I pretty much live in a zoo. Multiple birds, dogs and cats permanently own me, there are also a few goldfish and the odd passing rescue waiting for re-home. Most of the time, we all get along beautifully but it has taken work to get to that point.
My mother recently added to the zoo, by adopting a shelter cat. It wasn’t an easy decision whether or not to take on another cat. We didn’t want to upset the balance between our animals. There was a chance that my cat would hate the new addition or that it might in turn be terrified of the dogs. There was also a very good chance that the new addition would be overly interested in my birds. On the flip side, my cat had been good friends with another cat in the past and my dogs have always been friendly towards cats. We have the room and the perfect setup – a nice sized outdoor cat aviary, multiple huge scratching posts throughout the house and someone always around if the cat wants human company.
I’ve often joked that my cat Lola is defective. He doesn’t hunt birds. Instead he seems to take great delight in hunting slugs and snails and leaving the choicest specimens for me to find in my bed. It’s not exactly an endearing quality but as a ‘bird person’, I have to admit that it makes him the perfect cat.
We introduced the new cat (Oscar) to the others gradually. For his first few weeks he was restricted to a part of the house that the other animals rarely if ever go into. He didn’t even see the birds that first week. To begin with, he was terrified of the dogs. If a dog came near – he’d disappear pretty quickly. Gradually, he began to realise the dogs didn’t care about cats and started to gain confidence around them. My cat watched to make sure that he had his own food bowl, then really didn’t bother about Oscar after that. The birds however, were another matter.
Oscar first saw the birds through the safety of a window. He froze and had a look on his face like he’d received the best present EVER. He clearly couldn’t quite believe that a bird would come so close. He crouched ready to pounce and launched himself at the window aiming for one of the rose breasted cockatoos (who was obliviously destroying a toy in their aviary). He hit the window with a bang and fell to the ground dazed. Apparently, he didn’t know about glass. It was pretty obvious that I had a serious problem. He might not be able to get the birds, but he was definitely going to try. There was no way I was going to tolerate a cat terrorizing my flock like that. So the training began.
I thought about what my goal was and realized that my desired learning outcomes for cat and bird were very different and that they actually conflicted. I want the cat to be calm and pretty much ignore the birds. On the flip side, I don’t want the birds to ever just disregard a cat. I want them to be wary, to recognize danger and to get away from it. After all, my cats might learn to ignore them – but I can’t guarantee that will always be the case or that another cat won’t pose a threat.
It’s very easy to train a fear response in a bird. If I move quickly and act agitated around a cat – the birds will pick up on my ‘fear’ and share my panic. After all, responding to another flock member’s fear is instinctual flock behaviour. The problem though, if I move quickly around a cat, the cat is a lot more likely to be interested in what’s going on around it rather than just calmly disregarding its surroundings. So my own behaviour when the cats and birds are together would go a long way to training both the cat and birds. I needed to move quickly to make the birds wary, but simultaneously direct the cat’s attention away from the birds.
Oscar is an adult cat, but he still has the kitten tendencies of climbing curtains, falling in the kitchen sink (when trying to kill soapsuds) and chasing bottle caps around your feet. In short, wild fast moving games are an excellent distraction.
So that’s what I did. Whenever Oscar showed any interest whatsoever in the birds, I distracted him with a fast moving wild game. His particular favourite was tossing a screwed up paper ball around the living room (which has a window that adjoins the bird room). He also likes to chase small plastic balls. I made sure that none of his toys included feathers, as I wanted nothing to make him associate birds with toys.
Oscar’s interest in the birds noticeably decreased, as they became something that just existed in the background of his games. Meanwhile, the birds were noticeably keeping an eye on the fast-moving psychopath that was doing all of these unexpected things around them. Simultaneously, if I happened to be in the bird room and noticed one of my birds noticing Oscar at the window, I’d cue that bird to make their favourite alarm call, in the hope that they’d at least call for help if they ever met a cat. (Check out the Talk on Cue course if you want to learn how to do this.)
The time came, when I was ready to safely test the training. I made the most of a nice sunny day, opening up the bird room for airing. This meant that Oscar could walk through it if he chose. There was no risk involved because the birds were all safely out of reach in their aviaries. I knew Oscar wouldn’t be able to resist exploring and I was keen to see if he just passed through ignoring the birds, or to see if he paused to look at them. I also wanted to see whether any of the birds would give an alarm call when they saw Oscar up close.
It didn’t take long. Oscar very cautiously entered the room and I saw every bird’s head turn as they looked at him. Oscar got to the middle of the room and stopped dead. His expression was very much that of a small child in a candy store. You could just tell that he didn’t know which bird to try and get to first. It was obvious from his expression that he was delightedly going to try. There was about a second of dead silence as the cat and the birds all looked at each other, clearly each was assessing the situation. Before Oscar could decide to do anything though, all hell broke loose.
All nine birds went off. There was an assortment of telephone ringtones, a car alarm, a house alarm and a microwave thrown into the mix. A smashing sound was coming from the elderly galah as he bashed a swinging toy on the side of his cage. There was a lot of flapping. I could hear the distinct sound of the squeak that the vet’s door makes as it opens, being loudly and excitedly repeated at the lorikeet end of the room. Half a walnut smashed on the ground in front of Oscar, bouncing up and hitting him square on the nose. Another followed a second later and hit him in the leg. The shrill whistle that I use to call my dog was coming from one of the galahs. It was chaos. I was wishing I’d filmed it.
Oscar meanwhile no longer looked like a kid in a candy store. He’d clearly revised that assessment and now had a very hunted look about him. He’d flattened himself to the floor and his ears were tightly pulled back against his skull. Just as a bit of red capsicum bounced off his head, he wisely decided to make a run for it. Unfortunately, he ran at the door at the exact time that my cattle dog came tearing through it (who was coming at a run to answer the bird’s whistle). They collided at full speed and the impact sent Oscar skidding into the wall. Oscar scrambled to his feet and dashed through the legs of my other dogs (coming to investigate all of the noise). The birds stopped their ‘attack’ the second Oscar escaped, leaving my dog looking confusedly around to see why he’d been whistled. I half-expected to hear one of the birds yell “AND STAY OUT!!!” at Oscar’s disappearing tail.
A few minutes later, I found Oscar hiding under the dining table. He was shaking. There’s something oddly funny about a cat that is crying in your arms because a big bad bird made that microwave noise and threw walnuts at him… Needless to say, Oscar hasn’t tried to get back into the bird room since.
From this, I’d say it is obvious that I haven’t exactly been successful in convincing Oscar to ignore my birds. Instead he has developed a phobia of the bird room, which under the circumstances, is probably a very good start. I have continued with the distraction technique and he is gradually improving. I think with time we will get to the point where he largely ignores the birds.
I need to be very clear that the distracting games and cuing of birdie alarms, is obviously not a foolproof technique to make my birds completely safe around my cats. I don’t believe that you can train a cat not to attack a bird and be 100% sure that it has worked. The training is simply to minimize the risk and get them accustomed to living with birds. There is always a chance that instinct will kick in and something could go wrong, so other precautions are necessary.
At the end of the day, I’m never going to trust ANY cat near my birds. Even trained, I’m not going to be giving them free access to each other. At my house, if the cat roams free, the birds are safely out of reach in their aviaries. If the birds run free they’re supervised and in a safe location. Both cats wear multiple bells on their collar. My birds’ indoor sleeping cages are either locked in a cat free room or have a type of netting around them to keep exploring cat paws out. I have a similar supervision arrangement with the dogs, although my dogs aren’t trained to ignore, they’re actually trained to guard the birds.
If I’m honest, my cat Lola has never given me the slightest reason to think he is ever going to chase anything other than a snail, a butterfly or a stray falling leaf. So I could easily be one of those people who say that I’m not worried because my cat is never going to hurt my birds. That might be true, but it’s not a risk I take. What if my birds get out by accident and meet my neighbour’s cat having learned that cats are ok just because Lola is?
I take precautions (other than training) to protect my flock and recommend that anyone with birds do the same.