Obtain a cat’s consent for care

Taking cues from a feline can help improve a veterinary visit and behavior at home

If it’s good enough for dogs, then why not cats? The latest buzzwords among dog trainers are consent training or cooperative care. I suggest cats can benefit from this practice even more so than dogs.

The concept of consent training is to allow the dog to partake in decisions, or at least that is the perception. For example, ask the dog to lift a paw before clipping a nail and then simultaneously offer a treat. If the dog declines, do not force the issue (as previously practiced). Just try again later.1,2

This dog training approach certainly falls in with what Fear Free espouses. It minimizes fear, anxiety, and stress instead of forcing the issue with, in this instance, the clippers and holding down an uncooperative dog.

Consent training may be the pathway to radically minimize dog bites. Certainly, it’s still important to ask the dog’s handler, “Can I pet your dog?” Now also ask for the dog’s consent. On the surface, that may sound wacky. What if the handler says, “Yes, you may pet my dog,” but the dog is standing stiffly and looking the other way, with ears and tail straight down? That’s a subtle but clear way of indicating, “Don’t interact with me now.”

Dogs and cats are always telling us what they think. To be effective, humans will have to learn their languages. For example, cats can be so subtle that some individuals don’t even believe they’re communicating, but often from the cats’ perspective, they are screaming at us.3

Many dog ​​trainers agree that canines benefit from consent training, which falls under the umbrella of positive reinforcement.4-8 I suggest cats have far more to gain from the practice. For starters, cats are clearly more comfortable when they realize they are in control.

The ethological explanation is that cats, being both predator and prey, need to feel safe to feel most secure. One reason why so many cats feel so unsure in veterinary clinics is that they are uncomfortable being out of their territory and feel they have lost control.

Studies specifically targeted on consent, or cooperative care dog training, are seemingly unavailable. Additionally, there is little dialogue in the veterinary industry about this type of care with cats.

Although consent training has many applications and benefits for dogs, it is even more applicable to cats, including those in clinics. Here’s why:

  • Consent training will increase feline veterinary visits.
  • Cats are control freaks, and consent supports their feeling of control.
  • Cats, like dogs, appreciate choice (or at least the perception of choice).
  • If cat owners are paying more attention to their pets, perhaps they will be better able to gauge when their cats are not feeling well.

At veterinary visits, if cats are more cooperative, there will be a better exam

Earning a cat’s consent

Consent training begins before the visit, with an understanding that no cat that is panicked (often referred to as fractious) is going to allow itself to be handled. Each cat should have an emotional record, which may suggest carrier training that begins with encouraging clients to find appropriate carriers and premedication with a nutraceutical, pheromone, or pharmaceutical. The goal is to have a cat content upon arrival at the clinic.

Just as your own physician wouldn’t begin an exam without first saying hello, you should get acquainted with a cat by first offering a feline-friendly handshake (aim finger pointed toward cat’s nose, to which a cooperative cat will reply with a touch) and a slow blink. Of course, the cat must be reasonably calm in the first place to respond. Only now is it polite to touch the cat. And it’s interesting that, on average, cats’ favorite places to be petted correspond with the locations of pheromone fractions.9-12

When practical, begin the exam where the cat is—even in the carrier—and with the least invasive first touch from head to tail. Offer a reasonably calm cat a distraction, such as a high-value treat or toy. If the cat is not interested, a 3-minute wait may do the trick; a 30-minute wait, however, is unreasonable.

Feeding with consent training

Consent training in homes happens all the time, even when owners have no idea. Clearly, cats are extraordinary human trainers and particularly adept at asking for more food. They demanded it, and we comply. If that were not the case, 59.5% of cats would not be overweight or obese.13

It is not what clients feed cats; it is how they are fed that matters most. Contrafreeloading is the preference to work for food rather than to chow down from an endless bowl, and at least some cats apparently prefer this option, using food-dispensing toys and food puzzles.14-16 When food is hidden, cats’ natural prey drive is activated.

Petting with consent

One great example of how to use consent in cats concerns petting-induced overstimulation.17 Some cats can be petted all day long, but others can handle only 1 to 2 minutes at a time before lashing out. Several reasons may explain why some cats hardly have any petting patience.

For cats that typically allow only a minute of petting, quit petting after 30 seconds or so. Leave the cat to decide “I want more.” If it does, the cat will ask to be petted more. Again, offer only a few seconds, which will leave many cats wanting still more. At some point the cat will likely indicate “OK, that’s enough.” The cat remains in control.

Considering to a carrier

Carrier training18 can be conducted in a method consistent with consent. Leave the carrier out all the time, and periodically drop treats in it so it becomes an automatic treat dispenser. Once the cat feels comfortable check out the carrier for treats, close the carrier with the cat inside and then quickly let it out. Now offer dinner. Up the ante and close the carrier, and take the cat on a tour around the house while it is inside before letting it out for dinner. At some point, the cat will jump inside the carrier hoping for dinner, with no one forcing it.

Steve Dale, CABC, writes for veterinary professionals and pet owners, hosts 2 national radio programs, and has appeared on TV shows, including Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show. He is on the dvm360® Editorial Advisory Board as well as the boards of the Human Animal Bond Association and EveryCat Health Foundation. He appears at conferences around the world. Visit stevedale.tv.


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