Pet Problems Solved is an online resource for pet parents that provides practical tips on how to solve common pet behaviour problems. Dr Jo Righetti, the Australian animal behaviourist behind the website, is passionate about helping pet owners enjoy harmonious relationships with their four-legged companions. Stay tuned to her website for enlightening articles about living with dogs, cats, and other animals.
Waldo’s Friends chatted with Dr Jo to learn more about her career as an animal behaviourist and to find out how people can be more responsible pet owners in this day and age.
Waldo’s Friends (WF): In a previous Instagram post, you mentioned being around cats since you were eight years old. We’d love to know how this paved the way for you to become an animal behaviourist.
Dr Jo Righetti (DJR): My first and best present ever was a cat! My brother gave me a tabby cat called Tony. I have since given each of my three sons a cat on their eighth birthday! Watching my cat and trying to interact with him (as well as other family pets) gave me a love of animal behaviour. I studied zoology to learn more about this, then specialised in the behaviour of animals. All animal behaviour fascinates me, even humans!
WF: What made you decide to shift from academia/wildlife to focus on pets/animal behaviour?
DJR: When I was studying (a long time ago, in the 80s), people had not even started studying pet behaviour. I chose to study ethology or animal behaviour and looked at hens, mice, penguins, and prawns. My PhD was on native Australian marsupials. After this, I chose to start studying pets. Pets were my passion, and working with them fitted into my lifestyle as I also had two children by then. Plus, I had also completed a diploma in counselling. This was very useful for understanding human behaviour, an essential when dealing with pets.
WF: With pet ownership on the rise, what do you think are the most important things animal owners should always remember when it comes to their pets?
DJR: 1) Be in tune with your pet’s needs such as appropriate food, water, shelter, vet care, and companionship. Get the basics right. 2) Then become in tune with their behaviour. Work out what is normal for the species and for your individual pet. Anything unusual will be a red flag. 3) Add a little extra to enhance your bond with pets, e.g. a new activity together or volunteer to help other animals.
WF: What would you say are the most common problems first-time pet parents deal with that they don’t usually address correctly?
DJR: Sadly, many new owners believe that they must discipline their pet. This is not how pets learn. They learn by being rewarded for desirable behaviour. They are not plotting to take over the human world. They are just trying to make their own world work. Pets are opportunistic and their needs must be met. Buying designer goods does not necessarily meet their needs. Giving them your time does.
WF: These days, it’s common for people to live in high rise apartments. What advice would you give pet owners who live in such homes? How can they make their pets feel at home and not go stir crazy within these confined spaces?
DJR: Attend to your pets’ needs. They need exercise and environmental enrichment. Offer views, different activities, and food-releasing toys. Think of what a pet is missing in living in these surroundings, then provide it. For example, indoor cats may enjoy cat grasses. Pets, however, are often happiest with companionship, so you can have a happy pet in a tiny house or a miserable one in a mansion. It’s about attending to their needs and finding a lifestyle that suits you both.
On a related note, I run a free workshop called “Strata Paws” with City of Sydney, giving tips on keeping pets happy in apartments.
WF: In a video interview, you mentioned that classical and reggae music can be used to calm down dogs. Do you have go-to songs that you highly recommend? When and how often should these songs be played?
DJR: I like to use lots of different playlists so that I or my pets don’t get bored. Try something new! If your pet needs calming, then Johann Christian Bach is great. Leave them with some music when alone, every day, or every second day (which I do). If you want to dance with your pet (and they with you!), then choose your favourite song. Pets will never critique your singing!
DJR: I keep answering the same questions about common dog problems—barking, anxiety, and aggression—so I put all the potential solutions together in an easy-to-read, inexpensive ebook about each topic. Because I love trying different things, I tackled the most common cat problem, toileting, and published this in hard copy form entitled Cat Toileting Problems Solved. Many people still prefer to read “real” paper books, but ebooks are great for readership around the world.
WF: Over the course of your 20-year experience, what has been the strangest animal behaviour you’ve witnessed or been asked about? What was your advice about it?
DJR: Well, I love the millennials’ questions about pets and love, and sleeping with pets and new partners. Questions like “Will my cat be scarred by watching us in bed?” and “Is it normal that my boyfriend lets his dog kiss him on the lips?” They are so embarrassed and I try not to laugh! Pets generally do not mind your sleeping arrangements, and if they do (dog’s biting, for example), seek some expert help. Questions like this spring from love and that is a good thing.
WF: Let’s talk about your pets. How did they come into your life?
DJR: Mew is my oldest cat. She is almost 20 and was my eldest son’s eighth birthday present. Chilli dog is 10 years old and was chosen three months after the death of my Dalmatian Chilli. We went from saying “Let’s have a break from a dog, do lots of travel, and have an easy life” to saying “Home is empty without a dog! Let’s rescue one!” The younger cats Earth and Wind came after the deaths of two other cats (one of natural, old age causes, and the other with diabetic complications). Wildfire was a nine-month-old rescue cat who was, and still is, a wild boy. A very affectionate, but wild boy! I have worked with and volunteered with Animal Welfare League NSW and I am an Ambassador of Animal Welfare League Australia (AWLA), so rescuing animals will always be my main aim. My life is not complete without pets. They keep me busy but well loved!
WF: Have your current or previous pets ever exhibited difficult behaviour that you’ve had to change?
DJR: All the time! Wildfire could not be patted when I took him on. Now I can touch him almost all over but no one else can! Chilli dog is a red hot chilli dog. No one will ever burgle our home! We have had to teach her to accept certain people, as when we adopted her she had certain dislikes of humans. Rewarding calm behaviour is the key.
WF: How do your pets help you become an even better animal behaviourist?
DJR: My pets help me learn about new behaviours. They help me understand new ways of teaching them. They help me relax at the end of the day—or in the middle, if a cat wants to sit on me!