Cats are very independent and strong-willed and you will not be able to make your cat do anything she doesn’t wish to do. You can whistle to a dog and have it come running, but a cat will take no notice unless she wishes to, and then only if the cat knows and trusts you. As the common saying goes: When you call a cat, she’ll take a message and then get back to you–sometimes.
A cat may be trained, but only as far as she desires. Only kindness and gentle persuasion will win her cooperation. You need to realize right off that it is almost impossible to stop a cat from climbing onto chairs, tables and beds.
When you bring a new cat home, before any training, get to know your cat and be sure to wait until after your new cat has fully adjusted to your home. During this adjustment period, ensure that the cat is properly fed, has plenty of clean, fresh water, a clean, warm bed and a litter box that is cleaned often. Set aside some time to observe your cat and to consider which habits should be encouraged or curbed.
During this time, your cat will also be assessing you and your family and learning which reactions elicit approval or disapproval. The future relationship between you and your cat depends upon the outcome of this adjustment period.
Training a cat requires time and patience. Unlike dogs, cats are not inclined to accept or obey a leader. The success of any cat-training program depends on discouraging unsuitable behavior and teaching the cat to do whatever you want her to do. This is done best by simply rewarding acceptable behavior. Either tidbits of a favorite treat or social reinforcement (caresses, games, tender words) demonstrates love and appreciation and strengthens the ties between you and your cat. A stroke on the head, a tickle under the chin, or a light massage of the back of the neck are excellent ways of enforcing good behavior.
You must decide what reinforcement works for your cat. Reinforcement must be effective to maintain a balanced and well-integrated relationship with your cat.
A gentle reproof may be all the punishment needed to keep a cat in line. A cat quickly learns the mood and tone of displeasure in your voice. The cat will respond appropriately if admonished firmly. If you are amused at the same time, your cat may detect this and not take you too seriously.
To ensure good behavior, follow these rules:
Discourage unwanted behavior as soon as it occurs. A cat only associates reproof with an activity that she is doing at that time. Never admonish a cat for some misdeed long past (say something that occurred while you were at work).
Use indirect means to discourage the cat (the squirt gun is excellent!). Never strike the cat!!! She will resent you and more problems will occur. Try to disassociate yourself from the reproof (that’s why the squirt gun is so effective). If the cat associates you with a reproof, she will misbehave when you are not around because the cat will know no reproof will be forthcoming unless you are present.
Avoid any anger that may instill fear into your cat. The cat will only become more aggressive in its behavior.
Be consistent in any reproofs until the unacceptable behavior has disappeared.
NOTE: Instinctual behaviors need to be given an appropriate outlet.
Example: Furniture clawing–scratching post.
Their adventurous instincts may also lead to their jumping up on furniture or scratching chair and table legs. Such innocent activities may exasperate you, but try to keep your temper under control. Do not punish a cat by hitting her, not giving the cat dinner, or solitary confinement. These punishments are quite useless and meaningless to a cat, and will only make your problems worse. The cat will resent you and proceed to do the unwanted behavior when you are not around.
Try, in the first place, a firm, sharp verbal “NO!” or “Ah-Ah-Ah!” (or use the word “skăt”–this works best; it’s close to a sound cats make when giving a warning. They really listen to it). Use a small squirt gun and give it a squirt. Cats dislike water. Your cat will learn the meaning of “NO!” (or “skăt!”) without much difficulty and, at the same time, you will not alienate your cat.
As for scratching, which is a natural form of exercise for a cat, the best solution is to buy a scratching post. When you see your cat begin to scratch the furniture, simply tell her “no” and show her the scratching post. Hold one front leg in each of your hands and gently show your cat how to use the scratching post. The cat will soon catch on. (See our sections Redirecting Destructive Scratching and How To Give Your Cat a Manicure.)
BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION: SENDING THE RIGHT MESSAGES
A cat craves attention, affection, and approval–but on her own terms. She looks to us for cues on how to behave. Behaviors we respond to with praise and attention–even negative attention–will be reinforced. Ignoring a particular behavior or diverting a cat to a more attractive activity may get her to lose interest in the activity we want to stop. Here are some behavior modification strategies you can try:
Leave the room without saying anything. Often, by removing the audience, we also remove the motivation for the behavior.
If a cat on your lap does something you don’t want her to, say, kneading your leg painfully with her claws, get up passively, letting her drop gently to the floor. Leave the room for a few minutes. This way, you’re not telling her that you don’t appreciate this affectionate gesture but are simply interrupting a pattern you don’t want to reinforce.
Immediately divert the cat to a more attractive option. If she’s scratching the back of the sofa, for example, toss a small toy across her field of vision. She’ll likely give chase and forget about the sofa. But don’t make the diversion consist of attention from you, as this may reinforce the bad behavior. The diversion should be something neutral (not associated with you) but attractive to the cat. A small flashlight can be a great diversionary tool–most cats adore chasing that. Keep one handy in your pocket. You don’t have a small flashlight? A little opaque tape across the lighted end of a flashlight will produce a small beam of light. Avoid laser lights. Your cat’s eyes could be damaged.
Cats are sensitive to tone of voice and variations in inflection, so verbal cueing can work if you use it consistently. Yelling in anger or frustration will only confuse the cat or make her fear and avoid you. Devise a particular word or sound and use it only when she misbehaves. Select a special cue phrase and method of delivery, such as a sharply vocalized “Ah-Ah-Ah!” or “skăt!” When you see the cat misbehaving, speak the cue phrase immediately, or use a diversion not clearly associated with you to interrupt the behavior pattern. Whatever you choose to do, though, be consistent.
The easiest way to correct misbehavior is to prevent it in the first place. Proper socialization of kittens; thoughtful, thorough cat-proofing; and the presence of plenty of safe, cat-attracting climbing-and-scratching surfaces, cozy hideaways, and play opportunities will prevent most feline misbehavior.
PUNISHMENT–USELESS AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE
Punishment just doesn’t work with cats. Physical punishment is particularly ineffective. Even when a cat understands that you don’t approve of a particular behavior, punishment won’t make her stop and may do more harm than good, especially if the activity is normal and natural–like scratching–the cat will have no idea why you’re so upset. She may regard you as untrustworthy–someone to avoid.
If she finds the activity pleasurable or necessary, she’ll continue to do it–when you are not around. A cat needs to scratch, and if you haven’t provided an acceptable handy, cat-friendly object, she is going to choose her own. It’s unfair to punish her for your failure to plan for her needs.
By punishing a cat, you may be inadvertently rewarding her for misbehavior by paying attention to it. She’ll continue, just to get the attention. The misbehavior may be an attempt to communicate. Rather than reacting with anger, annoyance, or punishment, listen to what she is trying to say.
The key to breaking a cat’s bad habit is to build in her mind a firm relationship between the behavior you want her to stop and something unpleasant–while redirecting her attention to, and rewarding a behavior pattern you’d rather she follow. A general rule for behavior modification is that it takes about three weeks to break an old habit or form a new one. The first few days will be the hardest.
SAFE AVERSIVE CONDITIONING
Associate a harmless, but unpleasant result with the bad habit or the location to be avoided. If you are training a cat to stay off kitchen counters while you’re cooking, or the dinner table when guests are present, make it clear she’s to stay off the counters or the table ALL of the time. Make the banned surface itself unattractive. If you merely yell when you see the cat on the counter, she’ll associate the unpleasantness with you, not the behavior or the location. As soon as you are not around, she’ll be right back up there.
Lay sheets of aluminum foil, double-sided sticky tape, or some other paw-unfriendly material on the spot where you don’t what the cat to be. Or devise harmless noisemakers. Place several coins in each of a dozen-or-so empty soda cans and tape them closed securely. When you leave the house, build an unsteady stack of these cans right near the edge of the counter or table. When the cat jumps up, she’ll start a harmless but noisy and temporarily scary deluge of cans. After several such occurrences, she’ll likely decide the counter or table isn’t worth the annoyance.
Remember–no backsliding. Provide the cat with an approved alternative for her jumping, climbing, and exploring urges, such as a tall cat tree with plenty of hideaways and claw-friendly scratching surfaces. Hide some tasty cat treats at the top of the cat tree. Don’t unreasonably tempt her by leaving attractive and aromatic foods unattended on the kitchen counters or dining room table.
Reward or praise the cat when she behaves in ways you approve. While she’s not a dog and therefore does not live to please, the cat cherishes her bond with you and naturally wants to keep you happy. Take advantage of her trust in you, and never abuse it. When you finish your kitchen chores without a single pounce on the counter, reward her with lavish praise, a tasty treat, and a rousing interactive play session. Play can be a great reward strategy–many cats crave play sessions and anticipate them eagerly.