Teaching cats to see it your way

Training cats is easy when you speak their language and appeal to their motivations. Photo: File photo Training cats is easy when you speak their language and appeal to their motivations. Photo: File photo

suppose there’s no good time for a cat to pee in your bed, but two in the morning is particularly objectionable. Wrested from sleep by the noxious mess saturating my sock, I resigned myself to a bleary-eyed bout of laundry and mattress cleaning. This wasn’t the first time, and I needed a better solution than closing the door to leave her wailing in the hallway all night. I had no choice but to teach her to stay off the bed.

Cats have a reputation for being untrainable. We bring them into our homes and kind of hope they’ll just fall in line, or at the very least install themselves as benevolent dictators. But this isn’t giving them enough credit. Sure, they may be more willful than the obsequious family dog, but cats do have their motivations. And appealing to those motivations gives us the ability to steer their behavior in the right direction.

My challenge was to make the bed less attractive to a creature whose entire existence is predicated on finding the most comfortable place to nap. Shooing her away wouldn’t work—she’d just slink up once I fell asleep. I needed to rig the bed so I could sleep in it, but she wouldn’t want anything to do with it. So I bought several rolls of masking tape and set to work weaving them into a queen-sized spiderweb, laying it sticky-side up over my sheets.

For two weeks I slept under this ridiculous thing (it wasn’t so bad except for the gluey smell). And for two weeks my cat continued jumping on the bed, only to leap off in disgust when the threads of my trap stuck to her paws. Then, one night, she just stopped trying. Six years later, she still sleeps happily in her own bed, and I no longer wake up in a vile puddle.

This trick worked because it tied consequences directly to her action. For many people, training a cat begins and ends with a spray bottle. The problem is that cats are clever enough to learn you’re policing them. The best-case scenario is that they just get back into trouble when you’re gone. The worst-case scenario is that they start to fear you. They need to be shown why doing something isn’t worth their time, regardless of when they choose to do it.

Apart from sticky tape, simple aluminum foil does a surprisingly good job of warding cats away from surfaces, and it’s easy to quickly remove if you have company coming and you don’t want to look like a crazy person. Or if you need a more potent deterrent, you can even buy little motion-activated air horns that can be stationed near no-cat zones. And these things don’t need to be there forever in most cases. If you really want your cat to stay off the new couch or away from the dinner table, you may only need to set your trap for a few weeks until the lesson sinks in and becomes permanent.

And never forget the value of positive reinforcement. Cats do like to be buttered up a bit, whether with treats or a good long scratch behind the ears. Providing attractive alternatives to bad behavior gives your cat the opportunity to choose something better and be rewarded for it. Your favorite armchair is in tatters? Perhaps it’s time for a scratching post. Finding your houseplants torn from their pots? Maybe an indoor box of grass and catnip would make a more appropriate target.

You’re probably not going to teach your cat to abandon all forms of mischief—that’s just part of their infuriating charm. But when it really counts, they can be reasoned with. You just have to make your case in their language.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.

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