Of all the misbehaving house cats in the world, my cat, Zadie, isn’t the worst. She’s sweet when she wants to be, she pees where she’s supposed to, and she only occasionally pounces on my forehead in the middle of the night.
But there are some things Zadie does that I would certainly change if I could. She takes long naps splayed across the kitchen table. She fights when you brush her, which is a problem since her long hair gets matted if it isn’t groomed. And nothing will teach her to stop scratching the couch—not loud admonishment, not squirts from a spray bottle, and certainly not that double-sided sticky tape, which she pulls off with her teeth and tries to swallow.
Like many cat owners before me, I assumed I was stuck with this behavior. Zadie’s formative months had passed, and even young cats aren’t known for their ability to learn new tricks. I generally love Zadie, so I had resigned myself to live with it.
But what if I didn’t have to? That’s the promise of a new book called The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat. The authors, British anthrozoologist John Bradshaw and animal behavior specialist Sarah Ellis, purport that with a few simple training strategies, you can address a wide variety of feline quirks, from couch-scratching to carrier avoidance to the wanton murder of birds. (OK, that last one is more than an annoying quirk, at least from the birds’ perspective.)
The Trainable Cat asserts that, contrary to popular belief, cats are just as capable of learning as dogs are—it’s just that they learn differently. Dogs are pack animals, adept at reading social cues and bred over thousands of years to pay attention to human body language. Cats, on the other hand, are historically solitary creatures. They may tolerate people because we’re a convenient source of food and shelter, but they don’t care how we feel about their behavior.
What cats do care about is how they feel. Over time, Bradshaw and Ellis explain, cats learn to avoid situations that produce unpleasant feelings and seek out ones that make them feel good. So the key to cat training, the authors claim, is to accept your cat’s world view. If you dole out enough rewards (like food) when your cat does the things you want, then the cat learns that those behaviors lead to good feelings, and she’ll want to do them more.
I was skeptical. I mean, there’s a reason I didn’t get a dog. I am lazy and impatient, and so is Zadie. That’s why we get along.
Also, the book looks ridiculous. On the cover, a wide-eyed stock-photo kitten grins up at the reader like a Stepford Cat. Black-and-white photos in each chapter show cats fraternizing with toddlers, cozying up to nail clippers, and doing equestrian jumps over makeshift barriers in what looks like the auxiliary garden of a British countryside estate.
I was doubtful that Zadie had the self-discipline for any of this. I mean, she lives in a 450-square-foot New York City apartment and eats sticky tape for fun. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try. (Sofas are expensive, after all.)
The Trainable Cat’s first commandment: ditch the squirt bottle. Mild punishment may work on dogs, Bradshaw and Ellis say, because dogs care what you think of them. But it only serves to scare your cat and teach her that unpleasant things happen when you’re around. Instead, ignore your cat’s unwanted behaviors and reward the correct ones. OK, easy enough.
The next lesson: Even complex behaviors can be taught as long as you break them down into a series of smaller steps. If you want your cat to relax on a blanket, for instance, first reward her for touching the blanket, then for putting all four feet on it, then for sitting down. (This is also the principle behind the daunting ¾-page flow chart titled “The Twenty Steps to Traveling in a Cat Carrier.”)
My main goals for Zadie were to convince her that brushing is a good idea, and to stop her from scratching the couch. Before I could start training, though, I needed a way to reward her. Bradshaw and Ellis recommend starting with a “meaty paste” that you can squeeze into the cat’s mouth with a syringe, providing small rewards for each incremental milestone.
So I dutifully whipped up a mixture of wet food, water, and dehydrated salmon treats. The resulting slurry looked like something regurgitated by a dolphin. Zadie happily licked some off a spoon, then raced around the apartment in a fish-induced fervor. But when I put some in a syringe and tried to lure her across the floor with it—the first training goal Bradshaw and Ellis set out—she got distracted and left to sit in a cardboard box. I accidentally squeezed a line of meat slurry onto the floor.
I needed to raise the stakes. I washed out the wet food and refilled the syringe with plain yogurt. Zadie would do anything for a taste of yogurt—she’s been known to dunk her face into an unguarded breakfast bowl.
And then I tried the protocol again. This time, Zadie was hooked. She followed the lure a few inches, then a few feet. I rewarded her with a squirt of yogurt for each of these minor accomplishments. Soon enough, I was leading her in circles around the coffee table, and finally all the way up her climbing post. I was cautiously impressed.
Now that Zadie had learned it was worth it to come when I called, it was time to work toward my grooming and couch-preservation goals. I suspected I could combine them: Zadie is obsessed with playing, and she often scratches the couch because she wants a toy she’s lost beneath it. I usually give in and retrieve the toy for her, like a sucker who doesn’t want my furniture in shreds. But maybe I could teach her that the best way to get a toy back is to sit still enough to be groomed instead.
I started with the basics, as Bradshaw and Ellis instruct. I lured Zadie up her climbing post and held the grooming brush out in front of her. As soon as she sniffed it, I rewarded her with a toy. The next time, I touched her with the dull side of the brush for a few seconds before she got her reward. The time after that, I touched her for a bit longer. “Good girl,” I cooed, as though she could understand me and as if she would care if she could.
When she scratched the couch, I aggressively ignored her. “Don’t even look at her,” I hissed to my boyfriend. When we stuck to this, she gave up—though not exactly as quickly as I’d have liked.
Over the next few evenings, we gradually made progress. I brushed Zadie for one stroke before she got to play—then two, then four. Soon, she started jumping onto the post of her own accord and waiting expectantly to be groomed. I felt proud at first, then obligated to get up and go through the protocol. I started to wonder which of us, exactly, was being trained.
A week later, Zadie had the system down. She patiently let me groom most of her body while she waited for her reward. All the brushing was making her extremely soft. “You are sooooo soft,” I told her. She seemed unimpressed.
I finally granted her the toy, and she ran off to bat it around the floor in ecstasy. I like to think she felt some pride in this—the unique satisfaction that comes with knowing your hard work has paid off. She probably didn’t. In any case, the training—unbelievably—had worked.
The Trainable Cat looks silly, and I suspect only the most obsessive cat owners would read its 300-some pages beginning to end. And the book could use more organization—when you’re on the floor with a restless cat and a leaking tube of meat paste, it’s hard to skim the meandering prose to figure out what your next step should be. But I have to hand it to Bradshaw and Ellis: Once you suss out their basic cat-training philosophy, their methods totally work. Zadie even seems more affectionate and less skittish now that she knows human touch can bear rewards.
Is Zadie perfect now? Far from it. She still scratches the couch when I don’t pay enough attention to her. As I was trying to finish this article, she sat on my keyboard and pressed a combination of keys that somehow deleted the file. Later, after I’d restored it in a panic, she leapt onto table where I was working, knocked over a half-full mug of tea, and nearly drowned the computer itself.
Could training help with these remaining annoyances? Probably. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll try. Because it turns out that while it’s possible to train a cat, it’s also possible to love your pesky, distractible, untrained cat all the same.