It seemed that two-year-old Penelope, a black cat with white socks and one white ear, was obsessed with paper. When she was a kitten, her owners, the Bouchards, would crumple up pieces of paper for her to bat around, and it soon became a favorite game. The paper always ended up in shreds, but, being tolerant and loving owners, the Bouchards continued to indulge Penelope in this paper chase. Once it was over, Marianne Bouchard would simply use the vacuum to get rid of the evidence, while a satisfied Penelope lounged nearby. But apparently Penelope took this game more seriously than anyone thought.
The problem began when Penelope discovered that she didn't have to wait for her owners to provide the paper. There were several self-serve dispensers all around the house -- rolls of toilet paper in both bathrooms, countless boxes of pop-up tissues and the paper towels in the kitchen. Coming home from work one day, Marianne walked into a house filled with white confetti. Penelope had grabbed the end of a roll and charged throughout the house. She apparently enjoyed this experience so much that she repeated it with every roll.
Not knowing what else to do, the Bouchards were forced to keep everything out of Penelope's reach. All rolls of paper had to be kept in cabinets. Not very convenient, but at least it stopped Penelope -- temporarily.
Now that her paper supply was cut off, the Bouchards were sure that life with Penelope would return to normal. But Penelope had other ideas. She was a cat on a mission. No paper was safe. The computer paper running through the printer was transformed into ribbons. Newspaper was shredded and chewed. Mail sitting on the desk was routinely nibbled. Keith Bouchard could not leave these paper items unattended for even one minute, lest the stealthy Penelope take advantage of the opportunity and pounce.
Then one Sunday morning, Penelope chewed up Keith's check book, and the Bouchards finally reached the limits of their patience. Keith insisted that Penelope be placed in another home, or else kept exclusively outdoors. Because of Penelope's paper obsession, Keith wasn't optimistic about finding the cat a home. Neither option was acceptable to Marianne. Tension between the couple grew.
The next day, a tearful Marianne phoned Penelope's veterinarian. He told her to bring the cat in for a complete examination, in case there was a medical reason for her unusual behavior. He also told Marianne about me.
The results of Penelope's laboratory tests were all in the normal range, as were the findings of her physical exam. Marianne was both relieved and disappointed. She had convinced herself that there was surely a medical reason for the misbehavior and was confident the vet would be able to provide a solution.
The vet strongly recommended that the Bouchards contact me. When Marianne hung up the phone, she looked over at Keith, who'd been listening in on the cordless extension.
'We can't get rid of her,' Keith said as he gently stroked the contented cat sleeping on his lap.
'I know.' Marianne held up the slip of paper in her hand. 'I guess I'd better call Pam Johnson-Bennett before Penelope eats this telephone number.' An appointment was scheduled for the next weekend.
It was a beautiful spring day when I drove to the Bouchard home, about twelve miles from my house. I rolled down my car windows and enjoyed the ride, feeling eager for summer to begin.
Seconds after I knocked, the door was opened by Marianne. 'Thank you for coming,' she said as she offered me her hand. 'I've never met a behaviorist before. I hope you can help our cat.'
Keith Bouchard was waiting for us in the den. He rose when we walked in and said how anxious he was to get down to work.
Keith was cooperative but nervous throughout the history-taking portion of our session. He was anxious for me to meet the paper-nibbling Penelope. 'I'll get her,' Marianne volunteered. 'She's always running in and out, but she comes whenever I call her.'
When she returned to the room several minutes later, it was without the cat.
The Paper Caper (continued) Seconds after I knocked, the door was opened by Marianne. 'Thank you for coming,' she said as she offered me her hand. 'I've never met a behaviorist before. I hope you can help our cat.' Keith Bouchard was waiting for us in the den. He rose when we walked in and said how anxious he was to get down to work. Keith was cooperative but nervous throughout the history-taking portion of our session. He was anxious for me to meet the paper-nibbling Penelope. 'I'll get her,' Marianne volunteered. 'She's always running in and out, but she comes whenever I call her.' When she returned to the room several minutes later, it was without the cat. 'I can't find her anywhere,' she said to her husband.
'Did you check outside?' he asked, and Marianne nodded.
The three of us began a search of the house, but with no success. We looked outside, but still no sign of Penelope. Marianne was becoming extremely concerned.
'Maybe she'll come out if she sees the toys I have,' I said. I went back in the house to get 'Da Bird,' one of my favorite interactive toys, which has feathers on the end of a cord that hangs from a long wand and simulates a flying bird. The three of us then sat on the front lawn while I showed the Bouchards how to use the toy. Marianne began waving it back and forth, all the while softly calling Penelope's name, but her beloved cat did not materialize.
It was getting late. I had already been there an hour and I needed to leave soon for my next appointment. 'Based on what you've told me about Penelope, I can give you some behavior-modification techniques that I'm confident will help your situation,' I said as we walked back into the house. 'It won't be the first time that I haven't actually seen a client's cat during the house call.'
I explained to the Bouchards that I felt Penelope's problem stemmed from boredom. Both owners worked two jobs and hadn't played with her in at least a year. This energetic cat spent all day and most of the night alone.
To remedy Penelope's boredom, I suggested the Bouchards consider adopting a second cat. I also recommended regular play sessions for Penelope with interactive toys. 'At least two sessions a day, for fifteen minutes each.'
Keith looked at me in disbelief. 'Where am I going to find an extra thirty minutes a day to play with my cat?'
'Substitute the half-hour each day you used to spend cleaning up the paper she shredded,' I offered.
I further instructed the Bouchards to leave out a few pieces of paper that had been coated with bitter apple. This liquid has a foul, bitter taste, and I knew Penelope would soon learn to connect the unpleasant taste with the paper.
After some final instructions about additional behavior-modification exercises, I promised the Bouchards I would call them in a week to check on their progress and offered to help them introduce a second cat to Penelope.
I was about to get in my car when I happened to look in through the open window. There, sitting so innocently on the front seat, was a white cat. 'You must be Penelope.'
Upon hearing the door open, Penelope got up, stretched and gave a lazy yawn. I leaned toward the back seat to put my briefcase away, and when I straightened up again, Penelope was gone. Looking over my shoulder, I saw her strolling up the driveway toward the house. Midway, she stopped and turned to face me. It was then that I noticed she had something in her mouth. I strained to get a better look and then realized that the small white rectangle in her mouth was one of my business cards. She must have found it on one of the seats.
'Call me anytime,' I said as I got in my car and waved good-bye.
About the author:
Pam Johnson-Bennett began her career when her own problem cat was labeled hopeless by the vet. After successfully treating her own cat, as well as hundreds of other "hopeless" pets, she became a veterinary technician and the award-winning author of five books on cats. She's now a popular guest on national TV and radio, is the behavior columnist for Cats magazine and runs a private vet-referred counseling practice in Tennessee.
Do you have a question for this feline-friendly expert? Visit the Think Like a Cat message board and find a solution.
Excerpt from Hiss and Tell: The Paper Caper used by permission of Penguin Putnam.