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.

The Hottest New Cat Products

In just a few weeks, pet product manufacturers from around the world will be descending upon Orlando for the 2011 Global Pet Expo. Presented by the American Pet Products Association and the Pet Industry Distributors Association, Global Pet Expo is the pet industry’s largest annual trade show, showcasing new items to help improve cats’ lives.

Below, pet lifestyle expert Tierra Bonaldi provides us with a sneak peek of some of the hottest new cat items.

Functional and Fashionable Cat Products
Clunky, unattractive cat scratchers, cat trees and more are being phased out in favor of stylish replacements. “There is a huge trend in pet products that can both accent home decor, but still be practical,” says Bonaldi.

  • SkratchKabin
    Brinsea Products Inc.
    The SkratchKabin is a stylish new indoor hideaway for cats. Your cat can scratch, play and sleep while you enjoy the cabin’s fun and minimalist cat shape. Bonaldi thinks it’s “great for keeping cats off the couches and it’s well-designed to fit in with the rest of the furniture.”
  • ModaPet Bowls
    : ModaPet
    Moda is Italian for “fashion,” so the name is perfect for these new bowls that sport bright, bold colors that are, again, meant to pair well with your home decor. “I love that they are BPA-free and the fun colors really pop in the kitchen!” says Bonaldi. (BPA is an organic compound used to make some plastics, resins and other materials. While tests in the U.S. continue to determine its safety, Canada last year declared it to be a toxic substance.) The bowls are made out of food-grade plastics. They are also skid resistant and dishwasher safe.

Good Cat Health Is Always in Style
Many of the new products that will be featured at the expo help to promote cat health, such as pet foods made out of quality ingredients. “Pet owners are shifting to healthier eating options, like all-natural and organic, and that is extending to the products they are feeding their animals,” explains Bonaldi.

How and what cats drink is also gaining new attention this year, as evidenced by products such as the following:

  • Drinkwell Pet Fountain
    Veterinary Ventures Inc.
    This fountain’s patented free-falling stream is enticing to cats and provides a functional, tranquil and convenient way to keep your pet properly hydrated. “Cats love running water,” says Bonaldi, “and the design of this fountain is really upscale and unexpected.”
  • Fresh Breath
    This natural water additive helps provide cats with daily oral care. According to the manufacturer, its ingredients promote healthy gums and eliminate bad breath for up to 12 hours. “Hygiene, especially oral care, has become a very important issue among pet owners,” Bonaldi explains. “In order for pets to live long, healthy lives, they must have routine preventative dental care. This can be difficult for cats, so the newest, most effective products are targeted at making dental care easier for cats and their owners.”

Cat Litter Box Odors Erased
Another group of products is helping owners with the dreaded litter-box maintenance and clean-up chores.

  • Always Fresh
    Talk to Me Pets
    Sprinkle Always Fresh in your cat’s litter box daily to help keep it smelling clean and pleasant. This moisture-activated litter freshener is safe for pets, people and the planet, according to the manufacturer. Bonaldi loves “that it is activated each time the cat visits the litter box.”

These are just a few of the more than 3,000 new products that will be showcased at this year’s Global Pet Expo, which boasts 11 football fields’ worth of pet products. The event will take place from March 16 to 18 at the Orange County Convention Center. For more information, visit the Global Pet Expo website.

Photo Credit: Allison Anderson, The Impetus Agency.

Top 7 New Year’s Resolutions for Cat Owners

As you’re writing down your new year’s resolutions, take a minute to jot down some resolutions for your cat. If you’d like to resolve to make life a little better for your cat this year, there are plenty of good ideas to put in place.

Resolution No. 1: I will schedule regular playtime with my cat.
According to Dr. E’Lise Christensen, a veterinary behaviorist in New York, most cats don’t get enough play sessions with their family members. “Lack of appropriate interaction with human family members can increase aggression, destruction and other objectionable behaviors,” says Christensen. But just 10 minutes each day of focused play can help avoid that. Christensen recommends splitting that time into two sessions of five minutes each. Integrate them so that they become part of your daily routine.

Resolution No. 2: I will focus on my cat’s dental health.
“Almost all cats have significant dental disease by the time they are a few years old,” says Dr. Patricia Joyce, an emergency veterinarian for New York City Veterinary Specialists. “Since they are long-lived, their oral health can be really terrible by the time they are seniors.” If your cat will tolerate it, try brushing its teeth once a week. If not, schedule yearly cleanings with your veterinarian.

Resolution No. 3: I will get my cat to an appropriate weight.
It’s estimated that 25 percent of cats are overweight due to their sedentary lifestyle. Dr. Katy Nelson of the Alexandria Animal Hospital in Alexandria, Va., suggests imposing a feeding schedule that starts slowly. “First, leave the food out for about an hour, then pick it up. Do this multiple times a day,” she says. “This will help get your kitty accustomed to being fed a certain amount at a certain time, as opposed to grazing all day. Over a period of two months, you can get your cat fully enrolled in a twice- to three-times-daily feeding schedule so that you can control the amount he or she eats.”

Resolution No. 4: I will start and contribute to a savings account for my cat.
Veterinary care is expensive, and emergencies can happen at any moment. Joyce notes that creating a nest egg for these occurrences can ease the pain. If you go several years without an emergency, consider using the fund for preventive treatments, like teeth cleanings.

Resolution No. 5: I will help my cat tap into his or her animal instincts.
Christensen says that cats in the wild normally eat only after successfully catching prey, or scavenging. You can meet your cat's need for puzzle-solving and predatory hunting by making it work for its food. “Have your cats work for at least 50 percent of their daily food ration by using food-dispensing toys or puzzles,” she says. This could also have the side benefit of helping shed unnecessary pounds. 

Resolution No. 6: I will carrier-train my cat.
Christensen says that carrier-trained cats are easier to work with in an emergency, which results in better medical care. Your cat may not enjoy this resolution very much, but resolutions by definition require some sacrifice or work.

Resolution No. 7: I will enrich my cat’s environment.
“Investing in some simple interactive cat toys, scratching posts or cat trees can do wonders to enrich the life of your cat and keep it young in mind and body,” says Nelson. This is especially important for indoor-only cats, which experience very little novelty in their small world.

Rather than make hard-to-keep promises to amend your own bad habits, spend this year’s resolutions on your cat. “Not only will this be good for your kitty,” says Nelson, “but it will do your soul some good too.”