The pandemic has seen a surge in new pet owners and people adopting puppies and kittens. While even inexperienced owners expect a new puppy to need some training, people rarely think the same is true for kittens.
But just like dogs, cats need support to adjust to life next to us. Simple forms of training can be good for their well-being.
Compared to dogs, cats share several historical relationships with humans. Cats were never selectively bred to improve their ability to interact and communicate with us, or to perform work roles such as herding, hunting, or guarding. But research shows that they can recognize and respond to our subtle social cues and be trained to perform similar tasks to dogs.
However, it is unlikely that we would need a cat to “walk nicely” on a leash or sit quietly in the pub. And cats typically need less support than dogs to master potty training — provided the right litter box is usually enough.
But we’re missing a trick if we just think about pet training to make our lives easier. Myself and colleague Daniel Cummings of animal charity Cats Protection would argue that there are many potential benefits for the cat as well. For example, in a rehoming shelter, training can be a useful tool to increase a cat’s exploratory behavior, positive reactions to people, and perhaps even their chances of being adopted.
At home, we can use simple techniques to help cats with things like feeling comfortable in a carrier, getting used to car rides, as well as tolerate being cared for and undergoing basic health screenings and treatments. Such training can also help cats cope better with visits to the vet.
Cats are not born with an innate affinity for humans and should be exposed to gentle, warm handling from two weeks of age so they can learn that we are friend rather than foe. There is limited evidence that younger cats are more attentive to our social cues, which could mean they are more amenable to training. Kittens should also be played with using cat sticks or fishing rod toys so they learn not to attack our hands or feet.
Punishments such as yelling, rough handling, or using a jet of water can cause stress and compromise the quality of the owner-cat relationship. Always use positive reinforcement (such as treats and praise). Not only is this the most effective way to train pets, but it is also better for their well-being.
Reward-based techniques can be an excellent way to teach a cat to go independently in a carrier or sit quietly while we give the flea treatment. Some very friendly, food-motivated cats may enjoy learning to high-five, sit, or turn.
But cats are often less motivated than dogs to pay attention to us, or do what we ask, especially in situations where they don’t feel comfortable. These factors may explain the high dropout rates in studies in which cats are trained to pay attention to human social cues.
It is important that we make sure that the cat is somewhere she will feel comfortable when we do training with them. Always make sure the cat has the option to walk away or end the session whenever they want and try to give them a break if they feel uncomfortable. Signs to watch out for include the cat turning its head, licking its nose, shaking its head, a raised paw, sudden bouts of self-grooming, looking hunched or tense, a twitching or thumping tail, and twisted or flattened ears.
Here’s how to teach your cat to get into a carrier and settle down in five easy steps:
1. Lure them on a blanket
In a place where your cat already feels safe, teach him or her to sit on a blanket. Do this by luring the cat onto the blanket with food.
Reward the cat for staying on the blanket with more treats, petting, or verbal praise, depending on what your cat likes best. Feed treats at nose level to encourage them to sit, then feed treats at ground level to encourage the cat to squat and finally lie down on the blanket.
2. Introduce the carrier
Once your cat has mastered step one, place the blanket on the bottom of a carrier with the lid removed. Repeat the same enticing and rewarding steps.
3. Take it slow
Once your cat is resting comfortably on the blanket in the carrier, place the lid on the carrier (without attaching the door) and repeat the bait and reward.
4. Let your cat set the pace
After your cat has happily stepped into and settled into the carrier, place the door on the carrier, but keep it open to begin with so he or she doesn’t suddenly feel trapped. Let them get out of the carrier whenever they want and use treats to encourage them to go back in. Start by closing the door a little with small movements, then open it again, giving the cat a treat each time. Build this up slowly until the door can be completely closed (just a few seconds at first) while the cat is still comfortable. Feed the cat treats through the locked door.
5. Almost there
Work towards having the cat sit in the carrier for an extended period of time with the door closed, adding a few extra seconds each time. Continue to reward the cat by dropping treats through the sides or door of the carrier, gradually increasing the time between each delivery of the treat. Each training session should last no more than a few minutes in total, and some cats prefer to have just one session per day. It can take many sessions and many days or weeks to complete this final step.