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The Basics of Cat Training

Cats can be trained to come when called. Some will come running—even if asleep, hiding, or outside. Getting your cat to listen requires “Basic Training,” which is easier than it sounds. You don’t need squirt bottles or clickers. You’ll simply be able to talk to your cat and tell him what you want. And you’ll get it.

Cats will listen. They will come when called. (White cats often are deaf, but most cats aren’t hard of hearing.) They’ll even learn tricks and hand signals if you want them to.

Basic training builds strong and useful communication links between you and your cat. In this section, you’ll learn the three rules of basic training:

  1. Never hit him. Trust is necessary for training. Hitting will not teach a cat to trust you.
  2. Be aware of how to talk to him. Only say his name when he’s good. Never use his name with “No.”
  3. Always make it a pleasure for him to come to you or to come home. No matter what.

Also, throughout this website, suggestions are given on how to reward and reprimand certain good or bad behavior, such as scratching post training and aggression.

Basic Training Tips

  • Never reprimand him for peeing outside his box. That is like punishing a child for wetting the bed. See Litter Box Problems.
  • Never use your cat’s name when giving a reprimand. Only use his name when giving praise, or calling him, or just talking with him. That way, he’ll always associate his name with something good.
  • If you know your cat is about to misbehave, distract him with petting or a toy. Or simply talk to him and say his name to divert his mischief.
  • Never reprimand him when he walks to you, or comes home. Always make coming home, or coming to you, a good and trustworthy experience.

Rewards

Rewards are a necessary part of training. Reprimands only teach a cat what not to do. Rewards should be reserved for reinforcing good behavior. Sometimes a cat owner does not know that he or she actually is rewarding bad behavior. A popular example is when one cat is mean to another cat—the bully often gets the attention when it’s the victim that should be getting it all.

When the cat does something good, he needs to be recognized. Any attention or recognition given to him is a reward.

Rewards can be anything the cat likes. It can be a “great” reward, such as food and going outside, or something as simple and quick as a pet or kind word. Playing with a lure toy or being massaged or brushed also may be favorite rewards.

Another reward is simply to say your cat’s name anytime he’s good. You want to always have him know that when he hears his name, he is being good. Cut down on his guesswork. “Mommy said my name. I must be doing something good or she wouldn’t have said it!” Don’t say his name when what you mean is “I’m warning you.” And don’t say his name when he’s being a jerk.

Rule number three says to always make it a pleasure for your cat to come to you or to come home. This means that if your cat even simply walks to you, don’t do something he thinks is bad, such as giving him a pill, taking him indoors, or trimming a nail. If you must do something “bad” to your cat, go to him. And let your cat know he’s welcomed home. Even if he was gone for several hours, and even if he got in a cat fight outside, give him a treat and sound pleased to see him as soon as he’s in the house.

Rewards for Good Behavior

  • Food treat
  • A trip outside
  • Play time with you
  • Catnip
  • Petting
  • Praise (say his name!)

Food Treats As Rewards

Food treats are listed in Cat Diet. Reserve food treats for when he’s been through something difficult. Besides making him feel better, this helps prevent stress-related behavior problems. Also remember to use a wet meal or treat to reinforce the “[come] here” command described in “Training Your Cat to Come When Called.”

Unless he’s really super-old, it’s best not to give food treats for no rhyme or reason. Indiscriminate treats can start nasty habits, like nagging and bugging you for little tidbits throughout the day.

Good Times to Give a Food Treat

  • When your cat gets into his carrier for a trip to the veterinarian, while at the vet’s office, and for the trip home
  • After cleaning his ears or giving him medicine or other home treatments
  • When he comes when called under stress
  • Always when he comes home! (Or plan his wet meal for the end of his walk)
  • To a senior citizen cat, daily, just because he’s old

Reprimands

A loud, simple “No” is about the only reprimand you’ll need to use. Just say “No!” Do not say his name when you use the word “no.” But even “no” must be used with caution; use only as much force in the word “no” as the cat can handle. Some cats are easily offended.

Say “No” quickly in response to his walking on the counter, jumping on the stove, or scratching the sofa (but don’t start reprimanding for scratching the sofa until positive use of the scratching post has been ingrained for a few weeks). If he still doesn’t stop, say “No” again and loudly clap twice. Keep at him until he stops—even if you have to push him off the stove or counter or pick him up and carry him to his scratching post. He needs to know you mean business.

As soon as your cat stops doing the misbehavior, tell him he’s a good boy. Whenever a cat is not doing something bad, he is being good. It does not matter if he was bad just five minutes ago; if he’s good right now, he needs to hear “Good boy!”

Do not feed a cat or let him outside after seriously poor behavior, such as spraying or urinating. It’s okay to tell him he’s a good boy a few minutes later; just don’t feed him special food in the next half hour. Unless he lives outside, do not put him outside in response to his soiling the house. A cat will learn to do those things to be let outside.

If he stops misbehaving before you can say “No,” don’t say it. It’s too late. In fact, depending on the situation and the type of misbehavior, you might want to praise him for stopping. For example, if he starts to jump on the counter and you look his way and he refrains, praise him.

It’s very important to consistently respond to bad behavior. If you don’t want him on the counter, you need to say “No” every time you see it happen. Sometimes, cats will intentionally break rules just to see if you will be lazy today. Don’t let it go “just this once” or he will try longer and harder tomorrow. Once your cat learns that “no” means “no,” he often will learn that something is off-limits by being told just a few times.

Scaring the cat also can be a reprimand. If your cat continues to jump the fence or onto the counter, set up a situation in which you can catch him at it without being seen. When he does it, scare him by throwing a can of pennies or making a loud noise from where you’re hiding. He is more likely to stop this behavior if he thinks he can’t even get away with it when he’s alone.

Reserve the word “no” to mean never. When he wants something that he can’t have right now, say “Not now” or something like that. He’s not being bad; he may just be whining. If you tell him “not now,” enforce it. Do not give in until well after the cat has forgotten what it was he had wanted.

Sometimes ignoring the cat can act as a reprimand. When a cat is acting like a bully or being foolish, give attention to the cats who are behaving well. Don’t even look him in the eye until he’s acting more civilized.

Helpful Hint

Don’t say “no” when he scratches or bites. Say “Ouch” instead. (Also see Dealing with Cat Aggression.)

Scruffing

Scruffing is controlling a cat by grabbing and holding the loose skin at the base of his neck. Mother cats scruff their kittens to carry them, but being scruffed is humiliating and frightening to an adult cat.

Only scruff your cat when there is danger of injury to you or someone else, or to the cat himself. While he’s being scruffed, support his hind end with the other hand. Limit the scruff hold to as little time as possible, releasing the grip as soon as the danger has passed. In Outside/Inside Training you will see scruffing mentioned as a last-resort reprimand to be used if the cat crosses the street. That is the only time in this website that we recommend using scruffing as a reprimand. If you have to do it more than twice, the outside training is not worth continuing. Scruffing needs to be reserved for emergency stuff.

Don’t Hit Him or Squirt Him

Do not hit, spank, or otherwise hurt your cat as a way to deter bad behavior. Hitting only teaches your cat to fear you and run away from you. Hitting does not teach a cat what is expected of him and does not encourage him to trust people or their hands.

Getting sprayed with water is a traumatic experience for a cat, and it should be done only to break up a serious cat fight. Spraying water may also be used to interrupt or distract your cat in a life-threatening situation such as crossing the street or trespassing into an angry neighbor’s yard. Keep a spray bottle or squirt gun on your back porch, or wherever else a serious confrontation is likely to occur.

Training Your Cat to Come When Called

It’s really nice to have your cat come to you when you want him to. And it helps to make other training much easier.

You can train your cat to come when called. Soon after you start using the techniques in this section, all you’ll have to say is, “Here, {cat’s name}” and he’ll come running to you, even outdoors on a nice day.

Start feeding him his wet meals at the same time every day. When he shows up to eat, say “Here” with his name even if he’s only a few feet away. When he reaches you, say “Good boy {his name}” and place the meal in front of him. Pet him and let him eat. Do this with every meal or special treat that you give him. Soon, he will associate your call with eating and will be very motivated to show up.

When your cat comes dependably for his wet meals, start calling him when he’s a few feet away. Graduate to calling when he’s in another room. Choose times when he’s walking toward you and likely to reach you. This helps build habit and success. Say “Here” with his name. Pet him and then feed him when he arrives.

Make him earn his food by allowing you to touch him before he gets his meal. When he’s doing pretty well on coming to you from short distances, start calling him at unexpected times, such as naps, but do this only when he’s going to get a really good reward, such as his afternoon walk or his favorite toy.

Say the same words in the same style every time so that he becomes conditioned to expect only good things any time he hears that particular tone and combination.

In the first few months, do not pick up or hold a cat that comes to your call. Let him walk freely on the ground unless he asks you specifically to be picked up. The more you let a cat have his freedom when he comes when called, the more likely it is that he’ll walk to you again. As time goes by, he may not mind being picked up and held, even when he didn’t ask.

After your cat is coming for wet meals he’ll be ready for a few nonfood rewards when you call him. Use whatever your cat is enticed by: praise and petting, play, massage, catnip, or a walk outside. Continue to say “Here” with his name before wet meals every day.

Helpful Hints

Ask your cat what he wants, and then follow him to where he leads you.

A cat will walk in the direction of whatever he wants. Whether it’s play, food, or outside walks, he’ll walk in that direction and stay in the area where he gets those things while looking directly in your eyes. If he walks to you and stays near you, he probably wants to be petted and massaged. When he hurriedly walks away from you, he’s most likely trying to show you what he wants.

He’ll also hang out where he was last brushed or played with to see if he’ll get brushed or played with again. He’ll look at you and then look at his brush or toy.

Get him more used to doing things that you ask of him. When you think he’s in the mood to do what you want, ask him if that’s what he’ll do, such as “Time to scratch” or “Here, Kitty!” The more choices he thinks he’s allowed to make, the more he’ll make the ones you want him too, when you want him to.

Sound happy to see him. Saying his name and “Hey, where you been, man?” can make him feel special.

Say “Hello, {cat’s name}!” when cat enters the room.

Say “I’m sorry, {cat’s name},” when it is your fault that he ran into you.

Shopping List

  • Cat toys
  • Cat brush
  • Catnip
  • Food treats
  • Optional
  • Empty soda can with a few pennies in it (put tape over the opening on the can)

See Cat Products.

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