“Cats don’t care what you think.”
“Cats are too independent.”
“Cats are too moody.”
“Cats are too lazy.”
“Cats aren’t dogs.”
There’s a strongly-held belief that cats can’t be trained. All the above quotes are actual statements that I’ve heard from pet owners, even from those with cats. But on a recent trip to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, my husband and I saw zoo keepers training lemurs, sea otters, lions, and other wild animals. If all these undomesticated animals can be trained, then so can cats!
Why were zoo keepers training wild animals? The number one reason is for something called animal husbandry. Zoo staff need to perform routine health maintenance on the animals in their care, and veterinarians need to treat those that fall ill, and so it’s important for the animals to cooperate. For example, it’s easier and safer for an elephant to put its foot through a hole in a wall so a vet can treat a wound, than it is to sedate the animal. A second reason that zoo keepers train animals is to teach them tricks, which challenges and stimulates them, thereby enriching their lives. Husbandry and enrichment are reasons why household cats should be trained.
Husbandry is an essential part of owning cats. And our lives will be easier if they cooperate with it! My three cats and I start every morning with a routine that begins with grooming. Cats are meticulously clean creatures. Not a day goes by that mine aren’t licking their fur with their barbed tongues or licking their paws and then using their wet paws to clean the parts of their body their tongues can’t reach. So why would I brush them? Long-haired cats especially will often need help keeping their hair from getting gnarled. Also, as cats age they can lose interest in staying clean, and if they’re not used to being groomed they’re unlikely to allow a comb near them, and their coats will suffer.
Another part of our grooming routine is cleaning their teeth. Without this dental care, cats may develop gum disease, which, if left unchecked, can lead to kidney disease and death. Can’t a veterinarian handle the dental care? Yes, but this unfortunately involves a trip to your veterinarian and the administration of anesthesia (so that your veterinarian can scrape your cat’s teeth), which is stressful for your cat. Cleaning your cat’s teeth at home won’t eliminate the need for professional dentistry, but it will improve their overall dental health.
The final part of our grooming routine is a quick check of my cats’ eyes, ears, and general health. This helps me spot minor concerns that could develop into major concerns if only seen during annual vet visits. Depending on your cat’s breed, there might be areas which warrant regular attention. One case in point, if I don’t regularly clean my youngest cat’s ears, she will develop a waxy build-up that could result in discomfort, loss of balance, and even hearing loss.
Of course, the most important aspect of husbandry is acclimatizing your cat to vet visits. Two of mine don’t mind the visits, while my third gets anxious. Thanks to training her to accept a crate, car rides, and clinics, I’ve done my best to minimize the stress, which benefits everyone.
Believe it or not, cats enjoy doing tricks. And we people certainly enjoy seeing a cat perform. When looking for articles on how to train cats, I came across one that told how to teach a cat to sit, for no other reason than to amaze guests. While articles like this do a disservice to cats by reinforcing the belief that cats are too dumb or too undisciplined to be taught real obedience, the article does show that people enjoy being entertained by cats. And we can use this to our advantage. Some shelters teach shy cats to approach visitors, which reduces the chance that they’ll be overlooked. And some shelters will teach their cats to do tricks, such as waving, to help them get attention. A friend and I have talked about the possible benefits of my youngest cat being able to do tricks when she begins working as a therapy cat. The more enjoyment she can bring to those in nursing homes and hospitals, the more she will benefit those she visits, and the greater the likelihood she’ll be asked to return. Practicalities aside, cats do like challenges, and tricks can serve this purpose. They have fun learning tricks and we can have fun teaching tricks. Win-win! My favorite way of doing “tricks” is through agility. In the basement of our new house, I have set up a course that includes tunnels, jumps, weaves, and other hurdles. Running a course can be done in a few minutes, break up routine, and get us active.
For those of you who have followed my cat training journey, you know that I trained my first cat for fun. Our dog enjoyed agility and I thought Lucy would too. For a time, Lucy agreeably climbed and jumped obstacles on command. As she aged and became less interested in tricks, I likewise lessened the time I spent training her. In hindsight, I realize that she still would have enjoyed an enriched environment. When my husband and I adopted Cinder, I resolved to never stop providing her with physical and mental stimulation, and to be creative about my choices when her needs changed. Then Bootsie came along. She showed me that training served practical purposes when I found myself needing to acclimate her to a carrier and other objects alien to a formerly feral cat.
Throughout the decades, zoos have grown in their understanding of how and why we should train the animals in their care. It’s time that cat owners do the same. Next time you visit the zoo, check out some of the training sessions, and apply what you learn to your cats. If lemurs can be trained, so can cats!