Summer 2011 Magazine

Cat Chat



Darlene Arden: The Cat's Meow

By Nancy Marano

"There are so many old wives tales about cats that have become gospel and those old wives have made a mess of things," says Darlene Arden, author of The Complete Cat's Meow: Everything You Need to Know about Caring for Your Cat. "They talk about a black cat crossing your path being bad luck when the cat is just trying to cross the room."

Arden's new book provides cat people with everything they need to keep their cat healthy, happy and bonded with them for life. She debunks cat myths and provides information to make life better for person and cat. If you get one cat book, this should be it.

Arden did not intend to become a writer. She started her career as an actress-singer-dancer-choreographer but began to question whether that was the right path for her. Most people don't suffer their mid-life crisis at 25, but the writing and animal worlds are lucky she did. She's written five previous books dealing with dogs and is considered one of America's leading authorities on dog training and behavior. Currently she is behavior columnist for Dogs in Canada.

In addition to being a multiple award-winning author, Arden is a certified animal behavior consultant and member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (www.iaabc.org). She volunteers as a behavior consultant with Pets for Life NYC, a pet surrender prevention program.

Although she works with dogs and cats, she is a recognized authority on toy dogs. She does speaking engagements and teaches a course at Kutztown University in Canine Training and Management. She judges Canine Musical Freestyle, better known as dancing with dogs (www.worldcaninefreestyle.org), and produces and hosts "Creatively Speaking" a cable TV program dedicated to the arts. Arden lives in Massachusetts with her retired show cat, a Chartreux named Aimee.

One of the things I particularly like about this book is that Arden doesn't differentiate between pedigreed cats and moggies, the British term for mixed-breed cats. "All cats deserve the very best start in life. All deserve to have the things that are appropriate for them at each stage of development. All deserve to be in wonderful, loving homes where people will try to understand them and prevent problems before they occur," she says.

To demonstrate how this is done, Arden interviewed cat breeders about the way they raised their kittens, socialized them and interacted with them. By applying these techniques to all cats, whether it is a stray who has picked you as their human companion or a cat in a shelter or rescue situation, the cats will become better companions and more attuned to living in a family.

Interaction with your cat

One aspect of cat/person happiness Arden emphasizes is the importance of having daily interaction with your cat. Even three five-minute sessions a day can make a big difference. "A lot of the behavior problems could be solved if people spent more time with their cats," Arden says. "When a cat is lying across your laptop or book, what does he want? He wants you. Why did you get a cat in the first place if you didn't want to give him attention or didn't want company to be interactive with?" Cats tend to escalate disrupting behaviors to get you to interact with them. The more you ignore their signals the more the behavior increases.

People think cats are loners. They are solitary hunters but they are social creatures. When we fail to pick up on our cat's signals, we do a disservice to our cat and to ourselves. "Cats must be doing the equivalent of twiddling their thumbs. They have to be bored out of their wits because they are intelligent and train so easily. What a crime to let a cat do nothing. They get depressed and then they get into trouble," Arden explains. "None of that should happen if you develop a good relationship with the cat. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to play with your cat, to interact with your cat."

You can interact by grooming your cat and experimenting with how your cat likes to play. Some cats like toys dragged along the floor, others like toys flying through the air and still others want to play fetch. Knowing what your cat likes allows you to get into a routine of various games to keep your cat's interest. Arden's cat, Aimee, enjoys interactive toys such as fishing poles or wands with a feather on the end. She also likes a track ball game and has a large collection of balls. "She likes things that crawl along the ground or that provide the element of surprise," Arden says.

"Cats want companionship and most people miss every one of those great signals the cat sends out," she added.

Slow introductions, happy cats

Arden believes if you want to introduce another cat into your family, you are asking for trouble unless you take the slow, cautious route. "Speeding up the process is like your husband bringing home a new wife and saying, 'Here, this is your new best friend.' I don't think so," she says.

She allows at least a month for the introductions and details how to do it in her book. "Sometimes if you do it more quickly, you have to start over again or you set up a relationship that is adversarial. Then you will need to call for a behavior consultant and you may have to separate the cats for life. That's not what you want and it's not good for the cats," Arden says. "Do the introductions slowly and allow the cats to become friends. If getting another cat is going to make your first cat miserable, perhaps you shouldn't do it at all. Everyone wants instant gratification and this is one time you can't have it."

Cats misbehaving

Being an animal behavior consultant has given her the opportunity to observe people and their cats. The most frequent cat behavior problems boil down to:
   1. Cats thinking outside the box.
   2. Changes in lifestyle or someone new in the household.
   3. A cat outside who is challenging your cat and making him act territorially.

Much of what an animal behavior consultant does is common sense, according to Arden. "But if common sense were very common, we'd all be out of business," she adds.

Municipal shelters, rescues

"I've always been interested in shelter and rescue cats. All they need is their behavior problems corrected and they would be wonderful pets," Arden said. She is a strong proponent of operant conditioning or clicker training. This is a quick way to train an animal. It is positive reinforcement, an event marker that tells the cat he's done something right. It avoids the language barrier and creates a relationship that isn't built on fear. In her book Arden illustrates clicker training and why you should try it with your cat.

Arden has a strong connection to Albuquerque and has visited here on many occasions. On one visit she took time to go to Lucky Paws, the branch of the Animal Welfare Department at Coronado Mall. While there she taught the staff how to use clicker training with the animals.

"I would like to see people get more involved in letting their local governments know how important the animal shelters are. Politicians should know they won't receive a person's vote unless they bring pro-active staff into the animal shelters. Animals aren't political pawns. Shelters need the best veterinarians they can hire, sanitary conditions and trained volunteers. They must screen potential owners so the animals don't come bouncing back and aren't abused. A huge number of people own pets and it is up to all of us to contact city officials and let them know we will use our vote to help animals," Arden says.

Since Arden has spent most of her life working with and writing about animals, it seemed important to know why she likes doing it. Her reply came quickly. "I love the purity of the relationship and the way love multiplies between animal and person. People may have an agenda or not but a cat doesn't have an agenda. Words that can mask feelings don't get in the way and it is gratifying to see the wonderful change when you can help pets and their people to stay together," she says.

"I hope people will consider adopting older cats. Aimee was 3 when I got her and the bond couldn't be stronger. I can't imagine living without a cat. If a cat chooses you, that's an honor. Cats are pretty selective about their people," Arden says.

If you are a first-time cat owner or have lived with cats all your life, you will find a lot of new ideas in The Complete Cat's Meow to make life with your cat more pleasurable. And best of all you will feel as though you've had a friendly chat with someone who cares as much about your cat as you do.

(For a review of "Rover, Get Off Her Leg!" see www.petroglyphsnm.org/reviews.html#ARDEN. The review of "The Complete Cat's Meow" is at www.petroglyphsnm.org/reviews.html#ARDEN2)



Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who is owned by a cat named Sammy. She is a member of the Cat Writers' Association and Dog Writers of America. Currently she is waiting to see who the new cat or cats in her life will be.

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