Positive habits can replace unwanted behavior

By Dr. Beth Leermakers

Train a cat? Seriously? Yes. Cats do tend to be independent, but they are receptive to positive reinforcement training methods — especially if you start when they’re kittens. A friend’s cat, Pudge, participates in professional training sessions with the dogs, acing skills like “sit” and “place.” 

Pudge the cat is practicing “place” during a training session with the dogs.
Photo by Brittany Kegley

Training your kitten is a great way to bond with her, and it provides the mental stimulation cats need to prevent boredom and destructive behavior. Teaching your cat new tricks doesn’t have to be like herding cats, but you will need patience, creativity and a few training tools: 

High-value treats. Not all rewards are equally rewarding. Your cat may enjoy being scratched under his chin, or getting a few extra kibbles, but those lower rung rewards can’t compete with highly desirable treats (think tuna). Plain old kibble may not be enticing enough to encourage your kitty to sit on command. Create a reward ladder that includes activities and foods your cat enjoys. 

Give your kitten the lower-value rewards (physical attention, ho-hum treats) regularly, but save the higher rung, special treats to reward special behaviors. 

One vet clinic recommends these training treats:

• Whipped cream

• Canned spray cheese

• Meat baby food

• Catnip (fresh or dried)

• Crunchy or soft kitty treats 

• Feline dental chews (also great for oral hygiene) 

• Freeze dried meats or fish treats (some include catnip)

A clicker. Cats respond well to clicker training. Studies show that clicker training helps shelter cats learn positive behaviors faster and get adopted more quickly. Pet stores sell clickers. 

Training Tips 

Use positive reinforcement. Paired with their favorite food reward, spoken cues (“come” or “sit”) and verbal affirmations (“yes!” or “good girl!”) are effective ways to guide your cat toward the desired behavior. 

Keep training sessions short — no more than 15 minutes. Cats get bored easily, so you’ll lose their attention if your sessions drag on.

Teach your kitten a new trick before her meals. She’ll be more interested in your treats if she’s hungry. 

Train in a quiet room. Background noises — TV or music — can be distracting, especially for young kittens. 

Be consistent. Use the same cues and signals. One exception: change up the treats, to keep your kitty engaged. 

Focus on one skill at a time. Overloading your kitten by asking for several behaviors will make training stressful and unproductive. Always master one skill before moving on to another.

Be patient. Don’t start your training session until you know you have your kitten’s attention. Take a short break if your kitten gets distracted.

Click to indicate rewards. When your kitten performs the requested behavior, immediately click and give her a treat. When paired with treats, the click tells your kitten she’s doing the right thing. 

Don’t punish your kitten. Cats don’t respond well to punishment. Instead, try these strategies to eliminate unwanted behaviors such as jumping onto the counters:

Create an unpleasant association. To keep your cat off counters, use creative strategies to discourage the behavior. For example, place double-sided tape or an object your kitten dislikes on the counter to prevent her from jumping up. Eventually your cat will stop jumping onto the counter, and you can remove the item.

Keep using rewards. Watch for opportunities to reward positive behavior. For example, place treats on your cat tree or reward your kitten for using it instead of jumping on the counter. This will build the positive habit,  replacing the unwanted behavior. 

Correcting Litter Box Problems

There are many possible reasons your cat isn’t using her litter box:

• A medical condition (visit your veterinarian for an exam)

• A dirty litter box

• Too few litter boxes for the cats in the household

• A cramped litter box

• A litter box with a hood or liner, or sides that are high 

• Too much litter in the box

• An uncomfortable location that doesn’t allow for privacy and multiple escape routes

• A change in the kind of litter you use

• Negative associations. Your cat may have been upset while using the box. She may also connect the box with painful elimination, even if her health is back to normal

• Stressors like moving, adding new animals or family members to the household

• A conflict with another cat in your family

If your vet has ruled out a health problem, make some (or several) changes to encourage your cat to get back in her litter box:

Keep it cleaner. 

• Scoop and change your cat’s litter at least once a day.

• Try a self-cleaning box — generally cleaner than a traditional litter box.

• Thoroughly rinse out the box with baking soda or unscented soap once a week.

Make it appealing and accessible. 

• Use less litter. Cats like a shallow bed of litter: no more than two inches deep.

• Use a larger litter box.

• Use clumping, unscented litter of a medium to fine texture, or the litter they used as a kitten. Put a few clean boxes side by side, each with a different type of litter, to see which one your cat prefers.

• Don’t use box liners or lids.

• If your cat is old or arthritic, use a litter box with low sides so they can climb in easily.

• Move the litter box to a quiet, low-light location where your cat can see anyone approaching and escape quickly. The litter box should be out of sight of the food and water dishes.

• Add a few litter boxes in different locations, all of which have multiple escape routes. Make sure that children or other animals don’t have access to the boxes.

• Provide a litter box for each of your cats, plus one extra. If you live in a multi-story residence, place a box on each level.

If your kitten responds well to positive reinforcement, now is a great time to introduce the toothbrush and cat carrier — or a leash. 

Good luck!