By Jason A. Heidemann
Imagine what it would be like sending your cat off to school. You would have to wake him up each morning after his customary sixteen hour nap and pack his favorite Garfield lunch box with a water container, a scoop of dry food, and maybe a salmon treat for after recess. Then you would place him in his cat carrier and hand him over to the bus driver all the while tearfully waving goodbye and thinking things like, “they grow up so fast” and “I hope he doesn’t succumb to peer pressure and try catnip.” This, of course, will never be a reality, but kindergarten for kittens already is.
Kitty Kindergarten made its debut in Chicago this summer as a place where feline companions can learn basic skills designedto ease them into every day life with their new guardians. Under the instruction of resident feline/canine expert and “Pet Central”radio show host Steve Dale and Blum Animal Hospital veterinarian Dr. Sheldon Rubin, kittens aged 6 to 14 weeks learn how toacclimate themselves to traveling in a carrier, riding in cars, and the sights, sounds, and smells of a veterinary clinic. Kittens are also taught socialization skills to familiarize themselves withbeing around other cats as well as dogs. Meanwhile guardians learn important litter box information, basic diet/feedinginformation, how toadminister medication,grooming, and teaching their young ones about scratching in the right places.
Some kittens may even walk away having learned a new trick. “At this young age, they’re so incredibly malleable,” Dale says. “It’s the perfect age to introduce them to the cold exam table at the vet’s office and to be handled by strangers, which is why we play ‘pass the kitty.’ The classes do everything from expose kittens to members of their own kind to members of the—dare I say—canine persuasion.” Rubin agrees. “I think that the whole purpose of having the kindergarten is to get them socialized very early in their developmental life and to teach the [guardian] how to get the cat to respond to simple commands and to train a cat so that they don’t have behavior problems as they get older. The old adage that cats can’t be trained isn’t true.” Popular belief has always held that cats don’t need to be trained. Bring home an 8-week-old kitten, dig his paws into a pan of fresh litter box and you’re good to go. Not so anymore.
According to the Maryland SPCA, “Kitten training is extremely important. It’s common for people to think that cats just naturally know what to do. Actually, they need to be taught good behavior. Since many kittens are rescued and placed for adoption at an early age, they frequently grow up lacking the necessary socialization that will make them happy and enjoyable pets. Without the proper instruction on how to use a scratching post or the litter box, how to interact with people or other animals, you may end up with a cat that attacks your feet, disappears when a visitor comes to your home, or, worse yet, doesn’t know how and where to keep her claws healthy and use the litter box!”
Dr. Rubin points out the fact that cat behavior problems are probably the number one reason why cats are abandoned in the first place. “There are just a ton of behavior [issues] that have occurred over the years that makes a veterinarian realize that behavior in cats, which has been ignored for many years, is probably every bit important, maybe even more so important, than in our dogs.” The idea behind Kitty Kindergarten isn’t new. It was pioneered about a decade ago in Australia by veterinary behaviorist Kersti Seksel who started the program through her trademarked Puppy PreschoolTM and Kitty KindyTM classes. “After successfully starting a Puppy Preschool in Australia my clients wanted to know when I would start a similar program for kittens,” Seksel recalls. “Socializing pets to people is always paramount if they are to live happily together.
Additionally, at that stage we had an oversupply of kittens and the easiest way to find homes for them was to have them come and sit on cue as well as ‘give me five!’”
Dale met Dr. Seksel at a conference and instantly clicked with the idea. “When Dr. Seksel mentioned Kitty Kindergarten in passing at the Post Graduate Institute of the North American Veterinary Conference, I thought, ‘cool.’ I mean I immediately understood.” However, Dale admits it will be awhile before it reaches the mainstream pet community. “There are a few other classes scattered throughout the country that are doing this…I’m pretty certain we’re the first in the Chicago area. Now that the new Guidelines for Feline Behavior approved by the American Association of Feline Practitioner are being published, I suspect we’ll see more classes for kitties pop up.” Seksel agrees and says that even in her native Australia the concept has a way to go. “Kitten KindyTM is always seasonal, as are kittens. Most years there are veterinary practices around Australia that run these classes, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (RSPCA) in Melbourne find them very successful. Kitty KindyTM is not common, but as it took several years for Puppy PreschoolTM classes to become accepted and dogs are more common as pets [in Australia] I expect it will take longer for Kitty KindyTM to become commonplace.” All agree that Kitty Kindergarten should be a vital part of feline curriculum citing the many misconceptions people have about cats. According to Seksel, it is paramount that new guardians understand normal cat behavior and how to live with a cat in the family. “Cats have mistakenly been considered to be solitary or non-social species and that has lead to many misconceptions. Additionally many people do not appreciate that socialization really means teaching cats to live in harmony not only with their own species, but also with other species (i.e. their [guardians]).”
Classes are divided into two sessions. During the first week, Dale and Rubin teach each guardian/kitty about nail clipping, dental care, leash, and harness training, and they give the kittens playtime. This offers new guardians the opportunity to examine their kitty’s body language and understand what it is they’re trying to say. Each cat is given a mock veterinary exam, taught how to sit, and behavior questions are answered. During the second week, guardians/kitties learn brushing and pilling, canines are introduced into the classroom, kittens tour the facility with someone who is not their own human, and extensive litter box, scratching, diet, basic feeding, and enrichment discussions take place. While both Dale and Rubin see the classroom work as a step in the right direction, they also believe a guardian’s understanding of cat behavior and how to rectify it when it is inappropriate is crucial. “What we’re trying to do is avoid the relinquishment of cats either by euthanasia, giving them back to shelters, or, God forbid, opening the door and letting them go outside because they are bad kitties,” says Dr. Rubin. “As a veterinarian I’ve always realized that cat behavior problems were always the number one cause of people wanting to give their cats up. There’s always been the underlying feeling that there has to be something we can do about this.”
Dale concurs. “The number one reason why indoor cats die isn’t kidney disease or all the kinds of cancer put together, it’s inappropriate behavior,” he says. Of course, at the end of the day, some cats also learn some really cool tricks. “We had a cat who learned to ‘give kisses’ on command and another to come when called, and for cats the latter is impressive. We had a cat that played the piano—you can pretty much train a cat to do anything a dog can do,” Dale believes. “A cat’s mind is a terrible thing to waste,” he adds. “We have a nation filled with brain dead, fat cats. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall says many cats in America are actually clinically depressed. They do nothing, all day, every day. Cats do love their naps and to lounge, but we have a nation of cat that are gaining it in the middle while losing it upstairs—those brain cells are indeed dying.”
If you live in the Chicagoland area and would like to enroll your kitten in Kitty Kindergarten you may contact Steve Dale at www.PetWorldRadio.net or call him at WGN Radio at (312) 222-4999. You may also contact Dr. Sheldon Rubin, D.V.M. at Blum Animal Hospital at (773) 327-4446.