In what sport do competitors at times lie down in the middle of the course, unmotivated and bemused? The answer is cat agility tournaments, a competition in which cats run through a miniature obstacle course crammed with hurdles and tunnels. The phenomenon of cat agility contests started about 10 years ago when two couples involved in cat shows were at dinner and started talking about the tricks their cats did. They modified selected dog agility obstacles and showed them to their cats. From that chance meeting, International Cat Agility Tournaments (ICAT) was born. In 2004, cat shows began featuring agility contests, and they are now a fixture on the cat show circuit. As promoted on their website (catagility.com), ICAT is devoted to “creating a new category of cat competition in which cats negotiate an obstacle course designed to display their speed, coordination, beauty of movement, physical conditioning, intelligence, training, and the quality and depth of their relationship with their owner, who trains with them and guides them through the course.”
Modeled after dog agility competitions the cat tournaments feature a ring in which cat owners flaunt a sparkly wand or feather to coax their cat to climb stairs, weave around poles, and leap through hoops in as little time as possible. Many owners have trained their pets from kittens to run the course through the ingenious use of teaser toys, food treats, and plenty of affection. Ideally, a trained cat will tear through the course in seconds. However, training also requires getting a cat used to variations of an obstacle course in a strange ring surrounded by eager onlookers. Crowds and the unfamiliar setting often spook the best-trained cats. Nevertheless, some days even a trained cat appears it could not care less – sure, it might do the tricks, but on its own terms.
Technically, the agility contest requires a cat to run through a course with 10 obstacles such as hurdles, hoops, tunnels, teeter-totters, stairs, and a series of poles around which the cats must weave. They have to do all ten obstacles in order, counterclockwise, with no mistakes. About 30 per cent percent of the cats finish the course in the allotted four and a half minutes. While the tunnels, steps, and hurdles are not a problem for trained cats, many have a hard time with the weave poles. The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) rules award a cat 15 points for each obstacle it navigates successfully.
Jill Archibald, a retired physical education teacher from New Jersey who is an agility coordinator for the CFA has posted a series of online videos (tinyurl.com/VetJan1201) about how to train your cat. She also has built her own 20-by-30-foot agility ring, which she drives from one cat show to the next. She made the obstacles herself, including jumps and hoops, because the only ones sold commercially are designed for dogs, and are too large.
Over the weekend of November 19-20, 2011, the other major US organizations for cat lovers, the International Cat Association (ICA) held its annual cat show in conjunction with American Kennel Club Meet the Breeds event at the huge Jacob K Javits Convention Center. Any cat registered at the show could participate in the agility event while the pedigreed cats were being judged. One of the four founding members of ICAT is Shirley Piper who with her partner, Kathy Krysta, live in Riverside, California, with their 20 cats. They train their cats regularly, using toys and a system of taps. Some of their cats are so well trained that they will run an agility course on their own, with no feathers or other incentives. Piper served as the agility ringmaster at the ICA Meet the Breeds show. In her introductory speech, she declared that many of the spectators present “don’t care about records and organized running but just want to see a cat perform by itself.” Piper’s sentiment rings true, because unlike dog agility competitions, there is rarely prize money, more often a ribbon or small trophy is given at a cat competition, and historically scores have been kept sporadically.
The lack of prizemoney, and not cat futility, has meant that cat agility has not caught on quite as rapidly as hoped. Most cat shows barely break even financially, and it is more lucrative to lease space in a show hall to vendors than to install an agility ring. Vickie Shields, another of the founders of ICAT, is hoping to invigorate the sport. She and her partner, Adriana Kajon, experiment with new obstacles in their living room in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where their cats get up every morning and sit expectantly by the drawer where the hoops are kept. Shields and Kajon have tried many new obstacles such as ball pits and an inflatable swimming pool. The ball pits have potential but the swimming pool was a failure as their cats would not jump over it, but run up to it and stop, or take a drink.
Twyla Mooner, a Bengal from Reston, Virginia, is considered one of the greatest agility champions. Her owner Lisa Maria Padilla claims Twyla is all about speed. “There is not a whole lot of finesse and style, but she burns through the course, and is good for about two runs a day.” A video of Padilla as she takes Twyla Mooner with Lisa-Maria for a walk around the Del Mar Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall in San Diego during the CFA Food and Water Bowl show in January 2011 is available on YouTube. (tinyurl.com/VetJan1202) Most owners are not so lucky as Padilla since other cat agility videos on YouTube show more gaffes than triumphs.
A question often raised is what makes a cat agility champion- is it the cat’s own work ethic or its training regimen? In other words, the nature versus nurture conundrum.
Of the 40 pedigreed breeds recognized by the CFA, certain breeds such Abyssinian, Maine Coons and Bengals – cats with strong native or barn-cat genetic backgrounds and outgoing personalities – have dominated the competitions, supposedly due to their extroverted personalities. However, many successful ICAT owners and breeders claim it is more than the personality of their cat. But what that mysterious factor is has not yet been defined.
Many veterinarians in the US are now in favor of this kind of training or play, as cats will practically chase a feather on a string anywhere. Cynthia Otto, an associate professor of critical care, at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine has trained her cat to ride a skateboard, and her dog to push it. Otto believes most owners do not interact enough with their pets. Certainly, IFCAT promotes the benefits that training your cat for agility brings. It is an activity to do with your cat inside the house, takes little space, is inexpensive, and gives your cat a complex way to interact with you. Most importantly, training your cat changes your relationship with your animal and enhances your bond.