Polly Smith, the tour manager for the amazing Acro-Cats circus, recently sat down for a quick Q&A session to answer all of your most pressing cat questions! On the road most of the year in her cat-shaped bus with her troupe of domestic cats that perform acrobatics for live audiences, Smith knows all the ins and outs of getting a kitty to do what you want. Check out what she had to say!
Smith likes to use positive reinforcement with the cats called clicker training. If a cat does something she wants, she'll click so that the cat associates it with good behavior and then gives them a treat so that they know they did a good job.
Training cats can be hard work, so give yourself a pat on the back for what you manage to accomplish. After Smith took her cat circus on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" she said that Colbert and the rest of his crew were really supportive and appreciated how she'd managed to train her kitties, even if they weren't always cooperative the entire time.
When a cat doesn't do what Smith asks or does something that she doesn't want it to do, she doesn't scold or punish the cat. Instead, she simply walks away and ignores their bad behavior.
When asked if her cats enjoy being the stars of a cat circus, Smith says they absolutely do.
"There is never any pressure from us to make them do the purrformances. I even hear some of the cats get excited when it's their turn next, and most of them purr during training."
"Cats compared to dogs are no easier or difficult to train," says Smith. "But their attention span and retention rate is different, so there is usually more follow-up training with cats than with dogs."
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According to Smith, the breed of a cat isn't as important as what motivates a cat to do something. Cats who are motivated by food should be given treats as positive reinforcement. Other cats are more motivated by petting and attention, though petting can become distracting and interfere with a training session.
While some breeds -- like Siamese cats -- are notorious for being slow or lazy, you shouldn't judge all cats of a certain breed the same way. For example, Smith says she has a Siamese cat in her show who's not lazy!
"If a cat is motivated to be active and the trick is more basic, it can take seconds to teach them," said Smith. "Jumping through a hoop or waving are good examples of that. Something like skateboarding or playing the drums takes longer."
Are you kitten me? If we got a cat to ride a skateboard, we'd give ourselves a pat on the back and be done for the rest of our lives.
Smith thinks her cat troupe is definitely plotting something.
"Buggles is usually plotting world domination or how to fix her time machine. Sookie and Alley, I am pretty sure, are trying to figure out how to get their Amazon orders shipped to the tour bus location. Most of the others are just sleeping."
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"When the cats perform it's great, and when they don't it's great, because they just don't care!" said Smith. "One time in particular in Florida I think, I remember Wiki, who is one of the most focused cats in the troupe, came to a dead stop in the middle of his stunt to stare out into the audience at god-knows what. We all followed his gaze only to see a little old lady with VERY BIG white hair. We figured out with his posture and all the fur standing on his back that he did NOT approve. The show wouldn't go on until he shook himself from her stare and finished his trick. Since then 'no big white hair in the front rows' is now on his rider."
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There's a difference between an attack and play aggression. When a cat attacks, it usually has slitted pupils and a stiff back before going at you with its claws and teeth. But when a cat wants to play, its pupils are wide, ears flat and their tails are wagging.
While attacks should be discouraged, play aggression is totally normal. To tone down their aggression, just use a ball or wand toy to play with them until they're tired out. Smith says that while none of her cats have ever attacked anyone on purpose, one of her cats accidentally scratched her face pretty badly one time, using her head as a diving board as it ran around the bus wildly.
When asked if her cats have taught her anything, Smith said she's learned a lot about how to treat her fellow human companions by watching how cats treat each other. Check out these four tips:
1. Don't bother them when they are eating.
3. Leave them alone unless you want something.
Most importantly Smith said, "I have learned to be patient, that being a positive person gets more done than being negative, and that even if maybe we aren't all here on this Earth for a specific reason it sure does help to have a purrpose and to purr while I do it."
Sounds like some good advice to us!
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