It might seem that training a cat is about as likely as the old saying about herding cats; that is, out of the question. But the truth is, cats are highly intelligent creatures. They can learn to do all sorts of things.
The trick to training your cat is to learn a bit about what makes them tick. You can teach your cat everything from staying off the kitchen counter to sitting on command.
The Cat Mind
Cats, unlike dogs, are not out to please their owners. This makes training a cat more difficult than training a dog. Your cat probably won’t learn to fetch just because you want them to. However, if you reward your cat for doing the things you want them to do, they’ll eventually come around to doing those behaviors.
The fact is, your cat has already learned many things from you. They have learned to come running when they hear the crinkle of the cat food bag, for instance. Your pet knows that responding to this sound comes with a reward: dinner.
If you want kitty to come when their name is called, there has to be a similar reward attached. Every time you call their name and they come, immediately offer a treat. This treat can be food, or maybe just a nice scratch behind the ears.
Whatever the reward, if it is given immediately and consistently, your cat will soon learn to make the connection between the command, and the nice things that come along with it.
Your goal for training your cat might be simple. You may want them to stop scratching the furniture or using houseplants for the litter box. Or your goals can be a little more complicated. You might want to begin toilet training! Or maybe you're more interested in the entertainment or play side of things. You may want them to sit on command, or fetch a toy.
Most, perhaps even all of these, are possible. It will depend on your pet, and your level of commitment. Before you begin training to correct unwanted behaviors, remember that sometimes “bad” cat behaviors are actually a method of communication. Scratching at furniture could mean they need more places to stretch their claws. Maybe their current scratch post doesn’t satisfy the need. Using plants for litter could mean you’re overdue for a scooping of the litter box. Check in with yourself before giving into frustration with your pet.
During training, remember that rewards for good behavior are far more effective than punishments for bad. Scaring your cat when it scratches the couch might work for the moment, but the best long term solution is to catch him in the act of using the scratching post and then lavish him with rewards. You can also use negative reinforcement, like deterrents, that don’t include scare tactics. For example, bitter sprays can be applied harmlessly to furniture, that will make certain areas inhospitable to scratching. If you pair a yucky smelling spritz with rewards at the scratch post, kitty’s choice will become clear.
Punishments can often confuse your cat. Rather than quitting their bad behavior, your cat might just become fearful of you or learn to scratch when you aren’t around. What’s more, believe it or not, some cats might “enjoy” their punishment if it involves being chased or even sprayed with a water bottle. You could be rewarding your cat for their naughty deeds without realizing it!
Young cats can be easier to train than older ones. Senior cats have been getting rewards for their behavior all their lives and breaking these habits might be tricky. Still, with a bit more patience, even an old cat can learn new tricks. This is important to remember if you are trying to litter box train an older cat who needs you to give them a little extra time to learn what you want from them.
A cat’s attention span is limited. Keep training sessions to just a couple minutes in the day. A cat won’t learn much if they’re not interested, or if the reward is no longer exciting. Switching up rewards from time to time—a different brand of cat treat, for example—can lead to easier training.
Some breeds of cats are more trainable than others. You might have a cat that will learn to jump and roll over on command, but then again you might not. Complicated tricks might be out of the question for many cats. If you do want a cat that responds well to these types of commands, the Ocicat and Pixiebob breeds are good options.
Remember, cats are probably not the pet to get if you’re eager to have a creature in your life who’s obedient and submissive, and bends to your will all the time. Cats are beloved precisely for their individualism, and even their aloofness. Feel free to attempt to train your cat, but if all your attempts don’t pan out, remember to love them for who they are.
More on Cat Care
Litter Box Training for Your Cat
How to Wash a Cat
Why Cats Eat Grass, and Other Self-Medicating Habits
This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard or delay seeking professional advice due to what you may have read on our website.