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We're all doing our best


I just came from a visit to the veterinarian with my cat Laika (the tuxedo cat). Without delving into the gruesome details, suffice to say we were dealing with infected, blocked anal glands that cause a great deal of disruption to the entire household. My usual vet, who is amazing, was out today, so we had another doctor fill in. This was just a checkup to make sure everything was still looking good.


The vet asked me what I was feeding my cats, and I told him they do best on dry food. It's not the dry food I would like them to eat, but it's what works for them. I then was provided a long, unsolicited lecture on how dry food is terrible for cats, contributes to cat obesity, diabetes, etc. I explained that I simply do not have the time or energy to feed my cats wet food 3 times a day, and I'm often not home enough to give them breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's worth mentioning that they are not overweight and have perfect bloodwork. After many questions about why I can't do feedings 3 times a day (it's a miracle I work full time after 20 years of dealing with accumulated damage from multiple sclerosis). I went so far as to explain that on days I'm teaching on campus, I'm gone for 10 hours, come home and only occasionally have energy to feed myself before collapsing. He was unmoved. The vet finally gave up and moved on to tell me why I should have 3 litter boxes in the house.


To rewind a moment, I was told by a different vet and the shelter I adopted my cats from that their new issues (sexual and physical aggression, marking furtniture) was behavioral repeatedly. I went to a new vet because, as a behavior analyst, I knew there was no stimulus change to account for their dramatic behavioral changes and felt I needed to continue to rule out underlying medical conditions. Also, it's a pet peeve of mine with my human clients to imply that something is "just" behavioral, as if nothing causes behavior.


Increasing the number of litter boxes can reduce behavior problems, yes. And yes, wet food is better for cats. However, my cat's behavior problems were due Laika's painful medical condition, not a territorial dispute with her brother that materialized out of thin air. She was accidentally marking the couch, that set off her brother, and as soon as the new vet treated her condition, all behavioral issues disappeared. Why would I need 3 litter boxes and a whole new feeding schedule when I made it clear that I'm not able to do that? Also, it absolutely seemed unnecessary. I was a bit annoyed about the unsolicited criticism, particularly because none of these things were causing any issues.


All this is to remind any behavior analysts or clinicians reading right now that your clients (or their families) are doing the best they can. Could it be better? Sure! However, figuring out what interventions to use and how to resolve problems must be a collaborative process, not us reciting best practices and prescribing treatment that is impractical for the parent/teacher/whomever to implement. If I notice something that a client may benefit from, but it isn't the primary factor causing issues, I'll ask if they would like to hear about some options that may be helpful. Let's not lecture anyone on how to do things better when they're doing the best they can and the behaviors you're lecturing them about aren't likely to be contributing to any of the issues you were asked to address.


Dry food aside, these guys live in the lap of cat luxury. They are loved, healthy and happy. But "behavior problems" kept sweet little Laika from having a painful medical condition treated for quite a while. Let's use this unfortunate experience to serve as a reminder that; 1) behavior happens for a reason, and when it appears suddenly out of nowhere and doesn't respond to environmental changes, it's often a medical issue and 2) we are part of a team, and need to work on collaborative approaches to develop interventions that are doable for our clients and their families. Shaming people for not being perfect doesn't really benefit anyon

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