How to train a cat

Zazie Todd with an adapted extract from her new book, Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy.

Some of the most fun I have had with Melina was teaching her to “sit pretty”; in other words, to sit up on her haunches with her front paws in the air. It felt slightly dangerous, because I began by luring her with a treat and she was rather bitey when trying to take it. She’s not used to taking food from a person’s hand in the same way that a dog would be. But these training sessions were fun for Melina as well as for me. We did only a few trials each day, but she would come running for them. I gave her half a cat treat for each successful trial, which to be honest was probably a bit much, but it wasn’t easy to break the treats into quarters and she really loved these treats. 

I had already taught her to sit for a hand signal, and from sit I used a treat to lure her backwards and up so that she was sitting on her haunches. Once she had the hang of that, I began to make the same movement but without a treat in my fingers. I wasn’t cheating her – as soon as she sat up, I gave her the treat. Although I’m generally a fan of feeding animals in the position you are training them to reach, I gave up on this strategy for the sake of not getting my fingers bitten, and instead put the treat on the floor next to her. Then it was time to try again. It actually didn’t take as long as I thought it would for her to learn this position. Finally it was time to start saying “Sit pretty” before making the hand signal so that she would learn the verbal phrase. This part took longer, although I know she pays attention to the words I use. After a long period without practice, she will still sit pretty, but the hand signal is the bit she remembers best – which is perhaps not surprising as that got more practice than the verbal command. 

What I also taught Harley and Melina in a far more systematic way than I had taught previous cats was to go in their cat carrier. The training had two aims: simply to teach them to love their carrier so that it would be a nice place to relax, and also so that they would go in it when I said “basket.” It makes going to the vet so much easier, and I think all cats should be trained to do it. We’ll get to what the science tells us about the benefits of training cats later in the chapter, but first it is important to understand how cats learn. 

How Cats Learn 

As a society, we don’t think too often about training cats, and indeed many people probably think of them as untrainable. But this is far from the truth. Cats learn all the time from their interactions with us whether we’d like them to or not. For example, they learn that when they come to sit on our lap we’ll pet them, and depending on whether or not they like that, they will come to our lap more or less often. They learn that the shake of the treat packet means we’ll give them a treat. And they learn very quickly that the cat carrier means an unpleasant trip to the vet. 

Although teaching tricks can be fun and a nice bonding exercise for you and your cat, the most important thing is to train some key life skills, such as how to go in the carrier, how to be examined at the vet, how to be brushed and have their teeth cleaned, and to come when called. Dr. Sarah Ellis, coauthor of The Trainable Cat and head of cat advocacy at International Cat Care, told me that when training cats we are “teaching the cat the key skills that they need to live in society with us. And without those skills they often struggle. They’re skills that are completely within the reach of a cat, you know. We’re not asking for things that actually destroy the essence of what a cat is.” 

To train a cat, you need to have something your cat likes. Although it would be nice if a cat would do something just to be told “Good cat!” it doesn’t work that way (it doesn’t really work that way for dogs, either, who are much more used to being trained). Some cats who like being brushed will work for that – Harley is just such a cat who will come running as soon as I say “Brush!” – but for most cats, food makes the best reward. “There isn’t that need to please,” says Dr. Ellis, “so we have to think about what really is rewarding for a cat, because it’s certainly not our social attention for most cats. And when we first start training a cat that’s not been trained before, the most rewarding thing generally for cats is food.” 

Of course, being overweight is an issue for many cats (see chapter 10), so it’s important to use only small rewards and to take account of the calories from training when feeding your cat. Types of food to use as rewards include little bits of tuna or prawn, pieces of cat treats, or little bits of wet cat treats (available in tubes). Regarding the size of treats, Dr. Ellis has this advice: “Many people think about the size of the food reward that they give, and it is so often far too big. Because we sort of think in dog terms or even in human terms, and even the size that commercial cat treats come in are far too big to be a single training treat. So I very often recommend that if you are using commercial cat treats, use the freeze-dried ones or the semimoist ones, because you can pull them into much, much smaller parts. If we’re thinking about a prawn, not a king prawn, just an average normal prawn, I would break that maybe into four or five parts at least.” 

Many cats are not used to taking treats from your hand and, like Melina, may try to bite or accidentally bite. To save your fingers, you may prefer to put the treat on a spoon or a little wooden stick (like a lollipop stick) or to offer wet treats from a dish or a tube. It’s best to work in short stages, so the cat does not get bored or tired, and keep the level easy enough that they don’t get frustrated. Especially in the beginning, this often means working in slower increments than you expect, and for short periods of time like five minutes. Your cat may also want a break between each trial; if they spend it purring and rubbing their head on you or the surroundings, that’s a nice sign that they’re happy. If they choose to walk off, that is of course their choice. Try again another time, and consider trying a better treat. 

Cats learn in several ways, but the main ways that we use in training are types of associative learning: learning by consequence and learning by association with events.

Associative Learning 

Operant conditioning means learning by consequence when the cat is either reinforced or punished for the behavior they just did. Reinforcement makes the behavior continue or increase in frequency, and punishment makes the behavior decrease in frequency. And there are two types of each, depending on whether the consequence was something added (positive) or removed (negative). 

Positive reinforcement is the most well known and involves giving the cat a nice reward for a behavior so that they are more likely to do it again. Food makes a great reward for training cats. Negative reinforcement means that something unpleasant is removed when the cat does the behavior and as a consequence the behavior increases. This approach is not recommended in animal training because of risks to the animal’s welfare. Fortunately it is rarely used with cats; however, you may have seen or heard of it in dog training. One example is when someone pushes the dog’s bottom down and releases it when they are in a sit position in order to teach them to sit. The unpleasant sensation of the bottom being pushed ceases when the dog does the desired behavior, making the dog do the behavior more often. But, for dogs and cats, positive reinforcement works very well to achieve the desired behavior, so there is no need to use a negative reinforcement approach. 

Negative punishment means that something the cat likes is withheld in order to decrease the frequency of a behavior. Maybe you are petting the cat and the cat bites you out of excitement, so you stop petting them until they stop biting to decrease the biting behavior. But notice I said out of excitement (i.e., they want more), because it’s also possible (even likely) that the cat is biting because they don’t want to be petted anymore. In this case they are applying positive punishment to you: something unpleasant has been added (a bite) to decrease a behavior the cat does not like (petting going on for too long). One example of using positive punishment with cats is when someone sprays the cat with a water bottle to stop them from going on the kitchen counter. This is not a good idea. A better approach might be to provide a nice high-up space, such as a cat tree near the counter, reinforce the cat with treats for using that space instead, and stop leaving food or toys on the counter that will tempt the cat to come and get them. For example, if you leave some fish on the counter and allow the cat to eat it, they’ve just been very handsomely reinforced to continue jumping on the counter. 

If the consequences for the behavior stop happening, then the behavior will go away. This is called extinction. An example of when you might not want extinction to occur is if you have trained your cat to come when called by reinforcing the behavior with treats, but then you stop feeding the treats (maybe you ran out of treats and forgot to buy more, or maybe you thought the cat would work for nothing and come without the reward). Because the behavior is no longer being reinforced, the cat will stop coming when you call them. In the process, you might get something called an extinction burst, when the cat does the behavior again and again to try and get those consequences once more before giving up. Suppose the behavior is meowing at you for food, and you are trying to extinguish the meowing by ignoring it. You may find that an extinction burst can be very annoying! 

Positive reinforcement and negative punishment are reward-based methods, whereas positive punishment and negative reinforcement are aversive methods. Some studies have shown that cats are more likely to have behavior problems when their owners use punishment. In one study, cats were twelve times more likely to eliminate outside the litter box in homes where their guardian used positive punishment.  In a study of cats who had been adopted from a shelter as kittens, aggression towards new people or objects, in new situations, and towards other animals in the home was much more likely when their guardian used positive punishment. There has been a lot more research on dog training methods than on cat training methods, and the research with dogs shows that use of aversive methods has risks for animal welfare, including the risks of fear, stress, aggression, and a worse relationship with the owner. In addition there’s some evidence that positive reinforcement is more effective as a training method than aversive methods. 

These findings with dogs may apply to your cat too. For example, using a squirt bottle may startle your cat and cause them to feel fearful or stressed, and if they associate the squirt with you it may affect your relationship with them. If you punish your cat, it doesn’t teach them what you would like them to do instead; and some behaviors (like scratching) are natural to cats, so it’s up to you to provide appropriate ways for them to engage in that behavior (see chapter 1 on welfare needs). 

Dr. Sarah Ellis told me, “I think to get people onside, they have to understand that punishment will – by the very nature it’s called punishing a behavior – it will stop a behavior. But if that punishment is seen to be coming from you, you are also then perceived as punishing, therefore you are not perceived in a positive light. And therefore it can really damage the relationship that you have with that cat because for a punisher to really work it has to be really aversive. To stop that behavior it has to be stronger than the motivation to perform the behavior. Therefore if it’s that aversive, and the cat associates you as being that aversive, you’re going to really damage your relationship with that cat. Now, you’re in your cat’s life all the time: you feed the cat, you do other positive things with the cat, so you’re suddenly giving this cat very, very ambiguous signals that ‘sometimes I’m nice, and sometimes I’m not.’ That can put the cat into a state of anxiety, and in extreme cases the cat could even begin to fear you. So you actually can then begin to create a situation where the cat hasn’t just stopped performing the behavior you wanted it to stop performing, it’s now actively avoiding you or actively fearful of you.” 

Of course, when teaching a behavior, you often need to break it down into small steps. There are a few ways to get the behavior you want. Capturing is when you wait for the behavior to happen naturally (like a sit), and then you say the cue (“Sit”) and reinforce the behavior with a treat. This is a great way to pick up some behaviors, especially if your cat has a cute little behavior you want to see more of. 

Another approach is luring, when you use a treat to lure the cat into position. For example, if you want to get your cat to sit, you can put a treat in front of their nose and lift the treat up and back. As the cat’s head follows the treat, their butt will go down and they will sit. (You have to keep the treat close to their nose, because if it’s too far away, they will probably stand on their hind legs instead to reach it.) 

You can also use shaping, where you gradually shape a behavior through lots of little approximations. Typically, you would use a clicker or another marker (such as the click from a ballpoint pen or a word that you choose to use) to mark the specific point at which you see the behavior you want, and then reinforce that behavior with a treat. 

Another type of associative learning is learning by association with events. For example, when your cat associates the cat carrier with an unpleasant car ride and an even more unpleasant vet visit and immediately runs to hide under the bed where they are out of reach, they are learning by association. This is known as classical or respondent conditioning, and the best-known example is Pavlov’s dogs learning to salivate when hearing a bell. When physiologist Ivan Pavlov rang a bell and immediately gave the dogs food, the dogs would salivate in response to the food and soon began to salivate in response to the bell. Although Pavlov’s experimental use of dogs to study digestion is distressing to read about, we will just focus on the mechanisms of classical conditioning here. 

Some technical terminology goes along with this form of training, so let’s switch to the example of using classical conditioning to teach that the cat carrier is not to be feared (counter-conditioning). We need something the cat really likes: let’s say tuna. Tuna is known as the unconditional stimulus, and feeling happy about eating it is known as the unconditioned response – unconditioned because we don’t have to do anything to make that happen; the cat likes tuna already. The cat carrier is the conditioned stimulus – the thing we want to train them to like – and liking it is known as the conditioned response. If we always bring the carrier out and then feed tuna, the cat will learn that the appearance of the carrier means she will be given something tasty to eat, and she will like to see the carrier because it predicts nice things. 

If you’re doing counter-conditioning with your cat, there are a couple of things to remember. One is that the scary thing (the cat carrier) must predict the treats, not the other way around. The other is that you need to have a one-to-one relationship in which the cat carrier always predicts the treats; if you get it out without offering the tuna, you will be undoing your training. And finally, you need to use really great treats. 

If you want to try training your cat, you will find plans for teaching your cat to go in the cat carrier and to “sit pretty” at the end of the book. But there are some other ways in which cats learn too. 

Other types of learning 

You’ll be familiar with single-event learning if you’ve ever become so drunk and hungover from one particular drink that you never want to have it again. As the name suggests, it means learning from something after it happens only once. In evolutionary terms, we can see this learning might be helpful to stop cats (or other animals) from continuing to eat poisonous substances. If that first trip to the vet in a cat carrier is awful for your cat, it’s possible that will be a case of single-event learning.

Habituation is when your cat gets used to something that happens multiple times and doesn’t really mean anything. For example, if your cat has been startling at the sound of the dishwasher but gets used to it and no longer flinches when the machine turns on, they are learning by habituation. In other words, they lose a behavioral response that was not learned (startling at the sound). This learning can happen with benign things like these noises made by the dishwasher or washing machine, which hopefully your cat habituated to as a kitten. The opposite of habituation is called sensitization, when an unlearned behavioral response (like startling at the sound of the dishwasher) gets worse and worse. This would be a sensible response if the dishwasher were dangerous, because the cat would learn to avoid it; however, since it’s not dangerous, it just means the dishwasher becomes an unnecessary source of stress. Another example might be if you have a timid cat in a household with young children. The cat could habituate to the noises the kids make – and certainly many parents would hope this is the case – but it’s also possible that instead the cat may sensitize and find those noises more and more frightening. 

Cats continue to learn about other cats or people throughout their life, but this learning about the social world is especially important for kittens after the sensitive period for socialization. A range of positive experiences at this time will help them grow up to be confident and friendly. Other types of learning include paying attention to something because they see that you are paying attention to it (social facilitation), or paying attention to something like a toy because you or another cat are manipulating it (stimulus enhancement). Scientists found that kittens learn a task more quickly when they have seen an adult cat do it first, especially if the adult cat was their mother. Cats, like other animals, also have some behaviors that all cats do and that they do not need to learn, which are known as modal action patterns. An example is the crouch-stalk-pounce used in hunting. But these behaviors can change through learning. Mother cats teach their kittens to hunt by bringing them prey they have already killed, and then, later, prey that is still alive for them to catch. At the time of writing, there is one example in the literature of a cat learning to copy what a person does in response to the command “Do as I do,” although more research is needed to test this approach more thoroughly.

The Benefits of Training Cats 

As we’ve just seen, cats can learn, and training them can be very beneficial. “It’s so important – training them, doing clicker training,” says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Wailani Sung. “Teaching them basic things like a simple touch and go to your mat is so important. If [cat guardians] can start doing that, they will really develop a stronger bond with their cat.” 

One of the times when training can make the biggest difference is when you need to take your cat to the vet. Many cats have learned that the cat carrier predicts a trip to the vet and will resist being put in the carrier with tooth and claw. But scientists have shown that cats can be trained to like going into their carrier, and that it makes life much easier at the vet. 

For a study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, tested twenty-two cats who lived at their laboratory. They randomly allocated the cats either to a group that was trained to use the cat carrier or to a control group that wasn’t. The training plan began with teaching the cat to go in the bottom of the carrier and built up to going in the carrier for a very short ride in a car (50–90 seconds). All of the cats had twenty-eight training sessions of about eight minutes each. The cats worked for tuna, meat sticks, or assorted cat biscuits, depending on their preference, and they earned about four treats a minute. 

To move on to the next stage in the training, the cats had to either achieve the goal of that session or have had six sessions at that stage. Of the eleven cats in the training group, only three fully completed the training. A further six cats reached the final stage but did not finish it, and two cats reached the penultimate stage. Before and after the training, cats from this group and the control group were taken for a mock vet exam in which one of the scientists acted as the cat’s owner while another played the role of the vet. The scientists looked at the cat’s behavior while being put in the carrier, in the car, and during the vet exam, as well as their scores on a standardized stress scale called the Cat Stress Score. 

Overall, the cats who received training to use the carrier were less stressed according to their Cat Stress Scores and behavior. The trained cats were less likely to pant or hide during the car ride, and some of them even ate treats during the journey. The vet exams for the trained cats were completed significantly more quickly than those for the untrained cats. The cats made fewer attempts to escape and spent less time hiding, and in most cases the vet exam could be completed in full (sometimes it ended early because the cat would not tolerate having rectal temperature taken). As well, the scientists used the kind of carrier with a top that comes off and found that cats liked to stay in the bottom of the carrier during the vet exam, showing that it was a safe space for them. 

If these results inspire you to train your cat to use their carrier, you will find a training plan in the appendix (see page 244). Once your cat completes the training, it would be a good idea to do “reminder” sessions from time to time so that they continue to associate the carrier with good things. It’s also a good idea to keep the carrier out, such as in the living room, where it can become a normal piece of cat furniture (rather than something that signals a trip to the vet) and where your cat can choose to relax (to continue to build positive associations). It has even been shown that cats can be trained to accept a blood draw at the vet.

Other research on the benefits of training cats has looked at the effects of training on shelter cats. One study, published in Animals, looked at whether shelter cats could be taught tricks (to sit, spin, or high-five, and to nose-touch either the trainer’s finger or a chopstick, depending on how fearful the cat was).  Over two weeks, each cat took part in fifteen five-minute clicker training sessions. By the end, 79 percent had learned to nose-touch the target, 60 percent to spin, 31 percent to high-five, and 27 percent to sit. Even very shy cats took part in the training (rather than choosing to hide at the back of their cage) and learned some tricks. This result shows that tricks training is suitable for any cat. As well, it seems likely that the training sessions helped shy cats learn positive associations with people. 

Another study, published in Preventive Veterinary Medicine, looked at the effects of training shelter cats who are frustrated in that environment.  Some cats brought to the shelter will pace, chew the bars, put their paw through the bars, tip their food and/ or water out of the bowl, and so on. We might think they’ve had a wild party and trashed the place, but these are behaviors that show they are frustrated at being stuck in the cage or room they are in. Frustration is obviously a welfare issue for those cats, and so researchers at the BC SPCA tested whether or not a training program could help. Fortunately, frustration is not that common: out of 250 cats assessed for this research, only fifteen were found to be frustrated. The frustrated cats were randomly allocated either to a control condition (eight cats) or a training condition (the remaining seven cats) in which each cat was taken out of their cage four times a day to have a ten-minute training session in another room. Using food rewards and a clicker, they were taught to do a high-five in response to the cue “Give me five.” Samples of poop were taken every day and analyzed for cortisol, a hormone that is a measure of arousal. The cats’ behavior was monitored via video cameras in their cage, and the researcher also assessed the friendliness of the cats. 

The results showed that training was good for the frustrated cats. They showed more signs of being content, such as normal grooming, lying on their side in a relaxed posture, rubbing their head or body on things in the cage, and spending more time sitting at the front of the cage. In contrast, over time the control group of cats became apathetic, typically after six days of trying to escape. They did not eat as much or groom themselves properly, and they spent a lot of time sleeping. Stool samples showed that cats in the training group had higher levels of immunoglobulin A, which can protect against upper respiratory infections. In line with this finding, the control group was significantly more likely to get an upper respiratory infection during the time of the study. The training activity involved time out from the cage and time spent with a human, as well as the training itself. Any of these, or the combination, might have caused these beneficial results, so more research about the role of training is needed. 

If you want to give training a try, focus on learning that will make a difference to your cat’s welfare (such as carrier training, toothbrushing, taking medication, and nail clipping) or provide cognitive enrichment for them. If you begin this training when you have a kitten, it will prevent them from developing the negative associations that many adult cats have. Keep sessions short and make them fun. Give your cat a choice of whether or not to participate (it’s up to them if they choose to walk away!). And use something your cat loves as positive reinforcement to keep them motivated. Ideally, training sessions (even for things the cat needs to learn) will be fun and pleasant activities for both of you. And they can make a big difference to trips to the vet and for grooming, the subject of the next chapter. 

APPLY THE SCIENCE AT HOME 

  • Think about the behaviors that it would be useful to teach your cat, such as coming when called, going in the cat basket, being groomed, having their teeth cleaned, and so on. Think life skills rather than tricks. Then follow a gradual plan to teach them. 
  • Identify the type(s) of food that will work best as positive reinforcement for your cat, and use it. Don’t expect your cat to work for free. 
  • Tricks can be a fun activity for you and your cat and can provide both cognitive enrichment (the learning part) and food enrichment (the rewards part). 
  • Don’t use punishment to train your cat. It could cause your cat to be stressed and to associate the punishment with you, affecting your relationship. As well, it does not teach your cat what you would instead like them to do. 
  • As well as training your cat about how you would like them to behave, make sure you are also meeting their needs. For example, you cannot expect to train a cat not to scratch, because scratching is a normal feline behavior, and opportunities to engage in normal behaviors are an important part of good feline welfare. But you can provide good scratching posts in locations your cat is likely to use them, and give positive reinforcement for scratching these posts. 

Adapted with permission of the publisher from the book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy written by Zazie Todd and published by Greystone Books in May 2022. 

Listen out for more from Zazie in a forthcoming episode of our Research Digest podcast, PsychCrunch.

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