Is It Too Late to Train Your Senior Cat?

Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant in Northern California, is still able to train her 19-year-old cat. Krieger, also known as the Cat Coach, asserts that any cat’s trainability is more a matter of personality and history than age. She weighs in with training tips and special considerations for senior cats.

Can Your Cat Be Trained?

There are pros and cons to training both young and old cats. Kittens have shorter attention spans, and older cats have greater physical limitations. If your older cat has an obvious motivator -- such as a favorite food treat or a petting session -- and has never reacted poorly to training in the past, then Krieger believes the potential is there.

Is Training Good for Your Cat?

The answer is a resounding yes. Krieger believes that working with your senior cat can actually help offset cognitive decline. In much the same way that doing crossword puzzles is thought to help human brains remain more flexible, your cat’s gray matter may maintain its optimal condition by being repeatedly challenged with the concentration and focus required for training.

However, Krieger cautions that you must respect your older cat’s physical limitations. An arthritic cat, for example, is probably not going to enjoy learning to jump through a hoop. “You don’t want to put any stress on your cat during training,” she emphasizes.

How Do You Train a Cat?

Clicker training is the method of choice for most cat behaviorists, says Krieger. It is based on both classical and operant conditioning. Think Pavlov’s dogs and you’ve got the basic idea. The owner responds to the cat’s target behavior with the click of a clicker quickly followed by a motivator, either a food treat or petting.

“The click communicates to the cat when in the instant that they’ve done something correct. Then the treat reinforces the behavior,” explains Krieger. “It usually takes between five and 20 repetitions.”

Krieger says that training should only go on for as long as the cat enjoys it, and that cats should never be punished for getting it wrong. “It should be fun for the cat and the person,” she emphasizes.

What Can You Train an Old Cat Not to Do?

Most of Krieger’s clients are interested in keeping their cats from doing certain things, like shredding the furniture and jumping onto the counter. She lets them know that cats need to scratch and jump, and that it’s necessary to provide alternatives to furniture and countertops in the form of scratching posts and climbing towers.

Once those alternatives have been offered, block off the area you’d like your cat to avoid (with double-sided tape or other covers) and begin clicker training to encourage your cat’s use of these.

“It depends on what an owner is willing to do. Environmental changes, like a scratching post or additional litter boxes for cats having trouble with incontinence -- those things work. Willing owners have success,” she says.

And How About Tricks?

Senior cats may not be as steady on their feet, but they are perfectly able to give high fives, sit, stay, shake hands and touch targets. “It has to be a natural behavior. Cats put up their paws, for example, so high-fiving and handshaking come naturally to them,” says Krieger.

Older cats likely benefit from not only the cognitive aspects of training, but also the emotional ones. “Training strengthens the bonds between cat and owner and leaves your older cat feeling more secure, which is more important than ever as it ages,” says Krieger.

The Cat Connection to Dating and Romance

It’s not uncommon these days to meet a significant other online. A 2010 survey conducted by online dating company Match.com found that 1 in 6 marriages is now between people who met via online dating. Increasingly, our pets play significant roles in choosing potential dates or mates. When you’re looking for love, it’s important that your loved ones at the very least get along with your new boyfriend or girlfriend. For many of us, that means potential boyfriends or girlfriends must pass the “cat test.”

“When I was single, I always let my cat choose my mates,” says Layla Morgan Wilde, who met her husband online 10 years ago. “If my cat, Merlin, didn’t like a date, he’d pace back and forth in front of the person, giving me the hairy eyeball. He was like a magic date-o-meter. If he did that, there was never a second date.”

The Cat Lover’s Profile

When it comes to dating online, cat owners frequently mention their cats, include cats in profile photos or require that potential dates love cats too. “Anecdotally, I’ve seen a lot of JDate profiles that mention pets being important parts of people’s lives,” says Arielle Schechtman, a spokeswoman for JDate.com, an online dating community for Jewish singles. “It’s definitely a common interest and love that people share.”

Pet ownership isn’t factored in to online dating site eHarmony’s compatibility system, but users are able to select up to five pets they have or like in a section called “Something to Talk About.” Forty-five percent of eHarmony users select dogs and cats, says spokeswoman Whitney Standring-Trueblood.

A mutual affection for cats plays such an important role for many singles that a number of online dating communities now target cat-lovers or pet owners. Sites such as DateMyPet.com focus on the connections owners have with their animals and help them try to find similar dates or mates.

Why Your Cat Matters in Relationships

Wilde first noticed cat/dating issues when she fielded rescue calls for a cat rescue organization she founded in the late 1990s. “The saddest cases were women who wanted to get rid of their cat because of a boyfriend or a fiance,” says Wilde, who works as a life coach and cat behaviorist. “A relationship between a cat-lover and non-cat-lover has the odds stacked against it. Occasionally, it’s possible to turn someone who doesn’t like cats into a cat person. It depends on the person’s past experience with cats, their cultural background, any negative association or whether they are allergic to cats.”

For cat owners, it is indeed best to know upfront where a potential spouse stands on a beloved pet. Advises Wilde: “Don’t wait until you’re ready to walk down the aisle before asking, ‘Do you like cats?’”

Cat Volunteers Who Are Saving Lives

Each year, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals honors outstanding people -- and even cats -- who have made a significant impact on the lives of animals. Let’s meet some of the recent winners:

Mittens, ASPCA’s Reigning Cat of the Year
On a cold night in Baltimore, two teenage boys trapped a young mother cat in a milk crate while she was nursing her kittens, doused her in lighter fluid and struck a match. “The brave cat managed to escape from the crate, extinguish the fire and return to tend to her newborn kittens,” says Mallory Kerley, media coordinator for the ASPCA. “Mittens, as she was named, was rescued by local police as well as Baltimore City Animal Control officers. She was brought to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) with her kittens, where she slowly recovered from the loss of her ears as well as third- and fourth-degree burns covering 70 percent of her body.”

In spite of her injuries, Mittens continued to care for her kittens during recovery and was very affectionate toward the BARCS staff. Her inspiring story resulted in extensive media coverage, and she became the unofficial face of the fight for animal protection laws in the state. “Due in part to Mittens, the 2011 Maryland Congressional Session achieved unprecedented success as new laws were passed that had previously failed, finally giving a stronger voice to animals in need across Maryland,” says Kerley. “She now resides in the loving home of Cindy Wright, while the primary perpetrator in the case pled guilty to felony animal cruelty.”

Stevie Nelson: ASPCA Kid of the Year
Just before turning 5, Stevie Nelson lost his two beloved black Labradors. He and his family were devastated. Their search extended over five states, and they hired a private investigator and offered a sizable cash reward for their dogs’ return. Unfortunately, they never came home.

Stevie decided he wanted to help other needy animals find homes. “Instead of asking for toys and games for his 6th birthday, he set out to raise $6,000 for the Northeast Nebraska Humane Society (NNHS), which was launching a capital campaign to build a new animal shelter,” says Kerley. “By his birthday on March 16, Stevie had surpassed his initial goal, and to date, he has raised more than $28,000 for NNHS to continue to help even more animals in need.”

Caroline Griffin: ASPCA Presidential Service Award Winner

Fed up with horror stories describing cruel acts against animals, Caroline Griffin of Baltimore decided that enough was enough. She used her training as an attorney to devote her life to advocating for changes in her city’s policies and procedures to better protect animals and prosecute their abusers. She was appointed to chair a task force to examine the extent of animal abuse and neglect in the city and to develop ways to improve the coordination of all the agencies and individuals concerned about the problem. “Her leadership of the Mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force led to heightened media and public awareness of animal issues and an unprecedented level of cooperation between groups,” says Kerley. “She has helped to create a dramatic change in the way the citizens and officials of Baltimore view our duties to protect animals.” As a result, Baltimore now serves as a model for other cities across the country.

ASPCA president and CEO, Ed Sayres, says each of the winners displayed tremendous commitment and compassion. “The distinguished achievements of these advocates are prime examples of the ASPCA’s mission of preventing cruelty to animals.”

Photo: ASPCA

The Benefits of Joining a Cat Social Group

The idea of cats and their owners socializing might seem a little like, well, something dogs and their owners would do. But if you’re looking to meet like-minded cat owners, it can be a fun and rewarding time. “I had a great time bonding over awesome people and cats,” says Chris Adams, a Meow Mingle mixer participant. “We are a different breed from dog people.”

Cat-specific Pet Events
After hosting Mutt Mingles for five years, Pussy & Pooch kicked off its Meow Mingle series earlier this year with a quinceanera for Minx the cat’s 15th birthday, explains Janene Zakrajsek, owner of the boutique. The cat mixers have been quite the hit, says Zakrajsek, who owns locations in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. One mixer drew more than 20 cats.

Time to Mingle
In this social networking age, we look to make connections with others based on shared backgrounds and interests. Cat owners -- and in some cases, their cats -- are no different. Across the country, cat lovers are finding that they enjoy meeting to discuss common ground: their cats and all things cat-related.

“We love our cats and share their adventures and seek each other’s advice about situations we encounter with our pets,” says Brenda Flahault, president of the Garden State Cat Club of New Jersey.

Sharing Knowledge, Helping Cats
The Garden State Cat Club, among the oldest and largest cat clubs in the country, includes 70 members, some located as far away as Australia and Bermuda, says Flahault. The core group of 35 or so members who live near Clark, N.J., meets for regular dinners and holiday parties. These humans-only outings include programs on specific cat breeds, veterinary care, cat photography, cat massage and other related topics.

“Our members are folks who exhibit cats, breed cats or just love cats, even if they do not have one of their own,” says Flahault. Affiliated with the Cat Fanciers’ Association, the Garden State Cat Club also hosts an annual cat expo and show that’s open to all cats -- mixed breed and purebred. The club works to assist cat-related charities, making donations and collecting toys, food, blankets and more for cat rescue efforts.

Virtual Get-togethers
Some mixers include cats and their owners, while others simply feature cat lovers who left their four-legged friends at home. Carrie Profenno’s cat-centric community, however, meets via her website, Maine Coon Cat Nation. Her site focuses on all things related to the majestic Maine coon cat.

“Almost every day, cat owners share photos, stories and sometimes videos of their cats. Our regular visitors leave comments and compliments for them. They are a very supportive group,” says Profenno. “It is a very positive and caring community, and I’m so honored to have had a part in it. Our community is from all over the world, so for now it’s a virtual get-together.”

Find or Start Your Own Group
Are you ready to mingle with other cat owners in person or virtually? You can find local CFA clubs through the Cat Fanciers Association, suggests Flahault. “Most clubs are looking for interested members,” she says.

Also, consider starting a club that assists a local shelter by fostering cats and kittens. It’s a good way to meet other cat-lovers and to do good at the same time. Pet boutiques in your area might consider playing host to gatherings as a way to boost business, as Pussy & Pooch does.

It certainly works well at Meow Mingles, says Zakrajsek. “The owners were super-social. There was lots of petting and picture-taking. It is, however, just as much about humans socializing with fellow feline enthusiasts.” That is indeed what you will likely enjoy most about joining a cat-related social group, agrees Flahault.

“The best part of being a member of the cat club is the camaraderie,” says Flahault.

Top 7 Ways to Help Homeless Cats This Holiday Season

Pumpkin, a 12-year-old abandoned cat, was given a new home and a new life after being cared for at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Unfortunately, pumpkin is just one of millions of cats in need. According to the ASPCA, it’s impossible to determine how many stray cats and dogs live in the United States, but estimates for cats alone range up to 70 million.

This winter holiday season, help reduce that high number with one of these seven steps:

1. Adopt a cat. The No. 1 way to help is to open your home to a cat, even if you already have one or more in your family. Some shelters and organizations offer specials. For example, the Humane Society for Hamilton County in Noblesville, Ind., has operated a successful Purrsdays program, whereby all cats and kittens are 50 percent off on those special days. For a low fee, the owner gets a cat that’s been spayed/neutered, microchipped and vaccinated. Executive Director Rebecca Stevens points out that if conditions become overcrowded at her shelter, illnesses can more readily spread. “By reducing the number of cats in our care, our hope is to prevent the spread of illness and cramped quarters for the ones that remain.”

2. Foster a cat. If you haven’t lived with a cat before, or if you just don’t want to take on the long-term commitment of owning a pet now, fostering can be one option. “Fostering can be a great way to determine whether a pet fits into your lifestyle,” says Stevens.

3. Volunteer. During the holiday season, volunteering often takes on a new festive twist. For example, Macy’s and the San Francisco SPCA team up to create the much-anticipated Macy’s Holiday Windows, which feature kittens and puppies for adoption. The partnership has existed for 25 years now.

Says Jennifer Lu, communications manager for the San Francisco SPCA: “The holiday tradition is a wonderful expression of the holiday spirit in San Francisco. Volunteer with the San Francisco SPCA at Holiday Windows and be a part of the magic this season!” She explains that volunteers work over short shifts of about two hours, greeting the public, collecting donations and directing people to the SPCA adoption center inside Macy’s.

4. Donate. Consider making a one-time donation or a sustained financial contribution to your favorite shelter or animal organization. Most can usually inform you how your dollars will be spent to help cats in their charge.

5. Give the gift of adoption. If you know a friend or family member would like to adopt a cat, think about getting an adoption gift certificate instead of an actual kitty. Says Betsy McFarland, senior director of companion animals at The Humane Society of the United States: “The recipient of your furry gift may not be ready for the commitment involved with the lifetime care of a pet. Instead of a puppy (or kitten) among the presents, give the gift of adoption. Many shelters offer adoption gift certificates so the recipient can be actively involved in choosing the perfect pet who will share their home for years to come.”

6. Help via social media. Most major pet food companies have a strong presence at popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes just clicking “Like” or sharing content can help feed homeless cats, since the companies often track such activity and tie initiatives to it.

7. Purchase specially marked packages of pet food. This time of year, some pet food companies are also donating food or money based on sales of their own products. It can be a win-win situation because you would be purchasing cat food anyway, and if the purchase helps to support a charity, the organization gains as well.