When it comes to felines, Michelle Sharpee is the cat’s meow. The ABC Cat Training Program graduate has always had a fondness for the four-legged creatures and a natural curiosity about them. It was this interest that drove her to accept a job working with exotic and big cats at Naples Zoo in Naples, Florida.
“I worked with tigers, lions, caracals and other exotic cats for many years,” she recalled. “I knew big cats and domestic cats exhibit similar behaviors, but seeing those behaviors and similarities first-hand was very exciting.”
It was while observing her favorite tiger, Topaz, Michelle noticed the similarities between how she communicated and how her domestic cats, Pebbles, and Eave, communicated. Both used a variety of signals, body postures, facial expressions and vocalizations to convey messages. For example, when their eyes were half closed and when they blinked slowly this gesture communicated trust. Michelle could also read their moods by observing how their ears were positioned. When their ears were forward this indicated the cats were feeling content or even playful.
Big cats and domestic cats love to play and rub against things marking their territories with pheromones. Both exhibit predatory behavior and like to sit in high places, which give them a distinct advantage so they can survey their realms for potential prey. They enjoy scratching things, smelling things with their mouths open and sleeping a lot – a whole lot. In fact, domestic cats sleep anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day and lions and tigers sleep as much as 18 to 20 hours a day.
“All cats regardless of their size stalk their prey which takes a lot of energy and they are crepuscular which means they are most active at dawn and dusk,” she explained. “This is why domestic cat owners should play interactive games with their cats so they can use their hunting instincts to release any pent-up frustrations that lead to unwanted behaviors.”
Michelle left the zoo and accepted a position as a technician assistant for a feline veterinary clinic. After learning about the number of domestic cats that wind up in shelters for treatable behaviors, she made it her mission to educate cat owners and anyone interested in cats about the importance of cat training to solve behavior problems. She knew it was important to obtain a professional certification to establish her credibility, so she enrolled in ABC’s Cat Trainer Program. She graduated last January and is an Animal Behavior College Certified Cat Trainer (ABCCT).
The distance learning course teaches numerous topics, including learning theories, cat training tools, preventing unwanted behaviors, and feline care and nutrition. The cat trainer course also includes a shelter practicum, pet first aid and CPR certification.
“I decided to become a professional cat trainer because many people don’t understand cats and when they get a cat they use dog training techniques to train them,” Michelle said. “They soon discover that dog training techniques don’t work for cats. And many owners grow frustrated and surrender their cats to shelters for behaviors that are trainable and treatable. My goal is to educate and train cat owners so they, in turn, can train their cats and keep them at home.”
One of Michelle’s most memorable stories was about a cat named Bernie. Last fall, one of the veterinary technicians found him and brought him into the clinic for care. The green-eyed grey, white and black kitty had sustained third-degree chemical burns on his back.
“When I first saw him, I wanted to turn away because it hurt my heart to see him this way,” she said. “But I knew he needed help, and I wanted to be sure he knew and felt he was truly loved.”
Due to his injuries, it took several weeks for Bernie’s wounds to heal. During his healing process, he was placed in a cage. Within days, Michelle noticed a change in his behavior. The once calm and friendly cat started biting and scratching her and other employees. She knew that this behavior needed to be corrected and started training Bernie.
“I knew that if I didn’t train him and correct these behaviors, he would not get adopted,” she said. “I trained and worked with him several days a week for two months using much of what I learned from my CTP studies.”
When Bernie was ready to be adopted, Michelle posted more than 50 videos of him on Facebook and sent them to people she knew in hopes of getting the word out that he needed a home. Two days before Christmas , Bernie received a very special present. He was adopted into a forever home.
In addition to training cat owners and working at the clinic, Michelle owns two cats and also fosters and rescues homeless cats one at a time. She believes doing it like this allows her to spend more time with each cat and use training techniques that focus on each cat’s individual needs.
“I would love to one-day rescue and train cats full-time so they can be adopted and live happy lives,” she said. “There are so many cats out there that need help and my mission is to do my best to meet that need.”