HOW TO HAVE A CLEVER CAT
It is a myth that cats cannot be trained. There is a ‘cat circus’ where 120 cats, mostly rescued stray cats, have a new safe, warm and well-fed life entertaining hundreds of people each day. The owner and trainer of these circus cats emphasize that cats can only be trained with love.
Most owners would not want their cat to leap through hoops and perform other circus tricks but most pet owners want to train their cat not to perform certain actions. The same principles of training apply.
Cats learn by experience. If the experience is good, they will try to repeat it, if the experience is unpleasant, they will try to avoid it in the future. The key to successful training is to make sure that whatever you want your cat to do is rewarding and pleasurable for the cat. A reward may be food, attention, a pat or simply the cat getting what it wants. Whatever you don’t want your cat to do must never be rewarding and may even need to be unpleasant without doing the cat any harm.
Sometimes we unintentionally reward our cats for unwanted behavior. Cats which vocalize excessively often get fed or patted to quieten them – this teaches the cat that if it meows it gets attention. Cats which are used to being fed early on weekday mornings often wake the owner early in the morning at weekends. In an attempt to be allowed to have a lazy Sunday morning in bed the owner will often get up and feed the cat before going back to bed. This teaches the cat that his behavior gets him exactly what he wants – food and attention. Next Sunday he will be even more persistent!
Reprimands do not work when training your cat. However, using a water pistol to spray a misbehaving cat from a distance at the very moment it is performing the unwanted behavior will make the behavior less likely to be repeated. Shouting, verbally disciplining or hitting a cat will only make it resent you and more likely to perform another unwanted behaviour through stress.
If you catch kitty in the act, he will only misbehave when you are not around. If you punish the cat later, he will not associate the reprimand with the crime. In either case, the misbehavior continues. Some cats misbehave just to get attention and the attention is enough of a reward to cause kitty to continue his ways. So what do we do?
If you want to reform bad habits set up up the environment so that those behaviors you don’t want are not rewarding.
Many indoor cats scratch at furniture, especially the back of upholstered chairs. Most cats don’t like to walk over foil so surrounding the chair with aluminum foil (as a temporary measure, not a decorating feature!) may deter the cat from approaching the chair. However, scratching is a normal cat behavior which cannot be stopped so it is necessary to provide a scratching pole for the indoor cat to use. Once your cat realizes that chairs are not fun to scratch but the scratching post is fun, the problem of inappropriate scratching will stop.
The independent nature of the cat means that, unlike dogs, they will only perform actions which please them. Think like your cat – is it worthwhile performing that action? What will the reward be? Is there something else I could do, somewhere else I could do which would be more rewarding?
Teaching your cat to perform desirable actions is easier and more fun for both cat and owner than trying to stop bad habits.