Many of the patients in psychologist Dr. Millie Robbins' Silver Spring waiting room require treatment for the same problem. The cause may be decidedly Freudian -- inadequate maternal imprinting -- or it may be that the patient feels threatened: by a pet, a new baby in the household, a recent move to another house, or, as if often happens, a new spouse in the family.
Another doctor has already determined that there's no medical reason for the patient's problem. So Robbins and her partner, Dr. Ginger Hamilton, also a psychologist, search for the psychological answer: Why won't the patient use her kitty litter pan?
Those inclined to snicker at the idea of a cat shrink are advised to reconsider their scorn by Dr. Alan Beck, a professor of animal ecology at the University of Pennsylvania's 6-year-old Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society.
"It's not fair," says Beck, "to ridicule people who try to improve the nature of the human-animal bond while at the same time we deplore people who have the Humane Society kill pets for the very same behavioral problems the therapist tries to correct... Nobody bats an eye if you let it drop at a cocktail party that you've spent $300 to cure your cat's cystitis. But tell them you paid a shrink $75 to stop the cat from peeing on your carpet and everyone will think you're nuts."
You may not take this detailed attention to cats and cat shrinkage very seriously, but studies have found that cat owners may:
Have lower blood pressure;
Recuperate from illness more quickly.
And an increasing number of mental health professionals, behavioral scientists and veterinarians are becoming involved in the business of discovering just what our behavior toward pets tells us about ourselves.
Psychologist Robbins' sessions with animals are not unlike human psychotherapy. For example, she always insists on meeting all the human members of a troubled cat's household. And once, after taking on a particularly neurotic cat that showed alarmingly excessive cleaning behavior, she grilled the new husband of the cat's owner. He confessed it was his sadistic treatment of the cat that most likely led it to lick itself so compulsively that it began losing enormous amounts of fur.
The husband had no intention of changing his ways, so Robbins suggested a new home be found for the cat. She couldn't very well tell the woman to get rid of her new husband, since the cat, not the cat owner, was her patient.
"But I really think the marriage was in trouble," says Robbins, who practices on people as well as cats. "It's possible the wife ended up with a healthy cat and no husband."
Cats have always had their admirers -- and their haters. Menninger Clinic psychiatrist Dr. Alan R. Felthous notes that animal popularity polls consistently show cats way down on the list (even robins are better liked than cats). And throughout history there have been those nasty tales linking cats to witches and breathless babies. Felthous' studies on aggression found that, as children, many sadistic rapists abused cats.
But cat lovers are just as prominent as the haters. The Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania reports that cats have long been found in greatest numbers among unmarried, childless and urgan-dwelling folk. And according to a center study, 20 percent of cat owners commission portraits of their pets and half of them celebrate cat birthdays, most often by presenting a toy or some tasty tuna treat.
This already high regard for cats may soar with the recent invention of special seats designed to toilet-train cats, a development that could send a whole new batch of screeching felines to Robbins.
Perhaps the humans attracted to these seats (which are used much like litter-filled safety nets) are the same people who commission portraits. But after a cat executes a couple of unintentional half-gainers into the toilet bowl, the owner has a fairly freaked out animal to deal with. Also, anyone who teaches a cat to flush might regret it, since cats find flushing so terribly amusing that they'll do it ceaselessly, as if practicing a form of Zen meditation.
In other words, cat lover, here it is, straight from Robbins: "Cats aren't humans. They don't use toilets."
If cats aren't winning any popularity contests, neither are their sales figures stunning. Cat ownership figures have not risen dramatically. For the most part, it seems people and cats bond mainly for a reason long suspected but just now being examined: cats are soothing creatures.
In a 1977 study of factors that affect the health of coronary patients, University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Katcher was surprised to find that pet ownership among the 93 subjects observed was the strongest predictor of survival. It made sense that patients who owned dogs might be better off for the exercise of walking them, but Katcher found the effect held true for patients who owned cats -- not to mention iguanas and fish. A later study on which Katcher collaborated concluded that a person's blood pressure goes down while petting or talking to a dog.
"Cats are not perceived to be as attentive or as sensitive to owner moods as dogs," Katcher says, "but when people talk to cats, the same thing happens -- their blood pressure falls. There is a kind of relaxation that occurs."
A Washington veterinarian, Dr. Earl Strimpel, remembers an elderly woman who brought her aging, grossly overweight cat in to see him three times a month. When the cat finally had to be put to sleep, the woman died soon after.
Many vets tell similar stories. Some of the most pointed projects exploring the relationship between cats and the elderly have been supervised by one of Strimpel's colleagues in the Delta Society, an organization of health professionals concerned with exploring the human-animal bond. Dr. Leo Bustad, head of the University of Washington's veterinary school, has been placing animals in nursing homes for several years. He often uses cats, but never more successfully than in the case of a stroke victim named Marie and a Persian cat called Handsome.
Since suffering a stroke last year, Marie, who is in her late 60s, had become completely withdrawn. She had no family to visit her and lay constantly curled into the fetal position, moving only to scratch her legs, which were soon covered with sores as a result. As the first occupant of her convalescent center's pet therapy room, Marie was paired with Handsome because the staff knew she had once enjoyed owning a cat. Whenever she scratched her legs, Handsome would try to play with her. Before long, she took an interest in the animal and began speaking about him to people who came into her room.
Cats are also being used in the People Animals Love (PAL) program at Lorton Reformatory as a therapeutic aid to inmates, more than half of whom are serving time for murder. Like many prisons, Lorton is surrounded by a large population of feral cats. For some time, prisoners who live in medium-security dorms have been independently adopting cats and sharing their food with them. Now the cats are routinely cared for the vaccinated by veterinarian Strimpel. A pet food company donates kibbles and tins.
Strimpel considers their cats "by far the nicest, most lovable cats I've ever seen." The idea of the program is that such protective feelings expressed toward the pets might be extended toward fellow humans. "The cats fulfill basic needs," says Strimpel. "Most of us need to nurture, to change the focus of attention away from ourselves, to touch and fondle. Two things pets can improve are humanity and morale. At least, that's the case at Lorton."
It's also the case at the Greater Southeast Community Hospital's long-term care facility, which PAL has provided with a resident cat named Sappo. Sappo's popularity is such that Strimpel was overwhelmed by the concern patients showed when Sappo had to have a tumor removed from his tail. That Sappo ever came to the hospital at all has a lot to do with Dr. Michael McCulloch, an Oregon State University psychiatrist and pioneer prescriber of pets for patients.
"Cats are surprisingly useful with the terminally ill," says McCulloch. "They're often willing to lie at the bedside for hours on end with a dying person, which can be very comforting since one of the worst fears these patients have is dying alone. We really feel that touch is a very significant part of the comforting aspect of animals, and cats are amenable to that -- when they want it, of course."
Almost 30 years ago, long before the current cat craze, novelist and poet May Sarton wrote a book, The Fur Person, from the point of view of her cat, Tom Jones. Sarton describes a tomcat that very consciously chooses two old maids as his housekeepers, primarily because they feed him fresh haddock and know how to scratch him with savoir-faire. To Sarton, a Fur Person is "a cat whom human beings love in the right way, allowing him to keep his dignity, his reserve and his freedom... who has come to hove one or, in very exceptional cases, two human beings, and who has decided to stay with them as long as he lives. This can only happen if the human being has imagined part of himself into a cat... just as the cat has imagined part of himself into a human being. It is a mutual exchange."
Sarton remains a devoted cat owner, although of course by now she has another one. At 70, she feels her cat is so vitally attatched to her that her will stipulates that the cat be put to sleep should Sarton die first.
Yet even this cat lover extraordinaire understands the limits of the mutual exchange between humans and cats. "There's absolutely no doubt," she says. "Cats are very selfish creatures. My dog licks my tears when I cry. My cat could care less."
Of course, the very first cat to be domesticated was undoubtedly invited to snooze by the fire by someone less concerned with the animal's haughty ways than its fondness for eating mice. The reason endures. For example, a woman in Southeast Washington was an avowed cat hater, content to live alone. Mice changed all that. It had gotten to the point where she couldn't use her oven, there were so many mice in the house. She tried poison, but the rodents liked it. In desperation, she answered a newspaper ad and came home with a domestic shorthair. At first, he was scared of her; she wasn't keen on touching him. He crawled under the buffet and stayed there. But the next day, three mice were dead.
Now they are quite close.
He lets her know when he wants to get in her lap; she takes him home to Pittsburgh when she goes. "My friends have always suspected that I was crazy," she sighs. "But now they have something to pin it on. I'm a strange cat person."