How to train a cat using positive reinforcement

Find out how to teach your cat to come when called, sit on your lap and use their carrier with our step-by-step guide to reward-based training.

Can a cat be trained? The answer is yes – if you use the right techniques! Our cats may not respond to training quite as enthusiastically and attentively as dogs do, but that doesn’t mean they’re impossible to teach. Reward-based training – also known as positive reinforcement – is the best way to train a cat. Essentially, this means using treats, toys or praise to reward your cat for the behaviours you’d like them to adopt, reinforcing these behaviours.

Using positive reinforcement for cats

Reward-based training can be enjoyable for you and your cat, but it’s important to keep their independent nature in mind. You’ll need to approach training a cat with lots of patience, keep the training sessions short and sweet, and wait until they’re in the mood for interaction.

There’s no reason to feel daunted by this, however, as you’ve probably already been using positive reinforcement to train your cat without even realising it. If your cat comes running at the sound of the fridge door opening or the rattle of their food bowl, they’ve already learned how to tell that their next meal is on its way. Reward-based cat training is simply an extension of this idea: that a positive outcome will follow a certain cue.

How to train a cat using reward-based training

The benefits of reward-based training include providing mental stimulation for your cat and a bonding experience for both of you. And while it can simply be used to teach your cat some fun tricks, it can also encourage more useful feline behaviours. Here, we look at three things you can train your cat to do using reward-based training: how to teach your cat to come when called, sit on your lap or enter their cat carrier.

How to train your cat to come when called

Training your cat to come when called can help keep them safe during tricky situations, as well as being a big help when you’re looking for them around the house.

  • To begin, simply call out your cat’s name and rattle their food bowl every time you’re ready to feed them.
  • Every time your cat appears after being called, reward them with the food. If you’re consistent about this, they’ll soon start to understand that responding to your call will result in a tasty reward.
  • Feeding your cat several small meals a day may help them pick this up more quickly. Using their favourite food treats can also be very effective in training your cat to come when called – just remember to count those treats towards their daily food allowance.

How to train your cat to sit on your lap

Some cats are natural lap cats, while others are less keen to settle down on your knee for a snooze. If you have a good relationship with your cat already and you’d like to gently encourage them to sit on your lap, reward-based training may help.

  • Begin by keeping a box of food treats close to the sofa. When your cat is sitting close by, place a treat in between both of you, to encourage your cat to move towards you. It helps to do this when your cat is feeling hungry!
  • Over the next few days and weeks, gradually place the treat closer and closer to you. If your cat responds by taking the treat, progress to placing the treat onto the sofa beside you, and then onto your lap.
  • If your cat ventures onto your lap, give them extra treats. Remain calm and relaxed yourself throughout, avoiding sudden movements or looking your cat in the eye. Never force your cat to stay put; they should feel in control and able to move away whenever they like.
  • In time, your cat will hopefully come to associate sitting on your lap with the positive experience of receiving treats, and feel more comfortable curling up there.

How to carrier train a cat

Training your cat to go into their carrier voluntarily is very useful for getting them to vet visits on time! But don’t wait until your cat is due for a check-up to introduce cat carrier training – you’ll need to spend several weeks getting them familiar with the carrier, although remember that every cat is different.

  • Start by keeping the carrier out, in a spot that’s easily accessible to your cat. Make sure you leave the carrier door open, and place some familiar bedding or a blanket inside.
  • To encourage your cat to go into the carrier, start to feed them a few treats close to it, before progressing to placing these inside the carrier. If your cat has a negative association with cat carriers, then reward them for simply being in the same room as the carrier and don’t expect them to come close to it for a long time. Periodically throw a few treats or favourite toys into it for them to retrieve, so that your cat comes to view the carrier as a good place to be.
  • At first, leave the carrier door open (or remove it completely) and let your cat come and go freely. Once their body language is relaxed when they’re in the carrier, close the door very briefly, before reopening it and giving your cat a treat. Slowly increase the time that the door remains closed, letting your cat out as soon as they appear uncomfortable.
  • Once your cat is relaxed about being in the closed carrier, you can progress to moving the carrier with them in it. Start by only lifting the carrier a few centimetres at a time, talking to your cat calmly and encouragingly while doing so, and always remembering to reward them afterwards.
  • Carrier training cats requires time and patience, and it can take a while to get to the point where your cat is comfortable in a moving carrier. If they become agitated at any point, pause the training and repeat the previous stage. Your efforts will pay off the next time you need to transport your cat somewhere – and help make the experience less stressful for both of you.

The best treats for training cats

Edible treats are generally the most effective rewards when training your cat, as most pets are motivated by food. Other rewards you could use include cat toys, catnip treats or a bit of fuss and affection from you, if your cat is strongly motivated by these.

When using food treats as positive reinforcement for cats, bear in mind that the calories do add up. To avoid overfeeding your cat during reward-based training, stick to low-calorie treats, such as tiny scraps of cooked fish or chicken, about the size of your smallest fingernail. You should also count these treats towards your cat’s daily food allowance, and decrease the portion size of their regular meals on days when they’ve had lots of treats.

Using a clicker as positive reinforcement for cats

It can be helpful to also introduce a clicker in reward-based training – your cat will learn to associate the sound of the clicker with receiving a reward. For more tips on this, read our advice on clicker training cats.

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