- The key to training cats lies in finding what motivates them and using positive reinforcement.
- Cats do best with small steps, short training sessions, and rewards for natural behavior.
- Patience also helps — keep in mind that cats may take their time with picking up new behaviors.
Cats have a reputation for doing what they want, so plenty of people consider them “untrainable.”
But in fact, your feline friend can actually learn many of the same behaviors you’d teach your dog.
Specifically, your cat can learn any number of fun or useful behaviors, including:
- Cute tricks like “sit” or “high five”
- Using the litter box properly
- Walking on a leash
- Coming when you call them
- Getting in their carrier for vet visits or vacations
- Entering and exiting cat flaps
So if you’re ready to sink your claws into cat training, read on for five tips from feline behavior experts.
1. Keep it positive
You might be familiar with two main ways to reinforce a pet’s behavior during training sessions:
- Positive reinforcement: This means rewarding your cat for a desired behavior, like giving them a treat if they use their scratching post.
- Negative reinforcement: This means scolding or punishing your cat for undesired behavior, like yelling at them if they scratch the couch.
Take the infamous squirt bottle, for example. If you spray your cat when they jump on the kitchen counter, they likely won’t associate it with hopping on the countertop. Instead, they’ll associate it with you.
This doesn’t just frighten your cat. You probably won’t get the long-term results you want with this method, Lusvardi says.
Sticking to positive reinforcement could lead to better results overall, not to mention less stressful training sessions for both you and your cat.
2. Find their motivation
Your dog may work for food or praise. But when it comes to your cat, finding their favorite reinforcer may prove just a little bit trickier.
Many cats find motivation in food or treats. But others might take interest in other types of rewards, such as:
If you’re unsure what reward your cat prefers, Henderson points to preference tests as a useful tool.
With a preference test, you present multiple options to your cat and see which one they consistently choose. For example, you might leave both a chicken-flavored treat and a salmon-flavored treat on the floor, then check which one your cat snaps up first.
If your cat chooses the salmon treat nine out of 10 times, you can rest assured that’s probably their preferred flavor — and the one they’re more likely to work for.
3. Introduce a clicker
Training tools like clickers could also help your cat learn.
Like the name suggests, a clicker is a small handheld device that makes a “clicking” sound when you press it.
Clicker training works like this: You press the clicker when your cat does the behavior you want to reinforce, then give your cat their preferred reward — like a few seconds with their favorite toy. Experts also call this marker training, since you “mark” the behavior with the clicker.
Over time, your cat will learn that the click equals an upcoming reward — and they’ll begin doing the behavior more to try and get the reward.
4. Reward natural behavior
Sometimes, it might help to reward your cat when they engage in certain behaviors naturally. Experts call this technique “capturing.”
For example, if you want to teach your cat the command “sit,” you can wait until they sit on their own, then mark the behavior with your clicker.
“At the exact moment their butt hits the ground, click,” Lusvardi says.
From there, you can give your cat a reward to reinforce the behavior, then add a cue, like the word “sit” or a hand gesture.
When you repeat this over and over, your cat should eventually catch on and start sitting at your cue.
“It gives them a chance to go back into sit so you can reinforce the behavior again,” Lusvardi says.
5. Teach behavior in increments
Ready to teach your cat something more complex than a simple trick?
According to Henderson, breaking the behavior down into bite-size pieces may help your cat better understand what you want from them.
For example, if you want to teach your cat to enter a cat flap, you might:
- First, prop the flap open.
- Then, coax your cat through the flap.
- Finally, mark their progress with a click.
Once your cat feels comfortable, you can increase the criteria to earn a click — like starting with the flap shut and only rewarding your cat when they walk through on their own.
Training with a graded approach will set both yourself and your cats up for utmost success, Henderson says.
Things to keep in mind
There’s really not a lot of difference between training a cat and a dog. A lot of the basic processes are the same, Lusvardi says.
That said, not everything translates across species, and cats can present some unique quirks. For example, your dog’s obedience class might last an hour, but cats have a much shorter internal clock.
“I often recommend training sessions for cats last no more than 5 minutes. I actually prefer to aim for 2 minutes,” Brown says.
Any longer, and your cat could lose interest — and you want them to enjoy training sessions.
“Both you and your cat should be having fun the whole time. If either of you isn’t enjoying the training, it’s not going to be very effective,” Lusvardi says.
What to do if your cat doesn’t ‘get it’
What if you follow all the expert advice, but your cat only stares at you blankly during training sessions?
“When cats choose not to engage with you while they’re training, it’s often because they are feeling anxious, scared, or frustrated,” Brown says.
Common pitfalls that might throw off your cat’s progress include:
- Environmental distractions: Cats are sensitive to certain sounds. So any loud noises in the room or outside, like a barking dog, could distract your cat.
- Training on the floor: Your cat might feel intimidated if you train them on the floor. “Keep in mind that you, the human, are Godzilla, and your cat is just a small floof trying to figure out how to live in your world,” Brown says. Moving your cat to an elevated surface can level the playing field and help them feel more comfortable.
- Mistiming rewards: According to Lusvardi, you should deliver the reward within 3 seconds of a behavior for your cat to make the association. This timing is crucial for cats to understand properly.
- Mistiming training sessions: You’ll also want to keep the overall timing of your training sessions in mind. For example, if treats are your cat’s preferred reward, they may have less interest in training right after dinner.
It’s normal for many cats to need multiple sessions to catch on, Lusvardi says. So, don’t stress if your cat doesn’t pick things up as quickly as you’d like.
Cats may not have a dogged desire to please. But you can still teach them commands or tricks — like coming when you call them or sitting on cue.
Positive reinforcement, clickers, and teaching behavior in increments could help your cat succeed. Just keep in mind that you and your cat should both enjoy training.
“It’s okay to laugh during the training session if your cat doesn’t catch on right away. Enjoy the process and know that you’ll get to the end result eventually,” Lusvardi says.