How To Train A Cat

Sit, stay or at least don’t bite me…

How to make peace with your cat.

Knowing very little about cats, a young dog trainer I worked with recently managed to get herself nipped, scratched and peed on a few times while trying to figure out feline behaviour. Because they weren’t serious, the incidents had us chuckling, but they got me thinking again about how difficult it can be to train a cat.

Let’s leave off stupid pet tricks for another time. If you want to teach your kitty to jump through hoops, you’re on your own, albeit with lots of books and You Tube videos to research.

Some more important things cat owners would like to teach are likely “stay off the counter”, “stop scratching the couch”, “don’t eat that plant”, “don’t bite me when I pet you”, and most commonly, “use the litterbox, not my bed”.

The first two or three are pretty similar. To stop cats getting onto, chewing or scratching your stuff, you need to make the areas unattractive with such things as double-sided tape, noisy crinkly paper, or commercial “scat mats” that give off a mild electric signal. Keep water spray bottles around to reinforce the lessons whenever possible. There are people who think these techniques are mean. Their cats rule the house and probably don’t let them read articles like this.

It is also important to provide kitty with acceptable alternatives – several quiet, comfy windowsills for resting and exploring, scratching posts made of rope, cardboard or sisal, “cat grass” for grazing instead of your prize palm plant. Use food treats and play sessions to reward good behaviour.

“Don’t bite me” is more of a challenge. Many cats have a time-delayed trigger. They’ll happily get petted – but only gently on a one centimetre spot behind the right ear – for 15.5 seconds and then the tail starts to twitch. Learning to walk away at the first sign of a tail twitch is the least painful approach here, but it is possible to teach cats to accept longer sessions of petting. Again, food treats can be useful.

Working with a hungry cat, start the petting session and try to provide a treat before the tail twitching begins, aiming to prolong the “happy cat” mood and allow more pets. At the first twitch, stop treats and walk away. Over time, petting sessions can often be extended.

The last, most pressing concern, litterbox training can be a non-issue for cat owners or a tragic cause for euthanasia of a beloved pet. Given the opportunity, most kittens use the box right from the start. It’s usually cats with stress, pain, fear or cleanliness issues that have house-soiling problems. Due to the seriousness and complexity of this problem, it will be dealt with in a separate article. If you have urgent concerns about this, talk to your veterinarian. Information is also online at VeterinaryPartner.

Formerly a newspaper journalist, Dr. Fiona Gilchrist is a veterinarian at Hillcrest Animal Hospital in Trenton (Hillcrest Animal Hospital) and an executive member of the Quinte District Veterinary Association.