Worried your new kitten might scratch the furniture, jump up on the kitchen counter or bite your fingers? With some effective kitten behaviour training, you’ll avoid these downsides of cat ownership and strengthen the cat-owner bond in the process. In this article, Nicky Trevorrow, Behaviour Manager at Cats Protection, shares her top reasons why you should train your kitten.
Train a kitten using positive reinforcement methods, such as rewarding your kitten with treats and affection when they behave as you want and ignoring undesirable behaviour.
‘You can start training your kitten as soon as they’re settled in your home,’ says Nicky Trevorrow, Behaviour Manager at Cats Protection, the UK’s largest cat welfare charity.
‘It’s important to keep your kitten’s early experiences positive and give them plenty of rest,’ says Nicky. ‘If you frighten or stress them, you could end up sensitising them to the thing you’re trying to familiarise them with.’
1. Train your kitten to be held
Handling your kitten frequently means you’re more likely to notice any health problems and enjoy a closer bond. A kitten who’s used to being handled will also tolerate grooming and medical examinations better and have fewer fear issues with vets and visitors.
Repetition and reward are vital for all types of kitten training. Practise holding and touching your kitten several times a day and offer treats so being handled has positive associations for them.
‘Wherever you get your kitten from, ask questions about their socialisation,’ advises Nicky. Kittens who are not used to being handled by around eight weeks old may struggle to adapt to life with people, so it’s important to understand their background.
If you’re lucky enough to have kittens in your care during this crucial two-to-eight-week window, Nicky suggests following a structured kitten-socialisation programme. This gets a kitten used to being touched all over their body (including sensitive areas like their paws and tummy), meeting a range of different people (including children), textures and materials around the home, and even loud noises.
2. Train your kitten to use a litter box
Kittens start to use a litter tray from as young as three weeks, learning from watching their mother. By the time you bring your kitten home at eight weeks plus, they should know exactly what to do. Help them by getting a kitten-sized litter tray filled with the type of litter they’re already used to, and keeping it close by in the early days.
‘There’s no such thing as a dirty protest with cats!’ says Nicky. ‘If your kitten isn’t using their litter tray, there’s a reason. Start by ruling out medical causes.
3. Train your kitten to come to a call
Whether it’s teatime, bedtime or you’re off to the vet, it’s helpful if your kitten will come to your call or a bell. You can start recall training long before your kitten is allowed outside. Begin by calling them from a metre away, and giving them a treat when they come. Then try two metres, then another room, then upstairs.
Nicky’s top tip for training a kitten to go outside is to familiarise them with a cat-flap while they’re young. She recommends buying a microchip-operated model and fitting it in the side of a cardboard box, then using treats to tempt your kitten in and out. This way, they're ready to use the flap to go outside once they’re neutered and vaccinated.
4. Train your kitten not to scratch furniture
All cats need to scratch to maintain their claws. It’s also a way of marking their territory and having a satisfying stretch too.
‘If you don’t want your kitten scratching your furniture or carpets, you need to provide more appealing scratching opportunities,’ says Nicky. She suggests buying at least two tall, sturdy cat scratching posts, ideally with a vertical weave.
Cats tend to scratch when they wake up or go in or out, so place one post by their favourite sleeping place and the other by their favourite entrance. A scratch-proof covering, such as a polythene sheet, over the edges of your sofa should discourage your kitten from scratching there until they’re in the habit of using the posts.
As for training your kitten not to jump on the counter, cats instinctively like to get high up to feel safe. Give your kitten alternative vantage points by clearing space on shelves and windowsills or investing in a cat tree.
Feed your pet before you have your own meal and put food away as soon as you’ve finished preparing or eating it. Otherwise your delicious dinner could tempt your kitten onto the worktop!
5. Training your kitten not to bite
Play is an important part of kittens’ development, helping them to hone their instinctive hunting behaviours. This means kittens’ play often involves teeth and claws. ‘Kittens need frequent but short bouts of play,’ says Nicky. ‘Give them safe, kitten-appropriate toys that encourage a variety of different play styles. A cardboard box with a few holes in and a tunnel to dive through also provide lots of fun.’ These kinds of varied play will help your kitten’s development, as well as keep you safe from misplaced bites and scratches.
Don’t get your kitten in the habit of playing with your fingers, toes or hair. It may be cute when they’re tiny, but you’ll regret it when they have adult teeth and claws!
If your kitten isn’t behaving as you’d like, remember it’s not intentional. ‘Cats aren’t naughty, spiteful or vengeful,’ explains Nicky. ‘Their behaviour isn’t premeditated and they don’t understand our right from wrong. Never, ever punish your kitten. If you shout or spray them with water, they won’t understand why you’re doing it and you’ll damage the cat-owner bond.’
Now you know some of the benefits to be gained by training your kitten, discover some fun tricks to teach them. From sit to high-five and even fetch, it’s all possible with clicker training!