OLD CAT, NEW TRICKS

May 4, 2014 by Karin Fuller

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s no feline equivalent to the adage about old dogs and their aversion to learning new tricks.  I always assumed that was because cats are opposed to learning any tricks whatsoever, regardless of how many years they’ve spent on this earth.

I believed no self-respecting cat would humble itself to a command performance in exchange for a nibble of kibble, so imagine my surprise when our normally dignified senior cat, Sully, began routinely offering his paw on request.

A few months back, Sully’s dental surgery introduced him the joys to be had from post-op pain medication. We suspect he learned the word “paw” at that time, since the Drama King discovered that standing with his foot held high, while looking sadly at the place that had been shaved for his IV, would earn him a treat. At some point, either he or we became trained. Raised paw + sad eyes = cat cookie.

It progressed until all we’d have to say was “paw” and he’d raise it, then payment would promptly be processed.

Curious over how well Sully grasped cause and effect, we began rewarding other behaviors. A head butt equaled a treat. A whap of the ping-pong ball when it was rolled his direction. A meow when we requested he speak. He quickly learned to repeat every one, and would continue doing the action as long as we continued doling out snacks.

It wasn’t like we were getting him to sit or fetch or roll over and play dead, but even so, I was proud, convinced we had the feline equivalent of Einstein.

Craving corroboration of Sully’s mental prowess, I went online and found a quiz (catchannel.com/cat-iq-test.aspx) to prove his genius.

Turns out my bright boy is pretty much average, and our other cat—he essentially scored about the same as a speedbump, which coincidentally, has been his sole purpose in life. He does well at this job, as there has yet to be a speed-related incident in the halls at our house.

I visited other cat-related websites and read about a cat whose owner had to unplug a touch lamp to keep it from turning the light on at night when it wanted fed. Saw pictures of cats that knew how to push the lever on refrigerator ice dispensers in order to get fresh water. Watched videos of cats opening doors, including ones with complicated handles.

But the thing is, in every instance, no person was responsible for teaching the cats its particular skill. The cats had figured it out for themselves.

Animal handlers can succeed in training cats to perform, but cats won’t do what’s being asked in order to please a person the way dogs will. For a cat to follow a command, the action needs to be a natural activity or something fun for the cat. With payment required for services rendered. There are few freebies with felines.

I read that dogs have been living among people for as long as 30,000 years, which is about 20,000 years longer than cats. Because of this, dogs have learned how to read human cues, to understand and anticipate our feelings and desires. But cats tune into people, then tune back out again. They listen to many stations, not just ours, and don’t hang on our words the way dogs will.

 

I’m endlessly fascinated with cats–how they amuse themselves by selecting the absolute most inconvenient place to sit. How they have internal clocks that, once set, cannot be adjusted. How they can say so much with the flick of a tail or the speed of a blink.

Or the lift of a once-shaved paw.

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