Source: El Paīs (Extract)
Posted: August 17, 2023

“Fetch the ball,” “give me your paw,” “run to me.” Such commands do not fit feline nature because, unlike dogs, they are not gregarious animals that follow a leader; cats are naturally territorial predators.

Each feline is different in the degree to which it accepts behavioral patterns, but there are several habits that can be taught through training. They can be trained to “use the litterbox, not scratch the furniture, respond to their name, not climb on certain furniture… In some cases, they can even be taught to perform small tricks, like fetching a ball or giving you their paw,” says Nicolás Salmerón, a veterinarian at the Virgen del Castañar clinic in Madrid, Spain.

Canines and felines are two very different species. Their brains are different, and they adapted to coexist with humans at different times. “The dog was the first domesticated animal, around 16,000 years ago, while the [human] relationship with the cat dates back some 5,000 years; even the behavior of canids is more gregarious than that of felids,” says Salmerón. The veterinarian adds that “cats are less sociable, more independent [and] do not enjoy training, although they are capable of learning… They do not respond well to punishment or negative reinforcement.”

Individual cats and dogs are unique; each has its own particularities, which makes them more or less loving, more or less independent. “Even if they are not gregarious, cats choose their home, who their mother is, who the boss is, who should not be annoyed, and who they can play with,” continues Nicolás Salmerón. He provides the following metaphor about dogs’ and cats’ different approaches to life: “The dog believes that his owner is a god and provides everything he needs, while the cat thinks he is a god and has its owner for everything he needs.”

What motivates cat in training

Food is a great motivator for a dog to do something its owner wants it to do, but that’s not true of cats. “Most dogs will go to great lengths for a little piece of food. However, by nature, cats do not usually enjoy large amounts of food, and most do not like food that they have not tried before,” says Elena García, a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral medicine at Ethogroup and Vetbonds. She mentions another issue peculiar to felines: “They tend to be more active in the evening and at night, so motivating a cat to do something first thing in the morning can be difficult.”

With cats, it’s a good idea to discard expectations like getting them to give you their paw or having them fetch objects. “It is advisable to teach them certain rules of coexistence, based on the premise that we have to adapt the environment to the cat so that it does what we want it to do, and then [we should] reward the cat with what it likes best, such as play, attention or food,” says García. In the event that the animal does not do what it is taught, she advises rewarding the behaviors that most approximate the behavior we want from them and focusing on practical issues, such as the cat’s tolerance for going to the veterinarian, to avoid stress for both the cat and the people with whom the animal lives. For example, García suggests the following: “We can give a cue by putting some treats on a cloth on a table… When the cat is on there, we give it a treat as we manipulate his face or paws for short periods of time, progressively increasing the length of time we touch him, so that the cat becomes more tolerant… Then, on the day we go to the vet, we’ll take that cloth with us.”

Take advantage of cats’ sense of smell for training them

Cats are highly olfactory animals, and using their sense of smell, you can get them to develop certain behavioral habits. “If you don’t want them to go to a certain place, you can put scents there that they dislike, such as vinegar or lemon,” advises María Victoria Acha of the Lardy clinic in San Sebastián, Spain. For example, cats on the furniture is a classic issue that tends to create tension in the home. Felines like to situate themselves in high places, where they satisfy their predatory nature and control their territory. “If you want to prevent them from doing that, you can place a cat shelf in that spot, so they can climb up there instead of on the furniture,” Acha suggests.

Contrary to popular belief, cats do not use furniture to sharpen their nails. “They mark their territory with the olfactory pheromones that they have in their paw pads, and they also rub their cheeks against objects to achieve the same effect… also, the visual mark of the scratch is already, in itself, a territorial signal among felines,” the veterinarian explains. She offers this advice on how to avoid that: “Put a scratching post there so that they can continue to satisfy this instinct in the place they have chosen or use pheromones to avoid territorial marking.”

The most common mistake people make with cats when trying to enhance certain behaviors or avoid other ones is choosing very sophisticated scratching posts, but not placing them in the right place in the house, which should be where the feline chooses so it can control its territory and mark it visually. “As for scolding, shouting or punishing [cats] with unpleasant stimuli, such as spraying water at them, that only provokes fear and stress in the animal, who may end up attacking the owner,” the expert warns.