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Last weekend, two major cat shows, the International Cat Association’s annual cat show in New York City and the Cat Fanciers’ Association National Show in Indianapolis, featured an increasingly popular sport: cat agility contests.

In these competitions, cats run through a course with 10 obstacles modeled after those in dog agility contests. They feature hurdles, hoops, tunnels, teeter-totters, stairs, and a series of poles for feline acrobats to weave around. Typically, owners train cats to run the course through clever use of teaser toys, food treats, and lots of affection.

Each organization has a different standard of judging agility contests. In the CFA, cats have to complete all 10 obstacles in order, counterclockwise, with no mistakes, and they have four and a half minutes to do so. In the TICA events, cats earn 15 points for each obstacle they successfully navigate.

The cat agility contest phenomenon started about 10 years ago when two couples involved in cat shows were at dinner and started talking about the tricks their cats did. From that chance meeting, International Cat Agility Tournaments (ICAT) was born. In 2004, cat shows began featuring agility contests, and now you can find them popping up at more and more events.

Although some cat breeds are known for their athletic nature, intelligence, and curiosity, not all of them will do well in the agility ring. According to Russell Reiner, a breeder of Burmese cats, it’s more the personality of the cat than anything else that determines its success in the sport.

The wonderful thing about cat agility contests is that unlike every other part of cat shows, they’re open to any cat of any breed — including mixed-breed domestic housecats. The only requirement is that the cat is able to run the course.

Not only that, but they allow our cats to use their intelligence and get the exercise they need. Most cats are woefully understimulated. Even though we know it’s a great idea to play with our cats every day, how many of us actually do? I know I’m guilty of not busting out the feather wand nearly as often as I should. Thank goodness I’ve got three cats and they keep each other on their toes with frequent games of Chase and Batty-Paws.

If you want to get your kitty involved in cat agility, where do you start? First, check out the ICAT website for information about cat agility and the personality and physical characteristics that will make for the best agility competitor. Then learn about ways to train your cat at home. Once your kitty gets confident in navigating the obstacle course, look for an ICAT show in your area and get competing!

This video from PBS’s Nature program Why We Love Cats and Dogs shows cat agility contestants and their caretakers in action.

(In a reader? Watch the video here.)