How To Train Your Cat Using Science

A new book made my cat less neurotic

cat in carrier
After weeks of training and food bribes, Padma can now go in her carrier without experiencing PTSD.Sarah Fecht

The last time Padma visited the vet sober, she desperately tried to scramble up the walls to escape the vet technician's grasp. She yowled unholy caterwauls that were heard all the way out in the waiting room, and emitted some defensive “anal leakages.” Now, at the doctor's request, we sedate her before going for checkups.

trainable cat
The Trainable Cat goes on sale on September 13, 2016.Basic Books

Padma has always been an anxious, antisocial, and neurotic cat, and going to the vet brings out the worst in her. So when The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat came across my desk, I figured I had nothing to lose. The book, which comes out September 13, is authored by animal behaviorists John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis.

The first thing I learned was that I've been doing everything wrong by focusing too much on punishing bad behaviors. Chasing her around with a spray bottle after she bites me doesn't help her learn to be nice, and probably only makes her resent me. That was depressing, but important to learn.

Bradshaw and Ellis' strategy is all about positive reinforcement--rewarding good behaviors instead of punishing bad ones, which is basically Psychology 101. Cats have natural instincts that don't always fit into human lifestyles. They're typically antisocial creatures who don't like new places, and they find it unpleasant when strangers poke their most vulnerable body parts. But by using food and toy rewards, we can help them cope with scary things like meeting new cats, getting their nails clipped, and going to the vet.

The key is to start small and then work up to more complex tasks, practicing in short sessions one or two times a day.

The Trials And Tribulations Of Cat Training

Training a cat requires patience. One of the first steps that Bradshaw and Ellis outline is to train the cat to relax on cue. Which for Padma was a lot harder than it sounds.

At the book's instruction, I picked out a nice soft blanket, and gave her a treat every time she stepped on it. (Using a clicker or a phrase like "Good girl, Padma" helped her learn which behavior she was getting rewarded for.) After she got good at that, I would only reward her when all four feet were on the blanket. Then I would reward her only for staying on it for long periods of time. And then for lying down on the blanket, finally! This took a few days.

Then we hit a wall.

Padma would lie down, but she was not relaxed. She was so pumped about the possibility of treats that she was ready to spring as soon as the treat bag crinkled, tapping her tail impatiently while she waited.

After several sessions of making no progress, I got around this using two strategies. The first was to downgrade from a very tasty treat to a boring kibble--it was still desirable, but less exciting. Then, I counted down from 10 seconds. If she was still lying on the blanket at the end of the 10 seconds, she got a treat. Then we worked up to 15, 20, 25, and so on, until she finally started to understand that patience would be rewarded. Then she started to relax--success!

Then I rewarded her for blinking slowly, and for tucking her feet up under her in the potato-like posture of relaxed cats. Eventually she would stay on the blanket even after we finished training, and fall asleep there.

The process took weeks. But the good news is that after you nail the relaxation blanket trick, you can use it to help train more complex behaviors, like keeping calm in the cat carrier or when a doctor's stethoscope touches her. Working up to those tasks is going to be a little more complicated, but so far I've managed to get her to walk into the cat carrier all by herself—no chasing her down and stuffing her in. And thanks to the relaxation blanket, she'll even lie down in there and fall asleep.

Every Cat Is Different

In the book, Bradshaw and Ellis describe training procedures for all sorts of scenarios, from introducing a new cat or dog to getting the cat to stop scratching the sofa. Training a cat is quite a bit more complicated than what I just outlined, which is why you should buy the book. There are nuances, and every cat is different.

The book can also come in handy if you just want to teach your feline some fun tricks. Bradshaw and Ellis say that you can train your cat to do pretty much anything that it isn't physically impossible for a small four-legged creature.

Our cat Juliet has a natural talent for standing on her hind legs. She also likes to play for approximately 100 percent of the time that she is conscious. So we trained her to stand up and nose-bump us for a playtime reward. The result is pretty cute:

More Than Just Party Tricks

I wasn't just persuading Padma to chill out on a blanket. For one, I was learning how to read her behaviors, to recognize when she was confused or irritated or just needed a little bit of time to explore a new task. I learned more about what she likes and doesn't like, and what kind of cues she needs to figure out what I want from her.

Her behavior is better in other ways. So far she seems less aggressive and more affectionate, and might even be better at coping with new things. It has brought us closer together.

On the nights when we skip training but she gets the same amount of food, her behavior is noticeably worse--she howls for attention, and will knock paintings off the walls to get it. So I've been trying to give her a few minutes of training every day, working through the different lessons in the book.

Padma is still a long way from being comfortable at the vet's office. But The Trainable Cat gave me the tools to try to make it happen. Maybe, just maybe, she'll one day make it through an appointment without medication or anal leakages.