Interview with Feline Behaviorist, Alana Stevenson
We are very pleased to announce that Alana Stevenson will be joining Life With Cats to share her knowledge and help us understand our cats and their behavior.
She will post articles on feline behavior and behavioral issues on a regular basis. Alana Stevenson has been working with cats and dogs resolving behavioral problems and teaching pet owners for 9 years, and she regularly provides phone & Skype consults for pet caretakers in need of help with their cats. Alana and I chatted about her personal and professional experiences and we decided to conduct this introductory Q&A so readers can learn more about her knowledge, expertise, and experiences.
Q: What led you to work with animals and to help people fix dog & cat behavioral problems?
A: I was teaching high school after grad school but knew that wasn’t my calling. I have always lived with animals and in high school even started a student group for animal protection and advocacy. I worked at a veterinary clinic in both my junior and senior year. I continued being involved in animal protection and advocacy in college, doing rescue, educating people on campaigns. All my kitties were trapped or found by me, many needed medical care. One was particularly vulnerable and needed food and water given to her by hand. She had seen numerous vets and all deemed her untreatable and said she should be euthanized. She was the love and my life and I had her for 8 years. I also had a shepherd/wolf for 12 years. He was adopted from a shelter in Denver. This doesn’t include all those animals I was raised with since a child; many dogs and kitties.
After teaching for a few years, I realized my passion was still with animals and I wanted to do something meaningful for me. I knew I wanted to work with aggression, healing dogs. I knew these animals were fearful. It was a calling, though I wasn’t involved in the profession at that time. Jumping ahead, I then ended up in Queens interning under a Russian trainer. The curriculum was meant to be positive, but it was really pretty old-school and aversive. But the primary reading material was Clinical Behavioral Medicine in Small Animals by Dr. Karen Overall. And I was hooked. I read all the theory and learning principles. Also immersed myself with books on animal behavior that were focused on positive reinforcement and humane techniques.
I started with dogs going into people’s homes and teaching training classes. After a year, I had already been working with aggression and having great results and success, I wanted to extend my practice to cats. I have felines and have rescued felines and have lived with kitties my whole life. It was a natural extension. So after learning more about feline behavior, I put theory into practice and here I am, nine years later. It was fairly easy and simple for me to put theory into practice. Having been a teacher, I can convey complex information and make it easily understandable for people. I do a lot of teaching. I teach clients to understand their animals’ behaviors and then I teach them how to implement behavior modification.
I should also say that I use and embrace a humane approach. There is never any reason for physical violence, yelling, or force. These are extremely damaging ways to work with animals and make animals fear you. Animals need kindness, especially if they are having difficulty or frustrated themselves. They need that understanding.
Q: What are the most difficult cases you find?
A: As far as behaviors, little to none at this point. All are fairly rectifiable or improvable. Most can be completely resolved. And I’ve worked with many aggressive kitties and all sorts of litter box issues that were even deemed ‘unfixable.’ But people can have odd expectations. The most challenging would be young women who get a kitty in college as a surrogate companion or child. The woman starts to date and realizes her boyfriend isn’t a cat person, is jealous of the cat, or dislikes kitties. Instead of giving the guy the boot and finding a guy who likes cats or respects animals, she wants me to magically change the boyfriend. The bottom line is I don’t fix boyfriends. And in these situations there is a lack of priorities. This happens more frequently than people might think.
Another challenge can be home floor plans and layouts. Some people live in small apartments or studios. Some have loft apartments and then some have a house with multiple rooms and doors. I work with the environments so people have success. If you have a nice environmental set up, it is certainly much easier.
Yet another challenge can be people’s timelines and expectations. For instance, someone wanted a lovable cuddle bug of a kitty and they have a kitty who is playful, gregarious, or inquisitive. They may have wanted a couch potato, but their kitty is having a blast climbing the curtains or interrupting their computer time. All behavior is modifiable, and all animals are unique individuals with their own personalities. Life can be so much more fun when you embrace that. You can absolutely make an active cat more cuddly, and make a couch potato more playful. But you have to take the right steps and spend a little time doing it. Also, some people may be wanting an older cat, but instead they got a kitten. Many behaviors are developmental – young kitties aren’t going to want to sleep all day, and most will be up at night.
Q: I am particularly moved and notice that you do your work primarily to keep animals out of the shelters. You also promote rescue. Do you run into this frequently, animals close to being brought to a shelter because of a behavior issue?
A: Sadly, there are many animals caught in the ‘rescue’ or shelter system that have had bad experiences or prior brutal ‘training’ done to them by owners (and prior trainers), or fosters. There is a lack of screening when it comes to placement of many of these animals by shelters which inevitably sends them back to shelters. It is not atypical for me to go into a home where a cat or dog has been placed 3-5 times. Many animals are adopted out by one shelter and then sent to another one. It is like the foster system with kids. Some kids get lucky and get good fosters. Others have hell stories to share. It’s the same for cats and dogs and other animals who are fostered. Many of these animals suffer emotional shock and fear, or anxiety. Many have post traumatic stress. What’s wonderful is that these animals will blossom when shown love and kindness, and given positive reinforcement.
Q: We are so happy again you are with us. Thank you for sharing your experiences. May people contact you if they need help with a feline behavioral problem, and how can they be in touch?
A: Of course, yes, absolutely. The best way for people to reach me is by phone and through my website www.AlanaStevenson.com. I also Skype. For long distance consults, clients upload video footage or clips of room layouts or their cat’s behaviors before we speak. They also fill out client forms so I can get a background on their kitties and a behavioral history. I make phone consults affordable, so all can get help for their felines and behavioral advice when they need it.