Can You Train a Cat?

Training a pet is one of the great joys of owning an animal. But one creature is sometimes overlooked when people are picking a teachable pet for the household: the domestic cat.

Despite their reputation as self-sufficient and sometimes stubborn animals, cats can obey quite complex commands and some appear to relish the stimulation that training provides.

You do have to make allowances for their independent nature, though. "Training a cat is a little bit more difficult than training a dog, as humans are a little less important to them," cat behavior expert Celia Haddon told Newsweek.

"They have tested out cat training in cat shelters and found that the cats really enjoy it. But it does need somebody who understands reward training."

Whether you're thinking of simple house training or have something more adventurous in mind, read on for expert advice on coaching your cat.

How to Train Your Cat

Calico cat standing up on hind legs,
Calico cat standing on its hind legs. Although cats can't be trained to do the wide range of tasks dogs are bred for, positive reinforcement still works for them. ablokhin/Getty Images

Be Positive

The basic training principle of rewarding what you like and ignoring what you do not also applies to cats.

Once owners begin ignoring undesirable behavior, they need to stand firm through what is known as the "extinction burst"—when the animal starts to ramp up their unacceptable behavior, in an attempt to get a response. You have to be consistent in not responding.

Zazie Todd, author of the book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy, believes delicious and tactile treats are key to success.

"Always use positive reinforcement to train your cat," she told Newsweek. "That typically means giving them a very tiny treat or piece of food—cooked chicken, tuna, prawn, wet cat treats—after they've done what you want to increase the likelihood of it happening again.

"Some cats like to be brushed a lot, in which case brushing might also work as a reward."

If you're doling out edible treats, she added, "remember to take account of calories from training when feeding your cat their meals."

Cat doing high five trick
Cat does a "high five" trick. Training is a great way to connect with your pet. Nathalie Frate/Getty Images

Never Punish

People "should never ever punish their cat," according to Haddon. It's cruel and can have unintended consequences.

"It ruins a relationship. Cats, if they are punished, will just run off and hide under the bed. They may begin to be frightened of you and you may be unable ever to train them again," she explained. "If they won't do what you want, you haven't trained them in the correct way."

This is because cats are not thought to associate punishment with the idea that they have "failed" an instruction. Instead, they will become anxious or frustrated and may begin to associate this feeling with you or their immediate environment.

Todd expressed similar concerns, saying: "Don't squirt water or hiss or yell at your cat in an attempt to train them. Methods like this can cause your cat to be stressed and, because they may associate the punishment with you, can make your relationship with your cat worse."

Cat litter training for a little kitten
Litter training for a kitten. Like many species, including humans, cats learn via association. Iuliia Alekseeva/Getty Images

Start Slowly

A common mistake people make when training cats is to ask for too much too soon.

Todd said: "Train for short periods at a time and use great rewards to keep your cat interested. Follow a gradual training plan so that each stage of the training is easy for your cat. That will help to keep them engaged."

Haddon added: "Cats also get easily bored, so you have to train in short bouts of about five minutes. If you go on too long, they just walk away."

A History of Cat Tricks

cat plays with the man and gives
A cat plays with a man, giving him a paw. Owners can train their cats to come on command, use a toilet and much more besides. Nikolay Chekalin/Getty Images

With a little patience and know-how, people have trained some cats to perform extraordinary feats.

Haddon points to Signor Capelli's performing cats, who beat a drum, turned a spit and rang bells in front of a London audience in 1832.

In 1950s Britain, Antony Hippisley Coxe had a touring circus act of four or five cats—which was watched by the young Celia. "As a child I thought they were boring, but my mother told me: 'This is so unusual that you will never see it again,'" she recalled.

The training methods used in these acts would probably not meet today's animal welfare standards. "A more modern example of good cat training is Dominique and his Flying House Cats," said Haddon.

She saw Dominique Lefort's act in Florida in the 1990s and he and the cats are still believed to be performing in Key West.

"His cats perform in the open air, without the confinement of a theater or a circus ring. They could simply jump down and disappear into the crowd any time if they were not enjoying it.

"Instead, they leap from high chair to high chair, jumping over Dominique and also through hoops."

Funny tabby cat getting her teeth brushed
Tabby getting her teeth brushed by her owner. Training gives owners an effective way to communicate with their cats. Lightspruch/Getty Images

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