A biologist explains that it is hard to get cats to do what we want because they basically don’t accept us as the boss. (Photo: Shutterstock / NTB scanpix)

Why can’t you get your cat to follow orders?

Punishment certainly does not work. It only makes you and your cat become foes.

Cats are not like dogs. It is much harder to make them obey; they are headstrong and seem almost to be lazy.

Quite often we become the servants of the cat, rather than the other way around.

Take the cat Conrad for example. He lives with a human named Truls. Conrad is a rescue animal from a shelter and he was adopted in his new home, Truls’s flat, about four years ago. They have a good life. Conrad likes Truls and Truls likes Conrad. The cat also likes it when Truls has company, he likes to get cosy and with the visitors and receive lots of attention.

The trouble starts when Conrad gets grumpy, according to Truls. He poos where he shouldn’t inside the flat. This can occur if, for instance, Truls pushes him out of the bed at night or shuts him out on the balcony. Truls thinks Conrad poos inside on purpose, as retribution.

How does the cat owner put a stop to this indecent defecation? Or, how do we get cats in general to do what we want?

Understand your cat

“Cat owners should find out how cats work and why they do what they do. Like peeing and pooing outside the litter box,” says researcher Susanne Schötz.

“Understanding what causes a cat’s behaviour is an effective way of solving problems.”

Schötz works at Lund University in Sweden and one of her professional specialties entails understanding how humans and cats mutually communicate. One of the goals is to determine what cats are trying to tell us.

She thinks we need to start by learning to know cats better.

The English Biologist John Bradshaw has written a book about how to understand cats. And another on how to train them.

He writes that the objective should not be to teach them to do cool tricks that might impress our friends, but to make the cat happier, and its relationship to people better.

Cats can get stressed out. They are creatures of habit and grow anxious for the smallest reasons, like something falling to the floor or someone moving a chair. This means bigger changes can be very traumatic for them.

Stress leads to scratching, aggression and unfortunate peeing and pooing.

The carrot, never the stick

Susanne Schötz says we should never punish cats.

“And I mean never! The risk is really great that the cat will not understand why it is being punished but it will associate the chastening with the person doing it. So the cat ends up trying to avoid this human.”

Punitive measures will simply cause a greater distance between you and your cat.

So how do you inform the pet what’s okay and what isn’t. How do you get the cat to stop hanging around on the kitchen counter, for instance?

Schötz thinks one should train cats with rewards, like food, toys and petting.

Effective training

One example of training with rewards is so-called clicker training, which is usually practiced on dogs, but according to Schötz also works with cats.

The cat eventually relates the click sound with a reward if it is given some tasty morsel or access to a toy right afterwards. In a little while the cat reacts to the click itself.

The click can be replaced by the word ‘good’.

The training should be done in short sessions: A cat’s short-term memory works better with two-minute sessions than in long intensive sessions. The cat also has to be in the right mood – relaxed, but sufficiently alert. Not too hungry and not too full.

Schötz explains that the cat also has to be motivated for this method to work. It can also take time for the cat to figure the whole thing out.

Dogs are constantly trying to please humans, but cats do not see this as their job.

Cats are still pretty wild

The reason why it can be hard to get a cat to do what you want is that a cat does not basically accept the premise that you are the boss. Or even that there are bosses.

Moreover, according to the biologist John Bradshaw the cat doesn’t even think of us as a different species. It thinks we are big cats.

As cats have not been bred over the millennia like dogs, they are not as domesticated. They have been kept for their natural ability to keep rodent populations down, but have never been bred to perform any special function.

They are not designed by nurture or nature to fetch sticks or guard the house. And as 85 percent of cats mate with wild males, the species has remained relatively wild.

Bradshaw says that the way cats relate to humans is driven more by instincts than by learned behaviour.

Reward for not pooing?

So how does Truls get Conrad to stop pooing around the house?

“Cats never poo ‘intentionally’ outside the litter box. There is always a good reason,” says Susanna Schötz.

Nor does she doesn’t think cats can get crabby, like we do. A cat lives more in the moment and simply does not give much thought to the future.

“If a cat is annoyed it can react negatively by hissing or clawing and we can interpret this as being grumpy. But it is a fleeting reaction and cats do not remain indignant over extensive periods like can,” she says.

Schötz ways we need to use the process of elimination – to rule out all the possible reasons why a cat might be acting as it does:

She thinks Truls needs to first check whether there is some physical problem and take the cat to a vet.

Then he should ask himself some questions:

  • Has there been a change in the house recently? Has another cat or animal (or a child) joined the family?
  • Is the litter box filthy, with an insufficient amount or the wrong type of litter? Is the litter box located at a strange or clumsy place where the cat cannot do its business in peace and fell secure?
  • Is the cat allowed to go outdoors?
  • Has it been subjected to anything unpleasant, for example been in a fight with another cat or been punished recently be a human?
  • Does the cat have all it needs at home, including food, water and social stimulation?

Schötz says maybe it would help to place another litter box at the spot where the cat pooed. And the cat owner needs to be patient.

“Once the reason for the problem is found, the cat stops doing its business outside the litter box in most cases,” says the researcher.

Most cats like people

A new study published in Behavioural Processes shows that cats tend to care more about people than about food. Cats were introduced to four types of stimuli: human contact, food, toys and scents.

Their preferences were highly individual, which confirms that cat personalities can differ a great deal. How well a cat owner succeeds with training the pet depends on factors such as its age, personality and previous experiences.

However, most of the cats in the study were keener on human contact and being cuddled more than anything else. Food came in second place.

The researchers behind the study suggest using the individual cat’s preferred stimuli when attempting to train it.

So maybe you cat would rather have a kitty snack than be petted by you. If so, use the edible treat as a reward and put off the physical contact until another time.

Checklist for training cats:

  • Have patience.
  • Find the reason for the problem.
  • Use a reward as an inducement: If the cat will not use its cage, reward it every time it gets close to the cage. Then give it more if it steps inside it.
  • Use phrases like ‘good’ or ‘smart kitty’ and do so right before giving the cat something good or petting it. Then it will associate the phrase with an agreeable moment and this will be a reward in itself.
  • Clicker training, more commonly used on canine than feline training, might work with your cat.
  • Never use punishments.
  • Scents can help. There are special cat sprays that can be applied on spots to make the location feel safe and recognizable for the cat. Or you can use the cat’s own scent by petting it with cotton gloves, especially in the areas of its scent glands around its cheeks and ears. Then you rub the scent around the area where you want the cat to feel secure and comfortable.
  • And remember: A kitten is easier to train than an adult cat.

Source: “The Trainable Cat” by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis.


John Bradshaw: Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. Basic Books, 2013.

Johan Bradhaw and Sarah Ellis: The Trainable Cat: How to Make Life Happier for You and Your Cat. Penguin. 2016


Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no.

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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