People often assume that cats are untrainable, but this just isn't true; felines are highly intelligent and can easily be taught a variety of behaviors. Begin training your kitten as soon as you bring him home, in order to give him the best chance of fitting in with your family. Here are five foundational training steps to take with your kitten.
1. Teach Your Cat to Sit
The more an animal is rewarded for a behavior, the more likely the behavior is to occur in the future. To make problem behavior less likely, teach a base behavior, like sit, that is heavily rewarded from the very beginning. To teach sit, mark the moment your kitten sits and reward immediately. A clicker can be used, or you can use your voice with a “good” or “yes” as the kitten’s bottom hits the floor. Immediately after marking the sit, bring in the food reward, such as tuna or canned cat food on a spoon. If your kitten reaches up with his paw or stands on his hind feet, move the treat out of reach until all his feet are on the floor. This will prevent you from rewarding unwanted behavior (pawing and standing on his hind feet) instead of the desired behavior (sitting). Finally, be sure your cat is hungry — and thus interested in the reward — by training during meal times.
2. Crate Train Your Kitten
Teach your kitten to enjoy his crate from an early age. Feeding meals inside of the crate is a great way to get him used to being in the enclosed area. Keep the door open in the beginning; as your cat gets used to the crate, shut the door for short intervals. The more your kitten learns to enjoy his crate, the easier it will be to secure your cat for travel in the future.
3. Handle Your Cat in a Variety of Ways
Many cats will only tolerate handling in a certain way and are not comfortable being held in awkward positions. However, whether it occurs in the veterinarian’s office or when your niece comes to visit, the chances are good that your cat will be held in uncomfortable positions at some point. Prepare your kitten for this by teaching him to accept various types of petting and holding. Practice only at a level where your cat feels comfortable and relaxed. Try holding your cat on his side, under his arms with his bottom dangling, on his back and on his side. Also, practice restraining your kitten for brief periods. Touch various body parts, such as his feet and ears, give him slight tugs on his tail, and run your finger over his teeth and gums. Treat your cat for each hold and movement. More relaxed kittens can be treated immediately after a hold, while more timid kittens may need to be treated during each handling movement. Getting your kitten used to being handled when he is young will make it easier for you to trim nails, brush teeth and clean ears as he grows older.
4. Socialize Your Kitten
The prime socialization period for kittens is between two and seven weeks of age. Many cats are frightened as adults and hide when visitors come over because they were only exposed to a limited number of people outside of their family during their socialization period. Counter this by taking various fun-filled outings with your kitten and inviting a variety of people over to your home. Pair each new experience with treats, toys, petting and praise, and avoid pushing your kitten to the point where he reacts out of fear. Using a kitten harness and leash makes it easy to take your kitten with you when you take trips to a friend’s house or to the farmer’s market, and the best way to be sure your cat is comfortable around a variety of animals, such as dogs, is to introduce him to relaxed and cat-friendly dogs while still a kitten. But before you expose your feline to other cats, visit your veterinarian to make sure he is protected with the proper vaccinations.
5. Train Your Cat to Play With Toys, Not With Your Hands
Playing with your cat is an excellent way to promote bonding and rid your kitten of excess energy. However, when a cat owner roughhouses with her kitten, the kitten learns that it’s OK to play with their teeth and claws on the owner’s skin, which easily escalates into harder bites and scratches. Instead, use toys to interact with your cat. A feather on a string, a ball or a catnip toy will be as enjoyable to your cat as your hands.