That quaintexpression of exasperation “…likeherding cats”- beautifully reflects something of the nature and character of our feline friends. Whilst cats are undeniably independent creatures that are not easily led, they can also be trained just like any other animal. You just need to exercise a little feline cunning and to find the right motivation for that individual cat.
3.1 Clicker training
3.2 Litter box training
3.3 Scratching and clawing
3.4 Jumping on Furniture
3.1 Clicker training
When clicker training a cat, perhaps the first question to ask is: Why bother?
Unlike a dog, you aren’t expecting to take your cat on a walk to the park, so recall hardly matters. Or does it? Actually, recall, or getting the cat to answer to his name, could prove vital is any number of situations.
For instance, if an indoor cat escapes and hides under a bush. Unless he is trained to come to his name, he may be too frightened to leave his sanctuary, even if you are only a few feet away. Also, when the cat slips out of the door on a dark night, he will keep going if you chase after him. Far more effective (and dignified!) is to train him to recall.
Now you appreciate the benefits of basic training, the next question is how to go about it. In the world of dog training, methods have moved on. The theory of dominating a pet to get him to do your will has been debunked. (This is something cat owners have known for a long time, and dog trainers seem to be catching up.)
How Cats Learn
Cats are bright, intelligent animals that learn readily. They are keen observers who readily watch and learn from other cats, and also learn by action and consequence.
If two events happen at the same time, the outcome of the event becomes linked in the cat’s mind. If that link is a pleasant one, then it is more likely to be repeated; if it is unpleasant – it will be avoided (more on punishment later!)
In reality, this means if the cat strolls towards you and is rewarded with a fantastically tasty treat, he will be happy to approach you in future.
On the other hand, if he was asleep on the sofa, suddenly woken up by the owner grabbing his scruff and forcing his face into feces on the carpet – the cat learns to avoid the owner.
A clicker is a small, handheld device that makes a ‘click-clack’ sound when pressed. The aim of clicker training is to make your cat associate the clicker with a reward for good behaviour.
The principles of clicker training are:
- Give a reward at the same time as the cat does the required action
- Click simultaneously you give the reward
- Once the cat links click-clack to a treat, only reward every 3rd or 4th click.
For example, you want the cat to come to her name. Initially, wait until she happens to be walking towards you, call her name, and then press the clicker at the same time as offering a treat. As she learns there is a reward for doing what she was intending to do anyway, she will start moving towards you more quickly. Once you notice this, you can move onto the next step.
In a quiet room with no distractions and the cat close by, call her name. When she turns to look, press the clicker and offer a reward. She will trot over for the reward. Gradually increase the distance between you, so she is walking further each time on the promise of a treat.
Of course, you may be wondering why you don’t just call her name (cut out the clicker) and give a reward. This is because the clicker gives a unique signal, which the cat knows ends with a reward. Because you use her name under different circumstances, such as when you are petting her, it doesn’t automatically come with a treat and so it is an inconsistent signal to use for training.
It is a fact of cat psychology that once she has learnt what’s required, if she gets a reward each time, she starts to lose interest. To prevent this you need to build an element of unpredictability into the reward giving. Do not reward every click. This helps keep her focus, because the clicker told her she is due a treat – but it didn’t deliver…perhaps next time? Ideally, give a reward to every 3 to 4 clicks, and always end each session with a treat to leave her with good memories.
Once you have trained the cat to the clicker, it has all sorts of uses for training her to do other things, such as jump down off works surfaces (more of this later), getting into her pet carrier, or even performing tricks.
Finding that must-have treat
One stumbling block to clicker training is if the cat isn’t food motivated. However, every cat has one killer titbit that they will do anything for – it’s just a matter of finding it. This might mean some investigation on your part where you prepare lots of morsels of different types of food to see what really lights her up. Some ideas to try are tuna, ham, cheese, steak, sausage, chicken, cod, salmon, or liver.
3.2 Litter box training
Kittens are quick learners and most owners find their new pet comes already litter box trained. This is because the kitten watched his mother use the tray and quickly learnt that is the right place to toilet.
Cats are inheritantly clean creatures. In the first couple of weeks of the kitten’s life, Mom takes care of business by licking the kitten’s anus to stimulate defecation, which she then cleans away. This is to keep the nest odor free, and reduce the risk of detection by predators. Once the kitten learns to walk, he uses his new skill to deposit urine and feces in an area away from the den. It is this instinct for cleanliness which makes kittens so easy to litter train.
If the penny hasn’t dropped with your new kitten, don’t worry, he will soon get the idea.
- Provide a box with low sides so he can jump in and out easily
- Where possible, use the same litter he was familiar with in the previous home
- Scoop up any ‘accidents’ and place them in the tray. This acts as a scent marker to tell him where the toilet is
- For half an hour after eating the kitten is more likely to need to toilet. Take advantage of this and during this window of opportunity, repeatedly pop kitty in the box.
Depositing urine and feces in places other than the litter box is a deeply unpleasant habit. No one wants a house that smells of cat urine and the trouble is that once a cat starts using an area as a toilet, he’s liable to carry on unless steps are taken to correct him.
However, this problem is far from straightforward. Some cats that have been happily using a tray for years suddenly stop. Others make a dirty protest after the introduction of a new pet into the house, or a stray comes visiting. In short, inappropriate toileting is not just about not being litter trained, but other factors come into play.
Factors causing inappropriate toileting habits:
- Health problems
- Behavioral issues
- Litter tray aversion
It is beyond the scope of this module to cover health and behavioural issues in detail (See Animal Care course) but we will take a brief look at what these involve.
If the cat has a sore bladder, or experiences pain when going to the toilet, he may forget his litter box training. Health problem that affect the bladder include:
- Bladder infections
- Bladder polyps or cancer
- Crystals in the urine
- Bladder stones
- Stressed-induced bladder inflammation
What these all have in common is they inflame the bladder lining, which gives the cat a sense of urgency. He feels he needs to urinate and cannot wait to get to the box, so squats where he is. Other types of health problem which cause the cat to drink excessively can also make him need to urinate more often. These include:
- Diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes)
- Over active thyroid glands
- Liver disease
If a previously well-trained cat suddenly develops bad habits, your fist step should be to get him checked out by a veterinarian
Scent is a huge part of how cats communicate with one another. Unfortunately for us, cat urine contains elements that are unique to each individual, and thus act as a ‘scent signature’. If the cat feels threatened, such as when a new cat moves into the block, he needs to emphasise ownership of his territory and responds by spraying.
Cats most commonly spray on vertical surfaces next to entrances and exits – a bit like a poster advertising their presence. Once marked, the cat returns repeatedly to the area and re-sprays, because the cat reading the message also makes interpretations based on how fresh the urine is.
Key to correcting this problem is removing the source of the cat’s anxiety (such as a visiting stray) and to thoroughly deodorize the area where he sprayed. When cleaning up cat urine, read the cleaning product’s label and avoid those containing ammonia or bleach. These are a component of urine and using them unwittingly leaves a scent marker behind that may attract the cat back. Either use a non-ammonia based cleaning product, or scrub the area with a dilute solution of biological washing powder followed by a solution of bicarbonate of soda. Rinse well and dry.
Litter box aversion
If the cat is healthy, not stressed, but refusing to use the tray, the chances are he has developed a dislike of the box and is avoiding it. Common reasons for tray aversion are outlined below:
|Wrong sort of cat litter||Cats can dislike the feel of some litters beneath their paws.||Experiment with different brands until you find one the cat prefers|
|Not enough litter boxes||Cats dislike sharing trays and may refuse to go where another cat has been||The rule is to provide one tray for each cat in the house, plus one spare (e.g. for 5 cats, this means 6 trays)|
|The box is dirty||Some cats only like to use clean trays and the presence of urine of feces inhibits them.||Scoop and clean daily|
|The box smells strongly of disinfectant||Strong disinfectants may act as a deterrent||Use a pet-friendly disinfectant|
|The tray is too small||A large cat may feel unsteady in a small box and opt not to use it||The larger the tray the better.|
|Plastic liner||If the cat snags his claws on the liner it can put him off||Remove the liner|
|No privacy||Cats feel vulnerable while toileting, so if the tray is in a high traffic area it might put him off||Locate the tray in a quiet, secluded spot|
|Associated with a fright||If the cat has a fright whilst in the tray, he may avoid it in future.||Avoid putting the tray next to spin dryers, washing machines, or other electricals which make a noise.|
3.3 Scratching and Clawing
Scratching and clawing is natural behavior which help condition the cat’s claws and spread his scent. However, when your cat scratches the couch or best antique furniture, his habit has costly consequences. There is much debate about the morality of declawing, but the argument becomes irrelevant when you train your cat to exercise his claws in an appropriate place.
How Not to Train
To illustrate what not to do, let’s take a look at a familiar scenario.
The cat slinks up to the best sofa and casually stretches up to sink his claws into the upholstery. Right in front of the owner’s eyes he proceeds to scratch the sofa with a look of utter bliss on his face. The irate owner shouts and throws a slipper at the happily scratching cat. The cat runs away.
However, half an hour later the owner has gone to work. The cat slinks out of hiding and resumes where he left off from sharpening his claws.
What happened here is the cat links the owner’s shouts to the presence of that owner, rather than scratching the sofa. Thus the cat lays low when the owner is around, but when left alone sees no problem with using the sofa as a scratch post.
Whilst letting off steam by shouting feels good at the time, if repeated it teaches the cat to avoid the presence of the person doing the shouting. Not a great outcome.
How to Train
This is done by offering the cat an alternative, appropriate place to express his natural behavior, and then rewarding use of the scratch post.
The process of learning looks like this:
Ask > Act > Acclaim
Broken down this means:
– You ask the cat to do something (in this case use the scratch post)
– You show him how to act or he acts spontaneously ( scratch the post)
– You acclaim (reward) use of the scratch post
The first step is to provide him with good scratching posts (The ideal scratch post is described at the end of this module.) Ask him to use them by attracting him over. To do this, use his favourite toy (wings on strings work well) and get him to play his way over to the scratch post, and then play with the toy on and around it.
Next, if he doesn’t stretch up and start scratching, show him what to do. Grasp his front paws and raise him into the scratching position. Gently move his paws over the scratching post. This spreads his scent and shows him it’s OK to scratch here.
Finally, reward him either for letting you show him, or for doing the scratching himself. Repeat this often enough and he’ll soon get the message.
The ideal scratching post
A good scratching post is more likely to get used. Not all scratching posts are created equal, so here’s what to look for.
- Firm attachment or base so it doesn’t wobble whilst the cat uses it
- Tall enough for the cat to stand on his back legs to scratch
- Sisal or carpet make an appealing substrate for the cat to get his claws into
- If you have a cat tower, place it near a window so the cat can use it as a viewing platform
- Attack toys to the scratch post to attract the cat over and encourage use
- Make the post extra attractive by lacing it with catnip
- Locate the post near a door. Cats like to put their scent near entrances and exits
3.4 Jumping on furniture
From jumping onto the kitchen counter to causing chaos on a dressing table, having a cat jump on furniture is not a great idea. Much like we learnt earlier (Module 3.3: Scratching and clawing) it is a mistake merely to shout at the cat for this errant behaviour. This only teaches him not to jump up in your presence. What is needed is to train the cat that another behavior is desired, so jumping on the worktop becomes less appealing.
More clicker training
It is precisely this sort of situation that benefits from having the cat trained to a clicker. By having him understand ‘click-clack’ means a reward, he has a choice whether to carry on with an unrewarded behaviour (sitting on the counter-top) or earn a treat by following your command.
[For more on clicker training see Module 3.1]
Teaching a cat not to jump up on furniture is achieved by replacing the undesirable action with one you can reward.
It helps if you can read the cats body language, and spot when he is about to jump up. Divert his attention, perhaps by shaking his favourite toy. Then clicker train him to ‘sit’. To do this hold the tasty treat directly above his head so he has to sit on his haunches to get it. Say the command ‘sit’, then click and reward.
Alternatively, if the cat is already on the counter top, make it worth his while to jump down. Attract his attention with a treat and move it so he has to jump down to get it. Say the command ‘down’. When the cat jumps down, click and reward.
The deterrent factor
The cat needs consistent training and signals. For those times when you are not there to supervise the cat, consider locking him out of the room with the trouble spot. Alternatively, make it difficult for the cat to jump onto the surface by lining the countertop with pans, or balancing empty tin cans along the edge, so they fall and clatter if he tries.
A well-socialized kitten grows into a relaxed confident adult. A kitten that lacks a broad range of experiences in the first few weeks of life grows into a fearful or aggressive adult. It the social experiences a young kitten is subjected to that make the difference between a loving pet and a feral animal.
The socialization period refers to the time during which a young kitten learns from what he sees around him and accept it as normal. Behavioral scientists believe this period of ‘plastic’ learning is to equip the youngster with knowledge about what is safe and not safe, while his mother is still there to supervise him. This learning window is open for a relatively short time. Peak learning occurs between 3 to 9 weeks of age, and it slows up to 12 weeks of age, and then closes.
Many rescue centers make use of this knowledge and ask volunteers to handle young kittens, to help make the youngsters into confident adults. Unfortunately, breeders of pedigree cats sometimes go the other way. They over protect the valuable kittens, fearing contact with people could mean bringing in infection. In addition, breeders often refuse to home kittens until after 12 weeks of age, which also happens to be when they are less adaptable and able to accept their change of scenery.
Ideally, before 12 weeks a kitten has met:
- Dogs and other animals
- People: men (clean shaven and bearded) women, children
- Vacuum cleaners, hair dryers
- Pet carriers
- The outdoors and rooms indoors
- Got used to being groomed, picked up, and handled
An adult cat that missed out on socialization as a kitten can be an uphill struggle. This doesn’t mean he’ll never adapt to family life, but the odds are stacked against you and it takes tremendous patience if you are to win out on the end.
Most poorly socialized cats are fearful of things they don’t understand. This manifests itself as either hiding away or aggression. Indeed, the fearful cat that is afraid of bearded men will turn aggressive if cornered by that bearded man. Most fearful cats prefer to run away from perceived danger, but if the escape route is cut off, will come out fighting.
Whilst there are no quick answers, it helps to know how to act around a fearful or aggressive cat, in order to win his confidence.
- Never confront the cat. This only reinforces his fight and flight instinct, and makes him more fearful
- Provide plenty of hiding places. Providing bolts holes decreases the cat’s stress levels, meaning he is not in a permanent state of high arousal against danger
- Leave escape routes. If the cat happens to be in the same room as you, take care not to stand in front of the door and block his escape route. He is constantly on alert for means of escape, and seeing none, he’ll panic
- Lie down. When trying to make friends lie down on the floor. A standing human towers over a cat, which is very intimidating
- Avoid eye contact. Remove any spectacles and close your eyes. This is because cats interpret direct eye contact as a threat display. Closing your eye and looking away, signals you have no aggressive intentions
- Treats, treats, and more treats. Always have treats in your pocket and scatter then in your wake. This helps the cat associate you with nice things to eat. When you lie down, extend an arm along the floor and offer a treat in your open palm.
- Speak softly at all times. Never raise your voice in the house