ICAT - International Cat Agility Tournaments

Catnip - April, 2004

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Feline Athletes in Action

Now you can create a sports arena in your home to showcase your athletic feline's leaping, navigating, and targeting skills.

By Nancy Marano


Does it seem that your cat has picked up a little weight from many hours of lounging on the sofa, and you suspect he might even be bored with his daily routine? Is there a way to help your cat return to his sleek, healthy self, have fun and communicate with him at the same time?

The answer is a resounding, "Yes."

Perhaps agility and clicker training, methods that go hand in paw, is for you. Your cat will have a good time training you, and you'll develop a deeper appreciation of him.


For many years, dogs have been the main competitors in agility competitions. Watching a Border collie work an agility or fly ball course is a less in pure concentration and joy. But what about their feline counterparts?

Cats are natural athletes. Anyone who has ever watched a cat gracefully leap from the floor to the second shelf of a bookcase knows that. But, many people, even some cat owners, believe felines are aloof, untrainable and anti-social. Cat agility is a way of changing those lingering perceptions and having fun with your cat at the same time.

"People who think cats shouldn't be trained have an incorrect perception of cats. Cats want to cooperate and learn, but unless the person knows how to communicate with them, cats will seem aloof," says Vickie Shields, a veteran cat show judge in The International Cat Association (TICA).

Shields is also president and co-founder, with other cat fanciers, of ICAT (International Cat Agility Tournaments), that is introducing cat agility tournament competitions into cat shows.

"I was frustrated seeing cats so confined at the shows. Cats are fluid, elegant animals who should be allowed to move and show what they can do," adds Shields. "Agility is a way of raising the cat's image and increasing people's awareness of what cats are. Cats aren't aloof and untrainable; they are affectionate and elegant."


Basically, agility training is a process of having your cat follow a lure or target through an obstacle course as quickly as possible. In tournament competitions, the course has a uniform configuration set up in a fenced, 30-foot by 30-foot square. This won't work in most people's homes, but don't let that daunt you. An agility course can be devised for large spaces or small ones.

Look around your living space. What do you have that can be used as obstacles in an agility course?

Be creative. Chairs, tables, stepladders, bookcases, counter tops, chests, refrigerators, and ironing boards stand ready and waiting. You might even have a hula-hoop that you can substitute for the tire ring jump. All you need to do is put your imagination to work.

"Your whole house is an obstacle course," says Karen Pryor, a behavioral biologist and early proponent of clicker training.

She adds, "You can use anything as a target in luring the cat from chair to bookcase to table. Chasing a lure over obstacles is not actually training. It is an enriched form of play."

Start simply. Lure your cat with a feather wand, or other target, from the chair to the table. The next step is to lure him from the table to the bookcase and back to the chair. When he has the idea of following the target, you can increase the number and difficulty of the obstacles. Have him jump to the top of the stepladder, then to the counter, back to the floor, onto the chair, onto the table, up to the bookcase, and back to the floor. Don't forget to reward him with a favorite treat at the end of his run.

According to Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, veterinarian and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tulsa University's School of Veterinary Medicine, it is a good idea to string tricks together, teaching the trick you want to end the session with first. If you want your cat to finish his session by sitting down, for example, teach him that first. Work backwards by teaching him to jump to the bookcase next and finish the string with jumping down and sitting.

"Agility is a great combination of communication and environmental enrichment that exercises the cat's natural skills," says Dr. Dodman. "It is useful for maintaining good health by providing aerobic exercise for the cat. It is also a way for you to spend quality time with your cat."

Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist at Tufts University, agrees that cat agility is wonderful for cats who are interested.


"It's a way of interacting with your cat in a positive manner and sharing a physically and mentally stimulating activity," she says.

"All breeds can do the agility course at their own ability level. As a cat masters the course, it's amazing to watch him gain confidence," Shields says.

To everyone's surprise, Paparazzi, a Himalayan kitten, became the first cat to complete the official tournament course in the Basic level agility demonstration ring set up by ICAT at last year's Howl-O-Ween Cat Show in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He raced up one side of the ramp, across the platform and down the other side, through the tire ring jump, into and out of a series of tunnels, and back to the ramp quickly and flawlessly on his first try. Spectators happily cheered him on, applauding his efforts.

"We are finding that kittens of all breeds are able to do well on the course," says Shields. "As adult cats, females tend to do a little better at agility than males. They seem to be more aware of, and attuned to their surroundings. In my experience, males have the advantage in the show ring but females have the advantage in the agility ring."

She adds, "While cats do very will with agility training, in the long run, adding a clicker makes the training even better. It's more interesting for the cat and provides more versatility."


Clicker training is a system of using a clicker to signal positive behavior followed by a reward, usually a favorite treat. You make a bargain with your cat to pay him a reward every time he performs a particular behavior.

"It's a matter of indifference to the cat whether you are using the clicker to socialize him, teach him a trick, or play with him," says Dr. Pryor, author of Clicker Training for Cats. "The cat will understand the system of rewards."

Soon, your cat will look for more ways to make you click. People have taught their cats to play the piano, come when called, stay off the table, get on the table, walk on a leash, and play various cat games. What you can do with clicker training is limited only by your imagination and the cat's ability.

"Using click and treat training, the 'trainer' goes with the flow of nature and rewards behaviors that the cat naturally performs," explains Dr. Dodman. "The behavior can then be progressively shaped toward a more desirable form."

With clicker training, you can teach your cat many useful behaviors. If trimming your cat's claws or brushing your cat's teeth proves difficult, why not use the 'click and treat' method to shape more desirable behavior" You can also teach your cat to go into his carrier for trips to the vet.

"Engaging in clicker training is fun for the cat and the owner. It's constructive, produces rapid results and the learning is indelible," says Dr. Dodman. "Clicker-trained pets are more attuned to their owners. The bonding between a clicker trained pet and his owner is usually enhanced."


"Cat agility and clicker training are benign techniques. They empower the cat to communicate with you. You can have the cat do things that are interesting and useful," Dr. Dodman says. "This type of training increases the bond between person and cat in both directions. It is really a form of communication rather than training."

Not only does the cat become more interested in communicating with you because you are interacting with him on a deeper level, but agility and clicker training can help correct bad behavior.

"I recommend clicker training to some clients because it works well with cases of inappropriate elimination or aggression," says Dr. Moon-Fanelli. "It gives the cat positive interaction with the owner and mental stimulation at the same time. The cat is more relaxed and less likely to have behavioral problems."

Pryor points out that another positive result of this type of training is that the cat "learns how to learn" and begins to apply this problem solving ability independently. Her Burmese, Tosca, taught her this theory.

Tosca liked to travel around the room on the upper level. In the living room, she used bookshelves to navigate the room without ever touching the ground. Bu tit was much trickier to match that in a bedroom. She had to cross two doorways located in a space too wide for her to jump.


After studying the problem, Tosca figured out that she could jump from the bookcase to the two-inch-wide top of one of the doors. Then with great precision, she jumped the three-food space to the other door, landing with her feet in a line. She found a solution worthy of yowling to Pryor to witness and to praise.

Maybe it's time you tried agility and clicker training with your cat. The results just might surprise you.

As Dr. Dodman says, "A strange thing happens when you train your cat. Instead of the two of you only coming together briefly at feeding time and when the pet presents herself for petting, your whole relationship changes."

He adds, "These are changes for the better. It's as though a mutual-appreciation society emerges from an otherwise perfunctory relationship, and the cat's and owner's lives are both enriched."



ICAT is a club of cat fanciers devoted to creating a new category of cat competition in which cats negotiate an obstacle course designed to display their speed, concentration, beauty of movement, physical conditioning, intelligence, training, and the depth of the relationship between cat and owner.

ICAT sanctions agility tournaments held by local cat clubs, in any cat registry. There are three levels of competition: Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced. Cats may win titles at any level, and there is no need to go to the next level of difficulty to become a champion.

The tournament course is laid out in a 30-food by 30-foot fenced square with a mat on the floor for traction. Lightweight, portable agility equipment is used for the obstacles, which are designed for safety, fun and spectator appeal. The obstacles used are open tunnels, hoop or tire ring jump, catwalk and tables.

For more information about ICAT, please visit their Web site: www.catagility.org




Reproduced here by permission of the author, 4/22/04

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