- Cats can learn words — Ever wonder if your cat can’t understand you or is simply ignoring you? As it turns out, cats do know words (and they can learn behaviors and fun tricks).
- Motivate using rewards — Cats learn quickly when you reward them with a treat, whereas punishment can undermine the learning process, making 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 consistent.
Pet parents often attend dog training seminars, but may write off cats as untrainable. And we know it isn’t for lack of feline intelligence—cats know how to weasel their way into your affections, slip snacks off the kitchen counter, and memorize when you come home like an experienced spy!
As it turns out, cats are very intelligent and trainable! However, they might need some motivation to kick-start their training process. Cats are their own “boss,” so you’ll need to use positive reinforcement to convince them that training sessions are worth their time.
With consistency, you can have your cat housebroken, countertop trained, and even performing tricks for guests — and with this guide, you’ll be able to keep your sanity in the process.
Why training your cat is important
Setting boundaries with your cat keeps them safe, and can give a sense of order to your home. For example, housebreaking your cat protects your floors and contains any potential diseases in the litter box. Harness training your cat allows them to go on safe, leashed walks and makes traveling easier.
Any training can be difficult at the moment, but it pays off in the long run. Training using positive reinforcement can actually be fun for your cat and strengthen your bond with them.
Tips for a successful training session
Studying feline behavior and learning your cat’s quirks goes a long way toward fostering a healthy training process. Before implementing training sessions, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Learn your kitty’s love language — Is your cat more motivated by high praise or their favorite treats? While most cats appreciate snacks, some will do almost anything for a treat while others don’t seem to care. If your cat is very food motivated, scheduling their training sessions right before mealtime might help.
Keep it consistent — Try to stay consistent with command words and timing. Always reward them at the exact moment of their good behavior with praise and treats. If you’re housebreaking your cat, you’ll need to take them to their box every couple of hours, or if you notice they’re about to have an accident.
Gauge the mood — If your cat is especially irritable, it might not be a good time for training. The best way to train is when your cat is in a good mood and in between meal times so they’ll be more receptive to treats.
Work it into your schedule — Decide what time of day works best for your daily training. Aim for a brief window that fits your cat’s attention span—probably 5 minutes or less. Then, stay consistent once you pick a time.
Decide on your goals — 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.
Focus on what you want them to do — Instead of reprimanding bad behavior, experts say to prioritize redirecting your cat’s attention to something positive. For example, if your cat claws your furniture, show them a cardboard scratcher instead.
🚨 Be prepared for some frustration, as cats can be hard to train. Our tip? Learn to read their body language, and keep training schedules brief and consistent. You (and your cat) will appreciate it!
Things to avoid when training cats
Motivation is key, so you’ll want to be sure to only use positive reinforcement. Acting negatively towards cats, such as yelling at, swatting, or spraying them, won’t produce the behaviors you desire. In fact, it can sever the relationship between you and your cat by making them afraid of you.
Set realistic expectations; and then use positive reinforcement, consistency, and patience to achieve them. Remember — being sensitive about your kitty’s heart is more important than teaching them to stay off the counters.
How to prepare for cat training sessions
Once you place your order for cat treats, the next step is to decide on a few things before the training begins. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Decide on a training method
All of the training methods use praise and rewards, but some place more emphasis on building positive associations with words or sounds instead of treats alone. Choose the method that best suits your cat’s personality.
- Positive reinforcement. This simple method rewards your cat with treats (or something else they prefer) as soon as they perform the desired behavior. Learn to sit on cue? Give them a treat.
- Clicker training. When training your cat, you’ll use the clicker coupled with treats when your cat succeeds. Over time, your cat will learn to associate the clicker noise with doing something good and you can put the treat bag away.
- Vocal cues. For this method, you’ll choose one specific command word or phrase, such as “sit,” and reward the behavior with positive reinforcement.
Decide on your first trick
Consider what your cat already knows (or might have taught themselves) when deciding on their first trick. You might also have to give them a little basic training first depending on the ultimate training method you decide to use. For example, if you choose clicker training, you’ll need to introduce the sound of the clicker and reward the noise with a treat.
👉 Start simple by rewarding a positive behavior that your cat does on their own, such as ringing a bell when they want to come inside the room.
How to train a cat: 5 basic commands
Even if you eventually plan on teaching your cat elaborate tricks, it’s a great idea to begin with the basics. Here are some essential commands you’ll want to teach your cat before teaching them acrobatics (and how to do it):
Kittens love to nibble on fingers, but you’ll want to discourage this type of playtime behavior because it can lead to aggression. If you want to teach this command, say “gentle” and replace your hand with something more tantalizing when your cat bites. You can also dab a soft squeeze treat paste on your fingers and say “gentle” as they lick their snack. Take the treat away if they start to bite.
You can teach this essential skill in one of two ways: you can use the command word “come,” or you can use their name. This skill is important to teach early on. If your precious fur baby ever gets lost, you’ll stand a much greater chance of a quick recovery if they know their name or have been trained to come when you call.
Want to try? Next time your cat approaches you, call out their name or “come”, and reward them with a treat. If your cat finds their motivation predominantly from food, you can speed up the training process by shaking their food bowl and saying the command word.
👉 Be careful! You don’t want to teach them that “come” or their name is synonymous with “eat,” so only give them a treat occasionally.
Whether you’re saving an open laptop from destruction or a pie crust from presumptuous toe beans, your cat will give you plenty of chances to use this fancy trick.
When your cat jumps onto something they shouldn’t, gently pick them up and place them on the ground. If you’re using vocal cues, say the word “off” and then reward them with a treat as soon as their paws touch the floor. If you’re using clicker training, make the sound as you remove them off the counter and then give them a treat.
Some pet parents prefer to throw a treat on the ground instead of removing their cat from the counter. If you choose this method, be sure to wait a couple of seconds after your cat jumps onto the forbidden surface before you introduce the treat. Otherwise, they might think you’re rewarding them for jumping up, which would foil the entire plan.
👉 Speaking of foil, covering the edges of your countertop with aluminum foil commonly deters cats from jumping since they hate the crinkly sound and texture.
In the box
Teaching them to crawl into the cat carrier on cue simplifies future vet visits and travel plans. Tap into your cat’s natural curiosity by leaving their crate door open and peak their interest by placing one of their favorite blankets inside. When you inevitably catch your cat inside their carrier, use a clicker or command word coupled with a treat to reward their good behavior. Teach them “in the box” means they receive a treat.
Eventually, whenever your cat shows that they’re comfortable, you can close the crate door and carry them for short distances. Always reward them with a small tasty treat after each journey. After a while, your cat may enter the crate on their own whenever they need a quiet place to rest away from the din of noisy family members.
While we typically associate this command with canines, it’s possible to teach your cat to sit. Hold a treat or dangle a cat toy above and slightly behind their head. Click once they sit and reward them with a treat. If you catch your cat sitting on their own, be sure to use the command word or clicker and give them a treat.
How to train a cat to use the litter box
Most pet parents won’t have to worry about litter box training. Mother cats instinctively train their kittens to bury their litter, but occasionally you may care for a kitten who had a neglectful mother or perhaps was separated too young. Additionally, older cats with cognitive dysfunction may also need to relearn litter box training. Here are the steps you’ll need to take:
Choose the right materials.
Consider the size and age of your cat when shopping for a litter box and litter. Choose a litter box that your cat can comfortably fit inside. If you have a very young kitten, avoid clay-based clumping litters because they can cause an obstruction if swallowed. Humane societies recommend using larger litters like FelinePine for kittens under 4 months.
Buy an extra box.
Experts recommend keeping one litter box plus one per cat to avoid territorial behavior. For example, if you have two cats, you’ll need three boxes. You might be able to avoid this if you keep the box extra tidy, but it’s something to consider if your cat has trouble training. After you buy your boxes, place at least one on every level of your home. This will help you to avoid accidents and can reduce stress on your feline.
Find the best spot.
If you have a cat or kitten with mobility issues, choose a litter box with low sides so it is easy to get in and out. Then, place litter in the box and keep the box in a warm, quiet, and accessible area of your home.
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. As you train, consider being as consistent as possible — following your cat’s natural schedule.
For example: You can put your kitty in the box after meals or a nap to encourage them to eliminate, or after they have a good play session. If your kitty looks like they are going to the bathroom outside the box, place them in it immediately and reward them with a treat.
Be positive and patient.
Never scold or punish your kitty. There are bound to be accidents, so it can be helpful to mentally prepare in advance. Instead of punishing the mistakes, praise and reward your cat when they use the box correctly.
Be sure to give them privacy. Lurking by the box with snacks could make them nervous. Some cats don’t seem to mind the company, while others high-tail it after going potty!
🚨 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.
How to harness train a cat
Harness training a cat enables them to explore safely and can broaden their social and travel opportunities. The eventual goal of harness training a cat is to teach them how to walk on a leash, but it’s important to start small. Here’s how to get started:
Choose a harness that fits
The harness should fit snugly around your cat’s body without pinching. If you have a kitten, you might consider purchasing an adjustable harness to match their size as they grow.
Let your cat try it on
Some cats might not mind a harness, but others may be uncomfortable at first. Encourage your cat with praise and treats, and only keep the harness on for a few minutes at first. Gradually extend the amount of time as they adjust.
Try it with a leash
Start leash training indoors for a short period. You might start by taking your cat on a walk around the kitchen and shower them with plenty of praise as they strut in their new outfit.
Graduate to outdoor excursions
Once your cat feels comfortable around the house, you can take them on brief outdoor walks. Consider scheduling their outings for quiet times of day when cars aren’t as likely to come by and scare them. Dr. Irish also warns to be watchful of dogs. She says, “Just because a cat can leash walk like a dog doesn’t mean dogs will be nice to the cat.”
👉 While leash training is safer than letting your feline friend roam alone, parasites and pathogens don’t care whether they’re tethered or not. Always make sure your cat is fully up-to-date on vaccines and parasite prevention before taking them on outdoor walks.
How to solve common behavioral problems
Some feline antics aren’t easily curbed with words and clickers. For these destructive behaviors, you’ll likely find more success redirecting their attention to something more positive.
Here are a few common behavioral concerns to watch for — and how to address them:
- Scratching furniture. Cats might scratch as a way to claim their territory—which, of course, includes your expensive sofa. Adding scratching posts or cardboard pads to your space can help minimize this behavior. So can double-sided tape, or couch protectors.
- Yowling for food or attention. The best way to deal with this annoying behavior is to ignore them. When your cat stops meee-roowwwing, you can then give them what they want.
- Uprooting houseplants. Despite the Instagram aesthetics, it’s incredibly difficult to keep persnickety pets and delicate houseplants under the same roof. While you should avoid some common houseplants that are toxic to your cat, you can grow plants easily by putting the plants in a kitty-proof zone.
- Stubborn potty habits. If your kitten has trouble house-training, Dr. Irish suggests using feline pheromone products to encourage them to come inside the litter box.
When to seek professional help
Sudden behavioral changes, such as non-stop yowling or eliminating outside the litterbox, always require immediate medical attention. Cats are creatures of habit and don’t change up their behavior often. If your cat isn’t acting like themselves, they might be crying out for help.
However, if they have a stubborn or lifelong habit that home training can’t shake, such as food aggression, feel free to reach out to a cat behaviorist. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior provides a free directory so you can find a certified professional near you.
Cat training rewards you and your favorite feline with essential life skills that they’ll need to thrive. Training with positive reinforcements can strengthen the bond between you and your cat and is good for their mental stimulation. Remember, training takes time, consistency, and patience.
If there are some behaviors you can’t seem to curb, such as biting, or if your cat suddenly develops a new habit, such as eliminating outside their box when they’re trained, reach out to a cat behaviorist or your vet for advice.
Frequently asked questions
What is the best age to train a cat?
You should begin training as soon as you bring your kitten home to help them to fit in with your family successfully. However, 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?
Always use positive reinforcement. Cats don’t understand punishment and yelling or swatting at them can unduly frighten these sensitive creatures. Always encourage good behavior, remembering the three Rs: Respect, reinforcement, and rewards.
Are cats easy to train?
The time it takes to train a cat depends on their age, what you want them to learn, how often you practice, and how consistently you implement training techniques.
Do you have to house-train a cat?
Unlike dogs, mother cats usually house-train their kittens. However, not all kittens are housebroken when they go to their fur-ever homes, especially if they were adopted out too young. House-training a kitten depends on consistency. Place them in a clean litter box every few hours—especially if you catch them in the act of going on the floor— until they begin to associate going potty with the box. Kittens learn at different rates, but are usually able to be completely housebroken within a month.
Is it okay to spray cats with water?
While cats reputedly hate water, not all do. Spraying a cat with water might not hurt them, but you want to avoid negative punishments in favor of positive reinforcement whenever you can. If your cat isn’t afraid of water, spraying them could develop an unnecessary fear, which makes bath time much more unpleasant.