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Train your cat: Kitty Charm School 101

Train a cat to high five

Cats have a longstanding reputation for being aloof but this isn’t always the case. Cats enjoy many social and positive interactions just like we do! Working with your cat in a fun, positive way can yield a healthy and happy cat that can also do some clever tricks, such as giving a “high five,” coming when called, spinning in a circle, and sitting. It’s simply a matter of perfecting “clicker training.”

Clicker training is an entertaining way to work with your cat and uses the sound of a click to tell the cat he has done something to earn a yummy treat. (See the Dumb Friends League training video or handout on Cat Clicker Training for a detailed description of the technique.) According to Jessica Wallace, Dumb Friends League behavior supervisor, “The two most important rules to remember are: only click once and give a treat after every single click.”

Accentuate the Positive

The key to training is to offer immediate reinforcement with a reward that motivates your particular cat. This primarily will be a food-based reward that can be converted into petting or offering toys once the behavior has been established. In the food category, chicken- or turkey-flavored baby food is popular among many cats; a small dab on the end of a spoon works well. Or, provide a tiny amount of shredded turkey, kibble or freeze-dried treats at the proper moment for the cat’s enjoyment. Unlike dogs, which will gobble up a treat and be ready for another, cats will typically savor their treat and may even groom themselves afterwards, so patience is key!

“We don’t recommend using punishment to modify cats’ behavior,” says Wallace, “because it’s not consistent enough. You won’t always be there to correct your cat, so it’s best to use positive reinforcement instead.” To extinguish bad behavior, she says, don’t reinforce it. Instead, give the cat something you do want him to be doing in those moments.

Training works best if you’ve developed a bond with your cat, and a great way to do that is through play. Daily exercise is as valuable for a cat as a daily walk is for a dog. In the wild, cats love to chase, stalk, stare at, pounce on, kill and consume their prey, so allowing them to simulate this behavior indoors will keep your cat active and healthy. However, says Wallace, ditch the laser pointer. “It gives your cat no satisfaction, because the ‘prey’ can’t ever be caught. Instead, use a wand with a stuffed bird, bug or mouse at the end of a dangling string. Let the cat catch it eventually, and give him a high-protein snack afterwards to complete the ‘hunting’ cycle.”

Eliminating Negative Behaviors

In addition to developing new behaviors, how does the creative cat owner work to eliminate undesirable ones? Take spraying. Both male and female cats, neutered/spayed or intact, can spray. Wallace says that cats can spray for territorial reasons, due to the anxiety of having their space invaded. “If they spray near doors or windows, it could indicate that they have seen other cats, dogs or raccoons outside,” she says, “and are marking their territory in case the interlopers come close.” In a multi-cat household with a mix of indoor and outdoor cats, the roamers can bring smells from outdoors inside and cause a similar reaction. “If you have more than one cat, make sure each has equal access to cat towers, scratching posts, litter boxes, etc. so they will feel territorially secure.” (See our handout on Marking Behavior in Cats.)

Excessive vocalization is another behavior problem. It’s more common in certain breeds, such as Siamese cats, but if not typical, it could indicate a medical problem, which a visit to your veterinarian can rule out. Otherwise, be certain to ignore the behavior rather than reinforcing it by giving the meowing cat attention, even if that involves verbally correcting the cat. Over time, the behavior should decrease or stop. (See our handout on Your Talkative Cat.)

Many cat owners complain of cats scratching their furniture or carpets. Try out different types of scratching posts or pads (for example, sisal or corrugated cardboard) to find out what your cat prefers. “It may sound obvious,” says Wallace, “but put the scratching post where the cat scratches, not off in some unused guest room.” Consider using multiple posts or pads in areas that the cat frequents. Double-sided tape applied to furniture can deter a scratcher, as well as Soft Paws, which are rubber sheaths Superglued onto claws. The process is just like when humans get a manicure with fake nails; they don’t hurt but do eventually grow out and fall off. You can apply them yourself or ask your veterinarian or groomer to do so. Simple household preventatives include covering the target area with aluminum foil (cats don’t life the texture or sound) or citrus essential oil, which cats also dislike. (See our handout on Destructive Scratching in Cats.)

Traveling by Crate

Being crated can be traumatic for a cat. If you are planning transport, Wallace recommends leaving the crate out, with the door open, for a couple of weeks before the trip so your cat gets used to it and comes to see it as a place of safety rather than a symbol of a fearful experience. Drop a high-value treat inside so the cat can duck in to fetch it and run out again. The day you leave, entice with treats in the crate instead of wrestling your cat to get him inside.

Other things that can be stressful for cats: a new baby, a significant other or roommate moving in, and being boarded; if possible, have a pet sitter come feed the cat rather than boarding it in a facility when you are out of town. When moving to a new place, keep your animals together in a small area for a day or two, especially while you unpack.

Introductions to Other Pets

Introducing a cat to other animals in the home is a delicate process that can take between a couple weeks to two months or longer. Beginning at around age 2, cats become more territorial. If you have a female, consider getting a male, as female cats get along with the opposite sex better than they do with other females. Males tend to get along with both genders.

Wallace recommends the following technique: Place the new cat in a small space of its own at first, where food, water and a litterbox are provided. Swap a blanket, cat bed, toy or other item that has absorbed the cat’s scent with a comparable object that carries other household animals’ scents. Note: Leave some familiar bedding for security. If you have multiple pets in the home, make separate introductions. Visit the cat regularly and let it get accustomed to you.

Feed the new cat and the others on opposite sides of a door, so they will smell and perceive each other’s presence. Graduate to using a baby gate, mesh door or some other protective barrier so that the animals can “share” mealtimes. The key is to create positive associations for all the animals. After a few days (or longer), sequester the other animals and let the newcomer roam the house and explore. Eventually, move to allowing supervised time together face-to-face. (See our handout on Introducing Your New Cat to Your Other Pets.)

“Don’t just let them ‘work it out,'” says Wallace. “If they hiss or growl at each other, take a step back and go slower. Just imagine that you had a bad encounter with a new roommate and had nearly come to blows. You both would have to work hard to repair that new relationship.”

With these techniques plus a little good will and commitment, you can take your cat to the head of the class.

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