Podcast: Cat Training With Feline Behavior And Training Expert Marci Koski

Our mission is to help save dogs' and cats’ lives through our educational content. To support our efforts, this page may contain affiliate links. We earn a commission for qualifying purchases – at no cost to you.

how to train a catWe've got a really fun episode with our special guest, Dr. Marci Koski, a feline behavior and training consultant who is helping cats and their humans live better lives together.

She shares a lot of great tips for better communicating with your cats and some great reasons to start training your kitties.

She also walks us through a fun training exercise that takes just a few minutes for you and your cat to learn.


Quick Links:

Play Paws & Play episode Cat Training With Feline Behavior And Training Expert Marci Koski
Paws & Play Cat Training With Feline Behavior And Training Expert Marci Koski

Transcript below

Mia: Welcome back to another episode of Paws and Play with Dr. J. I'm your cohost, Mia, and today we have a very special guest with us, Dr. Marci Koski, who is a certified feline training and behavior consultant with I think just an incredibly interesting background and she just does amazing work. She was also the recipient of the Pet Industry Woman of the Year Advocate Award in 2017. And, so welcome to the show Dr. Marci Koski!

Marci: Thank you so much, I'm really happy to be here. I love talking about my favorite topic, which is cats. So...

Mia: You're in good company.

Dr. J: It's great to have you here Marci.

Marci: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Mia: And as you heard, we've got Dr. J with us here. How are you doing today?

Dr. J: I'm doing very well, Mia. Thank you.

Mia: Wonderful. Well, I would love first, Marci, if you can give us a little bit of background; I'd love to hear about your path to becoming a feline behavior and training professional.

Marci: Yeah. So that's kind of interesting. There are a number of ways you can do cat behavior for a living. And I think I came through kind of a nontraditional way. I've always loved animals, and I really went into conservation in my early career, so I got all the degrees in biology and ecology and fish and wildlife biology.

That's where I got my PhD from Colorado State University in fishery and wildlife biology. And then, I worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service for about 10 years, and it was mostly regulatory stuff and working on recovery plans for endangered species. But then I got to the point in my career where I was sitting behind a desk most of the time and reading reports and signing time sheets, and managing a team of biologists. And I was like, wait a minute, this isn't exactly what I wanted my career to look like.

So, I went back to what I really love, and that's cats. And so I got a couple of certifications in feline training and behavior and started my own business, Feline Behavior Solutions. And so now I help cats with their people problems.

Dr. J: Ha! I love the way you put that.

Mia: That's amazing. And you know, so necessary and I think such an important part of the human-animal relationship really because I think a lot of people don't really understand animal behavior and completely misread it a lot of the times as well. Which then leads to other terrible things. A lot of the times.

Marci: You know, I think people just don't understand cats as well as dogs. You know, we could go into a whole conversation about evolution and the past of dogs and people versus cats and people. But, um, I think cats are just really misunderstood. And the number one thing that I try to do is educate people about what cats' needs are, from not only a physical standpoint but also a behavioral and instinctual standpoint. These cats and I say it over and over again — cats in your home are essentially tiny, wild, predatory, carnivorous beasts that, live inside with us. And it's amazing that they don't do more damage than they are sometimes they're capable of.

Dr. J: Marci, you hit the nail on the head. I think so many people view cats as the sort of low-maintenance pet, and they really, they aren't, if you're doing it right. I mean they don't require a ton of maintenance, but they do require to have their needs met both physically like you said, and then also emotionally and mentally. And, I love the fact that, fortunately nowadays, we are talking more about environmental enrichment or multimodal environmental enrichment for cats and really focusing on what they need and not assuming that they're basically just kind of lazy, smaller, funnier dogs. They're not, they're their own wonderful little critters. And if we get the husbandry right, if we get the care of them right, their lives are so much more enriched, and they tend to be healthier, and your home tends to be safer as well.

Marci: Exactly. A cat without something to do turns into...

Dr. J: A nightmare.

Mia: A lion. Yeah, my little smushball is quite the predator there. We somehow have gotten a bunch of crickets that have made their way in, and I do everything in my power to tell them it's not safe in here and escort them out, but we've had a cricket graveyard in our house.

Dr. J: Engaging that hunting behavior.

mazel the kitty in his cat treeMia: Not on purpose. He has plenty of toys, but oh well. So I think, you know, it's interesting because we always talk about training dogs and how important that is, but I don't think that, that most people think of training their cat, and the different kinds of training too, you know, I think a lot of the times maybe they'll think of the late-night show stupid animal tricks, but I'm sure it's not like that at all.

And I'm saying this as somebody who hasn't actually gone through any type of training with Mazel, our cat. But I, after this, I know will be. So, what are some of the practical reasons or benefits to training your cat?

Marci: Okay. So training cats means a lot of things to a lot of different people. And, when I talk about training, a lot of times people go, oh, you can't train a cat, the cat is going to do just what it wants to do. And that's not true. Cats are actually, they know about training, and in fact they've trained us really well.

They are master manipulators. Just think about every time your cat meows at you because she wants something like maybe food or a treat or pets or whatever. Well, you give her that thing, and then she either purrs or rubs up against you and then you feel so, so happy that she's graced you with her affection that you actually, you know when she meows, you know what to do next time.

So cats have got it down. They know all about positive reinforcement. And so it's really, now we're trying to open up a two-way training street. And training is not just about performing tricks, although that can be really fun and enriching, providing that mental stimulation that cats need.

But it can also be very helpful in just living with a cat who has needs like clawing things and scratching things and then being up high — perhaps some things you don't want your cat to be on, so you can train your cat to use alternatives.

So when I work with my clients, I — you know, counter surfing, so getting up on countertops and tables where cats aren't supposed to be, is a big topic, and then also scratching furniture is a big topic. And training is a really great way to address those issues.

And then there's even a further aspect of that, where cats with medical needs, or you know you're going to have to put your cat in a situation that they may not enjoy, so you can desensitize them and use counterconditioning, which is basically turning a negative into a positive all through training.

So that procedures like giving subcutaneous fluids and whatnot are a little bit easier for everyone involved. So training really has applications across the board when you're living with a cat.

Dr. J: And I think even training your cat or helping them really enjoy, or at least appreciate the rewards of even toothbrushing, or you know, from again, from the medical standpoint, like, you know, cats as they get older and maybe have to medications for an overactive thyroid or something like that, if you kind of get them used to that and get them trained to enjoy the handling, and things of that nature early, it's just going to make everybody's life that much easier in the long run.

Marci: Exactly. Exactly. And a lot of people don't realize that they're training their cat when they actually are. It's not that hard.

Dr. J: And I think even more people don't realize that they're being trained by their cat, like you said. But that's good. We should just give in to our feline overlords.

Marci: That's what I say all the time.

Mia: Well, I already have.

Dr. J: Mia's a step ahead of all of us.

Mia: Mazel is. Well, so you actually just kind of said this, Marci, I was gonna ask how difficult it is to train a cat because, you know, obviously they're great at training us, but I don't know or I wouldn't think that it would necessarily be reciprocated. But you just said that it's not that difficult.

Marci: It's not and, you know, I think it's easier in some situations than others. So cats who are highly food motivated, are easier to train perhaps than cats who just couldn't give a rip about food — and they're out there. So, if you have a cat who is fine with accepting treats, and trying to work for those treats, you've discovered that cat's motivation and that's really the trick to training is discovering what your cat is willing to work for.

For some cats, it's affection and praise; for other cats, it's playtime. Treats are really easy, though, because if you give a treat that is small and easily consumable, it doesn't take very much time; you can stay on the whole training process and repeat things over and over, as opposed to like a play session where a cat is getting distracted by a toy.

So, generally speaking, cats who are food motivated are easier to train, and I find younger cats, cats who are maybe between the ages of one and six to be generally easier to train. But that doesn't mean that super young cats can't be easy to train because they are, they just have a little bit more... they get distracted very easily.

And then older cats, they are dealing with some cognitive challenges as they age. But that does not mean that a cat won't learn what a specific sound means to them. So, just test it out. If you have a bag of treats that you take out of the cupboard occasionally, and your cats come running, you've already got half the work done.

Mia: I'm there. I'm halfway there. This is great news. You briefly mentioned positive reinforcement. What does that mean? To me that's like a treat. What does that mean exactly versus negative reinforcement?

Marci: Okay. So positive reinforcement is how I work with cats in nearly all aspects of behavior work. Basically, we can break it down like this. So, the positive is positive and negative, and reinforcement is reinforcement versus punishment.

And I'll tell you what each of those things mean. So basically, there's four quadrants. You have positive reinforcement in one corner and then negative punishment and another. And then, of course, negative reinforcement and positive punishment.

The difference between positive and negative isn't good or bad. It's you either add something or take something away. So positive means you're adding something. Negative means you're taking something away.

The difference between reinforcement versus punishment is reinforcement means you're hoping that by doing something, you're getting a specific behavior to repeat itself. Punishment means that you're trying to get that behavior to stop.

So, you know, I think we all have our own connotations of what positive and negative mean and reinforcement and punishment, but punishment doesn't always mean hitting an animal or anything like that.

And reinforcement doesn't always mean you know, you're doing something good. It's, again, it's the combination of positive versus negative reinforcement and punishment. Does that make sense?

four quadrants of operant conditioning

Mia: I think so?

Marci: Okay. So let me give you some examples. So when we talk about positive reinforcement, that means that we're giving the cat something so that a behavior will be repeated, and this is just training in general. So if you want to teach your cat to use a scratching post, every time that behavior happens, you give your cat a reward so that he'll connect to the reward and the action and then repeat that action. Right?

Dr. J: And that reward doesn't necessarily, just for all the listeners, that reward doesn't necessarily have to be a treat. It doesn't have to be food, it can be praise or petting or a play session, just something that they like, that they are rewarded by, and every cat's going to be different, right?

Marci: Yes, exactly. You just need to find out what motivates your cat. And like you said, that can be anything, that can be anything your cat enjoys, praise, petting, affection, sweet talk, of course, treats work very well. But then, if you go to the flip side, so positive punishment is something that I never advocate using with cats.

So positive punishment would be something like, if your cat claws the couch and you don't want that behavior to be repeated, you throw something at your cat, like a shoe. So, positive means you're adding something, which is the shoe, in the hopes that your cat will not repeat that behavior.

This generally does not work because the cat oftentimes does not connect that shoe with their action, and it just creates a negative association between you and the cat. The cat ends up being fearful of you and scared about its environment because he doesn't know when he's going to get the shoe.

So positive punishment is something that I never advocate using. So with training, it's all about positive reinforcement.

Mia: Great. Well, I'm glad that's the way that you do things because otherwise, I would've had to cut this whole thing off.

Dr. J: And if you haven't gotten it yet, Mia, then be careful because there's a shoe coming through the microphone at you. Duck.

Mia: I'm short it won't hit me.

Marci: Yeah, yeah. No, we don't ever want to do anything to cats that's going to make them be afraid or have a negative reaction, a bad reaction to anything in their home. We want to build their confidence and help them enjoy life, which is why we use positive reinforcement.

Mia: Yeah. No, and that's great. And that's — the scratching, while it might, you know, be hurting our furniture, that's their natural way of being. Right?

Marci: Exactly, exactly. See, but this is what I often tell my clients, too, a cat is simply reacting to what is in its environment and the situation that it's being given. And if you want to change your cat's behavior, you need to change the environment, and you need to change that situation. The cat is just acting naturally.

Dr. J: And Mia, for all the listeners, like, you know, expanding upon that idea of the scratching, know if your, if your cat is scratching your furniture, again, you don't throw a shoe, you just, you don't give them a reward. But then when they go, and they scratch the scratching posts like maybe you bring them over the scratching post, when they scratch a scratching post, they now get a reward. They get, you know, the treat or whatever.

And make no mistake, too, for everybody, like scratching in and of itself is a reward for a cat. It's calming to them. That's, you know, it satisfies a lot of their needs. So they're going to scratch because that's sort of self-soothing and self-rewarding, if you will. But then they are more likely to scratch in the place that you then give them another reward.

So it's just a matter of, you know, getting them loving, you know, giving them the rewards to get them to do the things that you want to do, and that can be scratching or where they're going to the bathroom, or you know, the places that they spend their day resting, all of those things.

And so it really is a, I mean, I'm going to say a simple thing. The concept is simple. Sometimes the actual act of, and being consistent with it, can be difficult, but then that's where you've got awesome people like Marci that get to help people.

Marci: Yeah. Consistency is key. Definitely.

Mia: So, in terms of consistency, how much of a time commitment would you suggest starting with in order to maybe see some results if you're training on one behavior?

Marci: So, it really depends on your cat and how motivated they are to learn. And it depends on what you're trying to teach them, like how complex the thing is. There are easy things that you can teach your cats to do. So, for example, I trained my cat, Abbey, how to sit, which she got in like, oh, probably about 10 minutes. And she knew the command.

Mia: Go Abbey!

Marci: Yeah, she's awesome. But then the next thing I tried to teach her was spin, and we're still working on that one; she's not quite getting that one as well, and it's been like a few months, so spin is really hard. But then I taught her how to fist bump, and that took about 10 or 15 minutes over the course of a couple of days.

Dr. J: Oh, we need video of that because that would be adorable and awesome.

Marci: She's super cute, but she's still pretty hesitant about it. So it's like just the tiniest boop ever.

Dr. J: I mean, I've got my seven and eight-year-old daughters doing it, but I just don't feel as accomplished as getting the cat to do it.

Marci: So, you know, when you're trying to change cat's behavior, like scratching something else that it, you know, your cat loves to scratch this couch, and you're trying to shift that behavior over to a scratching post. That behavior can sometimes take a little bit longer to train, because you're trying to actually change a behavior.

But if you're introducing a new behavior, like teaching a cat how to sit or fist bump or something like that, that can happen relatively quickly. Basically, you start really easy and build up to the behavior that you want, and you use positive reinforcement all the way.

Dr. J: Well, and I think that also goes back a little bit too, I think Marci, to what Mia was talking, or you guys were talking about earlier with the age at which you start, it seems like, and it's similar with dogs of course, but the earlier you start the training and then laying the foundational work, so training some of the "easier" behaviors early and then building upon those like it's all additive.

And so, and I think in that respect, for a lot of people that have the time and the dedication and the desire, I feel like training for cats and dogs can be kind of addictive because it's kind of cool to see what you can actually do. Especially because so many people think that cats are not trainable.

And then to be able to just sort of blow them away with what you can actually train a cat to do, all just positive reinforcement and taking the time and developing that bond and that relationship is really impressive. And I think once people have their eyes open to what cats are capable of, it's a whole new world for cats and their relationships in homes.

Marci: Oh, definitely. You've got to check out, if you go on YouTube, search for The Amazing Acro-cats. It's a troupe of cats run by a woman named Samantha, who is just amazing. She uses positive reinforcement for all these cats — and it's not just cats; they also have rats, a groundhog, and a chicken named Cluck Norris. They have like a little band of cats. And then they perform circus tricks.


And I've had the pleasure of talking with Samantha in-depth, and she only uses positive reinforcement. And if a cat doesn't want to do something, there's no punishment, there's no consequences. They just don't get the reward. And so she uses food like chicken and food to reinforce the cats. But if you look at these videos, you will be amazed at what cats can do.

And what, I think people are really becoming more aware of this, if you look at cat shows now —, and you know, we won't get into the whole discussion about breeding and all that stuff — but a lot of cat shows now have agility competitions, and so it's like an obstacle course for cats, and sometimes you go in there and, and I love watching these things because some of the cats are just amazing. The trainers, you know, leading them around this agility course, and the cats are jumping through things and over things and under things, and it's amazing.

And then, of course, you get the cats in there that are just like, oh, what? I'm going to lie down right here, how about that? It's pretty entertaining. But those things, like you were saying about working with a cat, it creates such a fun bond. And cats have fun. People have fun, it's mentally enriching for both cats and people, and it's just such a great way to interact with your cat and have a good time

Dr. J: And also from the medical side, and I bet you see this in your days as well, it also helps to reduce stress in cats, which is such a huge contributor to so many problems, whether it be inappropriately eliminating outside of the box or you know, over-grooming themselves or you know, even Urethral Obstruction, which is one of my big things I'm trying to stamp out of existence. And even like stress can cause vomiting and cats, like there's just so many things, and if we can decrease their stress by engaging their brain, which training does, oh that's huge.

Marci: Yeah, absolutely. You know, people don't really think about mental enrichment for cats, but training is a great way to do that because it's a puzzle for them. They're like, okay — oh, and I want to talk about clicker training in a second — but, basically when you use a clicker, and your cat knows, because you've been classically conditioned to recognize or to associate that click with a treat or a reward, it becomes a game, and your cat is like, okay, what should I be doing to get that click now? When do I get the click?

And so they try doing new things, and just the novelty of trying different behaviors is very enriching for cats. It's that seeking part of the brain that is very pleasure-inducing for cats. So it's such a great way to go.

And there are things like food puzzles that can also provide mental enrichment. And again, that's like a game. What do I need to do to get that piece of food out of this food puzzle? But training is really interactive and just really fun.

Mia: I would assume, like, so I know that for dogs and everything with their training and kind of getting the putting the puzzles together, it is an exercise for their brain and you know, can, can really tire them out. So I'm just wondering, would this be the same kind of training exercise to do to kind of tire out our kitties so that they're not going crazy in the middle of the night waking us up?

Marci: I think physical exercise is a much more important thing for cats than like a training session. Although I do every night, do a training session, my cat has trained me to do a training session with her before bedtime every night because cats very naturally, they do this thing and it's called hunt, eat, groom, sleep.

Mia: I'm familiar!

Marci: So right before bed, if they get a little treat, then they're like, oh okay, I'm going to groom and sleep. And if your cat is really overactive at night, the most important thing you can do is do a really active play session right before your bedtime.

So an interactive wand toy, 15 to 20 minutes of chasing, jumping, leaping, going up and down cat trees with a wand toy to wear your cat out, and then providing a little snack or a meal. That is the hunt, eat, groom, sleep cycle in full, and that will really help your cat just mellow out at night, and everybody will get a better night's sleep.

Mia: Awesome. That's a great tip. So you had mentioned that you were going to talk about clicker training. I was curious as to whether or not cats can be clicker trained like dogs that I'm used to.

Marci: Yeah, absolutely. And it's funny when I take out the clicker, a lot of my clients are like oh yeah, I clicker train my dog! And I'm like, hey, perfect, it's the same thing. And so I have a clicker right here, and this is what it sounds like.

Mia: I'm ready for a snack.

Marci: Yeah, it's just yum, you know, when you hear this, you start salivating like Pavlov's cat. So the click is just, you know I mentioned classical conditioning just a few minutes ago, and it's basically a way to communicate with your cat. And the first thing you do when you start training your cat with a clicker is what you do is it's something called loading the clicker. And you basically click and then provide a treat. Click, provide a treat.

So your cat, as soon as they hear the click, they know that a treat is coming. A great thing about the click is that it's a very consistent sound, something that you're not going to hear all the time. So it's consistent, and it's specific, and it's like almost instantaneous. So you can mark the exact time of the behavior that occurs that you want. And then the click essentially buys you a second or two while you're getting the treat for the cat.

Dr. J: That's one of the best ways I've ever heard it put. I really liked that. You know, just having that be the marker. So that's the immediate. And also the fact that you highlight that it's consistent because when people use their voice like if you're training your cat and then your spouse is training, or one of the kids, or a neighbor is doing it, there's variation between the voice.

But the clicker is consistent, it's immediate. And like you said, it's unique too; they're not hearing a click normally in their day, I guess maybe unless you've not cut your dog's nails often enough, maybe they're hearing something like that. And then the cat's like, where's the treat? Oh no, it's just the dog, which is a bummer.

Marci: My cat, Abbey, is actually afraid of the clicker, and there are a couple of ways to get around that. So if you start with a clicker — and most cats who are food motivated, they're like, I don't care about that clicker sound anymore, give me a treat.

You know, they learned that the click sound is great. Yay treats! But if your cat really doesn't like it, you can put it in a sock to muffle the click sound, or start with it behind your back. And then actually what I do with Abbey is I use a specific mark, just a vocal mark, and I go good girl. Good girl. Good girl. Good girl. Like this horrible-sounding praise, but it works for her, so.

Mia: It actually sounds kind of like a clicker, the way your voice inflects.

Marci: Good girl. Like the high and the low is, I don't know, it works. So the click or the vocal cue is really what you use to mark that behavior exactly when it happens. And then because the cat knows the reward is coming, they're like, okay, alright, that's what we're working on. And as soon as — it's a great way to communicate with your cat, you know, it's like if your cat learns when you're telling your cat that they did a good job, just, I mean, I just think it's amazing that you can communicate two ways with a cat like that. Like your cat, you do a sound, and then your cat goes, oh, okay I get it. I think that's amazing.

Mia: It's awesome. It's such a, you know, it reminds me a little bit of, what was it, Koko the gorilla learning sign language. It's just another way for us to really learn how to communicate. And I can imagine that as this training process goes on, there's actually even more kind of telepathic stuff going back and forth between you and your cat. Because, I mean, I think it really makes you hone in on watching their body language and everything else. So, it really, there's a lot of opportunity to get to understand your cat better.

Marci: Definitely. Definitely. You learn what your cat likes and what she responds to. I've actually paired sign-like signs with each of my commands. So for sit, I use my pointer finger and just point down as I say the command, and so I can actually do that now without using the vocal command, and I just do the sign for it, and she sits. And with the fist-bumping, I used to go, "Fist bump," and then hold out my hand like a little fist. Now I can just do the fist, and she knows what that means.


Dr. J: I think that's a really cool correlation as well because I think, you know, people are getting more used to the idea of using hand signals for training dogs. And so, I think in this episode, hopefully, we're blowing people's minds, A) with the thought that you can train your cat and B) that you could actually train them with hand signals as well.

Marci: Mind blown. Amazing.

Dr. J: Yeah, right? I just think it's really, I mean the whole goal really here is to open up people's minds and their world to what cats are capable of and what that could do for their lives and their quality of life as well as the quality of life of all the people in the home. And I just think that's really cool. Now, hopefully, people are going to run out and start doing hand signal training with their cats.

Marci: It's really easy. So I can describe for you how you do "sit" really easy. Super easy. So okay, have a treat, and like, if you put all your fingers and your thumb together, so it's like a little beak, like if you make your hand into a beak shape, you know what I'm talking about?

Mia: I'm doing it right now.

Marci: Ok. Lift up your pointer finger so that now your pointer finger is like a one, and you have three fingers touching your thumb. Okay? So you're going to put your treat in between the three fingers and the thumb, and so your cat's going to see that. And the signal I use for sit is that hand position, and then I simply tilt the hand down so that the finger goes down, points to the floor. But the treat is still in my hand, at least initially, when I'm using the treat to train. Does that make sense? Can you visualize that?

Dr. J: Yeah! I'm actually visualizing all the people listening doing exactly what I'm doing right now.

Marci: Okay, so what you're gonna do is, you're going to show your cat that you have a treat in your hand, and your cat is going to be hopefully standing at this point. All you need to do is bring your — so you have the treat between your thumb and those three fingers, and you want to bring that over your cat's head, fairly close to your cat's head, like over between the ears, and keep it moving back because what's going to happen is your cat is going to look up to follow the treat with her eyes.

And as soon as her head goes up and she looks up, her tail is, her behind is going to hit the floor. That automatically causes her to sit. And so you're going to say sit, bring the treat back over her head, she's going to look up, and then she's going to sit down and then use the click as soon as her butt hits the floor. And then you give her the treat.

Dr. J: So you're using the treat to lure her in the direction of the treat to lure her a bit, but then marking it afterwards with the click, and then she gets the treat while also saying the command or the cue word.

Marci: Right. So yeah, a few things are going to happen really quickly. And that's going to be as you're moving your cat treat with your pointer finger up over your cat's head, your cat's butt it's going to hit the ground because she's going to look up and then her butt's going to go down. As soon as her butt hits the floor, that's when you use the clicker to click. And then you give her a treat.

And if you repeat this a few times, really it shouldn't take long at all, if you repeat this a few times, your cat will learn your hand position. And what I do is, and so you won't have to keep moving your hand over your cat's head, she'll just see that hand position, and you say sit, and she'll know what you mean, and she'll start sitting.

And what I usually do is, like I said earlier, when I say sit, I move my pointer finger from up to down position so that it matches the vocal command. And when you first start teaching her this trick, your treat is going to be in that hand.

But then, after she gets more used to that command, have the treat in a different hand. So you don't always have to have that treat in your pointer finger hand. Do you know what I mean? So now you're really just using the hand signal and the vocal command without the treat in your hand.

Mia: This sounds like something easy enough that I could even do.

Marci: It might sound a little bit complicated, but it really is not. And if you search for teaching a cat to sit on YouTube, there's videos that show you how to do it. It's really easy. The amazing thing about cats is they have extremely good memories for this type of thing. So, clicker training sessions for cats, cats have pretty short attention spans, so, usually my clicker training sessions last three to four minutes.

Mia: Oh wow.

Marci: And then they're kind of like, yeah, okay, I'm done. I mean, unless they're really super food motivated, in which case they're just like, oh, keep giving me the treats, which I don't do.

Mia: Well, which Jason might be like, there's an obesity epidemic.

Dr. J: I'm just thinking if they keep getting the treats then all they're going to be doing is sitting, 1) because they think they're going to keep getting treats, and 2) because they can't stand up.

Marci: Right? No. So I usually end the clicker training after three or four minutes because you always want to end on a positive note. So any success, reward, and then you're done. But cats have great memories, so you don't even have to do this every day, you can do it every other day or you know, gosh, I've gone like a month or two without doing any clicker training with Abbey and she just picks it right up again, right where we left off.

So they have great memories. It's a fun thing to do. And cats are actually really good at it once you find what motivates them. In terms of the treats, like I said earlier, you want something that's small and can be eaten fast. I've had really good luck with Kittles by Wellness, and they're only like one calorie per treat, and they're pretty small. So that's what I use for training in my home.

Mia: Okay, nice. My Mazzie has a very, um, he's an exotic shorthair and has a very smushed face and only certain — like there's like one treat that he seems to be able to put in his mouth. But I'll test out the Kittles. Now, what, can you speak to some of the other benefits?

You had mentioned earlier, you know, getting them ready for possibly taking subcutaneous fluids. We, now in my household after Mazel's UO episode have to give him shots once a month. And that was something that I never wanted to do ever. I, how can, I guess I'm trying to figure out how you can get them used to how you can train them to be ready for this type of thing.

Marci: Right, right. So, there are a few different things to keep in mind. I think a lot of times when people are doing medical procedures with their cats, they're doing it in a very specific way, maybe a specific location in their home, and that can cause maybe a negative association with that place. For example, I had a cat that I had to give subcutaneous fluids to and we always did it at the top of her cat tree because it was like a nice little cradle. And she knew that when she was going up there it was, it was subcutaneous fluid time, and it wasn't very fun for her. So you can use counterconditioning to help change that association and if your cat can be trained to do something like go to your mat, we call this stationing, go to your station, and then the cat gets a reward.

It's an easier way to take away that negative association with a certain place. So, for example, if I were giving my cat subcutaneous fluids at the top of my cat tree, I would train her to go up in that cat tree for other reasons, and she would get a reward. Maybe that would be a stationing location, or maybe she would go up there and get, you know, high fives. And then I could actually even break down the steps for giving her subcutaneous fluids.

So once she's up at the top of the cat tree, I give her a treat for going up there on her own. And then we, you know, maybe I grip her fur in the back like I would if I were going to put the needle in, making that little tent fold. And as soon as I do the tent fold, I give her a treat, you know, so she doesn't just associate that with a needle going in, it's, you know, now there's a treat involved. So there are procedures like that, that can really help break down those negative associations with a certain activity with your cat. Does that make sense?

Mia: Yes. And I will be using that. Thank you. Um, yeah, and I assume that it would be a similar kind of situation with maybe like your cat carrier, because, like right now I'm dealing with trying to get Mazel to be okay with it and know that it doesn't mean that he's necessarily going to the vet.

Marci: Right, right. I think the important thing for things like the cat carrier and even going on a leash and in things that may not be very natural for cats to do, is to make the use of those items available at times when they're not just going to be going to the vet or you know, doing something unpleasant.

So for cat carriers, you keep your cat carrier out all the time, you know, you put a nice cozy bed in it. Maybe you leave some treats there occasionally. You can train your cat to go in with a command.

So the Amazing Acro-cats that I mentioned earlier, they have like a dozen cat carriers on the sides of the stage. So, you know, the whole act is cats coming in and out of those carriers and doing their tricks, and those cats go back into their carriers like that (snaps).

So you can train your cat to go into the carrier using positive reinforcement. It can be a command ,and in that case your cat learns that the carrier is not a bad place, not, you know, there's not gonna be something that happens to the cat and not going to the vet every time it goes into the carrier. So it's a really good way to, again, disassociate that negative connotation with a carrier for your cat.

Mia: Yeah, no, that's great. And, you know, it struck me as you were talking about this just based on like the, a lot of the natural disasters that have been happening, how nice it would be — and maybe important it would be — to train your cat, all animals to go directly to their carriers so you can just get them and get out.

Marci: Yeah. Yeah. I think about that all the time, you know. Our smoke alarm went off the other night at like two in the morning and it was just so disorienting and my cats all immediately went under the bed and I was like, oh my God, how would we actually get these cats if something were actually happening and we needed to get out of the house really fast. So yeah.

Mia: Well nothing like a fire drill to get you going.

Marci: That'd be really great if we could use the smoke detector as the cue to go into their carriers.

Mia: This has been so great. Before we go, I'd like to, since we're kind of, I think setting a foundation for some of the training, I think it's important to also note, maybe examples of training no-nos to keep in mind,

Marci: Right. So, yeah, there are a few. The first one is remember that you're working with positive reinforcement only. So if your cat does something that wasn't intended or that you know, she didn't do the behavior that you wanted, it's not a time to say "no" or use punishment, you know, any kind of punishment, or a bad tone of voice, because cats don't respond to that.

They don't really learn from that. The positive reinforcement is what is going to work. So if your cat does something unwanted or doesn't do the right thing, you ignore that behavior. Just ignore it completely because you're only rewarding for the behavior that you want. So keep everything very neutral, unless it's the thing that you want. And then it's, you know, hey, party time, Yay. You get a click, and you get a treat and it's fabulous.

So that's one of the first things is be mindful of being positive only, in terms of your tone of voice, your actions, and how your cat might perceive your feedback because cats really do tap into, um, our body language, our tone of voice. They pick up on how we're feeling, and they're very sensitive like that. So if we're encouraging and feeling positive then cats are gonna, feel that way too.

The second thing is be really careful about what you're reinforcing. And a good example of this is, okay, so when I'm working with somebody to keep their cats off of their countertops, for example, one of the things you can do is put a cat tree or some sort of perch, like a stool or a chair, whatever that the cat can use as an alternative to the countertop because the cat just wants to see what's going on most of the time.

Well, your cat probably also wants food, but you know. And then cats like being up high, they want to see what's going on. So put a perch somewhere near the countertop and then train your cat to use that perch through positive reinforcement, right? So every time your cat goes up to the perch, you give your cat a reward, whether that's a treat or petting or whatever. And your cat will eventually learn that that's where the rewards happen on the perch, and they don't happen on the countertop.

Now, in the course of training, I always recommend that if your cat hops up onto the countertop, you need to very neutrally put your cat down on the floor and then have your cat jump up onto the cat tree or the perch on its own. You never, ever, ever want to take your cat directly from the countertop to the perch and then give it a treat because that's the same as just rewarding your cat for getting on the countertop.

So, there has to be that break. There has to be that transition from the unwanted behavior to the appropriate behavior. So by putting your cat on the ground and having them go over to the cat tree, that's that break between the bad behavior or the inappropriate behavior, to the appropriate behavior, instead of just, oh, you got up on the countertop, here let me bring you over here to get a treat, because they're going to be like, oh, okay, every time I go up on the countertop, I get a treat.

Mia: Yeah. That's something I wouldn't have thought about, but it makes complete sense because otherwise, you're depriving them of taking the action to do what it is that you want them to do.

Marci: Right. Exactly. So, that's what we call operant conditioning. So classical conditioning is the association between like a clicker and a reward. So, basically, the click becomes the reward in essence. I mean, even though the cat knows they're going to get a treat, it's still a reinforcer.

And operant conditioning is when your cat realizes that they have the control to do something, so that they get the click and the treat. So the operator is the cat, and the cat has to do something so that they get the click, it's like another step in the whole conditioning process. And if you just take your cat from one place to another and then give them a treat, they miss out on that choice of whether or not to do an action to get that reward.

Mia: Awesome. Well, Dr. J, do you have anything to add or to ask?

Dr. J: No, I think this was fantastic, and I very much appreciate you coming on and joining us, Marci,

Marci: Thank you so much. I'm really happy to be a part of this, and I look forward to talking more about cat stuff in the feature.

Mia: Awesome!

Dr. J: Sounds good to me.

Mia: Alright, well we'll be back with another episode very soon. Thanks again.

About the author

Profile picture for Mia Horberg

Mia Horberg

Mia Horberg is a Digital Strategist at Preventive Vet, and when she's not working she is watching Jeopardy! with her wife, planting flowers and veggies, and hanging out with her senior rescue pug Mabel Petrillo, and exotic shorthair kitty, Mazel von Schmear Visage. A lover of all animals, Mia is also lucky enough to volunteer at a rescue where she gets to hang out with goats and sheep every week.

Must-have digital books for dog and cat owners