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Interview with Francesca Riccomini - Vet

Interview with Francesca Riccomini experienced Veterinary and Pet Behaviour Counsellor by Holly Mash our Lily's Kitchen Veterinary Consultant:

Francesca Riccomini is an experienced vet and pet behaviour counsellor. She is a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist and a member of the Feline Advisory Bureau Expert Behaviour Panel. She is a regular contributor to the Veterinary Times, Veterinary Practice, Pet Focus and Your Cat magazines, for which she answers reader’s letters. I was lucky enough to meet her when she was attending a conference at the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School at Langford.


The ‘Specialist’ Interview for Lily’s Kitchen


Francesca Riccomini BSc(Hons) BVet Med, CCAB MRCVS, DipAS(CABC)

Francesca Riccomini is an experienced vet and pet behaviour counsellor. She is a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist and a member of the Feline Advisory Bureau Expert Behaviour Panel. She is a regular contributor to the Veterinary Times, Veterinary Practice, Pet Focus and Your Cat magazines, for which she answers reader's letters. I was lucky enough to meet her when she was attending a conference at the University of Bristol's Veterinary School at Langford.

Francesca qualified as a vet from the Royal Veterinary College in 1974 and has been working in general practice in South West London since then. She has always had an interest in the human-animal bond and what makes our pets so special to us. For the past twenty years, after taking her diploma in advanced studies of companion animal behaviour counselling, Francesca has been specialising in the treatment of problem behaviours in pets, especially cats. 

HM: How do you first become interested in dealing with problem behaviour in animals?

FR: As a first opinion veterinarian I became increasingly frustrated with situations where an animal's behaviour was problematic to their owners but I didn't have the knowledge to be able to help them as this kind of thing was not well covered in vet school lectures during my studies. Then I heard about the diploma course in Companion Animal Behaviour counselling at Southampton University and as it was modular I could fit it in around my veterinary job - so I began!

HM: What are the principles involved in understanding problem behaviour in pets?

FR: It's all about trying to make an accurate diagnosis of the problem, which means understanding the motivation that is leading to the problem behaviour. In some cases there can be more than one motivation underlying the problem behaviour that an owner is seeing. For example some cats will spray urine indoors as a result of stress, frustration and/or emotional conflict but that doesn't stop some of them also using it as an attention seeking strategy at times. If owners assume the latter is the only underlying reason for the behaviour, they may not only be inadvertently unkind by getting cross but their reactions may actually add to the problems by distressing their cats even more.

HM: Why did you choose to concentrate more on cats than dogs?

FR: There have always been more people around helping dogs; there were few specialised cat behaviourists. Also, back when I was first in practice in the early 1970's my male colleagues tended to assume that as a female vet, (and there were few of us around in those days), I would treat the cats! However, I must admit that cats are my favourite species.

HM: What would you say is the most common behaviour related problem facing our pet cat population today?

FR: It's multi-cat households and the stress that this causes these solitary, territorial animals. When I first started it was unusual for people to own more than one cat, now it is commonplace. Even if the owner only has one cat themselves they may live in a build up area where there are several neighbourhood cats all competing for territory, so the same stresses arise.

HM: Some cats seem to get along okay when kept together..?

FR: Cats that are in the same 'family or social group' get along well. This usually means that they are mother and offspring or siblings, but sometimes, unrelated individuals seem to form close friendships too. You can tell if your cats are in the same family/social group if they curl up asleep together from choice (not just if there is nowhere else to go), or if them groom each other or sniff one another's noses. Adult cats that are in the same household aren't necessarily in the same social group, and may not get along together.

I've made these mistakes myself in my time - adopting unrelated adult cats from a rescue because you want to offer them a nice home - not appreciating the group dynamics. Adult cats are generally solitary animals by choice unless they have bonded to unrelated individuals by for example being appropriately introduced to each other early in life.

HM: More and more people are keeping their cats as indoors only pets. Do you see this as a problem?

FR: It's understandable that people are reluctant to allow their cats outdoors, especially if they live near busy roads. But if you are keeping a cat indoors you need to spend a lot of effort to make your home cat friendly in order to avoid problems linked to boredom and frustration. Some people keep their cats in just at night, as a half-way measure - but don't forget that cats are nocturnal animals so are naturally more active at night.

HM: How can we make our homes more 'cat friendly'?

FR: This is especially important for indoor only cats but even those that spend time outside need an interesting and stress-free home environment. Firstly, cats need to have a range of different toys and you need to spend time playing games that mimic the hunt. Lots of cats love the fishing rod type toys. Rotate the toys, allowing access to only some of them at once - this ensures variety.

HM: Francesca I'd like your top tips for cat care please!

FR: Here we go...

1. Ensuring that your cat has somewhere to retreat and hide. 

Even bold cats need to have somewhere to retreat and to hide. Cats prefer high places, so a bed on top of the fridge or a spot up on a cupboard would be fine so long as they can easily and safely gain access to it. They also like to hid and feel safe in dark places, such as under the bed or even just in a cardboard box! You don't have to spend a fortune on beds and toys for your cat! If your cat has retreated into a safe place, never pursue them, leave them alone to recover and relax.

2. Giving you cat predictability &  control over their environment. 

Unpredictable things are scary for your cat. It's a fine balance between monotony and routine. For example some cats find the unpredictability of toddlers unsettling, whilst they may have taken to them as babies quite well. Allow your cat to control most of the interactions you have with them, this means petting them and stroking them when they come to you - rather than the other way round.

3. Combat obesity by making feeding more natural & challenging. 

Cats are naturally very good hunters and in the wild would eat between 7-12 small meals a day, usually small mice and rodents with many failed attempts between successful catches. We need to mirror this as much as possible in how we feed our pet cats, ideally feeding little and often over a 24 hour period and making mealtimes fun. As well as preventing boredom this will help to combat obesity. So throw away the food bowl and put small bits of food down in different locations around the house - so that your cat has to search them out! You will be using the same portions as if you were feeding them the traditional two meals a day, but instead offering small amounts in different places. You may climb up or down to get food - like step - aerobics for your cat! Obviously this way of feeding is easier with dry food than wet. In addition, don't always assume that your cat is coming to you in the kitchen to ask for food, they may well want a stroke or a game...its not always cupboard love!

4. Respecting your cat's individual sensitivities. 

Not all cats are lap cats, and try as you might to make your cat enjoy a fuss and a stroke some are just not that keen. This is what I mean by respecting your cats own individual nature. Cats are what we call 'high frequency, low intensity interactors' which means that they get along much better if you give them a quick stroke or acknowledgment rather than a prolonged petting. We often underestimate the value of our voice as a way of communicating with our cats, talking to them is another valuable way of positively interacting with your feline friend.

HM: Can you offer any other tips for cats that are fussy eaters?

FR: Cats don't like to eat and drink in the same area - so keep their water bowls well away from where you usually feed your cat. Plastic bowls are not a good idea due to the leeching of the petrochemicals over time and always ensure that the food bowl is scrupulously clean as cats are well attuned to odours and moulds.

HM: How about getting cats to drink more water? This is important for cats with urinary tract complaints in particular.

FR:Cats are naturally desert animals so have a low drive to drink although this is often increased as a result of modern diets and indoor lifestyles in warm, heated homes. However, there are ways of encouraging your cat to drink well. Such as experimenting with the type of bowl that you offer them water in, try tall glasses, wide bowls...some kitties don't like the feel of their whiskers touching the side of the vessel and check whether your cat favours shallow or deep levels of fluid. Most cats prefer to drink in high places, so place their water dish on a counter top for instance. Have several different water bowls available to your cat all around the house, you can even get water fountains for cats too as some prefer to drink from running water.

HM: Finally Francesca, can you tell us why cats purr?

FR: It is still unknown exactly why cats purr. It can be associated with pleasure but it can also occur when a cat is in a stressful environment such as at the vets, so always look at the circumstances that the cat is in when they purr. Scientists are still not exactly sure why cats purr and what the mechanism involved is, so watch this space...

For more Fascinating insights into feline behaviour, and a must-read for every cat owner, Francesca's beautiful hardback book, 'Know Your Cat'. (Hamlyn, 2008) is available now on Amazon with 'What Your Cat Wants' (Hamlyn) coming soon.