Patti’s Cool Jobs: A look into the career of a cat specialist


Dog lovers say that dogs can be trained to detect illness, warn of seizures, rescue people from buildings. All that plus unconditional love shows that dogs are better than cats.

Cat people will tell you that cats are more intelligent, toilet train themselves, bathe themselves and what about those studies that show cat owners are smarter than dog owners? Cats are obviously superior.

Whatever side of the fence one is on, we can all agree that our pets deserve the best. But what does one do when a beloved cat won’t accept a new kitten? What happens with kitty has litter box issues or is bored and acting out?

That’s where cat specialist Jess VanKoningsveld comes in to save the day. VanKoningsveld, whose background is in the fine arts, has worked at the Humane Society of Huron Valley since 2001, beginning as a kennel tech. VanKoningsveld  says, “My roommate got me the
job. I was very much a dog person when I started!”

While VanKoningsveld worked in the HSHV’s intake department, the Trap/Neuter/Release program for cats began. “This led to the realization that we really needed someone to create and implement a dedicated cat program at the shelter. I’ve been running it since about 2008.”

The need for specialized services for cats is great, VanKoningsveld says. “The animal welfare world is just now realizing that running an established cat program is paramount to finding homes for cats. I’ve gone to conferences, read everything I can find on the subject, watch every webinar.”

VanKoningsveld says that she bases much of the program on successful dog behavior programs, focusing on the basics of caring for and enriching their lives. She also emphasizes the influence of Tanya Hilgendorf, HSHV’s CEO and president. “She is amazing at keeping me and the shelter world up to date on the best practices when it comes to cats,” VanKoningsveld says of Hilgendorf. “This program couldn’t happen without her encouragement and support.”

On a typical day VanKoningsveld arrives at six in the morning to make her rounds of the cats and assess the their needs. “I make space for incoming cats, create behavior treatment plans for cats who need them, assess cats who are ready for adoption, manage stress levels, help the adoption team run the barn cat adoption program…but ultimately I make sure that our cats are housed where they are most comfortable and that they are happy and will eventually be ready for adoption.” In addition to these myriad duties, VanKoningsveld also works with volunteer cat comforters to keep them up to date on which cats need treatment and how to ensure that the cats are contented and happy.

And yes, VanKoningsveld takes calls about cat behavior. “The most challenging (calls) are when someone has a cat who has stopped using the litterbox. It’s really hard to get to the root of a behavior that has gone unchecked for years.”

Behavior issues arise in the shelter as well. “We struggle most with fearful cats and kittens. It takes a lot of patience and perseverance on both my part and the volunteer’s part to get them to a place where they’re ready for adoption. We take in a lot of cruelty cases and that keeps us really busy…those cats need a lot of reassuring and helping to trust people again. They’re the most challenging cases but also the most rewarding.”

So what about that age old question about which pet is better? VanKoningsveld laughs. “Here’s where I admit that as a pet owner, I’m a dog person! That said, I think cats are mysterious and intelligence creatures…you live in their world, not the other way around.”



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