By: Peta Gay Railton
When someone tries to describe an impossible task, they often say, “It’s like training cats”. But it is possible to train cats? Proof of that is a cat I know called Hartley. Hartley the cat is so well trained he recently went with his owner to a dog show. And was absolutely fine with it.
You may expect a dog show to create some pretty antisocial cat behaviour. But Hartley came to ‘A Bark in the Park’ dog show with 300 dogs. He sat in a carrier bag with a harness on. He was totally unfazed, because Hartley goes everywhere with his mum.
How do you train cats?
There are a number of misconceptions about cats. Yet perhaps the most misguided belief about our magnificent moggies is the suggestion that they are unable to be trained.
The reality is while they don’t have the same desire to please their owners as their canine cousins, they are capable of understanding instruction—provided, of course, that there’s something in it for them.
We’re not talking here about training your cat to do tricks like ride a skateboard, jump through rings of fire or sing in tune to Tchaikovsky. More important is training them to be calm when you need to move them around (such as on a visit to the vet), or when they need to take medicine.
The food of love
The standard method of training your cat is through food facilitation. The type of food selected will be determined by your cat’s personal preferences but generally speaking most cats respond best to sardines and other fishy treats.
This method works best when a small piece of the treat is placed on the hand so when owners or those charged with caring for them lift their hand in anticipation of opening the feline’s mouth, the cat learns to anticipate that they will get something in return and immediately become more compliant. In most cases it has the added bonus of protecting against injury to the pet owner or vet selected to undertake the task.
When you’re on the move, or taking the cat somewhere new, a method of keeping them calm is called ‘burritoing’. Cats do not like to be restrained so the key to low-stress handling is to determine whether your favourite feline’s personality is such that they prefer to fight or flee when facing what they consider a potentially scary situation.
A burrito is a wrap placed around the cat. It is folded over so the cat can still breathe, but can’t see anything happening beyond their towel cocoon.
For those animals who are a little less risk adverse, occasionally the scarf wrap method is selected where the cat is wrapped but the head, and sometimes the front leg, is left out.
We use this technique often in the clinic. It allows us to take blood, check the mouth or obtain a small sample of any growths on the neck. For owners, this technique is useful when attempting to administer tablets or other forms of medicine or when trying to entice a vat into a box or cage for transportation.
Train cats to live stress-free
You minimise stress in all animals by positive reinforcement. So—just as with children—try showering your cat with praise, love and attention. You never know what they could be capable of.