Are you thinking about getting a cat but scared about all the horror stories of ruined furniture, waste outside litterboxes, and unpredictable swipes from well-sharpened claws? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
When talking about cats, many people think that it’s more a matter of nature than nurture. If a cat is well-behaved, loves to cuddle with humans, immediately knows how to use a litterbox, and digs its nails into scratch posts instead of sofas, it’s because it was simply born with a good disposition. And if not, there’s nothing you can do about it. Right?
Wrong! Contrary to popular belief, cats can actually be trained. Felines are smart animals that can understand the concept of reward and punishment. Just think about it: if tigers and lions can be trained to perform in the circus, you can bet a housecat can learn how to potty in a litterbox. As with any animal, it is possible to reinforce positive behaviors and discourage negative ones.
So how exactly do you do that?
Here's a simple step-by-step guide on what you should be focusing on when you're training a kitten.
- Start them young, but not too young.
Kittens are easier to train because they are just starting to build their awareness of the world. There’s a slightly better chance they have not experienced trauma or developed habits that will get in the way of learning. But that doesn’t mean you should get a kitten immediately after it’s born.
It is important to give the kitten at least two months to stay with its mother and littermates as this imparts basic social skills. During this time, the kittens are frisky and energetic. They love to scratch, bite, and play. But when they do this to other cats and go overboard, they’ll be rewarded with a sharp hiss or a ready strike. Chastised, they will learn how to temper their energy so they don’t hurt others.
- Reward positive behaviors.
Each cat is different, so choosing the most motivating reward for your kitten is a matter of trial and error. There is a wide variety of cat treats on the market to choose from. Once you find one that tickles your kitten’s fancy, maximize it by perfectly timing your reward.
It’s very much the same principle as teaching dogs tricks. The second they do what you want, give them the treat. Be consistent and take time out of your day to practice. The good thing is that cats have a short attention span, so a 5-10 minute training session at least once a day would suffice.
- Redirect unwanted behaviors.
Let’s get this out of the way: cats do not respond well to punishment. If the way you correct behavior is to scare them or hurt them (even if it’s as innocent as spraying water), they’ll either fear you or resent you, and we want neither.
A lot of the “bad” behaviors of cats are part of their nature in the wild. This includes scratching, jumping, or biting. Instead of repressing their natural tendencies, redirect them.
You don’t want your sofa scratched? Make it unattractive by placing double-sided tape on it and giving them a scratch post nearby. Don’t like your kitten to chew on your house plants? Spray the area with something pungent like perfume or citronella, and give it a safe cat toy to sink its teeth into. Tired of getting your hands nicked when you play? Remove your hands when your kitten gets frisky and give it a toy it can scratch to its heart’s content. You get the idea!
- Teach them how to use a litter box.
This particular skill deserves a special mention because it is vital for keeping your home clean and sanitary. The first step in teaching a kitten how to use the litter box is making sure it knows where it is.
To do this, you can designate a space where all your kitten’s basic needs are met. Ideally, this area is easy to clean. Place its feeding bowl and drinking bowl here. If you can put a bed it can nap on and a scratch post or toys to keep it busy, even better. Finally, add your litter box.
This makes it simple for you to transfer your kitten into the litter box right after a nap or right after it finishes its food. Do this as consistently as possible over the next few weeks. Most cats will take to a litter box instinctively, as long as it has the proper litter material and is kept clean. Make sure to remove any waste at least once a day.
- Build your bond with cuddle and play.
If you want a cat to cuddle with, start petting and holding it as a kitten. The idea is to teach your feline buddy that it is safe in your arms. You can combine this with rewards so your kitten will readily associate you with comfort and positivity. It’s also a good stepping stone to teaching your cat to tolerate pets and cuddles with other humans.
People think that cats are aloof and prefer to be on their own, when in fact, cats love interaction and stimulation. Taking a few minutes every day to play with your kitten works wonders for building your bond. Use different toys during play to exercise their muscles and their brain.
Remember that kittens have a lot of energy and if they are bored and understimulated, it’s much more likely that they will take their energy out on your furniture and your home. Redirecting that energy with games, play, and training is a concrete way to keep your kitty out of trouble.
Don’t forget to incorporate reinforcement and redirection during play! Give rewards and verbal praise every so often. But if it gets a little rough, stop using your hand abruptly and wait a few seconds before giving your kitty a scratch-approved toy to play with.
- Socialize, socialize, socialize.
Whatever activities you want your cat to do as an adult, start practicing as a kitten. If you want to go on walks with your cat, then introduce collars and harnesses as soon as your kitten arrives home. Once its shots are completed, you can go on short walks.
Introduce your kitten to your friends early on. It’s not only a chance to have them ogle at the cutest new addition to your home, but it’s a worthwhile opportunity to teach your kitten to behave with other people. Allow your friends to play with your cat, stroke it, and gently hold it, and also don’t forget to be generous in doling out those treats!
If you plan on introducing your cat to a dog, make sure to start with a dog that is relaxed and has been proven to be gentle with cats. One traumatic incident can set you back months in training your kitten to interact with dogs, so be sure to think this through.
- Have fun!
Training is not just about ending up with a well-behaved cat, it’s a journey that you and your new feline buddy will take together. Spending time playing and training your kitten is a great way to strengthen your bond. And isn’t that why you wanted a cat in the first place?
It will take a lot of time and patience, but add a dash of humor and you’ll find that the journey is just as rewarding as the destination.