Veterinarian Reviewed on January 4, 2008 by Dr. Janice Huntingford
Usually, cat training centers on a discussion of litter box training and scratch training. Training your cat involves trying to understand how they learn as language is usually not an effective training method with cats. Instead, they learn through experience and behavioural techniques such as reward and punishment will create positive and negative experiences for your cat.
Typically, this is a very ineffective method of training. Regardless of the kind of animal, punishment has been shown to be effective only in the short term and only when they know punishment will follow their behaviour. For this reason, cats might behave when you’re watching but misbehave when you’re not home. In addition, punishment undermines the relationship you have with your pets. They may become fearful and distant if punishment is too severe. Some mild forms of punishment may be justified if your cat is going to do something that will ultimately cause serious physical injury. Still, rewarding good behaviour has always been the most effective method of training for animals.
There are two basic kinds of reward. You can give a “treat” or remove an adverse stimulus as reward. The easiest and most common kinds of reward involve the former. For example, petting your cat and giving affection immediately after she demonstrates a desirable behaviour is an example of giving a “treat.” Reward has generally been found to be more effective than punishment, its effects are longer lasting, and it helps to develop a strong, positive relationship between pet and owner.
The most important aspect of training is managing rewards. Quite often, owners will unintentionally reward unwanted behaviour. For example, if your cat wakes you at 6am to be fed and you proceed to feed it, then you are rewarding that initial behaviour. If you do not want your cat to continue waking you at 6am you need to consistently meet a feeding schedule and not give into your cats unwanted attempts to get you to feed it. In addition, rewards need to be given immediately after a desirable behaviour. If there is a long delay between the behaviour and the reward your cat will not be able to make the association. Also remember that verbal reprimands will not work with cats.
Three tips for effective training are:
1. Stop reprimands and punishment, they do not work,
2. Reward desirable behaviours and set up your cat’s environment so it is conducive to those behaviours, and
3. Organize your cat’s environment in a way that undesirable behaviours are not rewarding, i.e. do not focus your attention on your cat when it misbehaves (this will likely lead to an increase in misbehaviour).
Litter Box Training
This is usually quite easy as cats do not like to use the toilet where they live. However, unless you clean their litter box regularly, they won’t want to go in the litter box either. Also, keep in mind that cats react to stress and anxiety by urinating or defecating outside the litter box. So if your cat’s life is full of unwarranted stresses, litter box training can be very difficult.
Litter box training involves having a clean box with fresh litter. Also, punishment for not using the litter box will usually result in your cat being afraid of you and associating the litter box with punishment. In either case, your cat will become less likely to use the box rather than more.
To train your cat to use the litter box, there are a number of simple steps you can take. First of all, put food and water in the same room (but on opposite ends) as the litter box so that when you leave the house you can leave the cat in that room. Also, have a regular feeding schedule so that you can more accurately predict its toilet schedule. Finally, try to make sure that you are always around when the cat eliminates. This way you can reward your cat for using the litter box. A pet or cat treat are excellent rewards and if given immediately after the cat uses the litter box it will learn that urinating and defecating in the litter box is a positive experience and the behaviour will increase.
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Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan