Ever since we got new kittens, we’ve had to teach them things we’ve already trained our big cats to know like not to go on food counters and food tables, not to chew on furniture, not to use decor as a toy etc. so I thought I’d share my tips:
REPETITION IS THE KEY TO EVERYTHING. Calm, firm, consistent repetition. Cats are not like dogs (I’ve had and trained both cats and dogs successfully so I’m speaking from experience). Their response time is generally slower, but the goal is to create good habits, and habits are formed by repetition.
My house rules for the cats are pretty simple:
- No paws on food counters or tables (kitchen/pantry and dining).
- No playing with my decor or damaging/scratching furniture
That’s it. My rules are clear and consistent. There are no exceptions. They’re not “sometimes” allowed to do these things (no matter how cute they are) so there’s never confusion for them over what is/isn’t allowed. And the rules are simple/repetitive enough to turn into habits. So here’s how we train them:
- STEP 1: Verbal cues/discipline. I believe the best way to discipline a cat/kitten is using verbal communication. Do not yell at your cat. The goal is to teach them, not scare them. I personally use a particular “No!” that I say in a loud, firm, non-emotional, warning tone of voice. I use the SAME tone each time I say it. Cats don’t speak our languages so if you say “No” twenty different ways it’s not clear to them that it’s the same word so they’ll have no idea what you mean. Instead, teaching them ONE word, spoken consistently in the SAME tone is much easier for them to understand and therefore learn to respect. So stick to one consistent word for all activities you want them not to do. I make the tone in which I say “No” sound exactly the same each time so they can easily/quickly recognize it. — Also a single-word “No!” command is a lot easier for them to understand than speaking a string of words at them like “Omg Fluffy don’t touch my favorite vase!” because that’ll just go riiiiiight over their heads (understandably). — If they’re ignoring my “No!”, I’ll then accompany the “No!” with a sharp clap of my hands. This “No!+Clap” is what I use to discourage an action I don’t want my cat to take. For an example: let’s say they’re chewing on a basket and you do the “No+Clap” thing, they stop for a minute, then resume the chew. You have to do it again exactly as they resume chewing. This associates your reaction with their specific action. Repetition is key. Chew, no+clap, pause, chew, no+clap, pause, chew, no+clap, etc. This might repeat 6-7 times. But eventually they’ll likely move on to something else. If they don’t, then rattle a toy to encourage them to leave the site of the issue and then that’s enough for that lesson. Remember: you’re not going to teach them anything in one, two, or even three sittings, so be patient, kind, and repeative. Even if the first few times they don’t correctly respond to your “No+Clap”, they’ll remember what happened and the next time they do it and you correct them, they’ll have a moment of ‘huh, same thing happened last time’ and are more likely to understand over time that you don’t want them to do that action.
- STEP 2: Physical intervention. This is a gentle action. What this means is simply you stepping in, and gently stopping them from doing whatever it is they shouldn’t be doing, or possibly even gently picking them up and walking them to a different part of the room/house away from the trouble area and giving them something they CAN play with. “Step 2” should only happen if “Step 1” has been tried and didn’t work EACH TIME you do the correction. Verbal correction should always be tried first. Not just one time, but every time you correct them both during training and forever after. NEVER HIT OR CHASE your cat. This will only teach them to fear humans and will not resolve the issue or teach them better behavior. You’ll get a lot further with calm, gentle, kind corrections. The reason why I generally don’t believe physical intervention works as well for training specifically is that it introduces another “action/element” into the situation — simply the act of physically stopping them literally changes the dynamics of situation you’re trying to train them not to do and it confuses the entire situation making it hard to learn from. However, it is usually pretty successful though so it’s a “quick fix” rather than a teaching moment. But if they’re really not listening to my voice/claps, I will gently and calmly pick them up (no snuggling or rewarding, just picking them up) and move them to another part of the house with a toy they *are* allowed to play with. You MUST do this kindly because you don’t want your cat to associate anything but good things with physical contact so don’t stomp over and don’t show any anger or aggression, just be quiet, calm, and firm. They will learn.
- FOLLOW UP: Don’t give up and don’t stop and be consistent. At first, it might not feel like your corrections are making any impact on the cat/kitten. But give it a few days or weeks, stay absolutely consistent with your corrections, and you’ll likely start to notice that they begin to understand. It will probably take a few days of constant corrections but they WILL learn if you’re consistent. Now, it’s important to understand that just like people, they’re going to make mistakes over time. They’re not perfect creatures – none of us are. So I will occasionally (like once a month or something) have to correct one of our older cats even from jumping on the table, but for the most part they understand and know the rules. Be forgiving – you make mistakes in life too – but be consistent so that they understand. Remember, if you’re constantly varying your correction or only correcting them sometimes, that will just confuse them. They have no understanding of why you’re asking them to do whatever you’re asking them to do and you have no way of explaining to them the logic of it so if you think about it it’s actually a pretty big ask of us to tell them that they arbitrarily can’t do something. So be patient, be gentle, repeat repeat repeat, and they will learn.
Timeline: It took about one week for our new kittens to really show understanding for our house rules. That was one week of consistent, gentle, firm repetition from me. After about a week, they started to show clear signs of understanding what I meant when I said “No!” in my warning tone and would back away from actually whatever activity they were doing. And it took about a solid month before they got to a point where I’d rarely even need to give verbal corrections. Every cat/kitten will be different though and it also depends on how vigilant you are. Honestly, in most cases, you are actually the determining factor for how successful the training is, not your cat. They have a saying with horse riding that goes something like “there’s no such thing as a bad horse, there are just bad riders” and that kinda applies to cat training too. Ultimately it’s on us as the trainers who are trying to instill our house rules on these other creatures (who don’t naturally understand them) to be responsible for taking the time to train them properly and kindly.
A few more notes and tips on this subject:
- Avoid problems. Sometimes if I see one of our cats going towards something they shouldn’t do (like if I see one of them eyeing our kitchen counter but they haven’t actually tried to jump up yet), I’ll intervene and distract them entirely. I might scoop one of them up and give them a little snuggle to distract them, then walk to a different place in the house and place them down there. Or if I see them thinking about swatting my decor, I’ll just rattle a toy. If you watch them closely, you can anticipate a lot of their actions and over time you’ll just learn their mannerisms and “know” what’s coming. Sometimes avoidance is just the easiest answer.
- React in levels. Once you’ve completed the basics Step 1 and Step 2 and your cat understands what it is you don’t want them to do, you can have levels to how you react to things in the future. What I personally do is this: as soon as the cat goes to do something they’re not allowed, I’ll verbally say “No!” in the same warning tone of voice I always do when correcting them. I’ll do this once or twice. Usually, the “No!” makes them pause each time. But sometimes they’ll continue. Then I’ll escalate and ADD in a loud clap (without physically moving towards them). So “No!” + clap. Again, I’ll give them 2 chances to listen. If they really don’t listen, I’ll calmly walk over (without scaring them, because learning is the goal, not fear), pick them up (again, gently but firmly), and taken them to another room and put a toy in front of them. This removes them from the situation and offers them a “yes” toy. Also interestingly, no matter how many cats are around me, if only one of them is doing something they shouldn’t and I say the “No!” they always know who it is and that tells me that the cat who is doing the action they’re now allowed understands deep down that their action is not allowed and the other cats who are not doing anything wrong know they’re not doing anything wrong and they (rightly) ignore my “No!”.
- Train your humans if there are many people in your household around your cats, take the time to train them in this method so that the cats are getting the SAME FEEDBACK from everyone. Make sure you’re all saying the “No!” in a similar manner, make sure you all understand the steps for training, and make sure you’re all on the same page. This is important because if your cat is not allowed on counters (for example) and you’re correcting them but your spouse lets them get away with it, then the training simply isn’t going to work effectively. So teamwork is key if you’ve got many humans in your house.
- Never use your hands as toys. I know it’s tempting to want to use your hand to tap the floor/bed/whatever to get a cat’s attention, never do this. Hands should never be viewed as toys – this will help your cat never learn to scratch. Also, if they try to bite or scratch at your (often this is done accidentally in play), just make a sharp, high-pitched “ow” or “yip” sound that makes they know they caused pain. Do this even if they didn’t actually hurt you. Anytime their claws or teeth make contact with skin, make this high-pitched sound and they will learn never to bit or claw at people. This is how they learn with each other when they’re babies (cats and dogs both) so it’s a method they naturally understand and respond to.
- Never let your kitten play with “found objects” from your house. They should only play with things that you give them as toys. This helps them learn the difference between their stuff and your stuff. Once the cats are older they’ll generally know what to do if you teach them this from when they’re small. Like at this point, all our older cats can go into our basement without supervision and literally rifle through our construction materials and they won’t mess with anything they shouldn’t. They’re really very good about it. But it’s because we were consistent when they were kittens and formed this as a habit in all of them. Of course sometimes they might play with something they find but you’ll have to judge that case by case. Don’t allow something just because it’s cute. Like in the basement, if they play with a piece of wood that’s on the floor, that’s fine. If they go into one of our open storage boxes and rifle through it, that’s something I’d say “No” to.
- You can only correct what you SEE happen. If for example, you come into the bathroom and find your toilet paper roll in shreds but this was clearly done a while ago and your cat has moved on and is playing or sleeping elsewhere and you didn’t see it happen, you cannot go to the cat and communicate to them that this was not okay. They don’t understand our language and they don’t share our human logic. If you go and get mad at them for it, they’re not going to associate your reaction with their action and they’ll just see it as you being upset at them for no reason. So in order not to create confusion, only correct what you see happen BUT create scenarios where you are able to see most of what happens or simply avoid the problem. In this example: maybe keep your bathroom doors shut to prevent the cat from entering without your supervision.
- Put them in their cat room at night or whenever you leave the house. This will ensure that while you’re sleeping or away, they won’t do all the things you’re trying to teach them not to do and get away with it. It is VERY IMPORTANT that your cat/kitten rooms be properly set up with food, water, litter box, cozy beds, and be cat-proofed so that they can’t do anything dangerous while you’re not looking. We still put our big cats in their cat room both at night and if we go out even though they’re responsible adult kitties who know all the rules. It never hurts to be cautious and this avoids problems you can’t see! You can click here for a tour of our cat room (right now the cats have their own room, and we temporarily turned our guest bedroom into a kitten room until they’re old enough to be integrated into the cat room, more on that in my post on How to Introduce Kittens to Cats). — I should note that you don’t need to have an entire dedicated room just for your cats, but if you can pick one room that you can fully cat-proof and make cat-friendly, this will give you a place to put them at night or when you’re out that is fully safe and where they can’t un-learn the rules you’re teaching them when they’re around you.
- DO NOT spray cats with water or any other such deterrents. One of the most common things you’ll hear people tell you is that they spray their cats with water to try and get them to stop jumping on counters etc. Guys, this is the wrong approach. Spraying water creates a negative situation with you as the problem, but it doesn’t create any form of training opportunity. Let me flip this around: What would happen if I sprayed you with water if you touched my countertop? I’ll bet your first reaction would be anything from low-to-severe annoyance to outright anger, but I’m pretty sure the last thing you’d think is “Oh, I bet she’s spraying me with water because she doesn’t want me to touch her counter.” Spraying them only has the potential to teach them to fear a particular action in your presence because they will associate the sprayed water with YOU, not with the counter (since they will be able to jump on the counter when you’re not around without being sprayed). So I hope you can see that spraying doesn’t teach them anything other than fear of you or annoyance with you. In order to effectively teach them our house rules, we need to give cats the same respect we’d give a person. Spraying them with water is annoying, irritating, and doesn’t teach them anything other than creating a situation in which you did something really negative to them.
- How to Stop Cats from Scratching Furniture: This is such a big topic that I’ve written an entire separate blog post on it with full details so you can click here to read the full post.
- Our cats are NOT declawed. Declawing is a horrific, barbaric, inhumane practice that is banned or illegal in many places. Please NEVER declaw a cat, don’t even consider it! If you trim your cat’s nails weekly (I use this tool), offer them proper scratchers/scratch pads (I use these ones that are super mobile), and train them to be kind and gentle, that’s all you need. I’m putting this all in bold to emphasize how important this point is.
Regarding stairs and interior balconies: If you follow us on Instagram, you know that we have an interior balcony overlooking out living room that’s quite high. The first week we brought our kittens home, we let them play on the second floor and I quickly realized that they were so small and new to our home that they didn’t even understand what the balcony and stairs were and they’d try to weave in and out of the balusters, and simply didn’t have any fear around them because they didn’t understand that they ‘could’ fall. Since they had so much else to deal with with being introduced to a new family, new home, new big cats, we ended up keeping them completely blocked off from the stairs and second floor for over a month. I waited until they grew to be big enough that they wouldn’t accidentally slip through our second floor stair balusters and fall. When they first came home, they were tiny enough that their whiskers barely brushed the balusters and they were clumsy so I wanted to keep them safe and grounded until they grew bigger. When they got to be big enough to allow up, and after over a month of using my Cat Training Methods on our main floor to teach them the house rules, I did supervised upstairs visits with them where I’d open up the stairs, and let them explore and I’d follow close behind, ready to verbally correct them and teach them proper safety around the railings. We did this a couple times a week for a couple weeks. After about 5-6 times they learned the rules, and I’d graduate to ‘remotely supervised’ visits where I’d let them upstairs alone while keeping watch from downstairs ready to catch them or verbally correct them if needed. After a couple more times of this, they learned and now they have full access to the first and second floors and are have the training to be as safe as is reasonably possible.
Anyways, these are just my methods and they’ve worked for me so I hope they help you!
More cat-related posts that might help: