OPINION: Shelter project may change the way we think about cats

Considering the fact that the national Humane Society estimates there are more than 3,500 brick-and-mortar animal shelters in this country and about 10,000 other animal rescue groups and sanctuaries, it’s pretty impressive that Washougal’s West Columbia Gorge Humane Society is one of 55 animal shelters selected to take part in a project spearheaded by Jackson Galaxy, star of the Animal Planet show “My Cat from Hell.”

Most likely, the animal shelter has Washougal animal advocate Amanda Giese, star of another Animal Planet show, “Amanda to the Rescue,” to thank for its newfound recognition.

Regardless of how it was selected to take part in the Jackson Galaxy Project’s new “Cat Pawsitive” class, the local animal shelter should take full advantage of its spotlight to help homeless pets.

The Cat Pawsitive class takes the same type of positive-reinforcement training dog lovers have been advocating for years and uses it to train shelter cats and enrich their lives.

Galaxy, who worked in animal shelters in the 1990s, said he found himself frustrated by the lack of resources for shelter cats.

“Unsocialized cats, traumatized cats and adoptable cats whose spirits were dwindling from lack of stimulation were all being euthanized,” Galaxy noted in his group’s press release about the project. “Dogs, however, were being saved thanks in part to burgeoning enrichment programs geared towards physical exercise, confidence-building and the bond created with the humans participating in these programs.”

It’s not uncommon for people hoping to adopt the perfect family pet to pass over cats that are standoffish, fearful or perhaps prone to making furniture art (scratching). Imagine how this might change if people knew cats could be trained using positive-reinforcement methods.

As Megan Dennis, executive director of the Washougal animal shelter, told the Post-Record recently (see related story on today’s front page), finding a home for cats with behavioral issues is tough.

“Some cats are really shy,” Dennis said. “It’s really hard when you have an adopter come through and that cat is really standoffish. That makes them less adoptable because, typically, when people are coming through they want to interact with cats. That’s how they connect with them, and that’s how they choose them, or they feel that the cat chooses them. That can be challenging.”

Washington strives to be a “no-kill” state when it comes to euthanizing shelter animals, but there are still millions of shelter animals across the county that are killed each year for lack of a home. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates more than 820,000 homeless cats are euthanized at shelters each year.

The Kitten Coalition says the numbers are higher than the ASPCA’s figures. That group estimates there are 3.4 million cats entering shelters in the U.S. each year and 1.4 million of them euthanized.

It would be wonderful if the Cat Pawsitive classes being piloted at shelters throughout the nation were able to highlight cats’ ability to “learn new tricks” and teach people that they can use positive reinforcement to help their cats overcome the types of destructive behaviors that often lead to animals being dropped at the shelter in the first place.

We will be interested to see if the classes lead to an uptick in the Washougal shelter’s cat-adoption rates. The shelter told the Post-Record that they’ve already had a success story with a cat named Honey Kitty that had been at the shelter for more than 100 days and “had a four-pet maximum” before learning calming techniques through the positive reinforcement training. Now, Honey Kitty is in a home where she apparently loves getting pets from her humans.

For anyone hoping to learn more about the Cat Pawsitive project, thejacksongalaxyproject.org, has tons of information. For tips on using positive reinforcement methods, we recommend the following:

ospca.org/document.doc?id=130

ofelinewellness.com/good-behavior-positive-reinforcement/

ohshv.org/training-cats-with-positive-reinforcement/

ofelinebehaviorsolutions.com/use-positive-reinforcement-good-cat-behavior/

opetplan.co.uk/pet-information/cat/advice/positive-reinforcement-cat-behaviour-training/

ocathealth.com/cat-care/training/2203-clicker-training-for-cats

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