How do you train your cat? A year ago, I posed this question to the Cat Health and Behavior discussion group. I received dozens of answers in response, from those who argued that cats couldn’t be trained as well as from those insisting that they could. Read on for coverage of the debate, as well as tips on teaching obedience and tricks.
Cats Aren’t Dogs!
“I’m guessing this is your first cat, right?” a member of the Cat and Health Behavior Discussion group asked me when I suggested that cats could be trained. Before I pass on the advice I received about how to train your cat, let me get an obvious question out of the way. That is, can cats even be trained?
Don’t get me started on cat shows. I’ve been close friends with someone who showed Abys, and the poor cats HATED traveling and being in a cage. –Lorrie
Lorrie responded to my question with an emphatic: NO. She backed up this opinion with a phrase I’ve become very familiar with: “Cats aren’t like dogs that way.” She then proceeded to defend her position with this example: “It’s like when we take our cats to the vet. They’re terrified, whereas a dog sticks his head out the window of a car and loves every minute of being in a car!”
I thought cats were supposed to jump up on counters and tables. I thought icky paw prints were a way of life with cats. You mean there’s a choice? Jake gets up on the table and just stares me down; he wins. But I love cats, everything about them. –Terri
Terri was less resolute in her response. After all, she’s trained her cats to use posts instead of furniture and to come when called. But she’s also never trained her cat to do tricks. And so, while she believes that cats could learn tricks, she felt “the question is, will they want to oblige? Cats are cats; they rule.”
In contrast, Kim expressed the firm belief that cats can be trained. As proof, she offered her own experience. She’s trained her cats to sit, stand, jump, wave, beg, and come. At the same time, she did caution: “Cats can be trained, but don’t expect the same attention on you as a dog. You need to let the cat be a cat. If they wander off during a training session, let them. Cats are lone animals and can struggle with the concept of a leader, unlike dogs who live in packs with a hierarchy (pecking order).”
But Cats Can Learn Obedience
While taking classes with our toy poodle, I learned the essentials of obedience, and eventually practiced them with our cats. Obedience is partially about teaching manners and routines, but it’s also about keeping pets safe.
Some cats are too darn smart. One of my Torties is a brat, and when she is being a brat I say her name drawn out – “Miiiiiillllllaaaa” instead of Mila or Meewars. I get a whole lot of back talk about how she isn’t doing anything. We both know she is lying and even as she complains she stops menacing or messing who or whatever. –Amy
Many of the respondents in the Cat Health and Behavior discussion group had taught their cats to come when called. Amy wrote that, “Whether any of us cat lovers want to admit it or not, every animal is easily taught using positive reinforcement, including our ‘independent-minded, untrainable’ cats. Hence the reason ‘Do you want some treats?’ brings your cat and many other pets running. They easily learn that upon hearing this something good happens, and work to that end.”
Marcie’s experience would back up Amy’s assessment. She told about accidentally training her cat to respond to the question “Do you want some treats?” by asking that question that every time she gave her cat treats. “Of course, she thinks it means ‘I’m going to give you treats,’ but it’s convenient she learned that because when I’m wondering where she’s gone to, the phrase serves as a recall command.”
I’ve trained an adult feral so now when I say “Yummy, Yummy” she knows it means food and she heads into her room for food. Or is she training me? –Paula
Obedience can be used in other ways, too, as Paula illustrated with her story of taming a couple feral kittens. “I was holding it in my fingers but they’d get too excited and try to take a fingernail off! But I move the treat away when they do and wait for a few seconds until they sit down (yes, like a dog) and then offer the treat again.”
Cats Can Learn Tricks Too
Some of the respondents in the Cat Health and Behavior discussion group had gone beyond the basics of obedience by teaching their cats tricks. For example, Pat has trained her cat to fetch rubber bands. “It started with him playing with them on my desk, then he’d knock them off, jump down, play with them and eventually jump back up with an elastic band and drop it in front of me. I got the hint to toss it and he’d ‘fetch’ it. We could play like that for 20-30 minutes. Of course, I couldn’t get much work done. LOL.”
The biggest discussion about tricks evolved around Michele’s question: “Did anyone train [their cat] to use the toilet, or know anyone who has?” Michele said that she’d heard of that and knew cats who learned to use the toilet without any problems. It’s even a trick covered in a book I own called Cat Tricks in Ten Minutes, by Miriam Fields-Babineau, which I’d highly recommend to anyone who wants to train their cat.
If a sample is needed to be taken to the vet, it’s a lot easier to get it out of a litterbox than the toilet. –Caroline
Poeboy shared the story of a former feral cat that was taken in by someone she knew, that had taught himself to use the toilet. Poeboy then joked, “I guess that it is asking too much for him to flush after each use though.”
Everyone else expressed some reservations. Marcie wrote, “I wanted to try the toilet training thing, but then found out that the cat requires a toilet of its own.”
Anne posed this valid question: “What happens if a cat gets older, has arthritis, and can no longer use the toilet? Do you then attempt to retrain to the litter box?”
Even Caroline, who seemed to have the most experience, had cautions. Caroline first tried to teach her cat to use the toilet via “one of those little plastic kits you put on the toilet”. She even found that he was a very good sport about using the toilet, but then ran into an unexpected dilemma. When the time came “to not put any litter at all in the little tray, he refused”.
Besides sharing the concerns listed above, Caroline also pointed out: “You can’t know for sure how well the cat is doing in the pee/poop department if it’s using a toilet. There could be important issues that get missed by not being able to see what is left—you can’t really tell how much pee is in a toilet or whether the cat’s poop was hard, etc. I don’t enjoy cleaning the litter boxes, and I don’t tend to inspect leavings too closely, but it’s good to know I can if I need to.”
Cats CAN Be Trained!
I’m too old and tired to do any teaching of tricks. If they just continue to be so good at obeying me I’m happy enough. –Lorrie
Sometimes the answer to the question of whether cats can be trained is simply a matter of perception. You might remember that I earlier quoted Lorrie as emphatically answering ‘no’ to this question. But, as the chat continued back and forth, it turned out that Lorrie herself had done some cat training. Moreover, her attempts had been successful!
“My 14 cats at home don’t do tricks, but they are really very good at obeying me. They all know their names and come when called, and they all know where to go each night when I separate the ones who don’t get along. Half sleep upstairs and the other half sleep downstairs, and they dutifully go to their places in the house each night. During the warm spring/summer months they can go outside, as we live on a dead-end road in the woods with no traffic. Then I call them in before dark and they all come when called, even though they’d rather stay out. I’m amazed at how good they are about this!”
By this point, if you have an interest in training your cats, here are some tips from Kim, who has taught her cats both stuff that’s useful and stuff that’s fun.
- “You need to find a treat they really like, and only feed it when trick training. I use dried liver treats for dogs, but you can use anything that you don’t normally feed which the cat really likes. Keep the amount you feed small.”
- “Sit: Train in the same way as a dog. Rock the treat over his head from nose backwards, and he’ll follow the treat and sit down.”
- “Stand: Tap him on the thigh, and say Stand when he stands. If it annoys him too much, to the point of trying to bite or scratch, be more gentle or try another way.”
- “Come: Call him as you carry his food bowl to where he normally eats. Then start calling him at other times and reward with a treat.”
- “Wave: I captured him waving, because he naturally waved when I held food and he wanted it. I just added a command to it, and a reward.”
- “Jump: You can capture jumping onto a bed too. When he does it naturally, say Up, and reward. Soon he will be jumping up on command.”
You Mean Cats Get a Choice?!?
Cats do exactly what they want to do. I love their independent spirits and everything else about them. –Lorrie
I’m a firm believer in training cats. There are too many benefits to ignore: it strengthens the bond between cat and owner, it stimulates the brains of both, it teaches the cat safe behavior and manners, and it develops routines that bring reassurance and peace of mind to the household. But I’m also a firm believer that one should account for their pet’s personality. For example, if your pet loses interesting in the training session after five minutes, stop.
I’ll leave you with one more comment from the Cat Health and Behavior discussion group. This one came from Kaeren: “Of course, cats can be taught lots of things, if that’s what they want! You can’t generalize with cats. They are their own individuals. Repetition and praise works for mine; treats don’t. As for shows, it’s cruel to take cats that hate it, but not all do. Some of mine get quite excited about going out, and show off shamelessly at shows. Find what works, that will encourage cats to happily do these things.”