The pandemic has fueled a surge in first-time pet owners and people adopting puppies and kittens. While even inexperienced owners expect that a new puppy will need some training, people rarely think the same is true of kittens.
But just like dogs, cats need support to adjust to living next to us. Simple forms of training can be good for their well-being.
Compared to dogs, cats share different historical relationships with humans. Cats have never been selectively bred to enhance their ability to cooperate and communicate with us, or to perform work roles such as herding, hunting or guarding.
However, research shows 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 needed a cat to “walk nicely” in a pen or settle quietly in the pub. And cats usually need less support than dogs to master toilet training – providing the right litter tray is usually enough.
But we’re missing a trick if we only think of training pets to make our lives easier. Myself and my colleague Daniel Cummings of the charity Cats Protection would argue that there are many potential benefits for the cat as well.
In a rehoming shelter, for example, training can be a useful tool to increase a cat’s exploratory behaviors, positive reactions to people, and perhaps even its chances of being adopted.
At home, we can use simple techniques to help cats with things like becoming comfortable in a litter box, getting used to car trips, as well as tolerating being groomed and receiving basic health checks 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 must be exposed to gentle, warm handling from two weeks of age so they learn that we are friends, not enemies.
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 stick toys so they learn not to attack our hands or feet.
Punishment such as yelling, rough handling or using water sprays can cause stress and compromise the quality of owner-cat relationships.
Always use positive reinforcement (such as treats and praise). This is not only the most effective way to train pets, but it is also better for their welfare.
Reward-based techniques can be a great way to teach a cat to get into a carrier on its own or to sit quietly while we give it a flea treatment. Some very friendly food-motivated cats may enjoy being taught to high-five or sit or twirl.
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 involving training cats to attend to human social cues.
It is important to make sure the cat is somewhere it feels comfortable when undertaking any training with it. Always make sure the cat has the option to walk away or end the session when it wants and try to give it a break if it seems uncomfortable.
Signs to look for include the cat turning its head outward, licking its nose, shaking its head, lifting its paw, sudden bouts of self-grooming, a hunched or tense gaze, a twitching tail, or it also hits ears that are rotated or flattened.
Here’s how to teach your cat to get into a carrier and settle in five easy steps:
1. Lure them in a blanket
In a place where your cat already feels safe, teach her to do this
sit on a blanket. Do this by luring the cat onto the blanket using food.
Reward the cat that stays 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 bend down and then lie on the blanket.
2. Introduce the operator
Once your cat has mastered the first step, place the blanket in the bottom of a carrier with the lid removed. Repeat the same lure and reward steps.
3. Take it slow
When your cat is comfortably resting on the carrier blanket, place the lid over the carrier (without securing the door) and repeat the lure and reward process.
4. Let your cat set the pace
Once your cat is happily in the carrier and settled in, place the door on the carrier but keep it open at first so it doesn’t feel suddenly trapped inside.
Let them get out of the carrier whenever they want and use treats to encourage them to get back in. In small movements, begin to slightly close the door and then open it again, each time giving the cat a treat.
Slowly expand until the door is completely closed (only for a few seconds at first) while the cat is still comfortable. Feed the cat treats through the closed door.
5. Almost there
Work up to having the cat in the carrier with the door closed for longer periods of time, adding a few extra seconds each time. Continue to reward the cat by dropping treats from the sides or door of the carrier, gradually increasing the time between each treat delivery.
Each training session should take no more than a few minutes in total and some cats may prefer only one training session per day. It may take many sessions and many days or weeks before this final step is completed.
Lauren Finka, Visiting Research Fellow, Animal Behavior and Welfare, Nottingham Trent University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.