It’s no secret that cats have a pretty polarized public image; never more so when it comes to their general demeanor and how we, as owners and fawning bipeds, react to it. For example, for many people the idea of training a cat to do tricks or behave in a particular way might sound like a logical impossibility – they’re so independent, huffy and inscrutable; where could we possibly start!?
On the flipside, Robert De Niro managed to train a cat to use a toilet, flush its contents and give itself a wipe with the toilet paper. Because movies are real life and I won’t hear otherwise.
If he can do it, surely we can, too. But before we get into how to train cats, one important thing every cat owner should know…
Cat punishment does not end well
The very, very first thing that’s worth noting for anybody wishing to train their cat is that they do not respond well to negative feedback, punishment or coercion.
Cats are generally very anxious creatures and their trust can sometimes be difficult to win over in the first place, let alone re-establish after they’ve been given reason to fear you.
Bear in mind that a lot of the ‘bad’ behavior of your domestic pets is, in fact, nothing untoward to the animal themselves. To your cat, there’s absolutely zero significant difference between sinking its claws into a scratching post, or your grandma’s reupholstered, decades-old armchair, prized heirloom or not.
Additional note: some ‘bad behaviors’ may, themselves, be a sign of anxiety or stress with your cat. Acting out, behaving irrationally, showing signs of fear – to then punish them will likely make the symptoms even worse. It’s all part of a cycle.
Avoid intentional upset!
Some harsher cat owners or training guides may tell you that loud antagonistic noises can be a useful tool for training felines to stop doing certain things. Yes, this can work, but it’s also very likely to deeply upset and frighten your cat as they are especially sensitive to foreign sounds or presences within their habitats.
Alarming your poor cat with screams or continuous noise harassment is likely to do much more damage to their emotional state, and their trust in you as a result, than it is to do anything good or beneficial when it comes to training specific behaviors.
So how do you train a cat?
The general consensus amongst cat ‘experts’ and owners is that positive reinforcement and a welcome, warm, trusting environment is the absolute bedrock of successful cat training. Predominantly, this takes the form of…
There’s no getting around the fact that most cats simply won’t be interested in whatever you have in mind for them. The popular image of cats being independent and fussy is fundamentally a truism (although there are, of course, those cats which are clingier than others).
That said; it’s going to take something special to get them on-board when you want to introduce that new litter tray, or stop dragging half dead wildlife on to your pristine carpets. Little chicken scraps, tuna, special little treats from your pet store, perhaps even catnip toys – all of these are fantastic methods of rewarding ‘good’ behavior.
Once this treat/reward system has been established, it’s important that you keep it going, consistently. Remember that the focus, for you, is on the activity rather than the treat – your cat won’t take the message in if you only do it once every so often.
They’ll just think they’re getting a random treat from their loving owner. How nice. If only they knew the evil truth: that we’re training them to become cat housemaids.
Balance (don’t overwhelm)
The difficult part is striking a balance between the aforementioned repetition and overwhelming your poor little kitty. Don’t fall into the trap of treating your pet like an employee – you’ll run into all kinds of problems with the union bureaucats. [Thank you, thank you. No applause, please].
It’s best to stick to training your cat to do one thing at a time, rather than tackling a wide range of tricks or behaviors all at once. This will only serve to tire out and confuse your cat, as well as ultimately undo any progress you’ve made. Try to shoot for 10-15 minute windows of ‘training’ at a time – perhaps per day – and then give them the rest of the day off!
Many pet training guides will advocate the use of clickers as a way of rewarding and promoting particular behaviors for your pet. This is just as viable a tactic as the treat method, but can be a little trickier to establish.
First off; the clicker means nothing to your cat. It’s just a noise. Whereas a delicious treat is already a desirable goal for them to work toward.
Our suggestion is to work with both methods; slowly moving away from the treats towards the clicker by itself – after all, you don’t want to spoil your furry friend with too many snacks.
That said, the best way to do this is to give your cat some treats for no particular reason, just a small gift, whilst using the clicker at the same time. Before long, your cat will come to associate the noise of the clicker with the promise of a delicious snack… From that point onwards, you can slowly take the treat out of the equation altogether, so that the clicker itself becomes that exciting reward.
Then – it’s just a matter of the same routine as before. Begin promoting your preferred behavior with rewarding clicks to signify that you’re happy with your kitty. Again, though, moderation is key. You don’t want it to sound like you’re trying to audition Mr Whiskers for your local West Side Story production.
How to eradicate bad behaviors?
So, we’ve established that harsh or physical punishment is out of the question if you want to retain your cat’s trust whilst training him or her to avoid certain actions. What does that leave us with? Do we just put up with the mess of a cat prone to tantrums? Cower in our bedrooms whilst the cats run amok, knocking all of our things off of other things?
Not necessarily. There are ways to discourage certain behavioral patterns without hurting your pet, or causing anxiety/fear. The easiest method is, essentially, the opposite of the positive association tricks discussed above, such as…
There are certain things that your cat just cannot stand – usually specific tastes, textures or smells. This technique is handiest when you want to keep your cat away from particular areas of the home, or perhaps off of your furniture.
For example, if we take the smell route: you might try spreading citrus scents, perfumes, citronella, vinegar or aloe in these particular locations to ward your cat off. It’s non-invasive enough that it won’t upset him or her, but strong enough that it should send a strong message.
Or, if you were to go the texture route, then you might lay down some aluminum foil, sticky flooring (sticky/double-sided tape flooring or objects can actually be picked up in some pet stores for this very reason), plastic or thick microfiber carpets and upholstery – all of which are a nightmare for feline navigation.
Much the same as scents will, icky tasting foods can also put your cat off visiting certain places around the home. There are some general foodstuffs like bitter apples, citrus fruits or aloe (mentioned above) that will work fairly well, but you have to be careful with this tactic.
Some guides may advocate the use of ingredients like pepper, chili, hot/spicy sauces – but these can be harmful should they get on to your cat’s paws and find their way into the eyes or respiratory system. Remember, this isn’t punishment, it’s a deterrent. The last thing you want to do is hurt your poor kitty!
For a more in-depth discussion of these techniques and more suggestions for deterrents themselves, make sure to read our How to Keep Cats off Counters and Furniture article!
Most of the furry little suckers just want our attention! One of the best ways of signifying that a particular behavior, or attitude isn’t welcome is just to ignore your cat whilst it does it. Acting out? Hissing? Throwing a little tantrum? Walk away. Eventually the message will sink in.
Again, for a more detailed look at cat discipline, you might want to read our How to Discipline a Cat article!
However, hopefully this general overlook of cat behavior and your relationship with it will prove to be helpful in the ongoing war between man and his cat. Remember that your lovable feline is really just like a child on four legs and with substantially thicker hair.
It’s not fair to punish them for things they know nothing about – simply promote the good behaviors or tricks with a warm, welcome, rewarding demeanor and you’ll see some huge results!