How to Train a Cat or Kitten

Cat on a Mat
Cat on a Mat

Cats are not as amenable to training as dogs, but they can be trained to do things using classical conditioning strategies – in other words, providing rewards for the desired behaviour. Repeatedly offering rewards such as treats or food when the cat does what he’s supposed to will associate a specific behaviour with the positive stimulus.

Can you train a cat to come when called?

Most cats learn that when they hear the phonetic sounds that make up their names, good things often follow, such as food or affection. As a result, they learn to come when called. If regular rewards are provided early on, the behaviour eventually becomes automatic even without rewards.

Cats can also be taught to respond to a signal, such as a jingling bell. If this sound is paired with feeding, most cats will eventually learn to come in response to the signal.

How do you train a cat to use a scratch post?

Many cat owners are disappointed to find that their cats ignore the scratch posts they’ve purchased or built. To make a scratch post more appealing:

    • Place it near the cat’s sleep spot
    • Rub a little catnip into it
    • Play with the cat near the post
    • Place the cat’s favourite toys on the post
    • Provide treats, praise, and affection when the cat is on or near the post

Most experts recommend against an owner holding a cat’s paws and simulating a scratching motion because this is ineffective with many cats, and may even cause an aversion in some.

Can you teach a cat to do tricks?

Some cats can be trained to do tricks, but this usually requires a fair bit of work and patience. Many cats can be trained to hunt for treats or toys, and some (particularly the more doglike breeds such as the Manx) can be taught to fetch and retrieve toys. Many owners have also trained their cats to jump at targets, run obstacle courses, and do a number of other tricks. Most cats that learn to do tricks have been clicker trained.

With clicker training, a clicker is paired with a positive stimulus such as food or affection:

    • For the first few days, the click sound should be made right before feeding or providing treats so that the cat develops positive associations with the noise and gets used to coming when she hears it.
    • Once this connection has been established, the trainer can begin rewarding desired behaviour with a click followed by a treat.
    • Eventually, the click alone can be used as a reward for performing the behaviour.

To increase the likelihood of successful clicker training:

    • When starting out, make the click noise when requesting an action and again after the cat performs it; follow the second click immediately with a treat as well as praise and affection.
    • Don’t make the click sound more than once or twice for a given action—over-cuing may cause the cat to stop responding to the sound.
    • Always use the same cuing device, the same wording, and the same tone of voice when training to avoid confusing your cat.

Can you train a cat not to hunt?

Unfortunately, cats can’t be taught not to hunt. Hunting is a natural behaviour, and attempting to train a cat not to hunt is an exercise in futility. However, hunting urges can be channeled into hunting simulation play. Owners can encourage their cats to “hunt” indoors by hiding treats or bits of food around the house and playing hunting games such as having the cat chase a toy attached to a fish-rod-style wand.

Can you train a cat to walk on a leash?

Many cats can learn to walk in a harness with a leash, and this enables owners to take their cats for walks so that they can enjoy outdoor time without risking the dangers of cars, pet thieves, and predatory animals. However, if this training isn’t conducted properly, the cat may just dig in his heels and refuse to budge. See Leash Training Cats for Tips.

How do you litter train a kitten?

Choose an unscented fine-grained kitty litter (many cats avoid the litter box because the litter is too coarse or smells of chemicals), and don’t use clumping litters with young kittens, as they can be harmful when ingested (kittens sometimes eat kitty litter). Some people use newspaper in place of kitty litter with a new kitten, but this is a bad idea because it is not very absorbent and ink may be transferred to the kitten’s paws and then ingested during grooming. Also, if a kitten learns to use newspaper on the floor, he may start using any paper that is lying around on a sofa or table later on, so this is not a good habit to encourage.

Location of the litter box is also important. A cat needs to feel secure when using the box or he will find a more secluded place. The box should be in a low-traffic area of the house where disturbances are unlikely, and nowhere near the kitten’s water and food bowls or his bed. Boxes in noisy areas or near food and water sources will generally be avoided. Also, if you have more than one cat, each cat should have his own litter box, as the new cat may view the old box as the territory of the resident cat and not want to go near it.

Take your new kitten to the litter box before doing anything else; if he’s watched his mother using a litter box, he should know what to do. Bring him back to the box at regular intervals, particularly after eating or sleeping, or when he is showing signs of needing to go, until he uses the litter box successfully.

If you see the kitten scratching the floor or going off to a quiet corner, this may indicate that he needs the litter box. Carry him to the box if he engages in any of these behaviours, and praise him whenever he is in the box.

If the kitten urinates or defecates elsewhere in the house, use paper towels to transfer the mess to the litter box as the smell will encourage the kitten to use the box in the future. If you catch the kitten in the middle of an accident or directly after, carry him to the litter box.

Be sure to thoroughly clean up any accidents. Use a product such as Nature’s Miracle that removes all traces of urine so that the kitten won’t come to associate other areas of the house with toileting. Don’t punish the kitten or rub his nose in the mess, as this will cause anxiety, which will lead to further accidents in other places around the house.

Avoid negative training strategies

Punishment is ineffective with cats. Rather than correcting behaviour, it tends to increase behavioural problems by causing anxiety. A cat will usually have no idea why her owner becomes upset when she engages in what she believes are perfectly natural behaviours, such as scratching. Punishment will just make her think that her owner is capricious and untrustworthy.

A cat may learn that her owner dislikes a certain behaviour, but if she really enjoys it or thinks it’s necessary, she’ll carry on with it unless her owner uses more effective behaviour modification strategies. In some cases, punishment may cause her to deliberately engage in the behaviour more often because she appreciates the attention.

Also, while holding training sessions just before a cat’s regular feeding time helps focus her attention, starving a cat in the hope that it will accelerate the learning process by making her more eager to please will likely have the opposite effect. In addition to having adverse health and behavioural consequences, denying food will cause the cat will become less trusting and cooperative.

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.

References:

    • Becker, M., DVM, & Willard, J., DVM. (2009). “Why Do Cats Scratch?” CatChannel.com.
    • Christensen, W., and the Staff of The Humane Society of the United States. (2002). The Humane Society of the United States Complete Guide to Cat Care. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
    • Estep, D.Q., PhD, & Hetts, S, PhD. (2009). “Why Cats Scratch Things.” Animal Behaviour Society, AnimalBehaviour.org.
    • Sands, David, Dr. (2005). Cats: 500 Questions Answered. London: Octopus Publishing Group.

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