Cover Story

Scratching the surface

You may think your cat’s the problem, but maybe it’s you

Helen Berger consulted an animal behaviorist to understand why her cat, Teddy, was scratching and biting her. They now get along much better. Helen Berger consulted an animal behaviorist to understand why her cat, Teddy, was scratching and biting her. They now get along much better. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / May 21, 2011

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Helen Berger was still mourning the disappearance of her beloved Zeke, a cat so sweet he used to greet her at the door, when she decided to bring Teddy, a Burmese kitten, into her life.

“I wanted another companion,’’ said Berger, a visiting scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. “There’s something very nice about having a pet around while you’re writing.’’

Awww. Sweet kitty. Yeah, right. “He was biting me,’’ said Berger, of Newton, “and he was scratching me.’’

She started going into her office when she just as easily could have worked at home. “Why did I do this to myself?’’ she asked, guilt-ridden at her thoughts of giving him away, but unhappy living with him. “I felt trapped.’’

After years of suffering alone, people living under the rule of domineering cats finally have something they can curl up with: “My Cat From Hell,’’ on Animal Planet. But don’t expect a pity-party for terrorized owners, even if some end up in the emergency room thanks to good old kitty.

The show’s title is anti-cat, but its host, cat behavior consultant Jackson Galaxy, definitely sees things from a four-legged perspective. “The cat is not ‘mean’ to you,’’ he said, correcting what he sees as a common phrasing mistake. Rather, the cat is stressed or anxious about something, or needs to play, “and you happen to be there.’’

In other words, it’s not Snowbell, it’s you. “If you remove your ego enough to try to see the world from a cat’s eye view, then your relationship will be healed.’’

“My Cat From Hell’’ is one of a few cat-focused programs on Animal Planet, which realized several years ago that cats weren’t the only ones ignoring their owners: TV was, too. It was a “neglected’’ audience, said Rick Holzman, senior vice president of programming at Animal Planet. The final installment of the three-part pilot runs tonight at 9, but Holzman is hoping the show will have nine lives. “We’re strongly looking into an expanded order.’’

“My Cat From Hell’’ comes at a time when the American love affair with pets continues to escalate. The American Pet Products Association projects that spending will hit $50.84 billion this year, up from $48.35 billion in 2010. Alas, all that indulging, and the attendant humanization of pets, comes with a price.

Alana Stevenson, a Boston-based animal behaviorist, says attributing human emotions (such as spite) to cats is wrong. “That’s the baggage we put on animals,’’ she said. “Animals are like human toddlers. They are not looking in the mirror thinking how their behavior will affect the outcome.’’ (OK, a lot of adults don’t do that either, but that’s a different story.)

What do humans do wrong? What don’t they? Failure to provide appropriate toys, or enough excitement, or patting in the wrong way, can lead to behavior that is perceived by the owner as aggression, Stevenson said, when it might be mere play, or defensiveness. Angry, the cat owner yells, or squirts the cat with water, or blows on its face, and the relationship goes down hill from there.

Berger, the Brandeis scholar, was one of Stevenson’s clients, and after a phone consultation and in-house visit, she learned that she needed to let Teddy play with an object of prey (a toy, not her) and then give him a treat to eat to signal the end of the game. “He’s adorable,’’ she said, a changed woman.

Dr. Amy Marder, a certified applied behaviorist at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, sees troubled animal-owner relationships frequently, and noted that “it takes two to tango.’’

“Most people expect cats to enjoy being petted, but many cats get a little defensive from being pet too much. When they turn around and bite, is that a mean cat, or is that a ‘cat cat’?’’

If you answered “cat cat,’’ Molly Root, an adult education teacher from Brockton, has an animal for you. “We recently adopted Joe,’’ she said lowering her voice in case he was in earshot, “and he is terrible.’’

Root added Joe to her family of two small pugs and two cats (and a husband) after Joe’s family broke up, and he was facing a shelter— or worse. “He’s come after me like a wild animal,’’ she said, mentioning five scratches on her hands and legs. “Twice my husband has come home while I’m holding Lulu and Cosmo [the pugs] and we’re huddled cowering in the corner.’’

At 20 pounds, Joe is about the size of the dogs. “I’m not assigning blame,’’ Root said. “I don’t think he’s a bad cat. I think he’s insecure or sad. Usually he only gets really mean when the dogs are excited, or when the doorbell rings.’’

After almost three months of living under Joe’s reign of terror, Root is considering her options, but none feel right. “I don’t want to throw him out, but I have these other four animals to think about.’’

The idea that the onus is on the owner to change can be hard for a non-cat person, or even some cat people, to understand. Why put up with an animal that makes your life unpleasant? Aren’t there enough dysfunctional family members to do that?

“People stay in miserable marriages,’’ Marder pointed out.

For Berger, giving up on Teddy would have meant sorrow. “I wanted and want a pet,’’ she said, “and I had already invested emotion, time, energy, and money in this one. It would have been a real loss if I wasn’t able to learn to deal with his kittenhood.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at

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