Consent Training For Cats

By Steve Dale, CABC

The latest buzzwords among dog trainers are “consent training” or “cooperative care.” I suggest cats can benefit from this practice, and arguably even more so than dogs.

The concept of consent training is to allow the dog to partake in decisions, or at least that is the perception. For example, ask the dog to lift a paw before clipping a nail and then simultaneously a treat is offered. If the dog declines, never force the issue, (as previously practiced) just try again later1,2.

This dog training approach certainly falls into what Fear Free espouses: minimizing fear, anxiety and stress, instead of forcing the issue with – in this instance – the clippers and holding down a screaming dog and likely causing a true panic attack whenever nail cutters appear.

Using the philosophical approach consistent with consent training may be the pathway to radically minimize dog bites. Of course, it’s still important to ask the dog’s handler “Can I pet your dog?”

In my perfect world, veterinary technicians and nurses would also ask the dog, “Do you want to be petted?” On the surface, that may sound wacky. But what if the handler says, “Yes, you may pet my dog,” but the dog is standing stiffly and looking the other way, with ears and tail straight down? That’s a subtle (arguably not so subtle ) message saying, “Don’t interact with me now.”

To be effective, the public will have to learn “dog” as a second language. Dogs and also cats are always telling us what they think. Yes, cats!

One issue is that cats can be so subtle that even many experienced cat parents think the cats are not communicating. Often, from the cat’s perspective, they’re screaming at us3.

Many dog trainers agree that dogs benefit from consent training, which falls under the umbrella of positive reinforcement4,5,6,7,8. I suggest cats have far more to gain. For starters, cats are only comfortable when they perceive that they are in control. The ethological explanation is that cats, being both predator and prey, require feeling safe to feel most secure. One reason why so many cats feel so unsure in veterinary clinics is that that they are uncomfortable out of their territory and feel they’ve lost control.

Studies specifically targeted to consent or cooperative care dog training are not available (at least not yet) and in cats, no one even talks about consent training or ever has until this story (as far as I can tell). I will be elaborating further at both the VMX veterinary conferences and Viticus (WVC) with a talk called Do Cats Consent to Anything: How Cat Consent Supports the Human Animal Bond.

I suggest that while consent training has many applications and benefits for dogs, it’s even more true and more important for cats, including cats in clinic. Here are the potential outcomes in clinic:
• To increase feline veterinary visits.
• Cats are control freaks – support their feeling of control.
• Cats, similar to dogs (and most mammals), appreciate choice (or at least the perception of choice).
• If cat parents are paying more attention to their cats, perhaps they will be better able to gauge when a cat isn’t feeling well.
• For vet exams, if cats are more cooperative, the exam can be more efficient, and more likely that the cat will return.

It all begins before the visit. Understand no cat that is panicked (often referred as fractious) is going to volunteer to be handled. Each cat should have an emotional record, which may suggest carrier training (which begins with encouraging clients to find appropriate carriers), pre-medication of a nutraceutical, pheromone and/or pharmaceutical. The goal is at least a moderately contented cat upon arrival at the clinic.

Just as your own physician wouldn’t begin an exam without first saying “Hi,” get acquainted with kitty first by offering a kitty handshake (aim finger pointed toward cat’s nose, to which a cooperative cat will reply with a touch). Note: Don’t try if this is a fearful cat.

A slow blink can further calm a slightly anxious cat; it’s a way of saying “It’s okay.”

Of course, the cat has to be reasonably calm in the first place to respond. Only now is it polite to touch the cat, and do so appropriately. It’s interesting that, on average, a cat’s favorite places to be petted correspond with locations of pheromone fractions,9,10,11,12.

When practical, begin the exam where the cat is at – even in the carrier – and with the least invasive first from head to tail.

Even if the cat is on the table – let’s be real, that vaccine is going to happen. There’s no option for the cat to say, “Let’s try this next week.” But still offer a reasonably calm cat a distraction, such as a high value treat or toy (one that moves is best). If the cat isn’t having it – a 30-minute wait isn’t reasonable, a three-minute wait may do the trick.

Consent training in homes happens all the time, even when owners have no idea. Clearly, cats are extraordinary human trainers, and particularly adept at asking for more food – demanding and we comply. If that weren’t the case, 59.5 percent of cats wouldn’t be overweight or obese13.

It’s not what clients feed cats, it’s how they are fed that matters most. Contrafreeloading is a preference to work for food rather than to chow down from an endless bowl, and at least some cats apparently prefer this option – using food dispensing toys and food puzzles14,15,16. By hiding food, cats’ natural prey drive is activated.

One great example of how to use consent in cats is the issue of petting-induced over-stimulation17. Some cats can be petted all day long, but others manage only a minute or two at a time before lashing out. There are several reasons which may explain why some cats barely have any petting patience. For some cats, they may be uncomfortable or downright painful when touched for too long,

For cats who typically allow a minute of petting, quit petting after 30 seconds or so. Leaving to the cat to decide “I want more.” If so, the cat will ask to be petted more, and again offer only a few seconds, continuing to leave many cats wanting still more. At some point the cat will likely say, “Ok, that’s enough.” The cat remains in control.

Carrier training18 can be conducted utilizing a method consistent with consent. Leave the carrier out 24/7, and periodically drop treats in it so it becomes an automatic treat dispenser. Once the cat feels comfortable checking out the carrier for treats, close the carrier with the cat inside, and then quickly let the cat out. Now, offer dinner. Up the ante, and close the carrier and offer the cat a tour around the house while inside the carrier before being let out for dinner. At some point, the cat will jump inside the carrier hoping for dinner. No one is forcing the cat into the carrier – the cat makes the choice, and that is consent training.

13 Ideas to Practice Consent Training with Your Dog, Petminded, https://www.petminded.co/blog/3-ideas-to-practice-consent-training-with-your-dog.

2CONSENT: It’s Not Just for People, by Debby McMullen, at Positively.com. https://positively.com/contributors/consent-its-not-just-for-people/ .

3Decoding Your Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones, by American College of (Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY, 2020), by American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, edited Herron M; Horwitz, D; Siracusa, C with Dale, S.

4Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. a Focus on Positive Reinforcement, Frontiers Veterinary Science, Front. Vet. Sci., 22 July 2020, China, L; Mils, D; Cooper, J. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2020.00508/full?fbclid=IwAR3tedKFmvPYmY

5There’s No Need to be Alpha Dog, Steve Dale, CABC, Steve Dale’s Pet World, April 18, 2019. https://stevedalepetworld.com/blog/theres-no-need-to-be-the-alpha-dog/

6Do aversive-based training methods actually compromise dog welfare?: A literature review, Applied Animal Behavior Science, Volume 196, November, 2017, pgs. 1-12. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159117302095

7Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare, PLOS ONE, Viera de Castro, A; Fuchs, D; Morello, G; et al. December 16, 2020 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0225023&fbclid=IwAR3-QF576xA4aZFv8bd-dAjp9y30p8pLfzVXngQYIlWqRGrxA-mBz8RCHHs

8Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors, Applied Animal Behavior Science, Herron, M; Francis, S; Reisner, I; Volume 117, February, 2009, pgs. 47-54. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159108003717

9Stress and Pheromonaltherapy in Small Animal Clinical Behaviour, Mills D; Dube M,B.; Zulch, H. (Wiley Blackwell, West Sussex, UK, 2013).

10The Veterinary Technician’s Role in Implementing Fear Free, Today’s Veterinary Nurse, Martin, D. (July/August, 2017).

11Improving the welfare of cats during handling and restraint, Moody, CM; University of Guelph, August, 2018. https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/14170/Moody_Carly_201808_PHD.pdf?sequence=7&isAllowed=y

12International Cat Care on Scruffing Cats, 2022, https://icatcare.org/our-campaigns/scruffing-position-statement/

13National Association of Pet Obesity Prevention, https://petobesityprevention.org/

14McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., Keeling, L. “Positive affects and learning: exploring the ‘Eureka Effect in Dogs,” Animal Cognition, DOI 10 1007/s 10071-013-0688-x, 2013. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10071-013-0688-x

15Inglis, I.R., Forkman, B., Lazarus, J, “Free food or earned food? A review and fuzzy model of contrafreeloading,” Animal Behavior, 1997 53 1171-1191. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9236014

16Domestic cats (Felis catus) prefer freely available food over food that requires effort, Animal Cognition, 95-102; Animal Cognition. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-021-01530-3

17The Power of Touch: Each Cat Has Specific Preferences in Petting: Here’s Why You Should Accommodate Them, April, 2006; Cornell Cat Watch

18Getting Your Cat to the Veterinarian, American Association of Feline Practitioners. (Public handout) https://catvets.com/public/PDFs/ClientBrochures/Getting-Your-Cat-To-The-Vet-B&W.pdf

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