by Arna Cohen
Scamp the cat stood in front of the first obstacle, waiting for the signal that would send him speeding around the agility course.
Typically, the 4-year-old ocicat, the Cat Fanciersâ Associationâs 2017 national agility champion, would polish off the course in 30 seconds to a minute, flying up stairs, racing through tunnels, slinking around weave poles and clearing hurdles with air to spare. And thatâs just how it went this timeâuntil the very last jump.
Scamp (whose full name is Rock n Spots Hot Tamales) sat down and refused to move. No amount of coaxing, toy wiggling or promising of future treats by Peter Deal, Scampâs âdad,â could change his mind. He was done. Scamp earned points for the obstacles he completed but not for finishing within the 4 Âœ-minute time limit.
Thatâs how it goes in the dog-eat-dog world of feline agility competition. The cats run the show.
And sometimes they steal it. When International Cat Agility Tournaments held an event at the 2016 Westminster dog show (a history-making moment in canine-feline relations), the cats garnered as much attention as the dogs, including a mention in The New York Times.
Why are cats treading on territory long held by border collies and sheepdogs? Donât they prefer to snooze away eight of their nine lives on a cozy couch? Yes, and thatâs the whole point of agility: Get them off the couch to stretch their legs, burn calories and stimulate their brain cells.
It turns out that cats are well-suited for agility. ICAT notes that they can jump six times their height, run up to 30 miles an hour and have excellent short-distance visual acuity and 16-hour short-term memory capacity. Combine these with natural prey drive and flexibility, and every cat has the potential for stardom.
Here are some tips for unleashing your catâs inner athlete.
Agility competitions are typically held at judged breed shows, but participants donât have to be purebred; all felines are welcome to run the ring. âWe see a lot of household pets,â says Niki Feniak, a certified feline agility ringmaster who lives in Hillside, New Jersey. âThis season there were two or three household pets that got national awards for agility.â At a show a couple of years ago, she recalls, a blind rescue cat ran the course in 32 seconds. âShe followed the sound of her ownerâs voice. The owner had taught her âupâ for when she wanted her to jump. It was amazing.â
While competitions can be fun for pets who donât mind travel or the bustle of the show hall, your cat doesnât need to join the show circuit to benefit from agility training. Shy types can achieve glory in the comfort of their own home.
First, have your veterinarian examine your pet for any physical conditions such as arthritis or heart problems that would preclude strenuous activity. The ideal time to start agility training is in kittenhood, taking advantage of a youngsterâs boundless energy and built-in hunting instinct. Scamp was just 7 months old when he first competed. He did so well he earned a regional award. âKittens are easy,â says Elizabeth Deal of Hampton, Virginia, Scampâs âmom.â All they need is a little confidence, and âtheyâll chase anything.â
If your cat is older or needs a bit more encouragement to get off the couch, you just need to find the right motivation. That would be his favorite toy, whether itâs a feather on a string, a laser pointer, a jingle ball, a sock, whatever floats his boat. Get his attention, then simply run him around the house with it for several minutes, stopping if heâs panting or losing interest. If your kitty is game, repeat the sessions a few times a day.
Next, you want to add obstacles. You can buy all sorts of fancy equipment, but itâs more fun to make your own. Feniak suggests placing a broom between two chairs to make a jump or creating a course that incorporates your couch, coffee table and bed. âThere are so many things you can do with just your routine furnitureâ and different toys, she says. Add cat trees and scratching posts, leading your cat to jump up and down the different levels. Keep things fresh by switching up the routes, says Deal. âThat way they donât know where youâre going. They have to focus on the toy, which means they have to focus on you.â Reward your cat with a treat or let him gnaw the toy when the run is over. It is, after all, a hunt, and he needs to catch something.
When you and your kitty are ready to advance to the next level, check out the tips and videos at catagility.com and agility.cfa.org. YouTube can be another source for inspirational videos (see âThe Best of Cat Agility,â in which teenager Daniel King puts his cats through their amazing pacesâhurdles, hoops, weave poles, backflips and more).
âYou know your animal best,â Lisnik says. âAnd if they really get stressed out when theyâre in a crate, if they really hate being confined in small spaces for more than a little while, they may not be a good risk for flying.â
Laura Stricklandâs newly adopted kitty Wilbur, a 2-year-old brown tabby, is showing all the signs of being an agility standout. He already runs with his toys, zooms up and down the hall, leaps into the air to grab a wand toy, zips through fabric tunnels and leaps 5 feet from the kitchen counter to the top of the cabinets. âHeâs not intimidated by anything,â says Strickland, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.
With an eye toward wearing out her wild child, who also likes to leap on her back when she leans over to scoop his litter box, Strickland has begun teaching Wilbur a few tricks. First up, jumping in and out of a laundry basket.
He may not be challenging Scampâs title any time soon, but one day Wilbur could be a serious contender.
Michael Sharp is a former staff writer for All Animals magazine.