How to Train a Cat

PetMD Editorial
By PetMD Editorial on Feb. 16, 2016
How to Train a Cat

By Stacia Friedman

If you think the only trick you can teach your cat is to come running when you open up a can of food for them, you are (fortunately!) mistaken. Behind that inscrutable gaze is a loving creature that wants to please you.

“It isn’t clear to a cat what we want,” said Dr. Carlo Siracusa, Clinical Assistant Professor of Animal Behavior at University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “When we don’t pay attention to their signals, they get frustrated and might exhibit aggressive behaviors such as scratching or biting … positive training will help you communicate your preferences in a calm, fun manner.”

Training your cat will sharpen her mind, provide her with exercise and can help prevent unwanted behaviors, like obsessive grooming or scratching up your furniture, while creating a safer, happier environment for both of you.

Ways to Train a Cat

One effective way to train a cat is to use a clicker, as recommended by veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ilana Reisner. “Clicker training provides a way to shape behaviors using small, do-able bits and keeps the animal successful,” Reisner said.

You can purchase a cat clicker from a pet store or make a clicking or “kissing” sound with your tongue in lieu of an actual device. The key is to make the sound immediately after your cat performs the desired behavior and to give your kitty a small food treat to reinforce that good behavior. Repeat this routine every time your cat exhibits the desired behavior.

Samantha Martin, director of the Amazing Acro-Cats (one of four cat circuses touring the US) uses clicker training on her feline performers, most of which came from shelters. “We use our show to demonstrate what cats are capable of, as well as the healthy benefits of clicker training,” said Martin.

Another way to train a cat is called targeting, which involved having a cat touch its nose to an object or “target” as it learns the behaviors you’d like it to exhibit. Suitable targets for training a cat can include a pencil or wooden spoon. To try targeting training, start in a quiet room without distractions and hold the target an inch away from your cat’s nose. Your cat will want to sniff it, so the instant her nose touches the target, give her a treat. Repeat this process several times.

Some cats will quickly get the idea that touching the target earns them a treat, while others may need several days of practice sessions a few times a day. Don’t give up and keep the training sessions short, with maybe five to ten tries at a time. If your kitty isn’t interested in touching the target, try dipping the tip of the target in tuna juice first. Use the target to teach your cat tricks like turning in circles, rolling over, or standing on its hind legs.

Whichever method you try, it’s important to remember positive reinforcement, or rewarding your cat with a small treat when she does something you like. The goal is to get your cat to associate the good behavior with a reward and the treats you use should be something your cat really loves but doesn’t get often. Try small pieces of deli meat, boiled chicken or tuna. Some trainers use bonito flakes, which you can find in pet stores. Talk to your veterinarian about the healthiest and most suitable training treats for your cat.

Training isn’t always about tricks, and can be used to keep your cat safe. When a rowdy child or another pet is nearby and could potentially cause your cat stress, its helpful to teach your cat to go to its bed on command.

To start, put the cat’s bed or mat on the floor in front of you. If you’re using a clicker, click and reward any interaction your cat has with the bed. Your cat might just sniff the bed, place one paw on it or lie down. Click and reward each action, but only a few times so she will eventually learn that the way to get more rewards is to lie down in her bed. This can take several sessions. Once your cat has learned the behavior, you can add a cue word or phrase such as “bed” or “go to bed.”

Cat Training Tips

The best time to train your cat is right before meal time, when your cat is most motivated by food. Only train for short periods at a time (15 minutes max) or your cat may lose interest. As soon as she stops responding, stop training. It’s best to do several short training sessions several times day.

Don’t force your cat into training sessions by picking her up and taking her to her bed (or wherever you’d like to train her), as she won’t understand what’s being asked of her. Additionally, only use training treats for training. If you give your cat a treat every time she paws you, you won’t be training your cat, she will be training you!

It’s also important to remember that cats learn differently than dogs and have shorter attention spans, however, young cats tend to learn faster because of their age and pliable minds, Siracusa said.

You won’t know what your cat is capable of learning until you try. And who knows? She just might teach you a new trick or two.

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