BRAIN DEAD CATS

(Information given with author’s permission from the 73rd Western Veterinary Conference held in Las Vegas, Nev.,in February 2001.)

Las Vegas, Nev.–Our country is filled with brain dead cats. As grandpa used to say, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

I believe our cats have lost it, and behaviorists in growing numbers agree.

Some kitties take out their frustrations and their boredom wreaking havoc and getting into mischief. Or as they sleep literally all day long, desperate for attention and with energy to burn they pounce on their people at 2 a.m. These cats refuse to conform and become what most indoor cats in this country have become – brain dead couch potatoes that are bored out of their minds.

Feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett of Nashville, TN, author of several cat books, including “hiss and tell,” (cq) (Penguin Books, New York, NY; $12) and Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of behavior at Tufts University College of Veterinary Medicine – North Grafton, and author of “The Cat Who Cried For Help,” (Bantam Books, New York, NY, 1997; $22.95) go further. They contend most indoor cats have empty lives–though their tummies are certainly anything but empty. They live to eat – a part of the reason as many as 40 percent of all cats are overweight. Both Johnson-Bennett and Dodman call these couch potato kitties “clinically depressed.”

Obesity can be a serious health issue. Some cats become so sedentary jumping on to counters is hardly a problem owners have to deal with. These cats are no longer capable of leaping anywhere. A lack of exercise is unhealthy for cats as it is in people.

The result can be health problems such as diabetes, or seemingly, even psychological problems from overweight cats unable to twist to thoroughly groom themselves.

“We all need a purpose in our lives to feel good about ourselves,” says Johnson-Bennett. “The same is true for cats. Life has become so dull for most cats.”

One solution is to let cats roam outdoors. No argument; they’ll get lots of environmental stimulation. But a walk outside is truly a walk on the wild side, potentially life threatening. Cats really do get hit by cars, not to mention the dangers from infectious diseases, dogs and other animals, even rat poisoning. Any cat – especially an elderly cat – can simply get lost.

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Amy Marder at the American Society for the Prevention to Cruelty to Animals in New York City, NY agrees, “It’s far healthier for a cat to stay indoors, and easy enough for people to enrich the lives of indoor cats, creating an environment interesting enough to mimic outdoors.”

Statistically speaking, cats are now man’s best friend. There are more cats than dogs, with 59.1million cats (and 52.9 dogs), according to the 1997 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographic Sourcebook, published by the American Veterinary Medical Association. One reason cats have soared in popularity is the perceived notion that cats hardly need our attention, or at least nearly as much attention as dogs do. The common notion is that cats are perfect pets for people whose lives are busier than ever, and too busy for a dog. But is this fair to our cats?

“Of course, it’s true they don’t require daily walks or romps in the park,” says Dr. Karen Overall, director of behavior at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Philadelphia. “I personally believe (indoor) cats are in even more need of environmental stimulation than dogs. For one thing, they don’t get to go out in the world like dogs do. Cats pretty much get ignored while we’re busy training our dogs, developing a relationship with them that we could also have with cats as if we wanted to.”

Think about it, even a dog who doesn’t get out into the world learns little tricks. For example, take 83-year old Martha Hoovaer. She lives in a New York City high rise with Chiquita, her Chihuahua. When it’s cold and icy in the Big Apple, Martha isn’t able to get out, so Chiquita doesn’t go out; the petite pup uses a litter box. If you visit Martha, she proudly presents what she calls, “My little doggy tricks show.” Chiquita rolls over, barks on command, sits and begs for cookies. Thumper, Martha’s cat, doesn’t know any tricks. Martha loves Thumper just the same, but it never occurred to her teach Thumper any tricks. “Besides,” she says, “Why would you bother training a cat?”

It’s true cats don’t require good manners to walk down the street into the local video store.

But ask any dog trainer, and you’ll hear over and over again the most important reason for training is to develop and enhance the bond with your pooch, and to learn to understand one another. Why wouldn’t the same be true for cats?

Whether you think dogs are smarter than cats, or the other way around isn’t important. Even if you’re a diehard dog dude, you must concede – though perhaps not in public – cats are at least in the same ball park on the brainy scale as dogs are. Most people can’t imagine not training their dog to do something. Similarly, most people can’t imagine training their cat to do anything.

BRAIN DEAD CATS — PART TWO

Las Vegas, Nev.– Most cats are brain dead. With little to do indoors, they tend to vegetate; their brains shrink as their waistline grows.

With owners gone for long hours, it’s just assumed that cats – who are thought to be aloof anyway – will be perfectly content. However, as research on domestic cats trickles in, it’s increasingly clear this assumption is not true. Cats do best with companionship, and actually have a hard-wired need to hunt and to explore.

“Without these psychological needs being met, no matter how much we love our kitties, they will ultimately become clinically depressed,” says feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, author of “hiss and tell,” (cq) (Penguin Books, New York, NY; $12).

The good news is that with a spark of creativity, and a little bit of effort, people create an indoor environment just as stimulating as outdoors, and at the same time a whole lot safer than outdoors.

“The goal is to make everyday an adventure, and to activate the cat’s prey drive” says Johnson-Bennett, “Meanwhile, find a way to enhance your bond with your cat through interactive play or training.”

We train our dogs so that they learn to act as good citizens out in the world. Since our cats hardly get out, it doesn’t even occur to us to train a cat. Some people don’t even think it’s possible.

I personally set out to prove that it is possible. Using a clicker and treats, I taught my cat, Ricky, to play a little child’s piano. He can also jump through a Hoola Hoop, leap over prone dogs doing a “down/stay,” and he “sits” on command. While the “tricks” themselves impress friends, it’s the benefit of training that I enjoy most.

“It’s called teamwork, working toward a common goal intensifies a relationship,” says Maggie Bonham, author of “Introduction to Dog Agility,” (Barron’s Educational Series, Hauppauge, NY, 2000; $14.95). “The dog starts looking at the human not just as a master, and the human starts looking at the dog not just as the pet,” said Bonham. Legendary dog trainer Dr. Ian Dunbar of Berkeley, Calif., who has also trained cats, agrees, and adds the same is true for cats. “The greatest benefit of training aren’t the ‘sits,’ it’s the relationship building, and the same is true for cats as it is for dogs. The cats benefit from the attention, and of the chance to use their brains just as dogs do.”

Dunbar also is a proponent of socializing kittens to increase confidence, and so every tip outdoors later in life isn’t a trauma. For many cats, their only excursions are to the vet office. No wonder they hate going out. When he was a kitten, I took Ricky to the bank, the video store, the dry cleaners, the pet store, wherever I could. I gave strangers treats to offer Ricky. He enjoyed positive exposure to all kinds of people. As a result, just as dogs enjoy mental stimulation, exercise and a simple break in monotony when they go places, so does Ricky the cat. Of course, not all cats have the temperament to be a social butterfly.

Still, life can be interesting for cats in their own homes. Take a cardboard box and cut the top down to a height that will be easy for your cat to leap into. Each day surprise your cat with a new game inside the box. One day, drop ping pong balls in there, on another day, put in a mouse toy called the Play ‘N Squeak (it has a microchip inside that makes it squeak like a real mouse whenever it’s pawed at), another day leave catnip.

Surprises are fun. However, what’s most important is that you activate your cat’s prey drive. If you have a cat that’s at all food motivated, stop free-feeding. Instead, of leaving the kibble in a dish – teach your cat to roll around a little plastic ball called the Play ‘N Treat (available at pet stores). Each ball has a hole so food tumbles out when it’s rolled. Teach your cat how this works. Eventually, hide three or four of these balls around the house when you leave. Your cat will have to hunt for its meal. At first make the hiding places easy, and then, over time make it more of a challenge. Not only does kitty use his brains, he’s getting exercise, and Johnson-Bennett adds, “He’s being a real cat, he’s doing what comes naturally!”

You can also create a kitty food tray. Take a shoe box top and place as many golf balls as you can inside. Drop kibble or treats between the balls, and let kitty “fish” for goodies.

Many people with cats choose them as pets because they’re gone for long stretches, and assume cats are totally independent. This turns out not to be true. Cats are far more sociable that previously assumed.

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Amy Marder of the American Society for the Prevention to Cruelty to Animals in New York City says, most cats would benefit greatly by the companionship of another cat, or a dog. Sure, it’s true, some cats aren’t good candidates for a roomie, such as 20 year old cat who has never lived with another cat, or a formerly outdoor cat who was chased by dogs. However, following gradual introductions, most cats prefer the companionship.

If this option is beyond your budget or you feel you don’t have the time for another cat or a dog, at least get a pet for your cat. Choices include a lizard, fish or a small mammal such as Guinea pigs, gerbils, even rats.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of behavior at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine – North Grafton, says his he noticed a change in his cats’ behavior when Miss Brown and Sniffy – his daughter rats – were introduced. “The cats check them out every day,” he says. “It’s become a very important part of the cats’ lives, and I was surprised to see how much the cats have perked up.” Of course, this means a commitment to care for your cat’s pet, and to insure their enclosures are cat-proof so the cat’s pet doesn’t become an hors d’ouvre.

If you’re not into feeding real fish, check out those lamps containing water and artificial fish that move when the lamp is turned on. “The secret isn’t to spend lots of money and buy your cat 100 toys,” says Johnson-Bennett. “Realize the same old mouse toys become dead prey – that’s boring. Rotate the toys, and try to match the kinds of toys appropriate for your cats’ personality.”

Note: This article is copyrighted by Steve Dale and can be used as source material and for reference only. It cannot be reprinted verbatim. Please contact Steve Dale at [email protected] if you have any questions.

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