Rewards of special-needs pets

I first saw Bolt in one of Nevada Humane Society’s cat rooms charming a visitor with his unsteady gait and big personality. A tabby and white male kitty with big jowls, Bolt was born wobbly, but his disability does not keep him down. He plays with gusto, purrs with pure contentment, and enjoys a can of cat food like it is caviar. Bolt knows how to enjoy life.

Watching Bolt get around is like a lesson in Zen practice. As one of my coworkers, Kari Riley said: “Falling down is a chance to relax a bit, maybe take a bath. Colliding with an obstacle, he gives it a quick glance and then is off toward his original goal.”

When Bold gets running, he’s pretty stable, but when moving more slowly, he uses the wall or the legs of a human friend for stability. He leans against your leg as you would walk, traveling along with you.

Bolt was born with cerebellar hypoplasia which gives him his jerky, uncoordinated movements. The disease does not get better or worse with age and most affected cats and dogs learn to compensate and have a normal lifespan. They just need a little more protection than the average pet.

We put out an appeal for a foster home for Bolt and a young woman named Donelle came in to meet him. Now, Bolt shares her home with Bentley, a miniature pinscher.

“He is having fun with Bentley; they both love each other. He sleeps next to me every night. I love having him,” she said.

We see many special-needs dogs too. Little Zoey, a tiny shivering poodle, arrived with a badly broken leg that had to be amputated. She would require special care to protect her from injuring any of her other delicate little legs. Even jumping down off a chair could put her at risk. I took her on TV seeking someone who could give her the care she needed. The next day a couple showed up to meet her and shy Zoey loved them at once. She was immediately calm and content in their presence — clearly, a match made in heaven.

Special needs pets require extra time, care and attention; they are not for everyone. But for the people who take these pets in, the rewards are rich. For one thing, you could get your own little live-in Zen master.

Training cats good for them and owners

Merrily Duncan’s cats, Milo and Bill, play the piano. Not only that, they sit, roll over, jump through a hoop and ring a bell — all on command. Duncan, who trained them herself in her Reno home, does not see it as that remarkable.

Duncan saw a clip on TV about a Hollywood animal trainer and she started working with her cat, Milo, trying a variety of different things and discovering what was most effective.

“Any cat can learn, and you don’t need complicated instruction manuals,” said Duncan. “Training increases their safety because it gives you more control; it makes vet visits and medicating your cat easier, too. It alleviates boredom for indoor cats and it’s fun. It gives your cat another way of communicating with you which deepens the bond.”

When Duncan asks Bill, “Where’s my nose?” he gently pats her on the nose with his paw and promptly gets a tasty herring treat. When she says “shake hands,” he puts his paw in her hand as dutifully as any dog.

Duncan described how she trained Bill to shake hands: While the cat was sitting, she touched the back of his front leg gently. When he lifted his paw she placed her hand under it, quickly following up with a treat. Many repetitions and treat rewards later, Bill responds to her verbal request.

Most cats are not born pleasers, so you need to offer a reward at least during the learning stage. While free-feeding of cats is popular, Duncan recommends that adult cats eat only two to three times a day. This is not only healthier, but also makes it easier to use treats as a motivation for training.

Professional dog trainer PJ Wangsness of Reno agrees: “Cats can be taught anything, tricks or even agility training. You want to get success by keeping the training sessions fun, short and consistent — play is part of the training.”

Wangsness offers Kitten Kindergarten classes at Nevada Humane Society that include getting kittens used to going into their carriers, scratching only in acceptable places and cat-training basics.

In case you still have any doubts about the trainability of cats, YouTube videos of Dominique’s Circus Cats, Moscow Cat Theatre and Denis Ignatov’s performing cats will convince even the most skeptical and they are plain fun to watch for the rest of us.

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