Not so Stupid Pet Tricks for Cats

Dogs often steal the spotlight when it comes to tricks because cats are  “misunderstood when it comes to training, enrichment and living a happy and healthy life indoors,” says Cary Rentola of the Larimer Humane Society. You may not be able to teach an old dog a new trick, but you can teach your cat tricks commonly associated with dogs.

The Benefits of Trick Training
Teaching new behaviors promotes a healthy lifestyle and helps relieve feline boredom while offering cats mental exercise, says Cheryl Kolus, a Colorado State University veterinary student and a volunteer with the Larimer Humane Society. Training also gives them an outlet for instinctual behaviors. “When you’re working on a trick through positive training, it becomes a bonding experience for you and your cat,” adds Rentola.

Trick Training How-to

Here are five fun tricks for your cat. Repeat a trick two to five times per session.

1.    Sit Move the treat up above cat’s head so your pet sits back. At the same time, say your cat’s name along with “sit.” Once your cat assumes the position, click and offer treats and praise.

2.    Beg Hold a treat over your cat's head so it has to sit up and reach with its paws to get it. Say “beg” along with your pet’s name, and the moment kitty does something resembling the trick, click and hand over the treat. Do this around three to five times, depending on the cat's attention span. Then put the treat away and say “beg” again. If your cat performs the trick without being asked, immediately offer praise and a treat.

3.    Fetch Toss a toy a few feet in front of you and let your cat run after it. As kitty rolls around with it, walk over and offer praise. Take the toy and say thank you, then pet your cat for a short while before throwing the toy again a little further. Retrieve the toy again as your cat plays with it, and this time, return to your original position before throwing. Repeat the procedure a few times, then give your cat a final rubdown and put the toy out of sight until the next session. Conduct these training sessions at the same time each day, and your pet will start anticipating this game. Every time you play, it will carry the toy closer and closer to you.

4.    Play dead Call your cat to a place it enjoys. When it comes, offer a treat and say its name in a soothing tone. Then put your hand on its back and say, “Play dead.” Gently press down on your cat until it lies down. Praise and click before giving another treat. With enough practice, your cat will learn to obey this command without your hand on its back.

5.    High five Hold a treat out of your cat’s reach, inviting your pet to sit in front of you. Once kitty comes, say, "High five," and lower your hand. If your pet tries to get the treat with its teeth, raise your hand out of its mouth’s reach. Kitty will then try to get the treat with its paw. If the paw hits your palm, click, provide a treat and offer praise. If kitty doesn’t reach for the treat, close your hand over the treat for five seconds, then try again from the start.

A few more important things to keep in mind as you train:

  • Keep sessions short Cats have short attention spans, so train in a quiet place each time.

  • Train before meals This is when your cat is most responsive. Be sure to break up treats into smaller bits so your cat doesn’t end up overeating.

  • Be patient Never yell at your cat, or “it will shy away from wanting to participate, no matter how tasty the treat,” reminds Rentola.

  • Time rewards correctly In the seconds it takes to reward a good behavior with a treat, kitty may get distracted. “For all she knows, turning her head is what got her the reward,” says Rentola. Eventually, your cat will respond to your voice alone.
  • Repeat often Hold one or two five- to 10-minute sessions at scheduled times every day for two to three weeks.
Despite their reputation, cats are very trainable and social. Teaching yours to obey your commands will help debunk the myth that dogs are the only loyal pets. Just remember, as Kolus says, “Patience, kindness and consistency are key.”

How to Leash Train Your Cat

At any time of year, particularly summer, it’s not hard to find happy dogs on leashes sauntering along with their owners. Wishing your cat could accompany you too? With time, patience and the right equipment, leash training your cat is possible.

Walking your otherwise indoor cat on a leash can open a stimulating new world to your kitty, says Warren Eckstein, author of How to Get Your Cat to Do What You Want. For free-roaming cats, the outdoors poses dangers, such as other cats, traffic, dogs, abuse from humans and poisons. A leashed cat can safely enjoy the rich smells, sights and sounds of the outdoors without the risks, Eckstein says.

Will Your Cat Walk on a Leash?
Personality is the biggest factor in determining whether or not you can successfully leash train your cat. “Breeds and ages do not matter as much as type,” explains cat behavior consultant Jennifer Michels. “A cat who is confident and curious will take to the outdoors better than a nervous cat.”

If your cat cooperates with tasks like clipping nails and brushing teeth, you’re more likely to be able to work together on leash training, says Michels. Older cats that are a bit cranky as well as cats with health problems probably aren’t good candidates for training. You should also consider where you live. If your neighborhood is busy and noisy with lots of traffic, shouting kids and barking dogs, walking on a leash might not be a positive experience for your cat.

However, cats in general are trainable, says Eckstein. Follow these steps, and you and your feline may soon be enjoying the great outdoors together:

  1. Exercise patience It can take a couple of weeks for your cat to grow accustomed to walking with a leash, says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a Nashville, Tenn., cat behavior specialist. The most important thing is to go at the cat’s pace. Rushing the process will be stressful for everyone. Eckstein notes that he has seen a few cats take as long as five to six months to learn to walk on a leash.
  1. Buy a harness or a walking jacket Experts don’t recommend using a traditional kitty collar. Your cat could easily slip free from the collar or catch the collar on objects outside. Look for a figure-8 or H-shaped harness, or a walking jacket. Introduce your cat slowly to the harness or jacket. You can place the new equipment in a conspicuous place, letting your cat sniff away. Sit the harness next to a kitty’s favorite food or on your lap, where the cat is accustomed to receiving pats and affection. Rub a washcloth over your cat, then rub the cloth on the harness so the harness smells like your feline.
  1. Use positive reinforcement Treats, praise, petting and clicker training -- when your kitty associates the sound of the clicker with a treat -- are all useful tools. After your cat is used to the sight and smell of the harness, it’s time to try the harness on. “Keep your cat distracted with reinforcement to help it associate the harness with good experiences,” says Michels. “You might put the harness on before each meal. Soon, your cat will be dying to get that harness on!”
  1. Practice indoors Once your feline has adjusted to the harness, attach the leash for short periods. Let your cat roam briefly indoors, dragging the leash. Gradually begin picking up the leash but let your cat guide you.
  1. Introduce the outdoors Simply sitting on your front porch with your cat wearing its harness and leash is a good first step. Stay close to home at first. Johnson-Bennett always carries a towel in order to scoop the cat up in case it suddenly panics.
  1. Think like a cat Don’t demand the sort of point A to point B routes you see dog owners walking. Your cat might decide to lie down, bask in the sun, sniff around a bit and explore. If you want to teach your cat to walk a route, wait until your cat is hungry and have treats set along the route. At first, you’ll have to show your cat where the treats are, but eventually it should go from spot to spot as routine practice.

If you have the patience and time to leash train your cat, you’ll be rewarded with a unique kitty-owner experience. “It gives you and your cat something to really bond about,” says Eckstein. Once you start taking your cat for walks, don’t be surprised if your feline looks forward to your daily constitutionals. “I’ve actually seen cats bring their harnesses to their owners to say it’s time for a walk.”

Smart Cat Tricks

It’s not quite Mozart, but it’s music to animal trainer Miriam Fields-Babineau’s ears when Chewy tickles the ivories on his child-sized baby grand. On her cue, the Bengal cat plinks the keys at random, using both front paws.

Just as Fields-Babineau trained Chewy, you can train your cat to perform useful or entertaining tricks. We often consider cats to be such independent thinkers that we refer to these seemingly impossible feats as being improbable and “like herding cats.” But felines are actually quite trainable.

Fields-Babineau, based in Amherst, Va., says cat training always involves these components:

  • Your positive reinforcement It helps to have a clicker for this, they advise, since you can offer food rewards tied to the sound of the clicker. You can find inexpensive clickers at pet stores. As your cat learns to do a trick on cue, the need to click will lessen and occasional rewards should suffice.
  • Your patience Training builds gradually, with a number of repetitions and small steps toward a final goal.
  • Your quick reaction Cats respond more quickly than dogs to something that’s rewarding, so you want to reinforce behaviors quickly.
  • Your cat’s sense of fun “Do not ever force a cat to do anything,” says Marilyn Krieger, a Redwood City, Calif., cat behaviorist whose cat, Olivia, closes doors on cue.

Cats are most trainable when they’re kittens. “Make them work for you when you feed them,” says Fields-Babineau. But cats of any age and any breed can be taught tricks. It does help to understand the nature of your cat. For example, she finds that Bengals are more receptive to active tricks, like jumping, while Persians and Himalayas do well with passive tricks, such as staying. Bengals tend to move more, explains Fields-Babineau, while Persians and Himalayas tend to be more subdued. Here are three basic tricks your cat might master:

Your cat comes when you pop the top on a can of cat food, but will the little darling come when you want it to? Teaching your cat to come is a useful trick, not to mention that it could win you the respect and awe of visitors who think that you’ve become some sort of cat whisperer.

The key, says Fields-Babineau, is to break down this and other “tricks” into small parts. To teach your cat to come, start by holding a tasty morsel of a favorite food under its nose. Move the food 4 to 5 inches away to draw your cat to you. When your cat moves forward, deliver the reward and either click or say, “Yes,” or, “Good.” Repeat four or five times before you move farther away, at a distance of around 10 inches from your cat.

Most cats can learn to come from a short distance in five minutes or so, says Fields-Babineau. “Within a couple of weeks, you could have a cat coming to you from over 20 feet away.”

Teaching your cat to stay is particularly helpful when you don’t want to worry about it going outside when people enter and exit the house. Begin by clicking and rewarding your cat for very short stays. Hold an open palm in front of your cat, which is a cue for “staying.” If your cat doesn’t step forward or backward, quickly reward and click, says Fields-Babineau. If you also happen to catch your cat being still, or “staying,” reward it. Slowly build more time. Once you’re up to about 30 seconds, you can start distraction-proofing, or teaching your cat to stay despite your movements or the movement of objects and other animals. Remember, as Fields-Babineau says, it’s difficult for your cat to stay for long periods. But think of how much more manageable life would be if your cat would stay just long enough for you to make your way through the front door with an armful of groceries.

Closing a door
Krieger taught her cat to close a door after she noticed the cat head-butting the door. You can teach your cat to do this too by training it to first touch a target. Place some sort of target, such as a circle on a sheet of paper, in front of your cat’s nose. “The normal behavior is to touch it with the nose,’’ Krieger says. “As soon as your cat’s nose touches it, you click.” You also reward and offer the verbal cue, “Touch.” Gradually move the target farther away. As you say, “Touch,” your cat should learn to touch the target. Touching and closing a door that moves will become like play for your cat.

What, however, can be done if your cat is a bit more independent or, dare we say, stubborn? “I believe every cat is trainable if you find something that drives it,’’ says Fields-Babineau. “Every living creature has a certain reward it’ll do anything for.”

Resolving the Feral Cat Conundrum

At some point, most of us have attempted to feed or comfort a wide-eyed feral cat. One reason is there are so many of them -- female cats can start producing offspring as young as 4 or 5 months of age, and they may give birth to a litter twice a year thereafter. By some estimates, a male and female cat can create a population of over 400,000 cats in seven years! It's therefore easy to see how a colony of feral cats can grow quickly.

If you've ever sighted homeless cats in your neighborhood and wondered what to do, here's some expert advice on the kindest and most effective action you can take to help them.

What Is a Feral Cat?
In order to help any cat, you must first determine if it is truly feral or if it is simply a stray. A feral cat is one that was born away from human contact or was abandoned by its human family so long ago that it's reverted to wild ways. "Feral cats are not socialized to humans," says Becky Robinson, director of Alley Cat Allies, a national organization dedicated to helping control and care for feral cats based in Bethesda, Md. "They are not vocal, will run away from a human and will hiss and defend themselves if they feel cornered. By contrast, a stray or lost cat will meow and react to your approach with curiosity, and may even purr. But in physical features and biology, the two kinds of cats are the same."

If the cat you've found is just a stray, try putting up signs in your neighborhood to alert others, and call local animal clinics and shelters to see if anyone has reported a lost cat. If your new feline acquaintance is a feral, additional considerations must come into play.

Bringing a Feral Cat Home
A feral kitten, born outside, will hiss and run from humans like its adult feral counterparts. But it can be socialized if you bring it into your house at a young age. You must have the willingness and patience to care for the kitten for many weeks while it gets used to you and your house. Adult ferals, on the other hand, almost never become socialized to humans. For months, and even years, after being brought into a home, an adult feral cat will hiss, hide and rarely allow a human to touch or pet it, says Robinson. Some people can put up with such wild tendencies, but sharing your home with an adult feral cat, not to mention caring for the feline, is not for the feint of heart.

The Best Way to Help a Feral Cat
Once you've determined that a group of cats is feral, one humane plan of action is called TNR -- trap, neuter and return. According to Alley Cat Allies, as well as the Human Society of the United States, this is the kindest thing to do for feral cats. Up to 73% of cats brought into shelters are killed, and feral cats are rarely adopted because of their terror of humans.

Trapping To trap a cat that is terrified of humans, first get a humane trap from your veterinarian or animal clinic. Stop feeding the cat for a day, so that it can be easily lured into the trap with food. Allocate one trap per feline. "Once the cat is caught, cover the trap with a towel so that it calms down," says Robinson, "then take the cat or cats directly to the clinic." Alley Cat Allies and similar organizations provide names of people across the country who have experience in humanely trapping feral cats (see their web site ). On this site, you can also view a video that shows step-by-step instructions on how to safely trap a feral cat without getting hurt.

Neutering or spaying Line up a veterinarian ahead of time who is willing to spay or neuter a feral cat -- or an entire colony of feral cats -- without too much notice, in one session. Some doctors will do this at a low cost or even for free. They will also tip the cat's ear while it is under anesthesia, as a mark that it has been spayed or neutered. "This is a way to identify the cat in lieu of a collar," says Robinson.

Return the feral cats to their territory Once the veterinarian gives you the OK, the cats should be returned to the area where you originally found them. They've staked out this territory and know it as home. At this point, you can help the feral felines by providing food and water daily, as well as some kind of shelter from rain, wind and cold. A waterproofed wooden box, with an opening just wide enough for cats, will serve this purpose. To deter the cats from walking on your lawn, toss orange peels or coffee grounds on the grass, or install a motion sensor that triggers your water sprinkler system to go on for a minute. Soon the cats will avoid your yard.

Can Cats Predict Human Deaths?

Residents at The Steere nursing home in Providence, R.I. may think twice before saying, "Here kitty, kitty," once they learn Oscar the rescue kitty's main occupation: predicting patient deaths. Once Oscar, an otherwise aloof, if not misanthropic, cat snuggles up beside someone, it usually means that person has less than four hours to live. The two-year-old grey and white cat, which was adopted as a kitten by staff, began to march up and down the facility's hallways at the age of around 6 months. He has been on patrol ever since.

According to David Dosa, MD, a geriatrics specialist and an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, "Oscar has successfully predicted 25 deaths.... He missed only one. And in that instance, two deaths occurred simultaneously."

No one is able to definitively say how Oscar is making his predictions. Many in the scientific and cat communities suspect that Oscar detects physiological changes in people, which tip him off that they are nearing death. Others in these same groups suggest the possibility that Oscar is not making predictions at all, but is instead taking his cue from the staff's actions. Still others would like to believe that Oscar has a sixth sense. While the theories may differ, one of the known primary senses might be at work.

Can Oscar Smell Illness and Death?
Certified Cat Behavior Consultant Marilyn Krieger of The Cat Couch, who is based in the San Francisco area, says, "I really firmly believe that cats can detect physiological changes that occur in a person." She explains that cats, as predators, "need to be able to detect when another animal is sick. This ability is part of their nature, part of their survival. They don't want to get harmed." While Krieger speculates that cats may be using smell, she is quick to state that she doesn't know for certain how cats detect these changes.

Dosa also believes that an acute sense of smell may be a factor in Oscar's ability. Other animals, he points out, can detect physiological changes in people. For example, he mentions that studies have shown dogs can smell cancer, while certain trained therapy dogs can predict when an epileptic is about to have a seizure. Anecdotally, some dog owners have claimed that their dogs can predict deaths, but these statements have not been verified, and no dog seems to match Oscar's impressive track record.

Could Oscar Be a Copycat?
In response to the attention surrounding Oscar, scientists and animal behaviorists have suggested the possibility that Oscar is observing the staff members' behavior and following their lead. But given that Oscar otherwise ignores the staff, this explanation seems unlikely. "This cat is not that friendly. He keeps to himself and sits in the window. This is not a cat that walks between people's legs purring," says Doctor Dosa.

Nor does it seem that Oscar could be picking up his cues from the residents, none of whom he visits until they are nearing death's door. According to Doctor Dosa, when it is not quite yet someone's time, Oscar "quickly figures it out and leaves."

Krieger has not directly studied Oscar, but she does suggest that staff members and others may be conditioning the furry male feline to continue his sitting vigils through positive reinforcement. "This cat has probably been rewarded for doing this through attention or petting, which would perpetuate the behavior."

Does Oscar Have a Sixth Sense?
There is the possibility -- refuted by the scientific community but embraced by many cat lovers -- that cats simply have a sixth sense when it comes to matters of life and death. A man of science, Doctor Dosa says he has "great respect for Oscar," but he seems in no way ready to declare Oscar psychic. However, he does say, "It is a very spiritual kind of thing to watch a cat provide comfort to people who might otherwise die alone."

That Oscar somehow knows when people are going to die is remarkable, but it is what he chooses to do with this information that is truly compelling -- taking it upon himself to be present and to provide comfort in people's final moments. For Oscar's exemplary service, a local hospice agency went so far as to honor him with a plaque for "his compassionate hospice care."