How can you psychoanalyze your patient if he's not allowed up on the couch?"
"Do you do primal scream therapy -- or primal meow?"
"When you ask a patient to remember his early life, do you mean all nine?"
Cat jokes, folks, Carole Wilbourn has heard them all in the course of her work, for some people think what she does is a joke.
Wilbourn is a feline therapist -- a cat shrink. But she isn't joking.
The correlation between human psychology and cat psychology is that both people and cats have feelings," she explained. "Sometimes people just skip over that. But you have to realize that your cat can feel, your cat does feel and you have to be aware of his feelings. The more you understand yourself, how you feel and why you feel, you can transfer this understanding to your cat. Your sensitivity grows."
A slender, 5-foot New Yorker, she developed her own sensitivity to cats over 13 years of trying to find homes for strays, lobbying for spay and neuter clinics and studying psychology in college. They don't give degrees in cat psychoanalysis, but when she married Dr. Paul Rowan, a Manhattan veterinarian in 1973 ("we met over a sick cat"), she decided to hang out a shingle anyway.
"Paul takes care of the medical part and I take care of the emotional," she said. In her case, that includes humans as well, for it often is their involvement with their pets that cause the problems.
"I size up the cat from the case history that I take and from watching the cat's interaction with his people," she said. "Then I make recommendations on what the people can do to solve the problem.
"Let's say their 3-yer-old cat all of a sudden has started biting them, attacking their friends, and is becoming destructive. I'd ask if the cat has lived alone or without companions and if the owners are away all day. If so, I'd usually recommend that they get a companion (a second cat) so that their pet can use its pent-up energy in a more constructive way.
"Another problem that sometimes comes up is that people wonder why their 8-year-old female cat is suddenly really hostile," she continued.
"Sometimes it turns out that she hasn't been spayed. As the years have gone by, she becomes more and more frustrated because all this energy inside her isn't being used for reproductive purposes. Then I recommend that the cat be spayed. Sometimes it takes the owners a while to understand -- 'she's always been a model pet, etc.' -- but when you push something to the limit. . . ."
"Energy" is a term that crops up regularly in Wilbourn's conversations, even in her explanation of why cats often seem to pursue people who don't like cats.
"What happens is that the anti-cat person comes into the cat's house and is feeling very anxious, hoping that the cat will stay away from him. The cat is affected by the anxious energy and wants to wipe it out so he won't feel threatened himself. So he waltzes over, gets into the person's lap and tries to knead out that anxious energy. And the poor anti-cat person is thinking, "Omigawd!"
Then the lion tamer's maxim -- "Don't let 'em know you're afraid, Clyde" -- is valid?
"That's how cats operate -- on a very 'feeling' kind of basis," she agreed. "They're very intuitive. They'd make great nurses."
They also are capable of vindictive behavior, though, she noted, especially if they feel neglected. "What they do is draw attention to the fact they feel neglected. Their normal, everyday habits become disrupted. Their behavior becomes bizarre. They may urinate or defecate outside their box to get attention."
Her solution: a companion cat or less neglect. She also suggested a urine test to make sure the problem isn't physiological.
Wilbourn has two cats of her own -- Sambo and Muggsy Baggins -- but she can understand why some people are satisfied to do completely without.
"Cats are difficult to control," she said. "Dogs are predictable. Dogs seek approval and they like you to give orders. They like a dominant figure. Cats don't need a dominant figure -- they do what they want to do. There is a mystique about them because they are so interested in self, they are so independent, and it scares some people. Some people don't like the uncertainty of being unable to control what's happening."
Wilbourn and her husband now specialize in house calls, cruising to the scene of the problem in their 1953 Bentley. Wilbourn also has written two books on cats -- "Cats Prefer It This Way" and "The Inner Cat" -- and has a third on feline body language, "Cat Talk," due out this fall. As she sees it, it's a growing field.
"At one time, people were more prone to just cast their cat off if they were having a problem," she said. "Now the understanding has grown and instead of saying, "This is a bad cat; I'm not going to keep him anymore,' they want to do something. They want to help."
How to help until the doctor gets there? Relax.
"I try to let people know that cats like to relax, that they're very much affected by the actions of the people they live with," she said, smiling. "The happier and more relaxed the people, the more happy and relaxed the cat. Energy goes around in a circle."