I have trained cats for over 30 years; from domestic kittens to large exotic cats such as cougars and tigers. Over the years they have taught me far more than I have taught them. Felines require respect, understanding and concise communication as well as absolute consistency. Unlike dogs, cats are not as forgiving of a bad timing or mistakes. The main reason for this is that all cats – large and small, still carry more “wild” genes than dogs. Cats have only been domesticated for 5,000 years. Dogs have been welcome in human social circles three times as long. Dogs may have descended from wolves, but much of their behavioral genetics have been changed.
This history is never more obvious than when working with an exotic pet cat, such as a Bengal or Savannah. These breeds are very closely tied to their wild origins as they have not been removed from them for thousands of years as with a domestic shorthair or Persian. The “wild” is near the surface and must be respected.
Keeping this in mind, one cannot physically make the cat do anything. As when training sea mammals and the larger exotic cats, all training must be hands off. This means total operant conditioning techniques which includes capturing, shaping and reinforcement ratios. Above all else is the need for much patience.
Before you can begin any training process there are several things that first need to be established between trainer and exotic pet cat:
- · Comfort
- · Trust
- · Taking food directly from the trainer
- · Desire to interact with the trainer
If the cat is afraid of the trainer’s presence nothing can be accomplished. One must earns the cat’s trust. This means many hours of merely sitting nearby and ignoring the cat. Bringing food in can be helpful, though rarely will the cat eat in a “stranger’s” presence. Yet, just the fact that the appearance of food will create a positive association with the trainer is a start.
The cat needs to learn that the trainer is not going to do anything assertive or overt toward her. Building trust can take days, weeks, even months depending on the individual feline. Often, initiating play by bringing in a favorite toy – feathers on a stick, catnip filled mouse or a synthetic furred mouse, might pique the cat’s interest levels and begin to build a bond.
This is a big step, as most exotic pet cats prefer to eat in solitude due to feeling stressed by the presence of the trainer. Having always brought in food will be helpful in breaking this barrier, as will keeping all free feeding to a minimum. The cat must have some motivation to take the food and appetite is a big part of that. Using a different type of food such as tuna, salmon or sardines will usually aid in breaking this barrier.
The use of a long handled spoon will help the cat feel comfortable taking the food as she will not be in direct contact with the trainer. As the cat becomes comfortable taking food from the spoon, the length of the handle can be shortened. Word of warning, however, always use a spoon, never the fingers or the cat might inadvertently cause an injury when retrieving the food.
Once the feline is taking food from the spoon true interaction can begin. The cat knows that the food will be on the spoon so the implement can then be used as a targeting tool. Movement of the spoon can create a specific movement from the cat. For example, move the spoon up over the cat’s head and she will look upwards. It is highly likely that her rear end will lower at this time, creating the sit position. Once this has been achieved 2-3 times, the trainer can add a verbal cue, such as Sit; be assured, however, that the cat is more responsive to the visual cue than the verbal one at this time.
Training exotic cats requires patience, persistence and knowledge of operant training techniques. While there may be many ways to train dogs, as they are more forgiving of our human foibles, there are far fewer ways to train a cat. You must earn their trust and make certain that they believe there is something in the process for them as they have no desire to please humans. This pertains even more to an exotic pet cat than to a domestic cat who may be more in tune with their human companion’s emotions.
Miriam Fields-Babineau is a featured pet contributor for Yahoo and the author of 42 pet books.
For more information on the subject of cat training go to:
How to Acclimate Cats To New Environments
Things You Should Never Train Your Cat
Feeding Tips for Cats