A first-ever study to train cats and their people for better health

All these tests add up to a cognitive-behavioral profile of little Pocket. Shreve will test the kitten again following the 6-week class, along with untrained kittens as controls. Her results will begin to fill gaps in our understanding of the human-cat bond, inching closer to the extensive work already done on the human-dog bond.

Katie O’Neil and her husband Shawn are quick to show off what their two cats learned in Shreve’s class. On command, black-cat Sterling Cooper “sits” and “stands.” When Katie holds a tiny treat 5 feet off the floor, white-and-gray Byron Bojangles IV makes an impressive leap straight into the air. Both cats love to walk on leash and Bo happily takes on a game of fetch. No matter the command, Katie says, the kittens think, then respond.

Curiosity got the best of Sarah Montoya, a student in veterinary medicine at OSU. How much could her two kittens, Max and Franklin, possibly learn? And what would she learn about cat behavior that she could someday pass along to her clients? It didn’t take long to find out. The first night of kitten class, 7-month-old Max and Franklin were terrified; they wouldn’t come out of the corners, not even to eat. After six weeks of training, Montoya now takes the kittens on walks around their neighborhood and to a friends’ house for play dates.

“Many people see cats as couch potatoes or house decorations,” Montoya says. “This class blows that theory out of the water. You can have a complex relationship with a cat. That bond gets stronger over time, so it’s important to have a well-trained pet.”

And there are useful roles for cats that go beyond engaging companionship. Cats with appropriate training are beginning to serve as therapy animals in hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare institutions, especially in situations when people fear dogs or where only a small animal will fit. Shreve points out that, with their amazing noses, cats may sniff out seizures or panic attacks. For search and rescue missions, it’s not hard to imagine cats squeezing into spaces too tight for dogs or climbing to heights too precarious for dogs.

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