The East Bay SPCA is always brainstorming ways to find homes for its cats, so the staff were thrilled when the Jackson Galaxy Project chose it to participate in "Cat Pawsitive Pro." Jackson Galaxy has starred in Animal Planet's reality TV show, "My Cat from Hell," since 2011, to help cats and their people resolve behavioral problems.
The project is focused on shelter cats because although the refuges are set up to help cats get adopted, the environment is nonetheless incredibly stressful or, as Jackson Galaxy calls it, "mojo-draining." In shelters, cats too often become aggressive or only want to hide -- neither behavior attractive to prospective adopters.
This new training helps cats get back their mojo, reducing their stress levels so they even feel comfy going to the front of the cage to "meet" potential adopters. A press release sent in February stated that outgoing kitties can even learn to give "high-fives" -- this I had to investigate since I can no more imagine my cat giving a high-five than flying.
Kelcy Spaete, East Bay SPCA marketing manager, said they placed more than 100 animals in foster homes as we began to shelter in place, noting, "Our cats have been, like, the best possible stress relief during this time."
I heartily agree. Pumpkin, my striped 6-year-old male tabby, has not only been my quarantine-mate but snuggles frequently for me to stroke his back and scratch under his chin. Of course, then he will suddenly decide "enough!" and strut off -- because he is, after all, a cat.
When I adopted Pumpkin 5-1/2 years ago, I knew exactly what I wanted: a striped cat that would not run under the bed when my grandchildren visited. A rescue group volunteer was fostering a perfect match and the rest is history. Pumpkin actually runs to the front door when the bell rings, such is his friendliness and curiosity. He stays front and center even with 2-year-olds and especially loves anyone who comes to repair anything.
East Bay SPCA on average receives 2,000 cats a year, Kelcy said, and it adopts out 1,950. It also works with partners who do not euthanize, such as Valley Humane Society in Pleasanton. Kelcy said often kittens are brought to the SPCA as strays while some cats transfer in from other shelters. Mature cats may be surrendered by owners in crisis who have no other choice.
"With each intake we go through behavior and medical evaluations," Kelcy said. "Cats come in, all with different stories and different fear levels. About 200 cats a year need a little extra help."
The Jackson Galaxy Project, a program of GreaterGood.org, is designed for shelters like SPCA, Kelcy said, which are already cat-savvy and have plenty of need. At first, she wasn't sure if its volunteers would be interested in the additional training but the response was overwhelming, she reported.
The weekly seminars by a feline behavior expert began Feb. 2, although they were unfortunately halted mid-March. But the volunteers who attended have been able to apply the lessons learned to their own cats and those they are fostering.
"It is helping make all our cats' stays here better and happier," Kelcy said.
The training is all about rewarding positive behavior. It can start small, Kelcy noted, handing out a treat just to be allowed to be in their presence until they start to think that perhaps people aren't so bad. Even fearful cats begin to associate behavior with the prospect of receiving a treat, reinforced by a clicker.
"They come to associate good treats with people," she explained.
Slowly, interactions are increased, continually giving treats until cats become comfortable with strangers and the feistier ones learn to play nice.
And about that high-fiving? I visited the Jackson Galaxy website and discovered it even has contests for the best high-five cat video. Then, armed with several cat treats, I sat on my kitchen floor, ready to reward Pumpkin as he reached his searching paw against my hand -- the first step in high-five training.
Alas, he only wanted to rub his head against my hand. Eventually I gave him the treat anyway. So far, he is training me nicely.
Editor's note: Dolores Fox Ciardelli is Tri-Valley Life editor for the Pleasanton Weekly. Her column, "Valley Views," appears in the paper on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.