A video circulated around the internet of a little girl leading her kitten through an agility course in her backyard. The girl’s energy and the tails-up, fearless enthusiasm of Suki, the kitten, were endearing.
For most of our cats, their best sport is competitive napping. But the Suki video shows that cats can indeed be trained and love it. Cats need a job, and agility training is just that. Not only does it build confidence, it also encourages them to hone their natural athletic skills.
Cats are well suited to agility training: they’re good jumpers and natural sprinters, they learn quickly, and they have long short-term environmental memory (as compared with dogs).
Bridging on a process created for dogs, agility training involves taking a cat through a course of tunnels, hoops, A-frames, hurdles, and weave poles.
Doubtless, some cats are more high-energy than others–Bengals and Abys, we’re talking about you–but even an ordinary housepanther can benefit from lively interaction and the confidence it instills.
Clicker training, the process of teaching a cat through clicks and rewards, is the gold standard for working with cats and can be used to introduce them to agility. Lures, such as feathers, are also popular. Keep in mind that cats have short bursts of energy and that the process should be fun for both of you. Resume training later if you see your cat’s attention is wandering.
It’s noted that kittens take more quickly to agility training, but don’t count out older cats. Agility training can keep an adult cat stimulated and physically fit.
In a case study titled “Insights from Cat Agility,” for the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) Journal, Allison Hunter-Frederick has documented her journey in agility-training her five cats. She recommends starting with a favorite obstacle such as jumps, then moving on to others, such as tunnels or weaves, as the cat becomes more comfortable. She says teaching an entire course at one time can be overwhelming. She says it’s also important to be aware of your cat’s temperament and any quirks such as being afraid of sudden noises.
Hunter-Frederick has been fortunate enough to have a dedicated agility course in her basement, which she mixes up to avoid boredom. It’s easy to set up your own using ordinary household items.
Cut the end off a paper bag to create a tunnel. Toss in a treat to encourage your cat to enter and exit it. Set up a row of bottles and use a feather toy to guide her through them and a chair to encourage jumps; reward her at the end with a treat.
Create an A-frame using two slanted scratchers and guide her up and down using the lure.
Equipment And Competition
If you think you have a rising star, you can take things to the next level by building an agility course using PVC piping. Detailed plans are on the Mousebreath website. Sections include a basic agility jump, weave poles, and a teeter-totter, as well as a tire jump, tunnels and chutes, and a “pause” table.
Founded in association with TICA (The International Cat Association), International Cat Agility Tournaments (iCAT) offer competitions in timed trials in which cats registered with the organization “display their speed, coordination, beauty of movement, physical condition, intelligence, and training.” The organization stresses the importance of the relationship between the cat and owner/trainer as they go through the course.
iCAT’s website offers videos, plus detailed information about gauging the abilities of your cat, building courses, and purchasing equipment.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.