Most cat owners would say that their cats have minds of their own and that, unlike dogs, cats cannot be trained. Not true! By following these steps, you can train your cat—even a mature cat—and solve these common cat problems. The training may take a few hours, a day or a few weeks depending on how often you practice and your cat’s temperament.
Rewards. The key to successful cat training is a reward that your cat really values. A food treat—animal protein, in particular, because cats are carnivores—likely will be the most motivating reward. Examples: Tiny pieces of cooked meat or fish, a very small portion of the cat’s normal diet or store-bought cat treats such as semimoist or air-dried meat snacks. Always give tiny portions so that your cat doesn’t gain weight.
For affectionate cats, stroking can be an effective reward in addition to food. Cats prefer brief strokes, and those that concentrate on the top of the head and under the chin typically produce the most positive response.
Comfortable blanket. You can create a link in the cat’s mind between a blanket and relaxation. The blanket can then be used in new places or situations (see below) to elicit relaxation and promote successful training.
Choose a blanket, and place it in front of you on the floor. Reward positive behavior that your cat exhibits toward the blanket, such as sniffing the blanket or a quick step onto it. Because these types of behaviors happen so fast, you can use a verbal marker, such as the word “good,” at the precise time the behavior happens, then follow up with the food reward or stroking reward shortly afterward. Eventually, withhold the word “good” and the reward for an extra second each time to build up the amount of time your cat spends on the blanket.
Once your cat is comfortable on the blanket, the next step is to teach the cat to relax there. Any signs of relaxation, such as moving from standing to sitting or lying down, should be rewarded. Keep your voice quiet and calm when saying “good,” and intersperse food rewards with chin scratches and gentle stroking of the head.
GETTING YOUR CAT INTO THE CARRIER
Cats typically aren’t fond of carriers because they don’t like feeling trapped. And many times carriers are associated with negative experiences such as harrowing visits to the vet or a boarding facility. But you can change your cat’s response to the carrier to a much more positive one, reducing stress for the cat and for you when you need to use the carrier.
Choosing a carrier. When buying a carrier, make sure that the entry door allows your cat to walk in rather than be lifted in and that the door can be completely removed in the initial training. The lid should be removable, too, so that in the initial training stages the carrier appears less enclosed. (A removable lid also may allow a veterinarian to examine your cat while the animal remains “safe” in the base of the carrier.)
Do not hide the carrier. Most pet owners make the mistake of keeping their carriers tucked away in closets when not in use, but that’s a mistake. Your carrier should be left out at all times so that your cat is familiar with it.
Familiarize your cat with the carrier well before you have to use it. Start by removing the lid and the door of the carrier so that you have just the base. If your cat seems very wary of the carrier, begin carrier training by rewarding your cat when he stays in the same room as the base of the carrier. You can take the “relaxation blanket” and slowly move it closer and closer to the carrier, rewarding your cat each time he relaxes on the blanket. Eventually, place the blanket in the carrier. This should be enough to get the cat into the carrier.
Once your cat is comfortable in the base of the carrier—he has slept in it or lays down to groom in it—you can gradually slide the door into place. Start by sliding the door in partway, and reward your cat for staying relaxed. Continue to use the marker word “good” to condition your cat to know a food reward is coming—and continue to reward anytime he does not attempt to leave the carrier. Use the same steps when putting the lid back on.
Keep the carrier stable. Cats find being carried in the air unsettling. Always use two hands to keep the carrier steady, and begin to train your cat to be comfortable in a moving carrier by holding the carrier off the floor for only a few seconds. Progress to walking a few steps at a time, and then farther, always continuing to reward your cat.
THE VET APPOINTMENT
A trip to the vet is terrifying for many cats, so removing as many stressors as possible and preparing your cat ahead of time are key.
Choose a cat-friendly clinic. These veterinary practices treat only cats and/or offer cat-only waiting areas. You can find these practices at CatVets.com/cfp.
Take a practice visit to the vet. Ask the clinic staff if you can visit with your cat during a quiet time to promote a positive association. Simply sit in the waiting room for a short time for the first visit. You even can ask the staff if they will feed your cat some treats, though it may be that your cat will accept treats only from you initially. Once the positive association grows, the cat may then feel comfortable taking treats from the staff.
Allow your cat to walk out of the carrier. At a real visit to the vet, when you are in the examination room, open the door and ignore the cat. Give him time to look around the room from inside the carrier and take the first step out. Many vets make the mistake of pulling cats out of carriers, which is stressful for the cats. Tell your vet ahead of time that you’d like to allow your cat to come out on his own and/or ask whether the examination can take place in the carrier with the lid removed.
Practice handling at home. During a basic veterinary examination, the vet will lift a cat’s tail, look in his ears, mouth and eyes, and listen to his heart. To make these routines less stressful, practice them at home with rewards.
For example, while stroking your cat’s head, subtly lift his lip. Then reward him. Do the same with widening your cat’s eye with your forefinger and looking in his ears. To approximate a stethoscope, familiarize your cat with a spoon. Show it to the cat while giving rewards. Then eventually hold the handle of the spoon in your hand, and press the round part on the cat’s chest. Incorporate all these types of touches in your daily routine, and the vet visit will be much less stressful. Also, unless your cat is having gastrointestinal issues or requires an anesthetic, bring treats to the vet to reward your cat during exams.
Many times, oral medications prescribed for cats are never actually taken because cats spit them out or refuse to have their mouths opened at all.
Before medication is needed, practice with pill pockets or pill putty. These products, found in pet-supply stores, conceal pills and are tasty to cats. Try a few different brands as treats (with no medicine) to see which brand your cat likes best. Then when you need to give a pill, your cat won’t suspect anything and will probably gobble the treat along with the pill without hesitation.
Placing a pill in the mouth. If your cat is not fond of any pill pockets or pill putty or uncovers and rejects pills, you will have to train him to take pills from you. Have the cat sit on the relaxation blanket to help the process. Start by training him to be comfortable with your hand placed over the top of his head, rewarding him along the way. Then progress to placing the forefinger and thumb of your other hand gently on your cat’s lower jaw. Give plentiful rewards during this process—and if the cat flinches at all, take time to let him relax again before continuing. The goal is to get the cat to lower his bottom jaw when the jaw is touched. You will need to use a little pressure to open the mouth, but the key is to make sure that the cat is comfortable with this and doesn’t find it distressing. As soon as your cat’s jaw opens, provide a reward. Once your cat is accustomed to your assisting in opening his mouth—and this can take a number of training sessions!—and you have to give a pill, make the cat open his mouth and then, holding the pill between your thumb and index finger, place it as far back in the cat’s mouth as possible.