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Training Cats? Yes Really! (Part 1)

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Dogs aren't the only pets that can be trained!

According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), at of the end of 2018 there were 94.2 million cats in the United States. In fact, cats outnumber dogs by roughly 4.5 million. That’s a tremendous, gigantic number of kitties. Yet even with almost 100 million cats living among us, there is a disconnect and frankly a misconception about cat’s trainability.

When dog training is mentioned no one really questions whether dogs can be trained. Sure, some dogs for example Basset Hounds, might be harder to teach than others, but no one really doubts whether dogs as a species are trainable.

Alas this is not the same perception when it comes to cats and training. Mention training your cat and people get a strange look. Common comments include; “Can you train a cat? Cats can’t be trained! Cats are too independent to be trained. Cats don’t care about pleasing you like dogs!”

At first glance some of these reactions are understandable. Our expectations and history with cats are different than that of dogs. While both species have a long relationship with humans, we’ve expected more from dogs and done more to breed dogs for specific purposes that suit our needs.

In modern times most everyone can conjure up an image of a noble dog. It could be Lassie who against all odds and ignoring great discomfort or danger to herself comes through to rescue Timmy. One can picture this gorgeous rough coated Collie swimming across rivers, fighting mountain lions, hunger and heat all for the love of her human family. Variations on this plot have been redone countless times for successive generations. Now try picturing this with a cat.

The idea of teaching a bouncing 60-pound Labrador Retriever pup to walk properly on a leash and not drag you down the street seems logical. Many of the same folks who nod their heads affirmatively at the idea of training the dog, will look confused if I suggested doing the same thing with a cat.

None of this means cats can’t be trained. It just means that we have different expectations and perceptions about cats than we do with dogs.

The truth is that cats are highly trainable. You just need to understand what motivates them and be clear about what you want to train them to do. In this respect dog training and cat training are the same. Not all dogs are motivated by belly rubs, or food, or praise or toys. The same holds true for cats. A good trainer learns to figure out what the motivators are and uses them to get the response they are looking for.

Let’s touch on a few things that cat parents often want/need to train their cats to do.

Problem behavior

The term “problem behavior” is a loaded one. Much of what we humans consider problematic in our pets is perfectly normal for them. Understanding that might make us feel less judgmental but it doesn’t change our need to modify behaviors we find unappealing, dangerous and unacceptable.

Common feline problem behaviors

Litter Box challenges. Solutions. Rule out any physical problems by taking the cat to a veterinarian. Place box(es) in quiet areas away from heavy foot traffic. Litter boxes must be kept clean. Cats are usually fastidious and failure to consistently clean the box is a major cause of litter box challenges.

So is the kind of cat litter you use. There are numerous types and while one type doesn’t fit all, generally it is best to stay away from scented litter and litter that the cat is uncomfortable walking on. Once you find a litter the cat likes, stick with it. Many cat parents change litter without considering their cats preferences.

If you have multiple cats you need multiple litter boxes. A good rule of thumb is 1 cat should have 2 litter boxes and 2 cats 3 litter boxes. Older cats sometimes need easy access litter boxes as they have a harder time climbing in and out of them. Praise and reward cats when they eliminate in the box. If the cat is food motivated a treat will work wonders. If they like to play with toys, wait till they have finished eliminating and then play with them for a minute or two. Catnip can sometimes be used to encourage cats to go to a litter box.

Remember that catnip only works on about 70% of cats. It can be very helpful but is not a cure all or solution to every problem.

Scratching on furniture. Solutions. Scratching on furniture is analogous to dogs chewing. It’s a normal behavior that needs to be modified. The key is to get the cat to scratch on the correct items and leave the inappropriate ones alone. At this juncture many cat parents purchase a scratching post. This is logical but the devil is in the details. If you get a scratching post made of similar material to the furniture you want to stop your cat from scratching you won’t alleviate the problem. You might even make it worse. Scratchers made or cardboard or sisal are best. Catnip can be used to attract cats to the post. Numerous other toys can also be helpful in dealing with a root cause of scratching. Boredom.

So, in closing, cats are highly trainable and there are a growing group of professional cat trainers available to assist you with your feline friend.

In future blogs, we will discuss what cues to teach your cat as well as address other common behavioral challenges.

Steven Appelbaum is a professional dog trainer with over 35 years of experience. He is the president and owner of Animal Behavior College the nations largest animal career school. He lives with his wife Shelley and new Basset Hound named Roy.

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