Feline Training and Behavior

Cats

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It is a widely accepted notion that it is impossible to train cats. But, then again, why would you want to? Most people acquire a cat because they view her as a relatively low maintenance, relatively independent pet that they can interact with when they want or leave to her own devices and desires.

To some extent, they're right. Cats do tend to be more independent than dogs and some were literally born to walk by themselves. Their temperaments vary from self-absorbed to curious, from social to anti-social, and from stable to highly volatile. The average slightly inquisitive, reasonably friendly and tolerant cat is a pet that, like Victorian children, tends to be seen but not heard.

At either end of the behavioral spectrum, however, are cats that keep to themselves and react negatively to attempts to force them out of their shell and demanding in-your-face cats that won't take no for an answer. Although it is possible to cater to shy cats, coexist with the middle-of-the-road variety, and work around the more demanding types, such strategizing isn't necessarily the way that things have to be.

Training cats is eminently possible and can help to improve the quality of life for both cat and owner. It has been said that if a cat is trained to perform one new trick per month, the likelihood of behavior problems is substantially reduced. But how do you train a cat?

Not with a collar and lead, that's for sure. And punishment doesn't work well with cats, either. So what does that leave? The only remaining strategy is to employ positive reinforcement to coax the cat to perform the behaviors that you want.

Professional cat trainers have known this for years and their main training tools are delicious cat food and a spoon with a clicker attached to the handle. The clicker, itself, is not absolutely vital but, when clicked, serves to illustrate a precise point in time that the cat has performed a desirable behavior. During the time it takes to say, "Well done, good cat," the cat may have performed several different behaviors following the one desired.

The click, however, is precise and serves as an audible mark that a preferred behavior has been successfully completed. Training with a clicker produces an instant reward that signals the imminent arrival of the real reward. This methodology is easy for most owners to grasp and produces results quickly. Using click and treat training, as it is called, the "trainer" goes with the flow of nature and rewards behaviors that the cat naturally performs, initially at least. The behavior can then be progressively "shaped" toward a more desirable form.

Using clicker training, it is extremely easy to teach a cat to sit or lie down, or to jump up or down from a surface. With patience, cats can be trained to run through tubes and boxes, to leap from place to place, and even to complete complicated behavioral chains of activities.

A strange thing happens when you train your cat. Instead of the two of you coming together briefly at feeding time and when the cat presents herself for petting, the whole dynamic relationship changes from cat to owner and owner to cat – and for the better. It's as though a mutual appreciation society emerges from an otherwise perfunctory relationship, and the cat's and owner's lives are both enriched.

Once the positive training interaction has become a regular feature of daily life, all it takes is for the owner to stand up and say, "Wanna have some fun?" and to show the cat the clicker, and the cat will resonate with excitement in anticipation of the impending activities. Interactive training of this type, for just a few minutes a day, will exercise the cat's mind and promote relaxation. It seems that a short period of intense concentration during such training sessions is equivalent, output-wise, to a much longer period of physical activity.

But cats should be aerobically exercised, too. I encourage owners to play with their cats using a feather wand or "pull toy" for at least fifteen minutes a day to discharge pent up predatory drive and keep the cat in good physical condition. A trained and well-exercised cat is a happier and healthier cat than one left to spin her wheels and figure things out by herself. Trained cats have a better interaction with their owners and will have fewer, if any, undesired behavior problems.

As with dogs, there are some genetic influences that underlie behavior problems, and their degree of influence ranges from minimal to key. Suboptimal environmental or nurtural influences can compound genetic predispostions or create behavioral problems on their own. From whatever cause, behavior problems in cats are the leading causes of their premature death, which occurs mostly in the nation's shelters and pounds.

Admittedly, some of the cats that are killed are unwanted youngsters and others arrive in shelters as the unfortunate spin-offs of modern life, but directly or indirectly, behavior problems are at the root of much of the carnage. Most cats arriving in shelters have not been trained and failed to develop a proper bond with their owners. Training, though an invaluable preventative strategy, will not circumvent all behavior problems. Some of these problems are "on the cards" anyway due to familial, environmental, and medical factors.

So when behavior problems are established, from one cause or another, can they be successfully treated? The answer is yes, for most of them, anyway. With the current state of knowledge, the majority of seemingly refractory behavior problems are now resolvable as long as the cat owner is prepared to consult an appropriate expert and follow through with his recommendations.

The number one behavior problem in cats is inappropriate elimination. Owners can tolerate a lot from their cats but when their carpets and floors are ruined by cat urine, and the house begins to smell like a latrine, it's often the last straw. Other common cat behavior problems are aggression, either owner-directed or between cats, fear-related behaviors, and compulsive behaviors that cause problems for the cat and perplex the owner. What can be done to thwart these behavior problems?

Important Information

  • Understand normal cat behavior and communication: Because many problem behaviors stem from normal cat behaviors, it is important to understand and accommodate for cats' normal behaviors, including social behavior, elimination behavior, grooming, and feeding. In addition, it is helpful to know the range of cats' visual abilities, hearing range, and olfactory capabilities, and to understand how they communicate with each other.

  • Know how to care for your cat: Proper care and management should minimize stress, prevent conflict and provide appropriate outlets and facilities for cats' normal behaviors.

  • Learn how to approach a housesoiling problem: Determine possible medical causes, optimize litter box arrangements, understand the role of anxiety, hormonal influences, and odor neutralization strategies.

  • Prevention, and treat aggression: Understand "petting-induced aggression" (a.k.a. alpha cat syndrome), fear aggression, redirected aggression, territorial aggression, sexual aggression, pain-induced aggression, pathological causes of aggression.

  • Prevention, and treatment of fear-based conditions: Work to neutralize fear of strangers, separation anxiety, and sound phobia.

  • Tackle compulsive behaviors. Find out what constitutes one and what can be done about it.

  • Find where to go to seek professional help: Start with your local veterinarian.

    Conclusion

    Prevention is always better than cure. If an owner selects a cat, with a temperament suited to his or her lifestyle, understands his needs and limitations, and socializes and trains the cat to be a good pet, there is no reason why that cat should not turn out to be a highly valued friend for life. Owning a well-behaved and friendly cat is a pleasure that enhances the quality the lucky owner's life. Fortunately this utopian situation is not a rare occurrence and a little forethought and planning makes it come true for many people.

    However, the old adage, "When they're good they're very good, but when they're bad they're horrid," does apply to some cats. Occasionally "horrid" cats are not so much born that way (though genetic factors are often involved) as they end up that way as a result of inappropriate/unfortunate lifetime experiences. With cats, in particular, it is extremely important to understand them and to work hard to foster a cat-friendly environment for them, paying particular attention toward establishing positive inter-cat and cat-to-human interactions.

    Early in their lives, cats should be shielded from extremely adverse experiences and pain that can lead to fearfulness, with or without aggression. All cats also should be provided with meaningful activities to keep them occupied, particularly if they must be left alone for extended periods. Like humans, cats need "a job" if problems arising from boredom and frustration are to be avoided. The results of appropriate selection, proper raising, care and management, and training of cats is so extremely gratifying that it behooves us all to learn as much as we can about these subjects so that we can be successful "cat parents." The look in a closely bonded cat's eyes and her affectionate squints and raspy purrs let us know when we have succeeded in our quest and is reward enough for all our endeavors.

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