As you may have already heard, earlier this year we made the decision to launch a training programme aimed towards the cats in our care. You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounded like a slightly bonkers idea to begin with (can you really train cats?) and we’d be lying if we said we were always 100% certain that the programme would be a success. However, we’d spent the previous year working incredibly hard with the dogs in our care, offering them training that helped them to feel more settled and confident in kennels and helped them to appeal to potential new owners. The training for the dogs went so well, that we knew we had to at least try to create something similar for the cats to give them the same opportunities, which work to help them find a new owner sooner.
The most noticeable thing we wanted to change was the cats feeling as though they needed to hide in their beds away from view. Something many people don’t realise is cats exhibit stress in a very different way to dogs. Where dogs will jump, bark and spin to show anxiety or stress, cats will silently hide from view and cope with their anxiety or unhappiness privately. Of course, the dog’s way of coping is much more noticeable and upsetting to us humans than the cat’s methods. So we felt this has historically led to cats’ needs becoming somewhat overlooked in rescue environments and their urge to hide being written off as normal behaviour. We wanted to change that. Most importantly, we wanted cats in a rescue environment to feel confident enough to greet visitors and allow potential rehomers to see how beautiful they are, because this is how they will eventually find their new home.
Much of our learning came from the Open Paw for Dogs programme we use in all of our centres. This taught us that hand feeding (called Level 1) can encourage animals to associate approaching visitors with a good thing. For example, if every passing visitor drops a treat into a dog’s kennel as they pass, then the dog begins to learn that an approaching visitor = ‘treats for me!’ and this can stop them feeling anxious or scared. In fact, it can help to generate feelings of happiness and excitement, which encourages them to come to the front of their kennels and greet visitors. We weren’t sure treats would have the same effect with cats, as some cats are less motivated by food, but it seemed like the most sensible starting point for a trial.
We decided to use ‘high value’ treats, i.e. something super tasty and different to their standard food. We gave each cat the option of two treat chutes – one which would drop treats at the front of the pen (on a platform situated perfectly to allow them to interact with visitors) and one which would drop treats towards the back of the pen, where the shy cats could gradually get used to interacting with visitors. Within a week of our Open Paw for Cats trial launching, we were amazed at the difference this one simple change made to the behaviour of the cats. They weren’t hiding any more; they were all sat at the front of their pens awaiting the next visitor. Even cats that weren’t interested in eating a treat were still greeting visitors, which showed us that it’s not necessarily the treat that creates the positive association for every animal. The simple act of kindness can build a small amount of trust, allowing them confidence to come and say ‘hello’. Want to see the difference for yourself? Take a look at our before and after video.
The second thing we had to tackle was boredom. Some cats weren’t anxious, some were simply bored! Cats are highly intelligent creatures and natural hunters, and whilst our cats benefit from incredible care from dedicated staff and volunteers, their pens weren’t quite meeting all their needs. We consulted a selection of cat behaviourists and recurring advice centred on the fact that cats need to hunt to provide them with mental stimulation that will prevent boredom. The more we looked into this the more we realised that feeding the cats with bowls, certainly in a contained rescue environment, wasn’t addressing their natural urges. They required something more interactive. It was then that we came across Dr Liz Bales and her wonderful invention of Doc and Phoebe’s Indoor Hunting Feeder. It was just what we were looking for and we got in touch straight away. Dr Bales was wonderful, she was so enthusiastic about the work we were doing to improve the lives of cats in rescue that she donated enough sets of Doc and Phoebe’s Indoor Hunting Feeder for all 50 resident cats in our pilot centre. The cats took to this new way of feeding immediately and very soon we began to see cats that we’d previously assumed to be indifferent darting about their pens ‘hunting’ their food. As well as being more confident and interactive, they were now also more playful, indicating that they were generally much happier.
The final parts of our training revolved around teaching useful behaviours they could take to a new home. Again, this was in a bid to make each cat appear more rehomeable and also to help the cat and their new owner when settling into life in a new home. This included some clicker training that taught the cats to high five; an adorable trick for a potential new owner to enjoy. It also taught them more useful things, such as getting into a cat carrier willingly. Cat carriers are now left in every cat’s pen permanently. By having them there permanently, the carriers become a ‘normal’ part of everyday life – in fact, they’re cushioned with blankets and sometimes covered with an extra blanket, making them quite a tempting place to have a little snooze. They are no longer scary alien objects that only come out when it’s time to take a trip to the dreaded vets!
There are many contributing factors that make up our Open Paw for Cats programme and there is a lot to take in when reading about it, so if you’d like to know more and see for yourself how it works, the best thing to do is visit your local centre and take part!* Until then, here’s another video to show you a bit more of Open Paw for Cats in action.
By the end of autumn, every NAWT centre will operate Open Paw training with both the cats and dogs in our care and we’re confident that our animals will be calmer, happier and will appear more rehomeable for it.
*Please note: Our Berkshire and Somerset Centres will be rolling out Open Paw for Cats over the next two months, but you can still take part in Open Paw with their dogs in the meantime.