Although I have lived with my cats for decades I have never purposefully trained them. That is not to say that I have not trained them and them me.
Cats initially learn as kittens from their parents – this is observational learning. In the wild this will be hunting skills for example. They learn how hard to bite in play with their siblings. And they learn how to fit in with a human environment, to get on with people and other animals. This process is called socialization and breeders of purebred cats will ensure that this is carried out. It is a vital part of the breeding process.
Cats learn fast and are adaptable. They know where it is best for them and will adapt to the environment. At a basic level, therefore if we as cat caretakers provide what a cat desires he or she will learn to fit in. They are a self-domesticated animal it is said. And becoming domesticated is a form of self-training.
The learning process involves a change to the cat’s behavior on a permanent basis in response “to stimuli in the environment”.
The principle types of learning for the domestic cat are:
- habituation and sensitization
- classical conditioning
- operant conditioning
- observational learning
Habituation in the context of cat training refers to a cat becoming habituated to stimuli to the point where it is treated as harmless and ignored.
In other words the reaction of the cat to a stimulus that caused anxiety at one time changes to one where it is ignored. This is very useful for obvious reasons.
Classic stimuli that might result in anxiety are a doorbell ringing (whereupon the cat might scurry to a safe spot in the home). Or the arrival of a visitor can cause some cats to become immediately fearful. Another very common sound that causes confusion and anxiety is the vacuum cleaner. My lady cat always runs. My three legged boy is more relaxed about it. Some cats like being hoovered! They are habituated…:). Sounds are a typical source of negative stimuli as a cat has such finely tuned hearing. The converse, by the way is the sense of smell – also very finely tuned and far more sensitive than ours – which picks up the smell of fish…
The cat training technique involved in respect of habituation is to introduce the stimulus for short periods repeatedly until the cat is no longer startled. Clearly this needs to be done with great sensitivity.
The concept of socialization referred to above is a form of informal habituation. No specific training is carried out by the person. The cat simply lives in the environment created by the person, which should be cat friendly to the highest level possible. The cat becomes habituated to the sounds and activity of a typical household and anything that frightens it, is gradually ignored. I have seen this process at A1 Savannahs, near Ponca City, OK, USA. Their kittens live in the house with Martin and Kathrin and visitors. There is a good bit of activity. All this prepares the kittens for a harmonious adult life in their new home when sold to a new caretaker. You can see FOCUS below as one beautiful example.
The early years are clearly the most important, indeed vital, for learning. It may not be possible to habituate an adult cat that is not used to the human environment such as a true feral cat despite the cat’s innate adaptability.
I can cite two examples. My 18 year lady hates vacuum cleaners and she hates the sound of doorbells and workmen! It is too late to correct that. A stray I feed will not stay. He is too wild at heart, habituated to the solitary living life.
This is the opposite to habituation. Whereas habituation desensitizes the cat to stimuli that shouldn’t concern it, sensitisation increases the responsiveness to stimuli. This is a process that occurs naturally it seems to me. An example would be a young cat meeting a dog for the first time. The cat approaches interested. The dog chases and frightens the cat. The cat becomes fearful of dogs and other animals that are similar including perhaps large cats.
Sensitisation is a form of informal training and in order to desensitise the cat, he or she will have to be habituated to the unwanted stimulus as mentioned or desensitized.
Systematic desensitizing “is often used to habituate established fearful reactions”2. The concept is to introduce a fear inducing stimulus at a low level and gradually build up until habituation is achieved. The level of the stimulus is always lower than the level at which the cat becomes fearful enough to respond. It is a gradual process.
Classical conditioning is a form of cat training that a lot perhaps almost all good cat caretakers have been involved in without possibly being aware of it.
I’ll explain what it is by way of an example of my own. I sometimes feed my 18 year old lady cat fish – microwaved frozen fish – 50% power for 4 to 5 minutes depending on size. I digress.
If I want to tell her I am about to cook fish I call her in the same way I have always called her and show her a bowl. It might be empty, no matter. It is a neutral stimulus that precedes the meaningful stimulus (the placing of the fish on the floor).
Classical conditioning involves the cat learning to connect one stimulus with another at which point he or she learns that the former precedes the latter. The cat has become trained. This often occurs naturally without a positive program being instigated by the person.
The timing is important clearly. The neutral stimulus must be presented immediately before the meaningful (“unconditioned”) stimulus. It may overlap in fact. Consistency and routine is also important. A cat will learn “the ropes” more easily through routines day in and day out.
The presentation of food is the most often used meaningful stimulus. Or it might be grooming. I can call Charlie (my three legged cat) over to me when in bed to comb out fleas if I call and wave the flea comb. He links this with the pleasurable process of being gently combed for the odd flea. He is an indoor/outdoor cat so picks the odd one up. The waving of the comb is a secondary reinforcer (see below).
This is a form of cat training that involves reinforcement and “punishment”. The cat learns because of the consequence of its actions/behavior. Cats, like people (some people some of the time!), alter behavior in response to the consequences.
There is negative and positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is punishment. Please note that I do not believe in the concept of punishment in relation to the training of animals. Punishment is a human concept unsuited to animals. Don’t Punish Your Cat is a page that explains what I mean. It has generated a lot of discussion in comments.
The desired effect is to stop an action. Positive reinforcement is a pleasurable experience for the cat and so encourages certain behavior. The cat learns the relationship between their behavior and the consequence, thereby modifying behavior.
The typical positive reinforcers are the supply of food, stroking and play. Although cats can tell us what they prefer over time. Food is the prime method of positive reinforcement. The cat’s character determines to a significant extent the success of operant conditioning. This is common sense. If the cat training is against the cat’s natural instincts and character it will be much harder or unsuccessful. The best way to deal with cat scratching is to provide an ideal alternative to furniture and use positive reinforcement (reward) rather than punishment because it is natural for a cat to scratch – it is hard wired. In addition the type of positive reinforcer must meet with the cat’s satisfaction as it will not work; this too is commonsense. See Will my cat use a scratching post?.
The timing of negative or positive reinforcement must occur within one second or less after the cat behavior concerned in order for it to be effective1. Even better is when there is an overlap between the behavior and consequence.
Before I go on, I am compelled to say that I am totally against punishment as a form of cat training. How can you punish a cat that you love and which has no concept of the human process called, “punishment”. But I will describe the whole process, nonetheless. Please don’t use punishment to train. Just use reinforcement.
My feelings about this are somewhat reinforced by Linda P Case in her book, The Cat, Its Behavior, Nutrition & Health, which I have referred to as the basis for this article. She says that the cat associates the punishment with the “provider” of the punishment. This has two negative effects. First your cat will associate you with punishment. Does that help the human/cat bond that you have so carefully nurtured? It might and probably will result in your cat being frightened of you if the punishment is too severe. Secondly, as the cat associates a person (the caretaker) with the punishment, if the person is not there, there is no deterrent. This means that the idea of punishment (to decrease a certain behavior) is fundamentally flawed.
If you insist on punishing your cat the classic ways are: squirt of water, swatting, tapping the nose (horrible), shouting (“verbal reprimands” also horrible). More subtly it can be the removal of something that gives pleasure. This, as mentioned, is negative reinforcement. The associated stimulus is unpleasant to the cat. Punishment is usually employed to stop cats jumping onto kitchen counters or scratching. Both are natural to the cat and for me this should be respected and not deserve punishment. The answer is for the person to learn to accept it rather than train the cat. In other words the person needs to be trained.
Another defect in the idea of punishment in cat training is that it simply attempts to stop the cat doing something and to train that into their lives. It does not attempt to train in alternatives. Accordingly the cat’s reaction to negative reinforcement will be unpredictable and it may include aggression towards the owner.
Positive reinforcement has been found to be more effective in modifying behavior. A typical way that positive reinforcement can effectively substitute punishment is as follows:
A cat jumps on the kitchen counter. Rather than squirt water to stop it, the cat caretaker provides an alternative high area which the cat can jump on and positively reinforce that with rewards. This helps support the human/cat bond and this form of cat training actually trains a certain form of behavior rather than simply stopping a certain type of cat behavior but leaving the alternative to the cat to choose.
If the negative or positive reinforcement takes place too late after the specific cat behavior concerned the cat may be engaged in another activity. That activity will be reinforced. Reinforcement as a form of cat training should be carried out in a scheduled manner – continuous or intermittent.
There are such things as “secondary reinforcers“. Here is an example:
The primary reinforcer in this example is the provision of food as a reward. If a clicker is used at the same time or the person says “good cat” when the food is provided, the cat then associates the clicker with the reward and it becomes the reward (the reinforcer) in itself. This is clicker cat training. The association between clicker and primary reinforcer needs to be “topped up” periodically to ensure that the association remains in place.
A personal example of secondary enforcement would be as follows. My cat is outside. I want her to come to me. I hold up a grooming brush for her to see and call her name. She will come because she knows that she will receive the primary reinforcement; a nice grooming.
If I wanted to “extinguish” this learned process, I would simply not groom her once she arrived. This is also a form of cat training. It might apply when feeding a cat. If the cat is conditioned t o come to the kitchen to get food when the microwave is going or a drawer opened that contains cat food; then if no food is forthcoming the cat will gradually unlearn the response. It is the withdrawing of reinforcement from the targeted response. Initially the cat will push harder for food, called an extinction burst. Eventually it will lead to”extinction”. My personal thought on this is that it is cruel. There is only one type of cat training for me: positive reinforcement or reward training and it should not be reversed which is what “extinction” is.
Successive approximation or shaping is a form of progressive operant conditioning. It is a way of getting around the problem of cats actually doing the behavior that needs to be reinforced. A part of the desired response is induced and reinforced and the whole gradually built up.
An example is training a cat to respond to her/his name. When the cat simply responds to her name the cat caretaker reinforces that. Then the cat moves towards the caretaker and that is reinforced. Then the cat turns and moves towards the caretaker in response to the call of her name and that is rewarded, and so on. A complex series of behavior patterns can be achieved in this way. It is a subtle and advanced form of cat training based on positive reinforcement.
Cat owners can and often unwittingly carry out positive reinforcement on a scheduled basis. This is called the cat training the person! Example: a cat wakes a person up at 3 am. The person responds to that and gets the food for the cat. The person is exercising positive reinforcement for the cat. And the cat is training us.
I have just this minute been a party to a bit of mutual training. Let me explain. I give my lady cat (aged 18) some raw, microwaved fish some days at about lunchtime. She now associates lunch time with fish, which she loves.
She comes to me at lunchtime and asks for fish. I am trained to give it to her! This reinforces the whole process.
There are many other examples. She will wait at the back door and ask me to go out into the garden with her. I oblige. I comb her in the garden. She loves this. More mutual positive reinforcement. And a final example: she knocks on the cat flap door to ask me to let her in. I let her in and in doing that I reinforce her behavior of knocking on the cat flap.
I have referred to this in the introduction. I also refer to it on a page about kitten development because the classic example of observational learning is a kitten learning by watching mother. In fact a kitten will learn from watching adults relatively quickly. If the adult is a close family member so much the better; mother is the best demonstrator of all, apparently.
It is not known if the kitten is mimicking the mother or whether the mother’s demonstration “acts as a stimulus for the cat to focus attention on the problems and that social facilitation….is the underlying mechanism.”
In multi-cat households it is said that one cat can teach another through demonstration. For example the opening of a cupboard door or using the cat flap.
1. Skinner B.F. Behavior of Organisms. 1938.
2. The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition and Health page 160 by Linda P Case
Primary source for this post is 2.
Below is an earlier piece on cat training
Cat Training – If your pet seems to be more of a lazy type like Garfield rather than pumped and energetic, it is time that your cat learns how to play as exercise. Even human beings should do more exercising. It not only enhances your appearance, improves your health but it improves your overall state of mental well-being.
Cat training cat take many forms. You can train your cat to take exercise. Exercising with your cat will not only increase its overall health, but it will also realize a longer lifespan. Carol Tice, DMV says exercise not only reduces aggression, but it relieves stress and it makes cats more alert. It may seem a little awkward for you at first, but there are ways to help get your cat into top notch condition. That means, of course, that you are going to have to assume the role of being a personal trainer to your cat and get cat training!
As far as cats are concerned exercise is playtime to them. It only takes approximately 15 to 30 minutes each day to play with your kitty in order to keep it in shape. This is also a time when more bonding can occur. Here are some exercise tips for you and your feline companion:
- Begin slowly! Work up to 30 minutes of exercise each day. This depends largely upon your individual cat
- Try to have 5 to 10 minute play session segments throughout the day
- Only use safe cat toys. Avoid string or anything that your cat may be able to swallow
- Let your cat decide which activity she wants to do
- If you think that your cat is getting “wired”, then stop playing
- Always play with your kitty before and not after meals
- Water should be available at all times
- Use petting and praise to keep your cat interested
There are a wide range of cat toys on the market today. You should make sure that you have a good variety and alternate the toys you leave out.
Unless you play along with your cat, even the best toy will not entice your cat to become active. Cats thrive on interaction. If your cat has a playmate plus a toy, her interest is doubled and so is the time she spends exercising.
Cats will not usually play tricks like a dog. However, they can play some game that will definitely keep them moving and in shape. Here are some tips for some neat games to play with you kitty:
- Throw a wad of paper, a small ball or a piece of kitty kibble on the floor and watch your cat run after it! I know our cats chase the most ordinary things all across the floor
- Play tag with your kitty. Run with your cat up and down the stairs or across the room
- Play “hide and stalk” with your cat. You and your cat can each take turns being the “prey” and the “predator”
- Perhaps you will want to invest in a cat tree so your feline can jump and climb. This way your pet will get adequate exercise even if you are not home
Do not feel that you have to invest in fancy and expensive toys to help your cat exercise. There are plenty of ordinary things around your house that are excellent cat toys. Try these on for size:
- Empty cardboard boxes
- Open paper bags
- Crumpled up paper
- Golf or ping-pong ball
- An empty spool of thread
- Flashlight – Shine the light on the floor and watch your cat chase it. One of our cats just loves this and goes round and round in circles chasing the light!
- Children’s soap bubbles – Blow some of the bubbles in the air and watch your kitty try to catch them
Another type of cat training
Cat training can extend to walking your cat with a leash. Sometimes it is good to take your cat outside for a walk especially if you are living in an apartment. You give them adequate room and time to stretch their legs. It is also a way to spend some quality time with you feline. I have seen Bengal cats on leashes. This is particularly useful as Bengal cats are liable to be stolen yet need and like activity.
You will need plenty of time and patience to get you cat used to walking on a leash. Follow these tips in order to make the entire process easier:
- Make sure that you have a harness that is the proper fit and is secure for your cat
- Make sure your cat’s identification tag is current
- Map out a route to follow before actually going outside. You want to choose an area that is free from traffic, loud noises, dogs and other dangers
Which cats are most receptive to cat training? It has been noted that the Norwegian Forest Cat is quite intelligent and will be easily trained. Some of the other cats that are quite easy to train are Bombay cats, British Shorthair cats and Maine Coon Cats. Each of these breeds has their unique personality and temperament, but they are considered to be easy to train.
Cat Training — Resources for 2nd section
Norwegian Forest Cat Breed FAQ
Three Easiest Cat Breeds to Train
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