Most people think cats cannot be trained, but that is not the case. Cats are very smart, and training requires focusing on the desired behavior and reinforcing it and redirecting from an undesirable behavior. The keys to training are starting (if possible) at a young age, being consistent, and intervening before an undesirable behavior becomes an ingrained pattern of the cat.

Unfortunately, it can be human nature to want to punish undesirable behavior, and this is definitely the wrong way to deal with a cat. If you have the impulse to punish, stop yourself, because it will make the situation worse.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners, an organization of veterinarians who have special interest in the care of cats, just released a position statement on the “Positive Reinforcement of Cats”:

“Positive reinforcement is defined as giving a reward – something that is desirable for the individual – to increase the likelihood of that behavior recurring. Cats learn best through positive reinforcement. Favorite rewards for cats include treats, catnip, interactive play, and petting or grooming. It is important to remember that the reward must be desirable to that individual cat, and may vary between cats.”

Rewards must be given immediately, within 3 seconds, so that we don’t inadvertently reward other behavior that may happen after the desired one. Rewards can be used to train a cat to do a desired behavior or to teach a cat which behavior is wanted. For example, a cat can be taught to sit if rewarded immediately after sitting, and especially if it is done consistently early in training. If we want a cat to scratch on a scratching post, entice it to do so, and when the cat scratches in the desired location, immediately reward.

It is important that rewards are not unintentionally given for undesirable behavior. Ignoring or redirecting negative behavior is the best way to eliminate that behavior. For example, if a cat is meowing for food and you ignore the cat while meowing, the cat will likely stop meowing to be fed. Feed the cat when he is not meowing.

Punishment can be deleterious, leading to fear and possible fear aggression, stress and associated health and behavior problems, inhibition of learning the desired new behavior, and breakdown of the human-animal bond. Physical punishment should never be used with cats or other animals. Verbal punishment can also increase fear and possibly fear aggression. Verbal punishment also focuses attention on the undesired behavior of the cat and my inadvertently reward it.”

Teaching your cat tricks or to walk wearing a harness can often be mastered with patience and positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is also effective for dealing with a lot of feline behavior issues. If a cat is punished around his litter box for not using it, he may never use it again. If a cat is yelled at for scratching then taken to his scratching post, he certainly is not going to have pleasant thoughts about being around the post.

Positive reinforcement can help stop inappropriate elimination. Many cats eliminate out of the box because they are unhappy with the box’s size, location or cleanliness. After you have addressed the litter box situation and made it desirable, positive reinforcement would be to verbally praise and give a treat to the cat when he uses his box properly.

Training kittens to only use a scratching post is easy when you start right away with positive reinforcement and routine. Dangle toys and entice the kitten to play on the post and give a food reward and praise immediately afterwards. Do this at least twice daily – it’s best first thing in the morning and then in the evening. Why would he want to scratch anywhere else?

If your cat is vocal and tries to get you up during the night for playing or for feeding and you do so, you are positively reinforcing the behavior. Even if you yell at the cat or pick him up and take him out of the room, this is giving him the attention he wants. The cat is training you instead! An alternative would be to create a nice cat bed in a confined location and use treats and praise before putting the cat away at night. He gets rewarded and you get to sleep.

Think about using positive reinforcement to teach your cat to behave in the manners you prefer and give it a try. The process can take weeks, but it’s worth it.

Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell photoWritten by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2012 The Cat Care Clinic