Whether you’ve got a kitten that’s taken to scratching up your favorite chair or an elderly cat that’s begun to spray all over your house, the question of whether cats are actually trainable is a common one. After all, the same characteristics that make us love our cats (their intelligence, independence, and curiosity) often make them not-so-willing training partners.
So, can a cat do tricks let alone learn basic commands? Read on for everything you need to know about cat training, from how to train a cat to sit and high-five to whether or not you should teach her how to use the toilet.
Can You Train a Cat?
“A lot of people think that cats can’t be trained, but that is absolutely false,” says Marci Koski, a certified cat behavior and training consultant based in Vancouver, Washington. “It just takes a little bit of practice and an openness to experimentation in the beginning to figure out what drives your cat.”
If you think about it, you’ve already trained your cat in numerous ways, she says. For example, your cat likely knows when it’s time to eat as well as when you’re in the mood to play and cuddle because she’s in tune with your day-to-day schedule. In both cases, she shows up because there’s a reward involved—namely, food or attention.
While puppies and dogs tend to be easy to train because they’re motivated to please you and gobble up lots of snacks, cats are generally more independent and, as a result, won’t work for free, says Dr. Heather Graddy, a relief veterinarian and cat behavior consultant in Englewood, Colorado.
The key is to discover what motivates your cat. While food is typically your best bet, sometimes her favorite toy or touch (like ear scratches) can serve as powerful motivators, too.
Keep in mind that cat training sessions tend to be short (think: ten minutes or less), but even a few minutes can make a difference, as cats have great memories and tend to retain what you teach them, says Koski.
Cat Training Techniques to Try
Training your cat can be a trial-and-error process depending on her unique personality and preferences, so be flexible and willing to try out many different training times in short spurts.
As you go, avoid punishments (like spraying your cat with a water bottle), as this can drive up your cat’s stress and anxiety and may even damage your relationship with her. Instead, use positive reinforcement for good behavior with lots of rewards.
To prep for cat training, make sure you have a bag filled with treats (like bits of cooked tuna or chicken), a marker (like a clicker, finger snap, or go-to phrase like “good kitty!” to ID good behavior), and a distraction-free area. This area should be indoors, without other animals, people, activity, or sounds. Then, you’re ready to get started.
How to Train a Cat to Sit
First things first: Can you train a cat to sit? Yep! In fact, “sit” is one of the most common and straightforward tricks to teach your cat, says Graddy.
Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Lure your cat into the sitting position by holding a treat directly above her head and gradually moving it backwards. As your cat follows the treat, she will naturally sit down.
Step 2: When she sits, immediately ID the good behavior with a click of your clicker or by saying “good kitty!” Give her a treat as a reward.
Step 3: Repeat as necessary. After a few successes, pair the movement with a hand signal (like pointing down with your index finger) and a vocal command (“Jinx, sit!”).
How to Leash Train a Cat
Sure, “sit” seems easy enough, but can you train a cat to walk on a leash like a dog? While it’s possible to leash-train a cat, don’t expect her to stroll down the sidewalk with you. Rather, use a leash to allow your cat to freely explore her outdoor environment. Let her lead the way, says Koski.
Before you leash up any kitty, though, know that skittish cats or those that have never been outside might not be the best candidates for leash training. A new environment could trigger stress, insecurity, and behavioral issues.
However, if your cat seems interested in adventure or often gazes out the window, here’s how to leash train her:
Step 1: Purchase a full cat harness or walking vest, a safer option compared to a collar, which your kitty could sneak out of.
Step 2: Incrementally increase your cat’s exposure to the harness by placing it on the floor with treats next to it and picking it up and allowing her to sniff or rub up against it. Give her plenty of treats to reduce stress and create a more positive association with the harness.
Step 3: Work up to putting the harness on by draping it over her, putting in one paw, and so on, with many treats along the way. Then, allow her to explore the house with it on.
Step 4: When she’s comfortable, attach the leash and again allow her to wander around with it.
Step 5: Finally, pick up the leash and gradually lure your cat outside with treats.
If your cat seems stressed or anxious at any point during your leash-training sessions, stop for the day and try again tomorrow.
How to Train a Cat to Do Tricks
If you’re wondering how to train cats to do all sorts of tricks, here’s some good news: The same method applies. Like “sit,” tricks like “stay” and “come” can be taught by pairing the good behavior with a click, a treat, and a vocal and visual cue.
The same goes for “shake” as well. Once your cat has learned how to sit, simply shake her front paw and give her a click and treat. Then, gradually move your hand farther away so she has to reach up in order to touch it for a “shake” and a treat.
How to Train a Cat to Use a Scratching Post
Of course, training your cat out of undesirable behaviors can come in handy, too. One of the biggest problems pet parents face is a cat that loves scratching up furniture or curtains. Remember—punishing your cat for these things does not work, since scratching is a natural instinct. So instead of grabbing a spray bottle, give your kitty an alternative she can’t resist.
Here’s how to teach your cat to use a scratching post:
Step 1: Place a cover over your couch. Double sided sticky tape can deter scratching from corners of couches.
Step 2: Find a scratching post that your cat wants to scratch. Think of what she likes, such as a fabric similar in material and texture to your beloved couch.
Step 3: Place the scratching post right beside the furniture, surround it with treats and toys, and reward her with “good kitty!” and treats every time she scratches it. Don’t force her to scratch it—just reward her when she uses the scratching post on her own.
Step 4: After several times of rewarding her for using the scratching post near the sofa or curtains, gradually move the scratching post to a new location. Continue rewarding her until the behavior becomes a habit.
Can You Toilet Train a Cat?
“Can you train cats to use the toilet?” is one of Koski’s least favorite questions. Just because you can train a cat to do something doesn’t mean that you should, she says.
Toilet training goes against your cat’s nature. Cats like to crawl into a secure and safe area that’s sandy and scratch around before they use the restroom and hopping on the toilet does nothing to address these needs, adds Graddy.
In the worst-case scenario, a toilet-trained cat could potentially injure herself when jumping on or off the outlet or the training could trigger a desire to create a mess elsewhere in the house.
So, while some cats can be trained to use the toilet, sticking to a traditional litter box is your best bet.
Cat Training: When to Seek Professional Help
Even if you happen to be a wonderful at-home cat trainer, sometimes your cat might need more help than you can offer.
A sudden change in behavior like biting or going to the bathroom outside of the litter box can sometimes signal an underlying medical issue like pain from arthritis or an infection. In this case, call your veterinarian as soon as possible to figure out next steps, advises Graddy.
If you’re having ongoing issues with aggression, spraying, or house-soiling, a certified cat behavior consultant can help you figure out the root cause of your cat’s behavior and how to address it in order to improve the situation for your pet and your family.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out,” says Graddy. “We’re here to help, and it’s easier to fix a problem earlier rather than later on.”