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Can Felines Be Trained?

Posted: Jan. 26, 2012, 8:45 p.m. EST

Cats might find different things rewarding to them than dogs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be rewarded and can’t learn.
By Steven Appelbaum

There is a perception among many people that while dogs are easily trainable, cats are far less so. What’s more, even when people accept the premise that cats can be trained, a common response is, “Why bother?”

While this may seem to be a relatively unimportant question, retailers, and even manufacturers, ought to consider the following: According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), there are approximately 85 million pet cats in the United States. Do these cat lovers spend money on their feline companions? You bet they do, and when looking at the American Pet Products Association (APPA) 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey, the message is intriguing. 

Based on this survey, the average dog owner spends $254 annually for dog food compared to $220 that the cat owner spends. This is about a 15 percent difference, and clearly illustrates that owners will spend money on their kitties.

Cat training

However, when you look at annual food treat purchases, the disparity between dog and cat owners is much greater. According to the survey, dog owners spend 71 percent more on treats than cat owners ($70 per year compared to $41). The question is, why?

I believe there are many reasons, but, as an animal trainer for almost 30 years, I know that many “food treats” are actually tools used in training. With this understanding, it comes as no surprise that because public perception still tilts toward the idea that cats can’t be trained, and since treats are often used in training, one of the reasons cat owners don’t purchase as many treats is due to a much less audible message about the trainability of our feline friends.
Anyone who owns a cat knows they are intelligent, inquisitive beings. Yes, they often do things on their terms, but when they want something, they generally are smart enough to figure out exactly how to get it. Yet, the myth that cats can’t be trained still remains.
Some of it isn’t that hard to understand. Most of us can picture Lassie. Imagine the gorgeous, brilliant, rough-coated Collie running across fields, swimming rivers and fighting off wild animals to selflessly deliver the message that little Timmy was trapped in a mineshaft.

Now picture a cat doing this. Having a hard time? Moving away from Hollywood, let’s picture a bouncy 70-pound lab in dire need of learning how to walk on a leash without dragging its owner down the street. Now substitute a cat. Does that seem kind of silly? Besides, even if you can teach a cat to walk on a leash, and you can, the larger question asked by many is, again, “Why bother?”

For retailers, the answer is simple. The more people who understand that cats can be trained, the greater the amount of cat products you may sell.

The challenge is getting people to understand what constitutes training. For many, this word equates to the teaching of specific behaviors sometimes called commands or cues. Common cues are come, sit, stay and down. Teaching these behaviors is sometimes referred to as obedience training, and this is often where the disconnect occurs with cat owners. Many of them see little value in taking the time to teach their cats what amount to tricks. What retailers and cat owners need to understand is that there is another form of training less focused on obedience; it deals with behavior problems.

This is a critical point. Cats can be taught not to spray, to learn to use a litterbox, to be less shy and more accepting of people, not to scratch the furniture, and to accept other cats—and even dogs—in their household. Cats can be trained to ride comfortably and with less stress in a cat carrier. For retailers, this knowledge is valuable, as there are numerous products, including lots of cat treats, which are utilized in addressing these behaviors.

For example, Feliway can be used to help teach a cat to not spray and to learn to like, or at least tolerate, traveling in a cat carrier. Retailers can recommend numerous odor neutralizers, catnip products, various cat feather toys, food treats, litterboxes, sisal cat scratch pads and cat trees to owners who embrace the concept of training. 

One of the most common questions asked when dealing with the issue of cat training is motivation. Many dogs are motivated by a desire for praise and to please us. Cats, on the other hand, don’t often have that reputation.

Common descriptions about feline temperaments include terms such as “independent,” or “they don’t want to please you,” or—my personal favorite—“aloof.” This leads many cat owners to question how they would go about training a cat, since many of the methods used to train dogs will prove ineffective or even downright counterproductive with felines.

Teoti Anderson, a trainer with 16 years’ experience, shed some light on this when she said, “Dogs and cats learn by reinforcement and punishment. If doing something is rewarding to them, they will probably do it again. If doing something is unpleasant for them, they are likely to avoid doing it again.”

The above statement is at the heart of every behavior modification and training regimen. Cats might find different things rewarding to them than dogs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be rewarded and can’t learn. Instead of a pat on the head or throwing a ball, both of which will send many a Labrador into paroxysms of quivering joy—eliciting a blank stare or contempt from most cats—owners should try a catnip toy or a delectable treat.


Steven Appelbaum

Steven Appelbaum is the president of Animal Behavior College, a vocational institution devoted to helping animal lovers succeed in animal careers. Appelbaum has been a professional animal trainer for 30 years. He is the author of the book “The ABC Practical Guide to Dog Training,” and is a freelance writer, lecturer and consultant.



The Education Series: Training & Behavior Modification column is brought to you in part by Farnam.


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Can Felines Be Trained?

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Yes, I believe that felines can be trained. When we brought our boys home from the shelter (they were 5 months old), they were already litter box trained. Since then, we have trained them to come when they are called and to get out of a room when told. They are praised with petting, encouraging words, and treats when they behave. When they do something wrong, they are told no and then ignored for a short period of time. They learn and they do want to please us. They can be trained.
Kelly, Oxnard, CA
Posted: 2/20/2012 2:06:00 PM
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