Moreover / The Wonders of Felinology

The therapy is for people, anyway, not for cats.

Sunday evening, Tel Aviv

"This is a cat that's suffering from a lot of stress," says Hagit Russo, a certified consultant on feline behavior, after she hears the details of the case. Shuli, a large, pretty cat that was adopted as a kitten after being found on the roof of a building at the height of summer, is about a year old. Eight months ago, he moved to a new apartment following his masters' divorce, and he has also been through two different partners since then. Most of the day he is alone at home and bored. He expresses his dissatisfaction by peeing on the beds, scratching, swatting and emitting heart-rending wails in the middle of the night. He also likes to walk on clotheslines, but that's just part of his foolish feline charm.

Russo opens a file and starts asking questions and taking notes. What does the cat eat? What are its common behaviors? How does it play? How does its litter box look? Where does it like to be? Who are the people in the household? What are their habits? Do they listen to music? Smoke? She doesn't talk with the cat, but gives it a silvery piece of yarn to play with and pronounces Shuli alert and intelligent.

After about an hour and a half of a comprehensive interview, the psychological therapy begins, directed at the cat's owner. "He's unhappy and he's indicating that to us," says Russo. "The question is how to create a different situation." She gives advice: How to keep the cat entertained during the day so it will sleep at night. How to arrange its litter box. How to set limits for it as to what's permissible and what isn't. And the best advice of all: "Leave the television on for him during the day, tuned to a sports channel. Tennis or soccer is best."

In a later conversation in a cafe, she says she must take her hat off to Shuli and his kind. "Cats made a big gesture when they deigned to live with us at home," she says, lamenting the ignorance that exists regarding the raising of a cat. "The cat is an introverted animal. You have to be attentive to its body language - to know when it doesn't want to be touched, or not to look it in the eye because it's threatening. You have to understand that commitment to a cat must be total in terms of feeding and company. Love isn't enough."

She has two cats at home. And the house "is for the cats first of all. They're the ones who are there most of the time. I just come and go."

In 2003 she took a training course given by the Cat Foundation (Ha'amuta Lema'an Hehatul) to become a consultant on feline behavior. "My grandmother thought that the course was nonsense, but when she saw that there are therapies to offer and that you can make money from it, she changed her mind." The course last four months and includes segments on physiology, medicine and behavioral theories as well as a practical component of treating cats.

"A veterinarian doesn't have much of an idea about advising on cat behavior," she says. But anyway, "there isn't much to do for the cat. The therapy is for the people. The cat is a mirror of the problems there are at home."

After she learns about the living environment and defines the problem, Russo finds a solution that will suit the cat and its owners. The main difficulty is the exposure to intimate human situations - as, for example, the time she found herself in the middle of an argument between a couple that included accusations like, "It's your cat!" or "If you put the cat out, I'm going with him." But her long experience, together with her intuition and sensitivity to cats and people, leads her to find successful solutions, which have included the creation of new accessories she has come up with herself just to please cats.

"I have this cat grass made of wheat sprouts that they love to eat."

Russo is 31 and single and lives in Herzliya; the nature of her work requires her to make house calls. People from all over the country seek her help. "There are people who give cats Prozac or Valium. It's shocking," she says. She isn't quite making a living from this and spends most of her day as a bookkeeper for a high-tech firm. On the other hand, she adds: "My mother always hated animals. But now I've been able to brainwash her and today she shares the bed with my father, a cat and a dog."

Gal Karniel