The Best Way to Pet Your Cat

Before Tiger Bomm found shelter in Maryjean Ballner’s home, he was a homeless stray. “He was a tough adoption,” admits Ballner, who lives in Sandy, Utah. “‘Mouthiness’ was part of his repertoire.” It wasn’t easy to teach the scared cat to drop his guard, but after five months, Tiger finally purred softly for the first time. Ballner’s secret to pacifying Tiger? Cat massage.

Your pet can benefit from frequent cat massage sessions, too. With results including stress relief, increased circulation and endorphin release, cat massage not only enhances your pet’s overall health and well-being, but it also deepens the bond between you and your special feline friend.

Petting vs. Cat Massage

Chances are, you already pet your cat. Similar to what you do, cat massage is achieved by using a combination of specific hand parts, hand positions, motions, pressures and speed. But cat massage takes petting a step further: “When we add detail and finesse to our touch, we upgrade petting to massage,” explains Ballner, a licensed massage therapist and author of Cat Massage: A Whiskers to Tail Guide to Your Cat's Ultimate Petting Experience (Griffin 1997). Ballner advocates cat massage techniques that primarily deepen the human-pet bond.

Feline reflexology, a different form of cat massage, encourages the body’s innate healing ability. Based on the theory that the paws, feet and head are a perfect map of the whole body, reflexology is a system of massage techniques that reduce tension and prevent stress-related illnesses. “Stress contributes to 80 percent of all major illnesses, and reflexology acts as a way to minimize the stress,” explains Jackie Segers, certified holistic health practitioner and author of Reflexology for Cats (Bateman 2007).

Our experts recommend the following techniques:

Brain strokes
Gently stroke the middle of the forehead, from between the eyes to the top of the head. According to Segers, this movement may affect the pituitary gland and brain function.

Chin ups
With your full palm, slowly caress from throat to chin. Cats will crane their head up in approval. “You may also want to try light rhythmic finger tapping under the chin,” adds Segers. “It’s both soothing and stimulating, and it has a direct influence on everything in the pelvis.”

Mouth strokes
Massage in small circles around the sides of the mouth and chin. Reflexology holds that this promotes good digestion.

Getting Started

Though reflexology works best when your pet is a kitten, cat massage can benefit cats of any age. Here are four beginner’s steps:

Find the right time
Notice your cat’s natural routine. Then, “choose a time when your feline friend is resting and is not playful or aggressive,” says Segers. She suggests bedtime or nap time for any touch therapy. Because cats react to the moods of their human companions, be sure that you’re also relaxed. Feeling stressed? Postpone the session.

Ask permission
“Never restrain your cat or force touch,” warns Segers. Instead, approach your pet gently, “with love and an open heart so it can feel your intention to help.” As a first non-threatening step, drop your hand to its eye level and near its cheeks. “This is where scent glands are located, so cats are marking you at the same time you’re touching them,” says Ballner. Respect your pet when it’s had enough.

Learn the art of slow motion
According to Ballner, the slower you touch, the more your cat will respond. Even better, remember “no-mo” (no motion), says Ballner. “Simply rest your hand next to your cat, on top of him or even under him and stay still. Learn to just be with your cat.”

Repeat, Repeat
Turn off the TV, music and cell phone. Dedicate four whole minutes to massaging your cat at the same time every day, Ballner suggests. Be patient and when you find a technique your cat likes, stick with it. Your cat will come to expect it and will want to share each day’s favorite moments with you.

“Since we don't speak fluent 'Meow,' the best way we communicate with our felines is through touch, and the best possible touch is massage,” concludes Ballner. “Our cats deserve the best of everything.”

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/lcoccia

How to Train Your Athletic Cat

Cat agility competitions are helping to shatter the stereotype of cats as untrainable, nap-happy slackers. Wondering if your cat has what it takes to be training in this increasingly popular sport? For those who are interested, getting started is fairly simple.

Find a Motivating Object
Cats don’t run the obstacle course just because it’s there. They need the proverbial carrot to lead them around. Popular items are toys, feathers or laser pointers, but knowing your cat’s quirks can yield great results. As examples, one of the fastest champions, Ursa Corynne, is motivated by chasing after a drinking straw, while Sir Linus, a Supreme Grand Champion in cat agility competitions, traverses each obstacle for the reward of a kiss from his owner, Vivian Frawley. Frawley is also a big proponent of clicker training: “Cats are very responsive to this. It allows you to apply operant conditioning to shape the behavior that is desired.” Lastly, don’t use an actual carrot, since food is forbidden as a lure during competition.

Know the Rules
“Typical course obstacles include a ladder that the cats step through, tunnels, fence jumps, cones or poles to weave through, and hoop jumps,” says Susan Lee, a cat agility trainer from Michigan. “An agility official oversees the run, times it and scores the faults. A fault is a refusal to do an obstacle. A slower run with no faults may place above a faster run with one fault.”

Practice at Home
“To start, sit in your favorite chair and drag a toy for your cat to follow. Then, add a pillow for them to jump over,” says Jill Archibald, agility coordinator for The Cat Fanciers’ Association. Official obstacle courses are expensive, but makeshift ones are easy to create. “A box with two open ends becomes a tunnel; a pillow becomes a jump; three one-liter bottles become weave poles; a toy hoop propped up becomes a hoop jump,” says Archibald.

Start Young
Although there are exceptions, most trainers agree that kittens or young cats perform and respond to training the best, as do neuters or spays. “Adult males or females are usually handicapped by their hormones,” says Archibald. “They are much more interested in finding each other than in doing agility!”

Get Your Cat Used to Crowds
“Training your cat to navigate obstacles is not enough,” says Archibald. “You must also train them to be comfortable in a large, noisy venue with unusual sights and sounds because almost all competitions are held at a cat show.” While it’s true that cats with outgoing, friendly dispositions are best suited to this, recluses can also succeed. Archibald recommends a steady diet of social exercise. “Go to a cat show without agility first, and enter the cat in the Household Pet class,” she says, to get it used to the sights and sounds of shows. “Otherwise, encourage people who visit you to play with the cat. Leave the TV on or the radio. They need to become used to unusual noises.”

Lastly, Have Fun!
Experts agree that the best recipe for success is the special bond that is created through all the practice (play) with your cat. “People underestimate what cats are willing to do once you have the kind of relationship with them that makes them feel safe and excited to do new things,” says Archibald.

Luxury Hotels for Cats

Are you treating yourself to a relaxing vacation that consists of beautiful scenery, daily pampering sessions and delicious meals? Why not treat your beloved cat to the same experience?

“Cats are hot right now,” says Charlotte Reed, an author who specializes in pet lifestyle and etiquette issues. “After years of booming business for fabulous doggy day care facilities, we’re seeing this surge in facilities for cats.”

“Before, boarding facilities were just a kennel with a cage,” says Wendy Diamond, pet lifestyle author and animal welfare advocate. “Now, these rooms are spacious and luxurious with beautiful beds. The whole world of animal boarding has changed. They’re not even called kennels anymore; they’re called hotels.”

5-star Service for Felines
Longcroft Luxury Cat Hotel in the U.K., established in 2010, claims to be the “world’s first truly 5-star cattery.” But the trend and the use of the term “luxury” by cat boarding facilities are actually about five years in the making. If you live near a major airport, chances are you’ll find such a place.

Of course, there’s no true rating service to determine the difference between 3-, 4- or 5-star boarding, and exactly what “luxury” means in cat terms is relative. But since you’ll be paying a premium (as much as $40-$50/night), the following are some considerations to take into account when rating your hotel of choice:

Personal Space
Typical boarding facilities offer a basic cage or a two-tier enclosure. “Any place using the term ‘luxury’ ought to be offering at least three-tier enclosures,” says Reed, “but many offer an entire room or more of unshared personal space.” Top-level suites have premium bedding, a climbing tree, a window with a perch, and decorative touches with bird or fish themes.

Webcam
“More and more, pets are like our children,” says Diamond. “We want to know what they’re doing, whom they’re playing with.” The technology to let people log in for a live feed of their pet is readily available, and more and more facilities are adopting it.

Medical Care
“The one thing pet parents worry about most when leaving their pets behind is the possibility of a medical issue arising,” says pet lifestyle expert Kristen Levine. A high-end facility will have someone on call, if not on staff, and can also accommodate special medication needs.

Cats-only?
Even if your cat lives with dogs, be wary of luxury hotels that also cater to canines. Such places will separate cats and dogs within the facility, but cats are sensitive and have an advanced ability to sniff out enemies. “It could be extremely stressful,” says Reed. “Even if the dogs aren’t visible, your cat might be able to hear or smell them and may be stressed the whole time.” Consider bringing your cat for a quickie tour and see how it reacts.

Playtime
“While luxurious accommodations are intriguing, I believe what cat owners want most is a comfortable, stress-free environment with sufficient human-pet interaction each day,” says Levine. If you pay a premium, you should expect someone to spend regular, quality time with your cat.

Food
“Kennels used to stock one kind of food, so you had to bring your own,” says Reed. “The luxury places are stocking lots of popular brands, so hopefully you just need to tell them which one.” Other facilities might offer choices like fresh fish -- for a price.

One thing that all three experts stress is to check out the hotel before you make a decision. And if you can’t find a luxury facility near you, just wait. “Are we going to see more of these facilities? Absolutely. This is just the beginning,” says Reed.

Photo: Longcroft Cat Hotels ltd.

Cat Athletes With Summer Olympics Talents

Ursa Corynne, Sugar Cube, and Sir Linus: These are cats that are shattering the stereotypical image of cats as lazy, disinterested layabouts. These are the Olympians of the cat world.

“Most people do not believe that cats can be trained, as they seem more aloof and independent than dogs,” says Susan Lee, a feline agility trainer from Okemos, Mich. “But on an agility course, they look ahead to the next obstacle, like a horse on a jumping run -- not like a dog, which takes each obstacle individually.”

Feline agility training and competition is a relatively new phenomenon, starting less than a decade ago. Today, many cat shows nationwide feature agility competitions. Both of the major cat fancier organizations -- The International Cat Association (TICA) and The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) -- have dedicated agility-training programs. “TICA started encouraging clubs to put on agility shows and tournaments, and it’s taken off on its own,” says Bill Lee, Susan Lee’s husband and a fellow official for International Cat Agility Tournaments (ICAT). “Now it has its own following, and there are even some tournaments without a cat show associated with it.”

Competitive Cats
The typical agility course (aka the “ring” or “arena”) consists of a series of ramps, tunnels, hurdles and other obstacles that cats must weave in and out of, up and over, and in a specific order with the coaching of a trainer. Each run is timed, and cats are judged on a combination of speed and how many faults, or errors, they commit.

Cats need to complete the course in fewer than 4.5 minutes to qualify, but Jill Archibald, agility coordinator for CFA, says most complete it in less than a minute, and about 15 percent do so in fewer than 20 seconds. Reports of the best time vary depending on whom you ask, but one clear standout is Ursa Corynne, a Bengal whose owner -- Tami Savard of Xenia, Ohio -- claims a record time of 4.69 seconds.

“When she was little and still nursing, we taught her to drink water from a straw. Now, whenever I have a drink, she jumps into my arms and tries to take the straw,” says Savard. “Most cats are led through the course with a toy, but we use a straw! Before she’ll run the course, Ursa needs to rub on each piece of equipment to make it smell like her. She then rolls on the floor. After that, she is ready to run.”

What Makes a Champion Agility Cat?
After entering and scoring well in several different competitions, a cat can earn the title of Champion or Master (depending on the scoring organization). Most people involved agree that youth is a big asset, as many agility cats perform best as kittens.

“As kittens, they are really focused on the toy that leads them around the ring,” says Susan Lee. “When they become adults (age 8 months), they become hormonal and are distracted by the other cat smells in the arena.”

The other important quality is a calm and outgoing disposition. Although the courses are enclosed in a fence or mesh, the surrounding area is busy, loud and distracting, with strangers and possibly even barking dogs roaming around. A cat needs to keep its cool amid this chaos.

“The first thing a cat wants to be is safe; if it feels safe, it feels comfortable to do other things,” says Archibald, whose Egyptian Mau, Sugar Cube, is a tournament standout. “Sugar Cube hasn’t met a person she doesn’t trust and get along with. If your cat has this personality and athletic ability, you could have a winner.”

Archibald encourages all interested cat owners to give it a shot, but stresses not to expect too much. “Not all cats are going to do this. Some will walk over to the agility arena, lie down and take a nap.”

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.