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Cat Training: Know the Basics

Cats can be trained, just not the same way dogs can.

They say cats can't be trained. Maybe it's true that they don't respond to training the same way a dog might, but cats can be persuaded to develop good habits if you work with them and understand their motivations.

Successful cat training means both you and your kitty (and hopefully other household members) are not stressed out by the endeavor and are pleased with the outcome.

Why Train Your Cat?

There are a few great reasons to pursue training with your cat. These include:

  • To protect him, you, other people or animals, or valuable belongings from harm. This can include training your cat to come, or training him to use scratching posts instead of furniture for his scratching needs.
  • To enrich your cat's life. Training can provide valuable mental and physical stimulation to a cat, keeping his life interesting and enjoyable.
  • To strengthen your bond with your cat. Training sessions that include proper positive reinforcement can bring the relationship between you and your cat closer.

Do's and Don'ts of Cat Training

When you are pursuing training with your cat, there are some important rules to follow.

  • Don't impair the all-important bond of trust between you and your cat. This bond is the key to a mutually-fulfilling, long-term human-feline relationship. Training sessions should not be traumatic. Train with love.
  • Don't try to make your cat do something he clearly doesn't want to do unless it's necessary and unavoidable for his health and well-being or for the safety of other members of the household (human or nonhuman).
  • Don't overdo it. Know when to quit. For instance, when training your cat to accept having his teeth brushed, if you insist on keeping your finger or the kitty toothbrush in his mouth once he's become visibly annoyed, not only do you risk being punctured by one of his freshly-brushed canines, but he'll also be less likely to cooperate in the future, so you'll lose ground. The idea is to have your kitty like the thing you want him to do, not resent it. If he is growing bored, tired, or—even worse—agitated by your training efforts, call it a day. If he wanders off, let him have his space. Resume training later, perhaps modifying your style. Ideally, all training sessions should end on a high note, with your kitty getting a reward for his accomplishments.
  • Don't use fear-based or punishment-based training. Intimidating your cat into doing what you want is never a good idea. It can create stress in your cat, and that could lead to unwanted behaviors rather than positive ones. Never use deprivation-based training: don't make your kitty "work" for his food or playtime or anything else he needs, including your love and support.
  • Do start early if possible. It's easier to train a kitten than an adult cat. But adults can still learn. Start training a new cat soon after he gets settled into your home.
  • Do use rewards to incentivize your kitty's behavior. Be consistent with these rewards, at least until the desired behavior becomes a habit for your kitty. Rewards don't always have to be treats—you might end up with a fat cat that way. A reward can be a satisfying scratch on a sturdy and rough scratching post or an exuberant pounce on a toy darting across the floor. It can be a plate full of catnip. Your voice can be a meaningful reward: Praise your kitty when he does what you hope he'll do. Cats like praise, especially when it comes from someone they know and love. If your cat likes to be hugged or held, cuddling can be a reward, too. In general, when training, try to make your cat's goals the same as your goals and do this primarily through rewarding good behavior.
  • Do set up a safe environment. Make sure that all adults and older children in the household know how to interact with the family feline, and set him up for success. For example, if you want your kitty to refrain from jumping on the counter, do not tempt fate by leaving his favorite food up there. If you want your kitty to play nice and not bite the hand that feeds him, use wand toys and throw toys that put some distance between your hands and his teeth rather than using your appendages to wrestle with him. Show your children the proper way to play with your kitty or supervise them as appropriate—that way, everyone has fun, and no one gets hurt. In a sense, training your cat starts with training the household's humans.
  • Do keep training sessions short. In general, sessions of 5-10 minutes work best for training cats. You can repeat these short sessions several times a day when you're working on teaching a specific command.
  • Do take your cat to the vet for regular checkups as well as when he shows signs of illness or drastic or persistent changes in behavior. Many physical and emotional ailments can affect cats' demeanor and behavior. For instance, chronic pain from arthritis may be the cause of your kitty's litter box avoidance.
  • Do consider clicker training. This training method uses a unique sound, a clicker, to let your cat know when he's done something of which you approve. You can click faster than you can provide a reward, so clicking lets your kitty know immediately what you're pleased with, and then you can give the reward. Learn more in the article "Clicker Training for Cats: An Overview."

There are four important words to remember while cat training: Your results may vary. Cats are individuals with distinct styles and complex personalities. What works on most cats may not work on yours. Use common sense, and be attentive and adaptable. If a training method is repeatedly ineffective or is causing you or your cat frustration, it's probably best to discontinue it and try a different approach.

The Basics of Cats' Trainability

Cats have differing interests, just like humans. So you want to leverage those when you are training. Cats like (among other things) food, affection, and recreation. Recreation can include anything from pouncing on a fleeting toy to watching squirrels race up and down trees outside to checking out the cardboard box tantalizingly left in the middle of the living room.

Cats are famous for their curiosity. They have inquiring minds. They like to examine anything new, put their scent on it, maybe even sleep on it (or in it). You can take advantage of this standard (and quite delightful) part of cats' personality when training your little investigator. For example, to help a cat get over his shyness, you might move a catnip mouse across the room in a most intriguing way, to capture your kitty's attention, and then half-hide the toy under a paper towel not too near but not too far from the timid, yet curious kitty.

Cats, especially if they're introduced to humans early in life, also value and look forward to the kind attentions of the people they "adopt." Cats' reputation for being independent is only half right. Although, in the wild, cats tend to work alone, in a domesticated setting they can be quite social creatures. Not only do they form lasting friendships with humans and other cats, but they can also become close to other animals, including dogs, rabbits, and even mice in the right circumstances. So cats may not be pack animals, pre-programmed to please their leader, but they do like learning, playing, eating, and relaxing with their human friends. This relationship can help with training.

In his book Cats Into Everything, author Bob Walker has a photo that shows all of the family cats within a superimposed six-foot radius of him and his wife. Not because of any special occasion, but just to hang out. This will be no surprise to most people who live with a cat and are used to their kitty visiting them in the bathroom or washing himself on the nearest lap. In fact, it is widely thought that cats were complicit in their own domestication. One can easily imagine an outgoing and precocious kitten thousands of years ago wandering over to a group of humans and quickly stealing their hearts with her cunning, poise, and cuteness.

But, despite cats' impressive and endearing ability to develop enduring friendships with individuals of many species, they do have that independent streak. It's part of their nature, part of their mystique. It's good to keep this in mind, so you keep your expectations realistic and avoid operating under false pretenses when training your cat.

Caveat: some elements of your cat's personality are genetically programmed. You're probably not going to change a mild-mannered, quiet cat into Mr. Chatty Socialite. By the same token, as cats get older, they tend to get mellower (just like us). Modify your style to account for your kitty's age and basic personality. Keep in mind that even senior cats enjoy playing and exploring, though perhaps in a more mild style than in their rambunctious kitten days.

When Your Kitty Misbehaves, He's Probably Not Angry, but He May Be Troubled

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that your kitty is angry or spiteful when she engages in what you consider to be inappropriate behavior. He is just being a cat. He may have peed on your pillow during your extended business trip because he feared that you were lost, and he left a scent in a familiar place to help you find your way home. He may avoid the litter box because he's been declawed, and scraping the bottom of the litter box with his knuckles has become painful. He may attack your leg when you walk by because he's under stimulated and needs more playtime.

Errant behaviors virtually always have some rational underlying cause. Determine the cause (or causes), with help from your vet when appropriate. Evaluate and, if need be, upgrade your kitty's home environment. Explore whether there are ways to improve the quality and quantity of time you and the other humans in the house spend with your kitty. In addition, consider a targeted training regimen. It all works together. In general, fix behavioral problems with kindness, sympathy, attention to detail, perseverance, and a positive attitude. Training can also be effective as part of a holistic approach to caring for your cat for preventing predicaments that neither you nor your cat desire.

Note: In some cases, your kitty may initially stray from her normal behavior pattern in response to a medical condition, but in time, the behavior turns into a habit that sticks around long after the original cause for the behavior has gone away. For these situations, training using rewards and employing mild disincentives can help re-program your kitty to return to his routine.

Your Cat Is Spayed or Neutered (or Will Be Soon), Right?

If not, please make the appointment. If money's an issue, call up local shelters or check out SPAY/USA and inquire about reduced-fee programs or vouchers. You may also want to consider pet insurance.

Getting your cat spayed or neutered may prevent or solve many problems (although there are no guarantees). In general, a neutered cat are calmer. Male cats (especially) are less likely to spray when they are neutered. Female cats are unencumbered by heat cycles once they are spayed. Male and female cats are less prone to escaping. The risk of certain cancers is reduced.

Cats are magnificent, but the problem currently is that there are too many cats, not too few. Millions are killed every year in the U.S. alone due to lack of homes. No-kill shelters and rescue groups are perpetually filled and have to turn down cats. Even homeless cats that do eventually get adopted may live for years in an animal shelter first. Shelters do their best to provide a substitute home for cats, but it's not the same. By spaying or neutering your cat, you'll not only do your cat a favor, but you'll be helping out all cats. You can learn more here: "Cat Neutering."

Tolerate and Accommodate Your Cat's Catness, or "Go With the Flow"

Cats come with claws, teeth, fur, and vocal chords. They need to scratch, play, and knead. Most need to jump, gaze out the window, nap in several places, and hang out wherever you are. Sometimes they have to run from one end of the house to the other at top speed for no apparent reason. When training, try to accommodate and respect these needs as much as possible. Expect some wear and tear from clawed feet scurrying over the furniture. Expect to find strands of fur in the oddest places. These are by-products of cats' unique and mysterious charm; part of the total package.

When your kitty is older or if he is in ill health, he may have occasional accidents. Tolerate these with love and understanding; they're probably harder on him than they are on you. If you provoke your kitty, don't be surprised or angry if he exerts some self-defense or discipline with a swipe of the claw or a bite; that's his way of training you, protecting himself, and maintaining some control over his life. In short, accept and accommodate normal cat behavior as much as possible. Within this very broad constraint, however, there are abundant cat training opportunities that will improve your cat's quality of life, increase household peace and happiness, and strengthen the bond between your cat and his human (and often nonhuman) family members. With some know-how, reasonable expectations, and proper adoration—after all, cats were gods in ancient Egypt and aren't about to step down from the throne now—cat training can be rewarding and fun.

A Friendly Word of Caution from Dr. Schelling

Certain cat behaviors may be the result of sickness, injury, or even old age. Work with your veterinarian or a qualified specialist to diagnose and, when possible, treat physical ailments. Know your cat's physical limitations, and when training, stay within those boundaries.

Final Tip

Sometimes reward your cat for no reason at all other than to surprise him and to let him know he's a great cat. Your cat will appreciate these random acts of kindness; they will reinforce your friendly rapport with him and improve his overall confidence, feeling of security, and demeanor—all of which will aid in preventing problems and in corrective training.

You May Also Like These Articles:

Five Reasons Cats Urinate Outside of the Litter Box

Clicker Training for Cats: Come When Called

Clicker Training for Cats: Sit

How to Train Your Cat to Walk on a Leash

How to Train Your Cat to Let You Sleep

Declawing Cats: Just Don't Do It

How to Train Your Cat to Let You Sleep

Top 10 Most Popular Cat Breeds

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