The New York Times September 12, 2004 THE CAT ON THE COUCH 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 don't." 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 problem. "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 yours!"