You Really Can Train a Cat

Love Dog
In This Chapter
  • Discovering the secrets of successful litter-box training
  • Dealing with your cat’s hunting instincts: scratching, climbing, attacking, hiding, running wild, and talking too much
  • Helping your next cat coexist with resident pets
  • Finding a feline behavioral consultant
  • Teaching your cat useful basic obedience cuesWelcoming Home Your Adopted Cat). For some adopted cats, however, the litter box presents a particular challenge. Here’s what to do about it.

Kitty, meet litter

Many adopted cats, especially older ones, already are trained to do their business in the litter box. But some cats seem particularly resistant to litter-box training, and you may not understand why. Perhaps they weren’t provided with a litter box, or a clean litter box, in their former homes. Perhaps fear, insecurity, or a medical problem is causing a problem. Luckily, because cats like to use soil or sand for a bathroom, because they can scratch it loose and cover up their waste, most surfaces in your home won’t be as appealing a spot as the litter box (except maybe that basket of laundry). However, if your cat is having a litter-box problem, don’t despair. You can help reorient or teach your cat that the litter box really is the best place to go by reading on for strategies to help correct litter-box aversion.

Dealing with litter-box aversion

For unknown reasons, some cats simply do not find the litter box appealing. Perhaps your cat never was trained to use the litter box, just doesn’t have that bury-the-waste gene in her body, or is having another health problem that makes her unable to control her natural elimination process. In that case, the best thing to do is start from square one by following these six steps:

1. Have your cat checked by a veterinarian for any urinary tract or other health problem.

Sometimes, the problem really is as simple as an infection that needs medication or a switch in diet.

2. Consider the type of litter box and filler you’re using, and the placement of the litter box.

Different cats have different preferences, so the problem may be as simple as changing the type of litter box or filler or moving the litter box to a different location. If your cat always has accidents in a particular place, put the litter box in that place. Or, try a less busy area of the house, or maybe an area where you’re around more often. Maybe your cat prefers a covered litter box for some privacy, or maybe that selfcleaning litter box is startling and scary. Some cats are even picky about how deep the litter is. Try putting in a little more litter, or a little less.

3. Start litter-box training as though your cat doesn’t know anything about the concept of a litter box — as if she were a brand new kitten no matter how old she is.

Just keep taking her to the litter box and showing her how fun it is. If she insists on not using it, confine her to one room for a while with her food, water, bed, and the litter box, placing it as far from the food and bed as possible. For more about litter- box training, see Chapter Welcoming Home Your Adopted Cat.

4. Institute a more regular routine for the cat in your household.

Cats feel more secure and safe when they have a clear and consistent routine. Routine reduces stress and anxiety in pets, and sometimes litter-box issues are resolved when problems with stress are resolved. Establishing a routine is particularly important for adopted cats that have endured multiple changes in their environment.

5. Practice kitty stress-relief.

Litter-box–training setbacks can be the result of your cat recently losing a home, being taken from the streets, having a litter of kittens, being abused, or suddenly being made to live with another cat, dog, small child, or other creatures. These all are obviously issues for adopted cats, and they’re big sources of stress that can be the cause of litter-box–training problems. Being patient with your cat as it adjusts, doing your best to minimize stressful situations at home, and interacting gently and positively with your cat takes you further toward resolving these issues than becoming frustrated and angry. When your cat relaxes into her new home and gains confidence, she may feel perfectly happy about using that litter box.

Your cat can learn to use the litter box, but you need to be patient. Don’t give up on her. Remember, some adopted cats learn quickly, but others need a little extra patience and gentle encouragement before they feel well enough, safe enough, and confident enough to do things your way. If your cat still refuses to use the litter box, and you’ve tried all of the strategies above, consider consulting a feline behavior consultant for help with your individual situation. Someone who interviews you and interacts with your cat may be able to come up with some ideas that are tailor-made for you. Later in this chapter, you’ll find information about how to find a feline behavioral consultant.

Your Cat: Mighty Hunter

Many feline behaviors are related to a cat’s natural hunting instinct. Some of these behaviors may seem like problems when a cat comes to live inside a human house: scratching, pouncing, biting, yowling, hyperactivity, prowling around at night, and of course, bringing you those little furry or feathered “presents” freshly killed from the great outdoors. Rather than yell or swat at your cat for doing these things, you need to (against your own natural instinct, perhaps) praise him.

Come again? Yes, that’s right. You need to praise your cat for being a good cat. But you also need to redirect the behavior that doesn’t work for you by showing your cat the ways he can exercise his natural instincts that are socially acceptable in a human world. Keeping you up at night or drawing blood are obviously not acceptable situations, even if they are natural for your cat. You can, however, do something about those issues. You just need to work within your cat’s instinctual framework. This strategy will leave your cat fulfilled but still leave plenty of time for purring and petting.


Letting your cat sleep all day means that at night he’s more than likely going to be awake. If, on the other hand, you spend several active play sessions engaged in hunting-like activities with your cat during the day, he more than likely will adjust his natural schedule, sleep during the night, and consider his toys (and not your fingers and toes) as his prey.

During play, don’t let your cat pounce on you, but instead encourage him to pounce on his toys and praise him when he does. Good kitty! Good mighty hunter! And if he does bring you back a dead rodent or other small animal that he’s proudly slain in quest of being the mighty cat of your household, then yes . . . take a deep breath, look the other way, and praise him. “Thank you kitty.” Then, when he isn’t looking, dispose of the victim.


Don’t bother trying to train the hunter out of your cat. Cats need to fulfill a natural impulse to hunt, and adopted cats that have spent plenty of time outdoors can be quite good at it. Just remember that with the right direction, he can fulfill his natural impulses harmlessly. That’s what all those great cat toys are for.

And if you don’t want your cat killing small animals, keep him inside, which is the safest option for everyone — your cat and the local wildlife.

Scratch Zone

Scratching and clawing are instinctual behaviors for cats. They truly can’t help it. In the wild, cats mark their territory by leaving scratch marks on trees, and this scratching also conditions their muscles and tendons and helps them keep their claws in top condition. Scratching helps shed the outer, old layers of cat claw. Cats also scratch to mark their territory, releasing pheromones from glands in their paws. Although humans can’t smell these subtle aromas, other cats can. The pheromones are unique to each cat, telling other cats who is hanging out where, who is ready for breeding, and who is in charge. Even if you have no other cats in the house, your cat can’t help doing it. It’s instinct, pure and simple.
So how do you deal with your scratching cat? Some people automatically assume that the best option is to have a cat declawed. However, this painful and invasive surgery puts cats at a disadvantage if they ever need to climb a tree to escape a predator or defend themselves. Many vets are opposed to declawing, while others are willing to perform this surgery. The subject is controversial, so do some reading about it before you decide to take the drastic step of having part of your cat surgically removed.
A better option (in my opinion) is to teach your cat to use her claws responsibly. The best way to do that is to give cats plenty of acceptable scratching options and train them to scratch where you want them to scratch, rather than wherever they may decide (without any guidance) to scratch on their own. Your cat needs at least one, but preferably several, good scratching posts (see Figure 11-1). Carpeted cat trees, boards tightly wrapped in rough twine, and heavy corrugated cardboard make good scratching options; some of them you can construct for practically nothing. Your local pet store has many options if you don’t want to build your own, or browse the stores to get ideas. Whenever you catch your kitty scratching somewhere you don’t like, immediately take the cat to one of his scratching posts. You can even help guide his paws along the acceptable surface.


Be sure to praise your cat when she scratches the right place, and if she approaches the scratching post or cat tree and starts scratching on her own, give her a healthy cat treat such as a tiny bit of chicken or tuna, a commercially made premium cat treat, or just an affectionate stroking. Reward good behavior whenever you see it, instead of focusing only on the behavior you don’t like.

Figure 11-1: A scratching post provides an acceptable place for your cat to exercise his natural instinct to scratch.
All about catnip
She purrs, rolls, kicks her legs in ecstasy, tries to bury her head in the carpet and wobbles and weaves. Is your cat drunk? Is she sick? Is something very, very wrong? A cat’s normal reaction to catnip may look pretty strange, and many pet owners worry that catnip is somehow harmful or addictive. However, this member of the mint family is a harmless herb that won’t cause your cat any health problems and isn’t addictive.
Cats just seem to love it. You can buy catnip or its spray form in the store, or you can grow it in your garden. Catnip is hearty and easy to grow in most climates. Not all cats react to catnip, and those exposed to it too often tend to lose interest; however, catnip can’t be beat for an occasional treat or as a way to attract your cat to a scratching post, cat bed, or toy.
Sometimes, providing attractive scratching alternatives is enough, but other times your cat insists on scratching the carpet, the back of the recliner, or the doorframes. When that happens, you need to redirect your cat’s behavior. Supervise your cat carefully, and every time you see her scratch in an unacceptable location, say “No!” and move her to an acceptable location. Respond the same way if your cat tries to dig those claws into you. Help her put her paws on the scratching post surface and move them in a downward direction. If she scratches there, praise her or even offer her a tiny treat. Cats respond well to positive reinforcement, so consistently redirecting her to the right spot and rewarding her for using it work quickly with most cats.
You can also make scratching posts more attractive by rubbing or spraying catnip scent on them. Always reward scratching done in the right places and redirect scratching in the wrong places. Pretty soon your adopted cat happily scratches the scratching post as though she never dreamed of scratching anywhere else.


If a cat/kitten is absolutely set on scratching, and you want a temporary fix while you’re trying to train her, check your local pet store for a set of “soft paws.” These plastic sticky claw covers, applied to each sharp claw, keep cats from ripping and tearing furniture, carpets, and even skin. They can be a bit tricky to put on the first time, but they are a harmless and non-invasive way to cap your cat’s nails for a few weeks while trying to get a handle on the situation. I haven’t met a cat that reacted violently to them, just crabby for a day or so because they probably feel a little strange.

Foiling the Climbing Cat

Some cats never would think of scaling the drapes or shinnying up the Christmas tree, but others — especially kittens — think this kind of high-flying action is pretty darned amusing. You won’t think it amusing, however, if you end up with snagged and tattered window treatments or a tipped-over Christmas tree surrounded by shattered ornaments.
In nature, cats climb, and they like to be up high so they can see what’s going on — potential prey, potential hazards, potential bowl full of Fancy Feast. You can enact two basic, simple strategies to keep cats from climbing:

– Block access to spots where you don’t want your cat to climb.

– Provide your cat with alternative climbing spots where he’s allowed to climb.

Unless you’re constantly supervising your cat, some other strategies you can employ are

– Tying back your draperies so they’re out of the way and your kitten can’t get to them.

– Keeping your cat out of the room where the Christmas tree or other climbable plants are in place.

– Removing or blocking access to all potentially scaleable surfaces.

After you take these preventive measures, you still need to fulfill your cat’s need to perch on high. Cat trees are perfect for this purpose. They enable your cat plenty of places to climb, crawl through, hide in, explore, or perch upon in a kingly fashion. A house with a cat can’t have too many cat trees. Whenever your cat tries to climb something unacceptable, simply place him on the cat tree and then praise him. He soon gets the picture.
If obsessive climbing seems to be related to fear or anxiety, talk to your vet and consider consulting a feline behaviorist.

Attack Cat: Biting, Scratching, and Pouncing

You thought you adopted a sweet little kitty but now you’ve got a wildcat on your hands — biting, scratching and pouncing on your hand, your foot, your head. This common problem is evident especially with kittens, but also with some adult cats that remain particularly active and playful or that never were taught not to engage in this type of mock hunting behavior. Yes, that’s what your cat is doing. She plays like this with her siblings early in life and continues to pretend to hunt by attacking you.
But some attack behaviors are more serious. Some research suggests that attack behavior is more common in kittens that were raised or fostered apart from their littermates, perhaps because they never learned about appropriate interaction with other cats, an important part of a cat’s social development.
Cats can also attack owners because of transferred aggression. For example, they may see a stray cat outside and feel threatened, but can’t attack the cat so they channel that aggression onto you. Some cats also attack out of boredom or frustration at not having another cat to play with.
This behavior isn’t malicious. In most cases, it’s natural cat behavior or a perfectly understandable behavioral response to unnatural conditions of living inside with humans. But, you protest, your socks are all snagged, and your ankles are bloody! Understandable. Certainly, nobody wants to be attacked, and you can redirect your kitten’s hunting instinct, prey drive, or play drive. Here’s how:

– When your cat tries to attack you, freeze. Do not move. Prey animals do this, too. Cats are attracted to moving, fleeing things. If you stand perfectly still or hold your hands perfectly still, your cat may just lose interest.

– Recognize the signs when your cat is about to pounce so you can quickly redirect her to something other than your flesh. You know the hunting and/or attack mode is engaged when your cat’s

  • Tail is twitching or swishing quickly back and forth.
  • Eyes are dilated.
  • Posture is in a crouching position.

– When your cat is in the mood for a hunt, provide her with things to hunt. Small stuffed mice, toy birds or feathers on a “fishing pole” or elastic string, squeaky toys, sparkly balls, wind-up toys . . . all can provide her with hours of pouncing fun, with nary a scratch or puncture wound. Just be careful to select toys that are safe for cats and won’t come apart or present a choking hazard.

– When your cat is enjoying an ecstatic catnip-toy play session, keep your hands and feet away. She’s more likely to nip and scratch when in the throes of catnip euphoria.

– When your cat bites you, immediately separate yourself from her. Immediately! Your cat is motivated to get your attention, and if biting causes her to lose your attention, she will stop doing it. Remember to reward her when she plays with you nicely.


If these diversions don’t do the trick, you probably need to consult a feline behaviorist if:

– Your cat’s biting and scratching seem truly defensive or aggressive.

– You think your cat is truly attacking rather than playing.

– You can’t seem to effectively redirect your cat.

– You or other family members are becoming afraid of the cat. Consulting a feline behaviorist is especially important when you or family members are afraid of the cat.

The Amazing Disappearing Kitty: Shyness and Hiding

Some cats, like some people, are naturally shy. Some adopted cats, however, may be unusually shy, even to the point that fear impedes their ability to function normally. Fear is, of course, a survival instinct that protects cats from danger. However, if your adopted cat had traumatic or frightening experiences as kitten between 3 and 7 weeks of age (a time perhaps long before you ever met your cat), she can retain the effects of this experience throughout her life.
Obviously you can’t go back in time, but you can help your cat overcome her fear and shyness with extra patience and sensitivity. When you first bring your cat home, don’t worry too much or become irritated if she hides from you. You can try to coax her out, but give her as much time as she needs and be patient. Speak in a soft voice, offer her treats, and keep the household quiet, calm, and nonthreatening. Help build her confidence in you and in herself by providing her with a routine, punctuated by plenty of encouraging but gentle talk and frequent rewards for even the tiniest progression toward trust. So she finally stuck one paw out from under the bed, eh? Well now, that deserves a treat. It may take a long time for a troubled cat, but eventually you can show her that she has nothing to fear from you.
After you’ve gained her trust, you can desensitize or help her to get used to other more stimulating noises and people in tiny doses. If your cat always hides whenever company comes over, that’s fine. Let her come out in her own time.

As long as she gets plenty of interaction time with the people she knows and trusts, you don’t need to force a shy cat to change her personality. However, if your adopted cat remains frightened even of you, or if she refuses to come out or to eat after a week or two of trying to help her adjust, talk to your vet and/or a feline behaviorist. Either should be able to provide you with specific advice about strategies to help your cat regain her confidence.

Harry Hou-Kitty: The Escape Artist Cat

Adopted cats that spent a lot of time wandering outside may actually enjoy that kind of life and may not be happy about suddenly becoming an indoor cat. Although living indoors certainly is much safer for cats, your outdoor cat is likely try to slip back outside through cracked doors, loose screens, and open windows. Remember, cats have the compulsion to hunt. They want to be outside where all the prey animals are hiding.
If your cat truly needs to be outside, you can leash-train your cat, or let him out in a fenced area as long as you can supervise him and know that he can’t get over the fence. You can also (with supervision) attach a long lead from his collar to a stake or tree in the yard so he can explore. Never leave your cat alone while he’s tied up outside. Many unsupervised cats have been attacked by other animals or were strangled by their leashes or collars! Cats that are trained to walk on a leash happily explore the neighborhood with you in tow, but don’t expect them to heel. Do, however, expect to get comments from interested neighbors.
Meanwhile, be careful not to let your cat out by mistake or accident. Instruct other family members, especially children, to latch doors to the outside. Get in the habit of watching to be sure that the cat isn’t getting ready to slip out the door unobserved under your feet when you open it. Keep screens over open windows and patio doors, and keep those screens well patched.
Keeping ID tags on your cat and/or making sure your cat is microchipped (many shelters and rescue groups require this) gives you peace of mind, in the event your cat does escape. You’re much easier to find if your information is clearly displayed on your cat’s collar. And if the collar is lost, a microchip may be the clue that leads to you and your cat being reunited.


Roaming is dangerous for cats. People often feel guilty that they don’t allow their cats to wander freely outside, especially when they’ve adopted cats that formerly lived in the great outdoors. Wandering cats are frequently killed by cars, chased and attacked by dogs, wounded or killed in cat fights, or picked up and kept by people who don’t take good care of them. The world outside simply isn’t safe for wandering pets, so do the right, safe, and responsible thing as a good loving pet owner and keep your cat inside.

Cat Talk: When Your Cat Just Won’t Be Quiet

Meow. Murrr. Mau. Meeeoo. Some cats keep quiet, but others just can’t seem to stop talking. Communicative cats talk to get your attention, express their needs and desire, or make their displeasure clear to all. If your cat is a talker be glad she’s so willing to try to speak to you. And yet sometimes all that noise gets a little irritating.
Never punish your cat for talking! Instead, try to distract her into doing something else. If she’s talking at night, she needs more exercise during the day. If she’s following you around, talking, give her some focused attention and playtime, even if only for a few minutes. If she talks to be fed, don’t fall into the trap of rewarding her with a treat every time she talks. True, she can’t meow if she is eating, but rewards like these reinforce her talkative nature. Plus, too many treats can lead to a weight problem. For a beggar, get in the habit of giving her rewards that aren’t always food treats — a toy, some petting, a round of “catch the feathers,” or whatever she enjoys.

Cat on Cat: Sibling Rivalry and Other-Pet Issues

Bringing an adopted cat into your home when you already have another cat or dog can be particularly challenging. In some cases, resident pets and new cats get along just fine after a few initial hisses and swats to establish dominance. In other cases, however, you can run into some pretty serious issues. Resident cats may feel extremely neglected and may behave aggressively toward a new cat or even become depressed and stop eating. Cats are extremely territorial, so the resident cat may feel comfortably established in your home and wonder, “What’s with this new interloper?”
An adopted cat, on the other hand, may feel ill-at-ease about coming into a home with a resident cat or a dog, especially if he has never lived with other pets before. He may feel fearful, insecure, or even aggressive, emotions that have serious consequences and can result in cat fights and injury. As the pet owner, you must create a balance between the resident cat’s need to feel special and appreciated and not neglected, and the new cat’s need to feel he has a place in his new home and that he’s loved and cared for. Both cats need their own litter boxes, food and water bowls, their own space, and their own escape routes whenever they interact, just in case one or the other suddenly feels the need to leave the situation.

In Chapter Welcoming Home Your Adopted Cat, you find detailed information about introducing two cats or a cat and a dog with the best results. If you’ve done everything right, and you’re still experiencing problems, seek advice from a feline behaviorist. Aggression is the second most common reason (after litter-box issues) that people visit animal behaviorists, and it often is caused by problems between pets. A professional can take a detailed history of your pets, find out about your setup at home, and give you some targeted advice relevant to your individual situation. In most cases, with informed strategies, pets can learn to coexist peacefully.

Calming Kitten Chaos

If you have adopted a kitten, you may be shocked to realize how energetic they are: like little furry bullets of destruction! Kittens have a lot of energy, just like human children, puppies, or youngsters of any species. You can no more expect a kitten to sit still and behave than you can a toddler. Kittens need outlets for that energy, and if you don’t provide them, your kitten will amuse herself in her own way, which, of course, can mean total chaos.
Instead of letting your kitten race wildly around unchecked and unchanneled, schedule regular play sessions for her so you can interact in an active and stimulating way. Many cats quickly learn to fetch a small ball if you throw it and figure out that you’ll do it again if they bring it back. Kittens love to leap after cat teasers, bat at feathers, or chase a flashlight beam around the room. This active kind of play not only tones and conditions a kitten’s body but also helps develop her mind, her natural intelligence, and her bond with you.


Preoccupied though she may seem with birds outside the window or dust bunnies under the bed, your kitten craves your attention. If she can be allkitten and have your attention too, she’ll be in kitty heaven. Wear her out at least twice a day with nice long play sessions, and she’ll be much less likely to make mischief when you turn your attention elsewhere.

If your cat seems truly hyperactive, and no matter how much you play with her, she seems unable to settle down, or if she behaves nervously or seems anxious, fearful, or skittish, have your vet check her out to make sure she’s healthy. If she’s okay, then, consult a feline behaviorist or cat trainer for advice.

Finding a Feline Behaviorist

Cat owners may feel frustrated when they have training or behavior issues. The world may seem chock-full of dog trainers, but seriously lacking in cat obedience classes and behavioral consultants. True, more people consult professionals about behavioral problems in dogs than in cats, and some lessexperiencedor less- educated behavioral consultants may mistakenly apply the same theories and practices to cats that they use on dogs. That’s why finding someone who specializes in, has considerable experience with, and understands the unique personality and nature of cats is so important.
Applied feline behaviorists (the term for a behaviorist specializing in problems with pet cats) can help you to address issues of anxiety, fear, aggression, and failure to bond with humans in ways that may never have occurred to you by evaluating your individual situation, pet, home life, and interactions. They can help with seeming simpler litter-box training and multipet household issues, and if qualified, even prescribe medication to help with severe problems.
Although your local cat club may not offer basic obedience classes, its members may be able to help you find a specialist in feline behavior, but you need to know what you’re looking for. Anyone can call himself a behavioral consultant, but veterinary behaviorists must have a veterinary degree, and many applied animal behaviorists have advanced degrees in animal behavior in addition to training experience, so you should always ask for references and credentials. Even if you can’t find an applied feline behaviorist in your area, many of these professionals do consultations over the phone. Some of the places you can look for a professional who can help you with the behavioral issues you and your cat can’t seem to work out on your own are

– Your veterinarian. Ask your vet to refer you to a feline behaviorist.

– The online directory of certified applied animal behaviorists on the Web site for the Animal Behavior Society at

– The Internet. Search “animal behaviorist” or “feline behaviorist” on your favorite search engine and check out the Web sites of the many professionals to find one who has a practice near you or one who does phone consultations.

Training Your Cat the Easy Way

Many cats already have excellent manners, thank you very much. However, cats can learn some additional behaviors you may not believe. You can teach a cat cues to Sit, lie Down, Stay, Come, and other basic obedience commands. Some people want to train their cat so he learns to:

– Sit and won’t escape when you open the front door.

– Walk nicely on a leash so he can enjoy the great outdoors safely.

– Come to you when you call him for grooming or cuddling.

– Stay when staying is in his best interest and safety.

Okay, the truth is some cats don’t have any interest in learning verbal cues, or they learn them but do what you say only if they darn well feel like it. But many other cats think that following cues is great fun, and they enjoy the bonding and time you spend together in training sessions.
Training a cat is exactly the same as it is for training a dog. Rather than repeat that information here, just turn to Chapter Doggy Boot Camp: Basic Training and Behavior Management and read the sections about training the “Sit,” “Heel,” “Come,” and “Stay” cues for dogs and do the same things for your cat. Yes, the cat has to think the effort to be trained is worth it, but many cats are highly motivated to achieve rewards and attention. Remember: Just because most people don’t bother to obedience train a cat doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. Plenty of people have done it, and you can, too.


Clicker training, or another similar training method that marks a particular behavior with a quick sound or signal and then rewards for it, is the best way to motivate a cat, so read about clicker training in Chapter Doggy Boot Camp: Basic Training and Behavior Management and give it a try. Clicker training works quickly and is a highly effective method for training cats.

by Eve Adamson