This popular sport isn’t just for dogs. Your cat might be just as good at it as your neighbor’s border collie!
All eyes were on Seamus as he entered the agility ring. It was his first competition, and the test to see if he would negotiate the course. At the buzzer, Seamus and his handler were off. He jumped over the first hurdle. Slowed down at the hoop. Sped through the tunnel. Glided around the weave poles.
Everyone clapped and cheered each time Seamus cleared an obstacle. The local TV station was on hand filming this “historical” run, capturing every moment Seamus got over or around another obstacle. At the end, even though it wasn’t perfect, his handler scooped him up and gave him a big hug.
So what was so special about Seamus and this agility competition? Dogs do it all the time! But Seamus isn’t a dog. He’s a Persian kitten.
Cat agility is based on dog agility. A handler directs or lures a cat through an obstacle course as quickly as possible and without loss of points (or faults). This new sport was created in 2003 when ICAT (International Cat Agility Tournaments) introduced it at The International Cat Association (TICA) cat shows. “During timed events, cats negotiate an agility course designed to display their speed, coordination, beauty of movement, physical condition, intelligence, and training,” says Adriana Kajon, co-founder of ICAT and a TICA judge. ICAT (www.catagility.com) is the first registry of agility cats and awards titles for different levels of skill at contests held by local cat show clubs, rescue groups and shelters, boarding kennels and pet expos. Contests have been held not only in North America, but around the world in countries such as Africa, Germany, Japan, and France. Training clubs have started in many cities, allowing people and their cats to train together on homemade agility courses.
On the level
There are two levels of cat agility:
- The Basic Level allows your cat to get used to various obstacles and work through a course. It also helps build your working relationship while moving up in speed and abilities.
- The Advanced Level is broken down into Level 1 and Level 2. These are where the most conditioned, outgoing and intelligent cats compete over courses that maximize the display of physical ability and handler-cat interaction. The courses are more complex and the direction to obstacles does not follow a circular pattern.
The Advanced Level 2 course is very challenging. Each obstacle is set at its maximum height and difficulty. It’s spectacular to watch an exceptional agility cat working it. Only cats with Advanced Level 1 titles may run this course because they need to be in superb physical condition and have excellent communication skills with their handlers.
All runs are timed and scored. Points are taken off for any “faults”, such as the cat or handler knocking down a jump, or the cat engaging in the wrong obstacle out of sequence. A slower run with no faults is better than a fast run with two faults.
Unlike dog agility arenas, which tend to be quite large and are often outdoors, the cat agility arena measures 10’x20’ and is an enclosed area inside a building. It will have a mix of obstacles based on skill levels and the type of competition. The most commonly run course is the Crazy 8 Agility Skill which includes a 3’ tunnel, weave poles, hoop jump, fence jump and ladder. All obstacles and courses are designed with safety, spectator appeal, and fun for the cat in mind.
To compete, cats must be eight months of age or older. Kittens four to eight months may practice on a Basic Level course, but not compete. Junior handlers also are recognized for record-setting times and clean runs.
A team effort
The primary focus of ICAT’s agility contests is the connection between cat and handler. “Cat agility demonstrates the quality and depth of the relationship between the cats and the people who train and guide them through the course,” says Adriana, She adds that turning agility training into quality playtime helps people build this relationship. “We emphasize that you play with your cat every day, even if it’s just for ten to 15 minutes. Cat agility is something to ‘do’ with your cat, and gives him an advanced way to interact with you.”
Cats can benefit both physically and mentally from doing agility. Running around the course, jumping through hoops and weaving through poles helps build muscle and improves physical fitness. And the mental stimulation of running a course and maneuvering around obstacles while interacting with his person helps a cat become more alert and happy. “By recognizing how agility helps a cat’s physical and mental health, people are ‘focusing on the beauty from within’ and showing more concern for the well being of their cats.”
Can your cat compete?
“An agility course is like a playground to a cat,” says Adriana. “But before you take your cat to a contest or try to train her, you need to know if she is ready.” Good agility cats have the qualities to make happy, healthy companions. The most successful cats in competition love to play, have an outgoing personality, and are in excellent physical condition. To find out if your feline friend might qualify, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can he handle new situations calmly, and does he enjoy investigating new things?
- Are new people interesting to my cat and does he like to interact with them?
- Does he love to run, jump and climb?
- Does he like to interact with obstacles and objects (such as toys, lures, etc.)?
- Is he motivated by praise and/or treats?
- Does he like to play with me?
- Is he focused, and does he pay attention to me while being alert and responsive?
- Is my cat in overall good health with stamina, conditioned and lean with an energetic outlook on life?
Cats can be trained
“Let’s dispel a myth: cats are very intelligent, and easily trainable,” says Adriana. Because domestic cats are colony animals and not pack animals like dogs, they have a more cooperative nature than is customarily recognized. “Train with patience, respect and affection. Take time to decode your cat’s communication and form a connection with him.”
You don’t need fancy agility equipment to train your cat at home. You can “create a course” with household objects or by purchasing inexpensive items from pet and toy stores (see previous page). If your cat proves she enjoys agility, and you decide to compete, then you can build or purchase more equipment and have a full agility course to train on.
Once you’ve determined if your cat has the right temperament and fitness level for agility, you can use different training methods and tools to get started.
- Clicker training is a conditioning method. It’s used while your cat gets accustomed to handling obstacles. Mistakes are ignored and the cat gets a reward – usually praise – for what she does correctly.
- Lures such as toys and treats can be used to guide the cat over obstacles and through the course if she does not respond to a clicker.
- You can use hand and voice commands once your cat has learned to handle the obstacles and shows a true interest in agility. Direct her over obstacles and through the course by using your hand to guide her, and give verbal commands and praise as she completes an obstacle correctly.
- It’s important your cat stays focused. Always reward her with praise or a small treat when she does something well. “Praise and love at home will keep up the focus level in the agility ring,” says Adriana.
- If you have the space, another good exercise is to use an obstacle to block your cat’s path to the room where she sleeps and/or eats. She’ll be forced to jump over the hurdle to get to her food or bed. This will allow her to get used to the jump and not be afraid of it, learn how to jump a hurdle and clear it, and help build muscle.
Cat agility hasn’t been around as long as dog agility, but it’s certainly catching on. Says Adriana, “We hope it will develop and become widely popular, with spectators getting caught up in watching the enthusiasm of both cat and handler in their athletic race around the course.”
Agility at home
Want to find out if your cat will enjoy agility? Create a homemade course by guiding your cat over or under the following objects:
- Over a kitchen or dining room chair turned on its side
- Under a coffee or kitchen table
- From chair to chair
- Across the bed
- Over a broom handle, or even your extended arm
For training, you’ll need:
- Teaser toys (you can purchase them from pet stores)
- Clicker (if you want to use clicker training)
- Treats (to use as a lure and/or give as a reward at the end of the course)
Once you know your cat is enjoying agility, assemble the following course obstacles by buying items at local toy, pet, department or shipping stores:
- Bar jump – use boxes and mailing tubes
- Hoop jump – use hula hoops and PV pipe “legs”
- Weave poles – sports cones are inexpensive and easy to find
- Tunnels – pop-up laundry bags or reinforced storage bags with the bottoms removed (or tunnels designed especially for animals)
- Another option is to purchase obstacles made by someone else, such as a dog agility equipment vendor
Which breeds are best?
The first world cat agility record holders were both Bengals. Zoom, who quickly earned the Agility Cat Excellence (ACE) title, finished the advanced level course at a blinding speed of 9:37 seconds with no faults. Ciniron, another Bengal, set the world record for kittens with a clean run in 15 seconds. Bengals are not the only breed that loves agility. Others that have competed and hold titles include Singapura, Abyssinian, ocicat, toyger, pixiebob, ragdoll, Havana brown, British shorthair, Savannah, Egyptian mau, Burmese, Maine coon, Peterbald, Japanese bobtail, Oriental shorthair, Turkish van and Russian blue.
If you don’t have one of these, don’t despair; many non-pedigree household cats also compete!