Training a cat might sound impossible, but it’s not — cats are smart, and with the right approach you can frequently channel their intelligence in productive ways.
Training a cat often seems harder than it really is, particularly if small missteps are hindering success. As a trainer, I see cat owners make the same training mistakes over and over. Let’s talk about how to avoid five common errors and get your cat’s training back on track.
5 Mistakes to Stop Making
1. Overestimating how much time training takes.
Many cat owners assume that training a feline takes a significant amount of time and effort. The reality is that cats learn best in short training sessions, typically one to five minutes, spread out through the day. There’s also no need to schedule specific blocks of time to train your cat; instead, make use of small windows of downtime — while you’re waiting for the coffee to brew, for example, or for the kids to brush their teeth — to work with your cat. Finally, training is typically most successful when it is incorporated into already existing everyday interactions like mealtime.
2. Ignoring the good behavior and rewarding the bad.
When your cat does what you want him to do — uses his scratching post, for example — you probably take it for granted. But as soon as he digs his claws into the sofa, you react, most likely by scolding him or shooing him away or interacting with him in some other way. This teaches your cat that scratching the sofa — not his scratching post — earns him your attention, so he keeps doing it. Help put a stop to unwanted behavior by flipping your response: Reward what your cat does right and ignore or redirect him when he does something you’d rather not see. Give your cat praise and petting when he uses his scratching post; when he claws the sofa, redirect him and reward him once he’s scratching in the right place.
3. Attempting to eliminate instinctive behaviors.
Many behaviors humans find undesirable, like clawing, pouncing, jumping or climbing, are natural for a cat. Attempts to eliminate these behaviors can be highly stressful for your cat — and they almost never succeed. A better approach is to redirect these behaviors to spaces in your home where they are acceptable. Cat shelving, perches and trees are useful for felines who like to explore high places, while a box or laundry basket can offer a secure place for your cat to relax. Encourage your cat to explore these alternatives by luring him with treats, catnip, toys and petting. Reward him for following his instincts only in the designated areas.
4. Expecting your cat to listen without training.
Your cat’s not ignoring you — he doesn’t instinctively know what you’re asking him to do or why it’s worth doing. Don’t assume that words like “off,” “down” and “stop” mean anything to your cat simply because you say them all the time. If you want your cat to get off the counter, you will need to use positive reinforcement — not punishment — to teach him what “off” means. You will also need to teach him an alternative behavior, like going to his bed or cat tree, to replace the one you are asking him to stop doing. Be patient: With practice, he will learn that “off” means he should abandon the counter and go to his bed — and that doing so will earn him a treat of some sort.
5. Setting unrealistic training goals.
Every cat learns at his own pace: One cat might learn how to get in and out of his crate after only a few tries while it might take another cat days just to get comfortable being in the room with the crate. Pushing your cat to learn too much or go too fast means skipping needed reinforcement, which can lead to frustration and confusion and can increase the likelihood that your cat — and you — will give up on training. Increase the difficulty of training at a pace that keeps your cat engaged, but be cautious — slowing your pace to baby steps creates more opportunities for your cat to succeed and helps to build his confidence. And keep in mind that all those little steps add up to big steps — and potentially big changes in your cat’s behavior.
One last thought: If all else fails, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If your cat’s issues aren’t getting better with consistent training or the problems are especially concerning, like aggression or failure to use the litterbox consistently, seek help from your veterinarian, who may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist. Your vet can help identify any medical issues that may be to blame for changes in your cat’s behavior and habits, while a veterinary behaviorist or trainer can provide individualized training advice tailored to your cat’s issues.