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Posted on Sun, Dec. 07, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Cats in motion
Move over, dogs. Cats are leaping into the agility ring.

The Wichita Eagle

Imagine going to a cat show where the cats do more than lie around in cages waiting to be held and judged on their appearance. Imagine cats of all kinds -- purebreds and house cats -- running an obstacle course, jumping through hoops and shooting through tunnels.

Imagine cats competing in agility.

Wait a minute. Agility is a dog sport. Cats would never stoop to performing for humans, would they?

They will if you make it fun, says Vickie Shields, co-founder of International Cat Agility Tournaments, or ICAT.

"Cats are very, very smart and learn by watching," said Shields, who also has worked with dogs and dolphins.

While dogs may be motivated by food or the approval of a pack leader, "the motivator for cats is play," she said.

Cats and cat owners are quickly catching on to what dogs and their handlers have known for years -- agility is fun.

ICAT, formed early this year, held its first practice trial in October in Shields' hometown of Albuquerque, N.M. It was a big hit with cats, owners and spectators.

"The response was absolutely incredible," said Charlotte Norris of Augusta, who practices agility with her Bengal show cats.

"Everybody wanted to try running their cats through it."

Norris hopes to bring cat agility to Kansas next fall, as part of the International Cat Association's Great Plains Regional Show.

Shields has been a cat show judge for 15 years and found herself wishing she could see the animals in motion.

"Cats are beautiful, but there isn't much action" at a cat show, she said. "And a lot of the beauty of cats is how they move."

Agility "is something cats can do that shows off their abilities and their intelligence."

Shields and the other founders of ICAT -- Shirley Piper, Kathy Krysta and Adriana Kajon -- knew their cats were smart but still were surprised at how quickly they picked up on agility.

"In a couple of minutes they would catch on," Shields said. "We said, 'Whoa, it's way easier to train them than we thought.' "

The pivotal point, she said, "is if they can relax enough to start playing. Then off they go."

The group is still working on getting the agility course and equipment just right, said Piper, who tests obstacles on her Bengal show cats in Riverside, Calif.

The course had to be modified from what was used for dogs, Piper said, adding more high jumps to "take advantage of that love for the vertical that cats have."

"Dogs are pretty much horizontal; cats are more 3-D," Shields said. And dog jumps "are way too easy for a cat."

Any cat that has a strong bond with its owner can learn and participate in agility, Piper said, although she predicts the athletic Bengals will be "the Australian shepherds" of the sport.

People don't need special equipment and can even train a cat in an apartment, by arranging furniture or setting up obstacles.

"Just play with them in the house," Piper said. "Play with your cat every day."

Norris practices agility with her cats in an enclosed "outdoor garden" equipped with ramps, platforms, swings and bridges.

It's a good way for cats to get exercise, chasing a feather lure on the end of a stick, she said.

"Once they get the hang of following the tease and negotiating obstacles, it's just a tremendous game for them," she said.

"They love it."

Reach Diane McCartney at 268-6593 or dmccartney@wichitaeagle.com.
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