Train a cat, you say? Who has heard of such a thing? Believe it or not, cats can learn to do almost anything, and it’s not as difficult as you might think.
“There is a common misconception that cats cannot be trained,” says Hannah Shaw, aka Kitten Lady, a kitten rescuer, humane educator, and author of the book Tiny But Mighty. “I think it has a lot to do with how little the general public understands cat behavior and how much we tend to compare cats to dogs.”
Hannah explains that while dogs are often portrayed as intelligent helpers in movies and other media, cats are stereotypically portrayed as independent and detached. “The truth is that cats are complex and intelligent animals that are very capable of learning new skills,” she says.
Training cats may sound difficult, but cats are quick to learn. “The learning theory applies to all animals,” said Terri A. Derr, DVM, founder of Veterinary Behavior Options, which serves the Greater Twin Cities, Minnesota. “Behavior that is rewarded is repeated.”
Dr. Derr taught shelter cats a simple trick that would draw the attention of potential adopters. “We walked past the cage and let in a little treat,” she says. “When the cats were waiting for the treat, we stopped at the cage but did nothing. Most cats grabbed the treat with one paw and got it. Now we had cats addressing passers-by. These cats were adopted faster, which was our goal. “
It is easy to teach your cat some basic behaviors that will make your life easier. How to train three basic skills:
SKILL 1: Get on your mat
It is a great skill to teach your cat to go to a specific place and stay there on command. You can move your cat away from another cat or dog, use the mat as a station for brushing or medication, and even send your cat to the mat if you want them to stay away from a guest.
First, select a mat (this could be a small blanket, an old placemat, or a traction pet exercise mat / platform) and place it up and down somewhere like a table or scratching post. Next, show your cat a tasty treat and place it on the mat. If your cat hops on the mat to get the reward, reward them again. If your cat walks reliably on the mat, add a verbal cue like “go to your seat”. Then you can work to keep it there.
“Say,” Go to your seat, “reinforce it when it gets there, and then start the count,” said Lisa Radosta, DVM, and a board-certified veterinary behaviorist with Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach . “Give another little treat every two seconds. Slowly increase the time between rewards so your kitten stays longer and longer. Pick a word like “stay” and say it at the beginning of the sequence. “
Finally, add a release phrase like “OK” or “All done” to let your cat know it can get off the mat. After saying this word, stop giving goodies.
SKILL 2: Answer the name
This is a handy skill that makes it easy to find your cat around the house.
“Most pet parents have already trained their cats,” says Dr. Radosta. “Open the treat bag, Kitty comes running. Get the can opener out, Kitty comes running. You can really make your life easier by using this keyword “Kitty, come on!” and then pull out the can opener. These things get connected, then at some point you can drop the can opener. “
Dr. Derr offers an alternative method of teaching this skill: “Say your cat’s name and give it a treat. Step two feet away, say his name, give him a reward. Step three feet away, say his name and give him the treat when he comes to you. Repeat this, gradually moving further away so that he has to move further to receive the reward. “
If you say your cat’s name and it doesn’t come to you, it means you are too far away too quickly. Get closer to your cat and keep saying her name and giving treats. At some point he will learn to associate his name with a tasty treat, so if you call he should run.
SKILL 3: Get on the carrier
Many cats are afraid of getting into the carrier. Dr. Radosta reminds us that it only takes one negative vet experience to instill a lifelong fear of both the wearer and the veterinary clinic.
“Your biggest defense is making sure you see a pet-friendly veterinarian, either a cat-friendly practice or a fear-free certified veterinarian,” she says. “If your cat is stressed out, ask about a medication or supplement that will help your cat feel comfortable and happy.”
You can help things go more smoothly by teaching your cat to associate the wearer with positive feelings.
“Make the wearer a more neutral or even more comfortable space by giving the cat access to it even if you have nowhere to go,” says Hannah, whose Catology educational web series can be found at RoyalCanin.com/cathealth. “If you leave it open with a soft blanket, your cat may see it as a safe resting place rather than a creepy carrier.”
Dr. Radosta also suggests feeding your cat in the carrier and using Feliway and catnip in the carrier to help your cat make even more positive associations.
PRO TIP: Wear a strap
Teaching your cat to wear a harness will help you explore outside and exercise safely. Dr. Radosta reminds us that cats are experts at writhing out of a harness. Hence, the right fit is vital. Remember, even if a belted cat cannot run away, there is nothing that will stop an unleashed dog from running to your kitten. To ensure safety, you should experience adventure in a controlled environment.
Dr. Derr offers these step-by-step tips to train your cat to wear a harness. Remember, cats differ in how quickly they adapt to something new. Do not hurry.
- Put the harness on the cat when she eats a treat, if possible. Take it off again.
- Once she’s got used to the dishes going on and off while she’s eating a treat, leave them on for a while. Give a few treats at random.
- Next, attach a leash but let it pull on the ground. Give her some goodies.
- When she is comfortable with this, take the leash off and follow her as you give treats. Leave something on a leash.
- Go outside in your yard and give goodies, but don’t try to lead them. Let her go where she wants. If she wants to stand still, let her.
Do this as often as necessary until she is comfortable with the harness and leash. Not all cats accept harness. If the harness is putting too much strain on your cat, a harness may not be suitable for her.
PRO TIP: Never stop exercising
Training a cat isn’t difficult, but if you want your cat to stay trained, practice the skills often.
“Behaviors that are not reinforced are erased,” says Dr. Radosta. “If you stop reinforcing behaviors in a creature, especially a cat, it will no longer offer those behaviors. You don’t have to completely retrain the kitten, but you do need to refresh her memory. “
Selected photo: Ridofranz | Getty Images
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