Scratched furniture. Ignored litterboxes. Feline companions who despise each other.
The list of complaints that drive overwhelmed cat owners to the brink of giving up their pets goes on and on.
As a cat lover, Rachel Geller of Newton finds it easy to put animals’ needs first. As a certified cat behaviorist, she has had to learn compassion for the humans who dwell with them.
“If someone says to me that they want to get rid of their cat because it won’t stop jumping up on the dining room table and trying to eat off their plate, I think, ‘Really? That’s a big deal? That’s how I eat every meal!’ ” Geller said. “I had to take my own emotions out of the situation. That was eye-opening for me.”
Geller sits on the board of directors at Cat Connection in Waltham and volunteers as a behaviorist for shelters in Brimfield, Medfield, and Hopkinton. But her growing reputation has brought her referrals from rescue organizations and animal specialists around the region.
“To many independent rescue people like myself, she is considered Boston’s very own cat whisperer,” said Linda Faber, a cat rescuer in North Attleborough.
She points to Geller’s high success rate and its implications: Her ability to successfully resolve hundreds of cat problems every year ensures that cats that might otherwise be placed in shelters stay in homes, leaving shelter space available for cats with no owners.
Nan Wolfe of Lexington found Geller after seeking advice from a shelter on her two sparring cats.
“I was in tears by the time I called her,” Wolfe said. “Rachel talked me down from the ledge. She asked to come see the cats, in hopes that as an outsider, there would be something she could see that would help.”
Wolfe said she was picturing someone like Jackson Galaxy, host of “My Cat from Hell” on Animal Planet, “but Rachel’s not really like that.”
“She’s much more down-to-earth. She’s an advocate for cats, but she’s also very pragmatic in helping you figure out what will work in your household,” Wolfe said. “She continues to coach me with my pets.”
That may be due to Geller’s training — she spent 20 years as a behavioral specialist in the Waltham public schools, working primarily with adolescents. Upon retiring, she decided to apply her skills to an even more mercurial species and became certified as a cat behaviorist through the Humane Society of the United States.
“I’ve owned cats all my life and believed I knew everything about cats, but I learned so much more through the certification course,” Geller said. “I learned how to look at a cat’s body movements or mannerisms and gather information from the tail position or ear position. But more than that, a big part of the training was learning how to empathize with cat owners and recognize the importance of their concerns. People who reach out to cat behaviorists are generally at the end of their rope.”
Often a phone call or e-mail exchange with a new client is sufficient to solve any of a number of typical behavioral challenges.
For example, many pet owners object to cats that scratch carpets or furniture. Geller starts by educating them on the important role that scratching holds in a cat’s life.
“Scratching is how cats slough off the dead cells in their nails. It also helps them release tension, and it stretches their back muscles, which they use a lot. So we want cats to scratch. Just not the couch or the carpet.”
She then explains that it isn’t enough to provide a scratching post. The post has to be covered with the right surface (sisal or rope, not carpeting), stand at the right height (3 feet or so), and be in the right location (ideally near a window or other non-secluded spot in the house).
Occasionally, however, a phone call or e-mail exchange isn’t enough.
Geller recalled one client whose cat wouldn’t use the litterbox, despite the fact the client claimed it was easily accessible to the cat.
Only by making a house call could Geller see the problem from the cat’s perspective: The litterbox was down a long, narrow corridor and up a steep flight of stairs, and another feline living in the household often prowled the corridor, intimidating the cat in question.
Geller has two cats, a Maine coon cat named Rosie, whom Geller rescued from the streets of Waltham, and a Siamese mix named Elijah, who was abandoned in a dumpster.
“I would be happy with six cats, but I also have a husband with asthma, and he seems to feel he has the right to be able to breathe,” Geller said.
Geller generally doesn’t accept payment from her clients; those who want to show their gratitude are asked to donate to the Minnie Fund, which Geller started at Waltham’s Cat Connection, in honor of her late cat Minnie.
“I have a lot of passion for protecting the vulnerable,” Geller said. “Sometimes I’m asked why I don’t go back to helping people rather than animals. But my feeling is that every time I help a cat, solving a problem so that the cat can stay with its owner and not be sent to a shelter, I’m helping a person, too.”
USEFUL CAT TIPS FROM RACHEL GELLER:
— Cats need to scratch. Supply your cat with a scratching post at least 3 feet tall, covered in rope or sisal rather than carpeting.
— Cats should stay indoors. Being outdoors is both stressful and dangerous for cats.
— Litterboxes should be uncovered. Cats feel vulnerable when using a litter box and want to be able to see around them.
— The best game for cats involves a capture. Fishing pole-type toys are especially good, but be sure to let the cat frequently capture the item at the end of the pole while playing. Conversely, playing with a (non-capturable) laser pointer provides a cat with frustration, not entertainment.
— When you visit a shelter in the hope of adopting a cat, don’t be discouraged by cats who don’t greet you gregariously. Cats need time to warm up to people. “You will be richly rewarded if you bring home a shy or tentative or fearful cat and give it time to get to know you,” Geller said.
Nancy Shohet West
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.