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Cat Behavior

Assistance Cats

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Dear Cat-Herder,

Is there such a thing as a seeing-eye or hearing-ear cat?

Denise

Hi Denise,

While most people consider the term “Assistance Cats” a bit of an oxymoron, I have uncovered a number of sources where the term proves true. Service work for cats, as far as I know, is mostly limited to seizure alert cats; behavioral, emotional and physical rehabilitation; contributing to those who need help with fine motor skills, and even helping those with disabilities such as multiple sclerosis.

Perhaps the most common practice of training cats to help humans is through the use of “seizure alert” pets. These unique felines (and canines, birds and others) are trained to alert people who are prone to seizures, from 15 to 45 minutes in advance of an onset! This allows the person time to move to a safe area, take medication to lesson the seizure, or alert a family member or emergency service who can help them. I’m not completely sure how it works, but animals are able to recognize some type of biological change in the person prior to an imminent seizure and are trained to let the person know what is on the way. They are also being trained to alert diabetics to low blood sugar levels, somehow able to detect changes before science can.

All types of animals, including cats, are used in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) programs. AAT is defined by the Delta Society as “goal-directed intervention” and it uses animals to help people make cognitive and physical improvements. But, dogs and cats are not the only species used in these programs. Monkeys, miniature horses, and many other types of animals are able to guide people who are visually impaired or otherwise assist in their daily lives. (note: Check out the Delta Society online for more information)

Is there such a thing as a “hearing ear” or “seeing eye” cat? I haven’t found any “official registries” so far, but I don’t rule them out. While I’m not sure that cats can be “registered” as such, we do have at least one story of a seeing eye cat on the Daily Mews! There are also dozens of personal stories that can be found on the internet, or even in the news, where a cat has “naturally” become a “hearing-ear” or “seeing-eye” cat.

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How can training be done? Positive training, or rewarding only the good, is one of the best methods for training your cat, as they simply do not respond to negative reinforcement. I believe that a lot of their ability to be a service pet depends on the animals own personality as well. The fact that they are so easy to train could also be attributed to their memory. According to extensive testing by the University of Michigan, dogs only retain information for five minutes, while a cat can remember something as long as 16 hours. This remarkable memory exceeds even monkeys and orangutans.

So why, with their remarkable intelligence and fantastic memories, have cats not been trained as “seeing eye” or “hearing ear” animals? I believe that one of the main reasons is their size. They are not as able to reach a doorknob and pull open a door, or pick up an object that has been dropped. Or maybe the cats just don’t want to be trained as assistance animals.

Personally, I think cats would begin overcharging their humans with bids for extra canned cat food, maybe “faking them out” with alerts that aren’t really necessary ( i.e., standing at attention for a doorbell that’s not ringing), or would extend their “lunch/nap break” from an hour to twelve hours. I have 18 cats living here that were supposed to be writing this column, yet here I am – typing away with only an occasional purr to let me know I’m heading in the right direction…

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