Cat therapists can cure your kitty’s blues
By Rhea Wessel
May 1, 1998
Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur

New York (dpa)– First, animals were used in psychotherapy to help people: victims of trauma, the handicapped and the elderly. Now, more and more pets in New York are getting their turn to lie on the sofa and be treated by analysts.

Carrying her feline-printed shoulder bag, Carole Wilbourn, a pet therapist, makes house calls to treat animal disorders such as separation anxiety, indiscriminate urination and inter-cat hostility.

She believes animals are sensitive, emotional beings and suffer psychological disorders like humans. She has been treating cats for more than 20 years.

At a recent session, the petite therapist played soothing New Age music for an eight-year-old Tonkinese, Bailey. (The names in this article have been changed to protect patients’ identities.)

The soothing music helps Bailey relax, and, according to Carole, makes it easier for him to cope.

When Carole first began treating Bailey years ago, he suffered from single cat syndrome. She recommended the family get another cat to ease Bailey’s loneliness and boost his ego. He could be “top cat” if he had a feline counterpart.

Enter Henry, a shy Siamese and a good playmate for Bailey. Henry’s presence helped Bailey relax and lead a more balanced life. But the two now suffer from separation anxiety since their owner recently died.

Thanks to Carole, and 29 sessions of therapy at 95 dollars an hour, the cats are adjusting.

“I saw a breakthrough by the fourth session,” she said, looking over her hand-written session notes. Human clients are left a progress report for each session and given tips on how to continue therapy until the next treatment.

Carole says she has a humanistic, naturalist approach and tries to make a happy cat instead of working to change behavior.

“You have to treat the mind, body and spirit,” she says, adding, “Right, Bailey?”

The cat stretches a leg and yawns. Carole believes talking to your animals is very important.

With her naturalistic approach, she avoids tranquilizers and Valium for treating cat aggression. Carole does prescribe medicine, homeopathic, of course, and refers families to veterinarians when necessary.

Carole took an interest in cats when she studied psychology in college and she began working with animal shelters. In 1973, she co- founded the first animal hospital in New York exclusively for cats.

Her practice has been featured in the New York Times, the National Geographic and on radio and television programs, including the U.S. network morning shows and the BBC. Her books include Cat Talk and the Inner Cat.

Carole, who wears a tiny golden feline pendant, will soon lose patients Bailey and Henry because they are being adopted. She is trying to prepare them for their new life in a family with two children.

She is happy about the adopting mother, an employee of the deceased owner. Nedra, a close friend and the family’s housekeeper, will take the cats in. The so-called cat shrink believes the adoption will work as a sort of therapy for Nedra, who is also experiencing separation anxiety.

By caring for Bailey and Henry, Nedra has a way to continue caring for her lost friend, Carole says, citing a widely believed philosophy. Another New York pet therapist, Dr. Linda Goodloe says, “Sometimes I treat people instead of animals.”

“A man who had a phobia for dogs called me to find out how to read dog signals. He wanted to know how the dog felt,” she said.

By working with the man, Linda helped him to confront his fear. She recommended relaxation exercises and did counter conditioning. She encouraged him to imagine seeing a dog and imagine his response.

In another case, a woman empathized so much with her daughter’s dog, who was frequently left home alone, she became obsessive. It turned out that the mother was traumatized because she was often left alone at home as a child, Linda said.

Linda and Carole are competitors in the emerging market of pet therapy and they are carving out their market niches. Linda is a behavioral scientist while Carole takes a New Age approach.

Linda is one of about 30 caregivers across the United States who are Certified Animal Behaviorists, a designation given by the Animal Behavior Society in the U.S. state of Colorado.

She has a success rate of 80 per cent for cat elimination problems and has been consulting for seven years. Linda treats cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets and occasionally birds and she is expanding her practice to the state of Pennsylvania.

And if all goes well, clients and therapists alike will reach a state of inner peace.