Can you imagine a nice fluffy Persian or orange tabby cat rolling over, shaking hands, jumping through hoops, or balancing a treat on the end of his nose? If you’re living with shredded drapes and fur-covered kitchen counters, the thought may make you laugh. It’s conventional wisdom that cats can’t be taught new behaviors, that they’re pretty much going to do whatever they want. The secret is, you can teach a cat new tricks, but you can’t do it just by thinking of your cat as a dog with longer whiskers.
The Lone Ranger
A big part of teaching your cat to be a good roommate is understanding that cats’ brains are wired differently than dogs’. Dogs are pack animals; being constantly social is in their genes. In the wild, their survival can depend in part on whether they are in the good graces of the rest of their pack. Wild cats, on the other hand, are generally solitary hunters, evolved to take care of themselves. They don’t have as much invested in earning your approval and keeping you happy all the time. This is why a stern "no" and a shaking finger usually won’t keep the cat off your computer keyboard.
But don’t lose heart. You can teach your cat to be a pleasant roommate. The key lies in understanding that he’s generally going to behave in the way that’s in his own best interest. You could call most cats all day, for example, without seeing the tips of their whiskers. But when the can opener whirrs or the bag of treats rustles, they’re at your feet before you can blink. You can use this same philosophy to teach Fluffy good behavior by showing him what’s in it for him.
One of the most aggravating problems with cats is scratching. Though it may be hard to recall right after your kitty gouges your antique dining room table, claw sharpening is just normal cat behavior. Scratching is your cat’s way of leaving his mark, of telling any visitors that he is the ruler of his kingdom. You’re most likely not going to get your cat to stop scratching completely. You can get him to scratch the right things, however.
A scratching post is vital to getting your pet’s behavior under control. You may want to buy more than one and place them next to his favorite places to scratch--the side of the couch, for example, or the living room drapes. Since he’s using scratching to claim his territory, you may also want to put a post in a prominent place, so he can show everyone the house belongs to him. Then make the posts as attractive as possible. Rub them with a blanket your cat sleeps on, so he’ll recognize his smell and think of the posts as his. You can also rub them with catnip or spray them with catnip spray, which you can find at most pet stores.
When he scratches the post, give him exactly what he craves. If it’s attention, give him lots of love and cooing praise. But if your kitty is the kind that only wants petting when he’s in the mood, then give him a treat or a bit of catnip. (A warning--catnip may not be the perfect training tool. First off, it can make some cats more aggressive and more likely to misbehave. Also, if your cat has access to catnip every day, it can start to lose its effect on him.) If you catch him scratching something else, don’t yell or threaten him. Violent reactions will only scare most cats, and it will make some defensive and aggressive. Instead, distract him by making a hissing sound or clapping your hands. Then put the nicer-smelling, more attractive scratching post next to him and scratch it a little with your fingertips to give him the right idea.
The Litter Dilemma
Litter box training is often one of the easiest parts of living with a cat. Cats naturally prefer to eliminate in soft, sandy material, so most cats will use the litter box by choice. If your cat is going outside of his box, there is probably something about the box that he doesn’t like. The most important thing to check for is a medical problem. If your kitty has a urinary or intestinal tract obstruction, he may associate the pain of trying to go the bathroom with the box itself. Or, he may not like the kitty litter you’re using. Most cats prefer smaller-grained, sandier litter to gravel-sized litter. Some cats also object to scented litters. Remember, though it may smell pleasant and fresh to you, his sensitive nose thinks it’s a perfume explosion.
The next thing you can do is make the litter box as attractive as possible--make it the best place in the house for him to go. Most cats are neat freaks, so cleaning the box out every day will help. Some particularly finicky cats may want you to clean it even more than that. Some cats also prefer to use separate boxes for urinating and defecating. Try setting out two boxes and see if that helps. Finally, you can make sure the box is away from his food and in a secluded corner, where he feels safe and doesn’t have to be on guard.
It’s the oddest thing--you’re cuddling your cat and he’s purring away like a motor boat, when suddenly he chomps down on your hand. What did you do wrong? Actually, he was just getting a little overstimulated. Sometimes when a cat is really enjoying being petted, he gets overwhelmed and his instincts tell him to get rid of that nervous energy by snapping at you. Yelling at him won’t accomplish much; he’ll just get tenser and more likely to nip every time you pet him. Instead, withdraw the stimulus completely. If he nips at you, try taking your hand away and not paying any attention to him. He’ll learn that, if he wants attention, biting is a no-no. If you give him lots of treats and cuddling when he’s at his calmest, he’ll learn that calm is the best way to be.
The king of the mountain
Nothing compares to the sight of your tabby perched regally on top of the kitchen counter, master of all he sees. Tabletops, counters, mantles, and bookshelves are ideal for cats, allowing them to keep a close eye on everything and make sure they’re not missing out on any fun. They’re not so great for people who don’t want cat hair in their dinner, however, or their knickknacks knocked to the floor. So how do you keep your feline’s feet on the ground?
Some trainers will suggest that a spritz of water from a squirt bottle or a loud hiss or rattle will keep cats away from the counter, and it may work for some pets. The tricky part, though, is making sure your cat associates the punishment with being on the counter and not with you. If they only get punished when people are in the room, and if you make a mad dash for the squirt bottle every time they jump up on the table, it won’t take most cats long to figure out that it’s people they need to keep away from, not the table.
A better way to keep your kitty off the forbidden surface is to cover it with two-sided tape. Cats don’t like it when their paws stick to things, so they will experience something unpleasant every time they jump up, whether or not you’re in the room. Eventually they’ll decide that the counter (or the mantle or the dining room table) is not where they want to be. You can also use aluminum foil or carpet runners turned nubby-side-up to keep your cat down on the ground. Also, try giving them an even better alternative to the table. If your kitty’s a born climber, you could try getting him a tall cat tree or a cat perch that attaches to a windowsill, which you can find at most pet stores. Again, you can rub it with the oh-so-tempting catnip, and pretty soon the counter won’t be quite so irresistible.
Even if you can’t get Fluffy to roll over and play dead, you can teach him to be a polite houseguest. If you can be patient and think like a cat, you can reclaim your kitchen table and your upholstery as your own. The best part is, he’ll think it was all his idea.
Click here for an instructive video by the Cornell Feline Health Center on taking your cat’s temperature.