"Guide to a Well-Behaved Cat," Phil Maggitti

Pros: Understanding, insightful, well-written
Cons: Not a single one!
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 8/24/2001

Anyone who looks at my recent reviews would almost believe that I only write about cat books. Somehow in the rush of future kitten adoption, I haven’t been reading as much fiction or buying new cookbooks. This particular book isn’t specifically a kitten book, but I believe that anyone who has cats or plans to get them should be forced to read a copy of this book. In fact, if you know of someone who’s getting cats, find an excuse to buy them this book as a present. It isn’t strictly a kitten-book, but it explains things that it would be useful to know before you take your cat home.

Most of this book is aimed at (and useful to) your average cat-owner. Part of it is aimed at people who train cats, whether for TV, movies, or other sorts of shows. Even if you never plan to do this, so much of this book will be useful to you that you should buy it anyway.

Some of the Basics

You must be friends with your cat in order to train it.

Sorry – no miracles here. Phil Maggitti will teach you how to work with your cat, not how to overcome its basic nature and turn it into a dog that meows. That one sentence above perhaps best exemplifies why I love this book so much: Mr. Maggitti understands cats. And so will you, by the time you’re done reading this book. Mr. Maggitti starts from the very basics. He covers the evolution of the cat, the domestication of the cat, and the design and function of the cat. He talks about theories of domestication and why cats behave differently than dogs. There’s the theory that cats more or less domesticated themselves, and the theory that cats still aren’t particularly domesticated. Are they the most wild of the domesticated species, or the most domesticated of the wild species?

There’s also a small bit of history. There are a few disturbing details in here about the treatment of cats at the hands of the Catholic Church in medieval Europe (this part may be a little tough to read if you have a good imagination and love cats, but the details aren’t particularly graphic). You’ll also find out why Louis Pasteur may be partially responsible for the restoration of cats to our good graces! There’s a lot of factual material in here, and some biology. The factual and dry is well-balanced and -leavened with delightful turns of phrase and amusing tidbits, however, so it isn’t boring. Don’t skip over this stuff – it really does aid the understanding of your cat.

Heck, I knew I was going to respect this author straight off when he commented that lions and cheetahs are the only social cats. Even many nature programs get that one wrong, claiming that lions are the only social cats. (Male cheetahs will often hang together in small groups called “coalitions.”)

The Useful Stuff

Having problems convincing your cat to use the litter box? Maybe it would help to know why he isn’t using it. In this book you’ll get a guide to many of the reasons why cats stop using litter boxes. You’ll also find a whole lot of suggestions for how to fix such problems. (Hint: stop scolding your cat. Start being sneakily manipulative instead!) You’ll even find out why traditional recommendations for teaching your new kitten to use his box might do more harm than good.

Having trouble getting your cat to sit still for grooming? There are two pages on that, including a guide to useful grooming products to have. There’s information on how to clip a cat’s claws safely (for both you and the cat), combing and brushing techniques, bathing your cat (although the book will point out that this shouldn’t be necessary very often at all), routine ear care… and that’s all before you get to “Basic Cat Training, Part I.”

Now, I know I always heard that when a cat made a mess (to go back to that litter pan problem for a minute), you should bring them back to it and scold them lightly. But did you know that cats have only a 3 to 5-second correction window? That means that for only 3 to 5 seconds after the “bad” incident will they realize that your punishment applies to what they did. So bringing them back to the scene of the crime is utterly useless, and just confuses them. (Hence the use of manipulation instead of scolding.)

You’ll learn about bridging stimuli, intermittent reinforcement, and other simple concepts that are incredibly useful when trying to alter a cat’s behavior. (To be honest, this book did a better job of explaining intermittent reinforcement schedules than my psychology textbook did!) You’ll learn to see “misbehaviors” as natural cat behaviors, and then find ways to work with or around them to avoid future problems.

There’s a good discussion of possible motivations for training – which “tricks” you might want to teach for which reasons, and which tricks it’s just silly to teach your cat if you don’t have a reason for it. Mr. Maggitti did not write this book so that people could teach their cats stupid pet tricks – he wrote it so that we could better understand and live with our furred companions.

Love is unconditional. Rewards are not.

I also feel as though I finally understand the point of teaching a cat to walk on a leash. Mr. Maggitti recommends it for cats that were outdoor cats already when you got them – you want them to be able to enjoy the outdoors still but don’t want them to be outdoor cats, so you teach them to safely walk on a leash. He does, however recommend that if you get the cat young enough, you make sure to keep them indoors. (I’ve heard enough reasons for doing so that I agree with him entirely. Did you know that the average lifespan of an outdoor cat is half that of an indoor cat?)

In addition, there is a chapter on how to handle a sick cat. It includes warning signs to watch out for, and extended directions to help you nurse a sick cat.

The Author (and His Writing)

I love the author’s tone. He has a quirky sense of humor that lightens the dry material considerably. He has a strong sense of what is good and not good for a cat, but doesn’t get condescending and overly-moralistic about it (so maybe people will be willing to listen to him). The sense of scathing sarcasm he applies to certain, ahem, “training aids” and training methods is well-deserved, and hopefully will help new cat owners to get a better sense of the appropriate treatment of a cat. The author very clearly has a deep understanding and appreciation of cats.

It should go without saying, which is probably why it needs to be said, that there is a difference between creativity and cruelty in training a cat.

I cannot recommend this book strongly enough! If more cat owners knew the things I’d read in this book, their relationships with their companions would be greatly improved. Once you understand why your cat does the things she does and how she thinks, you’ll have a much easier time handling her behavior.

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