes referred to as the Queen of Cats, not just by the general public and the media, but also by her colleagues. Today, she’s star of the “Psycho Kitty,” a TV show on Discovery in the UK. Cat lovers in the U.S. hope she’ll be imported back to the States.

Her career was launched when Johnson-Bennett, the best-selling cat book author ever, asked her veterinarian about the two most misbehaved cats she’d ever seen: her own pets.

“The veterinarian was frustrated and didn’t know what to do,” she recalls. “So he told me to put the cats to sleep. It’s awful, but that advice was common 30 years ago. Today, the hope is that a veterinarian might help, and if not, would refer you to someone who can.”

Johnson-Bennett didn’t accept her vet’s advice. She went home, looked at herself in the mirror and confessed, “If these cats are bad, I’m responsible. After all, I’ve had them since they were 6 weeks old.” So began her quest to do something about it, learning about cat behavior from any resource she could find.

In the early 1980s, there were no veterinary behaviorists, no books on cat behavior – just occasional columns in magazines. Johnson-Bennett even checked out books on child psychology, figuring cats were like kids. Now that she’s a mother herself, she’s not so sure about that.

Dog training books of the day didn’t offer much help; training methods for dogs relied greatly on punishment. Bennett instinctively knew that punitive training wouldn’t work for cats. She gathered whatever she could from various resources, and a year later, her veterinarian was astounded by the change in her cats. The vet began sending clients Johnson-Bennett’s way.

“‘Be careful what you ask for’ might be the best lesson there,” she says with a laugh.

Then an up-and-coming musician, Johnson-Bennett began to sing a happy tune about cat behavior, and soon found steady work helping cat owners deal with their pets’ behavior issues, mostly in New York City high-rises.

When she moved to near Nashville, TN, Johnson-Bennett began helping cats there, but also documented her house-calls in a classic series of books, including “Psycho Kitty” and “Hiss and Tell: True Stories from the Files of a Cat Shrink.” More recent titles include “Cat vs. Cat,” “Starting from Scratch: How to Correct Behavior Problems in Your Adult Cat,” and an updated version of “Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss.” Johnson-Bennett founded the Cat Division of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

While cats are the most popular pets in America, that actually concerns Johnson-Bennett. “I worry that some people chose a cat because they don’t have time for a dog, and want the independent and less time-consuming choice. We’ve become so busy and self-involved with work and we’re working harder, then we come home, cook dinner, go on the computer and begin to wind down. But the cat has missed us all day, and our arrival is the highlight of the day; the cat is ready to go.

“We keep our cats safe indoors – that’s good – but we’re getting this incredible Ferrari and putting it in the parking lot. That’s why enriching a cat’s environment (for when you’re not home) and interactive play (when you are home) is so incredibly important.”

No wonder she’s called the Queen of Cats!

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services