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How To Train A Cat: The Beginner’s Guide to Good Kitty Behavior

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9 min read

Updated - Jan 12th, 2022

When new pet parents bring a puppy home, training almost always comes to mind – but the same can’t always be said of cats. 

In fact, most people never consider training a cat because they assume they’ll be independent and aloof. But this certainly isn’t the case!

In this guide, we’ll dive into why cat training is an essential part of your new cat checklist, some expert training tips, and a few common commands that will benefit you and your feline friend.

Cat training 101

At its core, cat training is teaching your cat to associate a desirable behavior with a reward. By doing so, you can encourage them to stop bad behavior and start desired behavior so you can both live a happier, healthier life. 

Although cats don’t instinctually work in partnership with humans, they can learn to follow commands and perform tricks just like dogs. Cat training can also provide positive mental and physical stimulation for cats, which can help reduce anxiety, aggression, or other destructive cat behaviors. Consistent cat training can also help you pick up on their body language and learn what they’re trying to communicate (including the many ways they show they love you!) If you’re unsure whether you’re ready to get a cat due to the prospect of bad behavior, factor in the effectiveness of cat training in your decision.

What to know before you start cat training

Stock up on treats 

For starters, cats need motivation. Unlike dogs, cats won’t be as excited and eager to learn unless their rewards are worth their while. To make the most of your training sessions, be sure to stock up on their favorite treats and delicious cat food.

Find the best time

Cats’ daily lives follow a predictable cycle of hunting (playing), eating, grooming, and sleeping, so you’ll want to fit training sessions into their routine. Try training your cat right after they wake up from their nap as they’ll be ready to play and more likely to focus. They’ll also probably be hungry, which means they’ll work extra hard for those tasty treats.

Keep training sessions brief

Cats have short attention spans. A training session under 15 minutes is long enough to accomplish the goal but short enough to keep your cat focused. Remember: the goal should be progress, not perfection!

Eliminate distractions

A distracted cat can’t focus. Find a quiet place away from any pets and members of the family for your training session. Any background noise can throw your cat off, making the training session unproductive.

Be consistent with cues

To avoid confusion, use the same signals (could be hand signals) or cues for the command you want to achieve. Making sure family members also know the right signals and cues will help maintain consistency. 

Only train one skill at a time

Trying to teach a cat multiple skills at once can overload them. Only after your cat masters one skill, should you move on to the next. 

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Repetition reinforces your cat’s behavior. Once your cat masters the skill, make sure you repeat it frequently outside of a training session so your cat doesn’t forget it.

Use positive reinforcement

Focus on the behavior you want your cat to continue rather than the behavior you want them to stop. Yelling, swatting, or spraying your cat for unwanted behavior won’t be productive and your cat will likely just avoid you.

Be patient

Learning new behaviors or solving behavior problems takes time. Be patient with your cat while it’s learning a new skill – they’re more than capable and very intelligent.

Common cat training methods

Whether you use a clicker, hand signals, voice cues, or a combination of all three, here are some cat training methods you can use.

Clicker training

Clicker training is a very effective cat training method. All you need is a tool that makes a gentle clicking sound like a training clicker, a pen, or even your tongue! The goal is to first associate the clicking sound with a reward, and then further associate a new skill or desired behavior with the click, so your cat knows they’ll be rewarded, creating a cycle of reinforcement.

Hand signals

Using hand signals is another great way to train your cat. The key is to associate different commands with hand gestures. For example, making a fist when you want your cat to sit or making an open palm when you want them to give you a high five can help strengthen behaviors.

Voice cues 

Voice cues are saying certain words to indicate certain commands. Similar to hand signals, the key is to associate a word with a behavior and reward your cat when it’s done. For example, saying “sit” to get them to sit or saying their name to get them to walk to you.

Cat training: Reinforcing good behavior

Whether you want your cat to give you a high five or get into their carrier with ease, here are some specific skills and how to teach them.

Litter training 

Many kittens and cats come already trained to use the litter box. However, even if yours didn’t, you can litter train them fairly quickly.

Make sure the box is clean and in a quiet place. After your kitty eats, move them to the litter box and gently scratch the litter with one of their front paws. After they pee or poop, reward them and remove them from the box. Do this consistently, and they will soon figure out the litter box is their elimination area. 

Tip: If your cat is suddenly urinating or pooping outside of their litter box, it could be a sign of a potential health problem like a UTI. Talk to your veterinarian about any out-of-character litter box habits.

Carrier training

Carrier training can teach cats that the carrier is a safe place to be, thus, making traveling with your cat easier.

First, leave the carrier door open and put a favorite toy or a treat inside it. When your cat enters the crate, give them some positive reinforcement like a pet or a chin-scratch. Once your cat is comfortable, try closing the door. Start with just a few seconds and slowly build up as your cat gets more comfortable with the door being closed. 

After your cat adapts to the door being closed, get them used to the crate being carried. Start by lifting it up and placing it back down, and slowly start taking steps. Do this enough and your cat will soon be comfortable when it’s time to travel or visit the vet.

Sitting

Teaching your cat to sit can come in handy. Simply stand or sit in front of your cat, and when they sit naturally, reward them. Start using the “sit” cue after they start sitting in anticipation of the treat. Soon they will associate the cue with the behavior.

High Five

The high five is a fun party trick. Start by having your cat sit in front of you, and offer them a treat. If your cat’s paw comes off the ground, give them a treat.

Once your cat is reaching for your hand, raise it up in small increments. Your cat will soon reach higher and higher for the treat. When your cat is finally performing the high five, replace the treat with praise and chin scratches.

Cat training: Stopping bad behavior

Tired of your cat scratching furniture or clawing at your arms? Here are some tricks to stop bad behavior.

Staying off counter tops

Cats love to jump on counter tops, which can be unnerving and cause damage. Training a cat to stay off the counter is possible by using double-sided tape or an object the cat doesn’t like to discourage them from jumping up there. 

If they do jump on the counter, calmly and gently put them back on the ground. If they know the sit command, this is a good time to use it. When your cat sits and doesn’t jump back up onto the counter, give them their treat.

Biting or kicking with hind legs

It’s not uncommon for cats to bite or kick, but it can become a problematic behavior. If your cat bites or kicks because of a boundary or privacy issue, respect your cat’s space. If your cat bites or kicks out of rough play, however, disengage, and ignore your cat. When your cat stops being rough, reward the calm behavior.

Another way you can discourage cat bites is by disengaging and offering your hand for licks instead. Do this by putting a treat or some cat food on the back of your hand or fingers. By letting your cat lick the treat off of your hand, they learn a better way to engage with your hand when in a playful mood.

Scratching furniture

The easiest way to prevent scratching furniture is to provide a scratching post. If that doesn’t solve the problem, place double-sided tape over the area to discourage your cat from using it. Keep in mind: Cats use scratching posts for claiming territory and leave their pheromones around. A cat is more likely to use a scratching post if it’s in plain sight or a room others occupy, too.

Destructive chewing

Not only is destructive chewing annoying to deal with, but it can also be very dangerous. This is especially true if your cat likes to chew on electrical cords. 

Prevent destructive chewing by hiding objects or spraying them with a bitter apple deterrent. You can also redirect them to chew sticks or other cat toys like catnip balls.

Eating houseplants

There are many houseplants that are poisonous to cats. Although you should avoid having these types of plants in your home altogether, the next best thing is to seclude them in one area and put double-sided tape, a screen, or foil around the base of the plant. You can also add foil strips into the pot to discourage your cat from climbing into it.

You can also offer your cat an alternative like cat grass when they feel the need to chomp on some greens.

Yowling for food

Like clockwork, some cats will start yowling and meowing close to mealtime to get your attention.

The best way to stop incessant cat meows is by simply ignoring the behavior. Your cat will soon learn there is no reward for this and stop. Try making them sit while you prepare their food to show them only good behavior will get them what they desire.

Whether you want your cat to be safer in their environment, stop unwanted behavior, or show off some fun party tricks, training cats is great way to get the job done. A few minutes of your time each day will not only keep your cat mentally and physically stimulated, but also forge a better relationship between you and your purring feline.

Is there treatment for behavioral issues?

Even with expert cat training, behavioral issues like anxiety or aggression can still arise. We know how stressful this can be for both you and your cat, which is why unlike a lot of insurance plans out there, Pumpkin plans can help cover eligible vet bills for behavioral issues. Protect your kitty with one of Pumpkin’s cat insurance plans today.

*Pumpkin Pet Insurance policies do not cover pre-existing conditions. Waiting periods, annual deductible, co-insurance, benefit limits and exclusions may apply. For full terms, visit pumpkin.care/insurancepolicy. Products, discounts, and rates may vary and are subject to change. Pumpkin Insurance Services Inc. (Pumpkin) (NPN#19084749) is a licensed insurance agency, not an insurer. Insurance is underwritten by United States Fire Insurance Company (NAIC #21113. Morristown, NJ), a Crum & Forster Company and produced by Pumpkin. Pumpkin receives compensation based on the premiums for the insurance policies it sells. For more details visit pumpkin.care/underwriting-information and pumpkin.care/insurance-licenses

Writer, Mom of a Fab Fur Fam of Five
Lynn is a writer and long-time Learning & Development Manager at a large PNW retailer. She's also mom to 3 dogs & 2 cats!