What Producers and Photographers Need to Know About Working with Cats
December 13, 2019
Daniel Keeling
Blog

Dog person?

There are 8 million cats in the UK, only half a million fewer than the 8.5 million dogs who currently live in the UK.1.  And did you know 24% of UK households own a cat?  That’s the equivalent to a quarter of our population! When it comes to marketing it would be crazy not to take advantage of this and that’s why cats in advertising are so important shockingly underused.

It’s not only cat owners who love cats however, as the entire history of the web can attest to. Why else would cat videos take over the entire internet?!

From Grumpy Cat to Felix, from Tom to Sylvester and Top Cat, cats have been used in media for as long as we can remember.  They have bags of personality and charisma; it’s easy to understand why cats are often thought to exude class.

They can be carefree and cosy, loving and intelligent.  In mythology, cats symbolise mystery and magic, conjuring images and themes of rebirth with their nine lives.

Think of Cravendale’s ‘Cats with Thumbs’ ad, or O2’s ‘Be More Dog’ ad and you’ll see that cats don’t just advertise cat food and kitty litter; they’re so much more versatile than that.  At Urban Paws we have commissioned cats to work on furniture commercials, fashion shoots and even influencer campaigns!

Whilst we’re speaking of cat products – cat owners in the UK spend an average of £100 a month on their pets, which equates to £9.6 billion being spent on cats each year3

Many people think it’s easier to work with dogs because they’re easier to train, but the training of cats is becoming more and more popular in the UK. We’re seeing an explosion in popularity of very talented cats joining Urban Paws UK.  The good news? Cats are trainable; they love the attention they get on set and they love the bonding with their humans.

Now really is the perfect time to get working with cats and use them in your media project.

Need the perfect example of cats trained to the high levels of a dog? Check out
Artemis and Apollo

Image of one cat taking a photograph of another cat.

Artemis and Apollo

Never worked with a cat before?

You’re in for a treat!  We’ve already covered why they’re so great, but before you take the plunge into filming your first fantastic feline, we feel it’s important for you to know some bits and pieces. If you take in to account our advice, we’re certain you will have a positive experience throughout the process.

Here at Urban Paws UK, we want to help guide you through the adventure.  Whether it’s a multi-cat shoot, a role where a diverse skill set is required, or whether you’re working outdoors, we’ve got it covered.  With years of experience of working with cats, we’re perfectly positioned to help advise you on the best direction to go.

There’s nothing cuter than a kitten and nothing cooler than a cat! Working with such a wonderful animal is an impressive experience to add to your repertoire.

Never worked with a cat before?

You’re in for a treat!  We’ve already covered why they’re so great, but before you take the plunge into filming your first fantastic feline, we feel it’s important for you to know some bits and pieces. If you take in to account our advice, we’re certain you will have a positive experience throughout the process.

Here at Urban Paws UK, we want to help guide you through the adventure.  Whether it’s a multi-cat shoot, a role where a diverse skill set is required, or whether you’re working outdoors, we’ve got it covered.  With years of experience of working with cats, we’re perfectly positioned to help advise you on the best direction to go.

There’s nothing cuter than a kitten and nothing cooler than a cat! Working with such a wonderful animal is an impressive experience to add to your repertoire.

What’s in a cat’s nature?

  • Cats are predators. Highly skilled predators. They are hunting machines, and even when trained, they have a high prey drive. Think about it before you try and put a hamster and a cat in the same scene.
  • Many cats are dog-friendly, and many live with dogs at home. However, putting a cat in an unfamiliar room with an unknown dog is going to require some socialisation time on both parts.  The animals must safely meet and mix before they prepare to work.
  • It’s not without warrant that cats are sometimes thought of as ‘unpredictable’, yet with decent training and a good handler, cats are laid back and relaxed.
  • They are intelligent creatures and are highly tuned in to their surroundings; often they understand us better than we understand them. Yes, sometimes they can be less social than dogs, but cats truly appreciate the right kind of attention.
  • Cats are noise sensitive and don’t appreciate shouts, doors slamming or noisy crew on set. It’s a good idea to keep noise to a minimum.
  • Cats love to learn and enjoy training sessions. They find it harder to take commands from a distance than a dog might, yet they are just as capable of reward-based training.  However, cats are independent creatures, and when they’ve had enough, they’ve had enough.  At that point, they’re no longer going to care about the caviar in your hands.
  • Cats get frustrated with working long hours. 6 hours on-set is the perfect amount of time for the cat to work; any more, and kitty is going to start being stubborn.
  • Cats climb. They love high places.  They like trees and they love to make an assault course out of obstacles.  It’s in their nature to climb, particularly in unknown environments as this is where they have the best vantage point to survey their surroundings.
  • Cats will naturally seek out hiding places. If there is a cubby hole on set, they will find it.  It’s in their nature to sniff out prey from hiding places and surprise pounce. Cats like to see but prefer not to be seen.  Well socialised and trained cats will also naturally do this; it’s inherent in their genes.  Ample time should be allowed for cats to investigate their surroundings, ensuring there are no possible escape routes in advance.
  • Just because the cat worked well yesterday, doesn’t mean he will work well today. Sometimes, we just have to accept that he doesn’t want to cooperate today.  Even trained cats are fiercely independent and like to do things on their own terms.  Sometimes a lot of patience will be required.

Expectations vs reality

Throughout our extensive experience of working with cats, we’ve found the most difficult part is the expectation of the production team.  Very often, a production team will think it’s going to be very hard work with a cat and it’s amazing when we get to prove them wrong.

On occasion, however, we will come across a director or producer who thinks that a ‘trained cat’ will perform like a robot and follow every command.  It’s easy to forget that although you’re working with an experienced animal actor, they are (after all) animals.  We cannot communicate with them like we sometimes think we can.

Expectation: The cat will turn up on set, follow instruction and do what I tell it to do.  I need to get the cat out of the studio before it poos and leaves a smell.

Reality:  The cat is wondering why on earth it’s in this new environment and why there are so many people around.  Give the cat time to settle and you’ll have a good experience.

Ridiculous things we’re asked:

  • Can you get the cat to smile?
  • How do you make the cat look angry?
  • Can the cat walk on a wall at the side of a main road?
  • Can the cat work out in the open?
  • Can the cat pretend to be shy?
  • We’re working in a park and would like the cat to play football with kids. We’ll make sure the cat is safe, so is fencing really necessary?
  • Are a harness and lead really necessary in the outdoors?

Our advice: Take advice from the handler and work within the cat’s capabilities on that day.  Ok, the cat could cartwheel yesterday, but today he doesn’t feel like it.  Please be respectful of that and work with the animal instead of against the animal.

Trained cats vs trained dogs

Some dogs are as capable as robots.  Check out Smurf here doing… 33 tricks in 60 seconds.

At the end of the day, we’re still working with animals; cats are sentient beings (despite what the law says) and we love them.  They have personality, they have character, and they have the same hopes and fears that dogs do, they just display it differently.  Cats are as much a member of the family as anyone else and they should be respected in the same way.

Treat and reward-based training is the way to go.  Like dogs, some will pick up tricks and skills quickly, and others will take a bit more time.  It is rare in the UK that cats have shown the same level of skill as dogs, but that’s not to say they aren’t capable.  They definitely are capable, but often, the average cat owner doesn’t put the same amount of effort into training their cats as they do their dogs.  We’re pleased to say that this is changing and that we’re seeing an increase of trained cats with a larger skill repertoire.

In any case, on set, patience is required and a lot of focus from the animal, so it is best not to expect too much and be mindful of distracting a working animal.  It’s already a huge challenge for them being out of the home for so long, having travelled on either public transport or a car, and working in a strange environment with people they don’t know.

Working outside with a cat

We aren’t going to lie, we HATE this request.  Think this will be easy?  Think again.  Think it will be safe?  Think again. It is possible though given enough precautions and communication with ourselves and the handler.

 

In our time working with cats outdoors, we’ve experienced things like unannounced dogs running on set, a cat being asked to work on a pavement at the side of a busy road, and directors thinking hedgerow is ample fencing.

Cats can be quicker than dogs and find recall a harder skill than dogs find it.  They climb easily and hide easily.  What is not an escape route for humans, or a dog is still an escape route for a cat.

Think about it; most people wouldn’t have their dogs off lead unless in a safe environment; the same goes for cats.  There is always a flight risk with any animal, and their safety should never be put at risk.

Fencing

When working with cats outside, the cat must always be on a lead unless adequate fencing is provided.  Chicken wire is a good option, but only if there is overhead fencing too.  Cats love to climb and find chicken wire easy to scale.  Hedgerow is also not adequate fencing for cats.  It is easy to climb and jump on.

Recommended fencing would be flat and to a height of 8 ft to avoid the risk of jumping the fence.  If fencing is not available, the cat should be on a harness and lead.

Tips to make things run smoothly

  • Introduce crew; make sure the cat knows he has nothing to fear.
  • Take allergy medication if required. Cats don’t want to be startled by a sneeze.
  • Make the crew be quiet – no banging of doors, no talking, no people in and out of the room. THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT! Distractions are the biggest reason a cat stops working.
  • As small a crew as possible
  • Patience
  • Allow the cat 15-20 minutes to settle into their environment.
  • Let them sniff around and explore the room.
  • They’ve just spent a couple of hours in a box in a car… let them stretch their legs!
  • Cover any escape routes and hidey-holes – chimneys, nooks and crannies
  • Make sure you have told the agent EVERYTHING! Even the smallest details are important. Are there other cats on set? Other animals? Children? Male / female actors?
  • Air-conditioned room – too hot / too cold can impact behaviour
  • Has the cat had adequate breaks?
  • Don’t leave doors open; you’re only providing an escape route.

Things to be careful about:

  • If working outside, the cat should be in a fenced-in location (including overhead fencing if the barrier fence is climbable
  • If there is no fencing, the cat should be on a harness and lead at all times.
  • On rare occasions, an invisible lead is an option. Please note, an invisible lead is fishing wire.  It can still be snapped very easily. It just gives you that split second extra to be able to capture the cat.
  • Weather – cats are not fans of the rain. Nor do they like very hot environments.  Take care to work within their capabilities considering the temperate environment.
  • If you are scratched, you must seek medical attention. Cat scratches are very dangerous and can lead to CSD (cat scratch disease) and always require treatment, no matter how small.
  • Ideally, a vet will be on set when you’re working with any animal. However, this is still not a legal requirement in the UK, despite its obvious benefit.  With this in mind, if you are not going to have a vet present on set (shame on you), then you must inform the nearest veterinary surgery that there are working animals nearby so that they can be on standby.  Details of the contact at this surgery should be supplied on the call sheet.
  • Ideally, you will recruit a backup cat so that the lead cat is not under so much pressure. Although this incurs an extra cost, it means that if the lead cat doesn’t work out as expected, you have another waiting in the wings ready to go.  This could potentially save thousands of pounds in studio time.  We find this particularly important on big productions and when a large skill set is required.
  • If the cat has a large role, it is better to work across two half days than one full 6-hour long day.

Is there any joy working with cats?

Yes, yes and more yes! I know we’ve made it sound difficult and hard work in this text, but we can assure you that if you work within an animal’s strengths, it’s an absolute joy to work with cats.  They are loving pets and yet you have to earn their respect.  It’s easy to do this once you know how, and it’s an achievement that will be rewarded greatly.  Cats don’t just give love to anyone, you know.

I don’t know about you, but I am much more impressed when I see a cat doing something incredible than when I see a dog doing skateboarding (yes Churchill, I’m looking at you – they should have used a real dog in this ad IMHO).

Go get ‘em, Tiger!

 

  • RSPCA report 2018
  • PDSA report 2019
  • MoreThan Insurance report 2019