It’s time to explode one of the many myths about cats: that you can’t train them. In fact, with the right motivation–namely food–cats are highly trainable.
They can learn commands like sit, come, and wave. With advanced training, they’ll jump through hoops, play the piano (not very well, admittedly), roll over, spin in a circle, walk on a leash, and play fetch. There are even cats who’ve learned to run an agility course in competition.
Why bother training your cat? As with dogs, training helps you communicate more effectively with your furry friend, exercises his brain and body, and strengthens the bond between you. There are some real practical benefits, too. A cat who comes when called won’t get left behind during a natural disaster because you can’t find him. (Not to mention, you’ll never miss a vet appointment because you’re scouring the neighborhood looking for him.) A cat who sits for petting or treats is more enjoyable than a kitty who demands attention by swiping at your legs with his claws.
Like dogs, some kitties take to training more than others. An active Siamese or Abyssinian is going to be more amenable than a fat, laidback Persian, but in general, if your cat is playful, you can teach him. When training, keep these pointers in mind:
- Reward your cat for behaviors you like and give them exactly when he’s doing what you want, so he’ll associate the reward with the behavior. Use a training clicker or your voice to praise him (“Good!”) right as he’s performing the action, then quickly deliver a food reward.
- Be consistent. Always use the same verbal cues to give a command and let your cat know he got it right.
- Keep kitty training sessions short and sweet. Your cat’s attention span is probably somewhere between two to 10 minutes. Always end training when your cat’s done something right. Remember the adage “Quit when you’re ahead.”
- Most importantly, never get mad or hit your cat. It won’t help him learn–unless you count learning to fear and dislike you.
Below, you’ll find the basics every cat should know.
Using a litter box
Kittens and cats come hard-wired to eliminate in a particular spot and then hide the evidence by covering it up. You can take steps to ensure their ‘special spot’ is always their litter box instead of your carpet.
- Provide a box that’s large enough for the cat to turn around and dig, but not so large that he can’t easily climb into it. A good rule of paw is that a box should be one and a half times longer than the cat’s body.
- Place the box in a private location that gives your cat an escape route if he’s interrupted by another cat or a dog. Place it away from his food and water dishes. Cats don’t like to eliminate in the same area where they eat.
- When you bring your kitten or cat home, confine him to a single room with the litter box until he’s had time to adjust to his new surroundings. This can take a week or two. Gradually let him explore the rest of his new home.
- Show him the litter box and encourage him to explore it by making digging motions with your hand. He’ll be attracted by the movement and the sound of the litter.
- Praise him every time you see him using the box, but be sure to give him his privacy as well. You don’t want him to feel as if he’s being stalked.
- Keep the box scrupulously clean–otherwise your cat will start looking for a new spot. Scoop it every time you see it’s been used, and change the litter and clean the box with a mild, unscented dishwashing soap weekly.
You can teach your cat to come by helping him form an association with being called and getting a meal or a treat. The sound you use to summon him is up to you; a training clicker, whistle, or bell will work, as will simply calling his name.
- Every time you feed your cat, call him as you set down the food.
- Once you’ve done that for a few days, start calling him at other times during the day. If he comes, praise him and give him a treat.
If you’ve ever taught a dog to sit, this will sound familiar.
- Hold a treat just above your cat’s head and tell him, “Sit.” As his nose goes up to sniff it, his rear automatically goes down, right into a sit position.
- The instant his rear hits the floor, click a training clicker or say “Good!” Then give him the treat.
- You should also praise and reward him any time you see him sitting on his own. As he starts to sit, give a name to the action–“Sit”–then praise him for it and give him a treat, if you have one nearby.
- Once he’s learned to sit, use the command to redirect cat behaviors you don’t like. For instance, if your cat likes to jump on your kitchen counter while you’re cooking, reward him for sitting at your feet instead.
Bottom line: Every relationship benefits from better communication, and training is the best interspecies communication method we have. By using positive techniques–rewarding your cat for getting it right–you’ll find that training your cat is fun, easy, and worthwhile.