How to Train Your Cat (it really CAN be done!)
A kitten’s mind is a terrible thing to waste. “It all began when my clients in puppy classes wanted equal attention for their cats,” says Dr. Kersti Seksel, a veterinary behaviorist in Seaforth, New South Wales, Australia. “Kittens have potential, and kittens deserve an education too.”
Just over a decade ago, Seksel began offering classes for kittens from Down Under, which she called Kitty Kindy. The 60-minute to 90-minute course meets twice (over the course of two consecutive weeks), and it’s exclusively for little kitties.
Legendary veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar developed somewhat similar sorts of classes for puppies back in the 1960s, and he calls these sessions for kittens, “potentially far more valuable.” There may be one hundred reasons why kitties should attend school. Here are a few:
For starters, cats and kittens visit veterinarians far less than they should (on average less than once a year); that’s notably less often than dogs do.
One reason why cats don’t see veterinarians for wellness exams is the exhaustion and frustration that guardians often experience just getting the cat to the veterinarian. Take out the carrier and watch what happens. The cat bolts. You might as well join a health club for the calories you burn attempting to snag the cat and then stuff him into the carrier. It’s exhausting.
Once inside the carrier, the situation gets no better. Cars are enemies of cats. The cat isn’t pleased about being in the carrier in the first place, and in the second place, they’re not accustomed to going in the car. The only time most cats find themselves in a carrier and in the car is when they’re about to go the veterinarian’s office, which hasn’t exactly been a fun experience for them. Also, these cats feel particularly uncomfortable being away from their territories, since they are hardly ever away from their home turf.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. An objective of the kitten classes is to socialize kitties while they’re still impressionable (from 8 to 15 weeks) and to at least establish a relationship with a veterinarian. A completed veterinary form is required for any kitten who enrolls in a kitten class.
Instead of being forcibly chased around the house and stuffed inside the carrier, owners are taught to properly desensitize kittens to the carrier. Cats actually can be taught to voluntarily jump into a carrier just as dogs can be taught to go inside their crates.
In fact, cats can be taught a whole lot of things. Cats can be taught to do most anything a dog can do (and often they do it better). Of course, the question may be—why would you bother training a cat in the first place? Just as owners who work with dogs (those who train dogs for agility, or obedience, who do search and rescue work, or just those who teach their dogs tricks) seem to have stronger bonds than those who don’t train their dogs, the same logical assumption may be made for people who train cats. No one knows why more cats are relinquished to shelters than dogs, but perhaps people don’t have as strong a bond with their cats as they do with their dogs. Also, learning is fun for the cats, just as teaching can be fun for their people.
“Cats may sometimes take more patience to train than dogs,” says Karen Thomas, who trains animals for television and the movies. “Cats will want to be paid for their work, but I think that’s fair. They do learn and they seem to enjoy learning.”
Begin by using a clicker (available in our ‘Cat’alog and at most pet stores). Click the clicker as you feed your cat. Click and treat. Click and treat. Click and treat. Soon cats associate the clicker with something good.
There are two ways to begin. One is simply to wait until your cat does something you like. For example, you can start clicker training when your kitty happens to sit. Click the clicker and offer just a pinch of tuna or salmon from a spoon. Sit and wait, and odds are your cat will sooner or later re-create what he did for getting that yummy. At first you’ll require patience, but your cat will soon understand that sitting means “I get ‘paid.’”
Another method is to shape the behavior. Hold that spoon with the moist food just a tad above your kitty’s head. If it’s too high, he’ll want to bat for the food with a paw or jump for it. But if it’s just the right height, kitty will lift his head up just a tad. When his head goes up, his rear-end will go down—and he’ll be sitting; it’s feline physiology.
It’s not always easy to teach a cat to come by name, but it’s absolutely possible. Most cats are trained to come to “calling” when the refrigerator opens or to the sound of a can opener; you can simply pair the cat’s name with the mechanical device. And absolutely offer a treat when he comes running. Of course, you can do the same with clicker training. In any case, teaching a cat to respond to “come” may be lifesaving should she accidentally get outdoors, or in case you require a fast response in an emergency.
Tree House advisory board member and veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall, from the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Glen Mills, says, “As cats age they typically get bored, because we don’t ask anything of them, and we have a problem with obesity in cats. They simply have so little in their lives, nothing interesting is going on except for food. In fact, a surprising number of cats who live to eat—and if their families are lucky—use the litter box, are clinically depressed. Enriching their lives is necessary, and training is one way to do that.”
In the kitten classes, kittens are passed around the room (so they become accustomed to meeting strangers and being handled by novel people), they also meet dogs (at some point around one-quarter of all cat homes will also have a dog). Family members are taught how to teach their kitties to scratch in all the right places, and there’s a lecture on “Litter Box 101.” There are also basic care demonstrations, such as clipping nails and brushing teeth, and a discussion on how to enrich the indoor environment.
A few years back, Dr. Illona Rodan heard about Seksel’s tutoring for tabbies Down Under; she immediately imported the curriculum to her feline practice in Madison, Wisconsin. “I’m sure people thought I was a little crazy,” she says. “But I knew these classes would save lives. The number one cause of death in indoor cats isn’t heart or kidney disease or cancer; it’s people who give up on their cats’ bad behavior. These kitten classes are great fun, but they also teach people how to prevent behavior problems, or if they occur, they offer a resource for help.”
The hope following the kitten classes is that families will continue to socialize their cats, bringing them outside safely in kitty strollers or allowing them to play in the yard in safe cat containment systems. When they learn young, most of these cats enjoy being on a leash and harness, and going places and meeting new people isn’t so traumatic.
Also, by training their cat, perhaps family members will be more “tuned into their cat” even when signs of illness are very subtle (as they often are with cats). Without hiding and running from the carrier, expressing disdain about car rides or minding being handled by veterinary professionals, the hope is that people will more often take their cats to the veterinarian.
Most of all, imagine how impressed your friends and family will be when they see that your kitty will sit on command and offer a high five.