How to Train Your Cat

Cats are known for their sass more than their obedience, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. That “take me as I am” attitude is part of what we love about them, but strengthening the human-cat bond is key to fostering a long and healthy relationship with your kitty.

Most cats can be trained to do some fun tricks, and with a deeper investment they can learn useful commands. The ability to come to you on command could save your cat’s life someday. Careful training can also eliminate destructive behaviors like scratching.

Spend some time getting to know your feline friend, and soon you’ll both be getting more out of the bond you share. Because cats were domesticated mainly as mice and rat catchers, they’re used to working alone. But your cat relies on you to give him or her the happiest and healthiest life you can.

Cats were originally domesticated for the sake of catching mice, so they’re evolved to work alone. Your cat relies on you to give them those few extra skills they need to bring them health and happiness.

Litter Box Training

The most basic step in every cat or kitten's domestic training is to establish clear boundaries. This gives cats a safe and private space to call their own. Thanks to cats’ natural tidiness and waste-burying instincts, this is usually a quick and easy task.

  1. Provide a clean litterbox. In the same room, provide access to food and water, and give your cat lots of alone time.
  2. Place the results of any “outside the box” messes into the litter box.
  3. If after a few days this doesn’t work, place the cat in the litterbox after each meal and demonstrate how to scratch the litter with your finger.
  4. Make sure the box has never been used before (or is cleaned with baking soda), and try different litter brands until you find one your cat prefers.

Behavior Modification

In situations where your cat is behaving badly – at least according to human rules – you'll need to get inside their head to understand their instincts in order to change the behaviour. The urge to claw, for example, is embedded in your cats’ mental wiring and trying to take it away entirely will be a non-starter. The best you can hope for in cases where the instincts run this deep is to redirect their need to scratch toward an alternative to your sofa, like a high-quality scratching post.

Reinforcement

Love is second only to cat treats, and both will go a long way toward convincing your cat to be a more pleasant team player. Reinforcement is the way to go.

Not only is harsh punishment, like shouting and swatting, inhumane, it teaches your cat to fear you. That’s the last thing you want when trying to establish a healthy bond, and it could lead to your cat's lashing out in revenge behaviours. Saying your cat’s name in an angry tone to stop bad behaviour, such as if they are getting too aggressive during playtime, may actually train them to run from you. Instead, make an abrupt noise by clapping your hands, then walk away to show that playtime is over – leave them wanting more, not freaked out. 

 

Target Training

A valuable tool for new cat owners, target training encourages your cat to go toward an object. Present the item to your cat by holding it in front of him, and give him a treat when he sniffs or touches it. Repeat this step, gradually moving the target farther away. With practice, you can use this method to have your cat walk into a carrier or toward their bed on command.

Clicker Training

This is an easy and appealing method of cat training because it relies only on a quiet sound and positive reinforcement. Cats naturally want to repeat any action which earns them a positive experience and this is a simple way to utilize that desire.

A plastic clicker can be found at a pet store or substituted with a regular retractable pen. The sound of the clicker is easily understood by your cat because it’s more consistent than your voice can ever be. It’s also a distinctive noise they will generally only hear during training.

Give your cat a small piece of his favourite treat immediately following the click, and you will quickly gain his attention. Repeat this step with tiny portions of food until you’re sure the clicking sound has been associated with the treat. This is known as “charging the clicker”.

Now you can combine the click sound with the behaviours you want to encourage. When your cat performs the desired action, click immediately in order to strengthen the connection. Timing is key here and must be precise. You can also use pats and praise instead of treats if you plan to do extensive clicker training.

 

Training Your Cat to Come to You on Command

This basic behavior could make a life-saving difference if your cat runs away, so it’s a great one to establish early on. Positive reinforcement is key here, and a clicker can be used in addition to your voice.

  1. Call your cat by name in positive situations. Speak their name repeatedly while petting them in a relaxing cuddle session.
  2. Give a small reward when your cat acknowledges you for saying their name. Even the slightest glance up at you in response can be rewarded with a scratch behind the ears. Your cat will learn that it’s worthwhile to pay attention to you.
  3. Once you’ve established that behaviour, it’s time to move to the next step. If your cat comes toward you when called, break out the treats. Repeat this step daily.
  4. Move farther away from your cat each time you call his name. Eventually they may even join you from a nap, or draw back from a dangerous situation such as walking across a busy street.

 

Leash Training

For most indoor cats, the world outside your door can be an overwhelming place. That said, with enough patience and love, leash training is entirely possible for the right cat. How can you tell if your new friend will be an indoor/outdoor cat? If they tends to act with confidence and enjoy being handled, it's within reach. Leash training opens up new possibilities for your cat’s independence, physical health, and enjoyment of nature.

Introduce a Harness

A leash-and-collar system alone is not enough to secure your cat for any significant amount of time outdoors, even in the backyard. Invest in a high-quality harness that fits your cat. Rather than risking a collar slipping off or hurting your cat, take their exact measurements to find a safe full-body harness which distributes pressure evenly. Measure your cat’s chest girth to select one that will fit properly, preferably with adjustable straps. Tighten the straps until the harness neither hangs nor digs in, allowing for two finger’s width of a gap.

Let your cat get used to the idea by placing the harness on for a few minutes at a time, then gradually longer time periods, with positive reinforcement as needed. Once the harness is accepted, attach a cat leash and let your cat walk themselves around the house, dragging it on the ground. This instills a sense of control before you take the reigns.

 

Slowly Venture Outside

Watch for signs of stress and apprehension and never force a timid cat out the door. The desire to explore and chase the birds they've seen from the window will often be enough motivation. It’s not unwise to try this when your cat is expecting a meal, as an appetite will raise the stakes a bit. Offer small treats and move forward in short sessions.

If your cat walks with their tail held high, it’s a good sign that you can move forward and explore a new area. In the case of a frightening encounter with another animal, do your best to distract your cat and retreat to the place they last felt comfortable. Picking them up may lower their confidence, so let the paws stay on the ground. Your first successful harnessed walk around the block together calls for a lavish celebration with plenty of treats and praise.

 

Speak Your Cat’s Language

Be consistent with the tone of voice and body language you use with your cat. Never use a “good kitty” tone of voice when giving a “down!” command, or vice versa. To correct unwanted behaviour, your tone of voice, facial expressions, and hand gestures must all match every time or your message will be lost. In the case of seriously bad behaviour, a cat will understand a hissing sound much more clearly than your words. Looming over a cat and standing tall will be very threatening, as they are naturally fearful of larger predators from their days of wild field mouse stalking.

Cats have notoriously short attention spans, so if you plan to carry out important training, try to pick a time when they seem receptive and alert. This is likely to be a very small window of time, so make your communication count. Unlike dogs, cats tend to understand gestures better than words; however, they will respond to words given consistent repetition.

 

Listen to Your Cat

A key step in gaining your cat’s trust is listening. Learn to speak “cat” by watching for the cues they give you every day. Behaviors will be easier to teach and reinforce as your bond grows stronger.

 

A Secret Language of Meows

Surprisingly, the vocalizing we’re used to hearing from housecats rarely happens between feral cats. Without human interaction, cats are generally silent except when hissing at a trespasser. Over the years they have learned that meowing provokes a response in their humans. Which raises the question... are we training our cats, or are they training us?

A 2003 study showed that only a cat’s owner could recognize the call of his cat and interpret the exact situation in which they had been meowing. You and your cat enjoy a secret language all your own. You’ll notice that their “give me breakfast” meow is always quite different from the one meaning “let me outside”.

Eye Contact 

A long, slow blink is a gesture of acceptance. This shows your cat feels safe enough with you to let his guard down, as it indicates that your cat perceives no oncoming danger. When your cat’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol are down, his eyes will naturally close. Cats do this around each other as well. A cat with dilated pupils is either feeling aggressive or playful and excited.

 

Tail Signals

A tail held straight up with a curl shows happiness and confidence. But combined with tail fur that sticks straight up and a tail bending in an “N” shape, an upright tail shows extreme aggression. A tail held low with fur standing up shows fearful aggression.

 

Other Cues

When a cat sniffs your face, it’s to confirm your identity. Tongue flicking shows worry and fear, as do pinned back ears. Your cat claims you as his owner each time he rubs against your legs, so this is a positive sign of submission during training. Wet nose kisses and licks are, of course, pure affection.

 

Train Your Cat to Use a “Door Bell”

It’s possible to give your cat their own communication device to make life easier for both of you. If you’re frustrated by an outdoor cat that's meowing loudly to be let back inside or damaging your door with scratches, hang a bell within his reach. Ignore the scratches and meows, but let him in when you hear the bell, and your cat will soon have a new, less invasive way to communicate with you.

Contacting a good cat trainer in your area is always an option if you're working with a cat with challenging behaviours. For the most part, cats just want to exist in harmony alongside us – that’s part of what makes them such ideal companions. Try teaching your cat new commands and listening for what their meow is telling you, and you'll feel your connection flourish.

 

Want to learn more? Check out some useful tips for new cat owners.

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