Saving Shelter Cats With a High-Five

Dogs aren't the only ones that can learn to do tricks. Philly

Imagine walking into a shelter to adopt a cat. There are all sorts of kitties vying for your attention (or playing hard to get), but one particular feline comes up and gives you a high-five. Of course you're smitten, and that cat is yours for life.

The Jackson Galaxy Project, a charitable program of, created the Cat Pawsitive program because it believes a kitty handshake can seriously seal the adoption deal. Cat Pawsitive teaches shelters across the country to train their adoptable cats tricks like how to give a high-five or a head bump. Doing adorable tricks shows that they are likely to listen and bond with their owners. Plus, it decreases their stress at the shelter by boosting their confidence.

"The genesis of Cat Pawsitive stemmed from the simple desire to duplicate the 'AHA!' moment I had in the early stages of my life with cats as a shelter worker," says Galaxy, cat behaviorist and host of "My Cat From Hell."

"By utilizing the training concepts that were, to that point, only used for the dogs in our care, not only were the cats stimulated, motivated and energized, but so was I. That, along with the most important result, lives being saved, was the win-win."

Helping cats regain their mojo

orange cat gives high five
A kitty trains at a Kansas City shelter, stretching for a high-five. Pet Project

The shelter environment can be overwhelming and frightening, so a cat's best personality doesn't always shine through.

"Big life changes can lead to cats losing their mojo, their confidence, their raw cat essence. When suddenly faced with a noisy shelter or an unfamiliar foster home, even the most outgoing and friendly cats can become nervous, shut down or even just bored. This can lead to behaviors that make them seem less 'adoptable,' " Christie Rogero, program manager for Cat Pawsitive, tells MNN.

With the program, shelter staff and volunteers are trained to help identify signs of feline stress. They learn positive reinforcement-based training techniques to help them prevent and reduce stress by keeping adoptable cats mentally and physically active.

"The focus is on fun, positive reinforcement-based training sessions that go beyond playtime-as-usual to help cats maintain their mojo and connect more quickly with potential adopters," Rogero says. "The behaviors they learn show people what we already know: that cats are cool and can even be trained!"

For cats that arrive at a shelter or rescue shy, afraid or not very social, the program helps them gain confidence and learn to interact with people.

In addition to high-fives, they might also learn how to sit and come when called, spin, jump through a hoop, or even do a gentle head bump. It gives the cats confidence and also enhances the bond between cats and potential new owners, encouraging interaction and making the kitties much more adoptable.

"We understand that cats can become withdrawn, shut down, and even downright terrified in a shelter setting. When they arrive in a shelter, they may have lost the only family they've ever known, or they may have come from a difficult life as a stray on the street," Rogero says.

"We help those cats to feel more confident, to feel safe interacting with new people, to even spend more time at the front of their cages actively soliciting attention than hiding in the corner with their face to the wall. They get the kind of enrichment that cats need to be themselves and show their true personalities to potential adopters. This helps them to make connections and to get adopted more quickly."

Getting involved

cat giving a high-five
Cats thoroughly commit when they're working for treats. Carver Scott Humane Society

So far, 106 animal welfare organizations around the country have worked with the Cat Pawsitive program, resulting in more than 1,000 homeless cats being adopted into forever homes. The program is free to shelters and rescues. Organizations receive training materials, online classes, mentoring by cat behavior professionals and training treats.

To encourage more rescues and shelters to get involved, the program sponsored the Cat Pawsitive National High-Five Day Shelter Contest. Shelter staff and volunteers, rescue workers and cat owners can share their most creative feline high-five videos at from April 18 through May 16.

Galaxy will select the top 25 entries and then the public can vote on their favorites from May 20 to June 2. The winners will be announced on June 3. The grand prize is a $5,000 cash grant to an animal shelter/rescue of the winner’s choice, and an invitation to celebrity cat Lil BUB’s birthday party in Los Angeles. Second place is a $3,000 cash grant to a shelter/rescue of the winner’s choice and third place is a $2,000 cash grant to a shelter/rescue of the winner’s choice.

Here's the 2018 grand prize winner, Mimi of the Dakin Humane Society in Springfield, Massachusetts, and her friend, Bethany.

For inspiration, here's an adorable video of cats learning high-fives in shelters across the country: