Canada’s cat whisperer

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Ottawa veterinarian Susan Little helps frustrated owners with their finicky felines

Dr. Susan Little is a vet who works exclusively with felines and has gained a reputation as Canada's cat whisperer. Little stands with the clinic's house cat, Amiel, a 10-year-old domestic short hair.

Ottawa — Call it the Woof Factor. Dogs — shameless tail-waggers when they want attention — are better cared for by pet owners than cats, those elegant self-contained creatures.

Cats tend to be less valued than dogs, says Susan Little, a highly qualified veterinarian who runs the Bytown Cat Hospital in Ottawa, a felines-only clinic. Little has built a reputation over the past 20 years as Canada’s cat whisperer.

Little says dogs are typically taken to the vet twice as often as cats. That’s partly because pet owners have a pile of cash invested in their dog. Canadians tend to shop for dogs, she says, choosing the breed and spending about $250 on average to buy a pooch. By comparison, cats tend to enter our lives without much trendy consumerism.

“Cats come to us,” Little says. Catlovers are often given a kitten as a gift from a friend or they may take in a stray and give it a home. Vets also see cats less frequently than dogs because it’s often difficult to tell when a cat is sick.

“A sick cat sleeping on a windowsill looks a lot like a healthy cat sleeping on a windowsill, as a friend said to me last night,” Little says by phone from Toronto, where she is giving a lecture on the joys and mysteries of cats.

At her clinics, Little is amazed at how long some people will tolerate bad behaviour from cats before making an appointment with the vet.

“They tell me the cat has been peeing on the carpet for 18 months and they can’t take it anymore, and if it isn’t fixed by Tuesday they’re going to get rid of the cat. I wonder why they didn’t come see me after 18 days.”

Litter-box issues often have an underlying medical cause, such as a weak bladder. The litter box’s location can also cause problems, Little explains.

“Some people put the litter box in the laundry room. So the cat is doing its business when the washing machine hits the spin cycle.”

The noise scares the cat, which then looks elsewhere to relieve itself, she adds.

Others place the litter box by the front door or other high-traffic areas in the home. That’s a deterrent because cats, like humans, prefer privacy for their toilet functions.

Cats are widely believed to be finicky eaters, Little says, but that’s because pet owners do not understand how cats relate to their food.

“Aroma and taste and the social aspect of eating mean a lot to people. Cats are not social when it comes to eating. They prefer to eat alone.”

Taste and variety aren’t a big deal to cats, either, she says.

“It’s the shape, size and texture of food that’s important to cats, and how they can pick it up with their teeth or lips, or their tongue.”

Dogs are omnivores who will eat pretty much anything, while cats are suspicious of new foods. Dogs eat first and ask questions later, Little likes to say, but cats are the other way around. Cats are true carnivores who require plenty of protein in their diet. Finding food that a fussy feline will eat regularly can be a trial for their exasperated owners.

Royal Canin, which makes premium dog and cat food, has a new line called Selective, which comes in three formulas: Savour Sensation, which has two kibbles of different shapes, composition and textures for cats who are attracted to the way food feels in their mouth; Protein Preference, which appeals to cats who like how food feels in their bellies after they’ve eaten; and Aromatic Attraction, aimed at cats who like the smell of food. Royal Canin offers a Selective “discovery pack” for $5.99 you get three sample bags, one each of the new formulas, three colour-coded bowls, and a log sheet to monitor your cat’s intake. Just put out the three bowls, and watch which one the cat goes for, and which are ignored.

There are 8.5 million pet cats in Canada, and some six million dogs. When it comes to pet pampering, dog owners lead the way. Harrods in London opened a state-of-the-art pet spa last month, offering a canine Spa Day Experience, including “a pawdicure,” for about $600.

In movies and cartoons, cats are stereotyped as aloof or indolent, says Little, who has two cats.

“They are either haughty, or fat and lazy like Garfield. People say that if cats were people they would all be sociopaths.”

Cats are often misunderstood because humans are still learning about their behaviour, she says. Dogs have been domesticated for 15,000 years; cats for about 9,000. “We still don’t know everything about cats.”

Little, one of only five board-

certified feline medicine specialists in the country, is steadily adding to human understanding of cats. She is at work on a feline medical textbook, and gives lectures around the world on cats to veterinarians and the public. One thing she knows for sure. Cats don’t pee on the carpet for revenge because they are mad at their owner.

“Those are human emotions.”

Ottawa Citizen

Organizations: Bytown Cat Hospital, Royal Canin, Harrods

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada, Toronto London

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Recent comments

  • elizabeth johnstone
    November 16, 2013 - 15:42

    Our cat has always been very clean and is now urinating on the carpet and won't use her box for any of her business. She is 5 years old and declawed and spayed. Is there someone in the Hamilton area we could take her to? With thanks, Elizabeth

  • Jolina
    June 01, 2011 - 10:26

    Hello Dr. Little, I have questions concerning my cat. It would appear that the only solution would be to get rid of him, but that is not what I want at all. My male cat, who is now about 4 and a half years, has always been mean. We took him off the streets, away from his family, when he was 2 months. He has never fully warned up to us. He sometimes bites us when we want to pet him, which is more often than not. Sometimes I am just minding my own business and he will sneak up to me and bit my ankles or foot hard, bascially attack me and run away. The biggest problem is that he is continuing to pee on various furniture in the house. I am sure it is a terroritoral thing. 3 years ago we had another cat, and they had a peeing war. Finally that passed. Then 2 years ago we got a dog. Over the span of about 2 years, he has managed to pee on two mattresses and a couch, more than once for each. He had to throw these items out. He even continued to pee on a plastic bag for a while that was beside his litter box. The other thing that makes me uneasy is that for a few night I sleep upstairs, normally where he is, and during those few nights he managed to poop on MY pillow, not another pillow that was there. His litter box was virtually empty. I cant explain this behvaiour and I cant justify keeping him without it. Please help!!!!