The Cat on the Mat
These felines don't dog it in agility demonstrations
November 24, 2003
The spectators' cheers filling her furry ears, Dancer raced along at her handler's side, zipping through a tunnel here, floating gracefully through a tire jump there.
Sounds for all the world like agility, the timed canine sport popularized in part by Animal Planet, in which canines of various sizes and breeds dart around an obstacle course filled with jumps, ramps and seesaws.
But 1-year-old Dancer isn't a border collie. She's a Bengal cat.
"People think cats are aloof and untrainable," says Vickie Shields of Albuquerque, N.M., who breeds Singapores, the smallest breed of cat, and has been a cat- show judge for 15 years. "But as long as cats think they're playing, they go for it - they fly."
The belief that cats have a lot more athleticism and drive than their doting owners give them credit for recently prompted Shields and three other feline fanciers to form International Cat Agility Tournaments, or ICAT, which will sanction contests held by local cat clubs. And last month at an Albuquerque cat show, 140 kitties entered ICAT's inaugural cat agility demonstration.
"Everybody said you'll never get a cat to do that," says Bengal breeder Shirley Piper, another ICAT founder, who builds the agility equipment out of PVC and tests it in her Riverside, Calif., backyard. "People were just in awe."
Egyptian Maus, Maine Coons, Abyssinians, Munchkins and a few garden-variety house cats - they all had turns learning the seven-obstacle course. Some dutifully followed their owners and performed that ultimate agility achievement, a "clean run"; others made up their own sequence of obstacles. But none tried to bail out by scaling the 7 1/2-foot fencing that enclosed the ring.
One overachieving Tonkinese was so enthusiastic that he jumped over the tire instead of through it. And the star of the weekend was a blue-point Himalayan kitten named Paparazzi.
"People said you'll never get a Persian or Himi to do it because they just aren't built that way," Piper says of the heavy-bodied cat breeds. But after only a few minutes' introduction to the obstacles, Paparazzi took off, completing the course without a hitch. "It was so beautiful to watch him, and see that long hair flowing."
None of this comes as a surprise to Terri Dillistin of Critters of the Cinema in Los Angeles.
"Most people don't think cats can be trained, and they're wrong," says Dillistin, who trains animals for the movie industry. "The difference is that dogs want to please their owners, while cats want to please themselves."
As a trainer for the Friskies Cat Team, a troupe of 15 cats that tours the country performing and promoting for the cat-food company, Dillistin says her feline charges have been doing agility- type obstacles - including tunnels and seesaws - for almost eight years. Male and female, purebred and non-pedigree, they all show equal aptitude, she says.
Created 25 years ago as entertainment for spectators at Crufts, the prestigious English dog show, the sport of agility was inspired by equestrian stadium jumping. And just as dog agility modified that horse sport, cat agility has adapted to the peculiarities of Felis catus.
"Dogs are very horizontal, and they need lots and lots of space," Shields explains. Cat agility, by contrast, has more vertical elements and sharper turns in its 900- square-foot course. Some obstacles just aren't kitty- friendly, and so were discarded.
Shields was inspired to create ICAT because of the relatively static nature of cat shows. "At a show, most of your time is spent sitting next to your cat's cage, waiting to be called into the ring," she says.
"Cats are so beautiful, and a lot of the pleasure I get out of them is watching them move. But in cat shows, you hold them all the time, and they're so confined."
ICAT has opened the floodgates of possibility for cats, Shields thinks. "Eventually, we're going to do freestyle," she says, talking about the dance routines set to music that are becoming increasingly popular in dog circles. She even knows someone whose Bengal cat started herding ducks after watching the resident border collies do it for years.
But for now, cat agility still has a long way to go. ICAT's "championship year," in which cats may start competing for titles, starts May 1. Until then, the group has a half-dozen practice events planned; the next is slated for Tucson, Ariz., on Dec. 6 and 7, with calls coming in from as far away as Australia and Germany. (For a complete schedule, visit www. catagility.org.)
ICAT competitions are open to cats 8 months of age and older. And even though ICAT is chartered by The International Cat Association, the well-known cat registry, family connections are immaterial.
"You don't need a pedigree for this," concludes Shields. "All you need is a cat that's healthy and happy."
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