Kittengarten Keeps Cats in Homes and out of Shelters


With the current explosion in the number of cats being surrendered to shelters due to economic woes, it’s more important now than ever to do whatever it takes to keep people from turning their cats in to sheltes due to behavioral problems.

To that end, the Washington Humane Society has developed a “Kittengarten” class to ensure that cats are healthy and happy in their adoptive homes and that they stay there.

Kittengarten is a class for kittens and their owners. In addition to kitten socialization and grooming, the four-week class covers basic health, nutrition and behavior information. Dog owners have often started out their relationship with a training regimen, but cat owners rarely know that their cats–as well as themselves– could use some training and guidance, which usually results in a happier relationship.

Even long-time cat owners can benefit from some hands-on practice, as when trainer Hanna Lentz demonstrates the most important feline grooming basic: the nail trim.

Lentz crouches on the ground, holding a kitten with its back to her, and touches its shoulders. “A cat’s natural instinct when you touch them up here is to back up,” she explains, “so they have nowhere else to go.” Next, she clips a nail. “Do that: one nail, treat, relax in between,” she says. “Taking it slow can really make a huge difference.”

The students, sitting at the table with piles of treats in front of them, attempt to follow her example with their squirming charges.

“They’re not born liking to get their nails trimmed,” Lentz observes. “It’s so important to start when they’re kittens.”

While kitten kindergarten is new in Washington, D.C., the idea has been around for a while. The Houston SPCA has been offering a similar course since early 2007. Elise Gouge of the Houston SPCA wishes everyone would take it. “Cats don’t raise themselves,” she says. “They don’t instantly love people, they don’t know not to scratch the furniture.”

The very first kittengarten is generally acknowledged to have been the idea of Kersti Seksel, a veterinary behaviorist in Australia. Cat behavior consultant and veterinarian Ilona Rodan brought the idea to this country in 2004 and held classes at her cat practice in Madison.

In addition to cat care and behavior, cat owners also need to learn how to play with their pets and provide a mentally stimulating environment.

“As a feline specialist I see people who are crazy about their cats. This cat means everything to them, but do they do the right thing for them?” says Rodan. “They don’t, because they don’t understand them.”

Rodan is enthusiastic about the idea of holding these classes in shelters. Often, those adopting cats don’t think that cats need regular preventative health care, she says. The class provides a purrfect opportunity to make that connection.

Shelters reap huge benefits from these classes, helping people understand how to deal with behavioral issues rather than surrendering the cat to the shelter.

“People underestimate how willing a cat will be to work with you,” says Gouge. “They’re not motivated by just our love. You’ll have to do a little better than that maybe a little cheese or a little piece of shrimp.” Gouge adds that although training can help people solve specific behavioral problems, working wih their cats can create a bond that cements the commitment to the cat.

“We’ll teach them how to sit and how to give paw,” she says. “I’ve had cases with people who were thinking of surrendering their cat. We taught them some of that stuff and it’s saved the relationship.”

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