Is Your Cat Ready for Its Close-Up?

Have you ever seen a cat performing in a TV commercial or movie and thought:  "My cat could do better than that!" If the answer is yes, then you just might have what it takes to be a savvy stage mom -- or dad -- for an animal actor. But before you pack up and move to Hollywood, it's a good idea to find out if your cat has what it takes to be a...star!

"A show business cat has to be pretty outgoing -- not worried or tentative," says Karin McElhatton, a certified animal trainer. McElhatton is also owner of Studio Animal Services, a Los Angeles agency that trains domestic cats for the big and small screens. Her cats have been animal actors in films like "Déjà Vu," and countless commercials for cat food. "A cat that's right for television and movies is one that leaps right onto your friend's lap when she comes to visit. It's the cat that climbs onto your keyboard whenever you sit down to write -- one that always wants to be where the action is."

So if your cat has this kind of star quality, then check out these tips for getting your cat ready for its close up.

Agencies for Animal Actors
Unless you have plans to become a certified animal trainer yourself, you'll need to hire one for your cat. This is the four-legged actor's version of an agent. Unlike the agent for a human actor, an animal trainer will ultimately be on-set with his or her feline client at all times in order to care for it and assist in its performance. While some animal trainers work independently, the most efficient way to get your cat work is to sign up with a licensed animal actors agency (a web search will help you locate one near you). Federal law requires a myriad of permits to protect working animals, so when a production company needs animal actors, they turn to these professional agencies.

Animal Acting Skills
According to Hollywood Animals' Animal Actors Agency in Los Angeles, a cat must acquire basic obedience skills (e.g. sit, stay, come) before most agencies will consider signing them up. In addition, your pet must be able to perform these behaviors reliably, no matter the distractions in its environment. To prepare your cat for the life of a working feline, the agency recommends exposing it to challenging and unusual environments with stimulating sights, sounds, smells and textures -- beginning in kittenhood. Additionally, your cat should become accustomed to interacting with crowds, small children, other animals, cars and machinery.

Look the Part
For cats as much as starlets, the right look is essential to making it in Hollywood. But unlike the expectations for human actors in current times, feline actors need to be plump and filled out. "We want cats who are meaty," says McElhatton. "They need to be at the right weight -- healthy, muscular and toned."

Pets with Personality
Any cat trainer will tell you that most cats have a fairly limited acting range because of their natural characteristics. For this reason, a role will most often be played by a team of cats, not just one. So when you see a cat on TV, you can bet that there is more than one animal actor playing the part. Cats are placed on teams according to their complementary skills and how much they look alike. For example, a team might have three cats: one with a talent for standing still, one that's good at running around, and one that has the ability to, say, make expressive faces. Says McElhatton, "When training your cat, try to cultivate its natural talents. For example, if your cat is docile, carry it around, and have others carry it around. Its role on an acting team might be that of the docile cat. If your cat is more of a leaping and zooming cat, train it to leap on cue, and then its role on the team could be that of the active cat."

A Special Breed
Because certain breeds have characteristic personality traits, some cats are better suited for certain roles. "Persians are laid back and kind of prissy. Bengals are athletic and sleek. Siamese are very vocal," says McElhatton. So if a role calls for a noisemaker, a team of Siamese cats might be cast. Generally speaking, however, American Shorthairs are the most sought-after for film and television work. Cats of this breed tend to be food-motivated, which makes them easier to train on set. Food rewards are great for enhancing an animal actor's performance once the cameras roll.

Finding Feline Representation
The Internet makes finding animal actors agencies easier than every before.   Once you are ready to take the next step, an agency may ask that interested owners email a digital photo of the fledgling feline performer (or a standard print via regular mail). It's a good idea to send two pictures: one head shot and one full body shot. And if your cat has a special talent, such as a yawn or a tilt of the head, try to capture it on film. Photographs should be clear and in focus, with a neutral background.

Next stop: a star -- or paw print -- on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Games Your Cat Will Love

What could be better for your cat than playing games? "The physicality of playing will keep a cat healthy," says Ellen Poole, owner and trainer at Just Tails, a feline training center in the San Francisco Bay Area. "The mental stimulation of the movement during play can keep a cat emotionally well too. A few minutes a day of play can help your cat release a lot of extra energy." 

Playtime is key, particularly with indoor cats that can sometimes feel a bit of cabin fever.  "Imagine if all you did all day was sit and sleep and wait for someone to come home," says Poole. "Cats, like humans, need to move. Just a little bit of action will make a big difference in the cat's health and attitude. Put a toy between you and your cat, rather than using your hands, because cat claws and teeth are sharp."

Poole says outdoor cats aren't as vulnerable to the dulling, obesity-causing problems that indoor cats face because they have the freedom to hunt, hide and chase. "All animals are predatory, and indoor cats especially need a healthy prey-drive outlet -- playing is a way do that," explains Poole. "Try playing with your pet just before you go to bed because cats are naturally nocturnal." Poole's logic suggests that a little activity before you go to sleep "works out" your cat's natural nighttime energy. Poole also says to avoid play immediately after mealtime. "Cats generally like to groom themselves after a meal," she says. "Think of big cats in the wild cleaning their nails and fur after a kill. That post-meal grooming is their instinct, even in a sweet-mannered indoor cat."

Wondering what to play? Check out these five new creative games to play with cats of all ages and temperaments:

Paw Hockey
Cat puzzles are designed to compel the cat to retrieve an object that's just out of reach. For example, a popular cat puzzle available at most pet stores is a rubber circle with a ball inside, and the cat bats it around to try to get to the ball, which is usually a noise maker. Says Poole: "Toys where the cat can bat are good because that's how a cat in the wild 'plays' when trapping a mouse, for example."

Mystery Lights and Shadows
You can use either of two devices for this game: a flashlight or a laser pointer. With a flashlight, turn off the lights and point the light toward the wall or even the sofa. Wiggle your fingers or dangle cat-friendly objects in front of the light to create mysterious shadows for your cat to attack. The red beam of the laser scurrying about the wall should be enough to give your cat a great workout.

Magic Wand
"I like wands that look like fishing poles with little toys on the end because you can wiggle them, and cats actually stalk the 'prey,' " says Poole. Wands vary in price and style; some have feathers on the ends, some have little charms or textured animals. Using the wand, you can pull the object along the floor and wiggle it. Cats especially love it when you bounce it above their heads. Poole says cats love to stalk because this is a natural predatory behavior. And with you controlling the magic wand, you're a part of the game.

Bubble Dance
Got 99 cents and a kitchen? Sit on the ground, or in a chair, and blow bubbles -- not too many at once -- for your cat to chase, catch and pop! ("Hey! Where'd it go?"). This is great fun for kids to play with the family cat, too.

Ball Dash
Ping pong balls work best for this game because they're light, they bounce and your cat's claws don't sink into them like they might with a ball made of fabric. This game is especially fun on a staircase, but flat ground is fine, too. Tie a long piece of string around the ball, and drag it down the stairs (so it bounces), over the sofa, across the floor -- whatever gets the ball doing more than just rolling. Be sure to let your cat "catch" the ball so it has a sense of success. Good hunting, kitty

Flicks for Felines

Flicks for Felines

Watching a cat watch TV is funny, right? And lately, you can go to YouTube and see dozens and dozens of clips showing feisty cats pawing televisions, eager to get their mitts on the squirrel, the bird or some other natural feline prey skittering about on the screen.

"Some cats even run around the back of the television trying to find the bird that flew 'off' the screen," says Steve Malarkey, creator of Video Catnip, a DVD that features two hours of feline-friendly footage. "Cats really do watch movies, and it's especially good for indoor cats. It's a lot of fun to see how the cats react to the TV."

Malarkey has sold more than 350,000 copies of Video Catnip, with a 98 percent success rate -- pet owners regularly write him with their stories of how the DVD calmed and entertained their cat. "A cat DVD is great when the owner leaves the house," says Malarkey. "Cats get bored, and some cats get stressed or worried that their mommy or daddy isn't coming back. Some cats just stare at the screen, but they are definitely watching. The DVD reduces their stress and helps with separation anxieties."

Popping in a DVD for your cat might seem odd, especially since veterinarians rarely go on record regarding the exact details of feline vision. What we do know is that cats see quick movements (just ask anyone whose cat plays with a laser light), and that critters such as butterflies, dragonflies, lizards, squirrels, chipmunks and birds are natural feline prey. Movies such as Malarkey's occupy the cat, distracting those often anxious home-alone feelings. 

Below is a list of feline-friendly flicks that are sure to get rave reviews and two paws up from your cat:

  1. Video Catnip: This bestselling DVD features two hours of footage of birds, squirrels and chipmunks.
  2. Cat-TV II: This 60-minute DVD showcases fish, mice and other rodents to entertain adventurous cats everywhere.
  3. Kitty Safari I and Kitty Safari II: These 30-minute DVDs feature all-music soundtracks, which could be a draw for the kitty that likes music played when its owner leaves the house.
  4. Lullabies and Butterflies: This 60-minute DVD is made for infants and toddlers, but cats love its quiet, peaceful nature scenes set to lullabies.
  5. Cedar Lake Nature Series: Nature's Bird Talk: This DVD features a full hour of footage of beautiful birds in their natural environment, accompanied by their melodic birdcalls.
  6. Animal Rescue: Volume 2: Best Cat Rescues: Okay, this one is about the big cats, but what domestic cat wouldn't like seeing its brave cousins make it out of sticky situations?

Birthday Party for Your Cat

Most of us wouldn't dream of missing a loved one's birthday, right? But when was the last time you celebrated your precious cat's birthday? Well, it turns out that cat birthday parties are increasing in popularity these days. "Parties make a cat feel pampered and spoiled," says Joan Goodman, a pet party planner in Austin, Texas. "And it creates an opportunity for owners to express love and devotion."

Check out these ideas for throwing the perfect birthday bash:

A Limited Guest List
As with any party, the first step is planning your guest list. While the idea of a room filled with partygoers might sound great to you, it would be pretty uncomfortable for a cat. Big crowds are usually stressful -- if not traumatic -- for felines. And that's not all. Because cats are territorial by nature, they tend to dislike other felines that are unknown to them. It's best to limit your guest list to family members, other pets in the household, and maybe some human friends who your cat knows well, says Goodman.

For New York City-based filmmaker Cevin Soling and his girlfriend, a birthday bash for their mixed-breed cat Dr. Claw usually consists of only two guests. "We play with him and give him lots of attention the entire evening," Soling explains. "This year is his eighteenth birthday, and I'm already stocking up on treats and toys for this monumental event."  

Decorating and Gift Giving
Plan to host the birthday party in a cozy room, where your cat can feel secure. Bring together festive and playful cat-centric party supplies including hats, plates, napkins, cat toys, laser pens and even catnip. "Sprinkle a little catnip on the floor, and let the cat roll around in it," says Beth Adelman, certified cat behaviorist and board member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Catnip is like kitty champagne, so let your cat enjoy its birthday cocktail.

If you have decided to invite non-cat guests (a.k.a. humans), don't be shy about telling them your cat loves to receive feline-friendly toys and treats. You can even register for cat products online at stores like Target, or set up a wish list at Amazon. But when it comes time to actually give gifts to the birthday kitty, it is safest to eliminate the decorative wrapping. Ribbons, string and slivers of paper can be dangerous to cats if ingested. "Cats can easily choke on this material," warns Albert Burchman, a veterinarian in the Bronx, N.Y. "Discard it immediately."

Meow-worthy Menu 
The menu for your party can be creative -- with cat-themed cuisine for the human guests and special feline fare for the guest of honor. People can nibble on kitschy treats like Goldfish crackers or Kit-Kat candy bars. If you're serving a main course, seafood will fit right in with your theme. For dessert, serve cupcakes decorated to look like the face of a cat. Use M&Ms for eyes and nose, shoestring licorice for the whiskers and mouth, and triangle-shaped cookies for ears. But whatever you do, do not allow any cat to partake in its own birthday cake. Not only are cats unable to taste sweets, warns Adelman, but chocolate can be toxic to them. Instead, serve your cat a platter of its favorite specialty entrees such as canned tuna, sardines, or sliced turkey. Keep portions small. Overfeeding your kitty -- even on its birthday -- will just leave it feeling sick and miserable...a bona fide buzz kill for any party.

Movies, Music and Fun
No soiree would be complete without movies and music. Goodman suggests entertaining your guests with cat-theme movies such as "Garfield: The Movie" or "The Adventures of Milo and Otis." Or try feline favorites such as "Video Catnip," which features footage of squirrels and birds seen from a cat's-eye level.

If your cat movies are played with the sound off, you can create the purrfect mood with music. You can't go wrong with the soundtrack to the Broadway musical "Cats." Other tabby-friendly tunes include: Jamie Anderson's "When Cats Rule the World," Al Stewart's "The Year of the Cat," Jethro Tull's "And The Mouse Police Never Sleeps," The Cure's "The Love Cats," and Cheryl Wheeler's "Meow." Cats' ears are extremely sensitive, so avoid playing your meow music mix too loudly.

At the party, make sure your cat is the center of attention. If your cat receives toys, give it the opportunity to play with them and show off for your party guests. Barbara Florio Graham of Ottawa, Canada, encourages her mixed-breed cat to do tricks for guests. "My cat knows how to shake hands and fetch," she explains.

Demonstrating its talents is a great way to make the cat the star of the show. Take lots of pictures to commemorate the occasion. And try not to get too caught up in talking to human guests that you end up ignoring the guest of honor. After all, your cat is the reason you're all here, so be sure to lavish extra attention and cuddles on your feline friend.

Goodie Bags and Goodbyes
When the birthday bash winds down, send guests home with cat-themed trinkets, such as a plush toy, stickers, or notepads. You can even put goodies inside a paper bag decorated to look like a cat's face.

As you tuck your cat in for the night, wish your pet the best birthday ever. And, as Goodman suggests, spend a moment reflecting on the years you've shared together. "As you think back on all the good times, just think about all the special moments yet to come," she concludes. Now that's a reason to celebrate!

Clever Cat Scratching & Climbing Posts

Even though every feline has its own personality and quirks, scratching and climbing are second nature for all cats. Because this is an immutable kitty truth,  cat owners should provide a special place for their furry friend to claw, clamber and leap.  If not, you risk a lifetime of shredded sofas and knocked-over knick-knacks (as well as an unhappy companion). Fortunately, there are all kinds of new and entertaining climbers available these days -- enough to meet your cat's demands, as well as your aesthetic sensibility.

Scratching that Itch
Just as you need a good morning stretch to get your day started, your cat also needs a good morning scratch. Scratching is good for your cat's health because it removes dead skin cells from claw sheaths. It also allows your cat to mark territory with scent, and to stretch muscles and ligaments. The best post for your cat, then, is tall enough to allow it to extend to full height; the post should also be sturdy enough for your cat to lean its full body weight on.

Scratching posts are generally covered with rough, shreddable material. Sisal rope and faux fur make the least mess, although many cats prefer scratching on carpeting due to its multiple loops. (Warning: These loops could eventually be shredded and end up in tiny bits on your floor!) When the post is worn out, both sisal rope and carpet posts can be resurfaced with simple carpet tacks or nails.

Kathy Kruger of Plymouth, Michigan found that scratching posts kept her cats from destroying her wooden furniture. "When I first brought Max and Sarah home, they were doing a real number on my kitchen chairs," she recalls. "My vet recommended a sisal post, and they were immediately attracted to that." To encourage a less enthusiastic pet to scratch a new post, reward it for scratching with a treat or some extra affection; you can also rub your cat's paws on the post to deposit its scent, or spray the post with catnip.

The Thrill of the Climb
Cat castles and cat trees are full-service climbing-scratching-lounging destinations. Some are free-standing with heavy bases to prevent tipping, while others extend floor to ceiling, usually relying on a spring-tension rod to keep them upright. They offer cats open areas for sleeping, posts for scratching and multiple levels for leaping. Free-standing models are best for one-cat homes, and for small to medium-size felines. Because they offer more stability, floor-to-ceiling models are more appropriate for multiple-cat dwellings, or large, heavy cats. If your kitty is larger than average, make sure the castle doors are wide enough for it to fit through comfortably.

"When my boyfriend moved in with all of his stuff, there was suddenly less room on my tall bookcases and on top of the refrigerator, and I was worried that my cat Cleo wouldn't get the exercise he needed," says Linda Bain of Garden City, New York. "So we found a nice wooden cat tree on the Internet. It sits unobtrusively in the corner, and Cleo loves it."

House of Style
Satisfying your cat's needs doesn't mean sacrificing your sense of style. The key to combining feline and human furniture is all about blending. "Look first and foremost for color. Make sure it doesn't stand out in contrast to everything else in the room," advises Karen Powell, a Connecticut-based interior designer and co-founder of Decor and You. "Then place the post or gym strategically in relationship to the other furniture, away from the focal point of the room, and outside of the traffic flow." Before you invest, visit a variety of pet supply stores and Web sites to get a broad picture of what's available. Your cat will thank you kindly.