Professor Steve Rings the School Bell for Kittens
A Kitten’s Mind in a Terrible Thing to Waste

    Light bulbs don’t often go off in my head. I’m lucky if they flicker at all. But I had one of those magical instant ‘light bulb moments’ when Dr. Kersti Seksel, a veterinary behaviorists from Seaforth South Wales, Australia, mentioned her Kitty Kindy classes when she was teaching at the Post Graduate Institute of the North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando, FL in May, 2004.  

      ImageI instantly understood at least 101 reasons how these classes will save lives, so with Seksel’s support and mentoring, I began to teach kitten socialization classes I call Kitty-K.

      For starters, even though there are around 20 per cent more cats than dogs in America, felines visit the veterinarian only half as often as dogs.

      There are several explanations, but the most common is exhaustion. The carrier appears, and the cat disappears. You have to run around the house trying to pull your terrified tabby from under furniture and then somehow stuff this panicked cat into the bag. I know people who have incurred wounds as a result. Even if you’ve managed this gymnastic feat – which some people physically can not, driving to the vet office also causes pain. Pain in your heart as you hear your beloved cat cry as you drive.

      If the cat obligingly walked into the carrier, and seemingly tolerated – or even enjoyed the car ride, I argue people would be more likely to take their cats to the vet. Truth is, at the young age kittens take these classes (from 8 weeks to around 14 to 15 weeks), they’re like behavioral Silly Putty, shaped any which way you want. For starters, they’re easily desensitized to their carriers – so they hop in on command. And because their experiences following car rides are positive, they don’t mind the trip.

      Who gets a better exam by the vet? The cat who bounds  immediately from the carrier to rub her cheek pad against the vet’s arm and is very busy purring, or the screaming cat who 42 technicians from a dozen surrounding counties “un-Velcro” from the carrier? Getting a true heartbeat and accurate blood work from a terrified tabby is problematic. Also, a veterinarian may have difficulty giving a thorough exam to a fractious patient.

      Most cats are either adopted from shelters, or the cats adopt their people – one day appearing at the door demanding to be made a part of the family.

      People who adopt cats from shelters assume the overwrought shelter vet has covered it all and don’t typically feel compelled to establish a baseline with their own vet. Sadly, it might then take several years before there’s a veterinary visit.  People forget; they get busy; and they wait until the cat is sick, sometimes very sick, before the seeing the veterinarian. The veterinarian and the cat are at a real disadvantage under those circumstances.

      When a cat just pops up at the door to be taken in, often if the cat appears healthy, the assumption is that this new cat is healthy. This assumption is not necessarily an accurate one, and the consequences may be dire if you expose the newcomer with a potentially infectious disease to other cats in your home.

      At least when kittens who take what I call Kitty-K are adopted from shelters or just taken into homes by compassionate families - if they enroll, they must first see a vet. A health certificate is required for the first class (There are typically two one-hour classes on two consecutive weekday evenings or weekend afternoons). Now, at least a relationship is established with a veterinarian.

      Unlike dogs who are more likely demonstrative about telling their people how they’re feeling, cats are masters at hiding illness. In my classes, I talk about subtle signs of illness in cats.

      I also tell people how to train cats. In fact, I take one kitten and demonstrate (usually in less than a minute) how to teach “sit.”

      This begs the question: Why would you ever want to train your cat to sit in the first place? Actually, there are a ton of reasons for training cats to do things. Not only are you physically giving some exercise to your cat, you’re stimulating brain power. Whether you think cats are smarter or dogs are smarter, most experts agree they’re in about the same ball park. Most people do train their dog to do something, yet we never think about it with cats.

      By training your cat, you enhance your bond, and as an outcome become more observant of nuances you might not otherwise pick up on. Those nuances may include subtle signs of illness.

 Dogs get to experience a bouquet of olfactory splendor every time they sprint around the yard or walk down the street. They get the 4-1-1 on what’s happening ‘in the hood’ by sniffing the ‘p-mail’ on the nearest tree. Most of cats never have this opportunity, and it’s a shame. In the classes, I do explain why cats live longer and healthier lives indoors. But I also offer ideas on how to safety take cats outside, including harness training, how to create protected play areas in yards, and there are even strollers for cats (so they can be taken for walks).

 Being territorial and steadfast in their ways, taking a 12-year old indoor cat and suddenly showing her the world may be too scary. However, starting with a 12-week old kitten, allows for a future lifetime of outdoor fun and socialization.

      Here are just a few more objectives of the classes:

  • To boost kitten confidence
  • To socialize kittens to (cat friendly) dogs. Statistically, a quarter of the family’s with a cat at some point also have a dog.
  • Discuss appropriate play (It may be surprising, but many people don’t know how to play with their cat).
  • Discuss how to teach a kitten to scratch in all the right places (so declaw is unnecessary).
  • To pre-empt other behavior issues from happening in the first place, discussions include details on litter boxes, keeping kittens off counter tops, etc.
  • Demonstrations include: How to give a pill to a cat and brushing teeth.
  • Discussion of feline body language: What your cat is trying to tell you.
Classes are increasingly being offered around the country at veterinary offices, and through some dog trainers and feline behavior consultants.

Check Sniffing Out Steve on my website to get a heads up on where I’ll next be presenting how to teach Kitty-K.  Check out the Kitty-K tab on my website to learn more.

Seksel’s book “Training Your Cat” is published in Australia, but available online.

Kitten classes are now recommended by the American Association of Feline Practitioners Feline Behavior Guidelines: http://www.aafponline.org/resources/guidelines/Feline_Behavior_Guidelines.pdf

Five additional helpful websites:

www.catwellness.org: Learn how to tell if your feline friend is hiding something serious; how to watch for the subtle signs of sickness. Lots of other information, ranging from feline infectious diseases and illnesses to litter box issues.

www.fivtest.com: What to do when a new cat arrives; and on testing for feline leukemia and the feline immunodeficiency virus (sometimes called feline AIDS).

 www.aafponline.org: American Association of Feline Practitioners, information on everything from vaccine protocol to the bird flu’s potential impact on pet cats.

www.vet.cornell.edu/FHC: The Cornell Feline Health Center, lots of free brochures on topics ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to diabetes to the special needs of senior cats. There are even free videos on cat care.

www.indoorcat.org: Indoor Cat Initiative includes details on how to enrich the life of indoor cats dispelling boredom, and in the process lessening or preventing Interstitial Cystitis as well as various other behavioral issues.  
 
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