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Cat training

The essentials

  • Decide what you want to teach your cat — You may wish to eliminate unacceptable behaviors, train your kitty to use a litter box, or teach them cool tricks.
  • Motivate using rewards — Cats learn quickly when you reward them with a treat, whereas punishment makes them scared of you.
  • Keep your cat training sessions short — It’s hard to keep your cat’s attention for long, so keep sessions short, sweet, and frequent.

Cats are intelligent creatures, but the long-standing belief that you cannot train them is simply not true. Good cat training can help your kitty’s physical and mental health, improve their behavior, and increase the bond between you and your pet. It can also be fun!

Important things to know before trying to train your cat

Cats are very independent and don’t instinctively work with humans. They domesticated themselves by hanging around farming communities several thousands of years ago, choosing to live close to us as part of their survival strategy.

Unlike dogs, cats were not bred to cooperate or participate in roles like hunting, guarding, or herding. That means that historically, they’ve had a different kind of relationship with humans, strictly serving as companions rather than actively working for us. Cats, therefore, don’t have the same drive to please their humans, and you will need to find a treat that motivates your kitty.

Why cats have problem behaviors

Many cats end up in shelters because of behavioral issues. Most of the time, the cat is simply acting on instinct, but because they can be destructive or annoying, they may grate on our nerves. For example, your kitty might scratch the furniture, keep you awake at night with their excessive vocalization, or eliminate outside their litter box. To help prevent unwanted behaviors, you need to know a bit about feline tendencies so that you can figure out what’s causing the issue and how to find a solution.

Behavior varies from cat to cat but can stem from anxieties, fear, or a physical issue or condition. The good news is that addressing some of these behavioral problems is possible.

First, talk to your vet about the issues your cat is experiencing. It’s possible they may be suffering from a medical condition such as anxiety, which can create erratic behavior, or incontinence, which may explain why they are not eliminating in the litter box.

Next, make some basic changes to see if that improves the behavior. If your cat is scratching the furniture, buy them a scratching post so they have a specified place to scratch. If your cat is eliminating outside the litter box and is not experiencing a urinary tract infection or incontinence, you may need to find a different litter texture or litter box they prefer.

What to expect when cat training

Before you start cat training, you should work out your goals and what you want to achieve. You may want to teach your kitty new tricks, fix an unwanted behavior, or work on something specific, like getting your pet used to going into a crate for travel. Be prepared for some frustration, as cats can be hard to train. They often only do something if they want to and tend to do it on their terms. Their body language can be hard to understand, as they are not as expressive as dogs and have short attention spans,  so keep training sessions brief!

The right training method is important

You will need a lot of patience and creativity to succeed with cat training, so choosing the right training method is crucial. A few methods you might try include:

  • Clicker training. Using a cat training clicker or even a pen, you ultimately want your cat to associate the sound with a reward, like a treat, when learning a new skill or desired behavior, creating a cycle of positive reinforcement.
  • Hand signals. Cats learn to associate different commands with your hand signals, such as opening your palm when you want them to give you a high five. Hand signals can be especially useful with older cats, who may be hard of hearing and so can’t respond to vocal cues.
  • Vocal cues. This happens when a cat associates certain words with specific commands. Reward your cat with a treat when they perform the correct behavior, such as sitting when you say, “Sit.”

Be mindful of how negative reinforcement, such as spraying your cat with a water bottle, may increase their anxiety and create a negative association with humans. Whenever possible, choose positive reinforcement over negative reinforcement.

Training your cat to use the litter box

Litter training is easy for most kitties. Their ancestors buried excrement to hide from predators and competitors, and today’s domesticated cat still does the same by burying their feces in their litter boxes. This means they are instinctively driven to use a litter box. That makes training a bit easier, but there are still a few things to keep in mind.

Choose the right litter box and litter

If your kitty is eliminating outside their litter box, it could be a medical condition, so you may want to check with your vet. Other explanations could be  an aversion to the box or the type of litter, or even the location. Cats are pretty fussy regarding the box’s shape, size and depth, so make sure it is large enough for your kitty to fit comfortably. Ensure the box is always clean, as cats will not use dirty ones. Many vets recommend using unscented clumping litter, or you may prefer flushable cat litter. Scented litter can often deter your cat with their strong sense of smell. If you have several cats, ensure each has its own litter box, plus one extra.

🏮Eliminating outside of the litter box may be a sign of a urinary tract infection, which can become dangerous, especially in neutered males. Visit your vet right away if your cat exhibits any UTI symptoms.

Tips for litter box training

Follow these steps to help you train your kitty to use the litter box:

  1. Gather your supplies. If you have a cat with mobility issues or a kitten, choose a litter box with low sides so it is easy to get in and out. Place litter in the box and keep the box in a warm, quiet area of your home.
  2. Show your kitty. Once you have everything set up, place your kitty in the box so it can sniff, explore, and get used to it. Always put your kitty in the box after meals or a nap to encourage them to eliminate. If your kitty looks like they are going to the bathroom outside the box, place them in it immediately.
  3. Be positive and patient. While training, there are bound to be accidents, but never scold or punish your kitty. It will take a cat some time to figure it out. When your kitty uses the box correctly, praise and reward them with a treat. But also give them privacy. If you’re lurking by the box with snacks every time they try to use it, they could be nervous. Some cats don’t seem to mind the company, while others high-tail it after going potty!

How to prevent furniture scratching

Scratching furniture and carpets is by far the most common behavioral problem in cats and can be extremely frustrating! Cats scratch to stretch their bodies, relieve stress, and mark their territory. It’s a natural behavior, but one that can be destructive on your nice furniture. Redirect this natural behavior by teaching them to use scratching posts with different textures dotted about the home.

Redirect cats to a scratching post

If you want your kitty to stop scratching your expensive furniture, here are some ways you can redirect their behavior to a scratching post.

  • Buy several scratching posts and boards. Choose ones that appeal to your cat and not you. Go for both horizontal and vertical types that are strong and sturdy, with various materials and surfaces that are good for scratching and shedding. Tall posts should be high enough for your kitty to stretch out fully.
  • Position your scratching posts in different places. Place the posts and boards in areas where your cat rests and plays, such as in the living room and near windows. Cats like to scratch after a nap, so place one near where they usually sleep. Also, have one close to the furniture they typically claw.
  • Encourage your cat to scratch posts. Sprinkling cat-nip or spraying honeysuckle on posts will attract and encourage your kitty to use them for scratching.

Minimizing counter surfing

Trying to stop your cat from jumping on your kitchen counters is a difficult task! They will jump on them for various reasons, including food, the smell of your cooking, a high place to rest or sleep, or trying to escape from another pet like a dog. You want to stop this habit, as they can contaminate your food, knock over and break an object and risk injuring themselves, or eat something poisonous.

Make countertops uninteresting

To stop your cat from jumping on your countertops, follow these tips:

  • Use simple deterrents. Sticking baking paper or foil on your counter will make a startling sound when your kitty lands, but not enough for them to come to any harm. Using a citrus-scented spray is also an excellent way to keep your kitty away, as cats find the smell harsh and overwhelming.
  • Use a cat training clicker. If your kitty is on the counter, entice them off with a reward or treat. Once they jump off, pair the reward and the clicker sound. Eventually, you can use the clicker to lure them from the counter.
  • Offer alternatives. As cats love high places, offer your kitty a cat tower to satisfy their need to climb. Place it by a window so your cat can see outside. Or your cat might want to be near you! So consider putting a tree near the counter and let them watch you cook.
  • Make counters less attractive. Cats are curious creatures, so make sure there is nothing of interest on your counter. Remove food and wipe surfaces down to remove any food smells. Having blinds or curtains on the windows nearby gives them nothing to see.

Why cats bite and how to stop it

Cat biting is never a good thing. Not only are cat bites painful, but some can require medical treatment. Cat owners need to know that cats don’t bite out of malice. Declawed cats bite more than those with claws, as they no longer have their primary defense mechanism. The main reasons cats bite include:

  • Fear, stress, and pain
  • Overstimulation
  • To assert dominance
  • To stop unwanted actions or behaviors from humans
  • To communicate or demand attention

Discouraging your cat from biting

Although it is impossible to stop your cat from biting 100% of the time, there are ways to discourage this behavior:

  • Never let your cat play with your bare hands
  • Make sure everyone who handles your cat interacts the same way
  • Offer a variety of toys for your cat to bite
  • Always praise your cat when they use a soft mouth
  • Push towards the bite, as pulling away encourages the cat to bite more
  • Ensure your kitty gets enough food, play, and sleep
  • Keep a predictable daily routine
  • Talk to your veterinarian about calmness supplements and wellness tools
  • When petting a cat, avoid below the neck
  • Try sticking out a finger for them to smell before you pet them

Socializing new cats

Socializing a new cat takes time and patience, as a new home will initially be scary to them. It can take weeks before they are comfortable, or months if other cats are present. Leave them to investigate their surroundings peacefully and instruct family members not to approach. Offer them a safe place to go, like a crate with something soft to snuggle up to, such as a towel. If the cat comes up to investigate you, greet them with gentle strokes and praise or even a food treat to reward their desirable behavior.

Teaching your cat tricks

Teaching your kitty to do tricks will keep them active and mentally stimulated, preventing them from becoming bored and destructive. Offer your cat treats and praise, along with the clicker, but never shout or punish them. Tricks you can teach include:

  • Sit. Say “sit” and bring the treat over their head to encourage them to sit. Once your kitty sits, give them the treat.
  • High five. Hold a treat at your kitty’s shoulder level. When they reach out their paw and touch your hand holding the treat, say “high five”, click and give them the treat.
  • Come. Call your cat’s name. When they come, reward them with a treat.

Cat training is a process that may take a while to learn desired behaviors. So long as you keep sessions short, remain calm and patient and motivate with rewards, you will be surprised how many tricks your cat can learn!

Frequently asked questions

What is the best age to train a cat?

You should start training your kitten as soon as you bring it home to allow it to fit in with your family successfully. But you can train a cat at any age to respond to a command, walk on a leash, and do tricks!

What are the principles of cat training?

Cats do not understand punishment. Always encourage good behavior, remembering the three Rs: respect, reinforcement, and rewards.

How long does it take to train a cat?

The time it takes to train a cat depends on what you want them to learn, how often you practice, and how consistently you implement training techniques.

How long does it take to house train a cat?

Some kittens catch on quickly, while others may have to be placed several times in a litter box for several days before they grasp the idea. Overall, it takes approximately four weeks to house train a cat.

Do cats like to be trained?

So long as you keep sessions short and fun with motivational treats and rewards, your cat will enjoy their training.