TRAINING CATS More nature than nurture
Breeders of show cats also work with the animal's natural instincts.
By JANET SIMONS
In a cozy house in Denver lives a cat who steals mail. Every day, Carmelo listens for the sound of bills, circulars and credit-card applications falling through the slot, picks them up in his mouth and hides them under the furniture.
His owner, Ayelet Talmi, has tried to discourage Carmelo by waiting near the mail slot with a spray bottle, poised to squirt him with water. But it's pretty hard to catch a cat in the act, especially for a busy mother of a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old.
"I'm afraid someday we're going to get foreclosed on because the cat has hidden all the mortgage statements," Talmi said.
Cats and humans have been cohabiting for 8,000 years. Still, as author Joyce Carol Oates put it, "The wildcat is the real cat, the soul of the domestic cat; unknowable to human beings, yet he exists inside our household pets."
Dogs are often taught obedience. And cats strut their stuff at beauty contests and shows. So if it can preen for judges, why can't you keep your cat from shredding the furniture?
If lions can be taught to jump through flaming hoops, it must be possible to teach house cats to behave themselves. At least that's the premise of Kitty Kindergarten, a class for new cat owners that begins in Denver at a place aptly called Dumb Friends League, next month.
"A dog wants to work for you," said Dumb Friends League animal-care manager Holly Stewart. "A cat has to be talked into it."
In the nature-vs.-nurture debate, cats come down squarely on the side of nature; if a behavior isn't in their natural repertoire, it's not apt to happen. And any behavior that does come naturally -- such as scratching the sofa bald or pouncing on the mail -- can be difficult to change.
"Cats need to scratch, so you have to provide something it's OK for them to scratch on," Stewart said. "It's in their nature to climb, which is why you come home to find your kitchen curtains off their rods. You need to provide something that it's OK for them to climb on."
It's also natural for cats to feel stress when they're moved into animal shelters. Some become depressed, stop eating, become sick and must be euthanized.
To address the problem, the Dumb Friends League recently developed the Kitty Comfort program to keep shelter cats happy. Every day, Dumb Friends League volunteers wheel a "Purrari" cart filled with cat toys, carpet squares, empty paper-towel rolls, shoeboxes, Snuglis and Feliway spray (a synthetic pheromone) through the feline section and take some time to play with, scratch and cuddle each cat.
"Cats become very frustrated if they don't have any control over their environment. And the more stressed they are, the harder they are to handle and the less likely it becomes that they'll be adopted," said Donna Mlineck, Dumb Friends League animal-behavior education coordinator.
Cats who don't use the litter box are a prime source of owner complaints. Mlineck said that's easy to solve.
"Just close the cat in a room with the litter box on a hard, bare floor," she said. "Cats naturally seek something soft to eliminate on. If you put the litter box on something soft, like a carpet, the cat isn't motivated to use it."
Breeders of show cats also work with, rather than against, the animal's natural instincts.
JaNeil Cillessen, show manager for the Foot of the Rockies Cat Club Show, says she inspects each litter for likely show prospects.
Cillessen says show cats must be bathed often, so she looks at how each kitten reacts to water.
"Some kittens behave and some don't," she said.
Cat-behavior expert Stewart even has a suggestion for getting Carmelo to leave Talmi's mail alone.
"Some cat behaviors can be changed and some can only be managed," she said. "This one needs to be managed. If I were her, I'd nail a basket under the mail slot to catch the mail so the cat can't get it."