Train a cat you say? Whoever heard of such a thing? Believe it or not, cats can learn to do almost anything, and it’s not as hard as you might think.
“There’s a common misconception that cats can’t be trained,” says Hannah Shaw, aka the Kitten Lady, a kitten rescuer, humane educator and author of the book Tiny But Mighty. “I think it has a lot to do with both how little the general public understands cat behavior and how much we tend to compare cats to dogs.”
Hannah explains that in movies and other media, we often see dogs portrayed as intelligent helper animals, but cats are stereotypically shown as independent and aloof. “The truth is, cats are complex and intelligent animals, who are very much capable of learning new skills,” she says.
Training cats might sound hard, but cats are quick learners. “Learning theory applies to all animals,” says Terri A. Derr, DVM, founder of Veterinary Behavior Options, which services Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro area. “A behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.”
Dr. Derr used to teach shelter cats a simple trick that helped catch the eye of potential adopters. “We started walking past the cage and dropping a small treat inside,” she says. “Once the cats expected the treat, we stopped by the cage but did nothing. Most cats would reach out with a paw looking for the treat, and they got it. Now we had cats reaching out to people passing by. Those cats got adopted faster, which was our goal all the time.”
It’s easy to teach your cat some basic behaviors that will make both your lives easier. Here’s how to train three basic skills:
SKILL #1: Go to your mat
Teaching your cat to go to a specific place and stay there on command is a great skill. You can move your cat away from another cat or dog, use the mat as a station for brushing or giving medication, and you can even send your cat to his mat if you want him to stay away from a visiting guest.
First, select a mat (this could be a small blanket, an old placemat or a pet traction training mat/platform) and put it somewhere up and out of the way like on top of a table or cat tree. Next, show your cat a yummy treat and place it onto the mat. When your cat hops on the mat to get the treat, reward again. Once your cat is going to his mat reliably, add a verbal cue like “Go to your spot.” Then you can work on getting him to stay there.
“Say ‘go to your spot,’ reinforce him when he gets there, then start counting,” says Lisa Radosta, DVM, and a board-certified veterinary behaviorist with Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach. “Every two seconds, give another tiny treat. Slowly increase the amount of time in between food rewards so your kitty is staying longer and longer. Choose a word like ‘Stay,’ and start saying it at the beginning of the sequence.”
Finally, add a release phrase like “OK” or “All done” that lets your cat know he’s free to leave the mat. After you say that word, don’t give any more treats.
SKILL #2: Respond to Name
This is a handy skill that lets you find your cat in the house easily.
“Most pet parents have already trained their cats,” Dr. Radosta says. “Open the treat bag, kitty comes running. Get out the can opener, kitty comes running. You can really make your life easier by preceding that cue with ‘Kitty, come!’ and then get out the can opener. Those things will be linked together, then you can eventually drop the can opener.”
Dr. Derr offers an alternative method of teaching this skill: “Say your cat’s name then give him a treat. Step two feet away, say his name, give him a treat. Step four feet away, say his name and when he comes to you, give him the treat. Repeat, gradually moving farther away so he has to come farther to get the treat.”
If you say your cat’s name and he doesn’t come to you, it means you moved too far away too quickly. Come closer to your cat and keep saying his name and giving treats. Eventually, he will learn to associate his name with getting a tasty treat, so he should come running when you call.
SKILL #3: Get into the carrier
Many cats fear getting into the carrier. Dr. Radosta reminds us that it only takes one negative experience at the vet to instill a lifelong fear of both the carrier and the veterinary hospital.
“Your biggest defense is to make sure you go to a vet who is cat-friendly, either a cat-friendly practice or a Fear-Free certified vet,” she says. “If your cat is stressed, ask for a medication or supplement that will help your cat be comfortable and happy.”
You can help things go more smoothly by teaching your cat to associate the carrier with positive feelings.
“Make the carrier a more neutral or even enjoyable space by giving the cat access to it even when you are not taking her anywhere,” says Hannah, whose educational web series Catology can be viewed on RoyalCanin.com/cathealth. “By leaving it open with a soft blanket inside, your cat may start to see it as a safe resting space rather than as a scary carrier.”
Dr. Radosta also suggests feeding your cat in the carrier and using Feliway and catnip in the carrier to help your cat create even more positive associations.
PRO TIP: Wear a harness
Teaching your cat to wear a harness can be a way to let her explore outside and get some exercise safely. Dr. Radosta reminds us that cats are experts at squirming out of a harness, so proper fit is vital. Don’t forget, even though a harnessed cat cannot run away, there is nothing to stop an off-leash dog from running up to your kitty. To keep things safe, keep harness adventures in a controlled environment.
Dr. Derr offers these step-by-step tips to training your cat to wear a harness. Remember, cats differ in how quickly they adjust to something new. Don’t rush it.
- Put the harness on the cat while she is eating a treat, if possible. Take it off again.
- Once she’s used to the harness going on and off while she’s eating a treat, leave it on for a while. Give a few treats randomly.
- Next, attach a leash but let it drag on the ground. Give her some treats.
- When she is comfortable with that, pick up the leash and follow her around while giving treats. Leave some slack in the leash.
- Head outside to your backyard, giving treats, but don’t try to lead her. Let her go where she wants to go. If she wants to stand still, let her.
Do this as many times as it takes until she is comfortable with the harness and leash. Not all cats will accept a harness. If the harness overly stresses out your cat, a harness may not be for her.
PRO TIP: Never stop training
Training a cat isn’t hard, but if you want your cat to remain trained, practice the skills frequently.
“Behaviors that are not reinforced will be extinguished,” Dr. Radosta says. “If you stop reinforcing behaviors in any creature, but especially a cat, she will stop offering those behaviors. You won’t have to completely retrain the kitty, but you will have to refresh her memory.”
Featured photograph: Ridofranz | Getty Images
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