2007-09-12 / Columnists
Pets, Pets, Pets
September means Back to School. "Kitty Kindergarten" is the cat equivalent. Teacher's pets need not worry about finger painting or their ABCs, however, since Kitty Kindergarten, a novel approach to socializing kittens and educating their owners may save the feline students' lives by preventing behavior issues and helping them to become more "patient" patients at the vet. During the critical learning period, kittens (those between 6 to 14 weeks old) are in small group classes and are acclimated to household items like the dreaded carrier and situations such as the scary car ride. Pet pupils must have vet health clearance before registering. At class, they are socialized with tiny peers, dogs and strange people, building confidence and good manners. There are several reasons why kittens benefit from this type of school. A welladjusted kitty makes a better companion and is destined toward a happier life. The number-one cause of death for young, indoor cats is not medical; more cats are surrendered or abandoned because of behavior problems than sickness. Although there are about 89 million owned cats and 75 million owned dogs in the United States, cats see their vets only half as much as dogs, in part because many cats, even the sweethearts at home, stress out going to the doctor. Of those that make it to the clinic, uncooperative cats are less likely to get a thorough exam. Traumatized cats can also present false symptoms. Creating pleasant associations while the kitten is still impressionable makes for a less afraid and more accepting adult cat. Training classes for puppies are common place, but the brilliant brainstorm to give kittens the same educational opportunity came to an Australian veterinarian, Dr. Kersti Seksel, about a decade ago. Kitten classes are popular Down Under. In 2004 Chicago-based syndicated pet columnist and radio host Steve Dale (www.stevedalepetworld. com) began fine tuning the two 1 hour session he calls Kitty- K© to promote the concept in the US. Proper play, not rough housing, is a crucial component of the program. We all know indoor cats are much safer, but their sheltered lives need not be boring when properly stimulated or engaged. Steve is a proponent of clicker training and demonstrates how with proper reinforcement, he taught his own Devon Rex to play a toy piano.
Instead of a yellow school bus, here's the Carrier Pre-Lesson: Dogs get to go on joy rides; cats rarely do. Most cats associate being sandwiched into carriers, and then tossed into the car with that awful trip to the vet. Many scream bloody murder. Their perception can be changed. About a week before Kitty-K© begins, the human is supposed to leave the open carrier out (near a food dish) for the curious kitten to explore. This gradually progresses to feeding the cat in or near the carrier, and later tossing a treat inside with a command such as "Go in." Next you continue the food tidbits while partially zipping or closing the carrier, then full closure and a short hoist from room to room with kitty still noshing on the goodies inside. If all goes well, you can take your cat for a quick carrier ride around the block. Vocal complainers should be pacified with tastier treats like tuna. (Never reward a cat by releasing him if he's raising a ruckus. That sends the wrong message.) Now the portable kitty is ready to go to Kg.