What I Learned From Exhibiting At a CFA Cat ShowIt was over 20 years ago when I attended my first cat show. Seeing all the different-looking breeds of cats -- the curly-coated Cornish Rexes, flat-eared Scottish Folds, huge Maine Coons, lithe Oriental Shorthairs, et al -- was fascinating! At home, I just had "cat cats" -- good ol' rescued domestic shorthairs. They were beautiful, as are all cats, but I'd never known that there were so many varieties of cats. One Devon Rex looked exactly like a little lamb curled up in his cage. And the vendors there had wonderful cat toys! Knowing that those types of products existed, but weren't carried in most pet supply stores, was one of the things that planted a seed in my mind for OldMaidCatLady.com.
That was a Cat Fanciers Association show put on by the Absolutely Abyssinians Cat Club here in Jacksonville. It takes place every year on the first weekend after January 1. CFA has a category for household pets at its shows. Last year I had a vendor booth there for Old Maid Cat Lady, but with a feisty 23-year-old cat my only possible entry, there was no way I could enter my cat in the show; I wouldn't have done that to her arthritic little body. And yet, I sell products on my site targeting show cat owners, so it's important for me to understand their needs. Now that I have the Golden Boys, showing them has become a possibility. At nine months old, they're no longer considered kittens by CFA (after 8 months cats may compete as adults). Why not wind up a hectic holiday season with yet more activity?
The BasicsHousehold pets don't accrue points in cat shows like pedigreed cats, so the judges mainly rank them based on temperament, cleanliness and health. They like to see a cat who is unafraid of being handled, playful when tempted with a teaser toy, and well groomed. Cats accustomed to being shown know that one pole on the showing table is wrapped in sisal and can be scratched. Judges like this, as it causes the cat to stretch out and show the length of the body and coat patterns along the sides. They'll try to coax the cat to scratch it by drawing a feather up the scratcher.
When breed standards are being judged, they'll also often pick up the cat and stretch it out horizontally to show the audience its length. They'll carefully feel the cat's head and other breed standards to see how well this cat meets them. But for household pets, all they do is check their ears, make sure their claws have been trimmed, and talk about the coat pattern. Some judges ask the owners where the cats came from to get a sense of their history and the relationship between the cats and their people.
When they call your class to the show ring for competition, you carry your cats over there and place them in the cage with their assigned number on top of it. Since so many show cats are unaltered, they have to be carefully placed so that two males aren't next to each other. The clerk for each ring handles this, as well as all the record keeping for the points accrued by the purebreds. Household pets must be spayed or neutered, and may not be declawed, in order to be shown.
I knew these things from having watched judging at previous cat shows, and I tried to explain to my boys in the days leading up to the show that it was going to be a fun adventure. Since they were tiny, I've been getting them used to being handled in the way the judge would handle them. Short of having a ring itself to use, I thought it was enough to get them ready for their first show. The day before the show, I trimmed the boys' claws and cleaned their ears. Their coats were beautiful, so they didn't appear to need baths. We were ready for the show...or so I thought. There was much yet to be learned.
The Golden Boys' First Cat Show ExperienceThe first day of the show was crazy; trying to get everything unloaded, set up the crate for the boys, get them ready to be shown, and get my vendor space arranged was more than could be done in the time allotted. My friend Mary was helping me, and thank goodness for that; I completely missed the first call for household pets, but she heard it! Each of us grabbed a cat and rushed over to the show ring where we were supposed to be.
Lesson 1: If you're also a vendor as well as exhibiting your cats, find out if the vendors can set up ahead of time. At check-in time, all the other vendors appeared to have already been set up. I was trying to rush in at check-in time, thinking that was the earliest I'd be able to access the show hall, and get everything set up while also registering my cats for the show. Nobody had told me otherwise. And the person who was supposed to handle check-in was out sick, adding another stressful wrinkle to the whole morning.
Their first judge was Betty White -- no not that Betty White -- but she was a kind lady from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I'm glad the boys had her for their first judge. She explained to the audience when she took Gilly out of his cage that although he was hissing, his body was not tense and he was obviously just frightened and not likely to bite. Captain didn't hiss, but had his tail tucked in. He seemed more in shock than anything. They'd surely picked up on my frantic mindset of the morning, and were in an unfamiliar environment being handled by a stranger. So naturally they were scared! Betty briefly looked them both over, explaining that they were Red Mackerel Tabbies, putting each back into his cage afterward and hanging a ribbon on the front that said "HHP Merit Award" which each household cat gets for merely participating. She was quite interactive with the audience on the household pets, so I explained to her that this was their first show.
Betty conversed with the other owners about their cats, as well. There were three other household pets being judged - a lovely black kitten named Diamond, a gray tabby with white named Petipaw, and a tuxedo cat named Amber. Once Betty had judged them all, she handed out the rosettes, huge ribbons showing where each of them had placed. They were very impressive looking! Hissy boy Gilly got 5th place, while Captain placed 3rd. Exactly the opposite of how I'd thought they'd have placed! Gilly is my playful, friendly boy. Captain is more reserved and shy.
We'd barely gotten the boys back to my vendor space and their ribbons hung on the outside of the crate before they were calling us again. Thanks to Mary, we didn't miss that one, either. Jerri Zottoli of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was the judge in this one. Gilly was still hissy and got only limited attention. He was just not into this being shown stuff! Captain was scared and hunching over, but did okay. Jerri took her time with him and was able to lift his front end up enough to show his coat to the audience. The ring clerk commented that he had a beautiful coat. (I've always thought so, too, and was glad that it got some notice.)
When the rosettes were handed out Gilly got 5th place, as expected. But she kept putting ribbons on two other cages before coming to Captain's -- he got a 2nd place! I was so proud!
Lesson 2: Your cats don't just get judged once at a show. Household pets are assessed by every judge there. This show had 8 rings, so my cats were going to be called up 8 times during the two days to be shown. Each judge is different in personality and preference. Your cats may place differently with each. But they get a small ribbon and a big, beautiful rosette each time!
The boys' third call was to Ring 2, where Barbara Sumner of Mulberry, Florida was judging. She was a very personable judge who enjoyed explaining things to the audience. It was obvious that she loved doing this. She also told us that my boys were Red Mackerel Tabbies. Captain was starting to pick up the hissing from his brother, but made it through. Barbara didn't even want to take Gilly out of the cage, but she said if I would, she'd take a look at him. He was still hissy at me, but I knew it was all bravado and managed to get him out. He hissed again on the show table, so she just had me put him back and he got another 5th place. Obviously, Gilly is not going to be a show cat! Captain was starting to hiss more like Gilly, but he again placed 3rd, giving me more hopes for him.
Lesson 3: It's up to the judges whether or not they want to handle your cat. They've all been bitten and scratched before by aggressive cats and they're pretty good at reading a cat's body language. Some are nice and will allow you to remove the cat from the cage, but not all...as I was about to learn that very afternoon.
We had a bit of a lull after this and Mary went off to watch some of the other judging and walk around the benching area talking to some of the cats' owners. On her rounds, someone told her that one cat can feed off another's fear and hostility, and sometimes it's better to separate them. So when they called us up again, she suggested that maybe Captain would do better if we didn't show Gilly. I carried him over to Ring 8, where Rick Hiskinson of Kirkersville, Ohio was judging. Rick is a specialty judge, while the others so far had been all-breed judges. Captain's first male judge; I hoped that wouldn't spook him!
Removing Gilly from the equation didn't help much in this instance; Rick didn't like Captain's attitude and turned down the number card on top of his cage, disqualifying him. He said, "A cat bite is a three-day hospital stay for me, and I'm not risking it." For that one, Captain didn't even get a small ribbon for participating, much less a rosette. I was heartbroken; my shy boy would never have bitten him, and had only picked up the hissing from his more aggressive brother. He was still scared and tired on top of it all. Luckily, that was our last round for Day 1 of the show.
Lesson 4: The judge is in command at his or her own ring. If that judge doesn't want to handle your cat, it's entirely within their power to disqualify the cat. Wain had been very generous in even allowing me to take him out for her to examine. Even if you know your cat won't bite, they don't have to judge any entries. You know how cats take more to some people than others, and if a judge and your cat don't mesh well together, the judge has every right to disqualify your cat. There's nothing you can do about it.
Judging was over for the day, and it was time to go home. I'd managed to sell a little bit in my vendor booth, and Captain had gotten one 2nd place ribbon and two 3rd places, so I was proud of him. Gilly...well, he's lovable and playful at home. I packed up the cats in their stroller, picked up the computer and my cash box, and we headed out.
Another exhibitor who was showing her Tonkinese cats mentioned in the parking lot that there was a wine and cheese party at the show hotel, so we went there, with the cats in their stroller. Another opportunity for them to become better socialized! In chatting with her, we learned that it can be helpful to go over to a show ring before anything is going on, put your cat into a cage, play with him there to show him it's a fun and safe place, and show him what to expect so it's not so scary and unfamiliar. Make sure you disinfect the space afterward, but doing this is great prep on a cat's first show.
Lesson 5: You can't entirely prep your cats at home for a show. They need to become familiar with the routine and the environment. The first time they see a show ring, it's going to freak them out. If you can find a quiet ring in which to familiarize them with it, they'll be a lot more comfortable when the actual judging starts.
The boys were good about going into the stroller out of their car seats at the show hotel, but they really wanted to get home. Once we found out that the event started an hour later, I didn't figure it was a good idea to keep them in there any longer. They'd had a rough day. It'd have been nice to have met some of the other exhibitors and judges, but it just didn't work out to do that this time so we headed home instead. Tomorrow would be another opportunity to start fresh and learn more about the cat show world. One of the cruelest lessons would come early.