Is Kitty Kindergarten Right for Your Kitten?
What’s good for the pup is also good for the kitten— especially when it comes to honing social skills. So, kitty, hop in your carrier: It’s time for school—kitty kindergarten.
REAPING THE BENEFITS
People like Melissa Morris of Sacramento, California, are touting the many benefits of this new trend in feline learning. She volunteers at an animal shelter and fosters young kittens in search of permanent homes.
“I take my foster kittens to kitty kindergarten class to help them become properly socialized,” says Morris. “It makes a big difference because they get adopted and their new owners remark about how social their kittens are around people and even dogs.”
Morris first heard about kitty kindergarten as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis. Sophia Yin, DVM, a veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist from the San Francisco area, was conducting the classes.
Morris enrolled Kelsey, a longhaired kitten who was so fearful of people that she would attempt to bite anyone who tried to touch her, let alone pick her up helped, and we discovered that Kelsey was deaf,” adds Morris. “I ended up adopting Kelsey, and she now knows hand signals, automatically sits for everything, and loves to fetch. The best news: She doesn’t attack any more.”
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Kersti Seksel, BVSc, MRCVS, FACVSc, DACVB, an Australian veterinary behaviorist, is credited with pioneering the kitten kindergarten concept more than a decade ago. She began offering what she called “kitty kindy,” classes exclusively for kittens between 7 and 14 weeks of age, because “kittens deserve an education, too.” This concept has only recently started gaining interest and popularity in North America.
“In just a two- to four-week program, we teach owners about what normal cat behavior is, how to correct problems before they become permanent ones, and how to play and interact properly with their fast-growing kittens,” says Dr. Seksel.
While the goal of kitty kindergarten parallels that of puppy classes—creating good manners in pets during their formative youth—kittens fare best when they are enrolled a few weeks younger than puppies, by seven or eight weeks of age.
“With kittens, the younger the better, because if they are afraid, they can HealthyPet — Summer 2008 11 adjust much faster in a positive way than when they are older,” says Dr. Yin. “Kittens can’t attend until 10 days after receiving their first vaccination.We also make sure that all the other kittens and older cats they’ll be exposed to in the class are vaccinated as well.”
TYPICAL TRAINING SESSIONS
In class, people play “pass the kitty,” learn how to properly place their kittens on their backs, touch their paws and bellies, and pick them up and hold them. They are also given tips on how to check inside the mouth, brush teeth, clean ears, trim nails, groom, give pills, and train kittens to walk on leashes and welcome being toted inside carriers. In addition, instructors educate attendees on how to motivate kittens using food rewards and the value of tweaking their home décor to include feline amenities such as sturdy window perches, cat trees, and food puzzle toys.
A POSITIVE CHANGE
Dr. Yin prefers limiting the class to no more than six kittens so that each kitten owner can receive plenty of direct guidance. “You can completely change a kitten’s personality when she is young,” she says. “Even if kittens arrive rambunctious and unruly, they can be taught to permit petting and to accept rewards for being calm.”
Dr. Yin also focuses on helping enrollees recognize how to avoid inadvertently rewarding bad behavior—like tending to a kitten who mews or dances on the computer keyboard for attention. “People don’t realize that by feeding or petting a kitten when she’s being rude, they are unwittingly reinforcing those unwanted behaviors,” says Dr. Yin. “Instead, I teach people how to train their young cats to sit, and I teach the kittens to sit automatically when they want something. They get lots of rewards for sitting, and the method can be used to teach other cues like coming when called and even tricks like rolling over or jumping on or off objects.”
SWEEPING THE NATION
Kitty kindergarten is catching on. Steve Dale, an animal behavior consultant and pet radio show host, traveled to Australia to learn directly from Dr. Seksel and now offers kitty kindergarten classes in the Chicago area. His motto: A kitten’s mind is a terrible thing to waste. “My goal is to share this curriculum to help people better understand cats,” says Dale.
More and more animal shelters are offering kitty classes, and some cat groups are forming partnerships with veterinary clinics to further this concept. “People need to start asking their veterinarians about kitty kindergarten so they can become more aware and more involved,” says Dr. Yin.
Dale agrees, adding, “It seems logical that if cats are acclimated to their carriers, to cars, and to the veterinary clinic, they are more likely to be relaxed and receive a more efficient, thorough exam.”
HOW FOOD AND FUN CAN TRANSLATE TO TRAINING
Dr. Yin is an advocate of having kittens hone their innate hunting skills by livening up chow time. “I never put food in the food bowl,” she declares. “Cats love to hunt, so use that instinct to your advantage and turn meal times into training sessions. You can use kibble and treats to teach cats tricks. You can put food in a food puzzle and encourage your cat to roll the puzzle around and bat it to paw out the kibble.This approach provides lots of mental and physical stimulation for the cat.”
TOP TRAINING TIPS
Cats may be more independent than dogs, but they can be trained just like their canine counterparts. Here are some quick tips to use when training a cat:
- Take baby steps. When teaching a cat a new trick or behavior, take each step in the process slowly. For example, when teaching a cat to walk on a leash, first allow him or her to become accustomed to wearing a harness.
- Reward. Use verbal praise or a clicker combined with a special treat to mark the behavior that you want your cat to repeat.
Did you know? Cats can also compete in agility competitions.