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Behaviourist's Corner

Does positive reinforcement training work for cats?


You may have heard about positive reinforcement for dogs, but can using this method be as effective for training your cat? Clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar explains why it's a great way to teach your pet different skills and shares her step-by-step guide to putting it into action.


What is positive reinforcement?

'Positive reinforcement is a fun and kind way to train pets,' explains Inga. 'It uses treats, toys and praise to reward a desired behaviour, rather than punishment or confrontation to discourage an unwanted one.' It's a technique that's been around since the 1980s and, as it's seen as the most effective way to train dogs, has been adopted by trainers around the world. But it's not just dogs who can benefit from positive reinforcement, it can be a great way to train cats too!

Inga has used positive reinforcement with her clients' cats for nearly 20 years, and before that with her own pets. 'Positive reinforcement works well for cats, as they learn quickly that if they do something in particular they'll receive a reward in return,' she explains.

Applying the concept to cats

Positive reinforcement training can be enjoyable for both you and your pet, but it's important to keep your cat's nature in mind.

'Cats don't usually respond in the same way that a dog might,' Inga says. 'They are generally laid-back animals, and don't tend to react to training in the enthusiastic and excitable manner that dogs do. As all owners know, cats are very independent and they'll tend to do something only if they want to. You'll need to approach training your cat with a good dose of patience and should never try to force her to do something she seems unwilling to try.'

There's no reason to feel daunted by this though, as you've probably already trained your cat without even realising it. 'Cats soon learn that the sound of the fridge door opening or the rattle of the food bowl means food is coming,' Inga says. And training your cat is simply an extension of this concept: a reward will always follow a certain action.

While training can be used to teach cats to perform tricks, Inga points out that using positive reinforcement to teach your cat some simple skills is likely to be more effective, and can make life easier for you both. Below, she outlines three skills you can start training today.

3 skills your cat can learn through positive reinforcement

1. Responding to a call

Training your cat to come when called can help keep her safe during tricky situations, and can also be a big help whenever you're looking for her around the house.

  • To begin, call your cat every time you're ready to feed her. Do so by calling her name, and then rattling her food bowl.
  • Each time she appears after being called, reward her with food. She'll soon understand that responding to your call will result in a reward, but feeding her several small meals a day may help her learn faster.
  • Using treats for this method can also be very effective. For example, Inga has taught her cats to come at lunchtime and bedtime to get a small piece of chicken.

2. Sitting on your lap

Some cats are automatically lap cats, while others may not naturally settle in for a cuddle. If you'd like to encourage your cat to sit on your lap, positive reinforcement can help.

  • Begin by keeping a box of treats near to the sofa. Then, once your cat is sitting close by, place a treat between you both so she's encouraged to move towards you.
  • Gradually, over the next few days and weeks, place the treat nearer to you and eventually place it on your lap.
  • If your cat comes on to your lap, give her extra treats and strokes.
  • If your cat tends to rest on the floor and not on the sofa, follow the same principle but sit on the floor a foot or two away from her with your legs stretched out in front of you.

3. Entering a cat carrier

Training your cat to enter her carrier voluntarily and happily can be very useful, plus it can help to ensure you're never late for a vet check-up again!

  • Always keep your cat carrier out, in a spot that's easily accessible to your cat. Make sure you leave the carrier's door open and place some comfortable and familiar bedding inside.
  • To encourage your cat to go into the carrier, feed her meals inside it and periodically place a few treats or favourite toys in it for her to find.
  • Your cat will soon view the carrier as being a good place to be and will happily go into it when you need to transport her somewhere.

Treats and your pet's calorie intake

While edible treats are a sure way to motivate your cat during training, keep in mind that the calories can add up. To ensure this doesn't lead to weight gain, you can feed tiny lower-calorie options (such as a scrap of fish or chicken the size of your little finger nail), rather than shop-bought treats. Alternatively, decrease the portion size of your cat's regular meals on days she's had plenty of treats.


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