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The Cat Whisperer

Caleb Pershan | October 23, 2013 | Story Profiles

Daniel Quagliozzi shines a black light on the carpeted staircase where Domino, a 12-year-old black-and-white cat, has been peeing for years. “The question to ask is: does she hate her litter box, or is she stress-marking,” he explains, the smell of urine mingling with the odor of the cleaning products that Domino’s guardian uses daily. Guardian? That’s Quagliozzi’s preferred term. “Nobody ‘owns’ a cat,” he says with a chuckle. “We’re staff, at best.”

Domino’s, uh, guardian is one of about a hundred clients that Quagliozzi’s consultancy, Go, Cat, Go! has seen in a first year of business that’s far exceeded his expectations. This summer, he shot a short “sizzle reel,” hoping it would lead to a pilot deal for a cable network; though he can’t discuss details, he will reveal that he’s signed a contract with a local television production company. His reviews on Yelp read like love letters: “Daniel is a savior!” writes one client. “He really is a cat whisperer genius,” gushes another.

In September, after 12 years of working at the San Francisco SPCA, Quagliozzi left his position to devote himself full-time to house visits like this one. “In giving advice to people over the phone and email at the SPCA,” he says, “I realized that I couldn’t solve their cases, but could just give boilerplate ideas about what was wrong.” Go, Cat, Go! hopes to step in before that Mayday phone call to the SPCA. “If you’re calling an animal shelter, you’re already halfway in the mind-set of surrendering your animal,” says Quagliozzi. “I want to break the cycle of cats that filter through shelters.”

There’s no shortage of demand for the kind of guidance that Quagliozzi gives, says Laurie Routhier, adoptions director at the SFSPCA, which found homes for 3,148 cats last year. “We get lots and lots of calls for help,” she says. “Cats aren’t always well understood.”

“You’ll find a dog trainer, but try to find a cat trainer,”says Quagliozzi, though he admits that he didn’t invent the biz. The Bay Area was already home to Feline Minds and the AdvoCat; that’s almost enough members for a guild. “Everyone has an angle. Mine is: Let’s shoot straight,” he says. He holds no license or degree, his expertise having developed via cat immersion—he saw so many felines during his years at the SPCA that he began naming them after random items on his desk, like Paper Clip and Stapler. “If you’re screwing up,” he goes on, “I’m gonna tell you, and I’m gonna tell you in a way you can understand. People are stubborn.” (Apparently, cats and their guardians have that much in common.) “I have forged this entire career on misinterpretation,” he says, “on what people perceive, how they place their own emotional value on things. That translates to what people think the solution should be for their cat.”

Domino’s litter box sits just paces away from Quagliozzi, at the foot of the staircase—but it’s small and full to its high brim, challenging for an older cat to use. Cats, it seems, reject such flawed boxes. “Litter-box avoidance,” Quagliozzi scribbles in a notebook. (It’s a problem common enough that he addressed it in an SPCA seminar called “Urine Trouble.”) For best results, he says, a box should be clean, easily accessible, and twice a cat’s size. “Cats want to do their business on a nice firm beach,” he says. “That’s ideal.”

Concluding his visit, Quagliozzi recommends a larger box and a different placement, as well as 15 minutes of designated playtime and a slew of new toys. “This one’s an easy fix,” he says—a relief to Domino’s guardian, who can’t have guests over due to the smell.

Guardians like Domino’s seem to need the clear advice—and hope—that Go, Cat, Go! offers. “I could go through story after story with you,” says Quagliozzi. “It’s like counseling.” That’s especially true with couples, who are subject, he says, to “meltdowns.” “I have to tell quarreling couples that no one is at fault here. We’re going to fix this.” Ultimately, he affirms, we’ll do what it takes: “We make alterations to our lives because cats are that cool."

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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