An Interview with Joey Lusvardi of Class Act Cats – a Cat Behaviorist

Class Act Cats is a feline behavior consultation service run by Joey Lusvardi based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He services the Twin Cities metro area including Minneapolis, St. Paul, and surrounding suburbs, but is available for virtual consultations wherever you are located, too! Joey has an extensive background in behavioral sciences and biology. He completed education from the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Pet Professional Guild, Animal Humane Society, Karen Pryor Academy, and more. He even earned a certificate specifically in feline inappropriate elimination (litter box) problems!

So, what is a cat behavior consultant?

Joey: Behavior consultants are animal professionals who help folks identify the root cause of unwanted behaviors and figure out a plan to address them based on our knowledge of cats’
behaviors. We go beyond just training an animal and address the human part of the equation
along with assessing the environment. We also go beyond advice you’d find on the internet as
we look at your individual cat to see what seems to be the problem for them as each cat is an
individual with their own needs and wants. We can also modify plans to fit the humans’ needs
or wants to an extent so everybody wins.

We also offer services to prevent behavior problems. I would rather cats didn’t develop
unwanted behaviors in the first place as it’s much easier to prevent a problem than to fix it in
the majority of cases. For example, when adding a new cat to a home where there are already
cats, you can easily end up with a problem that takes months to fix if you aren’t careful about
how you introduce the new cat. Introducing the new cat correctly could in some cases take a
few days to a few weeks, but it will be much less stressful than trying to fix fighting cats!

What made you start working with cats in particular?

Joey: My own cat started having some aggression issues a few years ago. I went to his vet, who was very helpful and helped me get him back to being his usual sweet self. It was extremely challenging though as I had to wait a full month to get in to see her and I wished there were more resources out there for cats specifically. Cats often get brushed aside as being secondary
pets when they’re actually really complex, interesting creatures. I wanted to fill in a gap and help others who were going through what I went through.

How is training cats different from training dogs?

Joey: There are a lot of similarities between the two, but the subtle differences are critical to successfully training a cat. For example, for both cats and dogs there is a lot of evidence
supporting the idea that focusing on increasing desired behaviors as opposed to trying to
suppress undesired behaviors works way better. For both cats and dogs, we often use food to
help teach the cat or dog that performing a particular behavior gets them something they like.
Many people will give the reward to their dog via hand and it works out just fine. With cats,
however, they tend to not be as receptive to this. People will try holding a treat they’re using as
a reward and their cat won’t be interested in it, but if they put it down into a bowl, the cat will
be all about the treat! There are some exceptions to this, especially if using one of the meat
goop lickable treats cats go bananas for, but generally setting down the treat gets better

What is your general process of helping cats and their owners?

Joey: The first thing I do is gather as much information about the cat, the owner, and their situation as possible. I often try to collect this before the actual session to save us some time when we meet and so I can focus on asking for more details. In most cases, I have them try to get a video of the behavior as well so I can see it happening. I then meet with the client either virtually or in person and we go over their home environment, talk in more detail about the behavior, and discuss what a good solution would be. We then go over initial management and I provide some of the highest yield, easiest to implement solutions based on what appears to be
happening and provide them with a written outline of what to do.

In most cases, I suggest booking at least one if not a few follow up sessions as that tends to work better for both human and cat so we’re not trying to fit too much into too short of a time frame. We continue to work on the behavior until the client is happy with the outcome. I may also encourage the client take their cat to a veterinarian to evaluate potential medical problems. I’ll involve other professionals as appropriate such as groomers, professional cleaners, or someone else if it seems like it may help the cat or help the human implement the plan.

When should a cat parent consider reaching out to you?

Joey: I often encourage people to start with their veterinarian to rule out any medical problems as I can’t diagnose or treat medical problems. This is especially true in situations where there are cats aren’t using the litter box. I don’t require everyone see their veterinarian first so if people want to start with me, that’s completely fine too! If they’re ready to address the problem, I recommend people contact me earlier rather than later as many problems can get worse over time if they are left unchecked.

It also can be helpful to contact me to address problems before they happen. As I mentioned
earlier, I can help people walk through how to introduce a new cat to their home to reduce the
chances of fighting down the line. I can also help people who are getting their first cat or may
be moving and want to prevent behavior concerns related to the stress of moving. It really is
worth the time to not have a larger problem later!

What are the most common issues you are contacted about?

Joey: My top three are fighting cats, biting, and litter box problems. I get a fair amount of new cat owners just looking for general help, too, but not nearly as many.

What was a surprising explanation for an odd behavior that you discovered during a consultation?

Joey: I had one client who we discovered that the reason for their cat’s behavior was that part of the foundation of their home had started breaking. I can’t go into too much more detail for privacy reasons, but it was quite unusual!

What is one myth about cat behavior that you want to correct?

Joey: Oh, this is an easy one: the squirt bottle. I swear, whenever I see someone ask for cat behavior advice online someone will suggest the freakin’ squirt bottle and it drives me bananas. Squirt bottles are a terrible behavior modification tool, yet people still suggest them for everything. They might temporarily suppress a behavior, but they don’t address the root cause. If you’re not around, I can almost guarantee your cat is still doing whatever it is that you’re squirting them for.

Honestly, though, the biggest problem is how often I see it backfire on people. It often will
actually INCREASE a behavior. If your cat is seeking attention, which cats often are because we
as humans don’t pay enough attention to them, the attention that comes with the squirt bottle
will actually make them keep doing the behavior. It can also make your cat afraid of you which
is the opposite of what you want . It can worsen or even create new behavior problems! There
really isn’t a need for it. If you address the underlying reason for the behavior, your cat will
often stop doing it on its own. No need to even add in the squirt bottle.

What is an easy change most average cat owners can make in their homes to improve their
cat’s lives?

Joey: An easy, passive one is adding in more cat furniture. I’ve had clients where adding in a cat tower cleared up some pretty wild behavior concerns right away. I know a lot of people don’t like the carpeted ones, but you can find cat towers that are actually really nice looking without the carpet on them. Heck, you can even repurpose human furniture for your cat! The cat won’t care that it wasn’t marketed toward cats.

You do both in home and virtual consultations. Are there any differences between the two
or any advantages to virtual consultations?

Joey: Cat behavior can be really altered by the presence of someone unfamiliar such as myself coming into a home. Virtual consultations get around this because I don’t physically need to be there so the cats are acting the same as they normally would be. I understand why people hesitate about virtual consults, but in the extreme majority of cases there’s minimal difference. I’d go so far as to say in a lot of cases, it’s actually more helpful to do a virtual consultation!

What training services do you provide outside of behavioral help?

Joey: I know a lot of people think cats can’t be trained, but you absolutely can train a cat to do all
sorts of fun things! I offer training for fun or to help keep with things such as nail trims, vet
visits, or travel. I actually really wish more people would utilize this service as it really will save
you a lot of headaches. On a more fun but less practical note, trick training cats is really
awesome and so satisfying. Because so many people still think cats can’t be trained, even doing
a simple trick like high five will mystify people.

Is there are a specific “trick” you have always wanted to teach a cat?

Joey: I’ve always wanted to teach a cat to ring a bell to ask for food. A close second is to teach a
cat to sit on someone’s shoulder like a parrot on cue.

What is the one thing that everyone should understand about cats?

Joey: Cats are not little dogs or little humans. A lot of people will attribute their cats’ behaviors to
“getting revenge” or as “retaliation.” I hear it a lot with cats who pee outside the litter box.
Your cat is probably stressed, in pain, or has something else going on, but seeking vengeance
isn’t the reason behind doing that. You’ll be much more successful at actually addressing the
behavior if you start looking elsewhere!

And put the squirt bottle away.