This Special Training Could Save Your Cat's Life

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to train cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Despite what many people believe, most cats can be trained to perform certain behaviors
  • Sometimes, learning a particular behavior can literally save a cat’s life; other times it can enrich her environment and daily routine
  • Three beneficial behaviors to teach your cat include using approved scratching surfaces, being comfortable in a crate/carrier and coming when called

It’s widely accepted that dogs should be trained to respond to potentially life-saving verbal commands, but what about cats? Many people assume, with good reason, that feline family members can’t be trained because unlike dogs, they generally do as they please rather than what might please us.

While it’s true there are differences in the human relationship with cats versus dogs, there are times when having a compliant kitty is not only desirable, but a matter of life or death. Let’s say your home is in the path of a fast-moving fire or hurricane and you need to evacuate immediately.

Your dog is right by your side, waiting to cooperate, because she’s a fully domesticated animal who looks to her human for guidance. But where’s the cat? You call his name. You search frantically from room to room. But your independent, self-sufficient, wild child is very well hidden, which is an entirely natural response for a semi-domesticated kitty.

However, all is not lost, because most cats can be trained (some breeds actually excel at it), and there are beneficial behaviors you should consider teaching your kitty to perform, not only in the event of an emergency, but also to enrich his day-to-day life. Three of these behaviors are learning to use a designated scratching surface, being comfortable in a crate and coming when called.

Training Your Cat to Use Appropriate Scratching Surfaces

Make sure the cat scratchers you provide satisfy both your kitty's preferred scratching position and surface. This might involve more than one scratcher design, for example, a carpet-covered post, a sisal-covered post, and a post with both horizontal and vertical scratching surfaces.

Scratching posts should be very sturdy (no wobbling) and remain stable during clawing sessions. They should also be placed where they'll be used, even if they don’t exactly compliment the décor of your home. Sticking the scratchers in out-of-the-way spots your cat doesn't frequent is unlikely to encourage him to use them. Also consider putting one in front of the window he looks out of, his feeding area or litterbox.

Like the litterbox rule for multi-cat households (one litterbox per cat plus one extra), it's a good idea to have one more scratcher than you have cats. So if you have two kitties at home, a good rule of thumb is to have three scratching surfaces. Many cats don't like to share their scratching territory.

Once the scratchers are in position, encourage your cat to explore the scratcher using a lure like a feather toy or a toy with some organic catnip rubbed on it. You can also rub or sprinkle the catnip directly on the scratchers. Offer praise and treats each time your cat uses a scratcher and especially when he digs his claws into it. Pet him and give him the kind of positive reinforcement he responds to. The idea is to make it a pleasant, fun experience each time he uses the new scratching surfaces.

In addition, just as most humans need to trim their nails frequently, it may be necessary to trim your cat's nails weekly or at least every couple of weeks. You can also consider covering her nails with commercially available nail caps, which will help protect both you and your belongings from those sharp claws.

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Crate Training Your Cat

Far too many kitties run and hide the second they lay eyes on the dreaded carrier. This is because for these cats, the evil device only makes an appearance once or twice a year and dredges up bad memories of forced confinement, a hair-raising ride in the car, and/or and a visit to a place (e.g., the veterinary clinic) that feels threatening.

The good news is the angst associated with vet visits and other outings can be minimized by helping your cat get comfortable with her carrier at home, on her timetable and in an entirely nonthreatening manner.

Candidly, she’ll probably never enjoy being removed from her home turf to parts unknown, but if she views her carrier as a safe space, you've eliminated one of the many stressors involved in getting her from point A to point B. For a detailed crate training how-to, see 10 Steps to Conquer Your Cat's Crate Hate.

Cat carriers are necessary, but they don’t have to be a “necessary evil.” If you need to travel with your cat, even just to veterinary visits, or heaven forbid you find yourself in the middle of a natural disaster and must evacuate your home, you want a safe, comfortable way to travel with your feline family member.

The more familiar and comfortable your cat is with her carrier, and the safer she feels in it, the less stressful it will be for her when you need to move her in it.

Training Kitty to Come When Called

You may not realize it, but your cat probably already comes when he’s “called” by any sound that tells him it could be mealtime, such as the whir of the electric can opener. If there’s no sound involved, he’ll be called by the aroma of his meal being prepared. Since he’s already answering these calls, you can easily build on this foundation, says veterinary behaviorist E’Lise Christensen in an interview with Adventure Cats.1 The trick is to pair calling your cat with something he’s already responding to.

First you need to decide precisely how you’ll call him from now on when you want him to come to you. For example, you can call him by his name using a different vocal inflection, or by his name followed by “come” (“Fluffy, come”) or preceded by “here” (“Here, Fluffy Fluffy”). The key is to consistently use the same words and tone of voice each time you call him to you.

You can also use high-value treats to train kitty to come when called. Standing next to him, call him to come and then immediately give him a treat. When it’s obvious he’s made the connection between your call and yummy treats, you can start increasing the distance.

Move a few feet away from him, call him, and when he comes to you, give him a treat. Once he’s doing this consistently, gradually increase the distance between you. If things go according to plan, he’ll be reliably responding to your call from all over the house. Keys to successful training sessions:

  • Plan to do several sessions each day to help your cat maintain his training; keep each one short — no more than five minutes
  • Never, ever punish your cat for not coming when you call — it’s ineffective and can cause him to become stressed or fearful
  • Always reward him, no matter how long it takes him to respond to you; remember that you’re asking him to do something entirely unnatural for a cat

It’s also important not to use this training to call your cat for anything he might (or will surely) find unpleasant, like giving him medication or taking him for a veterinary appointment. In those situations, says Christensen, it’s better to go find him so that he doesn’t make any associations between being called and a negative result.