Think Creatively About Changing Your Cat's Behavior

When you have a cat who is doing a behavior you don't like, one good way to deal with the situation is to replace the unwanted behavior with one that is acceptable. You can do this by training your cat to do something else. A good example is counter surfing — when your cat jumps up on your kitchen counters while you are trying to fix dinner for your family. You can replace the behavior of jumping up on the counters with him sitting on a bar stool instead.

Cats are extremely trainable. They are incredibly intelligent and enjoy the challenge of learning something new. It gives their mind something to do and stimulates exploration and creativity. Clicker training is by far the best way to train your cat. It is a very simple method and it only takes a few minutes a day to make real progress. You will be amazed how quickly your cat will learn a new behavior. The best part is your cat will love the interaction with you — it is a fun game for them and strengthens the bond between you. The reason clicker training is so effective is because the sound allows you to mark the exact moment you want to positively reinforce. For instance you want to train your cat to come when you call him. Your cat takes a step toward you. As he moves his body forward, the moment his foot hits the floor, you click then give him a treat. He will quickly learn that moving toward you is getting him a reward, and you on your way to training your cat. Now gradually increase the distance between you and your cat, and click and reward him as he comes toward you while you say his name. In no time, you will have your cat coming to you when you call him.

To get started, you will need a clicker (available at your local pet store or online) and you will need to find something your cat really LOVES and will do anything for. This is usually a special food treat, but could also be playing with a favorite toy or another favorite activity. If you use a food treat, ideally it is something the cat only gets during your training sessions. You will only need to give him a very small amount of this special yummy bit. Do the sessions right before dinner time. This will ensure your kitty is extremely motivated to do the training with you. The basic idea is you want the sound of the clicker to mean great things happen. You begin by "charging the clicker" or associating the sound of the clicker with the treat being delivered. To do this, make the sound with the clicker, then deliver the treat immediately afterward. Wait until your kitty has finished eating the treat and looks up at you, then click and give a treat again. Repeat this process a few times. What you are looking for is a "light-bulb moment" where your cat hears the sound and looks expectantly at you for the treat. You will then know that he has made the association between the sound of the clicker and that yummy morsel. With some cats this only takes a few repetitions, with some it takes 20 or more times. Be patient, it will happen. If your cat gets bored and wanders off, end the session. Let your cat decide when he's up for a training challenge or when he's done for the day. The goal is to make it a fun, interactive game for both of you.

Once your kitty has made the association that the sound of the clicker means good things happen, the first useful thing to teach them is to touch a target. A wooden spoon handle works really well for this. It's a new object they probably haven't seen before, and they are going to be curious, wanting to sniff it or rub their cheek on it. It takes a little bit of coordination, but hold the wooden spoon (handle end pointing toward your cat) and a treat in one hand, and the clicker in the other (or however way works best for you). Present the handle to your cat, a couple of inches away from his face, and wait for him to make contact with it. The second he touches it, click and give him a treat. Take the spoon away out of his sight, then present it again. The second he touches it, click and treat. Repeat this until you can simply have the object held out in front of you and he will make an effort to touch it. Then you can try moving away from him a little and having him move toward you to contact the handle. You will see it happen very quickly. He will learn that touching the handle makes good thing happen. You can then create more distance between you and your cat, and ask him to make more of an effort to touch the handle. If he doesn't seem motivated to contact the handle, then it may be time to end the session, or you may not have done enough repetitions prior to this so that he really understands the goal. Start from the beginning, where you place it right in front of him, and build again from there.

Once your cat is reliably touching the target, you can start to assign a verbal cue, such as the word "touch." This is very helpful in the future if you want your cat to perform behaviors on verbal cues. You can use the "touch" command and use your target to indicate to your cat where you would like him to be. For instance, if you want to train your cat to jump up onto a bar stool, you can tap the seat of the bar stool with the wooden spoon handle and say the word "touch" to get him to jump onto the stool.

This is a very short summary of what clicker training is and how to get started. I encourage you to learn more about this powerful tool. There are lots of great resources available such as Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pryor and Naughty No More by Marilyn Krieger just to name a couple. Clicker training can be used every day for a wide variety of uses. You can train specific behaviors like how to sit and stay or come when you call his name, or you can positively reinforce other behaviors like when your two cats are acting kindly towards each other or using their scratching post like you hoped they would. You can solve issues such as counter surfing, the kitty that tries to bolt outside every time the front door opens, or the battle you have to go through when you need to put him in his cat carrier. You can also teach all sorts of tricks like jumping over poles, shaking a paw, high-five, fetch a toy ... the possibilities are endless. 

When you think creatively about how you can change your cat's behavior, you also have the opportunity to have a fun, engaging experience with him. This fosters a closer bond and produces a more confident cat.

Cat Carriers: How Can We Make This Easier For Everyone?

While it’s true that most cats hate their carrier and will do anything to avoid being put in it, the main reason is everything associated with that carrier is unfamiliar and scary to them. It’s kept in a closet somewhere in the house and only brought out on the dreaded day when he's going to the vet for his year exam, or worse, there's an emergency and you have to get him to the vet as soon as possible. No wonder your cat sees it and heads for the most remote hiding place.

However, there are a lot of simple things cat guardians can do to keep stress levels to a minimum. Cats don’t like anything unfamiliar in their environment, so start with leaving your cat carrier out all the time. Put catnip, treats, and/or toys in it to encourage your kitty to explore and spend time in it. You can also throw in a piece of material that has a familiar scent on it, like a t-shirt you’ve worn or a piece of their bedding. Make it a place they can enjoy and own (cats love to own things!). Leave your carrier out in the room while you’re watching TV.  If he happens to wander in there, throw a treat in the carrier with him. Keep treats handy so every time he goes in there, he gets a yummy tidbit. He’ll start to realize that this plastic box means good things happen. You can then ease him into having the door closed. When it’s closed, treats are delivered. Pick him up in the carrier and walk around the house for a short time, drop a few treats as you go. If he gets upset or stops eating the treats, put him down carefully and open the door—but throw a treat in the empty carrier so he’ll go back in there on his own terms. Gradually you can extend the time he is in it with the door closed. You can then try putting him in the car, taking him on short rides around the block. Make sure you turn the radio down and keep the windows rolled up to minimize scary sounds from outside the car. Spraying a bit of a feline pheromone spray like Feliway® in the car about 30 minutes before you place him in it may also keep stress levels down. When you return from the vet, make sure you give him a safe place to recover. He will smell different, so if you have other cats, he will need some time to reenter his old environment. Put some treats out for everyone so his coming home is viewed as a positive event.

Persuading a cat that the carrier isn’t a bad place and he will survive a car trip now and then takes patience, but the best advice is not to wait until the day he needs to go somewhere to try to make it a good (or better) experience. It only takes a few minutes a day, with your carrier out where it’s accessible, to start to change your cat’s mind about what it means in his life. And trust me, it’s worth every second you’ve spent when you have a peaceful trip to the vet’s office for that much needed annual checkup.

New Cat Introductions & Other Changes in Your Family's Life

One important thing to remember is cats really dislike change. They like their daily routines and control over their territory. Unfortunately, there are going to be circumstances where they are going to have learn to deal with a new situation, but if you know up front that your kitty is likely going to be stressed and upset by these changes, there are strategies you can use to make it as minimally disruptive as possible.

Adding a new cat or kitten to your family when you already have one or more cats is something you should do very carefully. Under no circumstances should you simply toss the newcomer into mix and let them sort it out themselves. This is not only unfair to the new kitty, but also extremely unfair to your current kitty family members. You owe it to all of them to try to make this introduction process as easy as possible. Your current cat family has established territories in your house where they either have sole ownership of a particular area or place, like a cat bed, or they have arrangements where they share them. It's important to honor these agreements that are already in place and allow the newcomer to gradually get to know their new cat family members. It will be easier for them to work out new territorial arrangements once they are familiar with each other. I can help you prepare your house for your new cat and help you through the introduction process. It is really worth the time and energy to do this introduction process in a careful and thoughtful way. Often it will help prevent future problems, particularly with inter-cat aggression.

The same can be said for adding a new baby or any other big changes to your normal day-to-day routine. By preparing in advance and familiarizing your kitties with the new things that are coming their way, you can create the best possible scenario for that new event to be as least disruptive as possible. For instance, when you are preparing for you new baby, allow your kitties to smell the new items you bringing into the house. Remember cats have a very acute sense of smell – about fourteen times better than a human – so it's really helpful to allow them to gradually get used to strong odors such as baby wipes and baby lotion. Have a baby come over to visit so they can experience what a baby looks, smells, and sounds like. If you can, get a recording of a baby crying and play it every day so they can get used to the sound. Once the baby comes, do your best to keep their daily routine the same, with some play sessions, normal meal times, and keeping their box clean. Cats are extremely adaptable and they will get used to the new addition. Again, by preparing ahead of time, you can ensure that it all goes as easily as possible.