As trainers and behavior consultants, we’re often tasked with telling clients things that they might not want to hear. We’re experts in knowing what needs to be said — in identifying behavior challenges and creating ways to address them — but sometimes we can all struggle with how to say it. Whether it’s a difficult truth about their pet’s suitability for life in their home, or something as simple as convincing them to get out and exercise more, communication is the key to our success and our clients’ satisfaction.

In this series of articles, we’ll be looking at different ways that individual behavior consultants have successfully engaged with clients on one specific topic. There’s no one right way to talk to clients; different people will be successful using different approaches, so the purpose of this series is to simply to show you a couple of examples of successful communication.

In this issue, we’re looking at how to talk to clients about adding more litter boxes to a household. This can be a difficult ask, especially for very house-proud or design-conscious clients — but it’s also vital for multi-cat households and can go a long way to solving inappropriate elimination issues.

Dilara Parry CCBC

My go-to for many such conversations, once I have empathized with clients and built up some rapport, is to use humor.

“Well…you already are cleaning up urine in your living room. So the question becomes, would you rather clean it off the carpet, or scoop it out of the box?”

For clients who are not in the mood for humor (always watch body language, folks — and not just of the cat or dog!), I may approach it more gently, and give them the cat’s point of view: “Sam might be sitting there all afternoon holding his pee — and we know that’s not very healthy — because he is scared to walk through the kids’ playroom while they are playing Monsters Roar.”

Another method is to have the suggestion come from the client. I find this helpful with the fortunately rather rare argumentative types who will come up with a “good reason” why whatever you suggest won’t work. It goes something like this: “Hmmm this certainly is tricky. Let’s brainstorm. We do have to add a litter box. You know your routine and your home the best [or insert other “praise”].  Can you think of a spot?”

While I am not in favor of any “cabinet style” litter boxes, I think a well-placed shoji screen (folding screen) can often work, as long as it isn’t super close to the litter box and allows for escape routes. This suggestion can also light up the client’s eyes.

Other things that have worked to convince clients:

  • Remind clients that litter boxes that are clean do not smell bad!
  • “When you have company over, you can temporarily move the litter box out” (especially if their cat is fearful of strangers, and may be best being confined to a room — with a litter box of course!! — while said company is present). Turns out that in many cases, it’s not that the clients really object, but more that they don’t want other people to judge their house…especially the non-cat people.

Sarah Dixon CDBC

I work primarily as a dog behavior consultant, but it’s not unusual for me to work with guardians with dog and cats in the household to help them peacefully coexist. An essential element of dogs and cat cohabiting successfully is to ensure that the cats have pathways and vertical spaces to get away from the dogs if needed. This is also an important feature for multi-cat households without dogs. One of the other common issues is dogs getting into the cats’ litter boxes and food.

Living and working in Manhattan, we are often dealing with small apartments where space is at a premium. Clients can be hesitant to add enrichment items to their home, especially if they feel it will take up valuable room and be an eyesore.

When trying to convince clients to modify their space to be more enriching to their pets, first I will explain why it is important in relation to their training goals. For example, if their goal is for the dogs and cats to get along with less stress, I would explain how cats need to have spaces to get away from the dogs. Cats generally like to climb or have safe hiding spots. I’ll then explain some of the things that we do in our home that make the environment more enriching and safe for the cats but don’t have a large spatial footprint: We use a wall-mounted cat tree that allows the cats to climb and scratch, but doesn’t take up as much space as one that sits on the floor. You can also use the space underneath for more cat hiding nooks or storage. We also use window-mounted cat shelves that suction cup on to the windows. These are great, as they don’t take up a lot of space and are visually streamlined.

Litter boxes can be a challenge in an apartment. Often it’s difficult to convince clients to have enough for their cats, especially if the space is small and they are trying to keep the dogs out of them. I would again explain how additional boxes would help their goals by reducing the stress of the cats. I suggest a few things to make it more livable to add extra litter boxes and keep the dogs from accessing them: One option is to put several boxes inside a storage closet and leave the door open just enough that the cats can enter but the dogs cannot. Covered litter boxes can function to keep dogs out and can be relatively unobtrusive if cleverly placed. I also suggest guardians who want to minimize smell get a flushable cat litter and be diligent about scooping daily.

Lastly, feeding enrichment can be a challenge in a small-space home with multi-species. Typically, my clients are trying to keep the dogs away from the cat’s food. I suggest placing the cat’s food up (another argument for cat shelves) so the dogs cannot access it. Again, relating back to the client’s training goals of reducing stress in the household and ensuring cooperative coexistence, I will explain that an easy way to add some enrichment to a cat’s meals is to use a puzzle feeder (for dry food). I tell them that we do this and have a few that we rotate through. Our cats also get wet food daily and I tell my clients that to add some enrichment to the cat’s feeding routines we simply move the locations of their wet food bowls (up high) every feeding. This way the cats can get a bit of a searching/hunting experience but it’s not accessible to the dogs in the house.

Next issue, we’ll be looking at another difficult topic for behavior consultants to communicate with their clients. If you’d like to contribute, send an email to journal@iaabc.org.