Cats are intelligent, athletic, curious creatures, yet many house cats turn into couch potatoes from lack of stimulation. Now there is a new way for you to strengthen the cat-human bond and to create a barrel of fun through International Cat Agility Tournaments, or ICAT. This new category of cat competition requires a feline to negotiate an obstacle course designed to demonstrate speed, coordination and the quality of the animal's training relationship with its owner.
ICAT was founded in 2003 by Vickie Shields, Shirley Piper, Kathy Krysta and Adriana Kajon, all participants in the International Cat Association circuit for many years. "At a cat show, the judge picks up a cat, puts it on a table, then returns it to a cage," says Shields. "There is no action, and from a spectator point of view it can get boring."
The ICAT founders knew cats were smart and capable of much more than is usually expected of them. "Cats are not pack animals," Shields says. "I think the reason many people don't like cats is because they approach them as if they are pack animals. You can't make a cat obey. Domestic cats are colony animals, where there is a cooperative social structure."
If you want to teach a cat, you have to show it what to do. Cats are observational learners, much like primates. They watch an action take place, and act it out if the end result is desirable. Even further, a cat that sees another cat complete a behavior has a 60 percent chance of doing it correctly the first time it tries.
"I taught a cat to ring a doorbell when she wanted inside," says Shields. "It took 15 minutes and then she did it all her life. What I did was move the bell down to the ground for her. Then, while she watched, I rang the bell and I opened the door. I did this over and over. Then I went inside the screen door and put tuna on the other side. She rang the bell and I opened the door! She rang the doorbell for the rest of her 14 years of life when she wanted to come inside."
When a cat owner brings a cat to run an ICAT course for the first time, the owner will see that the area is a 30-by-30-foot enclosure, surrounded with cat fencing to prevent escape. The course is similar to that used in dog agility, with hoops, ramps, jumps and tunnels. In the agility arena, only the cat and the handler are allowed. This helps to make the cat feel relaxed and lessens stage fright. Once the cat is comfortable, the handler can then begin luring the cat through the course with a wand or toy. The founders allow luring because it helps the cats give the course an honest try their first time out.
"We've seen many cats do it on their first day," says Shields. "They realize, Oh, I'm supposed to run around where I am guided. Some of them understand that it is a competition quicker than others. They just start going faster and faster, and they stop watching the lure and start watching where they're going. When you see that awareness take place in the cat, it just gives you chills! It's then that you know they get it. Those are the cats that are going to have the best times at the trials."
One might think that certain breeds do better than others, but that does not seem to be the case. At the first show, a feisty Himalayan named Poppy was the first cat with a clean run through the course.
"They don't have to be a particular breed to try," says Shields. "We have a lot of regular house cats that compete, and they do great." ICAT focuses on the relationship with the owner rather than what the cat looks like or whether it is a good representation of a particular breed standard.
ICAT is true to its slogan, "Play Every Day with Your Cat," because the goal is to get cats moving and back to their natural athletic state of being.
With exhibitions happening all over the United States and several planned for 2004 in the U.S., Europe and even Russia, ICAT is off to an amazing start. Learn how your cat can become involved at http://www.catagility.com/.