Monday, August 15, 2016

Michelle Styles: Can you train your cat?

Can you train a cat or is this an exercise in futility? was my first thought when I heard of the new book by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis —    The Trainable Cat How to make life happierfor you and your cat.  After all dogs have masters but cats have slaves. And then I thought about it — my cats have always been trained to know when food is coming with the words -- trot trot trot They have always come racing. They know how to use a litter tray etc.  After deciding I did know how train cats, I thought little of it because my cat was about 6 and he was a good cat (ie we got on very well).

Unfortunately he developed congestive heart failure at the end of last month and despite the efforts of the vets he died at the beginning of the month. He left behind a very large heart so I went to the Newcastle Cat and Dog Shelter and chose two kittens (Hercules and Persephone) to help fill it   The shelter told me that they were brother and sister but the vet pointed out that they were both girls. Kittens are notoriously hard to sex! Because the Trainable Cat book was being reviewed and it is supposed to be the latest on cat behaviour, I ordered it and read it to see if there were any tips to help them settle. In particular I want them to become comfortable around my collies and to hopefully not get so stressed at going to the vet’s.
Heathcliff last year
It was an interesting read. Training your cat is not about making it into a stunt animal but making it easier to get on with. A lot of it is about working with your cat rather than against its natural instincts. It is about getting your ca to relax and keeping your cat amused. Cats are intelligent and can easily get bored. Cats are also very much hunters and as such tend to need their space and as well enjoying exercising their minds.
I was surprised to discover how much they rely on scent and visual cues, rather than meowing. Feral colonies tend to be quiet places.  Cats save their meows for humans. Apparently humans are very good at deciphering their own cats’ calls but not so good at deciphering a strange cat’s. Thus  researchers believe cats tailor their vocalisation to the specific person.
Hercules and Persephone 
Cats  are also very wary of the unfamiliar, particularly dogs and people. Kittens under two months are adaptable and spend much of their time learning about the world. Researchers think that cats do not really know the concept of *human* until they are introduced to it. During the kitten socialisation period, they build up a picture of a *human* and decide which are friendly and which are not. They do not instinctively recognise children as small humans. Thus it can be helpful if a kitten meets a wide range of people. They also need to learn that being handled and stroked is pleasurable but need to understand on their terms.
Cats in general should ignored when first encountered — the cat should be given time to approach.  Apparently a friendly cat greeting sounds like *prr-up*. They  also hold their tail up.  It is difficult to say but I was surprised that my kittens do greet me with it. They have scent glands in their face (the other place is at the base of their tail). It is why cats do like to be stroked on their face — they are marking you with their scent.
After a week, Hercules and Persephone are beginning to relax
Currently I am trying to get my kittens to relax around the collies. The collies are used to cats and have behaved really well – not making eye contact, preferring to play with toys, not bothering the kittens but allowing themselves to be sniffed etc.  The kittens still hiss and spit a bit but since I took some of the dogs’ bedding upstairs (where the kittens are currently spending a great deal of time) to allow the kittens to investigate the smell, they have calmed down. This is called systematic desensitizing. The kittens have also been fed cat treats when the collies are in the room. Feeding treats and understanding the hierarchy of such things is an important part of training. For my cats, they will work for chicken but do like Dreamies and then there is cat food and biscuits. They also love chasing toys so the fishing rod toys the shelter gave as part of the *cat welcome* pack have come into good use. They are kept for training and luring purposes and should be used sparingly (ie put away before the cat becomes bored)
Persephone on her comfort blanket
With the vet’s, there is a long process to get your cat to feel comfortable in a cat carrier. It all starts with getting your cat to relax on a comfort blanket. I have started doing this and we shall see. Persephone had a reaction to the cat flu vaccine and did seem calmer on the blanket but really going to the vet is no fun — lots of needles and strange people. There  are also tips for getting pills down. You can train cats to accept syringes (filled with tasty meat/pate to begin with).
Apparently cats need to scratch on posts that are taller than they are. They also need several places to scratch. In the UK, it is illegal to declaw your cat.
I was interested to learn that the chewing of boxes and paper – something my old cat did is because they like to disembowel their prey.  By playing with your cat and encouraging your cat to look at your home as a *hunting ground* through providing lots of surfaces to jump on and things to hide in, you can help keep a cat’s natural instinct for catching small prey at bay. It is also trying to re-direct the cat’s attention to the toys rather than to attacking feet or hands. Apparently squealing or jumping away if playfully clawed can encourage the cat. Some people have to resort to wearing wellies at home until the cat learns not to attack feet, so it is best not to start such games…
Anyway The Trainable Cat is an interesting read and worthwhile if you want to understand how cats behave.  I believe my new kittens are becoming much more sociable.

When not playing with her kittens, Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances.  Her next Harlequin Historical will be published in February 2017 Sold to the Viking Warrior. You can learn more about Michelle and her books on


Janine said...

As a cat mom, I enjoyed your post. I am so sorry to hear about your sweet baby's passing.

Michelle Styles said...

I am pleased you enjoyed the post. Thank you for the sympathy. I remain heartbroken but then I kpp telling my elf that although he meant the world to me, I was his world and that even though he took a piece of my heart, he left his heart behind and it was such a large heart that I certainly have plenty of space for the two new kittens.

dstoutholcomb said...

so wonderful you were able to find space in your heart for new kittens while you're still missing Heathcliff

Love the names: Hercules and Persephone