By Matthew P. Dempler

My wife and I own six cats and have had most of them since 2011. I had long thought that training cats wasn’t something that was possible as they are not motivated to please humans like our beloved dogs are. Recently, I read several books that covered the evolution of pet dogs and cats that changed my perspective completely. Dr. John Bradshaw is an anthrozoologist, a relatively new branch of science that studies domesticated animals- specifically dogs and cats, at the University of Bristol in Great Britain. Cat Sense and Dog Sense are wonderful books that describe how our beloved pets evolved from their wild forebears, how they perceive the world, how they think and how the process of domestication changed them. The Trainable Cat breaks down methods you can use to train your cat and prepare it for any of life’s challenges. The training of cats and dogs (and many other vertebrates) can be accomplished through operant conditioning- a learning process by which you can cultivate desired behaviors by reinforcing them or to remove undesirable behaviors using punishment. There are several methods by which to reinforce behaviors: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment.

  • Positive reinforcement is the addition of something good like giving treats or affection when a desired behavior is displayed.
  • Negative reinforcement is the removal of a negative stimuli when a desired behavior is displayed as in the ear pinch method of teaching a dog to hold something in its mouth. Using this method, you pinch your dog’s ear and force its mouth open and place a training item in it and command it to hold it. Pressure is released when the dog is holding the item. This is used to train retrievers.
  • Positive punishment is the addition of something undesirable to punish an unwanted behavior like swatting your dog for chasing squirrels or squirting your cat with water when it jumps on your keyboard.
  • Negative punishment is the removal of something good when an unwanted behavior is displayed, like when your dog jumps on you when you get home and you turn your back and walk away, so it does not receive your attention for that behavior.

The Trainable Cat concentrates on positive reinforcement methods only since positive punishments can ruin the trust your pet has in you and they have to be delivered at the exact moment the negative behavior is displayed. Cats are not motivated to please humans like dogs are nor do they crave rules so there are fewer levers you can use to positively reinforce behaviors. So, treats, play and affection are the methods of choice to motivate your kitty! The biggest benefit of training your cat is you can prepare it for the carrier, car and the veterinarian so it is not stressed out for the visit and the staff can more effectively treat her. A stressed cat has a higher blood pressure reading which makes determining if there’s another problem more difficult. Training can be used for other things as well as seen below.

Alex’s Case: We took Alex, a tortie cat, into our home on a temporary basis while a friend moved. We put her in an end bedroom and never introduced her to the other cats figuring she was only to be there for a couple of weeks. In the end, we ended up keeping her and for several years, she lived in terror in that room never venturing down to the living room in the evening to be with the rest of the family. The other cats would sometimes be able to visit her room (it’s one of their favorite rooms because of the views) but you could see Alex was miserable when they were in there. We figured that she was just a solo cat and there was no way to change that. Upon reading the books I realized we might be able to change things for her even though she’s 7 years old. So, we trained the other cats to go into the basement after their dinner by luring them with food and corralling them down the steps. They usually go down after dinner to use the litter boxes so this was relatively easy. Once they were downstairs, we closed the door so Alex would have run of the first floor. Then the training began. We started by feeding her dinner at the top of the steps and with every evening feeding, we moved the food down a step or two to push her comfort level. It took a month of this to get her to the first floor and we got far better results using high-value food that she really enjoys- in this case, Tiki Cat Born Carnivore Chicken & Fish Luau Grain-Free Dry Cat Food. It took minutes a night to accomplish this. The key was in letting her leave whenever she wanted to and to push the boundaries just enough to challenge her to move forward. On some nights she didn’t come as far down as the previous night, so we’d go back to a spot she felt comfortable and feed her there. Always try to end on a positive. In a week she took to coming down the steps and hopping up onto the coffee table to take in her dinner and watch the other rooms warily. Once we had her running down the steps to get to the table as a routine, we put up a gate to so the other cats would be visible at a distance in the kitchen while Alex was 20′ away in the living room. She growled while she ate but she didn’t run away. We did this for about a week and then introduced a cat onto the same side as Alex. We also gave Alex and the other cat, Max slow feeders to keep them feeding for a longer time while they were near each other. Max is fairly timid and deferential toward Alex, so he was the easiest choice. After a few days of us moving the feeders closer each night they were able to eat amicably within 3 feet of each other. We then introduced Momma who has always been a very cool cat. She gives Alex space while being visible to her, so we didn’t need to feed her at the same time, we just have her hanging around at the same time Alex is feeding. We’ve begun with the harder cats and hope to have the same results! We’ve also begun training her with the carrier by feeding her in it, thus building up positive associations. Eventually, with incremental steps like closing the carrier for longer and longer periods, then lifting it, then carrying it, then putting in the car, short drives, and mock veterinarian visits where she will be petted and given treats, we will get to a place where going to the veterinarian won’t be nearly as stressful for her and the staff! All of these are small and quick steps that don’t take much time. We had a few mishaps along the way, like when I went to give her breakfast in her room and she bolted and ran downstairs! I ran down with the bowl still in my hand and there she was on the coffee table waiting for breakfast in the midst of thee other cats eating nearby. I put her dish down to see what would happen and she ate and growled simultaneously but she finished her meal. When she was done, she went back upstairs.

Alex perched in her favorite spot so she can survey the entire room and into the dining room.
Alex being a lap cat downstairs with Jackson loafing in the background.

Mazda Cat: I first saw Mazda running across a busy road as I was pulling out of McDonald’s parking lot. After I grabbed her and got into my car, I began wrapping her in a blanket. She then leapt from my hands and proceeded to climb up inside my dashboard. She was only one pound at the time, so she was able to squirm into a very hard to access place. I had to dismantle my dashboard to the firewall to get her out! I came in the house to get more tools and my wife asked how Mazda Cat was doing and the name stuck. We decided to keep her after losing our old boy a few months prior. We took this as a prime opportunity to train her to deal with the things that stress cats out very much: the carrier, the car and the veterinarian’s office. It’s much easier to train for a desirable behavior in the beginning than it is to train an undesired behavior out later after there have been negative experiences. I’m fortunate that my work allows me to bring her in as she is too young to leave alone for more than a couple of hours. I’m also fortunate that Stoney Creek Veterinary Hospital has such enlightened staff, doctors, and ownership and allows us to visit for short times to acclimate her to the hospital. We started Mazda with the carrier in the bathroom where we set her up away from the other cats because she had fleas. She took to the carrier well and now sleeps in it or on it. I say, “you want to go for a ride?”, every time I’m ready to get her in the carrier. Most times she walks right into it. After a few trips into work she began to just fall asleep in the car. I spoke with the veterinarian’s office and they were glad to have me come by a couple times a week to get her used to the sights, sounds and smells of the hospital. Visits involve Mazda being handled by the staff, passed around and loved on and sometimes a mock exam in the exam room. Mazda handles these visits with a calm curiosity. On a side note, I often bring my dog, Jackson, when I have to take a cat in so he has positive memories of the people and place as well and he’s very calm even when he’s in there for some illness or injury. He also helps calm the cats with his presence. I took him on Mazda’s first visit and to everyone’s surprise he fell asleep on the exam room floor. This shows the power of operant conditioning and positive reinforcement. Mazda recently had her third official vet visit to get her rabies and distemper shots. She was very relaxed and didn’t even flinch when the shots were administered. This is definitely the desired outcome of the socialization visits. Mazda also gets to socialize with a lot of people at work so she should end up being the most social cat ever! Mazda will also be harness trained which has already begun in a small way as she’s still too small to use one. But it’s never too early to start building positive associations so we bought a harness and put it in her room and carrier when we travel. I’ve put it on her without any fuss, but some squirming and she even plays with it.

Mazda loving life in her carrier!
Mazda blissfully laying in her carrier.

All of this isn’t to say that everything is rainbows and sunshine in our house! Alex has nights and days where she needs to recharge alone, and we let her do so. She lets us know by simply leaving and heading up to her room. If no other cat is in there, we close the door and limit access to the area for the other cats. Spot still sometimes challenges her by staring at her and sitting close by. We counter this by engaging him in play to both distract him and to tire him out. Alex plays very little and we’re trying to get her to do so more often. We also have kibble at the ready to lure them apart if need be (we give both Alex and Spot light rations at dinner so we’re not over feeding by doling out treats during interactions). Catnip and silver vine can be helpful too. Check how your cats react to them separately so you’ll know if it relaxes them or charges them up. Fortunately, catnip relaxes both Alex and Spot, so we make sure it’s always available when they interact. We feel once the Spot and Alex feud is over the rest of the cats will fall in line. If they do end up fighting which is pretty rare now, and is mostly noise and bushed out tails, we separate them and either lure Alex to her room or call Spot down to the basement so they can both decompress. After about 30 minutes we usually try to bring them back together in a constructive way, so the interaction ends on a positive note, if possible. The thing is to try to remain positive even when there is a setback. As with humans, everyone has good and bad days!

Spot on the left relaxing after a play session. Alex is very relaxed here. Mazda, in the upper left watches on.

Cat Talk: It’s good to learn your cat’s particular warning signs that they are getting uncomfortable in a given situation because it’s helpful when training them to do something they may not like to learn where their comfort threshold is. Learn how they build up to either attacking or breaking off the training session by fleeing. For instance, when we took Alex in, she loved to lay with me and receive affection. Then seemingly out of nowhere she’d claw me! Over time I noticed that her back would begin to twitch prior to the strike. During a petting session I knew that once I saw this twitch it was time to stop. At this point, I would get up and quietly leave and then come back later once she “reset”. Even if she struck me, I never yelled. I just got up and left and came back later to try again. During this, the time between purring and twitching increased over months until she no longer exhibited the behavior. She rarely strikes me now unless we’re pushing too far in training and I misread her cues.

  • The Tail: Unlike a dog, a cat’s rapid sweeping tail movements are a sure sign that it is growing anxious or angry about something. If a cat is merely interested in something their tails swish back and forth in slow movements toward the end of the tail or it may remain motionless altogether. Tail down with lowered head and body with an outstretched neck can mean the cat is in stalking mode. Watch for tail movements and intent stare. It’s good if it’s a toy that it’s focusing on, not so good if it’s a pet or person. Tail up is the normal state of a neutral cat. A tail that has bushed out fur indicates an attack is forthcoming, and you may see more body fur get bushed out too. This is often accompanied with an arched back and angry hisses, spitting and growls.
  • The Back: As a cat becomes more and more agitated their back muscles will twitch. The more upset it becomes the more of the back you will see twitching. A cat will arch its back when it’s scared and it’s making itself appear larger to defend itself especially if accompanied by bushed out fur. Cats also arch their back during play so watch for other signs too!
  • The Head: A lowered head with an outstretched neck and ears pinned forward can indicate interest when accompanied with slow tail movements. But if it’s accompanied by a rapid tail movement might mean an imminent attack, especially if accompanied by growling or hissing. Ears pinned back and lowered usually indicates fear and may be accompanied by a lowered body and tail- it’s trying to look smaller and less threatening.
  • Vocalizations: A yeowing sound can indicate fear or either physical or mental discomfort. If year hear yeowing after it uses the litterbox take it to the vet as soon as possible. Males are prone to urinary tract blockages and it’s a very serious issue that demands immediate attention. Hisses and spitting are a threat display and denote extreme dislike and are almost always associated with rapid tail movement followed by a fight or flight response. Growling also indicates dislike and might grow to hisses if the warnings are ignored. Purring and silence are associated with comfort and contentment.
  • Eyes: Eyes wide open usually means a neutral state unless the pupils are fully dilatated which can mean anxiousness. Watch for body cues. Eyes partially closed can mean contentment and comfort unless accompanied by one or several body language cues from above. Squinty eyes can indicate pain, especially if they remain like that most of the time and the cat tends remain on the periphery or in isolation more than usual. Take your cat to the vet for a check-up. Cats are masters of hiding when they are uncomfortable with an illness or injury. Cats don’t usually stare at each other unless one is challenging the other. A fight or a chase might be brewing if your cats are in a staring contest. To head it off, try distracting with a toy or placing yourself between them.

So, as you can see, cats are very trainable and even older cats can be trained quite easily given the proper motivation and a little time. Alex’s quality of life has improved immensely and it’s very rewarding to see her progress to be a family cat and no longer living as an outcast in a room all alone. So please do read The Trainable Cat, by Dr. John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis if you’re interested in exploring the ways you can improve your cat’s quality of life. Another good book, although less science-oriented is Total Cat Mojo, by Jackson Galaxy and Mikel Delgado. Mikel Delgado is a certified cat behavior consultant and Jackson Galaxy is the star of the TV show, My Cat From Hell. Jackson’s approach has science at its root and uses positive only methods as the means to help his clients set their cats up for success and contentment.