[Cats] Jumping Through Hoops

A few months ago, my dad sent me the following email:

Here is something I thought you would be interested in that we saw in Key West. It was part of the early evening entertainment going on around sunset. Once you have trained your cats to do this I will send you a photo of the next trick!111414 Key West 040

This photo is, of course, of a cat jumping over a man’s arm from one stool to the other. Apparently, the man in the photo is known in Key West for his performing cats who can not only jump over arms, but through hoops, flaming hoops, etc. (You can also find footage of these performances on Youtube. I’m not a fan of everything he does with the cats, so I won’t post any of the videos here.)

Regardless, I have always secretly wanted to teach my cats how to jump through a hoop. Not because it serves any particular practical purpose (other than showing off at parties) but because cats are fun to train and, certainly with my own three cats, they like to train. Smirnoff was the first of my cats to be “taught” anything: a basic “sit”. And for some reason, “lay down” and “rollover” were easy additions for him; probably because he already did those things often, and all I had to do was mark those behaviors until he could do them on command. I teach all three of my cats tricks, provided they want to, of course. Bacardi can’t get “lay down” because he’s too focused on the food, and Warlow does a perfect “lay down” but can’t rollover. However, he does an adorable “high-five”.

I’ve done training with dogs at various shelters, and dogs are a lot of fun too. I had a really great time teaching a dog, Zailey, a whole bunch of things. But time and time again, I return to cats. I think it’s because training cats requires more thinking and problem-solving on my part. Cats aren’t going to do something just to please us humans; there has to be something in it for them. (Usually, food.) Thus, training becomes a mental exercise for both myself and  my cats.

So how do I choose what to train? Well, just like with any animal, you have to play into their natural behaviors and things that can realistically be taught. Teaching a cat to jump through a hoop is not an absurd concept because guess what? Cats love to leap!

But there is a difference between teaching a dog to jump through a hoop and a cat, as was explained to me by the trainer at my shelter. She said that for dogs, you teach them that the hoop is an object through which they should jump. You start by having the dog walk through the hoop, then raise it higher and higher until they are jumping. After a while, you can switch up the location of the hoop, the angle of it, move it from side to side and it doesn’t matter. The dog knows that the hoop is what it’s supposed to target. For cats, however, the primary  technique used is to teach a cat to jump consistently from point A to point B, whether those points are stools, or (in my case) the top of a scratching post and the end of a desk. Once the cat can do that, you can add any object in between—a hoop, an arm, etc. The in-between doesn’t matter at all. The cat knows it should jump from point A to point B no matter what is in the way.

It was surprisingly easy to teach all three cats this trick. Smirnoff is the best at it, which is no surprise since he’s the best leaper in general. (I’ve seen him jump from a table to the top of a fridge, onto the top of the shower door… or really any door, and he’s always figuring out how high he can get and why the ceiling keeps getting in the way.) Warlow isn’t far behind. Despite his tiny stature, he can leap just as far as Smirnoff. Bacardi, on the other hand, is a tad awkward… but to make up for it, he can do a very clean “sit up” at the end!

Here’s a video of one of Smirnoff’s *early* attempts:

I train my cats because it’s a way for us to spend quality time together (between all the snuggling and playtime, of course!) and because they are developing self-control, problem-solving skills, and get a good mental exercise from it. To me, it doesn’t matter that cats don’t jump through hoops or give high-fives out in nature… just as long as any type of training we do, first and foremost, benefits the cat. And when, during a training session, Warlow starts his loud, deep purr… or when Smirnoff meows for another trick… well, I know they’re having as much fun as I am!

This year, I am attempting to keep a training log to keep track of how much time I’m spending working with my cats (and to remind myself when it’s been way too long since we practiced!). Hopefully, this will help enrich my cats’ lives and make them happy indoor felines.

To find out more about training your cats, here are some good resources to get started:
Karen Pryor clicker training
ASPCA on cat training
Dr. Sophia Yin on teaching cats to sit


Cats That Twitch: Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

The most famous cat in recent news—Lux, the “911 cat”—made headlines back in March when he attacked his family’s baby and held them hostage at their home in Oregon. The family called 911 for rescue, which then leaked to the media. Perhaps because of its sensational nature (whoever heard of a cat holding anyone hostage?), the story went viral. And not long after that, Jackson Galaxy convinced Animal Planet to go back into production for season 5 of My Cat From Hell (even though they had stopped filming) in order to help Lux and broadcast it on TV.

I’m not interested in anyone’s opinion on the family that owned Lux. What interests me is the medical component to the story. Jackson discovered that Lux suffered from a condition called feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS). FHS cats, for whatever reason, suffer from twitching that generally results in self-mutilation. It can happen at any time, though is usually exacerbated by stress (such as a baby pulling the cat’s tail). In Lux’s case, the condition is even more rare because he lashes out at those around him instead of himself. Still, what I like about this episode from Jackson, is that it brings to the forefront a condition that most people—even cat owners—have never even heard of.

AmbrosiaOne of the cats at my shelter, Ambrosia, has FHS. She’s a pretty grey & white tabby, about 3.5 years old, and was transferred to Best Friends from a L.A. city shelter almost a year and a half ago. Ambrosia is a sweet cat. She’ll often climb onto your shoulder and rub against you when you open her cage. She can be sassy at times, but then, she’s been living in a cage-like setting for a long time. (A free-roam room or other housing options would be too stressful for her.) Her tail is partially amputated from her having self-mutilated it, but you wouldn’t notice it right away. Otherwise, she looks like a normal cat. Currently, Ambrosia is in one of our newer single cat cages up front. It’s great because she has more space than she used to, but I’d love to see her not in a cage at all. She’s one of the first cats visitors can see, and yet most people walk right on by her.

Ambrosia is a healthy girl, provided she gets her medication. At first, the shelter tried to simply reduce her stress (which helped a lot in reducing episodes), but they finally decided to also do a drug trial. Ambrosia is currently on gabapentin—an anti-seizure medication—and so far, it seems to have made an even bigger improvement on her behavior. This will most likely need to be a life-long medication.

Ambrosia was already one of the longest resident cats when I began working at Best Friends, and she never gets a serious look by visitors. It’s hard to, when there are plenty of sweet, friendly, young cats without any “issues” also available for adoption. Plus, most people have never heard of FHS. Ambrosia needs to be indoor-only, with someone who understands her condition and will take it seriously. So Ambrosia continues to be overlooked time and again.

It is my hope that due to the recent media sensation of Lux the 911 cat, someone might come into the shelter and be open to adopting a cat like Ambrosia. Maybe a few more people will know what FHS is. It is my hope that Ambrosia, and all special needs cats, will find that special someone sometime soon.

If you, or anyone you know, is looking to adopt a special needs cat like Ambrosia, especially if you/they live in the SoCal area, please email alcoholcats@gmail.com

Together, let’s find Ambrosia a home.


For more on feline hyperesthesia syndrome, click here and here.

The Cat Who Got Himself Adopted

This isn’t really my story, since I was a fairly passive participant in it—but it’s too good not to share. In fact, if I had been there for more of it, it very well may not have happened. So perhaps it’s just as well.

Jack the cat had decided that he was very well fed up with being in a shelter (even a nice one), so he took it upon himself to get adopted.

Several times a week, a few of the animals get taken on mobile adoptions. It’s a way for them to be seen in a shelter-less setting, to reach adopters who might not trek all the way up the valley to look at animals, and is a way to (cheaply) market the organization. The animals we take have to be fairly easy-going ones. Travel can be stressful, and often the dogs are going to be around other dogs, and the cats sometimes housed in large cages with another cat or two. The selection process is based on health and behavior, as well as overall adoptability.

Skittles the cat on the MAC at a previous mobile event.
Skittles the cat on the MAC at a previous mobile event.

So this past Friday, I went around selecting cats to go on Saturday’s mobile. The event was going to be on our MAC truck (Mobile Adoption Center), which is basically a giant trailer outfitted with cages and windows, so that people can see the animals inside. It’s a really nice unit, and the animals are housed individually, so they don’t necessarily have to get along. They only wanted six cats for Saturday (though they had space for eight) and I tried to make a good selection. I considered sending Jack, but he sometimes defecates in the carrier, so I didn’t want to stress him out.

Saturday morning came, and the adoption team that was working the mobile loaded up the cats. A couple of the cats were located in one of our free roam rooms, where multiple cats live, so they put down the carriers and looked for the right cats to load. Domingo was one of those cats and he was loaded into a carrier and they left, not knowing that Jack had already stuffed his large orange frame into that same carrier.

It wasn’t until they were transferring the cats into the MAC cages that Jack’s presence was discovered. (How they didn’t notice the carrier was absurdly heavy is a mystery, although loading up animals can be a bit hectic.) Since there were a couple extra cages, they decided to let Jack stay.

Jack the cat had taken himself on a mobile adoption.

It wasn’t until the afternoon that the cat team suddenly realized Jack’s absence at the shelter and were frantically trying to figure out where a very large cat may have disappeared to. When we thought to call the mobile team, knowing full well that Jack hadn’t been on the list to go, we were informed of Jack’s journey.

And that he had already been adopted.