Tails : Yes, You Can Train Your Cat
Cats can be trained. The belief that cats can not be trained is - because they cats are too independent, too insolent, too arrogant, too self-centered, too aloof, etc. - is still too common. If you are going to have a feline companion, it is important that you dispel that belief and purposively go about creating a relationship with your cat that will make both of your lives healthier and happier.
It must be noted that living with and training a cat will likely also lead to changes in your behavior. In fact, it is probably a given that it will also change you. And in many problematic situations, it is the human who needs to change as often as the cat.ï»¿ï»¿
My approach to training cats has three key components:
Reward cats for desirable behavior,
Entertain cats with accepatable activities that address their basic needs.
Divert their focus (i.e., attention and behavior) away from undesirable behavior.
Key to the success of a training program is understanding a cat's basic needs and how those needs motivate behavior. Also important is recognizing that your emotional response to the cat's behavior - especially as your relationship with them grows and strengthens - plays an important role as both a reward or punishment, or as a means of amplifying or lessening the value of other rewards.
With respect to training, a comparison is often made to dogs. That is an unfortunate, albeit understandable, comparison. Cats and dogs are distinctly different species, with very different innate characteristics and different histories with humans. Given that, it is probably more difficult to train cats. There are many reasons for the relative greater ease in training dogs.ï»¿ By nature, dogs are pack animals and live in a distinct hierarchy. A dog often sees their human guardian as the pack leader and is inclined to follow the human's lead. Dogs also have a much longer history of living with and working for humans. Consequently, they are more attuned to our communications and have been bred for specific behaviors that integrate into our lives. Lastly, dogs just seem to enjoy doing things to please us.
I believe much of the same is also true of cats. However, with a shorter history of living with humans, cats are not as far along in their integration with us. The general consensus is that cats began living with humans because felines preyed on pests (e.g., rodents, etc.) that fed on human's precious grains. If true, it should not be surprising that hunting is a core component of a cat's behavior. Natural and human selection gave preference to cats that were better hunters. It's therefore somehwat ironic that those same hunting activities are now often considered to be problematic cat behaviors.
Cats also differ from dogs in some inherent traits. Cats are more solitary, but I do not believe that they have no social inclination or structure. Hierarchies and specific roles are clearly distinguishable in households with multiple cats, in observing the interactions of cats that live in the same neighborhood, and in prides of large cats. However, a feline hierarchy is not always so definitive and rigid as a canine one - for cats, the hierarchy seems more situational and fluid.ï»¿
I think it is fair to say that cats are more likely to engage in behavior that satisfies personal motivations than doing things just to please us. But that is not absolute, and does not mean cats are completely self-centered. I know from personal experience that cats also like to do things to please us. The most obvious example is when a cat brings you prey they have captured, especially before they consume any of it for themselves. And the stronger your relationship, the more the cat will want to please you - and the more your praise and displeasure can be used as a training tool.
The basic principles of training a cat are the same as with training programs in general. Any differences are more in the implementation details. There are many good resources on training cats. The ASPCA has general information on training cats and on specific topics, like coming to a call, and there are a lot of great resources on the web. ï»¿Some of the basic principles of training are:
Believe cats can be trained.
Understand and accept intrinsic feline needs, and how they are manifested in your cat.
Learn the basics of behavior modification.
ï»¿Identify what your specific cat considers a rewardï»¿.
Set obtainable goals and, recognizing the limits of training.
Develop a plan for achieving the goal(s).
Stick to the plan, although be willing to adjust or refine it as needed.
Below are some of my comments on training cats, based on a lifetime of experience living with, caring for, and observing felines. As with much of this site, my intention is not to be the definitive source on the topic. My purpose is to highlight things I believe are important, comment on things I do not commonly see in other literature, and provide personal observations to illustrate and illuminate.
Beliefs about whether cats can be trained and how to train them are critical to a training program and often need to be modified.ï»¿ A major source of doubt on the trainability of cats comes from myths and stereotypes that are part of our culture and passed on from person to person, and generation to generation. The insidious consequence of such beliefs is a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing cycle. In other words, we are told cats are not trainable, so we do not try to train them, they behave in accordance with natural tendencies, and we use that behavior as evidence that cats can not be trained.
Anyone who has watched a mother cat interact with a kitten - some of the best entertainment ever - is well aware that cats can be trained. Moms teach ï»¿kittens, through direct instruction and behavior modeling, a wide range of behavior - both good and bad.
Examples of how humans train cats is also abundant, such as: use of a litter box; regular feeding times; behaviors tied to the schedule of caretakers (e.g., looking out the window around the time we return from work, following us to bed, joining us to watch electronic screens, etc.). One of my cats even knows the broadcast day and time of her favorite television show My Cat From Hell.ï»¿ï»¿
Feline Needs and Motivations
Basic needs drive most behavior and understanding those needs helps you effectively train your cat. But, needs and behavior - how needs are manifested - are not the same.ï»¿ You must accept accept a simple fact: You can change behavior, but you can not change basic needs. If you try to change basic needs, both you and your cat will end up frustrated. Instead, you have to direct and channel those drives into acceptable behaviors.
Cats have all the same basic needs as any other animal, although there is individual variability in their priority and how they are manifested. In addition to the basic needs of all animals - food, water, procreation - cats have other important needs that relate to training. The following is a partial list of those needs:
Affection and attention.
Respect and admiration.
Hunt and play: Cats are genetically wired to hunt and enjoy it, as evidenced by their curiosity and desire to explore.
Safety and security: Without a sense of safety, anxiety and fear become a perennial component of anyone's life and drive our actions.
Scratching: Cats need something to scratch so that they can sharpen their claws and remove old sheaths. Ignore it at your own risk.ï»¿
Vertical spaceï»¿: Cats need vertical space - areas to climb and perch on - as part of their hunting routine and as a place of safety.
Reviewing the definitions of behavior modification terms is warranted because they are often confused or used incorrectly - even by purported pet behavior experts. A reinforcement - positive or negative - increases the likelihhod of a behavior occurring. A positive reinforcement is when something (a stimulus) is added and a negative reinforcement is when something is removed. But again, both increase behavior. ï»¿All punishments decrease the probability of a behavior ocurring, and follow the same nomencalture of positive (stimulus added) and negative (stimulus removed). The table below summarizes these definitions. The term negative reinforcement is often mistakenly used to refer to something that is actually punishment.
OPERANT CONDITIONING CATEGORIES
|Increases Behavior||Decreases Behavior|
Example: Giving a food treat when the cat comes to a call.
Example: Putting tape on carpeted stairs to stop scratching.
(aka Escape or Avoidance)
Example: The cat hides in a closet to avoid taking medicine.
Example: Ending a play session when the cat starts biting hardï»¿.ï»¿
Extenive data clearly indicates that positive reinforcement is by far the single best means of modifying behavior. Using a variety of positive reinforcers helps them remain novel, and improves their long-term effectiveness. I have found that negative punishment - specifically, removing my time and attention - can also be effective in extinquishing problematic behavior. Cats want to engage with you. Learning that undesirable behavior results in a loss of your attention can be very powerful.
Positive punishment is marginally effective. Physical punishment is not effective in modifying behavior and is just downright cruel. Some people use water sprayers, but I find they have limited effectiveness - some cats like water and most will quickly acclimate to getting sprayed - and make a mess. Compressed air, such as the cans used to clean computer, can be effective. It mimicks the hissing sound cats make. You should not direct the air directly at the cat. Spraying the air into your cupped palm increases the volume and does not direct the air at the cat. The air can may not always be readily available, so I will sometimes use a quick - and loud - yell (e.g., loudly stating 'No' or 'Stop'ï»¿). To maintain its power, I use a yell very sparingly and only for extreme behaviors. If used frequently, it quickly loses power and introduces fear into the household environment - which is corrosive over the long-term.
Rewards, not surprisingly, align with basic needs. It is important to note that some of the rewards discussed below apply to all cats. Others will apply to a specific cat in varying degrees or in a modified form. You have to discover what rewards work for both your cat and you. If it does not appeal to your cat it will have little to no effectiveness in affecting behaviorï»¿ - no matter how much you paid for it, how cool you think it is, how well it worked with your friend's cat, or how much it was hyped by marketers. Also, if it is too expensive, too difficult to implement, or in some way unpleaseant to you, you will be less likely to effectively use it. So, research and think about rewards before you purchase them. Doing so will improve the effectiveness of training, reduce the time you spend on it, and save you money. Also remember that once you use something as a reward, switching to something else is another whole behavior modification program. Personally, I lean toward simple and low cost rewards - as long as they are healthy and safe.
Food: Providing healthy and adequate nourishment to your cat should be a given and withholding it for training purposes is cruel. However, it can still be used as an inducement - especially when you enhance its value with your verbal behavior. For instance, talking up meal time can be a means of getting your cat to come inside. Also, sharing meals within close proximity can be a means of introducing two cats or to help two cats get more comfortable with each other. Some episodes of My Cat From Hell provide good examples of how to use food as a means helping cats develop relationships with each other. Some use food in puzzle boxes to combine eating with play, and more accurately mirror natural feline eating behavior. ï»¿
Food treats: Food treats will likely be critical in training. Cat preferences will vary and I recommend that you research the various kinds before you start using it. Once introduced, it may become the cat's treat of choice. Make certain the treat is healthy and affordable - some can be very expensive. Since most food treats are essentially highly flavorful and high protein food, consider using a second brand of food - perhaps one of a higher quality than their standard fare. There are a variety of very high quality foods available. Although most are too expensive for me to use as daily food, they can serve as excellent treats and are less expensive by weight than what is marketed as treats. For example, I use Blue Buffalo cat food as a treat. If it is desirable to them and used only as a reward, what does your cat know? Even better, my locally owned pet store and my vet give away sample packets of food. My cats love them and they're free. You can increase the reward value of treats by presenting them with a lot of enthusiasm. It heightens your cat's perception that it is something special.ï»¿
Affection: Cats enjoy, maybe even crave, physical affection and it is a powerful reward. Affection takes many forms: rubbing the back or stomach, scratching the chin, gentle stroking of cheeks or around the eyes, brushing, etc. Like food, it should not be limited to training and preferences will vary. With respect to brushing, there are a lot of different types of brushes out there and you may need to experiment to find one your cat likes. For many cats, brushing has to be introduced early in their life to be pleasurable. There may also be some body areas that the cat does not like to have brushed or touched. Most important is to recognize that your cat may not share our opinion of how to express affection. Your may want to pick up your cat and give them a tight hug to show your love - they may have a different perspective on what is happening.
Attention and praise: Attention and praise, which I view as emotional affectionï»¿, are powerful rewards that are underutilized in training - largely due to the myth that cats are aloof. Cats are very sensitive to our emotional state, and respond to behavioral and vocal cues from us. I always lavish praise when cats engage in desired behavior, and amp up my enthusiasm when administering treats or other tangible rewards. I find that cats, just like dogs, like to be spoken to and many will use vocalizations to communicate. As with people, cats can be annoying if they are too chatty. But I find that is uncommon. More often, feline vocalizations will enable them to express their needs or when something is wrong - such as being in pain. ï»¿
Toys and playing: Play is a fundamental aspect of a cat's life. As a substitute for hunting, play is a primary source of exercise and entertainment. Toys promote play. If you do not provide toys, cats will use household items that may be dangerous and/or unacceptable to you.ï»¿ In training, play is used to expend energy that is otherwise channeled into problematic behavior or to distract the cat as a means of stopping problem behavior. Play is also a means of bonding. Sometimes cats will want to play alone or with whatever other animals may be in the household.ï»¿ Consider all of those things as you select toys. Like food treats, toys need to be desirable, acceptable, and safe. Some of the best toys are the simplest. A toy that simulates hunting - chasing and capturing birds or mice - is almost mandatory. The original Cat Dancer is a classic and still a good choice. The GoCat toy line, including Da Bird and Teaser Wand with Mouse, may be even better. They have the added advantage of interchangable ends, so your can easily switch from birds to mice. You can also make cat toys out of common items. Wadded up paper, sticks, christmas wrapping, boxes, paper bags, etc. are historical mainstays. JUST MAKE CERTAIN THEY ARE SAFE. In addition to safety, durability can be even more of an issue with self-made toys.
Puzzle boxes: Puzzle boxes are a type of toy but deserve their own discussion. There are commercially available puzzle boxes, but I think homemade ones are much more effective. They can be made out of boxes, egg cartons or other food containers, food storage containers (although I would be careful about sharp edges), and even bamboo. The possibilities are limited only by your resources, skills, and time.ï»¿ Toys, food, catnip, or whatever is appealing to your cat can be placed inside the puzzle.ï»¿ Puzzle boxes can be used for general play or as a diversion. ï»¿They can even be used as an alternative to free feeding, more accurately mirroring the natural environment in which cats must hunt for food. ï»¿
Vertical spaceï»¿: In training, vertical space can be used as a source of play or as a diversion.ï»¿ There are many manufactured cat trees, but they can be expensive. The materials are pretty basic, and you can make your own or find a local handyman to make one. A similar effect can be achieved with the strategic placement of basic shelving and furniture. No matter what you use, make certain it is safe - secure, stable, and made of non-hazardous materials.
Goals and Limits
The training goals I set for cats are focused on making both of our lives happier and healthier. That includes: meeting both our needs in mutually a satisfying manner, preventing or stopping dangerous behavior, and eliminating unwanted behavior. With respect to dangerous and problematic behavior, the overall strategy is: prevention; distraction and diversion; and extinction. As in the old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," prevention is the best strategy. If it occurs once or very infequently, you can often distract your cat or divert them from the behavior. And if the behavior becomes frequent, employ an exteinction plan.
Here are some of the behaviors I focus on:
Come to call: I think this is one of the most important training goals. For a variety of reasons, it useful to have your cat come to you when you need or want them to. Cats may not be as obedient as dogs in coming to a call, but I have found they are very compliant. I recommend you establish a unique or uncommon call command so your cat will recognize it as their own. You may not be the only one in the neighborhood to use "here kitty, kitty." As mentioned previously in other contexts, the call has to also be acceptable to you and you will likely use it in public. A good measure to use in chosing a call command is to envision yourself walking around the neighborhood or standing on your porch calling for your cat. If you would find it embarrassing, then use something else.
Scratching behavior: You should provide something for your cat to sharpen their claws on. My own experience is that scratchers made out of rope work better and are more appealing than cardboard ones. I also find that many scratchers are too short and not very sturdy. Cats like to stretch out when they scratch and many cats exert a lot of force when scratching. So I look for scratchers that are tall and heavy duty. Because I train my cats early and consistently, I have never had much problem with scratching furniture. When scratching furniture or carpet is a problem, some people spray water on the cat to stop the behavior. As discussed previously, I do not use or recommend water. I get good results using the "stop" command and/or two sided tape placed on the target area. The tape is effective for when you are not present. Lastly, regular nail clipping helps reduce - but does not eliminate - the need to scratch. Learning how to clip cats nails is not very difficult, although it tends to be a two person job.
Use of litter box: I don't have much to say about litter box training. My experience is that most cats quickly learn to use a boï»¿x. Usually, mom or other adult cats model the behavior. Even previously feral cats seem to pick it up quickly. If quickly learned, your role is mostly to prevent the experience from being aversive by keeping the box clean and using litter that is acceptable to both of you. Many cats do not like scented litters. Newer types of litter using ingredients like wheat, rather than clay, seem like a good idea; but the ones I have tried attract or foster insects. Some people do not like the dust from many common brands of litter. There are some that generate less dust, or address other specific needs. I find larger boxes with high sides work better. The plastic container section of a store, rather than the pet section, may offer better and less expensive options. Just make certain that the box and the overall space is large enough to be comfortable for the cat to use. I also strongly recommend a large scooper made out of heavy duty material. It will last longer and make things easier when cleaning.
Appropriate play: This will be up to you to define. But, cats need to be taught limits. Without them, cats will literally go wild. As with children, the source of problematic play behavior is more often the guardian than the cat.ï»¿ The toys you provide and how you play with your cat is an important means of teaching limits. Active physical play is good exercise and expends energy that would otherwise be directed elsewhere. But if you play too rough with them, then your cat will likely escalate to biting or scratching. Escalations can be stopped, but need to be addressed early and consistently. Naturally, a cat will often cry out, and freeze or walk away when a playmate gets too rough. If the rough cat persists, the other will then often hiss.ï»¿ I use three techniques that mirror the playmate. My first response is to stop the play. My second technique is to let out a sharp, high pitched cry that I reserve for such situations. Most often, some combination of those two is effective. If need be, I use the 'stop' command.ï»¿
Developing A Plan
One of the first considerations in developing a plan is whether to immediately move to the desired behavior or whether you will have to get to the goal through incremental steps - to shape the behavior. Shaping is often necessary because entrenched or intrinsic behaviors are not easily changed, and complex behaviors are not quickly learned. In addition to how entrenched and complex the behavior is, the individual personality of the cat has to be considered. Like any species, cats vary in their attitude and abilities. Some will be more open and able to learn new behaviors. Others will take more encouragement and require more patience.
Diverting unwanted behavior or distracting your cat is a very effective technique, and a great alternative to punishment. Some behaviors (e.g., hunt and play behavior) are too ingrained to elimiate entirely. Instead, you want to direct those drives to something acceptable or distract your cat's attention to something else.
Data also shows that it is harder to change an established behavior than to develop a new one. Therefore, training a cat - as with any animal - is easier in the younger and formative years. ï»¿That is not to say that older cats can not be trained - they absolutely can. Older cats, like older people, are just more set in their ways. Changing the behavior of older cats may take more time and persistence, and may have a greater need for an incremental change plan.ï»¿ï»¿
Lastly, I will repeat that your plan should consider what you, yourself, may need to learn or change to help reach the desired state.
Adjustments and Refinements
It is important to stick to your plan, especially since both you and your cat will likely have some resistence to change. But also recognize that no plan can take into account all contingencies or there may be unintended consequences. Build into your plan appropriately timed reviews in which you will assess how things are going and make any necessary adjustments. Key considerations are: what progress has been made, what is working, what is not working, what is the next step, etc. Having someone else conduct the reviews with you will help provide perspective and can assist in developing new ideas.
Not only can cats can be trained, they should be. Training requires understanding, patience, and persistence. However, the end result is well worth the effort. Because you will create a safe household and a loving relationship that both you and your cat will enjoy and thrive in. And isn't that the ultimate purpose of having a feline companion?
I gave an order to a cat, and the cat gave it to its tail.
~ Chinese Proverb