As the end of the summer holidays is fast approaching, it isn’t just the kids who are getting ready to go back to school; September is the perfect time to start thinking about training your cat. With a bit of understanding on what makes your cat tick, you can help them learn behaviours that will not only enhance your relationship by enabling you to persuade your cat to do what you would like (which can be vital if you need to take them to the vet, for example), but which will also encourage fun and play, keeping your cat happy and healthy.
We interviewed Dr Sarah Ellis, feline behaviour specialist at charity ‘International Cat Care’, to hear her get top tips on how owners can train their cats. Here’s what she told us.
1. Never push your cat into its carrier – instead teach it to enjoy being there
Getting your cat into a carrier can often be an arduous task – especially if your cat associates it with a trip to the vet! This doesn’t need to be the case though. Remember that your cat is a creature of habit and anything that takes he or she out of his or her routine and into unfamiliarity can throw your pet off balance. Instead, focus on whether you can teach your cat to view the carrier positively by associating being near and in it with rewards. For example leave treats and your cat’s meals in the carrier, and play games with wand toys in and near the carrier. Your cat will view it as a positive place to be around and in! Leaving the carrier out in your home all the time - initially with the lid off - will also help to teach your cat that its presence does not mean a trip to the vets is imminent.
2. Find out what motivates your cat
Like many animals, cats learn best when they are rewarded for doing something good, rather than being punished for doing something wrong. Cats will repeat behaviours they associate with positive feelings and it is the rewards you give them that create these positive feelings. The better the reward, the more motivated the cat will be to perform the behaviour again. However, this is not a ‘one size fits all approach’ and not all cats find the same things rewarding. Some are motivated by their dry biscuits while others need tempting with other treats such as prawns or chicken. Some love to play, some like to be groomed and some just like to be stroked. Some like a combination of all of these things but at different times. Learning what your cat likes and when will help you greatly in training tasks.
3. Help your cat learn that a visit to the vet does not need to be scary
Teaching a cat from early kitten-hood that a visit to the veterinary clinic is nothing to fear is a valuable skill and one that will prevent the cat from experiencing lots of stressful events over his or her lifetime as well as ensuring he or she stays happy and healthy with regular check-ups. With regular visits to the veterinary clinic (ideally a cat-friendly clinic) as a kitten where it is given time to explore, play and receive treats, your cat will learn from a very early age that it is not such a scary place. The more positive experiences your cat has when visiting the vet, the more likely it is that your cat will be able to manage his or her perceptions of the environment no matter what the reason for their visit.
4. Teach your cat to come when called
Teaching your cat to come when called is a very useful skill to have. For example, there are certain times of day when it might be more risky for your cat to be outside, such as at times when traffic may be busy. There are also times when you might need your cat to come indoors, for example, if you are going away on holiday or when you need to take them somewhere. Teaching your cat to come when called is easier than you might think. To teach them to respond to their own name start by saying your cat’s name out loud and show your cat that you have a reward that he or she would really like. Move the reward to entice the cat over to you and once your cat reaches you give he or she the reward. Repeat this from increasing distances within the home and when your cat reliably comes to you, you can start to add a cue word such as ‘come’ just before you show the cat the reward. Over time, you will find you no longer need to show the cat the reward as the cue word will be predictive of the reward. However, keep rewarding the cat for coming when called and when you’re confident, start moving your training to outdoors!
5. Build up to success with small goals
When training a cat for any task, failure most often occurs when the rewards are few and far between. This usually occurs when too much is expected of the cat too soon. By rewarding successive, approximations of the desired behaviour, you can divide the goal behaviour into lots of smaller, more achievable sub-goals, adding up to your cat’s success. For example, when teaching a cat to enjoy being groomed, you may initially reward the cat for keeping still when the brush is near the cat but not touching it and then build up to one or two strokes and then to three or four strokes and so forth.
For more top tips on cat care, take a look at our expert, impartial advice: http://www.pethealthinfo.org.uk/cats
Dr Sarah Ellis is Feline Behaviour Specialist at International Cat Care where you can find out more information about the Cat Friendly Clinic scheme. www.icatcare.org/catfriendlyclinic. Sarah has appeared on BBC Horizon programmes, The Secret Life of the Cat (2013) and Cat Watch (2014) and on episode two of the two-part BBC series, ‘Cats V Dogs: Which is best?’. Sarah has also been featured in the Guardian about the launch of her new co-authored book, The Trainable Cat, published by Allen Lane, Penguin.
If you are interested in learning more about feline behaviour, International Cat Care have just launched two new online distance education courses. Please see www.icatcare.org/learn/behaviour for more information.