How to Train a Cat

How to Train a Cat
26 Dec 2016

What do the following expressions have in common?

Wading through treacle. Banging your head against a brick wall.  Herding cats.

These sayings all imply that a task is difficult or impossible, and many people would add ‘train a cat’ to the list. However, I beg to differ.

I accidentally trained one of my cats, Widget, to watch washing go round in the machine. This happened because I made a big fuss the first time I saw her looking into the drum. She’s a highly intelligent animal and realized she got lots of attention simply by watching the washing go round and took full advantage: which just goes to show that cats can and do learn.

Why Bother to Train a Cat

When so many cats live indoors, the one-to-one attention of training provides them with much needed mental stimulation, plus it strengthens the cat-guardian bond. It’s also a useful no-stress way of encouraging the cat to do what you want.

Most importantly, teaching a cat ‘recall’ could save their life. Many lost cats are too terrified to move from their hiding place, even when you call their name. A cat trained to recall is more likely to respond because the trained behavior overrides the fear.

The secret when learning to train a cat is to know they aren’t like dogs. Whereas dogs want to please you, it is no surprise to learn cats only want to please themselves. This means incentivizing the cat, by providing something they really, really want.

Find the Purr-fect Treat

Pilchard and Noni (two of my cats) would do back-flips for freeze-dried prawns; Widget is a ham addict, while Gromit loves yogurt drops. The first rule when learning how to train a cat is to know every cat has their price and it’s up to you to find it.

Cat Catching Mice

Cats and Concentration

The second rule is to understand cats’ have a short concentration span. This is down to their history of catching mice which involves long periods of laziness interspersed with short bursts of frenzied concentration.

To train a cat effectively go for the little-and-often approach. Keep each session under five minutes but hold several over the day. Training works best when the cat is slightly hungry, so how about a bout before breakfast, lunch, and tea, and when you come in from work or before bedtime.

Cats and Clickers

Whilst it is possible to train a cat without a clicker, my recommendation is to give clicker-training a go. The basic principle is the cat associates the click-clack of the clicker with their to-die-for treat. The cat then provides the cued behavior, in order to trigger a click and therefore a treat. For more details see: How to Clicker Train Effectively

Clicker Train Cat

Let’s look at that how to train a cat for that potentially life-saving recall, and break it down into steps.

  • Click and give a treat: This is a no strings attached treat. You are teaching the cat to associate the click-clack with the imminent appearance of a freeze-dried prawn, sliver of ham, or yogurt treat. Repeat this click-and-treat until the cat automatically looks at you when she hears the clicker.
  • Identify the behavior: To teach recall, you want the cat to come to you. Wait until the cat is walking towards you and click. Mark the behavior you want (approaching you) and the clicker says: “You are so clever for coming to me; I’ll give you a treat.” The cat then thinks: “What, seriously? All I have to do is walk towards you and I get ham. When can I do it again?”
  • Repeat at every opportunity: Keep the clicker and treats on you, and whenever the cat walks towards you, click and treat. Pretty soon the cat stops walking and starts running in her eagerness to get her reward.
  • Label the action: When she’s regularly coming right up to you, now try clicking when she’s looks in your direction. If she responds, now is the time to label the action, “Come” or “Here”. As she strolls for her treat repeat the cue word, “Here”, and give the treat.
  • Decrease the click rate: Once she regularly responds to click and cue word “Here”, try gradually dropping the click rate and use a verbal command only. Reinforce from time to time with a click, “Here”, and treat to keep the lesson fresh.

Learning how to train a cat is fun and rewarding. Teaching tricks such as high-five or sitting like a Meerkat are mentally stimulating for the cat and a great way to bond. See what you can teach your cat and then send a picture to us at Holly & Hugo.

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Pippa Elliott

Pippa Elliott, BVMS MRCVS, is a veterinarian with 27-years' experience in companion animal practice. Pippa's first job was in a practice by the sea, where she acquired her first (of many) waif-and-stray, a Dockyard Cat Rescue kitten, called Skate. She then worked for the PDSA (People's Dispensary for Sick Animals) which is a national charity that provides veterinary care for the animals of owners with limited finance. Currently Pippa works in a Veterinary Clinic in UK.