Even though we love our cats more than anything in the world, it's hard not to get annoyed with occasional displays of bad behavior. Some cats jump onto the kitchen table. Others bite when you pet them. Or run and hide when you come into the room.
While most of us turn the other whisker to such kitty crimes, experts say that doing so can make matters worse. And did you know that simply playing with your cat is often the most effective way to teach new social skills.
"A lot of bad behavior can be corrected with play training," says Joel Norton, a professional animal trainer and zoologist in Hollywood, California. "Playing gives cats an outlet for the excess energy that often contributes to bad behavior."
So the next time your cat's conduct is less than fancy, try these recreational remedies that are both fun and effective.
Kitty Crime: Your cat jumps on the table during dinner.
Doing the (play)time: Before sitting down at the table for a meal, Norton recommends spending about five minutes playing with your cat. Play until your cat is worn out. Then, when you sit down to eat your dinner, it's time to do some behavior training. "Hold a cat treat just above the cat's head, out of its reach, and say 'sit,'" Norton says. "The cat will look up at the treat. Hold the treat slightly toward the back of the cat's head so that its rear naturally goes down. Reward with the treat. If your cat tries to jump on the table, place it back on the floor and repeat this training exercise. Gradually increase the amount of time between when your cat sits, and when you give the reward -- first one minute, then five, then ten." The first couple of times you try this, you might feel as if you are spending your entire meal dispensing cat treats instead of eating. But don't get discouraged. Within a few days, your cat should get the message that if it sits and waits for you to finish your meal, it will receive a well-deserved treat.
Kitty Crime: Your cat hides from you.
Doing the (play)time: For a cat that hides, building confidence is the goal. You want to change the cat's negative associations so it's no longer afraid of people, scary noises, sudden movements, or other pets. "Stand in a place your cat is forced to pass when it travels from its litter box to its hiding place," says Norton. With a bag of treats in hand, say your cat's name. If your cat comes out, reward with a treat while praising verbally. If the cat remains in hiding, wait until you hear it using the litter box. When the cat exits the box and walks past you, hold the treat between your thumb and forefinger, and verbally praise. "Talk softly and sweetly, and say how good your cat is," says Norton. "Next time, bring a toy along with the treat, and encourage the cat to play." If you reward your cat's demonstrations of confidence and trust, in a few months it will develop a new interest in socializing. Soon, your cat will come out and play anytime!
Kitty Crime: Your cat bites.
Doing the (play)time: When it comes to biting, the trick is to engage your cat in games that burn off its excess energy through less offensive (and less painful) ways. Start with twice-daily, five-minute play routines that focus on your cat's paws, not its mouth. Crinkle balls are great for this because the sound is appealing and cats love batting at the ball. Get your cat excited about a crinkle ball by flicking so it stops a few inches from your cat. If your cat is unresponsive, toss the ball right at its paws. "Praise your cat verbally for playing," Norton says. "After you're done playing for five minutes, try to pet your cat, but be on the lookout for a possible bite. If you sense a bite coming, this is your cue to reduce the amount of time spent on the game. For example, stop at three minutes and reward with a treat for not biting. Then praise verbally." Repeat this routine and slowly increase the time with the crinkle ball. Soon, you will no longer have to reward your cat for not treating you like a human chew toy.