The New York Times
September 12, 2004


By Bob Morris

My brother and sister-in-law are not therapy-oriented. But this
summer, when Hugo, their 15-year-old tabby cat, started urinating on
their bed and in their son's backpack, they did what they and their
veterinarian thought was the sensible thing.

They hired a cat therapist. She arrived at their apartment for her
first session, took a case history and said that Hugo was acting out
because my niece, who dotes on him, had been preoccupied with her
first romantic dalliance last spring. The main cause of the problem,
however, the therapist said, was Crispy, the family's younger cat, who
had become increasingly needy, greedy and domineering around old Hugo.

"Crispy was abandoned as a kitten," Carole Wilbourn, the therapist,
explained, "so inside she's vulnerable, which is why she eats so much.
There's a void inside that must be filled."

She recommended repeatedly playing a tape she would make with music,
whale sounds and the family's voices. And instead of punishing the
cats, they were to say only nice things to them to ease stress and
resentment. "The obvious kinds of decisions to discipline dogs don't
work with cats," Ms. Wilbourn said. "Cats cannot be controlled easily,
so they have to be seduced."

The treatment cost $450. "It sounds crazy," my brother said, "but we
don't know what else to do."

Pets, it is said, perform all kinds of functions in society. They
soothe, amuse, teach responsibility and compassion, and according to
recent studies, they even prolong the lives of their owners (or should
I say guardians, which is more humane according to animal rights
advocates). More and more, though, I think their function is to make
fools of us. Why else are there pet psychics, pet chiropractors and
dogs on Prozac?

"We live in a culture, in which we take better care of our animals
than each other," said Lynne Tillman, an author who sometimes writes
about pets and whose attacking cat got a diagnosis of "kitten
deprivation syndrome" from Ms. Wilbourn years ago. "Maybe that's
because animals give you the kind of love you wish people did, but

So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that people see the physical
problems of animals as emotional. City dwellers, who make up the
majority of Ms. Wilbourn's clientele, are cooped up in quarters way
too small for anyone, human or otherwise. "If I lived anywhere besides
a big city like New York, I'd be on food stamps," said Ms. Wilbourn,
who has written five books on cat behavior and whose diagnoses include
"single cat syndrome" and "fear of intimacy," some of which she treats
with antidepressants.

Boone Narr, a Hollywood animal trainer who worked on "Catwoman,"
wonders where it will end. "Every movie star I meet is now convinced
that his or her pet was abused at one time," Mr. Narr said. He
suspects that the extremes people go to, to care for their pets
benefit themselves more than the animals. He suggested that a 15-year-
old cat like Hugo is at a time of life when bladder control simply
becomes a physical issue. Other factors like a dirty litter box or
disruption in normal routine could also have caused Hugo's urination

"But if it makes your brother happy to have a cat therapist, then he
should have one," Mr. Narr said. "Maybe it's a nice way of bringing
the family closer together."

It seemed to be doing just that when I dropped in. Ms. Wilbourn had
come for her second session, and the usually superbusy family was
crowded into a bedroom, seated in a circle on the floor, stroking and
speaking soothingly to the cats, who were high on catnip. While a tape
of Debussy played softly, Ms. Wilbourn took notes. Progress had been
made, she said, and Hugo had returned to urinating in his litter box.
But the road ahead was still long.

"You may have to be doing this for the rest of their lives," she said.

Before leaving, she cooed (or perhaps mewed) at old Hugo, "You're so
handsome!" Then she told the younger cat, "Oh, Crispy, the world is