Cat Agility as Play Therapy
In my latest book, The Complete Guide to Holistic Cat Care, An Illustrated Guide, which I co-wrote with my dear friend and fellow MOXXOR Advisory Board member, holistic veterinarian, Jean Hofve, DVM, I share from my personal experience the importance of playing with your cat to deepen your bond with your human animal bond. I call it Play Therapy.
What is Play Therapy?
Play therapy is a specific type of structured play done with an interactive fishing pole-type toy (or something you and cat can enjoy interactively) on a schedule. Through play therapy, we can harness the catís natural hunting instinct and use it in a beneficial way. For instance, in multi-cat homes, bullies can be praised for chasing the toy, which is acceptable prey. Shy cats get their confidence boosted by “successful” hunts. Cats that wake their people at all hours can be retrained to sleep when we do by having a play therapy session before bedtime that gets them all “pooped out.”
Play therapy also creates an immense increase in the guardian-cat bond over time. Your cat will appreciate the difference between nightly sessions of playing with a wand toy and getting praised by you over the furry mice that he or she bats at for two minutes and then loses under the fridge.
If you sense, during your play sessions, that you have a very special kitty athlete, and if you have the inclination, you may wish to explore the wonderful world of cat agility.
What is Cat Agility?
When we think of agility competitions, we usually think of dogs. Dog agility was loosely modeled on equestrian jumping competitions; it debuted as spectator entertainment at the 1979 Crufts Dog Show in London. Since then, it has become the most rapidly growing dog sport in Western Europe and North America. The International Cat Agility Tournaments (ICAT) has created a similar cat competition where cats display their coordination, speed, and grace of movement in negotiating an agility course.
Abyssinians, Tonkinese, Siamese, and Cornish Rexes are especially suited for cat agility, but any cat can take part. You can most often find cat agility at cat shows, but it can take place anywhere. The course is completely enclosed by high portable fencing. Cat agility is a wonderful way to deepen the bond with our cats. Both pedigreed show cats and household pets can perform, so it is very democratic and certainly not a beauty contest! As the handler trains and guides the cat throughout the course, you see a great relationship between handler and cat. Everyone involved with cat agility hopes to see it become as popular for cats as it is with dogs. Itís great to see everyone watching the cats and sharing the handlersí enthusiasm as they race around the course. The cats seem to love it, too.
If your cat is friendly, outgoing, loves to play chase or fetch, and is in good physical condition, you might have an agility star in the making. Here is a checklist to consider:
SELF-CONFIDENCE: Does your cat handle new situations easily, enjoy investigating new things, and find new people interesting? Does your cat love jumping, climbing, and interacting with others? Shyness may limit her competitive ability.
MOTIVATION: Cats love to play, but food is a primary training tool and motivator. You can start by running your cat around the house with a fishing pole-type toy. If she does something well, praise and reward with a tidbit of raw meat. (Cut off a few bits of steak and place them in a plastic bag before you cook it for your dinner. For more of my advice on feline feeding, see my post on homemade food for cats.) Praise and lots of love keep a cat focused.
ATHLETIC ABILITY: Cats need good overall health provided by proper nutrition and exercise. Itís a good idea to have your vet check for structural issues (such as hip dysplasia) that would interfere with your catís ability to run or negotiate obstacles.
TRAINING: Some agility enthusiasts recommend the applied operant conditioning method, which simply means reinforcing a particular response or behavior and/or clicker training. The cat associates the click with getting a reward for a job well done. If your cat makes mistakes, just ignore them and concentrate on rewarding and praising for what is done correctly. Lure her over, under, and through obstacles with a fishing pole toy and your voice. It will always be the cat having the most fun who will do the best.
AGE: The ICAT agility competition is for cats eight months of age and older. Kittens four to eight months old may practice on the basic level course but can not compete. Check out the International Cat Agility Training website at www.catagility.com
My friends from ďViva TonkĒ have shared with us on YouTube how one of their Tonkinese kittens trains for CFA Feline Agility. Here is VivaTonk “Jumpin Jack Flash,” at 5 1/2 weeks training for Cat Agility using toddler sized obstacles. As you can see Cat Agility is much like Dog Agility.
NOTE: Many cat agility people use the red laser which pin points a dot of light on the floor for the cats and kittens to chase around the agility course. Find your own tempo for training sessions and go at your own pace with the feather toy, as some kittens get a bit confused if you go as fast as this video displays.
Treat each cat or kitten you train as the unique individual they are. The trick is to simply keep them in the game and let them enjoy the process. Also watch that you donít overheat or exhaust a cat or kitten. Remember it is not normal for a cat or kitten to ever pant like a dog; this is a sign of exhaustion and being extremely overheated. This can be dangerous. Better to keep training sessions short and fun and end them appropriately so there is no negativity or stress attached to what is supposed to be fun for them and you, too!
The Cat Fanciersí Association (CFA) organizes cat agility competitions for CFA sanctioned cat shows, as well as agility enthusiasts. See agility.cfa.org for more general information.
CAT TRAINING: In the past few years, two training methods, clicker and operant behavior (stimulus-response), have taken the feline world by storm. Once it was thought that cats were too aloof, independent, or stubborn to be trained to do much of anything. Itís true that cats arenít dogs and some donít really care if they please us or not, but they will do something readilyóand do it predictablyóif it serves them well. Usually by using food as proper motivation, cats can learn to do many of the same basic and advanced tricks as dogs. Operant conditioning works on any species with a nervous system, including chickens, dolphins, humans, and worms. Learning tricks could work well for those cat folks who complain that their companions get bored easily, or canít concentrate through a whole play session.
However you choose to interact with your cat and or just how far you wish to go with it is up to you. Who knows, you may even have an agility super star in the making! Just be sure to include lots of love in your play sessions. Love is the magical ingredient in all that we do in this life and that includes holistic play therapies. As children, we all loved to play. Whoís to tell us we canít still be children with our cats? They wonít tell anyone!
Photo by Linda and Carmen Martino