How to train your cat – and why you should


It’s common knowledge that dogs can be trained to obey cues and do tricks, and it’s a common misconception that the same is not true for cats. Actually, cats are very trainable and have a learning capacity similar to dogs, according to Dr. Jill Sackman, a BluePearl veterinarian and pet behavior expert.

Behavioral training has many benefits for both you and your cat. That’s why it’s important to take the time to work with your cat and learn some best practices.  Here are Dr. Sackman’s tips for training your cat:

It’s all about positive reinforcements. Similar to dogs, cats learn best when the cue is associated with something positive and happy. Also similar to dogs, that happy association is usually food. When your cat performs the cue you are training, reward him with a tasty treat and praise. Over time, your cat will learn that a particular behavior means a snack will soon follow, and he will begin to obey your cue. Once he knows it pretty well, you can add in verbal or hand cues to associate with the cue.

This training method is standard for both cats and dogs – but cats may require a little more patience. By nature, cats may need a little more motivation than dogs to engage in training. Remain calm and patient during your training sessions.

Use a training clicker. Food is an effective training aid for your cat, and reinforcing treats with a clicking sound can help him engage him in training and further understand the association of food and cue. Purchase a pet training clicker at your local pet store or online, and click every time you hand your cat a treat during training. Since using a clicker as a training aid is common for a variety of species, we recommend you read our article on how to train basic commands for dogs for more information on clickers and other training tips.

Be mindful of cat enrichment. As a cat owner, you know that felines have a natural instinct to pounce, hunt and explore. By encouraging these natural behaviors in your cat’s home life, you are practicing cat enrichment – which can promote his health and reduce behavioral issues. Training your cat will expose him to new things and increase mental stimulation, resulting in a happier, more engaged life.

Since cats benefit from new sights and smells, Dr. Sackman recommends harness training your indoor cat for outdoor walks or exploring sessions in your yard. You can train your kitty to wear a harness by using treats and a clicker to make harness time a positive experience. Another way to enrich your cat’s life is by teaching him a simple game like “fetch.”

Choose cues that can be beneficial to your home life. When it comes to cat training, the possibilities are essentially endless. When choosing new cues, think about what would be most useful in your home. Some good beginning cues include “get off the counter,” “go to your bed,” and “jump on the cat tree.” Training cues that relate to household objects can improve your family dynamic, home cleanliness and more.

Get involved in digital media. In today’s digital age, it’s not uncommon to ask the internet for instructions or tips for certain tasks. Why not use digital resources to help you with cat training? There are tons of videos on YouTube and other media-sharing sites that provide visual training tips for teaching different cues. Just be sure to look for videos from a credible source such as veterinary experts or professional pet trainers.

You can also look for publications from pet behavior experts to learn more on this topic and discover more about your cat’s mind and instincts. Dr. Sackman recommends The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis.

While you’re online, be sure to check out some videos that show off just how truly trainable cats are – such as the Amazing Acro-Cats videos.

Remember the benefits. There are so many benefits for training your cat – and perhaps the most important is the strengthened bond between yourself and your feline. When training with your cat, you are spending quality time together and learning how to understand each other. Other benefits include better home balance, improved family dynamic and mental enrichment for your cat. Plus, it’s always fun to have a few party tricks and show off your cat’s abilities.

“If we spend more time training our cats, we can further develop the bond between cat and owner,” says Dr. Sackman, “It’s one of the best ways to provide them with enrichment and engagement.”

Dr. Sackman teaches cat training techniques to many of her clients – including BluePearl emergency veterinarian Dr. Nikki Verkest Werner, who sought behavioral help for her cat named Lou. As a young and highly active kitty, Lou would often bite her hands during play and he needed an outlet for his energy.

Dr. Sackman recommended harness training to provide Lou with mental and physical stimulation from the outdoors and help him bond with Dr. Werner.

“We did a slow introduction with the harness and leash indoors for a few months,” says Dr. Werner, “We made each session very positive, and he now associates his harness with treats! We have progressed to going outside with the leash and harness to explore the yard.”

Dr. Werner also uses a clicker for her training, which she used to teach Lou how to jump off counter and furniture on command.

“After our play sessions, Lou will come up to snuggle me,” says Dr. Werner, “His energy is controlled and the play biting stopped. Training Lou created a more positive environment for both of us.”