Behaviorist helps solve pet problems


October 05, 1991|By Gina Spadafori | Gina Spadafori,McClatchy News Service

A litter box is bad enough to deal with, but what do you do with a cat who prefers to use a rug? A bathtub? Your bed?

Gwen Bohnenkamp knows.

The San Francisco Bay area animal behaviorist has fielded questions from hundreds of panicky pet lovers. She has dealt with barking, chewing and digging dogs, with cats who claw furniture and eat plants.

She has saved the sanity of many pet lovers, and probably the lives of almost as many pets.

Problems with pets, she says, are really problems with people.

"Animals do no wrong," she said. "What I do is help people understand that there are reasons animals do things."

Ms. Bohnenkamp runs Perfect Paws, a San Francisco service that helps people sort out their pet problems. She teaches classes in animal behavior, does consulting and training in the home and works with clients over the telephone. Her problem pets are a nearly even split between dogs and cats.

A microbiologist by training, Ms. Bohnenkamp came to her current job through volunteer work. She has loved animals all her life and worked with them for almost as long. In college, she says, she was the one who cared for the other students' pets during spring break.

She moved to the San Francisco Bay area more than a decade ago and started volunteering for animal organizations.

"I developed a behavior program at the San Francisco SPCA," she said. "There are more problems in the city, because there are more pets in small areas. You've got dogs in apartments, cats in apartments.

"Before, a lot of cats went outdoors. If they scratched or sprayed, they did it outside. Now they're inside, spraying the walls, scratching the furniture. Suddenly, it's a problem."

She created a hot line at the San Francisco SPCA, a number for pet-lovers to call for help with behavior problems. The service was an immediate hit, and led to requests for help from other humane organizations.

Ms. Bohnenkamp realized that demand for pet problem solvers was strong enough for her to change careers. She was soon working with pet lovers full time.

"People don't know what to do," she said. "There's no place to go, no one to ask. Vets know health, not behavior. You can go back to the breeder, but a lot of times breeders don't see these things as a problem."

Ms. Bohnenkamp stresses understanding what's motivating the animal before trying to solve the problem.

Dogs' problems are easier for most people to work with, she says, because dogs are social animals, much as we are. Cats are different.

"Cats aren't social, at least the way we define social. If you treat a cat like a dog, the problem gets worse," she said.

"Dogs will respond to social pressure because they're social animals. Take intimidation, which is a social pressure. It works on dogs, but try it on a cat, and the cat says, 'Goodbye, I'm outta here.' A cat feels no need to satisfy the pack.

"If there's something in it for them, then they'll do it."

Most of her cat consultations are handled over the phone.

"With dogs, you can go to someone's house and see the problem," she said. "That's not true with a cat. If it's scratching the furniture, it won't necessarily do that when I'm there."

Ms. Bohnenkamp charges $45 for a phone consultation, with no time limit and free follow-ups. She handles an average of 25 such consultations a month.

She has also written two books for pet lovers: "Manners for the Modern Dog" and "From the Cat's Point of View."

"I found myself saying the same things to so many people," she said. "That's why I did the book. Now I can say, 'Get the book, read the chapter on scratching and call if you still have problems.' "

Of the two books, "From the Cat's Point of View" is especially good, with a useful chapter on the most common complaint -- failure to use the litter box. There are plenty of decent books on solving dog problems, but virtually none on cat problems. Ms. Bohnenkamp's "Point of View" fills a big need, and does it well.

The books cost $9.95 each, postage included, from Perfect Paws, P.O. Box 885214, San Francisco, Calif. 94188.

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