Cat Training Basics

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They say cats cannot be trained. Maybe they can't be trained in the sense of a soldier, but they can be persuaded to develop good habits if you work with them, and understand where they're coming from.

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


Why Train Your Cat?

"Wouldn't it be neat if...?" is not a good reason to train your cat.

Do's and Don'ts (Not in That Order)

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-cat 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 non-human).

"But what if he scratches the couch?"

This topic will be discussed in more detail in a future article, but since it comes up so frequently, it's worth a sneak preview here:

Cats need to scratch. Present kitty with ample scratching alternatives that are more desirable than the couch from both his and your perspectives, and make the couch an unattractive scratching target. Tall scratching posts covered in sisal fabric are ideal. Cardboard scratching pads are a great bargain. Do not declaw.

Don't overdo it. Know when to quit. For instance, when trying to get 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, he'll also be disinclined to cooperate in the future; you'll lose ground. The idea is to have kitty like the thing you want him to do, not resent it. If kitty is growing bored or 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, any training session ends on a high note, with kitty getting a reward for his accomplishments.

Don't use fear-based or punishment-based training. Never use deprivation-based training: don't make 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 in, to establish routines that are agreeable to all.

Do use rewards to incentivize kitty's behavior. Be consistent with rewards, at least until the desired behavior becomes a habit for kitty. Rewards don't always have to be treats—you might get 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 kitty when he does what you hope he'll do. Cats like praise, especially when it comes from someone they know and care about. If your cat likes to be hugged, or held, those can be rewards, 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, supervise younger children when they're around kitty, and in general take precautions so that the burden of a smooth-running and peaceful multi-species household is not disproportionately on kitty's shoulders. For example, if you want kitty to refrain from jumping on the counter, do not tempt fate by leaving his favorite food up there. If you want 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; show your children the proper way to play with 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 humans.

Four important words in 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; be attentive and adaptable. If a training method is repeatedly ineffective or is causing frustration, it's probably best to discontinue it, and try a different approach.

Do take your cat to the vet for regular checkups, as well as when he shows symptoms of disease 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 kitty's litter box avoidance (in which case the remedy may be more and lower-sided litter boxes as well as prescribed pain medication). If your cat was mistreated earlier in life, the emotional scars can last years and result in aggression, severe shyness, or other behavioral problems. But those may be overcome with tenacious tender loving care, as well as some judicious and cat-friendly training.

The Ubiquitous Squirt Bottle Recommendation

Many books on cat care suggest using a squirt bottle of water as one type of negative reinforcement when training your cat. For some reason this recommendation seems to stick in people's heads and often it is the one behavior modification technique of which they're aware. Don't put too much faith in this technique—all by itself—altering your cat's behavior. In theory, you have a squirt bottle filled with water near by, and whenever kitty does something bad you give him a quick squirt. Since he doesn't like being sprayed with water, he associates the unpleasant feeling with the forbidden action, so he stops doing it. You have to be stealthy when you squirt, so kitty doesn't see that you're the squirter and thus begin to resent you. Sometimes this technique works when combined with redirecting kitty to feline- and human-acceptable alternatives. But it also has some shortcomings:

  • Some cats don't mind being squirted.
  • Some cats are too traumatized by being squirted. For these cats, the punishment doesn't fit the crime.
  • You have to make sure kitty doesn't see you; you want him to be annoyed at the water, not angry with you.
  • You have to aim for kitty's rear. Cats shouldn't get water in their ears or nose.
  • You have to squirt kitty in flagrante delecto. Two seconds after he's done with the offending act is too late; he won't associate the water with the behavior.
Unless you have the squirt bottle in a holster-like device that you wear at all times, and are a quick draw, you're not always going to be able to drop what you're doing, reach out and grab a squirt bottle, be sufficiently hidden from kitty, aim for his rear and squirt right on target. By the time you do all that, he could be in the next room.

Easier disincentives include clapping your hands or saying "no!" in your "bad kitty" voice (moderately loud, moderately perturbed, not a full-out yell—as cat care expert Pam Johnson-Bennett counsels, "startle, don't frighten").

Remember: favor rewards over negative reinforcement, but when you use disincentives, follow them up by showing kitty the mutually satisfactory alternative. You have to give kitty an "out;" otherwise you'll just frustrate him and not allow him to meet his needs.

The Bases of Cats' Trainability

Cats have self-interests, like we all do. So you want to leverage those. Cats like (among other things) food, affection, and—to one degree or another—recreation. Recreation can include everything from pouncing on the 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 inquring 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' repertoire 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 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 the social creatures. Not only do they form lasting friendships with humans and other cats, 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 in training. (Many would say that the training works both ways.)

In his book Cats Into Everything, author Bob Walker has a photo that shows all 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 cats and are used to kitty visiting them in the bathroom or washing herself 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 preocious 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, to keep your expectations realistic and to 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 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 Kitty Misbehaves, She's Probably Not Angry, But She May Be Troubled

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that kitty is "angry" or "spiteful" when she acts in ways of which you disapprove. She may have peed on your pillow during your extended business trip because she feared you were lost and she left a scent in a familiar place to help you find your way home. She may avoid the litter box because she's been declawed, and scraping the bottom of the litter box with her knuckles has become painful. She may attack your leg when you walk by because she's understimulated 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 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 kitty. In addition, consider a targeted training regimen. It all works together. In general, fix behavioral problems with kindness, sympathy, attention to detail, perserverance, and a positive attitude, which can all be applied beautifully when training your cat. Training, as part of a holistic approach to caring for your cat, can also be effective in preventing predicaments that neither you nor your cat desire.

Note: In some cases, 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 mild disincentives, can help re-program kitty to return to her regular 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; medical costs for cats tend to go up as they get older.)

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

Cats are magnificent, but the problem currently is 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 who do eventually get adopted may live for years in an animal shelter. 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, you'll be helping out all cats.

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 byproducts of cats' unique and mysterious charm; part of the total package. When 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 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 non-human) 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 a result of sickness or injury, even old age. Work with your vet or a qualified specialist to diagnose and—where possible—treat physical ailments. Know your cat's physical limitations, and when training, stay within those boundaries.

Bonus Paragraph

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 help in preventing problems and in corrective training.