Training Your Cat – The Basics

Cats have overtaken dogs as America's No. 1 pet and, in a fast-paced society like ours, it's easy to see why. Cats are more independent, do better when left alone, and require less time-consuming care than dogs. But, like their canine counterparts, domestic cats come with their own set of natural behaviors that can confuse and inconvenience owners.

The most common kitty complaints have to do with inappropriate litter box habits, furniture scratching, and aggression. Most of these problems stem from normal feline behaviors and, fortunately for cat owners, most can be resolved or prevented. A little patience, and enough understanding to allow you to see the situation from your cat's point of view, can foster a long and rewarding life with your feline friend.

Litter Box Habits

Since most cats prefer to eliminate in private, put litter boxes in places that are easily accessible but away from heavy foot traffic. Recesses or the corners of rooms are suitable locations. Position the litter boxes away from your cat's feeding or bedding area to avoid sending mixed signals.

Cats generally are fastidious creatures that groom themselves meticulously and bury their bodily waste. Show your kitten a litter box, demonstrate how to scratch in the litter, and she'll generally get the picture pretty fast.

You can be sure that your cat prefers his or her litter box to be clean and fresh. Scoopable litters are preferred by most cats. Both urine and feces should be scooped from the litter box daily and the entire litter box contents should be changed periodically. Clean the box with warm, soapy water and rinse it thoroughly. A litter box liner may help reduce cleaning time but may deter some cats from using the box.

There are a variety of litter materials available, including clay litters and those made from plant materials. Some cats will refuse to use certain litter material while others have different preferences for urination and defecation. Find out what works best for your cat.

Keep one suitably sized box for each cat, plus an extra litter box. If your kitten is still very small, make sure that the litter box is not too deep so that she can easily climb in and out. Once your kitten is larger, you can switch to a deeper box to prevent her from tracking litter around your house. If the litter box is too small, your cat might be reluctant to use it or, if she does, she might urinate over the edge, missing the box.

There are covered boxes as well as open ones. If you use a covered box, make sure your cat can get in and out easily. The best covered boxes also have overlapping seams, so that any urine sprayed inside the box will not leak out. But remember, some cats will not use covered litter pans, or even open pans that sit beneath closely hanging objects such as brooms or mops.

If your cat begins to have litter box mishaps, the first step is to see your veterinarian so that he or she can rule out any medical problems that may be contributing. Once a clean bill of health is confirmed, your veterinarian will be able to advise you about the treatment of this behavioral problem.


Cats' instinctive urge to scratch and claw has ruined many a couch and stereo speaker and has created a market for declawing surgery. Some simple advice based on normal feline scratching behavior will help protect your furniture and allow your cat to remain whole.

Scratching removes the nail sheaths, outer layer of dead cells, from the claw. It also serves as a visual and olfactory territorial marker. Cats naturally claw trees and prominent objects in their territory. If they're not provided with an adequate surface in the house, they'll choose their own, so it's best to provide attractive scratching posts – attractive to the cat that is. Scratching posts made with sisal rope covering are best; rug coverings are pretty, but not as effective. Scratching posts should be tall enough for the cat to stretch to full height and should be stable. Short, wobbly posts are no good.

The scratching post can be introduced to your cat through play. The cat should be praised and rewarded for scratching on the post. If he uses another surface, he should receive an immediate, mild punishment, such as loud handclap or loudly exclaimed, "No!"


Most common types of aggressive behavior involve play rehearsals of adult roles. Play can include predation or stalking and fighting. A young cat may hide in a corner and then stalk, chase, and pounce on a person or another cat. Kittens normally play with each other, with their mother, and with a variety of moving objects. If none of these is available, they will direct their attention toward human arms and legs as the next best thing.

It's important to teach kittens an acceptable way to play right from the start. If possible, take home two kittens so they can play with each other. If this is not feasible, then directing the kitten's attention to "fun" toys, such as long strings (don't let your kitten swallow them) or ping-pong balls, will help minimize those secret ambushes.

Many people misinterpret play as a sign of serious aggression. Playful cats "attack" silently and do not typically break the skin when they bite. Seriously aggressive and potentially dangerous cats often hiss or growl and will bite more severely. Using a water spray bottle for self-defense is sometimes helpful. Hitting a cat is not recommended since it often causes a defensive reaction, may lead to further aggression, and is inhumane.