En español | When Beth Deal told her husband, Pete, she wanted to bring their two 6-month-old ocicat kittens to an agility competition, he had no clue what he was getting into.
The couple, ages 63 and 64, drove three hours from their home in Hampton, Virginia, to Raleigh, North Carolina, to run their cats, Scamp and Rascal, over stairs and through tunnels and even to jump through rings on command.
Pete, who used to show horses and loved the performance aspect, wanted more. “That was the way she got me hooked on it,” says Pete. “I had no idea what her plans were."
Six years, many trips across the country and numerous national awards later, Beth and Pete and their brood of ocicats have become top contenders in the competitive Feline Agility world.
But they and their challengers are far from the only cat fanciers getting into the sport. From rescuers aiming to give their cats a leg up with potential adopters to regular old pet owners, cat agility training has become an increasingly popular way to keep both humans and their cats connected and engaged.
"People see agility training like it's novel and cute but think, ‘My cat would never want to do this,’ “ says Samantha Bell, cat expert for Best Friends Animal Society. “I guarantee you your cat would want to do this.”
Tunnels, hoops and poles
At its core, a cat agility competition is fairly similar to its canine counterpart.
Cats are timed while running counterclockwise through a 20-by-20-foot course, enclosed with vision-obscuring netting. There are 10 different obstacles on the course, starting with a small platform with three steps up and three down, followed by nine other hurdles that gradually become more challenging.
After the feline competitor successfully makes it through a six-inch jump, there's a 10-inch jump, as well as tunnels, hoops and weave poles set out in a straight line that cats must bend and weave around.
The cats have 4 minutes, 30 seconds to complete the course — dogs usually get about 60 seconds — which starts the second a paw hits the stairs and stops when it reaches the floor after the final hoop jump. Most cats can do it in 30 seconds or less, with faster felines ringing in at under 20. Rascal has completed his course as fast as 12 seconds and Boo, another of the Deals’ ocicats, once made a 7.62-second run.
The furry contestants are allowed to correct mistakes. “They may stop to chase a bug between the first and second obstacles,” says Jill Archibald, 71, feline agility chair for the Cat Fanciers’ Association. “They can go back to where they went off course and continue the obstacle."
Trainers and handlers at these competitions work off cats’ natural prey-hunting instincts by using a lure (that is, a high-value toy) to entice the cat through the obstacle course.
Archibald suggests starting your cat's training with small steps, such as dragging a favorite toy across a stack of books or a chair, then giving your cat lots of love and attention when it follows through.
"There's no reason people can't teach their cat agility now that they're home,” she says. “Just don't do it with catnip because your cat will get stupid and lay down."
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A deep bond forms
If you're interested in seeing if your cat has what it takes, clicker training is often the go-to training method. The clicker (or even a click pen) is pressed to mark desired behavior, which is reinforced with a high-value treat.
Christie Rogero, who leads the Cat Pawsitive initiative through Greater Good Charities, a training and enrichment program for shelter cats, teaches volunteers to clicker train for various commands such as high five, hoop jump, roll over, fetch and other agility routines. The program helps alleviate boredom, cultivate bonding with humans and even reduce behavior problems.
One cat, Pippi, who was described as “murderous,” was so stressed out by the shelter environment that she became swatty and angry, scaring the volunteers.
When Pippi started agility training, it was like a switch had flipped, Rogero says. Soon, she was choosing to engage with humans by running up stairs and jumping through hoops. And she was eventually brought home by an adopter who is thrilled to keep her engaged. “You can go from murderous to a content cat who is not going to rip your face off because she is so frustrated at her environment,” Rogero says of training.
While finding cats homes and earning recognition in national competitions are huge parts of the draw of agility training, the real benefit is the deep bond that forms between pet and owner. “You can almost always tell what they're thinking, both in the agility ring and at home,” says Pete Deal. “You definitely do feel closer."
Video: You Can Teach Your Cat to Jump Through A Hoop
Sara Ventiera is a contributing writer who covers pets, health and home design. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications including The New York Times, Food & Wine, NPR, Eating and BBC Travel.