What It's Like to be a Cat Therapist

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Sometimes it’s not YOU, it’s the cat! And help is out there. Carole Wilbourn started the first exclusive cat treatment facility in NYC back in 1973. She has treated over 13,000 cats. She has published six books on cat psychology and authored a column called Cats On The Couch for 16 years. She’s lectured all across the country and has been featured in prolific publications like The New York Times and National Geographic, along with all of our favorite shows on Animal Planet.

In short, Ms. Wilbourn is the go-to-lady for all things pertaining to a cat’s emotional health.

BTRtoday (BTR): Tell me a bit about yourself, Carole.

Carole Wilbourn (CW): In the ’70s, after my first divorce, I fell in love with a veterinarian. We dated and later married. Together we made a move back to NYC from LA and started the very first cat practice in NYC. We found a place on 13th street in the Greenwich Village at the top of a carriage house to set up our practice.

Upon opening the practice, we got very busy. My role expanded to include being a spokesperson for the practice. I was called a feline behaviorist at the time. The media insisted on calling me “the cat shrink” so eventually my title evolved to Cat Therapist. In the ’70s, the only “therapy” that people were familiar with was physical therapy. Of course, now the term “therapy” covers wide specialties, but this was the early ’70s.

BTR: What qualifications are needed to become a pet psychologist?

CW: You don’t have a license per se, but there are organizations that certify you to become a behaviorist. I majored in psychology and this is a field that deals with emotions. I applied what I learned about emotions to animals. Most importantly, you have to really like cats and have a passion for them.

BTR: What is dual species family therapy?

CW: It means treating both the cat and its guardian. If I can’t get through to the guardian, the cat can’t receive therapy.

BTR: What are the biggest differences in cats and dogs’ behavioral psychologies?

CW: T.S. Eliot said it best, “A cat is a cat and a dog is a dog.” I find that dogs often like to be told what to do, they like to have a have a leader. And cats, their MO is to do what pleases them first and then, if they are happy, they make you happy. Cats don’t like to be dictated to. Of course there are exceptions with certain cats.

BTR: How do you go about diagnosing a cat?

CW: It varies depending on what type of session I’m doing, whether it’s a video session or in person. Often, I play calming music, the sounds of flutes and ocean waves, that appeal to the cat’s senses and make them relax. By the time the session is over, they associate the music with the feeling of relaxation they experienced in the session and I tell the guardian to turn it on when they get home. I’ll have the guardian stroke the cat. The goal of the session is to appeal to all of the cat’s senses.

BTR: But how do you know if a cat is mentally ill?

CW: Cats’ problems are usually emotional, not mental. So appealing to their senses is the way get to the problem.

BTR: Can a cat have OCD?

CW: Yes. For example, if a cat grooms incessantly, it’s a sign they are anxious. I had a couple that called me because their black cat had been biting it’s fur off. They went to several vets and no change. And as I sat there, I observed that the hairless cat was getting rejected by the couple’s second cat. As a result, he was taking it out on his own body. Similar to a person that might bite their own nails or pull out their hair out. I helped them get a third kitten to play with the distressed cat to please him. It worked.

BTR: Do you have cat cases that can’t be treated?

CW: Yes. Sometimes cats just need to be re-homed, like rehab–there’s nothing wrong with getting rehab. My success rate is about 75-80 percent.

BTR: I recently read an article about dogs’ memories, and it said that they are more extensive than initially reported. How far back does a cat’s memory go?

CW: Cat memories go far back. The cat’s memory is in the memory muscle. When certain things happen, like danger or trauma, the cat takes on a certain posture. This is because cats are very emotional creatures and depend on the emotion of the memory. A cat can be reminded of something and immediately take on a posture in response to the emotion. This is why we can’t understand why they react a certain way when everything otherwise has been terrific.

BTR: Tell me about the Reiki that is a part of your treatment.

CW: I do Reiki therapy with music; the cat is petted and the guardian usually gets a chair treatment. Cats prefer to be petted versus sitting in a chair. One lady who had a cat that died came to see me with her surviving cat. She complained that the surviving cat was so unhappy, as they were both grieving. And she said this cat used to put his paws around her neck, which she missed. She just wanted her cat to go back to the way they were before the death of the other cat.  As I performed the Reiki, the cat suddenly put its arms around her neck!

BTR: Why does the word “cat lady” have a negative ring to it?

CW: The phrase I believe stems from an old lady that collects cats. And she’d find another, and another and another one. She probably meant well, but didn’t always do the right thing by the cat. I’d like to think we don’t have as many cat hoarders in the world anymore.

BTR: Some people on social media proudly own their cat lady label.

CW: I call them cat damzels.

Ms. Wilbourn lives and practices in NYC. She has a cat named Orion 2, a siamese and recovering feral. You can check out her website here.