Cat therapist Liesbeth Puts: ‘Punishing your cat is never a good idea’

The life of Liesbeth Puts, PR employee at a record company, changed radically more than twenty years ago with the arrival of a frightened gray kitten, Cleo. Puts has always loved cats, but after taking this frightened animal from the shelter, she decided to train as a cat behavior therapist in addition to her job, at the animal behavior knowledge institute the Tinley Academy.

In one of the first lessons, she remembers well, ‘bleeping’ was discussed: the kèkèkè-like sound that many cats make, with an open mouth, when they see a bird, for example. “It was said that this was an expression of frustration,” says Puts (61) in a cafe near Driebergen-Zeist station. “I thought: how come, how do you know that? Everyone talks after each other. Few people wonder: is it correct, has it been researched?”

Also read: If it was up to the bird… the cat stayed inside

So she was going to do that herself. She had about a hundred people fill out questionnaires about their cat via the Internet: does it sometimes whine, in which situations does it influence the chance of catching a bird, for example? The bottom line: bleating clearly doesn’t stem from frustration. “Frustration is when you want something and you don’t get it. But if a cat is half a meter from a bird, and it has yet to jump, it still doesn’t know whether it is getting what it wants.” And, she later realized: “If cats are clearly frustrated, for example at a closed door, they don’t bleat at all.” At most they meow that it has to be opened.

In 2008, Puts graduated with honors from the Tinley Academy, on cat bleating. She still works two mornings a week for the record company – she does world music, in 2004 she toured for a day with the Guinean singer Mory Kanté (1950-2020), known for the hit Yéké Yéké. She also became a practicing cat behavior therapist and started writing books about cat behavior.

After catty or cat sweet (A Kitten Raising Guide, completely revised in 2020) and If the cat was in charge (2020, also translated into English as The Handbook for a Happy Cat) has just published her third book: What your cat really thinks† In it she describes how you can read and hear from the cat’s posture, behavior and different sounds whether it is feeling happy, or whether it is angry, or afraid or insecure.

Puts still hates “all those things about cats that are just adopted and passed on.” So she likes to consult the scientific literature on cat behavior for her books. It was no problem for her that you had to be able to read English-language scientific literature at the Tinley Academy and that you had to be able to set up your own graduation research: she had graduated in social psychology in 1986 and that was already necessary. Others had more trouble with it. . “We started that year with twenty people and four graduated.” Cat behavior therapist is not a protected profession. “But the good ones are affiliated with the SPPD, the Foundation Platform for Professional Animal Behavior Experts,” Puts tips. It sets requirements for training and refresher courses.

Her psychology training still comes in handy. “People who are going to do the cat behavior therapist training have a lot with animals, but often do not realize that you also have to have a lot with people. You have to be able to make a good analysis of the problems of an animal, but you also have to have insight into how people function.” Because you have to convince owners to do certain things differently, for example if their cat keeps peeing in the house or hanging in the curtains.

No idea

Many people punish their cats, Puts says, and that’s never a good idea. “How often people still shout: if they pee on the floor, you have to put their nose through the puddle. Or: you have to pick them up by the scruff of the neck. While we already knew twenty years ago that that is not good.”

Why isn’t that good? “The misconception is that the mother cat would do that to punish her kittens. But a mother cat does not punish much, she only gives an occasional tap, cats do that among themselves. And she never takes her boy by the scruff of the neck, she always takes the whole neck. People don’t see that well. Many adult cats don’t let themselves go limp if you pick them up by the scruff, but try to escape because it hurts.”

Do you want to lift your cat? One hand behind the front legs, one under the buttocks and support the hind legs

Getting a cat’s nose through its own urine is also pointlessly cruel. “He has no idea why you’re doing that. How is he supposed to understand that? You have to address the cause. The vast majority of cats that pee in the house have medical problems, such as bladder stones or kidney problems. Otherwise, your cat might find the litter box too dirty or the grit might not like it. People love those pressed wood pellets these days, but cats often don’t.”

Puts thinks it is important that you set boundaries. “You don’t have to allow everything from your cat. But if he does something you don’t want, saying no often helps. And offering an alternative, just like with children. Because you have to take the needs of a cat into account. Suppose he hangs in the curtains, then offer him something else he can climb up into, eliminating the need to use the curtains. But don’t walk around with the plant sprayer all day.” That’s another silly thing that people keep saying: that you should punish a cat with the plant spray. That can make him scared and stressed.

Too little basic knowledge

In any case, there is too little attention for how to raise a cat, says Puts. “For example, that you teach a cat to be combed, that you get him used to having his nails trimmed or that you learn to walk into his travel basket himself. It is also very important that you rinse the carrier after you visit the vet. That can prevent a lot of stress, because otherwise the basket will smell like a vet and the cat’s sweat sweat: they sweat through their feet.”

Owners often have too little basic knowledge about how to deal with cats, Puts thinks. Sometimes they don’t even know how to pick them up. (One hand behind the front legs, one under the buttocks, then support the hind legs.) Or what to do if you want to get a cat (there is a step-by-step plan on her site). And whether you should.

Also read: To be free is to go out with your cat

Twenty years ago, as a therapist, Puts mainly saw unclean cats, nowadays also a lot of fierce mutual aggression. “A well-known misconception is: let them fight it out. That will never work out, all those people are on the phone with me. And what I find most heartbreaking is when people have two cats that aren’t friends, one dies and the other lives – and then when the owner thinks, he’s missing the other cat, I’ll get another one. Then things go wrong again.” That’s why it’s so important, she says, “that you recognize your cat’s revival as reviving.”

worrying for years

Photos Fleur Huijsdens

She now only does an average of one cat consultation per month and only on referral from a few selected vets. She is phasing it out because she likes writing books more and it reaches more people. “I often get the serious cases that the vet does not know the answer to, sometimes they have been worrying for five or six years. Then I think: had started with me.”

We still don’t know exactly why cats bleat, says Puts. “It could be excitement, or what we call an autonomous response. Not all cats do it. There are cats that make a lot of noise and cats that only move a little with their mouth. Cats don’t just go to birds, there are those who also bleat at a toy or when their owner comes in. Maybe that owner really likes that and encouraged it that way.”

Puts himself is currently catless. Cleo passed away in 2010, female Kefraya in 2015, and her sweet tabby male Dennis passed away in March. Puts had signed up as a temporary shelter for cats from Ukraine, but heard nothing more. And now? “Well, I just looked on the internet today to see what’s in the shelters,” she says. “But… my partner doesn’t know yet.”

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