Bring the Outdoors In

Cats love the great outdoors. Unfortunately, the outdoors might not always love them back. With so many potential threats, ranging from automobiles to not-so-friendly animals, allowing your cat to roam free isn't smart or safe in today's environment.

But your indoor cat need not be deprived.  Whether you live in an apartment building or in a house with a yard, you can create a cat-friendly indoor-outdoor space that provides the essence of a wilderness adventure, without exposure to any of the risks.

The possibilities are endless, ranging from a small window box, to a state-of-the-art screened-in porch. The type of space you create depends on a few factors:  how much space you have available, what you can spend, how handy you are at building things, and your property's legal limitations. If you're renting, be sure to ask your landlord before making changes to the rental. And homeowners should check local building ordinance laws before adding to the home or property.

If space and money are obstacles, consider a window box -- which you can either build or buy. These are about the size of a window air conditioner, and work well for apartment dwellers. The frame is usually an acrylic material, spanned with claw-proof screen or Plexiglas for kitty's panoramic view. The most important part of installing such an enclosure is to make sure it is 100 percent secure. It must be able to withstand the weight of several cats without collapsing, weather conditions, and would-be house thieves.

If you have a yard, consider building or buying a structure you and your cat can use, such as a screened porch or patio. Using claw-proof screen will ensure that your cat can't get out and other animals can't get in. This screen is made of polyester (instead of aluminum, which animal claws can tear easily), with a nylon or vinyl coating. Cats can actually climb it without doing any damage.

Supervision of time spent in the enclosure should be a priority, too, especially in extreme weather and temperature conditions. Make sure your cat has access to a litter box, food and fresh water. You should include a floor in the enclosure, instead of placing it directly on the ground to eliminate digging opportunities. A floor helps to keep fleas and ticks out of your enclosure, and prevents kitty from accidentally eating plants or grass that might have been poisoned with run-off fertilizer or pesticides. Lush plants and grass in pots on your porch will provide the jungle environment your cat craves.

By bringing the outdoors inside, you can keep your cat safe, happy and in touch with the sounds, sights and smells of nature.

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.

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.”

Determine Your Cat’s Toy Preferences

Here’s a clue for future cat-toy shopping: Quite often, your cat’s preferred method of hunting will be reflected in its choice of favorite toys. Below, Marilyn Krieger, certified cat behavior consultant and author of Naughty No More! and others share more about the feline play drive, and how you can better select toys for your cat.

Your Cat’s Inner Wild Nature
Sometimes, cat toy preferences can be passed down through feline generations. A cat in the wild might hunt as its mother taught it to hunt, explains Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant with Paws, Whiskers & Claws, The Feline Hospital in Marietta, Ga. “Oftentimes with barn cats, if the mom’s a mouser, the kittens tend to grow up to be mousers as well,” says Johnson. “Cats are actually extremely prey-specific.”

At the same time, cats can be equal-opportunity hunters, says Krieger. Hunting can be a dangerous situation for them, so a hungry cat in the wild might pursue the easiest prey. That’s one reason cats play with their prey -- and their toys. It’s safer for them to tire out their prey before moving in for the kill.

Playing With Your Cat
Identifying your cat’s prey preference will make play more fun and save you from wasting money on the wrong toys.

Make an initial investment in an assortment of toys to try with your cat. You’ll want toys that mimic birds, perhaps flying through the air or making chirping sounds, and toys that stand in for prey that is hunted on the ground. You might even try a large stuffed animal for a cat that likes kicking its prey. “That can be a redirection tool if you have a cat that likes to chase and bite hands,” says Krieger. You can imitate the movement of a bug using a string with a knot on the end or by tossing some kibble across the floor.

Any toys your cat doesn’t enjoy can be donated to a shelter or rescue organization.

How to Feign Being Prey

Although it helps to see the world through your cat’s eyes, it’s even better to think like prey when you play. Try these techniques:

  • Change movements. “The movements you do are most important when it comes to enticing your little hunter,” says certified cat behavior consultant Pam Johnson-Bennett. “Some cats enjoy erratic, jerky movements, and some are more enticed by fluid, smooth movements.”
  • Be less obvious. “Cats want to chase things that are sitting, twitching, cowering in fear and barely moving,” says Johnson-Bennett. “Cats like their prey to be slinky and mysterious.”
  • Use smaller objects. Smaller toys appeal more to cats because your cat might view a large toy as an opponent rather than prey, explains Johnson-Bennett.
  • Don’t attack your cat. “People playing with toys will throw toys at cats,” says Johnson. No mouse with any sense of self-preservation is going to run at your cat. “Prey always goes away from the predator -- never back toward the cat,” explains Krieger.
  • Let your cat win. The satisfaction of the hunt, after all, is to subdue the prey. “At some point, your cat needs to capture whatever it is your cat is trying to capture,” she says. “Culminate play with a catch.”
  • Understand your cat’s personality. How your cat plays also might depend on its personality and confidence, explains Johnson-Bennett. “A shy, unsure cat might prefer a smaller toy,” she says. “An athletic cat might go for a toy that flies through the air.”

Keep It Simple
You needn’t buy elaborate toys to engage your cat. Your cat might enjoy batting around a ping-pong ball or crinkled paper. When you’re playing with your cat and experimenting with different types of toys, also keep your pet’s age and mobility in mind. “You don’t ever want to overdo it,” says Krieger. The most important thing to remember is to make the experience fun for both you and your cat.

Girl Scouts Are a Cat’s Best Friend

This time of year, Girl Scouts are most publicly linked to cookies, but what most people may not realize is that they routinely complete animal-related community service projects to earn achievement awards at different stages of scouting.

“From Girl Scout Silver and Gold Award projects that benefit animals by building community animal shelters, to Girl Scout troops pitching in to help animals amidst natural disasters, Girl Scouts of the USA always has troops committed to helping animals,” says Girl Scouts of the USA spokesman Joshua Ackley.

Below, Ackley fills us in on a handful of the cat-oriented projects that the Girl Scouts have made their own.

Pet Ed

When Jennifer Clark of Verona, N.Y., was a teenager, she learned that new pet owners sometimes changed their minds weeks after buying their pets at the store. “It was really heartbreaking to me that people would go out and buy these animals on a whim,” she said. When Clark chose her Gold Award project, she decided to teach families about choosing animals -- including cats -- that fit their lifestyles. That was 25 years ago. Today, Clark’s decades-old Girl Scouts project is her business. She now educates children about the habits and habitats of different pets.

Helping the Helper

When Suzanne DeVaucenne of Zionsville, Ind., had knee replacement surgery over the summer, she was unsure who would take over the care and feeding of the cats at her rescue shelter, Cat’s Meow. As she recuperated, 40 Girl Scouts stepped in to make sure that her cats were fed, groomed and entertained. Volunteers from three different troops were at DeVaucenne’s home-based shelter daily, making sure the cats got the care they needed, including some vigorous play sessions.

Cat 911

In Littleton, Colo., an ice cream social turned into a search and rescue mission when a group of Girl Scouts heard a cat meowing inside a well. After managing to get her out, they discovered she was injured and took her to the Deer Creek Animal Hospital, where she was diagnosed with a dislocated hip. After hip replacement surgery and 10 days in the hospital, the Scouts who saved her raised money to pay for her treatment, despite the fact that the veterinarian had volunteered not to charge. Before the cat was adopted into a loving home, the girls had the chance to name her. They decided to call her Lucky.

Raising Funds

Just outside of Greenville, N.C., The Magoo Room provides a permanent home for blind cats. Local Girl Scouts spent time there learning about how cats live with this disability and what they need in a home (not much more than a sighted cat, it turns out). The Girl Scouts went on to collect used books, CDs and DVDs to sell on eBay in order to raise funds for this nonprofit, family-run center.

Population Control
Two Girl Scouts in North Ridgeville, Ohio, set out to deal with the problem of stray cats in their area, launching an ambitious Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program. The girls, Paige Cassidy, 13, and Madison Tayner, 12, trained in TNR at the Cleveland Animal Protective League, where veterinarians offered to spay and neuter the 26 cats they brought in for only $25 a piece. The girls raised money to cover these expenses and then enlisted a local animal rescue to shelter the cats while they recovered from their surgeries. “There’ll be a lot less homeless kittens this spring,” says Paige. And thanks to the shots the spayed and neutered cats were given, “The adults that we fixed will be able to live long, healthy lives,” adds Madison.