- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

For the kittens dashing and tumbling around the room, the Washington Humane Society’s first Kittengarten class is all about playtime.

For the humans and the shelter, there’s a bigger goal: making sure cats are healthy and happy in their adoptive homes — and that they stay there.

Kittengarten is, as its name indicates, a class for kittens and their owners. Along with kitten socialization and grooming, the four-week class covers basic health and behavior facts, including nutrition. Though dog owners have long taken their charges for training, cat owners don’t always know that they and their pets could use some guidance too, organizers say.

Even those knowledgeable about cats can benefit from some hands-on practice, as when trainer Hanna Lentz demonstrates the most important grooming basic for a pet with needle-sharp claws: the nail trim.

Miss Lentz crouches on the ground, holding a kitten with its back to her, and touches its shoulders. “A cat’s natural instinct when you touch them up here is to back up,” she explains, “so they have nowhere else to go.” Next, she clips a nail. “Do that: one nail, treat, relax in between,” she says. “Taking it slow can really make a huge difference.”

The students, sitting at the table with piles of treats in front of them, attempt to follow her example on the squirming, reluctant little felines.

“They’re not born liking to get their nails trimmed,” Miss Lentz observes. “It’s so important to start when they’re kittens.”

Though kitten kindergarten is new in the District, the idea has been around for awhile. Elise Gouge of the Houston SPCA, which has been offering a course since early 2007, says she wishes she could get everyone to take it.

“Cats don’t raise themselves,” she says. “They don’t instantly love people; they don’t know not to scratch the furniture.”

The first kitten kindergarten is generally acknowledged to have been the idea of Kersti Seksel, a veterinary behaviorist in Australia. Cat-behavior consultant and veterinarian Ilona Rodan brought the idea to this country in 2004 and held classes at her cat practice in Madison, Wis., for awhile. She’s working on a CD that presents the information for cat owners who don’t have the opportunity to take a class.

Beyond the basics of cat care and behavior, people also need to know how to play with their pets and provide a mentally enriching environment.

“As a feline specialist, I see people who are crazy about their cats. This cat means everything to them, but do they do the right thing for them?” Miss Rodan asks. “They don’t, because they don’t understand” their pets.

Miss Rodan is enthusiastic about the idea of holding classes in shelters. Often, those adopting cats don’t think cats need regular preventative health care, she says. The class is a place to make that connection.

For the shelters, the classes are a way to keep cats in homes by helping people understand that they often can deal with behavioral issues rather than returning a cat to the shelter.

“People underestimate how willing a cat will be to work with you,” Miss Gouge says. “They’re not motivated by just our love. You’ll have to do a little better than that - maybe a little cheese or a little piece of shrimp.”

Miss Gouge says training and education can help people keep their cats by solving specific problems, but there’s more to it than that: Working with their pets creates a bond that results in more of a commitment.

“We’ll teach them how to sit and how to give paw,” she says. “I’ve had cases with people who were thinking of surrendering their cat. We taught them some of that stuff, and it’s saved the relationship.”

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