Though it’s true that cat’s aren’t quite like dogs when it comes to the desire to please their pet parent, it’s still completely possible to curb their bad habits and train them to be on their best behavior. These bad habits are not limited to scratching walls and furniture, climbing on countertops, getting into food or other things they shouldn’t, and even going to the bathroom outside of the litter box.
A well-behaved kitty cat is well within reach, but diligence, patience, and a non-wavering approach is key. Below we’ve outlined a handful of tips that will help keep your feline’s manners in check.
Use Positive Reinforcement, But Only for Positive Behavior
A cat parent recently shared a funny story that demonstrated how attempts at training a cat with positive reinforcement can sometimes backfire if not done well. Her cat would often leap onto the TV credenza, blocking her view of whatever show was on. To get her cat off the credenza, she’d throw a treat on the ground so that he’d have to “fetch” it. Repeat over the course of several weeks. Eventually, the cat parent realized the error of her ways when her cat would purposefully climb onto the credenza and not budge until a treat was given; the cat associated credenza climbing with a yummy treat!
This example works in other scenarios, as well. For example, if your cat wakes you up at 5 a.m. every morning meowing for food, then acknowledging their presence and giving in to fill up the food bowl only teaches them that meowing at 5 a.m. is surefire way to get some grub.
The key with training cats is to use positive reinforcement for behaviors you do like, such as allowing you to trim their nails, using a scratch pad, or brushing their teeth. Before, during, and after, give your pet lots of love and even reward them with a treat. If your cat does other behaviors that you like — such as bringing you their toy or cuddling with you on the couch — reward that behavior, too.
Use Gentle Negative Reinforcement to Curb Bad Behavior
Bad cat habits should be met with gentle, but negative reinforcement. Some of the most popular and effective methods of negative reinforcement include spray bottles and noise makers. Neither harms the cat, but they dislike both enough that it’ll eventually prevent them from continuing the bad behavior. Just seeing the spray bottle or noise maker can spook them enough to stay on their best behavior!
For example, if your cat has gotten into something that they shouldn’t have — such as a bag of food or a room they shouldn’t be in — approaching them quietly and spritzing them with water or making a loud noise can cause them to associate that action with the negative consequence.
Note that for this method, you should only “scold” when the cat is mid-act, otherwise they’ll have no clue what they’re in trouble for and your efforts are not worthwhile. For behaviors that you can’t always catch mid-act — such as scratching furniture — use a method of negative reinforcement specific to the act itself. For example, you can use a furniture-approved spray that deters cats from scratching (you can also make your own with citrus or red pepper flakes).
Make Sure Your Cat Has What It Needs
Cats are domesticated animals, but they are still animals with specific needs. This includes access to a clean litterbox, enough room to roam around in, a safe space that feels like their own, fresh food and water, and a way to scratch.
Cats inherently want to use the litter box, so if yours is consistently not using it then that’s a sign something’s not to their liking or they’re not feeling well. This guide can help you figure out what the issue might be.
If your cat doesn’t have clean food and water, they’re more likely to go looking for it or get into other food.
And if your cat doesn’t have a way to scratch — also a necessity — then they’ll use whatever feels best. A simple corrugated scratcher pad may be the solution you’re looking for.
Training cats may seem impossible, but reinforcing positive behavior, using gentle negative reinforcement mid-act, and making sure your cat is equipped with the essentials will help you raise a very well-mannered kitty.
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