Teaching a Big Cat Manners

I hesitate to even post this because stupid people will think it possible to tame and train a big cat and evil people will take it out of context. You can never make a pet out of an exotic cat.

Teaching not to bite can be the most challenging phase of raising the cub and early acceptance of play manners is critical. When your Lion or Leopard cub is 5 weeks old and only weighs ten pounds, it is ever so tempting to roll around on the floor with him and forgive the occasional nip on the heel. If you allow this sort of play to start, the cub will weigh 100 pounds within the year and will still be, and feel like a kitten. A tackle and bite to the legs will bring you to your knees, and the more you struggle, the more intense the cat will become. Watch two young cats play and then picture yourself as one of them. When one is getting too rough, the other will land a few hard bites to make the aggressor back down. Even if you were so inclined, would your bite be any match for the cat’s? Even if you were a professional boxer, your swing would be a mere love pat to a big cat, and your stern command to stop will sound silly next to the feline’s roar. Everything you are going to teach this kit, will have to be learned while you are still strong enough to be the one in control. Do Not remove or file down the teeth!

You can’t give an exotic cat too much love. Your love should be unlimited. We believe that love and trust are first and foremost in establishing a good relationship with your exotic feline. It is a tough love and had it been widely accepted in raising children, we wouldn’t be faced with a society so lacking in conscience. Consistency is a must. If something is not to be tolerated, then it is never to be tolerated, no matter how tired you are. Everyone who comes in contact with the cub must adhere to the same rules, otherwise the cat quickly learns that while some behaviors are not accepted by you, they can get away with it with strangers. Due to extenuating circumstances we were unable to provide a constant influence on two Leopard cubs that we had purchased at ten days of age. In the time that we could spend with them, we would not tolerate biting or sneaking and stalking, but often others would play with them and thought it was cute to stalk, ambush and the biting wasn’t too hard. N ow at 100 and 120 pounds we can still go in with and love on our big Leopards but if we take anyone in with us, the cats immediately focus on the newcomer and will try every old trick they know to take them down. One of the worst things that they were ever taught, by one of our volunteers, was to play with hats. When they were small it seemed liked a good chew toy and wrestle rag but in the long run it imprinted the idea that all hats were toys, and as a result, any unsuspecting person who walks in with a hat on is immediately attacked for the hat. Once they have the hat, they will eat it and there is no getting it back. This is more dangerous for the cat than for the person.

If you carefully observe the cat, you should be able to recognize impending trouble. Our big cats are not allowed to stalk us, even in play. When they crouch down and the tip of their tail begins to flicker, they are preparing to pounce. Because we start training when they are young, a stern ” N o Stalking!” is usually sufficient. Sometimes, in a Tiger especially, you can detect a difference in their eyes and not much else, before they rush. Tigers are not as easily dissuaded from completing a rush as are Lions. Our Lion cubs, who have not been fully trained not to rush, will stop short of running into us and very submissively rub up against us. Tigers, on the other hand, will most often clobber us, if we do not stop the rush before it has been set in motion. To survive a Tiger rush we must stand our ground and take an authoritative tone. To run, or fall is to die.

In the event that you are bitten by a cat, whether in play or out of ferociousness, the key to your survival is in your reaction. If you panic, scream, thrash about or run, you will look like prey and be treated as thus. Practice with kittens and small cats long before you ever find yourself in a position of fight or flight with a big cat. When a cat bites or attacks us, we try to remain calm and go limp, but remain on our feet. You never want the cat to loom over you as it is just irresistible to pounce you then. We sternly tell the cat no, but we do not pull away. We try to act like we are not afraid, but that we are not going to tolerate this either. We don’t look the cat directly in the eyes as this can be considered a challenge. If the cat has a firm grip on our hand we move with the cat, rather than pulling against him until we are freed. Once freed we will back out of the pen being careful not to let the cat get behind us. If you have done something incredibly stupid, like stick your hand in through a fence, and the cat is trying to pull you in (and they will, especially Tigers) then you may have to resort to more violence to free yourself and you will be lucky if you draw back anything more than a bleeding stump. If you find yourself alone and with no stick around, you may be able to press the tongue against the cat’s own teeth or to press your nails into the roof of his mouth.

When we do get bitten, we have found that cat bites can make us nauseous and weak in the knees. I don’t know if this is a mental or a physical thing, but it feels the same either way. Only once were we bitten badly enough to go to the emergency room. We were prescribed pain killers and antibiotics but did not need the pain killers after the first couple of hours. Most bites heal best if not covered or stitched and we try to make them bleed at first to cleanse the wound. We have found that soaking the affected area in Epsom Salts several times a day removes the soreness and helps bites, scratches and most any skin abrasion to heal faster. We are not medical doctors; this is just what has worked well for us. Cat inflicted scars have a strange tendency to itch, long after they have healed. Otter bites tend to petrify the skin all around the bite and we have noticed nerve damage in the surrounding area that we haven’t seen in cat bites.

It is not as much fun for you or the cub, but when they are small the only interaction between you and the kitten should be one of loving and stroking. Any play should be with an evenly matched animal or an inanimate object. A kitten of the same age and breed would be the best, because they have so much energy to burn. Choose your toys wisely, remembering that the cub will make this association for a lifetime. Articles of clothing are out, because the temptation to rip them off a person will always be there.  Towels are easily cleaned, but if your pet will be a housepet keep in mind that you may want to dry after a shower, or wipe your hands without being mauled. Stuffed animals that don’t resemble the real thing are what we typically choose, but care must be taken to keep them out of reach unless you are supervising, so that they are not ingested. If the cat is to go out in public, keep in mind that some young child with a toy is subject to be a target.
For the larger cats we really like the Booda-Bones on a Rope. You can tug without it breaking, and the bone is good for the cat to clean his teeth on. They are washable and nearly indestructible. One of our cats’ favorite chew toys is the hoof and they will spend a lot of time cleaning their teeth on one of these. The only toys that we ever leave with a cat are the rope and bone and hoof toys and a ball of heavyweight, hard plastic called The Nearly Indestructible Ball. Anything that a cat can tear up and swallow, he will, and usually while you are not looking. A cougar came to us in horrible condition and we wormed him and fed him and fed him and fed him, but he gained very little weight. One day we found him dead in his pen, and expecting some contagious condition, had him autopsied. The search revealed that at some point in his life he had eaten a tire and it had lodged in his intestines, blocking the normal absorption of his food. It had ruptured the stomach
and intestines when it broke loose, causing him to hemorrhage to death.  Another cat, a Serval, choked to death on a piece of a hard rubber ball that he had had for over a year. While the toy never showed a tooth mark on it, after time, either it got softer, or he got stronger, but the end result was a tragedy.

After carefully selecting the toy, use it to play with the cat if he is a Lynx or smaller. It is never a good idea to play with a great cat, (Cougars and larger) as they will outweigh you long before they have mentally matured. When kittens play with each other they always use their mouths and when your kit plays with you he will want to put you in his mouth. From the hand feeding, you are teaching him how much pressure is acceptable from his jaw, but in the excitement of play it is a hard thing to remember. We put the toy in his mouth and any time he goes to put his mouth on us, we substitute the toy. This has to start when they are very young and uncoordinated, because before long, they will be much more agile than you. Any time contact is made between their mouth and our skin, we try to quickly analyze the moment. Mouthing and accidental grazing (which can really hurt, but it is unintentional on the part of the cat) are not cause for alarm. If the cat puts any pressure in biting down on us, then it is met with a very loud and angry sounding “NO !!!” If the cub persists, then he is given “time out” in his cage with no one to play with. After yelling at the cub, I always feel guilty and want to make up with him right away, but this will confuse him. You must be consistent and give the message time to sink in.

Look at the design of a feline’s teeth. Across the front is a row of very small, flat edged teeth, bordered by a dagger like fang, or canine tooth at both the top and bottom. The side or back teeth are very sharp and are designed for cutting and chewing flesh from the bone. The canine teeth have a slight curve so that when the cat hooks his prey, even great struggling only sinks the fangs in deeper. If the cat should sink his teeth into your hand, whether in play or in earnest, it will only hurt you more if you try to pull back. Many cats delight in a game of tug of war and you jerking away will cause them to pull back with even more force. As Terry Wolf, who has more than 25 years experience with Lion Country Safari, so aptly said, “Feed him your hand.” If you find yourself in the unenviable position of having your hand stuck in a big cat’s mouth, the only way it is coming back out, is for you to shove it in deeper. This will cause the cat to gag and when they do, they release their grip. On small cats who insist on biting fingers the same action of pushing your finger down the cat’s throat (putting pressure on the tongue) will cause him to spit you out.

Sometimes you may have to be the referee between two or more of your pets and the same procedures as listed before are appropriate. If your pets are not evenly matched, size wise or temperamentally then you should never leave them alone together. We have found that Siberian Lynx kittens can be very temperamental and dangerous with other pets, even at a very early age.

Furniture can be a hard thing to protect. Most of our furniture is wood, wrought iron or is flat surfaced. We select items that are functional, easy to clean and of no interest to the wild cats. Two of our volunteers who are also big cat owners, have reported success by using Jalapeno Peppers on padded furniture to keep the cats from chewing on the couch and mattresses. We’ve been told that the peppers are non-staining and not offensively odorous to humans. Vinegar and water spray works also.

We believe in letting cats be cats and are not inclined to teach them stupid pet tricks for our own amusement. Some training is necessary for you and the cat to have a happy coexistence and to that end we refer to circus training for clues. Mabel Stark was a Tiger and Lion trainer for 47 years, beginning in 1911 working for Al G. Barnes Circus. She worked with up to 16 Lions and Tigers at one time in the same ring and was one of only two people responsible for training big cats in this country. She trained the Tigers that appeared in the movies “Song of India”, “The Greatest Show On Earth” and “Demetrius and the Gladiators”. Her criteria for selection of animals to work excluded long nosed cats, narrow headed cats, and cross eyed cats because these were indicative of inbreeding, which brings with it ” a
warped mind, a lack of balance and poise and a predisposition to mayhem and murder.”

While her best performer, a Tiger named Rajah, was bottle raised by her, she preferred to select cats that were one and a half to two years old (and never over 5 years) to begin training. She felt that younger cats were too much like little children and to attempt serious training would break their spirit. Even in her teaching she limited her time to fifteen minutes and her scope to one specific act, as she claimed that cats had a one track mind and a limited attention span. She was quoted as saying “You must bring an animal to you by voice and manner, not drive it with whips or clubs, or lead it with meat. Sure, you can beat a cat into obedience, just like you can a kid, or spoil him with meat – but one day you’ll get it back in spades.”

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