Taking cues from cats can help improve home visitation and veterinary behavior
If it’s good enough for dogs, why not cats? The latest buzzword among dog trainers is consent training or cooperative care. I suggest that cats can benefit more from this practice than dogs.
The concept of consent training is to allow the dog to participate in decisions, or at least that is the perception. For example, have the dog lift his paw before clipping the nail and then offer him a treat at the same time. If the dog refuses, do not force the command (as was previously practiced). Just try again later.1,2
This approach to dog training certainly fits with what Fear Free espouses. It reduces fear, anxiety, and stress rather than forcing the problem, in this case, onto clippers and holding an uncooperative dog.
Consent training may be the way to radically reduce dog bites. Certainly, it is still important to ask the dog’s handler, “Can I pet your dog?” Now also ask for the dog’s consent. On the surface, that might sound silly. What if the therapist says, “Yes, you can pet my dog,” but the dog stands stiff and looks the other way, with its ears and tail straight down? This is a subtle but obvious way of indicating, “Don’t interact with me right now.”
Dogs and cats always tell us what they are thinking. To be effective, humans must learn their languages. For example, cats can be so subtle that some individuals don’t even think they’re communicating, but often from a cat’s point of view, they’re yelling at us.3
Many dog trainers agree that dogs benefit from consent training, which falls under the umbrella of positive reinforcement.4-8 I suggest cats have a lot to gain from this practice. For starters, cats obviously feel more comfortable knowing they are under control.
The moral explanation is that cats, being both predators and prey, need to feel safe to feel safer. One of the reasons many cats feel unsure in the vet clinic is because they are uncomfortable with being out of their territory and feel like they have lost control.
Studies specifically targeting consent, or training dogs for cooperative care, appear to be lacking. Additionally, there is little dialogue in the veterinary industry about this type of care with cats.
Although consent training has many applications and benefits for dogs, it applies most to cats, including those in clinics. Here’s why:
- Consent training will increase veterinary visits for cats.
- Cats are control freaks, and approval supports their sense of control.
- Cats, like dogs, value choice (or at least perceive choice).
- If cat owners paid more attention to their pets, perhaps they would be better able to gauge whether their cats are unwell.
At veterinary visits, if the cats are more cooperative, there will be better testing
Get the cat’s approval
Consent training begins prior to a visit, with the understanding that no panicked cat (often referred to as divided) will allow herself to be handled. Each cat should have an emotional history, which might suggest carrier training that begins with encouraging clients to find suitable carriers and anesthetize with feeders, a pheromone, or a pharmacist. The goal is to have a satisfied cat when it arrives at the clinic.
Just as your doctor wouldn’t start the test without saying hello first, you should identify a cat by first offering a cat-friendly handshake (aiming finger pointing at the cat’s nose, to which a cooperating cat will respond with a touch) and a slow blink. Of course, the cat must be reasonably calm in the first place to respond. Only now it is polite to touch the cat. Interestingly, on average, the cats’ preferred places to be bred corresponded to the locations of the pheromone fractions.9-12
When possible, start the test where the cat is – even in a carrier – and with the slightest touch from head to tail. Offer your reasonably calm cat a distraction, such as a high-value toy or treat. If the cat isn’t interested, waiting 3 minutes may do the trick; However, the 30 minute wait is unreasonable.
Approval training nutrition
Consent training happens in homes all the time, even when the owners have no idea. Cats are obviously exceptional human trainers and are especially adept at asking for more food. They demand it and we comply. If this were not the case, 59.5% of cats would not be overweight or obese.13
Not what customers feed to cats; How they are fed is most important. Reloading is a preference for working for food rather than eating from an endless bowl, and at least some cats seem to prefer that option, using food distribution toys and food puzzles.14-16 When food is hidden, cats’ natural prey drive is activated.
Petting with consent
One great example of how consent can be used in cats relates to overstimulation from petting.17 Some cats can be petted all day, but others can only handle one to two minutes at a time before you attack them. Several reasons may explain why some cats hardly have any patience for petting.
For cats that usually only allow petting for a minute, stop petting after 30 seconds or so. Leave the cat to decide, “I want more.” If this happens, the cat will ask to be petted more. Again, offer only a few seconds, which will leave many cats wanting more. At some point, the cat will probably signal, “Okay, that’s enough.” The cat is still in control.
Carrier training18 May be conducted in a manner consistent with consent. Leave the rack out all the time, and drop treats in periodically so it becomes an automated treat dispenser. Once the cat is comfortable checking out of the carrier for treats, close it with the cat inside and quickly let go. Now we serve dinner. Up the ante, lock the carrier, and take the cat for a walk around the house while he’s inside before you leave him to dinner. At some point, the cat will hop inside the carrier in hopes of eating its dinner, without anyone forcing it.
Steve Dale, CABCHe writes for veterinary professionals and pet owners, hosts two local radio shows, and has appeared on television shows, including Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show. He sits on the dvm360® editorial advisory board as well as on the boards of directors for the Human Animal League and the EveryCat Health Foundation. Appears at conferences around the world. Visit stevedale.tv.
- 3 ideas for practicing consent training with your dog. Bitmind. August 12, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.petminded.co/blog/3-ideas-to-practice-consent-training-with-your-dog
- McMullen D.Positively.com approval. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://positively.com/contributors/consent-its-not-just-for-people/
- Heron ME, Horowitz DF, Siracusa C, eds. Decoding Your Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors And Reveal How To Prevent Or Change The Unwanted. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2020.
- China L, Mills D, Cooper JJ. Effectiveness of training dogs with and without remote electronic collars versus a focus on positive reinforcement. In front of the veterinary sciences. 2020; 7: 508. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2020.00508
- Dale S. There is no need to be the alpha dog. Steve Dale Pet World Articles. April 18, 2019. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://stevedalepetworld.com/blog/theres-no-need-to-be-the-alpha-dog/
- Fernandez JG, Olson IAS, Vieira de Castro AC. Do hate-based training methods jeopardize the well-being of dogs? Literature Review. applied behavioral science. 2017; 196: 1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2017.07.001
- Viera de Castro AC, Fuchs D, Morello GM, Pastur S, de Sousa L, Olsson IAS. Is the method of training important? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on the well-being of companion dogs. Plus one. 2020; 15 (12): e0225023. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0225023
- Heron ME, Schofer FS, Reisner ER. A survey of the use and outcomes of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs that exhibit undesirable behaviors. applied behavioral science. 2009; 117 (1-2): 47-54. doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
- Mills DS, Dube MB, Zulch H. Stress and pheromone therapy in the clinical behavior of young animals. Wiley Blackwell 2013.
- Martin D. The role of the veterinary technician in a fearless application. vet nurse today. July 1, 2017. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://todaysveterinarynurse.com/behavior/the-veterinary-technicians-role-in-implementing-fear-free/
- Moody cm. Improving cats’ well-being during handling and restraint. PhD thesis. University of Guelph; 2018. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/14170/Moody_Carly_201808_PHD.pdf?
- Statement of the position of your cat from the scruff. Cat Care International. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://icatcare.org/our-campaigns/scruffing-position-statement/
- Percentage of cats and dogs that report being overweight or obese. Pet Obesity Prevention Association, Accessed Oct 17, 2022. https://petobesityprevention.org/
- McGowan RT, Ren T, Norling Y, Keeling LJ. Positive affect and learning: Exploring the ‘eureka effect’ in dogs. anime kogen. 2014; 17 (3): 577-587. doi: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x
- Inglis IR, Forkman B, Lazarus J. Free food or earned food? A review and a fuzzy template for the canonical download. Animation Behav1997; 53 (6): 1171-1191. doi: 10.1006 / anbe.1996.0320.
- Delgado MM, Han PSG, Payne MG. Domestic cats (Felis catus) prefer freely available food to food that requires effort. anime kogen. 2022; 25 (1): 95-102. doi: 10.1007/s10071-021-01530-3
- touch force. cat watch. April 13, 2006. Updated September 24, 2019. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.catwatchnewsletter.com/features/the-power-of-touch/
- Bring your cat to the vet. American Association of Cat Practitioners. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://catvets.com/public/PDFs/ClientBrochures/Getting-Your-Cat-To-The-Vet-B&W.pdf